20 years under Putin: a timeline

Prominent expert in democratic development David Kramer has recently finished his tenure as president of Freedom House and assumed the position of senior director for Human Rights and Freedom at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. In one of his last interviews as head of Freedom House, Kramer spoke with Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov on the possibility of democracy in Russia.


According to David Kramer, the West made a mistake in the 1990s in describing Russia as a democracy. Photo: delfi.lt


Denis Volkov: According to Freedom House reports, Russia is considered to be a “not free” country. What does this actually mean?

David Kramer: Our report assesses the state of political rights and civil liberties in every country in the world. And we have twenty-three different criteria that we use to assess those rights and liberties. They include the ability to have free, fair, and competitive elections, the existence of opposition parties, the ability of people to assemble and speak out, a free press, an independent judiciary, non-discriminatory treatment of minorities and women. All of these are factors in our assessment of every country. When it comes to Russia, the scores have been declining for years now. And it went from “partly free” to “not free” and has been in the “not free” category for more than a decade. The situation in Russia, based on our assessment, is that it has reached probably its worst point since the fall of the Soviet Union.

DV: Who makes these assessments?

DK: For every country, we have a specialist. Sometimes that person comes from the country; sometimes the person is from outside of the country. That person produces the narrative report and provides recommended ratings for the country. And then that narrative and those ratings are reviewed by an advisory group, as well as by Freedom House staff. We hold very vigorous and rigorous discussion about the ratings to make sure we all think that they are accurate and reflect the true situation on the ground.

DV: What events in Russia do you consider important to your assessments?

DK: We look at the ability of people who don’t support the government to protest, to assemble, to hold rallies. The treatment of non-governmental organizations is also very important. We also look at the diversity of media, degrees of censorship, self-censorship, the treatment of journalists. We also look at a whole series of developments that include legislative actions, presidential decrees, and the ability of opposition parties to participate in the political process. In 2013, [in Russia] there were serious legislative actions that restricted civil rights and political rights: legislation dealing with NGOs, protests, and the implementation of these legislations. Some of these go back to 2012 as well. [In 2014, we’ll consider] the September protest in Moscow against the war in Ukraine. But it is important to understand that our ratings are not a grade or report about the government. They reflect the overall state of political rights and civil liberties that exists in a country. But obviously, government policies have a huge impact on our ratings.

DV: So you’re saying that according to the Freedom House ratings, Russia was never “free”...

DK: Right! I don’t think it has ever been in the “free” category. It did make it to the “partly free” category for part of 1990s, and then it returned to “not free” under Putin. I think that [happened] in 2004. One of the big events—not the only one—was the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but there were other things happening of course, starting in 2000. There was the takeover of the nationwide TV channels from [businessmen Vladimir] Gusinsky and [Boris] Berezovsky. The war in Chechnya was also a factor. So there are number of different variables.

DV: How are the Freedom House reports used? What is the purpose of your measurements?

DK: We have been producing the “Freedom in the World” reports since 1972. It gives us over four decades of data points that we can use to assess the development of political rights and civil liberties in a country. We have been doing our Press Freedom Survey since 1980, so it is not as old, but it is still a long period over which we can compare and contrast. Governments, including the U.S. government I think, take our findings seriously. Some governments, including the U.S. government, use our findings to determine the eligibility of certain countries for assistance, particularly the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The European Union attaches a lot of importance to our reports. The past four years we’ve presented our reports before the European Parliament, and they take our report very seriously. Donor countries like Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Canada attach a lot of importance to what we find in our reports, because they determine their assistance eligibility in part on what we assess.

DV: What other international ratings would you recommend people look at?

DK: We are the only one who does “Freedom in the World” and “Freedom of the Press” reports, and we have the survey on net freedom, which is more recent. We also produce the report called “Nations in Transit.” Thus, we produce four different reports. Transparency International does its Index, which is very good. Human Rights Watch produces their reports. Each of our organizations produces different kinds of reports, and each of them has value and importance. There is the State Department’s Human Rights Report as well. I don’t think you will find huge differences between our findings and the findings of these reports. But we are the only one that rates countries into these three categories of “free,” “partly free,” and “not free.” No one else does that. And there are people who criticize us for it. They say that the world cannot be easily rated into these three categories. I understand that. But is is a way for us to at least bring attention to some of the challenges we face in different parts of the world.

I think that the biggest obstacle to Russia’s democratic development is the regime that is currently in power, which is determined to stay in power at any cost.

DV: Where do you place Russia relative to other countries?

DK: We have the category called “the worst of the worst” that includes North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Russia is not in that category yet, but unfortunately, it is moving in that direction, rather than being on the border between “partly free” and “not free.”

DV: What keeps Russia in the “not free” category? What prevents positive change?

