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Russia's waning freedom
By Cathy Young | November 28, 2005
IF RUSSIA had a Thanksgiving Day, those Russians who care about freedom would not have much to be thankful for this year.
In 2004, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Freedom House -- a human rights organization that rates countries around the world on their citizens' political and personal freedoms -- gave Russia the lowest of its three ratings, ''not free." (In 1990, the Soviet Union was rated ''partially free.") And in the past year, things have only gotten worse.
Last week, the lower house of Russia's parliament gave its overwhelming approval to a Kremlin-backed bill designed to bring private nonprofit organizations under greater state control. The legislation will subject Russian nonprofits, which currently number about 450,000, to much stricter oversight by the government -- in large part to ensure that they do not engage in political activism -- and will give the courts greater powers to close them down. They may also be forbidden to receive financial assistance from foreign sources. Meanwhile, under the current version of the legislation, foreign charitable and educational groups will be forbidden to operate in Russia unless they reregister as domestic organizations -- except it's unclear if they even can.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that he will consider amendments to the bill to ensure that ''civil society institutions must not suffer." This rhetoric rings hollow to most human rights activists, who say that the new legislation is a move by the Putin regime to bring under control the one sector of Russian society that still retains its independence, in the age of servile politicians and muzzled media. Nongovernmental organizations were instrumental in bringing down authoritarian pro-Moscow regimes in Ukraine and Georgia; clearly, Putin does not want to risk a repetition of those events.
This is hardly the only disturbing news to come out of Russia recently. In May, oil tycoon and philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted on an array of fraud and tax evasion charges, a prosecution whose political motivation was transparent: Alone among Russia's business oligarchs, Khodorkovsky had bucked government intimidation and continued to fund opposition groups and to harbor political ambitions of his own. Last month, Khodorkovsky was suddenly transferred from a Moscow prison to a Siberian labor camp, in an area with a harsh climate and high radioactive contamination -- in violation of Russian law, which says that prisoners must serve their sentence in the region of their residence. The transfer happened days after a Moscow newspaper published a sarcastic birthday greeting from Khodorkovsky to Putin, and may have been an act of retaliation.
Writing in the Nov. 28 issue of The New Republic, author Paul Berman notes that in today's strange political atmosphere in America, many intelligent people manage to sincerely believe that Bush is a fascist and America is on the brink of tyranny, and yet firmly know that after the 2008 election Bush will leave the White House and perhaps be replaced by ''his fiercest opponent." In Russia, there is no such comfort.
The Russian Constitution, like ours, prohibits the president from running again after two terms in office. But at a recent symposium on Russia's future at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Russian pollster Yuri Levada expressed the firm opinion that Putin would find some pretext to stay for a third term. Another speaker, policy expert Nikolai Zlobin, disagreed -- but also stressed that Putin's successor would be inevitably hand-picked by the Kremlin. Levada bitterly noted that ''the central feature of Russia's political life at this time is the absence of opposition," and none of the other speakers questions this gloomy assessment.
A few American politicians, most notably Senator John McCain, have kept up the pressure on Russia on the issue of human rights. But the Bush administration remains cozy with the Kremlin, at best resorting only to polite and toothless criticism as Russia's infant democracy is smothered. Just what benefits we get in return is unclear. Russia is supposedly our partner in the war on terror, yet Russia's close ally, Uzbekistan, has just kicked out a US Air Force base that was essential for US military access to Afghanistan.
During the Cold War, the United States made some morally shady strategic alliances with authoritarian third world regimes. Now, in a bitterly ironic reversal, the Bush administration treats Putin's increasingly authoritarian Russia as our ally in the war on terror. But this ''friendship" may be as unreliable as it is morally compromising.