Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, citizens could not fully do so because the government limited the ability of opposition parties to organize, register candidates for public office, access media, and conduct political campaigns.
The law allows regional authorities to abolish direct mayoral elections in major cities. Only nine of 83 regional capitals retained direct mayoral elections, although two previously elected mayors were still completing their terms. The law does not apply to Moscow and St. Petersburg, since the mayors of these cities have the status of governors.
After allegations of voter fraud in the 2011 State Duma elections sparked mass protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, authorities sought to curtail the work of independent monitors and promote government-sponsored monitoring. The State Duma passed legislation in February allowing each party or candidate to have up to two election monitors present at each polling station, affirming the right of observers to use photography and video equipment, and banning the removal of observers without a court order. The legislation prohibited observers from being accredited to more than one polling station, sharply limiting the ability of civil society to monitor elections. Critics contended that the legislation makes it difficult for domestic election monitors to conduct surprise inspections due to provisions requiring observers to register with authorities, including the polling station they intend to monitor, three days before elections. The legislation also increased the registration requirements for journalists wishing to monitor elections. Such regulations hampered the work of independent or nonparty affiliated groups, whose monitors registered as journalists for their affiliated publications. The independent election-monitoring organization Golos reported that the number of independent observers decreased by half since 2011.
Authorities also continued to hamper the efforts of independent monitor Golos, whose work was curtailed by a law that bans organizations listed as foreign agents from taking part in the election process. Critics asserted that the law violates the constitution. In July a Moscow Court liquidated the Defense of Voters’ Rights branch of the organization for violations of the foreign agent law. In May a Samara court ruled that the director of Golos-Ural, Lyudmila Kuzmina, was personally liable for the organization’s alleged failure to pay taxes on money it received from a foreign official development agency. Critics called the decision politically motivated, noting that the money was received before the foreign agent law went into effect. Golos had nonetheless already paid taxes on the donation, and the law does not provide a basis to hold Kuzmina personally liable.
Central Election Commission (CEC) chairperson Ella Pamfilova publicly stated that, because the federal budget did not provide for video cameras in polling stations, regions wishing such monitoring would have to provide for it from their budgets. Video monitoring of polling stations was cut in 2015. Observer groups insisted authorities eliminated these devices to prevent detection of fraud. In 2015 the CEC announced that bloggers whose web pages received more than 3,000 daily visits could comment on elections only during the officially determined campaign period and post only “objective and verifiable information about candidates and parties that does not infringe on candidates’ equality.”
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On September 18, the country held elections to its national legislature, the State Duma. The election marked a return to a mixed election system in which voters elect one-half of the Duma’s 450 seats through party list and one-half by candidates representing geographic districts, so-called “single mandate candidates.” Elections were held concurrently to select nine governors and/or regional heads and 39 regional legislatures, as well as other local officials. The elections proceeded with fewer allegations of election-day voter fraud than the previous national legislative election in 2011, but the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observer mission noted that the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media, and a tightening grip on civil society.
The OSCE/ODHIR election observation mission concluded that the liberalization of the party registration process has yet to result in distinct political alternatives. Party registration at the national level, where it was governed by the CEC, tended to proceed more smoothly and inclusively than at the regional level. The CEC endorsed the eligibility of 14 of 22 political parties to register their candidates. The press reported that on average only seven parties were eligible to compete in most regional legislative elections. For example, the Communists of Russia and the Rodina party were unable to register in 16 and 14 regions, respectively. Observers noted that independent candidates and those representing smaller “nonsystemic” parties faced greater hurdles than their counterparts from parties represented in the State Duma. The CEC took a more active role in overturning regional election commissions’ unwarranted exclusions of opposition parties. For example, in August the CEC reviewed and overturned the decision of the St. Petersburg election commission to exclude candidates from the opposition party PARNAS, finding “no objective reasons to exclude the party’s registration” for elections to the regional legislature. The CEC also restored the opposition Yabloko Party’s right to run in the Novgorod regional elections on August 12 and expressed a lack confidence in the regional election commission’s chairman, suggesting he should resign.
In other regions problems with the registration of parties remained unaddressed. For example, the Petrozavodsk City Court disqualified Yabloko party’s city council slate on August 30. The Karelia Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision September 12.
