"Russia’s political institutions may have been flawed and dysfunctional when Putin came to power in 1999, but public debate of policy issues, one of the great achievements of glasnost and a basic element of any democracy, was vigorous. Political parties of different persuasions clashed regularly in parliament over issues ranging from foreign affairs to agricultural policy. The electronic and print media, though dominated by oligarchs who used them as tools to promote their own interests, presented a wide variety of different opinions. Regional governors were a force to be reckoned with, and the courts had gained a degree of real, though limited, independence from the executive. Finally, a sophisticated and expanding community of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had started playing a role in policy-making.
"Four years on, this picture is dramatically different. Public debate on key policy issues has all but disappeared. The pro-presidential United Russia party controls more than two-thirds of all seats in the State Duma, enough to adopt any law or even change the constitution. Opposition parties have been either decimated or eliminated altogether, partially a result of the deeply flawed elections of December 2003. During this election campaign and the presidential election that followed, television media shamelessly promoted United Russia and a few other Kremlin-favored parties while constantly vilifying the opposition.
"After a two-year long assault on the independent electronic media, all television stations are firmly under Kremlin control, as are most radio stations. Television news has become monotone, perpetually portraying the president in a positive light and avoiding criticism of his policies. Most programs featuring live debate on political issues have been cut. Only a small number of newspapers and internet publications provide some plurality of opinion, but their readership is marginal.
"After convincing regional governors to give up their seats in Russia’s senate as a concession to Putin early in his presidency, the Kremlin gradually destroyed them as an independent political force. Through intensive meddling in gubernatorial election campaigns, using its sway over television media and its enormous administrative resources, the Kremlin effectively made the gubernatorial candidates dependent on its support. By September 2004, the governors’ power had been reduced to such an extent that not one of them dared publicly to criticize Putin’s proposal to scrap gubernatorial elections."
"It is conventional wisdom that the executive has also sought to increase its influence over the judiciary. Opinion polls show that few Russians believe that the courts are independent. The Kremlin’s use of selective criminal prosecutions against perceived opponents, like Mikhail Khodorkovskii, and scientists working with foreigners on sensitive topics, has put considerable pressure on the courts. Indeed, in several of these cases, like that of arms researcher Igor Sutiagin, the courts have recently found defendants guilty on highly dubious charges. In another such case, the Supreme Court overturned scientist Valentin Danilov’s acquittal of espionage charges and ordered a retrial, at which he was found guilty. After Beslan, Putin proposed establishing executive control over the nomination of members of a key Supreme Court body that supervises the hiring and dismissal of judges—another erosion of the independence of the judiciary."
The January 2005 Human Rights Watch report on Russia can be read here