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(Un)Civil Societies: October 8, 2007

Georgia: Has Political Scandal Tarnished Democratic Image?

By Salome Asatiani

Okruashvili was arrested at his party headquarters

October 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The decision by the Georgian government to promptly arrest former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili on corruption charges just days after he accused the president of ordering political killings may have struck some as pure and simple revenge.

But President Mikheil Saakashvili says Okruashvili's arrest shows that no official is immune to the rule of law. Furthermore, he advised cabinet ministers October 4, a newly formed anticorruption commission means there's definitely more to come.

"Don't be offended," he said in the televised remarks. "But the function of this commission will be to check and control each one of you -- as well as your friends, your family members, and so on."

Western Darling

Ever since the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has been the toast of the West and a rallying figure for pro-democratic figures in the former Soviet region. But according to political scientist Marina Muskhelishvili, Okruashvili's accusations and the government's failure to investigate them demonstrate that Georgia still suffers from major institutional and structural shortcomings.

"If we were a democracy with a normal political system, this would constitute a severe governmental crisis," Muskhelishvili says. "If there were any structures that functioned outside the control of the political regime -- be it prosecutors, the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and so on -- an investigation would have been launched, and some results would have emerged."

What makes the situation particularly sticky, Muskhelishvili says, is that the accusations were made by a man who -- by virtue of having served as prosecutor-general, interior minister, and defense minister -- is widely seen as a government insider. Okruashvili may have failed to present evidence to back his claims, she says, but that does not excuse the state from its obligation to investigate them.

Now, the question on the minds of many Georgians is not so much whether Saakashvili is guilty of seeking to eliminate his opponents, or whether he was unnecessarily heavy-handed in throwing Okruashvili in jail. Rather, it is whether this episode will tarnish the country's democratic reputation to the extent that it may compromise efforts to achieve NATO membership and Western integration.

Saakashvili's tenacious standoff with Moscow and his groomed, U.S.-educated English have made him the public face of pro-democracy efforts to many in the West -- especially after political chaos had taken the bloom off the Orange Revolution and Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine.

Will the Okruashvili scandal strike a blow to Saakashvili's reputation both at home and in the West? Robert Parsons, a South Caucasus affairs analyst and foreign-affairs editor at France-24 TV, says while the controversy is a definite setback, the Georgian president is still likely to spring back with most of his popularity intact.

"Mud is going to stick, there's no doubt about it. Whether justified or not, mud is going to stick," Parsons says. "On balance though, I think things are still pretty much in Saakashvili's, and the Georgian government's, favor. He will be judged over what has been achieved over the past years, and what he's likely to achieve over the coming years, given reasonable stability. Not, I think, by this particular case -- unless it becomes clearer that there really is substance behind Okruashvili's charges."

Silencing Critics?

Many observers say it's significant that Okruashvili made his charges on the same day he announced he was forming a new political opposition group. His immediate arrest, therefore, is seen by many not only as punishment for his claims, but also the best way to silence a potentially popular political threat ahead of presidential and parliamentary votes in 2008.

However, some government officials have said that Okruashvili knew he was the subject of a major corruption investigation, and suggested that he made his sensational accusations as a preemptive publicity move ahead of his impending arrest.

Antigovernment protests that followed Okruashvili's arrest were the largest Tbilisi has seen since the Rose Revolution -- a fact that may be unsettling Saakashvili and his political circle.

Thousands protested Okruashvili's arrest (TV screen shot)

Still, says Ghia Nodia, a leading Georgian political observer, the ultimate loser in this war for power is neither Saakashvili nor Okruashvili, but the "prospect for Georgian democracy."

Saakashvili's government has already come under criticism from the political opposition for tightening control of television broadcasters, consolidating power in a single ruling party, and failing to push through much-needed judicial reforms.

Now, Nodia says the perception that the government is "selectively deploying" corruption charges will also take a heavy toll on its reputation.