During the pre-election period, the government employed tactics to prevent a fair campaign environment, such as the improper use of administrative resources, denying applications for opposition rallies, controlling opposition candidates’ mass media coverage, and distributing gifts to potential voters to promote the victory of government-backed candidates in several regions. For example, in a single-mandate district in Orel, the ruling-party candidate and director of a district medical clinic organized a health fair at which free health tests would be provided for the local population. Election activists highlighted that electoral campaign offices were often established within local government offices in violation of election law, but noted that such offices were quickly closed once official complaints were made to local prosecutors.
While the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission noted that election day generally proceeded in an orderly manner, it cited numerous procedural irregularities, particularly during the counting process. Observers assessed the counting process to be “bad or very bad” in 23 percent of the observed polling stations. The citizen-organized organization Golos, which conducted long- and short-term observation in 40 regions, received 1,798 reports of alleged election-day violations, the most common of which included violations during absentee or “at home” voting, violations of the rights of observers, illegal campaigning, improper tabulation of results, coercion of voters, and breeches of secrecy of the vote. For example, the organization received complaints from 70 polling stations in the Moscow region concerning the practice of mass voting using absentee ballots. Observers gave numerous examples of buses transporting large groups of voters with absentee ballots. In the pre-election campaign, voters allegedly complained that their employers pressured them to obtain such absentee ballots. There were also a number of reports concerning ballot stuffing across the country, sometimes captured on live video by observers. The CEC responded by announcing that a criminal investigation would be initiated against at least one election official in Rostov and cancelling the results of one single-mandate district in Nizhny Novgorod.
Independent organizations and opposition figures faced harassment. For example, St. Petersburg police detained Open Russia party coordinator Vladimir Kara-Murza and Duma candidate Andrey Pivovarov of PARNAS during a meeting with voters on August 24, despite receiving permission from local authorities to meet with voters. In the Republic of Mary El, opposition candidates appealed to the CEC to suspend voting in one single-mandate Duma district in connection with “massive legal violations,” including physical and economic threats to supporters of one independent candidate and attempts to intimidate the candidate himself. In response, a representative from the CEC visited the area and ordered an investigation of the complaints.
The OSCE/ODIHR election-monitoring mission noted that representatives of citizen observer groups, such as Golos, Citizen Observer, SONAR, and others registered as media or party observers to monitor elections. The mission concluded that Golos had to operate under unconducive conditions, particularly after it was dissolved as an organization. Golos reported that the number of observers expelled from polling stations dramatically decreased in comparison with elections in 2011.
Opposition candidates had difficulty gaining access to traditional media. For example, Russian press reported that opposition candidates from several parties complained of difficulties concluding contracts with billboard companies in the Moscow region, citing interference from the Moscow governor’s office. Many opposition candidates relied on Facebook, Twitter, and VKontakte to connect with voters, since the state-controlled print and television media did not cover their campaigns.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires political parties to have 500 members to register. Some 74 parties successfully completed registration requirements and obtained the right to run in elections.
While parties represented in the State Duma may nominate a presidential candidate without having to collect and submit signatures, prospective presidential candidates from parties without Duma representation must collect two million signatures from supporters throughout the country and submit the signatures to the CEC for certification. An independent candidate is ineligible to run if the commission finds more than 5 percent of the signatures to be invalid.
The law requires gubernatorial candidates not nominated by a registered political party to meet the “municipal filter” requirement. Such signatures of support must be collected in no fewer than 75 percent of municipal councils. Gubernatorial candidates nominated by registered political parties are not required to collect signatures from members of the public, although self-nominated candidates are.
The law establishes a mixed electoral system in which half of the Duma deputies are elected in single-mandate constituencies and half are elected from party lists. The law also sets filters that prevent many small, legally registered parties from competing for party-list seats. Parties are exempt from collecting signatures to participate in elections if they have representation in the sitting Duma, received at least 3 percent of the national vote in the previous Duma election, or were represented in at least one regional legislature. The CEC has registered 14 of the 74 registered political parties, but only 22 submitted their lists to the CEC for approval for the Duma elections under these rules. All other parties that wish to compete for party-list seats in the Duma must gather at least 200,000 signatures from voters, with no more than 7,000 signatures from any one region. Smaller parties could participate in single constituencies even if they were not from a registered political party, provided they collected at least 3 percent of the signatures of voters registered in their districts or at least 3,000 signatures, whichever number is higher.
The law prohibits negative campaigning and provides criteria for removing candidates from the ballot, including for vaguely defined “extremist” behavior. The executive branch and the prosecutor general have broad powers to regulate, investigate, and disqualify political parties. Other provisions limit campaign spending, set specific campaign periods, and provide for restrictions on campaign materials.