DK: I think that the biggest obstacle to Russia’s democratic development is the regime that is currently in power, which is determined to stay in power at any cost. To me, that is the biggest obstacle. And I think we have seen that particularly since Putin’s return to presidency in May 2012, because that’s when the crackdown really picked up speed and momentum. I would say, and I’m sorry to say this, that it’s also a very corrupt regime. And corruption and authoritarianism do tend to go together. The more corrupt a regime is, the more authoritarian it becomes, because it feels it should crack down against any threats, real or not. But it also uses legislative acts to lend it some legitimacy. The problem is that the Duma and Federation Council [two chambers of Russian Parliament] are rubberstamps of what the Kremlin wants. So you don’t have real separation of power in Russia; you don’t have strong civil society because of the pressure on non-governmental organizations and on critics of the government. You have a media with television really controlled by the state, and this is the main means by which Russians get their news and information. And the opposition is weak. It’s weak because of a failure to unite, but it’s also weak because it is under constant pressure and intimidation from the government.

DV: Do you still see any possibility for Russia to become a democracy?

DK: I hate to say this—I used to be more optimistic about the place even five years ago, than I am now. And part of what has made me more pessimistic is the anti-Western, anti-American propaganda that is starting to penetrate the people’s thinking. I think the West made a mistake in the 1990s in describing Russia as a democracy. It was freer than the Soviet Union was, but it wasn’t a democracy. And for many Russians, the 1990s were a very difficult period: economic dislocation, loss of savings, chaos, and weakness. And we in the West were describing this as a democracy. For many Russians, I think the attitude was, if this is democracy, we don’t want any more of it. And so we discredited the notion of democracy by prematurely describing Russia as a democracy in the ’90s. I think we have seen the reaction, under Putin, [of people saying] “We don’t want any of that time in the ’90s; we want to return to being a strong country; we want to return to a time when the government was strong, and the leader was sober and young in contrast to Yeltsin.” And I’m worried that a lot of the potential for democratic development has kind of been eliminated. Not completely—I do not want to exaggerate. I also don’t want to overstate the strength that Putin has over the country. He is the strongest leader in the country by far. But I’m not sure that the level of popularity we have seen this year, driven by propaganda and the campaign against Ukraine, is really sustainable. Particularly if the economy starts to deteriorate.

DV: In the long run, what can be the sources of democratization in Russia?

DK: It will have to come internally. The outside community can only help at the margins. We have to see Russians want a more democratic society. I would argue that that’s what we saw in Ukraine in November. They wanted corruption to end, more democracy, rule of law, better standards of living, integration with the West. I think eventually—and I hope that’s not naïve wishful thinking—we will see that in Russia one day. I don’t think that’s going to happen soon. But I do hope that we will see that. Instead, what we are seeing are attacks on the West: “Russia represents traditional values, and the West represents decadent values: gay rights, gay marriage, all these things.” I’m not saying Russia has to embrace everything the West is doing, but I do think that the desire to live in freedom is universal. It’s not Western. I think even people in North Korea, if they knew about the opportunity to live in freedom, would much rather be free than live under Kim [Jung Un]’s rule. I don’t want to compare North Korea to Russia, but I do think that at the end of the day, there is a universal desire to live in a free society with a government that leaves you alone. And I think that is possible in Russia. It will take time, and yet if we’ve learned nothing else from the Arab movements of 2011, most of which are not turning out very well, it is that these regimes are seemingly stable until suddenly they are not. You never quite know what the tipping point will be. I’m not predicting revolution in Russia, but we never know what it is that triggers a real push for change. But I do think that’s possible in Russia.

DV: What is democracy in your view?

DK: I think there are several features. One is the ability to freely elect leaders, and hold them accountable. But elections are not by any means the only factor in democracy. It includes independent institutions, so you have an executive branch, legislative branch, and judiciary. It also has to include a vibrant civil society, and a free media. Media are critical to a country’s democracy, because the media working together with civil society help hold the government accountable. So you need accountability, rule of law, independent institutions, a strong civil society, and a vibrant free press. Those are fundamental features of any democracy, and needn’t be modeled after the United States. Every country is unique and has its own history, but those are the common features that we see in democracy. You can have a presidential or parliamentary system—you can even have a constitutional monarchy like in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Spain. But still, they all have those common features of democratic development that are very important.

DV: The next Freedom in the World report will be published in January 2015. Do you think you can speculate on Russia’s ratings?

DK: I haven’t seen much improvement from January 2014 to this point. So unless things change radically, I imagine we will continue to see deterioration, which I’m very sad about. I will tell you a very quick story. I began my career in Washington in 1990 in the Carnegie Endowment. And Carnegie set up the Moscow Carnegie Center in 1994. That was done to promote better understanding between Russia and United States. So I believe very deeply in that. I know I’m viewed as a strong and relentless critic of Putin’s government, and I am. I don’t deny that. But I am not anti-Russian. I think it is really important for Russia and the West to get along and work together. But I do think that the current problem is sitting in the Kremlin, and it is not just one individual. It is the system that exists there. I am worried that we will be living with that for quite a while, even if there is a change [of power] tomorrow. The Anti-Western and anti-American sentiment that is on the rise worries me greatly, because I started my career in Washington trying to do the opposite: to promote freedom and understanding between the two countries, the two societies. And I hope that we can return to that someday.