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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Is Becoming Less Free, Study Says

Russia is becoming less free -- squashing the media, sidelining opposition parties and making life unbearable for many nongovernmental organizations, a U.S. group reported Wednesday.

In an annual report cataloguing the state of democracy around the world, "Nations in Transit 2006," Washington-based Freedom House gave Russia a 5.75 on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being the most democratic and 7 the least. Last year, Russia earned a 5.61.

"The major theme for 2005 was the state's continuing crackdown on all aspects of political life in Russia," the report said, saying civil society, elections, the criminal justice system and the media had all taken a hit in the past year.

The report also noted what President Vladimir Putin has already acknowledged -- that corruption is a serious problem in the country.

The country received its lowest marks for the way it conducted elections. The report pointed out that in 2005 the government erected new bureaucratic barriers for opposition parties to field candidates.

Parties must now win a greater percentage of the vote to pick up seats in the State Duma, and they are not allowed to form electoral blocs. Also, major parties already in power are receiving a greater share of state support.

The report also accused Russia of violating the Helsinki Accords by permitting only specially selected international observers to monitor elections.

The report said Russian authorities "fine tune" the electoral system after each voting cycle to ensure their grip on power.

Russian civil society, meaning the network of activists and nongovernmental organizations in the country, fared better. The report observed there was a "vibrant" civil society online.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the oldest human rights groups in Russia, concurred with Freedom House's findings.

Referring to civil society groups, she said: "They haven't had time to throttle us yet. They started earlier with the press, in 2000."

The government is on the verge of clamping down on many NGOs, having adopted a law regulating NGO activity earlier this year, Alexeyeva noted. That process would not begin until after July's G8 summit. Russia is the president of the group of democratic, industrialized nations this year.

The government was also accused of cramping the judiciary's independence, stripping local governments of key powers and permitting the conflict in Chechnya to spread into neighboring regions, destabilizing much of the North Caucasus.

By comparison, the Western-leaning countries of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have improved their ratings marginally; all three scored in the 4 range. Belarus, with 6.71, and Turkmenistan, with 6.96, lost a little ground in the past year.

Because the report encompasses only "nations in transit," it does not include the United States and Western European countries.

Many Russian officials, not surprisingly, view their country's political situation through a different lens from that of Freedom House. In an article titled "The West and Us," posted Thursday on United Russia's web site, Mayor Yury Luzhkov, echoing many a Russian commentator before him, argued that Western fears of Moscow were rooted in ignorance.

Alexeyeva said it would be naive to think the Freedom House report would prompt the state to loosen its grip, but she added that a public record was a prerequisite for change.

"Violations of human rights, violations of freedom, violations of the Constitution must always be made public," she said. "It's impossible to predict what might make an impact."