Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Part 1: Political and Human Rights Conditions

The Russian Federation has an increasingly controlled political system, with power concentrated in the offices of the president and prime minister, largely unchecked by a compliant legislative branch and politically influenced judiciary. A weak, multiparty political system, abuse of administrative resources by ruling party members, impediments to the registration of opposition parties and candidates, corruption and selectivity in law enforcement, use of anti-extremism legislation to intimidate government critics, media restrictions, and harassment of some NGOs has eroded the government's accountability to its citizens. The March 2008 election for president, assessed to be not free and not fair, as reported by independent Russian and European observers, was marked by problems during the campaign period and on election day. The overall human rights situation is poor. The state itself engaged in numerous abuses and was ineffective at preventing others. The government's human rights record remained particularly poor in the North Caucasus where government security forces have been involved allegedly in unlawful killings, politically motivated abductions, and disappearances in Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.

Government pressure weakened freedom of expression and media independence, particularly of the major television networks. Violence against and killings of journalists remained a problem, and many cases remained unresolved; these factors combined with government pressure contributed to intimidating some journalists into practicing self-censorship. The government limited freedom of assembly, police sometimes used violence to prevent groups from engaging in peaceful protest, and the government limited freedom of association. Independent media, political parties, NGOs, and civic groups face selective application of laws, tax auditing, and other regulations that increase their administrative burden. The government restricted opposition political parties' ability to participate in the political process. Authorities exhibited hostility toward, and sometimes harassed, NGOs involved in human rights monitoring as well as those receiving foreign funding. Prison conditions were harsh and frequently life threatening, law enforcement was often corrupt, and the executive branch allegedly exerted influence over judicial decisions in some high-profile cases. During the year there was a steady rise in xenophobic, racial, and ethnic attacks and hate crimes, particularly by skinheads, nationalists, and right-wing extremists, including some incidents of anti-Semitism. Violence against women and children, trafficking in persons, and instances of forced labor also have been reported.

In August Russia launched a military invasion using disproportionate force across Georgia’s internationally recognized borders, responding to what Russian officials reported was Georgia's use of heavy force in Tskhinvali, the local capital of Georgia’s South Ossetian region, and the killings of Russian peacekeepers. Military operations by Georgian and Russian forces reportedly involved the use of indiscriminate force and resulted in civilian casualties, including of a number of journalists.

Part 2: U.S. Government Democracy Objectives

The overall United States objective is to support the country in becoming a more democratic, vibrant, and stable geopolitical partner that increasingly moves toward a free-market democratic system built on checks and balances, and acts as a strong and effective partner in areas of common interest within the international community. Thus, the United States supports fundamental human rights, democratic values, principles, and practices. The United States seeks, where appropriate, to strengthen and encourage the Russian government and society's own support for the development of civil society and respect for the rule of law. The United States will continue to support democratic reformers and human rights defenders, while also seeking opportunities to advance democratic practices and culture by working in cooperation, where United State' goals are aligned, with national, regional, and local government authorities on areas of common interest. There are challenges: Russian citizens remain skeptical about democracy; political activism remains low; public demand for government accountability is weak; except on some quality of life issues; and the government’s restrictions on and harassment of the activities of civil society groups and independent media create a difficult operational atmosphere for United States government programs. In these spheres, although United States programs may have a more limited immediate effect, it remains important to maintain support for the development of democratic institutions and processes as well as to promote fundamental freedoms that are needed to serve as the foundation for longer term democratic development.

