Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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US Department of State
2008 Human Rights Report: Russia
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
[Full text at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/eur/119101.htm]

The Russian Federation has an increasingly centralized political system, with power concentrated in the presidency and the office of prime minister, a weak multiparty political system, and a ruling-party dominated bicameral legislature (Federal Assembly) consisting of a lower house (State Duma) and an upper house (Federation Council). The country has an estimated population of 141.9 million. International observers reported that the December 2007 State Duma election was not fair and failed to meet many international standards for democratic elections. Likewise, the March 2 election for president, assessed to be still not free and not fair, repeated the flaws of the State Duma election, with observers expressing concern over the registration process, unequal access to the media by candidates, and abuse of administrative resources. Dmitriy Medvedev, the candidate of the dominant United Russia party, handpicked by his predecessor, became president in March with 70 percent of the vote. In the State Duma elections, the United Russia party received a constitutional majority of more than two thirds of the seats. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of federal security forces.

There were numerous reports of government and societal human rights problems and abuses during the year. The government's human rights record remained poor in the North Caucasus, where governments in Ingushetiya and Dagestan faced increased opposition from disaffected social groups and insurgencies, and the Chechen government forcibly reined in the Islamist insurgency that replaced the separatist insurgency as the main source of conflict. Security forces reportedly engaged in killings, torture, abuse, violence, and other brutal or humiliating treatment, often with impunity. In Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and Dagestan, security forces were allegedly involved in unlawful killings and politically motivated abductions. While disappearances declined overall, extrajudicial killings increased in Ingushetiya. Disappearances and kidnappings in Chechnya declined during the year; however, Chechen President Kadyrov continued his repressive control as federal forces withdrew. Federal and local security forces in Chechnya targeted families of suspected insurgents with impunity, and Kadyrov's private militia allegedly engaged in kidnapping and torture.

In August, Russia launched a military invasion using disproportionate force across Georgias internationally recognized borders responding to what Russian officials reported was Georgia's use of heavy force in Tskhinvali, the local capital of Georgias South Ossetian region, and the killings of Russian peacekeepers. Military operations by Georgian and Russian forces reportedly involved the use of indiscriminate force and resulted in civilian casualties, including of a number of journalists. Prison conditions were harsh and frequently life threatening, law enforcement was often corrupt, and the executive branch allegedly exerted influence over judicial decisions in some high-profile cases. Security services and local authorities conducted searches without court warrants, particularly under the extremism law.

Government pressure weakened freedom of expression and media independence, particularly of the major television networks. Five journalists were killed during the year, in one case in Ingushetiya by police. Unresolved killings of journalists remained a problem. As some print and Internet media reflected a widening range of views, the government restricted media freedom through direct ownership of media outlets, pressuring the owners of major media outlets to abstain from critical coverage, and harassing and intimidating journalists into practicing self-censorship. Local governments limited freedom of assembly, and police sometimes used violence to prevent groups from engaging in peaceful protest. The government limited freedom of association. The government restricted religious groups in some regions, and there were incidents of societal discrimination, harassment, and violence against religious minorities, including anti-Semitism. In the North Caucasus, thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) lived in temporary centers that failed to meet international standards.

Continuing centralization of power in the executive branch, a compliant State Duma, corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, media restrictions, and harassment of some NGOs eroded the government's accountability to its citizens. The government restricted opposition political parties' ability to participate in the political process. The March presidential election was marked by problems during the campaign period and on election day, as reported by independent Russian and European observers, including the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which included the abuse of government resources, media bias in favor of the ruling party and its candidate, authorities' refusal to register opposition party candidates, lack of equal opportunity for conducting campaigns, and ballot fraud. The government restricted the activities of some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in some cases moving to close the organizations, through selective application of the laws and other mechanisms. Authorities exhibited hostility toward, and sometimes harassed, NGOs involved in human rights monitoring as well as those receiving foreign funding. A decree from the prime minister in June removed tax-exempt status from the majority of NGOs, including international NGOs, and imposed a potentially onerous annual registration process for those that met the proposed requirements. Many NGOs interpreted the decree as a further step to restrict NGO funding and operations. Violence against women and children were problems, and domestic violence was widespread. Trafficking in persons continued to be a significant problem. There was some governmental discrimination and widespread societal discrimination as well as racially motivated attacks against ethnic minorities and dark-skinned immigrants or guest-workers. During the year there was a steady rise in xenophobic, racial, and ethnic attacks and hate crimes, particularly by skinheads, nationalists, and right-wing extremists. Instances of forced labor were also reported.