"Of course, anyone familiar with the condition of democracy in Georgia will regard this statement with irony," he says. "But the country will remain a beacon, at least in the regional context. Regardless of everything -- in comparison with Russia, for example, or other countries in the region -- Georgian democracy still looks all right."

At Russian Extremism Trial, A Search For 'Extremism'

By Chloe Arnold

Andrei Piontkovsky (file photo)

MOSCOW, September 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tempers flared in Courtroom 38 at the Basmanny Court in central Moscow today, as prosecution and defense grappled with one thorny issue: what constitutes extremism, and where exactly can it be found in the pages of Andrei Piontkovsky's "Unloved Country," a collection of political essays critical of the Kremlin?

Piontkovsky, an active member of the opposition Yabloko party and a commentator for RFE/RL's Russian Service, looked by turns frustrated, angry, and exhausted as the prosecution presented its case. His main concern was that an investigation into the book had failed to pinpoint a single phrase or paragraph that could be arguably labeled as extremist.

At one point in the proceedings, he jumped up from his chair and flung a copy of his book at the prosecution, saying that if he faces as much as 15 years in jail, he deserves to know why.

"Pick up the book and show us the passages which contain these so-called terrible crimes that you have described in your report!" he said. "Be so kind as to do this, please. We would like to know what we need to defend ourselves against."

But the lawyer from the prosecutor's office rejected the offer, and five hours after the hearing began, it adjourned with no one any closer to finding out if and where extremist content could be found in Piontkovsky's writings.

What Is 'Extremism'?

Speaking at the trial, Aleksandr Kudrinsky, the head of Russian literature at the Russian State Philological Institute, criticized the prosecution's written allegations as vague and misleading. "I quote: 'The book contains appeals for some kind of hostile or violent acts, propaganda that undermines some or other nationalities.' I can only compare this to, say, a report on someone's death saying that he died from some kind of injuries," Kudrinsky said.

In lieu of a verdict, the judge, Svetlana Klimova, recommended a second investigation into the book's alleged extremist content -- this time by a panel of experts at the Ministry of Justice. She asked them to answer the following question: "Does Andrei Piontkovsky's book ‘Unloved Country' contain appeals to start a rebellion, or incite social, racial, national, or religious hatred, or propaganda that alludes to the superiority of one social group, race, nationality, or religion over others?"

Piontkovsky and his lawyers had asked for an independent panel of experts from Moscow's State University to carry out a second probe, fearing the Justice Ministry's report would not be independent.

"I very much hope that the experts will carry out an objective investigation," Roman Karpinsky, one of Piontkovsky's lawyers, said. "The fact that the court rejected the experts who we suggested should sit on the panel alarms me somewhat. But I do sincerely hope that the investigation will be objective."

Piontkovsky is the first person to be tried under Russia's new antiextremism legislation, brought in just months before parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote next year.

Critics of the law say the new law will restrict the movements of opposition parties and their supporters in the run-up to the elections.

Turkmenistan: Media Repression Continues, One Year After Journalist's Death

By Oguljamal Yazliyeva

Muradova's name is included on a memorial in the French town of Bayeux for journalists killed on the job (file photo)

September 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On June 18, 2006, the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation on Human Rights (THF) released a report on a "new wave of arrests of civil activists." It said Turkmen security forces had arrested human-rights activists Annagurban Amangylyjov, Yelena Ovezova, Sapardurdy Hajiyev, and RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. All of them were held for allegedly possessing banned weapons.

The 58-year-old Muradova -- a former member of the THF -- had been reporting on deteriorating social conditions in Turkmenistan. At that time of her arrest, she had worked for RFE/RL for only three months. After her arrest, it was reported that Turkmen security agencies had earlier cut her telephone line and put her house under constant surveillance.

According to the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, she also was followed by security-service agents and placed on video surveillance for 20 days before her arrest. Despite such pressures, Muradova continued performing her job as a journalist.

Black Day

September 14, 2006, became a black day on the calendar for Muradova's family, which includes three children and grandchildren.

