The Russian Federation has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. The bicameral Federal Assembly consists of a directly elected lower house (State Duma) and an appointed upper house (Federation Council), both of which lack independence from the executive. The 2016 State Duma elections and the 2018 presidential election were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Investigative Committee, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The FSB is responsible for state security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism as well as for fighting organized crime and corruption. The national police force, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for combating all crime. The National Guard assists the FSB Border Guard Service in securing borders, administers gun control, combats terrorism and organized crime, protects public order, and guards important state facilities. The National Guard also participates in armed defense of the country’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces. Except in rare cases, security forces generally reported to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities, however, had, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which were accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The country’s occupation and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively. The Russian government continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside Russia-led forces in eastern Ukraine. Credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russia-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine). Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured.
Significant human rights issues included: extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances; pervasive torture by government law enforcement personnel that sometimes resulted in death and occasionally involved sexual violence or punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent; violence against journalists; blocking and filtering of internet content and banning of online anonymity; severe suppression of the right of peaceful assembly; severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations”; severe restrictions of religious freedom; refoulement of refugees; severe limits on participation in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; coerced abortion and sterilization; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against persons with disabilities, LGBTI persons, and members of ethnic minorities.
The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.
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, to register candidates for public office, to access media outlets, and to conduct political campaigns.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the March 2018 presidential election “took place in an overly controlled environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices” and that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition.” The OSCE also noted, “television, and in particular broadcasters that are state-founded, owned, or supported, remains the dominant source of political information. A restrictive legislative and regulatory framework challenges freedom of the media and induces self-censorship. Voters were thus not presented with a critical assessment of the incumbent’s views and qualifications in most media.” Observers widely noted that the most serious potential challenger, Aleksey Navalny, was prevented from registering his candidacy due to a previous criminal conviction that appeared politically motivated.
In a statement on the 2016 State Duma elections, the OSCE’s election observation mission noted, “Democratic commitments continue to be challenged and the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society…Local authorities did not always treat the candidates equally, and instances of misuse of administrative resources were noted.”
The September 8 elections of 19 governors and several dozen local and regional legislative bodies were marked by similar allegations of government interference and manipulation. Journalists and observers reported numerous violations, especially in the run-up to the Moscow City Duma election and the St. Petersburg gubernatorial and legislative elections. These included assaults, arrests, harassment, coordinated police raids on the homes of opposition candidates, and widespread restrictions on the ability of independent candidates to register to appear on the ballot. For example, in a case that was emblematic of many others, opposition activist and Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin collected the 4,500 voter signatures for his district candidacy to the Moscow City Duma, but election officials refused to register his candidacy, citing technical flaws in many of the signatures he had collected, often based on the assessments of government handwriting experts. Although many of the voters whose signatures had been disqualified personally appealed to the election commission to confirm that their signatures were authentic, the commission would not reconsider its decision.
St. Petersburg’s gubernatorial and legislative elections were marred by multiple claims of fraud. The strongest challenger to the incumbent governor, Aleksandr Beglov, dropped out a week before the election, claiming the deck was stacked against him. The election-monitoring NGO Golos documented cases in which local election authorities double-counted votes in order to ensure that progovernment candidates won and other indications of fraud. It took more than a week for some municipalities to announce results, leading observers to speculate that they were falsified after the real results were rejected.
After the elections, Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova accused local authorities of trying to cover up electoral violations instead of reporting them through proper channels. On September 25, she specifically accused Vyacheslav Makarov, the speaker of the regional legislative assembly in St. Petersburg, of interfering in the elections and recommended that St. Petersburg Election Commission head Viktor Minenko resign. Nonetheless, neither Minenko nor Makarov faced any consequences, and the election results were certified.
Authorities sought to restrict the work of independent election monitors and promote government-sponsored monitoring. Observers were prohibited from being accredited to more than one polling station, limiting the ability of civil society to monitor elections. Critics contended that the law made it difficult for domestic election monitors to conduct surprise inspections due to provisions requiring observers to register with authorities, including the polling station they intended to monitor, three days before elections. Burdensome registration regulations also hampered the work of journalists wishing to monitor elections as well as independent or nonpartisan groups, whose monitors registered as journalists for their affiliated publications.