Although there was some improvement in areas of the internal conflict in the North Caucasus, antigovernment forces continued killing and intimidating local officials. There were reports of rebel involvement in bombing of civilian targets and politically motivated disappearances in Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. Some rebels were allegedly involved in kidnapping for ransom. There were reports that rebels improvised explosives that resulted in civilian casualties. According to the Internet-based Caucasian Knot, 226 members of law enforcement agencies died and 420 were injured during the year in actions involving insurgents....

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The law provides citizens the right to change their government peacefully in regularly scheduled national and regional elections, although their ability to exercise that right has lessened considerably in recent years by changes in the electoral law, a change from elected to appointed governors, and increased government control of mass media. Little competition existed in the system, which was dominated by the pro-presidential United Russia party. Authorities often blocked the political opposition from exercising their right to freedom of assembly.

Elections and Political Participation

On March 2, the country held presidential elections in which Dmitriy Medvedev, the candidate of the ruling United Russia party who was hand-picked by his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, received 70 percent of the vote. The public and media showed a lack of interest in the campaign, which lacked genuine competition and in which Medvedev declined to participate in debates with the three other candidates. Former premier Mikhail Kasyanov was refused registration after the Central Election Commission ruled that many of the two million signatures he had collected were invalid. Official turnout for the election was reported at approximately 70 percent, with voter turnout in the North Caucasus region approaching 100 percent according to official statistics, which were questioned by a number of analysts. Observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) stated that while the election results reflected the will of the people, "an election where candidates are confronted with almost insurmountable difficulties when trying to register risks not qualifying as free. An election where there is not a level playing field for all contestants can hardly be considered as fair." The domestic voting rights NGO GOLOS, some of whose members experienced difficulties gaining access to polling stations, alleged massive, widespread violations. As in the December 2007, parliamentary elections, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) was again precluded from sending an observation mission due to delays in issuing visas and restrictions placed on the mission by the government. Medvedev was sworn in as the country's third president on May 7.

There were no new developments regarding the April 2007 ban on the NBP as an extremist organization. On February 14, NBP member Andrey Nikitin was arrested for having shown an anti-Putin film while distributing leaflets accusing Putin of mass crimes and calling for his resignation. He was placed under house arrest. In October Nikitin received a one-year suspended sentence under anti-extremism laws, which the Presnenskiy District Court of Moscow upheld on December 25. Nikitin appealed the decision, and the case was pending at year's end.

In the December 2007, elections for the State Duma, the United Russia party received a two-thirds constitutional majority. A total of four parties exceeded the seven percent threshold for gaining seats in the Duma. After the Central Election Commission imposed delays and unprecedented restrictions on the number of international observers, ODIHR decided it was not able to send an observer mission. A team of parliamentarians from PACE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, and the Nordic Council observed the elections and concluded they were "not fair and failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections." The observers noted that the elections took place in an atmosphere which seriously limited political competition. Frequent abuses of administrative resources, media coverage strongly in favor of the United Russia party, and the revised election code combined to hinder political pluralism.

The OSCE representative on freedom of the media reported numerous media freedom violations during the elections, including harassment of media outlets, legislative limitations, and media bias in political coverage, which prevented equal media access. Although some of its observers were impeded, GOLOS reported numerous electoral violations and problems including an "unprecedented" number of absentee ballots, collective voting under pressure, multiple voting by the same voters, and vote counting violations. GOLOS observers, however, reported good organization of voting procedures and that secrecy of voting was mostly observed.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation later appealed the results of the December 2007 parliamentary elections, asking the Supreme Court to annul the results because of electoral fraud. On July 16, the court denied the appeal. On December 25, Vedomosti reported a decision by the Communist Party's Mordovia branch to file a case with the ECHR, stating that they were prevented from distributing any election fliers prior to the 2007 election.

The December 2007, State Duma elections were marked with apparent fraud in many of the North Caucasus republics and other regions, as the voter turnout numbers were reported by a several analysts to be artificially high. Chechnya reported 99.5 percent voter turnout, with 99.5 percent of the votes going to the United Russia party. Ingushetiya reported 98.3 percent voter turnout, with 98.8 percent of the votes for United Russia. Kabardino-Balkaria reported 97 percent turnout, with 96.5 percent of the votes for United Russia. In Ingushetiya, with 159,000 registered voters, an opposition organization claimed to have collected 87,340 signatures from registered voters who said that they had not voted in the December 2007 elections.

