Principal Government Officials
Chief of State: President Vladimir Putin
Head of Government: Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev
In the political system established by the 1993 constitution, the president wields considerable executive power. There is no vice president, and the legislative branch is far weaker than the executive. The bicameral legislature consists of the lower house (State Duma) and the upper house (the Federation Council). The president nominates the highest state officials, including the prime minister, who must be approved by the Duma. The president can pass decrees without consent from the Duma. He also is head of the armed forces and of the Security Council.
Elections to the Duma, the 450-seat lower house of parliament, were held most recently on December 4, 2011, and presidential elections on March 4, 2012. The pro-government party, United Russia, polled 49 percent of the Duma vote, which translated to 53 percent of seats under Russia’s proportional representation system. This was a much weaker result than in 2007, when the party won more than two thirds of seats, enabling it to change the Constitution at will. The three minority parties elected to the Duma in 2007- the Communists, Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party – all increased their representation in the 2011 election. Three other parties – Yabloko, Right Cause, and Patriots of Russia – contested the elections but did not meet the 7 percent threshold for representation. The Party of People’s Freedom, a liberal opposition party, had its party registration invalidated and could not participate in the elections. In contrast to 2007, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) sent a mission to observe the Duma elections. The ODIHR mission’s post-election statement identified discrepancies in voting, counting, and tabulation procedures, and noted that the elections took place in an atmosphere which seriously limited political competition. Frequent abuses of administrative resources and media coverage strongly in favor of United Russia combined to hinder political pluralism. The next Duma election must occur before December 2016, as a December 2008 law extended the mandate of the Duma, beginning with the 2011 elections, to five years from four.
On September 24, 2011 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced his intention to seek a new term as Russia’s president. Putin was elected to a third term – he served the constitutional maximum two consecutive terms from 2000-2008 – as Russia’s president on March 4, 2012. He officially garnered 63.4 percent of the vote against four rivals, including leaders of the minority parties in the Duma and a self-nominated candidate, Mikhail Prokhorov. The OSCE/ODIHR observed the election and noted similar shortcomings to those noted in the Duma elections, including the lack of genuine competition and biased media coverage affecting the fairness of the election. The December 2008 law that extended the Duma’s mandate also lengthened the term of Russia’s president, beginning with the 2012 election, to six years, so the next presidential election is scheduled for 2018. Russia is a federation, but the precise distribution of powers between the central government and the regional and local authorities is still evolving. The Russian Federation consists of 83 administrative units, including two federal cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The constitution explicitly defines the federal government's exclusive powers, but it also describes most key regional issues as the joint responsibility of the federal government and the regional administrative units. In 2000, President Putin grouped the regions into seven federal districts, with presidential appointees established in Moscow and six provincial capitals. In March 2004, the constitution was amended to permit the merger of some regional administrative units. A law enacted in December 2004 eliminated the direct election of the country's regional leaders. Governors are now nominated by the president and subject to confirmation by regional legislatures.
The Russian judicial system consists of the Constitutional Court, courts of general jurisdiction, military courts, and arbitrage courts (which hear commercial disputes). The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation is a court of limited subject matter jurisdiction. The 1993 constitution empowers the Constitutional Court to arbitrate disputes between the executive and legislative branches and between Moscow and the regional and local governments. The court also is authorized to rule on violations of constitutional rights, to examine appeals from various bodies, and to participate in impeachment proceedings against the president. The July 1994 Law on the Constitutional Court prohibits the court from examining cases on its own initiative and limits the scope of issues the court can hear. The system of general jurisdiction courts includes the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, regional level courts, district level courts and justices of the peace.
The Duma passed a Criminal Procedure Code and other judicial reforms during its 2001 session. These reforms help make the Russian judicial system more compatible with its Western counterparts. The reforms reintroduced jury trials in certain criminal cases and created a more adversarial system of criminal trials that protect the rights of defendants more adequately. Another significant advance in the Code is the transfer, from the Procuracy to the courts, of authority to issue search and arrest warrants. There are concerns, however, that prosecutors have selectively targeted individuals for political reasons, as in the prosecution of Yukos Oil CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskiy.
In spite of some efforts to increase judicial independence (for example, through a considerable salary increase for judges several years ago), many judges still see their role not as impartial and independent arbiters, but as government officials protecting state interests. See below for more information on the commercial court/business law.
Russia's human rights record remains uneven and poor in some areas. Despite significant improvements in conditions following the end of the Soviet Union, problem areas remain. In particular, the Russian Government's policy in the North Caucasus has been a cause for international concern. Although the government has recognized the legitimacy of international human rights standards, the institutionalization of procedures to safeguard these rights has lagged. There are, however, some indications that the law is becoming an increasingly important tool for those seeking to protect human rights.
