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New Report Cites Eroding Freedom and Accountability in Russia

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Freedom House has just published a new report “Countries at the Crossroads 2007” which warns against the dangers of the rising “authoritarian capitalism” state model currently seizing both China and Russia. The Financial Times has reported on the release of the study, as has the Associated Press. Below is an excerpt from the introduction, the country report on Russia can be found here.

The deficiencies the Crossroads analysis identifies in the Chinese and Russian systems do not by themselves suggest that either regime is in imminent danger of breakdown or implosion. Strong economic growth in both countries provides a considerable cushion for the state in the near to medium term. Russian and Chinese leaders are also quite adept at using the levers of state power to repress independent voices and institutions —with lethal brutality when necessary. However, the reports do suggest that the inability of critical institutions to play a meaningful and independent role in these societies raises fundamental questions about whether genuine and enduring reform can be achieved, particularly in combating deeply entrenched corruption. Self-policing or reform by decree holds dim prospects for success in the absence of a well-functioning, independent judiciary, civil society, or news media, all of which are currently sidelined as independent actors in China and Russia. The 2007 Crossroads report on China notes that over the past three decades, “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been reshaping the PRC into a market-based and globally integrated economy, society, and culture. It labels this project ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’” The report further observes that “while producing gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates that are among the world’s highest, the party’s strategy has led to the sort of severe inequality, weak social-welfare system, worker exploitation, job insecurity, and environmental degradation that is associated with capitalism at its worst.” The Russian authorities’ current governance experiment is also built on soft sand. The Crossroads report on Russia observes that “by 2005, having endured significant rollbacks of electoral rights, Russia could no longer be considered a democracy at all according to most metrics,” and that “the country has come to resemble the autocratic regimes of Central Asia more than the consolidated democracies of Eastern Europe that have recently joined the European Union.” One of the stubborn threads that runs through the Chinese and Russian systems is the hard line the authorities consistently take toward news media. The precise methods for controlling politically consequential media content differ somewhat in the two systems, though the effects are quite similar. The ability of news organizations to report independently on the performance of officials and other powerful interests, scrutinize policies, and cover public health and other critical issues is severely limited. Control of information and politically consequential discourse is a dominant feature of both systems. In Russia, “the media remain tightly controlled by the presidential administration, and over the last seven years Russia has been one of the three most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist (behind Iraq and Colombia).” Under President Putin’s leadership, the news media, especially television, have been brought under the sway of the authorities in some ways reminiscent of the Soviet era. In China, “the CCP views the media as an instrument to articulate and support its policies; to mobilize, unite, and divert the people; and to manage the impressions it gives to its own citizens and the outside world.” With the Chinese and Russian economies deeply integrating into the global system, it is not enough to control domestic media. International reputation matters, too. Both China and Russia have enlisted the help of high-powered Western public relations firms for image management purposes and, in certain cases, to deal with looming crises. China in particular has sought Western consultancies to help manage the scrutiny that accompanies the hosting of the 2008 Olympics. The recent consumer-product scandals’ threat to the “Made in China” brand has also caused Chinese officials to enlist the help of outside image managers. PR management alone, however, is unlikely to ameliorate the deep, structural challenges these two systems confront. The limits of cosmetic approaches to reform are visible in the pervasive corruption that has defied reform edicts and state-directed media campaigns in China and Russia. Not surprisingly, official corruption is one of the greatest burdens to the two systems—and one of the greatest threats to the leadership in these countries. Corruption is often a symptom of other systemic pathologies. Since dominant powerholders wield effectively unchecked authority, existing mechanisms tend not to be sufficient for addressing corrupt practices. Crossroads findings note the glaring gap in the efforts to combat corruption at all levels, especially the grand corruption that finds its way into the countries’ most lucrative, strategic sectors. The judiciary, which should be one of the frontline defenses against corruption, is kept on a short leash. The Crossroads China report notes that the country’s “judiciary remains a tool of the CCP, and it rarely shows signs of independence or autonomy. The courts, including the Supreme People’s Court, are answerable to the National People’s Congress.” Russia’s judicial system has been subjected to an increasingly harsh campaign of manipulation and control in which executive branch interference in political or economically consequential cases is a regular occurrence. President Putin’s “dictatorship of law” has not made headway against the corruption and bribery that pervade the judicial process and drain sound judgment and impartiality from court rulings. As a result, average Russians have little faith in the system and see little reason to address grievances through the courts. This lack of faith has prompted many Russian citizens to seek justice beyond Russia’s borders—in the European Court of Human Rights—where by mid-2007, 22,700 of the pending 99,600 cases, or 22.8 percent, were Russian, a 400 percent increase over figures from 2000.