The Securitization of Democracy: Freedom House Ratings of Russia

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The Securitization of Democracy:

Freedom House Ratings of Russia
With David Parker, King’s College, University of London
In European Security
This article explores the claims of Russian officials that U.S. assessments of economic and political developments in Russia, particularly those of Freedom House (FH), are excessively critical and often used to justify global dominance. To assess the validity of such claims three different influences are considered: culture, power and special interests. The article finds that all three, each with roots in the Cold War, play a role in shaping assessments of Russia and help to explain why FH analysis of Russia is more critical than the analysis of other organizations. The politics of special interests is found to be particularly influential and reflects the interests of U.S. national security policies and priorities. Such priorities are also linked to a politics of memory derived from the Cold War, which often influence perceptions of Russia as a threat rather than as a potential partner.
Keywords: democratization; democracy promotion; Freedom House; Russia; United States; Cold War

The reaction of Russian policy-makers to Western, and particularly U.S., ratings of corruption, business environment, and political freedoms have ranged from scepticism to outright rejection. Many Russian officials view U.S. ratings of economic and political developments as a form of political pressure and a threat to their nation’s sovereignty. Russians often see such ratings as a sophisticated ideology and a set of conceptual tools that serve to justify a U.S.-dominated Western global hegemony or, at the very least, an example of blinkered double standards. Vladimir Putin suggested that American democracy promotion rhetoric resembled the way colonialists had talked a hundred years earlier about how the white man needed to civilize ‘primitive peoples’ (Myers and Kramer 2006). Partly in response to U.S. assessments of Russia and democracy within Russia and on its border, the Kremlin has taken a range of actions, including limiting U.S. funds for Russian NGOs, training youth activists to protect the system, launching PR campaigns to improve Russia’s international image, and presenting U.S. activities in Eurasia as destabilizing and anti-Russian.

Within the milieu of Western democracy promotion, the role and analysis of the Washington based Freedom House (FH), an independent organization widely known for its global ratings of freedom and democracy and for criticism of Russia, has been particularly criticised by Russian officials. This is especially so during periods of strained bi-lateral relations, such as during the second term of the George W. Bush administration. Sergei Markov, of the United Russia party, accused FH of being a Russophobic organization, suggesting that ‘you can listen to everything they say, except when it comes to Russia…there are many Russophobes there’ (cited Osipovich 2008). Human rights defenders, as well as the authorities, within Russia react critically to FH characterizations of their political system as ‘non-free’ and to assumptions that U.S. organizations can, and should, judge Russia. For instance, in 2007, responding to the FH annual report in which Russia was rated as ‘not free’, Ella Pamfilova, Chair of the Presidential Commission on Development of Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights, said that the report would serve to undermine human rights and suggested that there was a political motivation behind the ranking (2007 cited Burns 2007).

The puzzle is not why FH is critical of Russia’s political system – several other agencies are and there have been serious setbacks to Russian democratization in recent years – but why it has been much more critical than others. Throughout the first decade of this century FH was the only significant Western organization to assign Russia the rating of dictatorship (‘Not free’) and remains the most consistently harsh critic still, placing it in the group with countries like Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and China. Russia’s non-democratic and non-liberal trends are obvious and other Western organizations too rarely view Russia as fully democratic. Nevertheless, these organizations use less politically charged categories such as hybrid regime. We address the nature of Russia’s political system in the next section of the paper.

Does the Russian critique of FH thus have merits? While not seeking to undermine much of the good work done by FH or the important goals of supporting freedom and repressed peoples, we argue that FH and Russia present a special case and that the reasons for FH toughness have to do not only with non-democratic trends in Russian politics, but also with American politics, enhanced by institutionalized practices and assumptions based on historical experiences. Such practices and assumptions include the institutionalization of democracy promotion during the Cold War (in opposition to the Soviet Union) and the Cold War experiences of FH board members and staff which contributed to Russia often being seen more as a threat rather than a potential partner. During the Cold War, FH developed into an umbrella organization for promoting U.S. values and interests abroad (which for FH is often one and the same thing). The global index of freedom is only one area of the organization’s activities to promote its vision of democracy. Other activities include educating the public, lobbying the government and Congress, as well as assisting and funding opposition groups in Russia and other ‘authoritarian’ nations.

