On March 20, the U.S. State Department released its 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, covering 198 countries and territories.
The report said Russia “has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin.”
It said civil liberties in Russia are routinely violated. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are severely suppressed, while media and internet freedoms are curtailed.
Russian citizens are unable “to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections,” the report stated.
The Russian Embassy in the U.S. “categorically” rejected the State Department report’s findings, calling them “far-fetched and out of touch with reality”:
“We condemn approaches according to which the ‘quality of democracy’ is assessed based on Western standards. Russia has been consistently following the democratic path, taking into account its own historical experience and traditions.”
That is false.
The path Russia has taken under Putin’s decades of rule has been anything but democratic. The country is ruled by what the Washington-based human rights watchdog Freedom House calls a “consolidated authoritarian regime.”
On paper, Russia is a semi-presidential republic. Like the United States, the federal government is divided into executive, legislative and judiciary branches.
However, analysts say that separation of powers only exists on paper.
Freedom House said Russia’s judiciary “lacks independence from the executive branch,” with a judge’s career prospects “tied to compliance with Kremlin preferences.”
Those preferences are conveyed via so-called “telephone justice,” with powerful figures instructing judges on what verdicts to hand down in some cases, particularly those involving government critics.
The State Department’s 2022 report on Russia said the State Duma (the parliament’s lower house) and Federation Council (upper house) "lack independence from the executive.”
Freedom House portrayed presidential power over the parliament in starker terms:
“President Putin dominates the political system, along with powerful allies in the security services and the business sector. These groups effectively control the output of the parliament, which is not freely elected.”
Russia watchers have long portrayed the Duma as a “rubber stamp” body.
For example, in 2018, the Moscow correspondent for Germany’s Der Spiegel news website, Christian Esch, outlined how a law allowing Russian authorities to label foreign media as “foreign agents” was hastily completed and passed in three days, with no parliamentary deputies voting against it or abstaining.
“The speed with which the law was passed, of course, is a consequence of the Duma not being what it claims to be … Russian lawmakers have little influence over the government and none at all over the president … The Kremlin controls the Duma much like a puppeteer animates his puppets,” Esch wrote.
As Russian political scientist Nikolai Petrov wrote in 2005, Russia is ruled by a so-called “managed democracy,” which “controls society while providing the appearance of democracy.”
Along with a strong presidency, weak institutions and state control of the media, Russia’s “managed democracy” is characterized by the ruling elite’s control over elections, which allows them to legitimize their decisions.
Thus elections are neither free nor fair. Indeed, ballot-rigging, vote buying, voter intimidation, repression of government critics and suppression of independent political parties have become routine under Putin’s rule.
Citing restrictions of fundamental freedoms, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said voters in Russia’s 2018 presidential election were not provided a “real choice” at the polls.
Putin, who has already ruled the country for 23 years, initiated constitutional changes that will allow him to stay in power until 2036.
While the pro-Putin ruling United Russia Party has low public opinion ratings, it maintains a majority in parliament.
Meanwhile, Russia’s three nominal opposition parties “usually toe the Kremlin line," The Associated Press and others have reported.
International human rights experts accused Russian authorities of poisoning Russian opposition figures Vladimir Kara-Murza and Alexei Navalny in order to send a “clear, sinister warning” to potential government critics.
Both Kara-Murza and Navalny are imprisoned in Russia on charges widely viewed as politically motivated.
As for civil liberties, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists among the key ones the rights to life, liberty, free speech, free assembly and privacy, along with the right to free expression of thought, conscience and religion.
The State Department report said members of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities in Russia had been targets of “crimes involving violence or threats of violence.”
Russia is notorious for discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and the country’s extremism law has been used to prosecute the very groups it was ostensibly drafted to protect.
Polygraph.info has documented discrimination against the LGBT community in Russia, particularly in the Chechen Republic.
At the start of his presidency, Putin handed control of the country’s major television networks to the Kremlin or Kremlin loyalists.
A decades-long assault on independent media intensified after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Almost all of Russia’s independent media have “been banned, blocked and/or declared ‘foreign agents’,” the Paris-based media freedom organization Reporters Without Borders said.
Independent war reporting has also been criminalized.