The Moscow Times reports:
The level of freedom in Russia went "from bad to worse" in 2007, a U.S. democracy watchdog said in a report released Wednesday. Russians enjoy the same level of freedom as citizens of Angola, Egypt and Tajikistan, according to the latest annual report card from Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization based in New York and Washington.
Freedom House evaluates countries on the political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by their citizens, dividing them into the categories of Free, Partly Free and Not Free. Although Russia has been deemed Not Free for several years now, it suffered a further setback in 2007, largely because of abuses during the State Duma election campaign, the report says. Those abuses included overwhelmingly pro-Kremlin coverage in the national media, the intimidation of opposition candidates and a prohibitively high threshold for small parties to enter the Duma, said Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House. "One can't ignore the almost blanket inability of alternative voices to find their way into the news media," Walker said by telephone from Washington. "If they do, it's often in a jaundiced fashion, with them being portrayed negatively."
A woman who answered the phone at the Kremlin press service said nobody was available to comment Wednesday. But Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, called Freedom House a "Russophobic" organization. "You can listen to everything they say, except when it comes to Russia," said Markov, a Kremlin-linked political analyst who was elected to the Duma last month. "There are many Russophobes there."
In recent years, Moscow has repeatedly lashed out at Western NGOs like Freedom House, calling them biased and accusing them of serving U.S. interests. Walker stressed that Freedom House made its evaluations based on objective criteria explained on the organization's web site, and he denied that it had a pro-U.S. agenda. "If you look closely at the 193 countries that we evaluate, you'll find that we criticize what are often considered strategic allies of the United States," he said.
One such country that is criticized in the new report is Russia's neighbor Georgia, which has been led by a pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, since 2003. In November, Saakashvili ordered a violent crackdown on opposition protesters and shut down the country's leading independent television channel. After an international outcry, he called for an early presidential election, which he won earlier this month amid accusations of vote rigging. Freedom House described the November developments as a "substantial reversal" for Georgia's democratization efforts.
The organization also criticized last month's parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan, which ended with a near sweep by the ruling coalition. Declines in freedom were also noted in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. The Freedom House report listed Russia as one of several "energy-rich dictatorships," including Iran and Venezuela, which use their oil wealth to negative effect on smaller neighbors. It described the former Soviet Union as one region that suffered serious reversals in 2007, along with South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.