Fifteen regions held legislative elections in March and April 2007. Many observers claimed that some parties, most often United Russia, unfairly used administrative resources to sway results. Many observers viewed the elections as flawed, with numerous irregularities and abuses during the election process. There were problems in some regions with unequal access to the media and the use of administrative resources by incumbents to support their candidacies. The counting of votes in most locations was professionally done, but there were exceptions, notably in Dagestan. In several regions opposition political parties, such as Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS), were removed from the ballot after the election commissions cited violations in elections procedures. In February 2007, the St. Petersburg elections commission cited a handwriting expert and claimed that hundreds of the 40,000 signatures on Yabloko's registration application were forgeries. The commission gave Yabloko only two days to refute the charges with signed affidavits and copies of passports of those signatures that it ruled invalid. Yabloko did not comply with this request and was removed from the ballot. The SPS was removed from ballots in Vologda and Pskov.

Laws enacted in 2005 and 2006, particularly those eliminating direct gubernatorial elections, contributed to the consolidation of the government's political power. Further changes to the election law made in 2006 created a strict party list system, banned electoral blocs, raised the threshold for party representation in the State Duma to 7 percent of the vote, and eliminated the minimal voter turnout provision. The changes worked to the advantage of parties already represented in the State Duma, particularly United Russia, and had the effect of reducing the number of competitive parties. The electoral law also prohibited nonpartisan domestic observation of federal elections, making it difficult for NGOs to observe elections.

The law provides that republic presidents and regional governors be nominated by the president subject to confirmation by regional legislatures. If a regional legislature fails to confirm the president's nominee three times, the legislature may be dissolved. The president also acquired the power to remove regional leaders in whom he had lost confidence, including those who were popularly elected. By year's end no regional legislature has failed to confirm the president's nominee. The law gives the president significant influence over the Federation Council, since regional leaders selected by the president in turn appoint half of its members. Political parties that win elections to regional parliaments are allowed to propose their own candidates for head of a region, but this is still subject to the president's and the regional legislature's approval.

Several other provisions of the election law were amended in 2006: the option "against all candidates" was eliminated from ballots; early voting was eliminated; a mandatory minimum voter turnout was eliminated; circumstances under which a candidate may be removed from the ballot (including for vaguely defined "extremist" behavior) were expanded; and "negative" campaigning was prohibited.

The law gives the executive branch and prosecutor general broad powers to regulate, investigate, and close parties. Other provisions limit campaign spending, set specific campaign periods, establish conditions under which candidates can be removed from the ballot, and provide for restrictions on campaign materials. To register as a political party, the law requires groups to have at least 50,000 members with at least 500 representatives in half of the country's regions and no fewer than 250 members in the remaining regions, making it difficult for smaller parties to register.

Prospective presidential candidates from political parties that are not represented in the Duma must collect no less than two million signatures from supporters throughout the country to register to run for president. Independent candidates also are required to submit signatures to the Central Election Commission (CEC) to be certified to run. A candidate is ineligible to run if more than 5 percent of signatures are found to be invalid by the CEC. Parties that are represented in the Duma can nominate a presidential candidate without having to collect and submit signatures.

In March, a Moscow court denied registration to the political party People for Democracy and Justice led by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov. The court cited errors in 18 percent of the more than 57,000 signatures as grounds for denying registration.

According to the CEC chief Vladimir Churov, three of the 14 parties that wanted to run in the December 2007 Duma elections were disqualified due to problems with their registration documents.

Before the March 2007 regional elections, the acting head of the FRS announced that, of the 35 political parties that applied for reregistration in accordance with the amended and more demanding law, only 19 passed the inspection, although two decided to register as "public associations." As a result the 15 parties that did not pass the inspection had to choose to reregister as public organizations, movements, or NGOs or were dissolved through court procedures.

In 2006, the government enacted the law On Countering Extremism, increasing concerns among many that authorities would apply the law to restrict election-related activities of political parties, the media, and NGOs and discourage criticism of the government. The law was used in some cases to stifle opposition political parties during the 2007 and 2008 elections, but not for materials of the ruling United Russia party. For example, authorities used the laws against campaign materials for the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko in March and evicted staff members from their offices.

In April 2007, the FSB began an investigation of Other Russia member Garry Kasparov for inciting extremism by encouraging radio listeners to attend an opposition rally in St. Petersburg. In 2006 government agents raided the offices of the political organization United Civil Front, also headed by Kasparov. The officers had an order to search the premises on suspicion of "extremist activity" and seized books and material promoting Dissenters' Marches (see section 2.b.). No charges were ultimately brought, but some viewed the incident as an example of the government attempting to use the new law on extremism to intimidate the opposition. The law was also used by public figures to intimidate their critics.

In December 2007, 58 women won seats in the 450 member State Duma; there were nine women in the Federation Council. Three women were deputy committee chairs. Valentina Matviyenko, governor of St. Petersburg, was the only woman to lead one of the 85 regions of the country.

National minorities took an active part in political life; however, ethnic Russians, who constitute approximately 80 percent of the population, dominated the political and administrative system, particularly at the federal level.....