Once elected, many opposition politicians reported efforts by the ruling party to undermine their work or remove them from office. In June officials arrested independent Kirov governor Nikita Belykh on corruption charges, and President Putin dismissed him from office several weeks later. Before his 2009 appointment, Belykh served as leader of opposition party Union of Right Forces (see also section 4). In August the former mayor of Yaroslavl, Yevgeniy Urlashov, a member of the opposition whom authorities arrested in 2013 on charges of embezzlement, was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in a penal colony.
Leaders and members of opposition parties faced prosecution or other forms of retaliation. National and local authorities continued to charge opposition candidates with serious crimes that would prevent them from participating in elections. In April authorities allegedly found Nazi propaganda in the campaign office of local opposition candidate Yegor Savin, who claimed investigators planted the materials. A ban on distributing Nazi propaganda is the only administrative offense that carries a ban on participating in elections.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and women and minorities did participate. Information on the ethnic composition of the State Duma and the Federation Council was not available. While members of national minorities took an active part in political life, ethnic Russians, who constituted approximately 80 percent of the population, dominated the political and administrative system, particularly at the federal level.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government acknowledged difficulty enforcing the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The Global Competitiveness Report 2014-15 compiled by the World Economic Forum cited corruption as the most problematic, high-risk factor for doing business in the country. In March 2015 the government passed a law reducing the ceiling on fines for receiving a bribe (from 25 times the bribe’s amount down to 10 times) and for providing a bribe (from 15 times the bribe’s amount down to five times).
Corruption was widespread throughout the executive branch, including within the security sector and migration management agencies, as well as in the legislative and judicial branches at all levels of government. Its manifestations included bribery of officials, misuse of budgetary resources, theft of government property, kickbacks in the procurement process, extortion, and improper use of official position to secure personal profits. While there were prosecutions for bribery, a general lack of enforcement remained a problem. Official corruption continued to be rampant in numerous areas, including education, military conscription, health care, commerce, housing, social welfare, law enforcement, and the judicial system. According to the Moscow Police, the average bribe for all purposes during 2015 was approximately 654,000 rubles ($9,810), more than double the amount of the previous year. According to a September 2015 report in the newspaper Izvestiya, corruption increased 6.5 percent during the year, with an especially heavy concentration of cases in Pskov, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Chelyabinsk, Mordovia, and Bashkortostan.
Corruption: Prosecutors charged high-level officials, including a regional governor, a regional head for economic security and anticorruption for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a regional Customs Service chief, and a deputy minister of culture with corruption during the year.
In September investigators discovered $123 million in cash in an apartment owned by the sister of Internal Affairs Ministry colonel Dmitriy Zakharchenko, the acting head of one of the ministry’s anticorruption units. Zakharchenko was charged with accepting bribes and abuse of authority. In November his pretrial detention was extended through March 8, and the investigation remained underway.
The areas of government spending that ranked highest in corruption were public procurement, media, national defense, and public utilities. The federal Investigative Committee estimated annual damages of 40 billion rubles ($600 million) caused by corruption, although independent estimates put the figure much higher. On April 27, the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that more than 32,000 corruption cases were registered in 2015. Of these cases, 13,000 (40 percent) resulted in guilty verdicts. A study by the Prosecutor General’s Office found that corruption-related crime in military procurement had increased by 10 percent. In July 2015 the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that 7.5 billion rubles ($112 million) had been stolen during construction of the Far East Cosmodrome.
During the year the government adopted legislation imposing criminal penalties for “small commercial bribery” (bribery not exceeding 10,000 rubles or $150) and for “mediation in commercial bribery.”
Financial Disclosure: The law prohibits state officials and heads of state-owned enterprises from owning financial assets or bank accounts abroad. The law also requires politicians to file extensive declarations of all foreign real estate they own and civil servants to declare any large expenditure involving land, vehicles, and securities, as well as their incomes. The law was unevenly enforced, and investigative bodies rarely acted upon media reports of undeclared assets held overseas and other alleged violations.
The law requires government officials to submit financial statements, restricts their employment at entities where they had prior connections, and requires reporting of actual or possible corrupt activity. The information that officials provided often did not reflect their true income or that of close family members.
Public Access to Information: The law authorizes public access to government information unless it is confidential or classified as a state secret. The law requires placement of information regarding activities of federal executive agencies on the internet. According to the watchdog website Infometer, government agencies frequently failed to implement the law. Federal agencies published only 40 percent of the information required on the internet, while regional governments published approximately 50 percent. Courts, despite the presumption favoring access, denied citizens’ requests for information on the grounds that the data requested did not directly affect their interests.