The judiciary is not independent, is often subject to manipulation by political authorities, and is plagued by large case backlogs and trial delays. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a serious problem. Russia has one of the highest prison population rates in the world, at 613 per 100,000. There are credible reports of beating and torture of inmates and detainees by law enforcement and correctional officials, and brutality perpetrated by the prisoners themselves, some of whom are informally granted authority to enforce order within the prisons. Prison conditions fall well below international standards and extreme overcrowding is common. In 2001, President Putin ordered a moratorium on the death penalty. There are reports that the Russian Government might still be violating promises it made upon entering the European Council, especially in terms of prison control and conditions. A 2008 law established an independent association of prison monitors, which began work in 2009. The association has had mixed results in its work, with some prison officials cooperating, and others obstructing its work. Highly publicized cases, such as the November 2009 death of lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who died in pre-trial detention due to lack of access to medical care, have increased pressure on the authorities to ensure effective prison monitoring.
In the North Caucasus, there have been credible allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by both government and non-government forces. Despite an official end to the counterterrorism campaign in Chechnya in April 2009, there was an upsurge in violence in the North Caucasus starting in 2009 and continuing to the present, especially in the republic of Dagestan. Russian authorities have introduced some improvements, such as requiring the presence of civilian investigators during all large-scale military operations and targeted search and seizure operations. Human rights groups and non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders in the region claim that most abuses remain uninvestigated and unpunished and have spread more broadly in the North Caucasus. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, in power since 2007, was unanimously approved by the Chechen parliament for a new 5-year term beginning in April 2011. Kadyrov has reportedly begun imposing strict Islamic rules on women in the Russian republic, including mandatory headscarves and other restrictive dress code and workplace policies. In 2010, there were paintball attacks in the Chechen capital of Grozny on women who did not have their heads covered, but were otherwise modestly dressed.
The Russian constitution provides for freedom of religion, the equality of all religions before the law, and the separation of church and state. More than 70% of Russians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox. While Muslims, Jews, and other religious minorities continue to encounter prejudice and societal discrimination, they have not been inhibited by the government in the free practice of their religion. High-ranking federal officials have condemned anti-Semitic hate crimes, but law enforcement bodies have not always effectively prosecuted those responsible. The Federal Registration Service and some local officials continue to prevent some religious minority groups from registering locally or from acquiring property. Jehovah’s Witnesses, readers of Said Nursi, and Scientologists have all reported problems with registration and harassment. All have also had religious literature declared extremist by regional courts.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, in practice government pressure on the media persists, resulting in numerous infringements of these rights. The government uses direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with links to the government to control or influence the major media outlets, especially television, through direct control and through self-censorship by editors and journalists. This results in restricted access to information about issues deemed sensitive, including coverage of opposition political parties and movements. Unsolved murders of journalists, including the murder of respected investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, have caused significant international concern and increased the reluctance of journalists to cover controversial subjects. In another unsolved case, environmentalist journalist Mikhail Beketov was beaten nearly to death in November 2008 after he published articles attacking local authorities' development plans for the Khimki forest. The November 2010 beating of Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin led President Medvedev to pledge to capture those who committed the crime and prompted over 200 journalists to sign a petition to the President asking for protection.
The 2006 law on NGOs created a burdensome registration process for all NGOs, with stricter requirements for foreign-funded NGOs and more relaxed requirements for religious organizations. Authorities also have used a separate law against extremism as a pretext for closing opposition NGOs and media entities, doing so for the first time in January 2007. In 2010, the State Duma passed a law easing registration requirements for NGOs, but critics alleged that this law was largely symbolic, as it did nothing to reinstate the tax-exempt status of foreign grants.
The constitution guarantees citizens the right to choose their place of residence and to travel abroad. Some big-city governments, however, have restricted this right through residential registration rules that closely resemble Soviet-era restrictions. These restrictions, though, are widely circumvented, as evidenced by the large number of undocumented foreign workers in these cities. The freedom to travel abroad and emigrate is respected although restrictions may apply to those who have had access to state secrets, or who have court orders against them for default on debts. Since 1994, the U.S. President has found Russia to be in full compliance with the provisions of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.
In the years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia took important steps to become a full partner in the world's principal political groupings. On December 27, 1991, Russia assumed the permanent UN Security Council seat formerly held by the Soviet Union. Russia also is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). Russia and the European Union (EU) signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1994. Russia also joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Partnership for Peace initiative in 1994. The NATO-Russia Founding Act established the Permanent Joint Council (PJC) in 1997, with the NATO-Russia Council superseding the PJC in 2002. Russia, despite misgivings, did not actively oppose enlargement of NATO by members of the former Warsaw Pact and the Baltic states, which had been forcibly integrated into the Soviet Union. However, Russia has stressed its strong opposition to the membership aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia.
Over the past several years Russia has increased its international profile, played an increasing role in regional issues, and been more assertive in dealing with its neighbors. In recent years, Russia has not shied from using its significant oil and gas exports as sources of political influence. The August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia marked a new low point in relations between the two countries, with Russia unilaterally recognizing the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. Russia continues to support separatist regimes in Georgia and Moldova.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (March 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( March 2012)