WASHINGTON Propelled by a surge of oil and natural gas wealth, Russia has become the leading anti-democratic force in its region, a private democracy watchdog organization says.
Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vision of a wider Europe "whole and free" remains unrealized, Freedom House also says in a report being released Monday.
"Over time, we have seen rising oil prices correlate clearly with sharply falling democracy performance, especially in Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan," the group's director of studies, Christopher Walker, said in an interview. "The resource curse is taking root."
As energy prices increased over the past decade, the three ex-Soviet states based their growth on natural energy resources, the report said. The period was marked by "a concurrent and striking decline in the openness and independence of institutions," the report said.
In Russia, by last year, it became clear that Vladimir Putin's era had ushered in a new elite that grabbed power, Freedom House said. Experimenting in "authoritarian capitalism," an "Iron Triangle" of state power, industry chiefs and security services is leading a decline in the electoral process and increased control over political opponents and news media, the report said.
"Independent voices of consequence have been muzzled and are unable to challenge or moderate the leadership's whims and excesses," according to the report.
Courts, the backbone of the legal system, are targeted by dominant powerholders to make sure they cannot provide unbiased and independent justice, Walker said.
As for the media, Walker said, influential powerholders "want to make sure their enormous assets and use of them are not scrutinized and not taken away, and that contributes to repression."
The growing authoritarianism is also shaping foreign policy, producing "a more assertive and often belligerent posture by Russia toward its neighbors," the report said.
For instance, it said, Russia keeps trying to undercut reform in neighboring Georgia and is applying pressure on Estonia.
While yielding the post of president to Dmitry Medvedev, Putin holds the post of prime minister and has assumed leadership of the country's dominant political party. The report said it is not clear how the still-evolving authoritarianism will fare without him directly at the helm.
When he took the oath of office in May, Medvedev pledged "to protect the rights and liberties of every citizen." He also declared that "human rights and freedoms ... are deemed of the highest value for our society and they determine the meaning and content of all state activity."
In early June, the new president urged the Russian parliament to scrap a bill widely seen as restrictive to the media, saying the measure "could only create obstacles to the normal functioning of mass media."