U.S. priorities for promoting human rights and democracy in the country include encouragement of accountable, participatory democratic political institutions, an active civil society, independent media, and the rule of law. The United States engages government officials, NGOs and the media in continuing to call for the country to abide by its international commitments on human rights and its own constitution to guarantee that citizens have the freedom to develop democracy. The United States also supports the promotion of a strong and independent judiciary in the country, the continued professional development of a broad array of justice system actors, as well as initiatives to address the country's ongoing efforts to combat corruption. In order to strengthen the country's governance and rule of law, the U.S. strategy for the country included broad-based support for capacity building in the legal sector and strengthening independent regional media and networks of professional journalists. The United States encourages the active participation of an informed citizenry by developing the capacity of NGOs to become better advocates for citizens' interests, more effective interlocutors with the government, and stronger sources of expertise for the public and authorities, as well as the development of an active and independent media. In addition, the United States prioritizes a robust public diplomacy campaign, including academic exchanges, and the use of electronic media such as the Internet as essential components to the U.S. efforts to promote democracy and human rights. In addition, the United States targeted better rights and treatment for the country's workers and improvement of minority rights.

Part 3: Supporting Top Priorities and Other Aspects of Human Rights and Democratic Governance

The United States promotes human rights and democracy through sustained dialogue; U.S. officials meet regularly with representatives of the Russian government, media outlets, the religious community and civil society. In these meetings, we convey U.S. values, promote human rights and democratic norms, and attempt to understand better how the motivations, actions, and results of government policy and societal developments affect the observance of human rights and the strengthening of democratic institutions. We engaged with senior Russian officials on media freedom issues and raised concerns about violence against journalists; we urge consistently that authorities pursue all those responsible for past unresolved murders and bring them to justice. The United States will continue to rely on well-coordinated efforts to dissuade or discourage the government from enacting legislative or administrative restrictions on civil institutions or internationally recognized human rights.

To strengthen fundamental civil liberties, and help citizens better understand and defend their rights, the U.S. supports human rights monitoring, advocacy and public awareness initiatives — especially while domestic financial support for these organizations remains limited. U.S.-sponsored cooperation and exchange programs are long-term efforts to build trust and promote understanding of modern, independent, and accountable political and judicial institutions, as well as to support democratic civic voices. Comprehensive and systematic support to the spectrum of NGOs, associations, and coalitions – particularly those concerned with human rights and governance issues at a grassroots and regional level – in the long term could foster participatory governance, promote civic responsibility, and help civil society effectively engage with government. Civil society organizations must have the responsibility to become more professional, improve their expertise, expand their capacity for public outreach, and broaden their appeal if they are to have an impact on society. Direct outreach to persons living in the country is an important aspect of U.S. activities to promote human rights and democracy. This is accomplished through public affairs programming and visitor and exchange programs. The United States publicizes information about the American system of democracy through the embassy Web page, press releases, interviews with the mass media, and in special invitational events. Academic exchange and visitor programs are part of a long-term effort to ensure that young, well-educated individuals have first-hand knowledge of the United States and its open society and democratic institutions. The United States continues to support such exchanges, which, according to representatives both in the government and in the human rights community, are a crucial way to increase democratic and liberal thinking in the younger generation.

The United States continues to work, on a non-partisan basis, to strengthen the professionalism and responsiveness of political institutions, including parties. The United States also promotes pluralism and electoral fairness through support of election monitoring and advocacy in our bilateral discussions. In particular, U.S. programs encouraged free and fair elections:  in the months prior to the December 2007 parliamentary and March 2008 presidential elections, the United States provided non-partisan assistance to monitor the campaign environment and the conduct of elections, and to strengthen elections-related institutions and the elections environment. These programs included support for civil society efforts to monitor the abuse of administrative resources, monitor media coverage of the campaign period, a voter hot line for citizen reporting of election law violations, and domestic election observation. The United States worked to strengthen independent media’s capacity to cover elections-related issues, increase voter access to information and the debate of issues, and, before the campaign period began, strengthen political parties’ capacity to build constituencies. The United States supports numerous programs designed to promote the rule of law and judicial independence, working with federal and local government partners in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, along with national and local bar associations and NGOs. These include legislative assistance projects in the areas of criminal procedure, trafficking in persons and victims' rights, as well as judicial exchange programs and training programs for prosecutors, defense lawyers and law enforcement agents. Central themes in all these programs include encouraging respect for judicial independence, adjudication of cases on the merits, supporting the jury system, rendering the legal system more transparent, and expanding access to justice by helping citizens and NGOs to seek effective redress in the court system, including in justice of the peace courts. In addition, the United States continues to support human rights organizations and citizen watchdog groups, and to strengthen independent media. U.S. efforts to foster training and support for networks of independent journalists is geared towards improving professionalism, reducing the isolation of regional reporters and media outlets, and promoting public debate and coverage of important social and political issues. The United States supports the country's integration in multilateral organizations, such as the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which will promote rule of law, enhanced corporate good governance and transparency, and the push for greater adherence to international norms of democratic governance. The United States supported several anticorruption and corporate civil responsibility programs during the year, including programs to foster greater understanding and receptivity for good governance and of an environment for the better protection of human rights.