What is promoted by FH as an objective system of rating democracy reflects foreign policy priorities of certain groups within the American establishment. Among these groups, security elites with neoconservative convictions stand out. Their understanding of democracy has roots in the Cold War and may be summed up as the belief in promotion of American values for (primarily) enhancing the U.S. national security. Their vision of democracy corresponds with that of FH and other organizations in Washington that seek to promote toughness on Russia. As such, this article will contend that not only does FH contribute to U.S. foreign policy through its efforts to promote a tougher stance on Russia (which is the main focus of the article) but also serves to support and reinforce existing neoconservative positions. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to explore the connections, it is worth noting that, although independent, over half of FH funding comes from government and that government funding for FH has increased in recent years, with a 241% increase between 2001 and 2006 (a period where neoconservatives were particularly influential) (Giannone 2010, p.75). As such, while FH influences government there is also likely to be informal influence from the centre (particularly so considering the historical links between FH board members and government departments – see Table 4).1

While many academics, governments, journalists and NGOs accept FH assessments uncritically, there have been a limited number of scholars that have raised concerns regarding either FH’s methodological approach or its underlying assumptions and biases. Diego Giannone (2010), for example, analysed the cultural and economic dimensions of FH to suggest that it has an inherent neoconservative bias and that changes in the methodological criteria used to score countries are, at least partly, ideologically driven, such as an increased emphasis towards free private business and away from socioeconomic equality (see also: Banks 1986, Herman and Chomsky 1994, Lieven 2007, Javeline and Lindermann-Komarova 2010, Treisman 2011). This paper builds on this and other previous studies that highlight FH’s political motivations by identifying the mechanisms, historical experiences and ideological convictions that result in a particularly harsh, and potentially damaging, approach towards Russia. It contributes to the literature on the role of special interests and lobbying in policy (DeConder 1992, Mearsheimer, Walt 2007) by identifying how the assumptions of some groups, informed by both ideological convictions and historical experiences, influence their perception of other countries. The paper also reinforces the wisdom that assessment and promotion of democracy, while a positive contribution to efforts to supporting freedom when done effectively, is, nevertheless, in part a political process that reflects interests and cultural stereotypes of those offering such assessment.2

The paper first analyses FH ratings of Russia’s political system and its ratings by FH in comparison with other agencies. We then review several possible explanations of why some Western agencies tend to be more critical of Russia than others. Among these explanations, we find especially helpful an interest group perspective that incorporates insights from cultural/ideational and power-based explanations. We then apply this perspective to the case of FH by identifying the belief in promoting democracy for national security within the American political class, studying the Cold War’s roots of the securitization of democracy and the contemporary politics of special interests behind FH’s activities. The conclusion summarizes our findings and their implications for U.S. democracy promotion.

Russia and FH Ratings

This section discusses Russia’s political system and FH ratings of it in comparison with three other rating agencies – the academic database Polity IV, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index, and the Political Atlas (PA) compiled by Russian academics. While defining democracy in institutional terms and sharing such definitions with other agencies FH was, until 2011, the only one that rated Russia as an authoritarian system and remains the most consistently critical of Russia. We include ratings assigned to China, another non-democratic, strategically important state, by the four agencies to act as a control state. This provides additional nuance to our analysis by highlighting that FH does not score more harshly than the other agencies in a standard fashion but that Russia is a special case.

