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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 December 2004, 10:15 GMT
Russia's year of shrinking liberties
By Steven Eke
BBC Russia analyst

There was much discussion this year of whether Russia's move towards authoritarian rule was accelerating.

It was a difficult year, with attacks by Chechen rebels claiming hundreds of lives.

The building of FSB (KGB successor) in Moscow
As in the days of the KGB, the secret service has become powerful
The response to them included restrictions on civil liberties. It was accompanied by a large increase in racially-motivated violent attacks.

The tough policies on Chechnya did not bring peace. Indeed, September's school siege in Beslan, in nearby North Ossetia, was the single bloodiest attack on civilians to date.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, President Vladimir Putin decided that regional governors would no longer be elected, but appointed directly by central government.

The Russian leadership acknowledged how fragile security in the Caucasus is. There was also frank talk about the high unemployment, poverty and crime that plagues the region, as well as the total corruption of Russia's law-enforcement bodies, particularly at a local level.

Yet many saw the move to centralise control more as a power-grab by the Kremlin.

Media and religion

There were further signs of just how powerful the FSB - the successor organisation to the KGB - has become, with the conviction of a number of individuals in espionage cases. Prosecutors said they had passed secret information to foreigners.

Yet the information concerned was sometimes already in the public domain - even on the internet. Lawyers said the trials were shams, with the verdicts pre-determined before they even began.
Russians still enjoy much greater civil freedoms than they did in Soviet times

Central television and radio largely abandoned hard-hitting analytical programmes, while attacks on journalists continued. They included the fatal shooting of Paul Klebnikoff, the well-known editor of Russian Forbes magazine.

A number of independent journalists, whose professionalism can, admittedly, vary, lost cases for libel. Access to Chechnya remained restricted to those journalists whose loyalty to the government is proven.

Religious freedoms are enshrined in the constitution, but respected unevenly. The concept of "traditional beliefs" - Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam - lies at the heart of this. Other beliefs are often dismissed as "dangerous sects", and may receive hostile treatment. Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses suffer most.

'The greatest decline'

None of this had any impact on Mr Putin's popularity. He was re-elected in March for his second term in office. And he continues to enjoy solid public support, with most ordinary Russians believing he has delivered on his key promise of "stability".

But the major consequence of this seems to be the marginalisation of opposition, liberal voices.

Police in front of an anti-Putin banner
'Putin, go away,' the banner reads, but protests against the president are infrequent
Russians still enjoy much greater civil freedoms than they did in Soviet times. Despite an on-going legal requirement to register their place of residence, they can travel freely. Demonstrations and rallies are generally tolerated.

Russians can speak and write their minds. Less than two decades ago, all this was unthinkable. Those who publicly disagreed with their government faced the prospect of time in a labour camp or psychiatric hospital. The outside world often forgets just where Russia has come from.

But Freedom House, a US-based organisation that promotes political and civil freedoms, said that of all the formerly Communist countries, Russia in 2004 "saw the greatest decline of any country".

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