Turkmen Security officials informed the family that Muradova had died and claimed her death was from natural causes. However, people who saw her body say it showed signs of Muradova having been severely beaten.

One year later, there has been no thorough investigation into the circumstances that led to Muradova's sentencing in a closed trial and her death in custody in prison. Her death is a tragic example of the overall human-rights condition in Turkmenistan.

Censorship Of Media Continues

Longtime authoritarian Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov died three months after Muradova, in December 2006, yet there has been little change in the bleak status of press freedom in Turkmenistan.

Unfortunately, strict censorship of information and of the news media -- which is almost completely controlled by the state -- continues. Journalists for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service -- who provide the only source of independent information in the country -- are regularly subjected to threats and harassment by the authorities.

"The actions by the government taken against journalists who candidly express their views once again shows that there is no way for freedom of expression in Turkmenistan," said Hanamov Nurmuhammet, the leader of the Republican Party in exile. "Once again, it shows that authorities want to destroy independent journalists. It emphasizes the fact that free media and free expression is banned in the country."

"Countries like Turkmenistan don't want a free press, don't want the journalists to be able to speak freely and to criticize freely their governments." -- Jean-Francois Julliard, Reporters Without Borders

In an interview with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Jean-Francois Julliard, a news editor at Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said, "Countries like Turkmenistan don't want a free press, don't want the journalists to be able to speak freely and to criticize freely their governments."

He added: "This is the reason why in a lot of countries -- including Central Asian countries and Turkmenistan -- the authorities try to do their best to control the press, to control the independent media, and to try to shut down the critical voices."

However, there are some very small signs of change in the liberalization of Turkmen society.

On August 9, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov approved the pardon and release of 11 political prisoners. Additionally, Turkmenistan plans to release more than 9,000 convicts in line with a massive amnesty on the occasion of the "Night of Omnipotence" during the holy month of Ramadan. Many are hopeful that all journalists, prisoners of conscience, and human-rights activists currently imprisoned in Turkmenistan will be released.

Elsa Vidal, the head of the Europe desk at RSF, said in commenting on a letter sent by RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard to Berdymukhammedov on August 17 that: "The important thing for us is that we need to show that we are closely witnessing what is happening in Turkmenistan and that we want to bring support to any step Mr. Berdymukhammedov is willing to take to change the regime into a more democratic sort of state."

Never Forgotten

Muradova was a brave woman who dedicated her life to the struggle for freedom of expression. And her name will not be forgotten. In May, RSF and the mayor's office of the French town of Bayeux inaugurated a memorial for journalists killed on the job. Muradova's name was engraved on the stone pillar next to the names of other journalists killed in 2006.

RFE/RL Director of Broadcasting Michele DuBach, who attended the ceremony, remembered Muradova by saying, "Ogulsapar Muradova wanted to make difference. She was a journalist, a mother, and a grandmother. Indeed, [her reporting] did make a difference in Turkmenistan, but she paid a price."

Russia: Media Clampdown Sees Blogs Flourish

By Chloe Arnold

Has Russian political debate moved to the Internet?

MOSCOW, September 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russians frustrated at television reports they see as having a pro-Kremlin bias are turning to blogs and Internet forums to debate political issues. In the run-up to a parliamentary election in December, the Internet is providing a forum for free discussion that has become a rarity on the main television networks.

This week's hottest topic on Live Journal, Russia's most popular Internet forum, was the scaling of a Moscow skyscraper by a French daredevil who calls himself "Spiderman."

Political Debate Not Dead

Running a close second was a heated debate on Russian politics, which, according to the person who started the discussion, are pointless and a waste of time. Hundreds of Live Journal users responded to the posting -- an act some of them said proved that political debate is alive and well.

Masha Lipman, a political expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, says that web forums like Live Journal provide an arena for free debate that is no longer available in much of the conventional media.

"There is indeed a lot of free exchange on the Internet," Lipman says. "The question in Russia is not that there are no outlets where free expression is possible. The question is that the Kremlin has radically marginalized all outlets that pursue even reasonably independent editorial lines."

