Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom | Analysis

Soviet Shadow Over Russia

MOSCOW, Feb 16 2011 (IPS) - With less than a year remaining for parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia, human rights activists and opposition forces have become targets of political intimidation and frequent harassment by law enforcement agencies. They see an effort to exclude them from the country’s democratic process.

“Many opposition groups suffer from widespread official suppression,” Yelena Ryabinina, chairperson of the Moscow-based Memorial and the Civic Assistance Committee and a member of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights told IPS.

“I think that this pressure from the government authority explicitly testifies to the weakness of the authority itself, and largely reflects the real state of affairs in the country,” she said.

United Russia is the pro-Kremlin party headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal Democratic Party, and A Just Russia are supposed to play the role of official opposition but are often found to be aligned with pro-government policy.

United Russia has been the dominant political party in Russia since it was founded in December 2001, and has unreservedly supported both President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin. The party currently holds 315 of the 450 seats in the Duma – the lower house of parliament – while the remaining seats, held by the Communist, Liberal Democratic, and A Just Russia parties, openly support the government.

In an apparent attempt to distance himself from Putin, President Medvedev has admitted that Russia is a one-party state without significant opposition.

Last week, Vedomosti, a widely circulated local newspaper, reported that Medvedev warned in a video blog that the country is showing symptoms of political stagnation similar to that of the Soviet era, calling the situation “equally damaging” to both the ruling party and the opposition.

The President said Russia needs radical reforms that are aimed at making the political system fairer and more flexible, as well as more open to renewal and development. It should have greater voter confidence, he said, adding that the current stability is threatening to turn into stagnation.

Medvedev pointed to five significant achievements during his presidency, including criminal penalties for election fraud, equal airtime given to all political parties by state-owned media, a greater role for parties that have a majority in regional parliaments in nominating governors, lower eligibility barriers to federal and regional-level parliaments, and lower numbers of voter signatures required to qualify in a poll.

He admitted that the pro-Kremlin United Russia party had dominated airtime during previous elections and that opposition parties had negligible representation at every level of legislature.

“Our democracy is imperfect and we are absolutely aware of this,” said Medvedev, calling for stronger political competition. “But we are moving forward.”

This is not the first time Medvedev, who has positioned himself as a modernising force in Russia, has talked about the need to revamp Russia’s political life.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Russia has faced serious challenges in its efforts to forge a political system that can follow nearly 75 years of Soviet rule.

With a new constitution, which was adopted in 1993, and a new parliament representing diverse parties and factions, Russia’s political structure began showing signs of stabilisation. Four major parties – United Russia, Communist Party, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and A Just Russia party – continue to dominate the political scene in Russia.

Sam Patten, a senior programme manager for Eurasia at Freedom House, told IPS, “Russia needs to do much more to respect the legitimate role of opposition parties in public life and elections.”

He said that Russia would be well-served in many ways were it to allow for greater competition in the coming elections; however, actions taken against peaceful protestors in the last month do not suggest that things are going in the right direction.

The arrest of Boris Nemtsov, a former prime minister and ex-governor of Nizhny Novogorod during Yeltsin’s administration, that occurred one month ago should be a source of embarrassment for Russia’s government, Patten said. Video surveillance has clearly contradicted the charges that the prosecution attempted to bring against him.

Patten rhetorically asked, “What is Russia’s government so afraid of? The fact that a man as talented and articulate as Nemtsov would commit himself to public life at a dark moment could serve as an inspiration for the millions of well-educated, publicly-concerned Russian citizens who wish to speak out against an increasingly authoritarian government but have been cowed from doing so by such arrests and unofficial intimidation.”

“Actions such as those taken against Nemtsov do not reveal the government’s strength,” said Patten, “but rather its weakness.”

He suggested that the first thing Russia do to increase political participation and competition is to loosen the restrictions on public debate. Censorship continues to restrict the viewpoints available to the public via television, which remains the medium that reaches the most people.

Boris Kagalitsky, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Globalisation Studies, told IPS in an email that “media censorship is a big problem” in Russia.

Asked what Russian authorities should do to increase political participation and competition, Kagalitsky responded, “Honestly speaking, I don’t think that (the Russian state bureaucracy) can successfully do anything good. Objectively, we need to change the laws on political parties, on elections, on trade unions, and on the freedom to assemble.”

Given all that has been done to restrict political participation and competition, it will take a long time and much sustained effort to start moving things back into a more pluralistic direction, Patten concluded.

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