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. On July 1, a national vote held on constitutional amendments did not meet internationally recognized electoral standards.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service, the Investigative Committee, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The Federal Security Service 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 Federal Security Service’s 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 report to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities have, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which are accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Members of the Russian security forces committed numerous human rights abuses.
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 separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russian-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 and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances; pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers 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 and religious prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country; 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 and religious minorities; 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; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; 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; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion and forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against persons with disabilities, members of ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.
The government failed to take adequate steps to identify, investigate, 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, register candidates for public office, access media outlets, and conduct political campaigns.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On July 1, the government conducted a national vote on a package of constitutional amendments. This vote was not legally a referendum and was considered by most experts to be extraconstitutional. As such it was not bound by Russia’s normal election laws, and domestic observers were not provided a role in monitoring the poll’s conduct. Authorities mobilized administrative resources to drive up voter participation, which in effect functioned as a de facto campaign in favor of the government’s proposed amendments, while those seeking to campaign publicly against the amendments were denied the opportunity. Because the vote was not legally a referendum, no international observers were present to monitor the process.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the 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 that “television, and in particular broadcasters that are state funded, owned, or supported, remains the dominant source of political information. A restrictive legislative and regulatory framework challenges freedom of 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 politically motivated criminal conviction.
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 13 elections of 18 governors and 11 regional legislative bodies were marked by similar allegations of government interference and manipulation. Independent election monitors logged thousands of reported abuses during these elections at the regional and local levels. For example, in a case that was emblematic of many others, the election commission of the Arkhangelsk region announced on August 4 that environmental activist Oleg Mandrykin, nominated by the opposition Yabloko Party to run in the gubernatorial election, had failed to pass the municipal filter. The election commission claimed he had not collected the required number of signatures from the municipal districts and thus was disqualified from running for the post of governor. Mandrykin reported that his supporters had faced “unprecedented pressure” from regional authorities.
Authorities sought to restrict the work of independent election monitors and promoted government-sponsored monitoring instead. 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.
The election-monitoring NGO Golos announced that the September 13 election took place under the worst electoral regulations in 25 years, with greater limits on the electoral rights of citizens and increased attacks on the rights of election observers. For example, on September 9, in the Ivanovo and Novgorod regions, security officials searched the apartments of public observation organizers, including Ruslan Zinatullin, the head of the Tatarstan branch of the Yabloko Party. Authorities continued to hamper the efforts of Golos to take part in the election process, since its work was made more difficult 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 parties and their candidates. 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 Election Commission for certification. Presidential candidates nominated by parties without State Duma representation must collect 100,000 signatures. An independent presidential 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, political parties in single-mandate districts, or political parties on their federal list, or they 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 for the Duma. 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.
In some cases opposition parties were repeatedly denied registration or faced court-mandated suspensions of their activities. On January 14, the Supreme Court ruled to suspend for three months the work of opposition leader Dmitriy Gudkov’s political party, Party of Change (officially known as Civic Initiative). The Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit against the party after refusing to register its charter because the party purportedly failed to provide the minutes from its meeting.
Authorities continued to engage in a pattern of harassment, including threats of violence, against Navalny and his supporters. On July 23, Dmitry Nizovtsev, the host of the YouTube channel for Navalny’s headquarters in Khabarovsk, was assaulted after he broadcast from a march organized to support ousted Khabarovsk Kray governor Sergey Furgal. He claimed that his attackers were linked to authorities and beat him because of his reporting and association with Navalny.
Systemic opposition parties (i.e., quasi-independent parties permitted by the government to appear on the ballot) also faced pressure. For example, media outlets reported on August 31 that representatives of the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party were attacked in Novosibirsk in the run-up to the September 13 regional election, including the headquarters of Roman Yakovlev, a candidate from the Communist Party. On July 26, the Communist Party also reported that its candidates had problems with passing the municipal filter in at least three regions.
State entities or entities closely aligned with the state also influenced their employees to vote a certain way. In Omsk workers from Russian Railways told journalists they were encouraged to photograph themselves with their completed ballots for the July 1 national vote on constitutional amendments. In Yekaterinburg the clergy of some Russian Orthodox Churches encouraged their parishioners to vote in favor of the constitutional amendments.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women held less than 20 percent of elected seats in the national legislature. As of January women held approximately 5 percent of ministerial positions. 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 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups operating in the country investigated and published their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their concerns. Official harassment of independent NGOs continued and, in many instances, intensified, particularly of groups that focused on monitoring elections, engaging in environmental activism, exposing corruption, and addressing human rights abuses. NGO activities and international humanitarian assistance in the North Caucasus were severely restricted, especially in Chechnya, which closed its borders in April, purportedly to limit the spread of COVID-19. Some officials, including High Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova and her regional representatives, regularly interacted and cooperated with NGOs.
Authorities continued to use a variety of laws to harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of domestic and foreign human rights NGOs (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).
Officials often displayed hostility toward the activities of human rights organizations and suggested their work was unpatriotic and detrimental to national security. For example, Mikhail Degtyaryov, who was appointed interim governor of Khabarovsk Kray in July, warned against believing news reports about him, asserting that negative stories reveal “the hand of the West” and “it’s not for nothing that there are so many suspicious NGOs in Russia.”
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 prosecution, investigations, fines, and raids (see sections 1.e. and 2.b.).
Authorities generally refused to cooperate with NGOs that were critical of government activities or listed as a foreign agent. International human rights NGOs had almost no presence east of the Ural Mountains or in the North Caucasus. 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. One NGO in this region reported that the organization’s employees sometimes had to resort to working in an individual capacity rather than as representatives of the organization.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Authorities refused to cooperate with the OSCE Moscow Mechanism rapporteur investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya in 2018 and did not permit him to visit the country. Two years after the release of the rapporteur’s report, the government still had not provided the OSCE a substantive response to the report or taken action to address the report’s recommendations.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Some government institutions continued to promote human rights and intervened in selected abuse complaints, despite widespread doubt as to these institutions’ effectiveness.
Many observers did not consider the 168-member Civic Chamber, composed of government-appointed members from civil society organizations, to be an effective check on the government.
The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) is an advisory body to the president tasked with monitoring systemic problems in legislation and individual human rights cases, developing proposals to submit to the president and government, and monitoring their implementation. The president appoints some council members by decree, and not all members operated independently. In October 2019 President Putin overhauled the HRC, dismissing several well respected human rights defenders from the council and appointing Valeriy Fadeyev, a senior member of the ruling United Russia party, as its head. Experts noted that Fadeyev worked closely with government authorities and often echoed their assessment of well-known human rights cases. In a July 8 interview with Kommersant, Fadeyev stated he did not believe there were more than 300 political prisoners in the country and that organizations such as Memorial needed to be “more careful” with their lists.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova was viewed as a figure with very limited autonomy. The country had regional ombudspersons in all regions with responsibilities similar to Moskalkova’s. Their effectiveness varied significantly, and local authorities often undermined their independence.