In June the government released its National Anticorruption Plan for 2016-2017.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups operated in the country, investigating and publicly commenting on human rights problems. Official harassment of independent NGOs continued and in many instances intensified, particularly of groups that focused on election monitoring, exposing corruption, and addressing human rights abuses. NGO activities and international humanitarian assistance in the North Caucasus were severely restricted. Some officials, including the ombudsman for human rights, regional ombudsman representatives, and the chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, regularly interacted and cooperated with NGOs. Fedotov was critical of revisions to the foreign agent law, the expansion of the undesirable foreign organization law, and the introduction of the antiterrorism amendments known collectively as the “Yarovaya package” (see section 2.b.).
The law regulating NGOs requires them to register with the Ministry of Justice. Authorities required NGOs to submit annual reports to the government that disclose sources of foreign funding and detailed information on how they used their funds. By law the Ministry of Justice can register NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” as foreign agents, a stigmatizing term that connotes treason or espionage. NGOs that engaged in political activities, activities that “pose a threat to the country,” or activities that receive support from U.S. persons or organizations, are subject to suspension under the “Dima Yakovlev” law. The same law prohibits these NGOs from having dual-U.S. citizen members.
The government used the law on foreign agents to justify unannounced inspections of NGOs; levy fines for noncompliance, liquidation, and prosecution; and demand that they self-register as a foreign agent or be added to the register unilaterally by the Ministry of Justice. By year’s end the Ministry of Justice had listed 150 NGOs as foreign agents (see section 2.b.).
The Ministry of Justice pursued efforts intended to discredit or curtail the activities of organizations and foreign agents. The Ministry of Justice attempted to force the closure of several NGOs, including AGORA, an NGO ordered liquidated by the Supreme Court of Tatarstan in the first case of a so-called foreign agent being forced to close based on a court ruling (see section 2.b, Freedom of Association). Several other NGOs, including St. Petersburg’s Antidiscrimination Center Memorial, were forced to close due to government harassment, hefty fines, and lack of funding. Golos continued to face severe repression in the form of fines, court hearings, and media harassment by state-owned or controlled media outlets.
High-ranking officials often displayed a hostile attitude towards the activities of human rights organizations and suggested that their work was unpatriotic and detrimental to national security. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs and author of the council’s Patriotic Stop List, told media in April that additional organizations were under consideration for inclusion on the undesirable list. Kosachev, who created the Patriotic Stop List as recommendations to the Prosecutor General’s Office of NGOs for inclusion as undesirables, and fellow Federation Council member Andrey Klishas continued to call for the expansion of the undesirable list to counter threats to the country’s constitutional order.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Republic of Chechnya, frequently disparaged and threatened human rights activists and opposition leaders. In February, Kadyrov posted on Instagram an image of PARNAS leader Mikhail Kasyanov and party member Vladimir Kara-Murza in the crosshairs of a gun with a message leading many human rights activists to decry the incident as a threat to murder. In January, Kadyrov called members of the opposition “enemies of the people” who should face trial for sabotage, prompting then human rights ombudswoman Ella Pamfilova to call Kadyrov’s statement “harmful.” Kadyrov was not charged or reprimanded for either incident.
In March the head of the Committee against Torture, Igor Kalyapin, was attacked when he visited the Chechen capital, Grozny. Local authorities investigated the attack but never filed charges (see section 1.c.). Officials from the Presidential Human Rights Council cancelled a fact-finding trip to Chechnya in June when Kadyrov publicly stated that he could not guarantee the group’s safety if Kalyapin would be traveling with them as was planned.
On multiple occasions, President Putin warned the FSB against the “destructive purposes” of NGOs. The terms “foreign agent,” “political agent,” and “fifth column” were used in official speeches and publications to stigmatize NGOs, opposition politicians, and human rights activists. Putin told the Federal Assembly that presidential grants would be expanded to support “unblemished NGOs.”
Authorities continued to apply a number of indirect tactics to suppress or close domestic NGOs, including the application of various laws and harassment in the form of investigations, fines, and raids. They also employed laws on extremism and libel to restrict the activities of NGOs and criticism of the government (see sections 2.a. and 2.b.). Authorities generally refused to cooperate with NGOs that were critical of their activities or listed as a foreign agent. International human rights NGOs had almost no presence east of the Urals. A few local NGOs addressed human rights problems in these regions but often chose not to work on politically sensitive topics to avoid retaliation by local authorities.