U.S. assistance is an important tool for enabling NGOs, often together with local authorities, to engage citizens on key issues. Cooperation on projects of joint interest may, over time, induce the country to address weaknesses in governance and the rule of law. The United States helps NGOs to build effective relationships with government bodies to advocate improved government accountability, and to demand responsiveness to citizens’ needs. The United States also engages in efforts to educate the public about their rights and to keep independent voices alive, as well as sponsoring initiatives to devise common solutions to local problems. The United States supports human rights and citizen watchdog groups, as well as the development of domestic philanthropy, to encourage the indigenous, long-term realization of these goals. Given some attempts by government officials to damage the public image of the NGO community and cast suspicion that foreign-funded NGOs are allegedly engaged in espionage, domestic philanthropy is particularly important, and during the past year the United States worked with new umbrella human rights organizations devoted to spreading civil society work through entirely domestic funding. In addition to these programs, U.S. funding provides 30-40 small grants annually to local NGOs working throughout the country to strengthen civil society and encourage ordinary citizens to take an active role in their communities. Recent examples of such grants include in a regional republic the helping of an umbrella organization that defends the rights of prisoners and holds the local branch of the Ministry of the Interior accountable for police behavior and prison conditions.

During the year, the United States worked closely with the Public Chamber and the Guild of Court Journalists to support the formation of a jurors’ association, which provided a mechanism for judges and experts to obtain feedback from former jurors in formulating legislative recommendations to improve the jury trial system. The United States supports programs designed to enhance the country's law enforcement’s capacity to investigate and prosecute, in compliance with applicable international human rights standards, including on human trafficking and child pornography cases, as well as other high-profile crimes. U.S.-Russian judicial and legal partnerships also foster needed modernization, continued professionalism and legal reforms in the justice system. U.S. programs promote greater respect for and protection of human rights by supporting public awareness campaigns, advocacy initiatives, and legal aid to the victims of human rights abuses; facilitating collaboration between the government, NGOs, religious and other civic leaders, and the public on tolerance and human rights issues; and strengthening human rights NGOs through training in areas such as strategic communications, network building, and youth outreach. There was a significant increase in the past year in the number of instances in which NGOs have provided advice that the government (usually at the local or regional level) has taken into account, and in the number of cases in which citizens or NGOs have successfully taken local authorities to court to account for abuse of power. For example, prominent members of the country’s legal community who worked with U.S. officials persuaded the Russian government to shelve a proposal to expand the definition of treason, a proposal that human rights leaders had condemned. Additional U.S. efforts that support democracy and human rights goals include engaging with civic organizations that represent both the majority of the country's population and those that protect marginalized groups, such as ethnic and religious minorities, migrant communities, and persons with disabilities. Recent projects underway this year include enabling a prominent NGO to distribute its own annual report on the state of civil society and human rights in the country to regional authorities and NGOs, members of the State Duma, Federation Council, and Public Chamber, the Ombudsman, and international bodies. Other U.S.-funded projects include an initiative for a domestic NGO to build public trust in NGOs through education and outreach and a project for organizations that provide legal assistance to labor union representatives, as well as to refugees from the North Caucasus and other troubled areas of the country.