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 user 2005-03-30 at 10:22:00 am Views: 53
  • #11163
    Russia’s year of shrinking liberties

    There was much discussion this year of whether Russia’s
    move towards authoritarian rule was accelerating.

    It was a difficult year, with attacks by Chechen rebels claiming hundreds of

    The response to them included restrictions on civil liberties. It
    was accompanied by a large increase in racially-motivated violent attacks.

    The tough policies on Chechnya did not bring peace. Indeed, September’s
    school siege in Beslan, in nearby North Ossetia, was the single bloodiest attack

    on civilians to date.

    In the aftermath of the tragedy, President Vladimir Putin decided that
    regional governors would no longer be elected, but appointed directly by central

    The Russian leadership acknowledged how fragile security in the Caucasus is.
    There was also frank talk about the high unemployment, poverty and crime that
    plagues the region, as well as the total corruption of Russia’s law-enforcement
    bodies, particularly at a local level.

    Yet many saw the move to centralise control more as a power-grab by the

    Media and religion

    There were further signs of just how powerful the FSB – the successor
    organisation to the KGB – has become, with the conviction of a number of
    individuals in espionage cases. Prosecutors said they had passed secret
    information to foreigners.

    Yet the information concerned was sometimes already in the public domain –
    even on the internet. Lawyers said the trials were shams, with the verdicts
    pre-determined before they even began.

    Russians still enjoy much greater civil freedoms
    than they did in Soviet times

    Central television and radio largely abandoned hard-hitting analytical
    programmes, while attacks on journalists continued. They included the fatal
    shooting of Paul Klebnikoff, the well-known editor of Russian Forbes magazine.

    A number of independent journalists, whose professionalism can, admittedly,
    vary, lost cases for libel. Access to Chechnya remained restricted to those
    journalists whose loyalty to the government is proven.

    Religious freedoms are enshrined in the constitution, but respected unevenly.
    The concept of “traditional beliefs” – Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism
    and Islam – lies at the heart of this. Other beliefs are often dismissed as
    “dangerous sects”, and may receive hostile treatment. Catholics, Mormons and
    Jehovah’s Witnesses suffer most.

    ‘The greatest decline’

    None of this had any impact on Mr Putin’s popularity. He was re-elected in
    March for his second term in office. And he continues to enjoy solid public
    support, with most ordinary Russians believing he has delivered on his key
    promise of “stability”.

    But the major consequence of this seems to be the marginalisation of
    opposition, liberal voices.

    Russians still enjoy much greater civil freedoms than they did in
    Soviet times. Despite an on-going legal requirement to register their place of
    residence, they can travel freely. Demonstrations and rallies are generally

    Russians can speak and write their minds. Less than two decades ago, all this
    was unthinkable. Those who publicly disagreed with their government faced the
    prospect of time in a labour camp or psychiatric hospital. The outside world
    often forgets just where Russia has come from.

    But Freedom House, a US-based organisation that promotes political and civil
    freedoms, said that of all the formerly Communist countries, Russia in 2004 “saw
    the greatest decline of any country”.