Russians are the second-largest group of users of Live Journal, a popular U.S. blogger site. In Russia, the site currently has more than 1.1 million users and 67,500 interest groups. On September 5 alone, 1,600 new users joined Live Journal in Russia and almost 500,000 new comments were posted.

Censorship Impossible?

"Actually, I think the Internet is one of the reasons Russia is still not an authoritarian regime, because you cannot really shut down the Internet without very serious measures," says Yulia Latynina, a political commentator whose columns are frequently posted on Live Journal.

Most Russians get their news and current affairs from three main television channels, all of which are controlled by the government or state-owned enterprises. A handful of independently owned television and radio stations and some of the national newspapers provide some alternative to the Kremlin's view of events.

Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin created a new government agency to monitor the media and the Internet, sparking fears that sites like Live Journal would be censored. Opposition parties frequently use Live Journal and similar websites to give information about forthcoming political rallies.

Critics say the creation of the agency will allow the Kremlin to stifle opposition voices on websites and introduce Soviet-era controls in the run-up to a parliamentary election in December and a presidential vote next spring.

But Lipman says the way the government approaches sites like Live Journal is more sophisticated:

"The Kremlin has lots of sites under its control, financed by businesses associated with the Kremlin or otherwise, which create an environment in which those more independent ones are easily dissolved," she says. "This dissolution, I think, is one thing that the Kremlin is using to counter or neutralize the potentially stirring effect."

And those Kremlin-backed websites, she says, are often difficult to spot. "It's not that they are necessarily loyal or produce bland propaganda, similar to what you see on television," Lipman says. "They may be critical themselves, but this will be criticism that the Kremlin itself sort of oversees."

But with the number of visitors to Internet forums increasing every day, the appetite for free debate shows no signs of abating.

Kazakhstan: Writer Charged For 'Insulting, Hateful' E-Mails

September 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Nurlan Alimbekov, a self-described philosopher and political analyst in Kazakhstan, is facing criminal charges that include inciting religious and ethnic hatred for e-mails he sent and received.

Alimbekov's e-mails brought Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) to his home in Shymkent in South Kazakhstan Province, where he was detained by KNB agents.

Alimbekov now faces charges under Kazakhstan's law on mass media, in the first such case to be applied to the use of email. He has been in custody since August 16 and -- according to at least one source -- could soon be transferred to a psychiatric center.

Little is known about the content of 23 e-mails purportedly found in Alimbekov's e-mail outbox. Relatives and friends contacted by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service could not say exactly what was in the messages.

A KNB official, Nurlan Balgimbaev, suggested the suspect had "insulted" Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and "encouraged religious hatred and enmity."

Human rights activists say at least one referred to a "Putin-Nazarbaev KGB-Gestapo."

Arrested For His Beliefs

Rozlana Taukina, the head of the Almaty-based Journalists in Trouble Foundation, says that no matter what was in the e-mails, the charges against Alimbekov have no legal basis.

"We express our protest in connection with the arrest [of Alimbekov] and with the fact that -- on ideological motives, for the man's beliefs, for his viewpoints, for his subjective opinions -- they oppress him and have fabricated two criminal suits against him," Taukina said.

The suspect's brother, Oraz, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on September 4 that KNB agents, accompanied by a senior investigator, beat Alimbekov when they came to detain him.

"They did not show any warrant when they arrested him. They forced him into the car and beat him [while he had] handcuffs on. Senior investigator Turmanov was present when they were kicking and beating my brother," Oraz Alimbekov said. He said that his brother suffered a broken rib and several broken teeth. " I managed to speak to him yesterday [September 3] -- he told me he had not been able to eat for two days," he said.

News agency Interfax-Kazakhstan first reported on Alimbekov's case on September 4, nearly three weeks after he was detained. The agency quoted Nurlan Balgimbaev, a former prime minister who heads the South Kazakhstan region's KNB. Balgimbaev alleged that Alimbekov's e-mail messages violate Kazakh media laws because he was sending e-mails to multiple addresses -- including to foreign diplomatic representations in Kazakhstan.

