More alarming are accusations that the Kremlin actually threatens journalists critical of its policies. For instance, Vladimir Babitsky was arrested by the Russian military while covering stories in Chechnya. Employed by Radio Liberty, Babitsky is often critical of Russian military action in the region and underwent interrogation by both military and civilian authorities.[xxii] Charged with no crime, he was allegedly traded with the Chechens for several captured Russian soldiers. While this account is denied by Chechen officials, Babitsky was not seen again until he appeared in Dagestan three weeks later, at which point he was arrested for aiding Chechen rebels. He is currently “under criminal investigation” and not permitted to travel outside of Moscow.[xxiii] Though disturbing, this case is but one example of overt oppression towards those who fail to support actions taken by their democratically elected leader. In fact, the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which is dedicated to the promotion of civil society inRussia, states that at least 88 journalists had similar experiences in the first three months of Putin’s presidency.
The government in Moscow has also limited its citizens’ ability to exercise the rights of assembly and expression. Just a week before the world’s industrialized nations were scheduled to meet for a summit of the G8 in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin allegedly interfered with a conference held by “The Other Russia,” which included participants of all political persuasions. Before proceeding, it should be noted that Russian citizens are still required to travel with an internal passport and must register with the authorities upon entering a new city. According to Human Rights Watch, Russian officials coerced participants into remaining in their host cities by “threatening them with detention on administrative charges.”[xxiv] Mikhail Kostiaev of the National Bolshevik Party reports that he was physically removed from his flight to the conference after being told that local police were ordered to prevent him from attending.[xxv] Though the summit proceeded as scheduled, Human Right’s Watch states that problems continued to arise for participants, several of whom where “beaten by unknown assailants.”[xxvi] In a massive city plagued with crime, these attacks may have been little more than a series of unfortunate, but disconnected acts. Nevertheless, any effort made to restrict the peaceful movement and assembly of Russian citizens is unacceptable behavior from a member of the Great Eight.
A final area of concern involves Russia’s apparent return to a state-controlled economy. Naturally, it is unrealistic to expect government influence to be completely removed from the Russian economy after years of communist rule. However, movement towards a truly free market has slowed dramatically since Boris Yeltsin left office in 1999, as the current administration favors “state-controlled capitalism.” Though the Russian Minister of Economic Development and Trade stated that widespread government involvement vis-à-vis the economy is both “dangerous and nonproductive,” others argue that government investment is essential for growth.[xxvii] Recent developments indicate that the Kremlin is not merely attempting to foster economic development, but has managed to gain control ofRussia’s largest corporations through questionable legal action.
Perhaps the most famous example of a “government takeover” involves Yukos, Russia’s second largest oil company, and its billionaire CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. As Russia’s wealthiest man, Khodorkovsky embodied Russian capitalism and was active in both the financial and political realms. Despite his immense wealth and influence, Khodorkovsky was seized by members of the FSB on his private jet in 2003 and has since been sentenced to nine years in a Siberian prison camp for tax evasion, fraud, and embezzlement.[xxviii] Given the corruption of the Russian business world, such illegal activities were hardly unusual and it strange that Khodorkovsky was singled out for punishment. While the Kremlin touted the imprisonment as a victory for the independent judiciary, it is curious that these charges were brought forth not long after Khodorkovsky bought the rights to the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper and hired an investigative journalist known to be critical of the Kremlin.[xxix] These developments, in addition to his financial contributions across the political spectrum, made him highly unpopular with the current administration.
Before the fate of its chairman was even determined, Yukos was purchased by the Baikal Finance Group for half of its estimated value. This organization was then acquired by Rosneft, an oil consortium that has since merged with the largely government controlled Gazprom.[xxx] Far from coincidental, this series of sales resulted from the government’s claim that Yukos owed it in excess of $27 billion in back taxes, an accusation the company’s board claims was fabricated to ensure nationalization.[xxxi] Consequently, the Russian government regained control of a sizeable portion of the burgeoning Russian oil industry. There can be little doubt that the Yukos affair reflects a major trend towards nationalization within the Putin Administration. What began with reacquisition of the oil industry may well spread to other areas of the economy, thereby hindering development of private enterprise. As the Kremlin consolidates its control over the Russian economy, it appears the days of free-enterprise are numbered.