Freedom House Pulls No Punches on Russia

nationsintransit062408.jpgThe international human rights NGO Freedom House makes no attempt to hide the fact that about 80% of the funding comes from the U.S. government (as stated in each of their annual reports), something that causes many foreign governments to recoil in disgust and react with vituperative rants to any critical report the group may produce. Some say that this association with Washington affects their research choices, but does that necessarily mean that what they publish isn’t true? Out there in the irascible blogosphere on Russia, Freedom House is most frequently a protagonist in the double standards narrative of human rights apologists. Having met many senior officers and researchers from Freedom House, I have always held their professionalism and fairness in high regard, and thoroughly believe that they publish very good work and are not as tied to the presidential administration as you might suspect. Yet when I read over the country report on Russia in their latest Nations in Transition 2008 report (written by Robert W. Orttung of the Jefferson Institute), I must admit that I found parts of it spotty with unfair or unbalanced opinion.

Let’s start where the report is nailed down with strong evidence: their section on the Judicial Framework and Independence, which even President Dmitry Medvedev has identified as the key problem, and his ally Yelena Valyavina was allowed to confess that Kremlin interference with judicial decisions exists. Freedom House writes that “Numerous problems remain in the exercise of Russian justice. Above all, the courts remain subject to political caprice and can be reliably counted on to serve political goals when required to do so.“The report goes on to mention some of the reforms currently underway, which although have provided small improvements, are themselves illustrations of how bad things have gotten within Russia’s justice system. They graded Russia 5.25 on Judicial Framework, which is the same as 2005, 2006, and 2007.With regard to deteriorating prison conditions, Freedom House quotes the research of Lev Ponomarev, who argued that “those who find themselves remanded to a pre-trial detention center (SIZO) likely will be subjected to torturous conditions in overcrowded facilities, where there is a very real risk of contracting tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis, or some other dangerous disease with far less than adequate medical care.”Surprisingly, in light of the strong words used to characterize Russia’s failing justice system, there is no specific mention of Mikhail Khodorkovsky or Vasily Alexanyan … perhaps there is simply a surplus of evidence backing these conclusions that it is not necessary.The report is also very successful in capturing the rhetorical essence and tactical strategies of Putinism. Orttung writes that “the ruling elite constantly emphasize the threat of an outside enemy, which would menace society without the Kremlin’s protection,” and how the state uses a “selective application of repression” in order to silence key voices, and bring the rest of society into line. They cite the fact that public polls conducted by Levada increasingly produce the response “I don’t know” from the public – a symptom of a culture of fear.Other sections of the report are not so well argued. In the Civil Society section, the author dismisses government funding of genuine NGOs such as For Human Rights as a failed attempt to appear balanced. In the media freedom section, there is generous mention of the unfair charges brought against Manana Aslamazyan and Educated Media Fund, however the report doesn’t mention that a court acquitted her of all charges – providing a rare victory within the judicial system (although this may have happened after they went to press). Other times the language comes off as casual and flippant: “By silencing a few key individuals, the regime is able to keep most of the rest of the population in line. People now understand that it is better to remain passive than to say anything negative about the political system.“Certainly there are quite a few reasons for political apathy in today’s Russia, but if history has taught us anything, these tactics of overhanded censorship and repression can backfire, and actually motivate political activism once conditions become less sustainable.The author’s take on the clan wars is also puzzling:

The current system is self-maintaining and stable in the short term. Putin is very careful in his choice of personnel: When a high-level official is fired, he is moved into another job of generally equal importance. Putin is using this technique to avoid creating any enemies among the elite, as Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev did.5 In a process that could last decades, this system will likely collapse as the incumbent leaders age and few new people will be brought in to implement necessary reforms. With a lack of open discussion, there is little chance that Russia’s leadership or society will generate new ideas to address the challenges the country faces.The Federal Security Service (former KGB known by its Russian initials as the FSB) and other law enforcement groups that surround Putin are calling for the imposition of a new regime, which would include increased state regulation of the economy and strict limits on political activities. Currently, these groups are fighting with one another over control of various agencies and assets. But Viktor Cherkesov, a key Putin ally who heads the antidrug agency, has made public appeals for all of the security agents to work together to serve their corporate interests while blocking the rise of other interests in Russian society. Putin currently is the only arbiter among these feuding clans.

Putin is most definitely not the only arbiter, and has great troubles keeping his den of thieves from exploding out into public view. Also there was more to that Cherkesov episode than explained here, as well as the whole “velvet reprivatization” fiasco and the leaked rumors of Putin’s personal fortune.In concluding the outlook for 2008, the author writes: “Putin has made clear that he will remain in power, serving now as prime minister along with his handpicked successor as president. Accordingly, the presidential elections are meaningless, as is the campaign leading up to them. This outcome means that there is little chance Russia’s political process will open up or gain democratic legitimacy in the foreseeable future.“Is it just me, or doesn’t this seem recklessly categorical? First of all, like it or not, Russia has already been given the gift of relative legitimacy by many nations (including George W. Bush). Also, if the presidential elections are meaningless, then why would they go about all the trouble of holding them? Sure, any good skeptic isn’t going to buy the Kremlin’s dress rehearsals of democracy, but there is something to be said for the fact that these clans are so desperate to have legitimacy abroad … they most certainly do not want to be a pariah state like Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, or even Belarus. Isn’t there also a role of accountability and complicity from those principled Western nations who have been so willing to endorse the performance?Read the report yourselves here, and see if you see as many red flags.