Balgimbaev also said a psychiatric evaluation of Alimbekov was done because he "did not behave himself adequately." Balgimbaev said the "experts" who conducted those tests suspect Alimbekov is psychopathic, although no final conclusions were reached. He added that Alimbekov will undergo further psychiatric analysis in Almaty.

No Isolated Case

The case is likely to spawn considerable private debate in Kazakshtan, which has a history of using the legal system to silence government critics.

Theater director Bolat Atabaev, who has been following the case along with the rest of the public, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that everyone has a right to express his opinion on the current state of society.

"If they kill politicians, if they kill normal people -- the cream of society -- why should he keep silent?" Atabaev said.

It is perhaps too early to say whether Alimbekov's case will set a precedent. South Kazakhstan KNB chief Balgimbaev said security forces violated no laws on privacy by detaining Alimbekov for his e-mails, since the messages had been forwarded by recipients to law-enforcement agencies.

But Alimbekov's case raises questions about free speech -- and the distinction between private materials and mass-media publications.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report)

Ex-Soviet Countries Score Badly On 2007 Corruption List

An Azerbaijani cartoon against graft in education (file)

September 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The countries of the former Soviet Union, except for the Baltic states, remain among the most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. The findings are in an annual survey issued today by the global corruption watchdog.

The Corruption Perceptions Index ranks 180 countries by their perceived level of corruption based on expert assessments and opinion surveys. It scores countries on a scale from zero -- the worst -- to 10. RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mita spoke with Miklos Marschall, regional director for Europe and Central Asia at Transparency International.

RFE/RL: Would you give a general picture of the level of corruption in the countries of the former Soviet Union and also describe general tendencies -- if they exist?

Miklos Marschall: The sad conclusion is that there is no improvement, generally speaking, and that is because of many reasons: because of geopolitical [reasons] -- there is a growing influence of Russia -- and there is less political will for reforms. Here I can refer to some geopolitics. Wherever there is a stronger influence of the European Union, you see improvement. Wherever Russian influence is growing, the corruption situation is worsening.

RFE/RL: But the Russian authorities say they are fighting corruption very strongly and are doing all they can to rein in oligarchs and make the business environment less corrupt. How does Transparency International rate Russia?

Marschall: The scores are disappointing and especially disappointing for countries like Russia, where a score of 2.3 puts Russia at the bottom of the global list of the index, which is really a great embarrassment for Russia. It shows the downward trend despite all the pledges and the commitments. According to the opinion of the international business community, the Russian public sector is pretty corrupt. And what is even [more alarming]: it is getting worse and worse, so there is no positive development.

RFE/RL: Does Ukraine, which says it is reforming, score better than Russia?

Marschall: In Ukraine, the score was 2.7, which is a very poor score. Nevertheless, Ukraine is ahead of Russia in our rankings, which shows that despite all the difficulties somehow the reform effort is paying a small dividend. Of course it will take decades -- and not years -- until real improvement will be seen. Nevertheless, some years ago Ukraine was behind Russia, now it is ahead Russia.

RFE/RL: The Belarusian authorities also claim to be fighting corruption, but Belarus is in 150th place on the index. Why?

Marschall: That is one of the most corrupt countries according to our ranking. Out of 180 countries, it has the 150th position, with a score of 2.1. It is one of the worst performers in the post-Soviet region. It shows that Belarus is a pretty closed country in the way that you cannot do business easily there and corruption seems rampant.

Miklos Marschall (courtesy photo)

RFE/RL: Are the countries of the Caucasus -- Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- doing any better?

Marschall: [There is] not much change. Armenia scores 3.0 and Azerbaijan scores 2.1, which is a low score. In Georgia, it is clear that [Mikheil] Saakashvili’s government brought about significant changes and that is being reflected in the opinion of the international business community, and that is reflected by our score.

