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The Russian Federation: A Flawed Democracy?

Many countries around the world are nominally or constitutionally democratic but have other political and social practices that totally deviate from the core characteristics of any liberal democratic regime. Such is the Russian Federation with a constitution that states the country is democratic along with citing many articles associated with the respect of human rights. However, the reality is far from this, especially during Vladimir Putin’s presidency because human right violations have been seen and were manifested in repressing the political opposition and the freedom of expression with attempts to eliminate them. Therefore, to what extent does Russia violate its constitutional laws associated with human rights?

To begin with, in Article 17 of the Russian Federation’s constitution, it is stated that “In the Russian Federation human and civil rights and freedoms shall be recognized and guaranteed according to the universally recognized principles and norms of international law and this Constitution.”  Also, in article 18 it is stated that “Human and civil rights and freedoms shall have direct force. They shall determine the meaning, content and implementation of laws, the functioning of legislative and executive authority and of local self-government, and shall be guaranteed by law.” Moreover in article 29 in the section of “freedom of expression”,Everyone shall be guaranteed freedom of thought and speech.” In terms of freedom of press, the constitution cited that “The freedom of the mass media shall be guaranteed. Censorship shall be prohibited.”

Finally, in article 31, in the section of freedom of assembly, “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to assemble peacefully, without weapons, hold rallies, mass meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets.” These articles are all found the Russian Constitution. So, the constitution guarantees civil rights to the largest extent and insisted on being respected by the public administration at all levels. This is to follow and adapt to the international criteria and have at least a legitimate façade in order to avoid for example international sanctions. Theoretically, Russia gives its citizens and the media the right to express their opinions, oppose and demonstrate even against the government.

However, the ruling regime in Russia calls its opponents as “extremists” along with the media and journalists who are as well labeled as “foreign agents” receiving external finances or “undesirable” and enemies to the country according to Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. Not only were they satisfied in verbally disdaining the opposition, but they also used physical violence and arrests to dispel even peaceful protests. This had been witnessed lately with the peaceful anti-war protests and rallies that have taken place in March 2022 to protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The forces of police have had brutal responses with using violence, arresting, detaining the protestors and torturing them while in custody. The Kremlin has also criminalized any expressed disapproval of its measures in Ukraine, including on social media according to Frank Jordans in the Washington Post.

 All this is against freedom of assembly, of press and article 18 stated in the constitution and contains an evident aggression on one of the most basic human rights that should be given to citizens and shall make even the political leaders in Russia more unpopular both on the local and international level. Apparently, the government refuses to be criticized on violating human rights by starting a war abroad, which explains a lot on its position towards human rights’ importance in general. To explain, the Kremlin has turned gradually into a more authoritarian and super-presidential regime that aims to forbid public politics as a way to fill the void made by a weak party and parliamentary system. And this is to the point that a relatively low number of Russians believe in the existence of a public opinion, according to a survey lead by Public Opinion Foundation in New Authoritarianism: Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century by Nataliya Velikaya.

Human and civil rights were further violated with the government’s persecution of political opponents like the case of Alexei Navalny recently. Navalny is known for being the Kremlin’s most ferocious critic and an anticorruption activist. He began through making online videos, by exposing deals made by the country’s ruling party in 2010 and the regime’s political agents including Putin, and accused them of corruption and theft. His activism sparked popular support as he conducted riots against Putin’s return to presidency in 2012. Nevertheless, his attempts were overthrown; as in the beginning the Investigation Committee filed criminal charges against him and prevented him and his team from being presented in parliamentary elections according to Michael Weiss in World Affairs. In august 2020, he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent while in Serbia, and Russia was officially accused of attempting to kill him, as references were made to the case of Boris Nemtsov the Russian political opponent who was assassinated in 2015.

In January 2021, he was arrested and jailed and claimed that he was denied treatment for his illness. The government even rejected pleas from the European court of Human Rights to free him due to his health conditions according to BBC. The latter incident shows a violation to article 17. This case was preceded by many others, and it shows a continuum from the totalitarian regime from which contemporary Russia is issued, where opposition of any kind was not allowed and was immediately suppressed through concentration camps and assassinations.

This will lead eventually to Russia’s isolation from the international system as Navalny was hospitalized in Germany and was defended by western countries that openly denounced Russia’s violations of civil and human rights. The constant refusal of freedom of speech and press will eventually weaken the system’s grounds and will render it less politically legitimate as the majority of demonstrations are directed against the regime’s authoritarianism according to Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. These personal persecutions and inquisitions find their roots in the government’s excessive fear that the USA might be trying to manipulate the political system to its benefits according to Michael Weiss in World Affairs. Thus, we find that the freedom of expression isn’t guaranteed.

To conclude, the different cases shown whether cases of demonstrations and opposition human and civil rights have been violated. These categories theoretically have rights stated clearly in the constitution, but practically the government doesn’t respect them and the political reality and the regime’s political orientations make the situation even more complex. Therefore, Russia does not live to its ideals.

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