During the September 8 elections, observers also faced threats and physical obstacles, including from groups of athletes affiliated with authorities. Media reported that local administrations hired these athletes (some of whom were local thugs affiliated with government-sponsored sports clubs) to threaten opposition candidates, intimidate observers, and interfere with the vote count, especially in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg municipal election commission member Mikhail Losev reported that when he attempted to submit a complaint about voting violations on election day, five athletic-looking men approached and threatened him, telling him he need to make the “correct” choice, intimating that he risked being attacked.
Authorities continued to hamper the efforts of Golos to take part in the election process, since its work was curtailed by a law prohibiting NGOs listed as “foreign agents,” as well as by continuing harassment and intimidation by authorities.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The process for nominating candidates for office was highly regulated and placed significant burdens on opposition candidates and political parties. While parties represented in the State Duma may nominate a presidential candidate without having to collect and submit signatures, prospective self-nominated presidential candidates must collect 300,000 signatures, no more than 7,500 from each region, and submit the signatures to the Central Electoral Commission for certification. Nominees from parties without State Duma representation must collect 100,000 signatures. An independent candidate is ineligible to run if the commission finds more than 5 percent of signatures invalid.
Candidates to the State Duma may be nominated directly by constituents, by political parties in single-mandate districts, by political parties on their federal list, or may be self-nominated. Political parties select candidates for the federal lists from their ranks during party conventions via closed voting procedures. Party conventions also select single mandate candidates. Only political parties that overcame the 5-percent threshold during the previous elections may form federal and single mandate candidate lists without collecting signatures, while parties that did not must collect 200,000 signatures to register a candidate. Self-nominated candidates generally must gather the signatures of 3 percent of the voters in their districts.
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 also requires gubernatorial candidates not nominated by a registered party to meet a “municipal filter” requirement. Such candidates must obtain signatures of support from a defined portion of municipal deputies, the portion of which varies by region, as well as collect signatures from at least one deputy in each of a specified portion of municipal council districts.
Observers and would-be candidates reported the municipal filter was not applied equally, and that authorities pressured municipal deputies not to provide signatures to candidates who were not preapproved by authorities. They asserted that no independent candidate with the potential to defeat authorities’ favored candidates was permitted to pass through the municipal filter, while progovernment candidates were passed through the filter without fulfilling technical requirements. For example, three candidates in the St. Petersburg gubernatorial election admitted that they passed through the municipal filter without having gone to municipal council districts to collect deputies’ signatures. At the same time, Yabloko party candidate Boris Vishnevskiy failed to pass the filer because he faced opposition in municipalities controlled by the ruling party, United Russia.
In some cases opposition parties were repeatedly denied registration. On May 27, authorities denied opposition leader Aleksey Navalny’s application to register a political party for the ninth time in six years, a decision that observers believed was politically motivated.
Opposition politicians often faced violence and threats. Media outlets described a spate of threats and attacks on independent candidates who tried to register for the St. Petersburg municipal elections. For example, on July 26, an unidentified assailant attacked Navalny associate Aleksandr Shurshev when he tried to submit candidate registration documents to the local election commission. He claimed that a guard who stood nearby did nothing to stop the attack.
Authorities continued to engage in a pattern of harassment, including threats of violence, against Navalny and his supporters (see sections 1.d., 2.a., and 2.b.). On July 24, a district court in Moscow sentenced Navalny to 30 days in jail for encouraging Muscovites to participate in an unsanctioned protest. Several municipal deputy candidates linked to Navalny faced threats and obstacles from unidentified persons and claimed that government officials did not intervene.
Systemic opposition parties (i.e., quasi-independent parties permitted by the government to appear on the ballot) also faced pressure. For example, according to media reports, a group of 30 masked men (some of whom were on horseback) attacked a bus carrying journalists and observers from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) in the Republic of Tuva on the eve of the September 8 elections. The assailants threatened the driver and the passengers, punctured the bus’s tires, and demanded that the group abandon the trip. One LDPR candidate named the head of the Tuva Equestrian Federation as a participant in the attack.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women held approximately 17 percent of legislative seats during the year. 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.