RFE/RL: Is the situation changing in the countries of Central Asia?

Marschall: I think the bad news is that Central Asia is generally perceived as a very corrupt region in the world -- from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan, from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan -- these are perceived as very corrupt countries. One of the most corrupt countries this year on our list is Uzbekistan with a score of 1.7. And Uzbekistan is among the ten worst performers. So, I think that reflects that Uzbekistan, once a promising country, has lots of political, economic problems.

RFE/RL: You said that growing Russian influence correlates with growing corruption. So, what is the situation in the Baltic States, which joined the EU several years ago?

Marschall: We have good news to tell you as well and the good news is about the Baltic countries. They are doing better. Estonia has made significant improvements but also Latvia and Lithuania have improved. And that fact is reflected in our scores. So it shows that successful reforms of the public administration and opening up the economy can change the situation. And of course this is because of European accession, which was a very powerful external force that pushed reforms in those countries. Estonia stands out with a score of 6.5 (eds: 28th on the list). But, you know, Latvia (eds: 51st on the list) and Lithuania (51st on the list) with a score of 4.8, also can take credit for some developments.

RFE/RL: What is the corruption situation in another country which has been in the headlines for several years -- Iraq?

Marschall: Iraq is really at the bottom of our index and no one should be surprised about that because it has hardly a functioning government. So it is not a surprise that the public sector is considered by everyone as very, very corrupt. Only Somalia and Myanmar are worse.

Democracy Survey Faults Russia, Tajikistan, Iran

By Andrew Tully

A coffin carries a television set in a protest for greater media freedoms in Russia (file)

WASHINGTON, September 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Freedom House, the U.S.-based human-rights advocacy group, has issued "Countries at the Crossroads 2007," the annual update to its ongoing analysis of the level of freedom in 60 countries.

China and Russia topped the list of countries still in the thrall of authoritarian rule yet struggling to control their growing economies. Tajikistan is also having troubles with its growing economy, and despite the promises of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iran hasn't been able to translate its great oil wealth into prosperity for its citizens. RFE/RL discussed the report with Sanja Tatic Kelly, the managing editor of "Countries at the Crossroads."

RFE/RL: It seems almost counterintuitive that a country with an authoritarian leadership would have trouble managing its economy efficiently. Can you explain why it doesn't work as well as some might think in nations like, for example, Russia, Tajikistan, and Iran?

Sanja Tatic Kelly: Some of the countries that you identified definitely do exhibit high economic growth. However, it is very important to look at the fabric beneath some of those numbers to see how a society indeed functions on an everyday basis. So if there is a country where freedom of the media is suppressed, if there is no judiciary independence, if corruption is rampant, even if economic growth is present -- is very high -- it is very likely that such growth cannot be sustained in the long run.

"Iran has undergone some of the worst suppressions of free voices in its recent history."

In order for a society to sustain itself, in order for economies to prosper, we first need to get rid of corruption. And if there are no institutions that can do that, and if there are no courts to safeguard some of the basic rights of citizens and businesses, then in the end development and growth are just not sustainable.

RFE/RL: Why do some countries cling to their authoritarian pasts? Is it merely easier than striking out in a new direction? Are the people of these countries so inured to totalitarian governance that even small improvements are welcomed?

Kelly: Sometimes governments and people in power just don't have [the] incentive to let go, and sometimes in countries like those that you mentioned, if the leader is supported, then he or she just doesn't have an incentive to reform institutions. However, in some case that incentive, or at least a mild form of it, can come from abroad. In such cases, in order to receive international recognition or to receive international aid, such as in the case of Tajikistan, countries try to pass laws or promote certain laws that, on the ground, really don't make that much difference. And very often those laws are just not implemented. However, country leaders like to tout those laws as steps or direct and tangible things that they are doing to improve the situation. However, what we need to look at is the actual implementation.

RFE/RL: Authoritarian governments and growing economies are not new. What do you say to those who argue today that countries such as Russia and Tajikistan are merely going through a political phase that many others have experienced, and that democratic reforms will come as their economies mature?

