Russia retained its "Not Free" rating in the annual "Freedom in the World 2016" report compiled by the Freedom House human rights organisation, scoring only 22 of a possible 100 points, with its shortcomings deepened by economic recession and growing intolerance of dissent.
The report's publication on January 27 coincided with the release of Transparency International's Corruptions Perceptions Index 2015, where Russia also continued its slide towards the foot of the ranking.
Receiving a low 6 on a 7-point scale for both lack of political rights and civil liberties, the Freedom House report noted "Russia's increasingly aggressive challenge to liberal values under [President] Vladimir Putin - domestically, among its neighbors, and in international organizations".
Political rights are marked on the possibility of free participation in elections and making important decisions for the community, and civil liberties are marked on the opportunity to express opinion, have "personal autonomy" from the state, as well as the independence of the press and protection of minority rights.
Russia's failings here were made worse by its economic plight, with the country dealing with plummeting oil prices "at a time when international sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine - plus counter-sanctions that hurt Russian consumers at least as much as the intended targets - had already weakened its economy and threatened its indebted state-owned companies".
Adding to its expensive military occupations in parts of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, the Kremlin's decision to intervene in Syria in late 2015 to shore up support for President Bashar al-Assad could prove costly in financial, military, and political terms, the authors warned.
"The regime also took measures to stifle criticism of its foreign interventions. Opponents have been derided as traitors, forced from their jobs, arrested, or pushed into exile," it added. "To drive home the leadership's intolerance for dissent, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree making it illegal to publish information about military casualties even during peacetime. The head of a committee of soldiers' mothers was convicted of fraud after publicising the cases of Russian troops killed in eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin has implausibly denied that any Russian forces are deployed."
Crimea, which dominated global headlines after Russia's invasion in 2014, languished in a grim status quo, and de facto Russian control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine was solidified in both military and economic terms, the report said.
Separately, the authors mention the murder of liberal opposition figure Boris Nemtsov and the report by corruption whistleblower Alexei Navalny's about the business interests of the family of Russia's Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika.
Neighbouring "Not Free" Belarus fared even worse in the Freedom House ranking with only 17 points, putting it a notch ahead of China and behind Gambia. After the re-election in October 2015 of the authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for a fifth term, the former Soviet republic also scored the lowest possible rating of 7 for political freedom.
Paradoxically, though, the "deeply flawed" election in October actually seemed to improve Lukashenko's standing with democratic powers, the report noted.
"His release of political prisoners before the vote, and the absence of violence in its aftermath, eased the way for plans by the United States and the EU—wavering in their determination to press for true liberalization—to reduce sanctions against Belarusian individuals and entities," it continued, while doubting that Lukashenko's actions are signs of a genuine thaw. "Rather, his gestures toward the West seem motivated by growing fears of Russian bellicosity and economic weakness."
Ukraine's mixed bag
By contrast Ukraine produced a mixed bag of results, emerging as "Partly Free" but still tilting towards a positive balance, with a 3 out of 7 rating for political freedom and civil liberties, and an overall score of 61. As the country seeks closer integration with the EU and Nato, the assessment places it in the same neighbourhood as EU-accession candidate Albania (67) and accession-ripe Nato member Macedonia, which this year was demoted to the "Partly Free" camp with 57 points.
A total of 50 countries are deemed "Not Free", representing 26% of the world's polities. The number of people living under "Not Free" conditions stands at 2.6bn, or 36% of the global population (although more than half of this number lives in China).
At the peak of the scale Finland, Iceland, Norway, San Marino and Sweden scored 100 points, Canada and the Netherlands 99, and the US and UK with 90. Lining the floor are Tibet with 1 point and Somalia with 2, while Syria was accorded "-1".
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