Authorities made government funds available to support human rights NGOs to discourage access to foreign support. According to federal budget figures, the government allocated 4.6 billion rubles ($69 million) for NGO grants. A report in the Moscow Times published findings that the Russian Orthodox Church was the primary beneficiary of presidential grants the past several years. Many NGOs on the foreign agent list noted that they no longer received funding from the government as a result of the label, particularly NGOs that continued to accept foreign grants.
During the year the government took steps that limited the ability of international organizations to address human rights concerns. On April 19, the Constitutional Court ruled that the country was not obligated to implement a decision by the ECHR regarding prisoners’ voting rights, since it contradicted the country’s constitution. The case marked the first time that authorities employed a 2015 law granting the government the right to refer ECHR decisions, as well as decisions by other international human rights bodies, to the Constitutional Court for review. According to the law, if a decision by the ECHR or other international body is found to contradict the constitution, the Constitutional Court can reject it.
On November 2, AI staff reportedly arrived at their Moscow office to find the locks had been changed, official seals placed over the doors, and the electricity cut off. City authorities claimed that AI had failed to pay its rent on time, but staff denied that this was the case. On November 3, Fedotov, head of the Russian Human Rights Council, met President Putin and discussed the matter. On November 18, AI signed a new lease agreement with the Moscow property department, after which the staff were allowed to return to the office. The day before the office’s closure, AI–a regular critic of the government–had issued a statement calling for the release of imprisoned activist Ildar Dadin and an investigation into his allegations of torture. On December 1, Gazprom-owned television channel NTV aired a report titled “The Amnesty of Terror” on AI, accusing the organization of supporting terrorists and failing to pay rent for its Moscow office. The program further charged that the U.S. Department of State and the CIA sponsored such efforts through charitable organizations such as the Soros Foundation, adding that this is the reason for AI’s “high salaries.”
On March 12, media reported that the government decided to close the Moscow office of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Authorities later confirmed the decision to close the OHCHR office because it had “fulfilled its mission to establish human rights norms in Russia.”
Government Human Rights Bodies: Some government institutions continued to promote human rights and intervened in selected abuse complaints, despite widespread doubt as to their effectiveness.
Many observers did not consider the 126-member Public Chamber, composed of appointed members from civil society organizations, to be an effective check on the government. Some prominent human rights groups declined to participate in the chamber due to concern that the government would use it to increase control over civil society.
The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights is an advisory body to the president tasked with monitoring systemic problems in legislation, keeping track of individual human rights cases, developing proposals to submit to the president and government departments, and monitoring their implementation. Membership in the council increased at the end of 2012 from 40 to 65 members, with the president selecting the new members by decree. Human rights advocates expressed concern that the additions were made to increase progovernment membership and weaken the council’s independence.
Human Rights Ombudsman Ella Pamfilova resigned her position to assume a new appointment as head of the Central Elections Commission. In April the Duma elected Tatyana Moskalkova, a Duma deputy and major general in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, to replace Pamfilova as the new commissioner for human rights. The selection of Moskalkova was widely criticized by human rights activists after her statement to the Duma that “human rights issues have been actively used by Western and American bodies as a weapon of blackmail, speculations, threats, attempts to destabilize and exert pressure on Russia.”
In March the Ombudsman’s Office released its second report from Pamfilova’s tenure in the position on the state of human rights in the country. The 252-page report doubled in size from the previous year’s report and included input from human rights NGOs, although it was noted in the report that the ombudsman did not necessarily agree with their assessments. The report primarily focused on problems of social inequality, cases of selective justice, a deficit of trust and lack of communication between the authorities at various levels and the general public, and the expansion of “rights-limiting” legislation. In her presentation to Putin, Pamfilova highlighted terrorist acts, the increase in drug use and alcohol consumption, the spread of HIV, car accidents, uncontrolled illegal migration inflows, inefficient state supervision of the construction industry, and widespread corruption as the major problems leading to the violations of fundamental human rights in the country.
According to the 2015 ombudsman’s report, the Ombudsman’s Office received 64,189 complaints from individuals, state organizations, and NGOs during the year, representing an 18 percent increase in complaints compared with 2014. The country has regional ombudsmen in 83 of its 85 regions with responsibilities similar to Moskalkova’s. Their effectiveness varied significantly, and local authorities often undermined their independence.