Kelly: We are definitely hoping that these societies will become more open because very often it is just unsustainable for these leaders to maintain a high level of control. With civil society burgeoning and with citizens just voicing their demands and putting pressure on governments, governments often need to liberalize in order to maintain popular support. Even with the most powerful countries, it is very hard or sometimes even impossible to rule by force. So at the same time they're trying to gain some points among their citizens, and if citizens are pushing and they are pushing very hard, then it is very likely that some of the regimes, step by step, will show some improvement.

RFE/RL: How would you summarize what's going on today in Russia?

Kelly: We definitely see a decline in all the categories of governance that our survey examines. Starting with accountability and public voice, which looks at elections and NGOs as well as free media, we actually see a very dramatic constriction of rights in almost all aspects. As you know, opposition in Russia is almost non-existent, and it's being almost completely trumped by a very strong executive branch. Of course there are independent voices that are trying to emerge, but it is becoming more and more difficult. Also we're noticing the state's gradual takeover of the media. More and more newspapers, as well as radio stations and television stations, are being closed down or censored just for saying the wrong things.

Similarly, the well-known NGO laws, which require re-registration of all NGOs in Russia, have proved to be quite burdensome for civil society. It just shows you that the government is trying to control the civil-society sector. In terms of [the] rule of law, there is a very noticeable gap between existence of laws and their implementation. There are many laws on the books that just look wonderful; however, when it comes to their implementation, those laws are being trumped by the interests of the executive. In addition, judicial independence is almost non-existent.

In Russia, "we see a very dramatic constriction of rights in almost all aspects."

RFE/RL: What about Tajikistan?

Kelly: Tajikistan -- actually it's also a grim picture. In terms of accountability and public voice, Freedom House has been extremely worried by the decrease in freedoms of opposition voices. As we know, in 2005 and 2006, Tajikistan had elections, both parliamentary and presidential. And these elections only consolidated the power of PDPT (the People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon's party). And there were so many irregularities -- I mean, we're talking about such things as multiple voting, unmonitored tabulation of votes -- and such issues are very important, and such elections cannot be certified as free and fair. In addition, the candidate field has been shrunk quite significantly. So candidates now, because of the new regulations, need, for example, to put $500 deposits in order to run. And of course such regulations are limiting the number of people that can run and that can actually challenge the current status quo.

RFE/RL: Could you summarize the economic situation in Iran?

Kelly: In Iran we have a worrisome trend, and Iran has undergone some of the worst suppressions of free voices in its recent history. Media is completely subdued in terms of its influence in terms of the executive branch, and newspapers are being shut down, and thousands of journalists are being arrested.

So I would say that Iran is really at a critical point right now. In terms of civil liberties, initially when [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad came into power, it seemed that there was some promise that women's rights would be a little bit improved. However, we are just seeing a completely different picture right now. In addition to women facing even more restrictions by the society and by the government, we are seeing general societal pressures to conform to more traditional norms.

Iran's institutions are also completely subdued to the executive branch, and of course the ayatollah being the leader above everyone. In such conditions, it's completely impossible to expect that courts would be able to rule justly and that they would be able to defend the rights of regular people.

"Freedom House has been extremely worried by the decrease in freedoms of opposition voices" in Tajikistan.

RFE/RL: Do these three states -- Russia, Iran, and Tajikistan -- have something in common that they could do to move their countries more quickly toward governance that's accountable to their citizens?

Kelly: That is a difficult question because there is no one solution. Every reform depends on political will, and if there is political will in a certain country, then one can hope that the regime would build state institutions -- meaning that freedom of the press would be guaranteed so [the] press can actually serve in an important role of society's watchdog. It would be important to guarantee judicial independence so [the] rights of citizens are upheld, and also for everyone who is involved in corruption and bribery can actually be held responsible. So the key is to actually strengthen the key state institutions so everyone is treated equally and everyone has a voice.