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 March 18 presidential election and the 2016 State Duma elections were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates.
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 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 for Ukraine). Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured.
Human rights issues included extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances by government authorities; pervasive torture by government law enforcement personnel that sometimes resulted in death and sometimes involved punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary or unjust 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; increasingly severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations;” severe restrictions on religious freedom; undue restrictions on freedom of movement of those charged with political offenses; credible reports of refoulement; 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; trafficking in persons; government decriminalization of domestic abuse, which created an atmosphere of impunity for domestic violence against women; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against 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, register candidates for public office, access media outlets, and conduct political campaigns.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The March 18 presidential election and the 2016 parliamentary elections were marred by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process.
The OSCE reported the March 18 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, 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 contestants equally, and instances of misuse of administrative resources were noted. The election day generally proceeded in an orderly manner, but numerous procedural irregularities were noted during counting.”
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 (CEC) 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 to be invalid.
Candidates to the State Duma can 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 3 percent of voters’ signatures 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 said 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. The election monitoring group Golos also stated that independent candidates were not able to collect the necessary number of municipal deputy signatures as a result of pressure from authorities. During the year the filter prohibited opposition candidates Dmitriy Gudkov and Ilya Yashin from participating in the Moscow mayoral elections.
In some cases opposition parties were repeatedly denied registration. On August 27, authorities denied opposition leader Navalny’s application to register a political party for the fifth time in five years, a decision observers believed to be politically motivated.
Authorities sought to restrict the work of independent monitors and promote government-sponsored monitoring. Observers are 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 intend to monitor, three days before elections. Burdensome registration regulations also hampered the work of journalists wishing to monitor elections as well as independent or nonparty-affiliated groups, whose monitors registered as journalists for their affiliated publications. On March 7, the CEC denied observer accreditation to 850 observers with the Golos-affiliated media outlet Molniya as well as 4,500 observers with the Navalny-affiliated media outlet Leviathan.
Authorities continued to hamper the efforts of Golos, whose work was curtailed by a law prohibiting NGOs listed as “foreign agents,” from taking part in the election process as well as by continuing harassment and intimidation by authorities.
On January 16, the country’s leading independent pollster, the Levada Center, announced that it would no longer publish the results of its opinion polls on the March presidential elections, fearing legal repercussions. The center had been designated a “foreign agent” in 2016, barring it from participating in election-related work. The center’s director expressed fears the government would forcibly close the pollster if it were to publish its election polling data.
Once elected, many opposition politicians reported efforts by the ruling party to undermine their work or remove them from office. For example, on May 22, the independent mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeniy Roizman, resigned from office after the city’s legislature voted to abolish mayoral elections. Observers saw the change as designed to ensure that a progovernment official occupied the position.
Opposition politicians often faced violence and threats. Media outlets described a spate of threats and attacks on independent municipal deputies who had won seats in the Moscow city district councils in 2017, including several vandalism incidents involving severed pig heads being left in their homes and vehicles. In June an unknown assailant poured motor oil on independent Moscow local city council member Anastasia Muralova shortly after she had successfully halted street repairs in the district that were being carried out illegally without a contract.
Authorities continued to engage in a pattern of harassment, including threats of violence, against opposition leader Navalny and his supporters (see sections 1.d., 2.a., and 2.b.). On September 24, Navalny’s press secretary stated that, since the start of the year, Navalny had been arrested five times and spent 120 days in jail. On November 15, the ECHR upheld a previous decision that found rights violations in Navalny’s seven arrests and two instances of pretrial detentions between 2012 and 2014. They noted these arrests “lacked a legitimate aim,” and “had not been necessary in a democratic society.” On September 11, the head of the National Guard, Viktor Zolotov, challenged Navalny to a duel and threatened to make a “nice, juicy steak” out of him.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. 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.