Russia’s Political System: A Hybrid Regime

Russia’s political system is not a genuine democracy or close to it. There are multiple human rights problems in Russia and cause for serious concern about many aspects of domestic Russian politics. Politically motivated trials against opposition figures and organizations, such as Alexie Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, highlight the centralization of power and oppression of opposition. Human rights abuses in Chechnya have been widely reported as has repression of the media and the assassinations of journalists, along with an increasing restriction on civil society. The strengthened penalties in June 2012 for participating in unsanctioned protests are troubling as is a new law, introduced in June 2013, which imposes penalties on the promotion of ‘non-traditional’ sexual relations among minors. Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea (February 2014) highlights stark and critical differences between Russia and Western states in relation to respect for international laws and norms in regards to electoral processes and legitimacy. There is, therefore, much to be criticized in Russia and it is appropriate that international actors should highlight and respond to such concerning issues.

The Kremlin and experts with ties to the Kremlin define the system as ‘managed democracy’ in response to Vladimir Putin’s prioritization of political stability and economic reforms in the first half of the 2000s. Although the head of state was opposed to ‘any kind of special Russian democracy’, he explained that ‘the principles of democracy should correspond with the current status of the development of Russia, with our history and our traditions.’3 By ‘current status,’ Putin meant the country’s need to recover from the negative legacy of the 1990s. He made his view clear that for democracy to progress the state had to provide the necessary conditions, including peace and order, and that the urge for freedom had to comply with the imperatives of political stability. Some scholars and journalists defined managed democracy as a semi-authoritarian regime tasked with conducting necessary structural reforms. Such reforms were presented as necessary but that would ultimately result in the establishment of conditions for free and fair competition, but the process of achieving such results must not be accompanied by disorder. As Graeme Robertson writes, such a hybrid regime deliberately seeks to ‘extract the benefits of competition while minimizing the likelihood of loss of control. Competition is less something that authoritarians have failed to eliminate, but rather something that they consciously allow and try to control.’4 Other scholars too (although by no means all) defined Russia’s system as a hybrid or semi-authoritarian regime although certain trends in recent years are of obvious concern.5

Managed democracy could not, and does not, function effectively because it rests predominantly on the popularity of a single leader, rather than effective institutions. There are multiple examples of the managed democracy working to undermine its own effectiveness. In March 2008, then-president Putin designated the liberally-minded Medvedev as his political successor, but in March 2012 – out of fear of internal instability – Putin returned to power. No viable institution of power succession was created, and the mechanism of selecting a preferred leader remains informal. Another example concerns the Kremlin’s attempt to develop institutions of civil society from above and limit external influences in Russian politics by establishing the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, initiating changes in the legislature on the framework of regulations for NGOs, and providing grants to Russian NGOs through a competitive process.6 However, in the process of encouraging the indigenous development of Russian civil society, the Kremlin empowered primitive anti-Western and anti-liberal feelings and undermined a number of legitimate foreign organizations working in the country. Similarly, while taking the power of mass media away from business interests, state-controlled media frequently silenced important events and opposition voices, while displaying a lack of intelligent coverage and analysis. The overall progress of Russia with democracy-building is therefore limited and, in some areas, progress appears to be reversing.

Nevertheless, there remains space for limited pluralism in Russia’s political system, especially when compared to the Soviet period. Alternative news coverage remains available, as the internet, newspapers, and some radio and television channels (specifically Ekho Moskvy and Ren TV) are free of state control. In response to political protests following the rigged elections to Duma on December 4, 2011, the Russian state allowed demonstrations in Moscow and other large cities, widened their coverage in state controlled media, and promised limited reforms to increase participation by opposition in national and local politics. During the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014 Russian authorities permitted Gay Pride protests to take place (albeit 18 kilometres from the main games cluster). . Although undoubtedly influenced by concerns about Russia’s international image in the run up to the Winter Olympics, in December 2013, Putin nevertheless pardoned 20,000 prisoners, including members of the Pussy Riot and his critic, former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Many of those charged for disturbances during protests in the early 2012, were either released or received sentences lighter than those expected. Although the Kremlin restricted the activities of opposition leaders, some of them run for office of mayors in major cities. Golos, an independent Russian election watchdog, described the September 2013 elections as freer (although not fairer) and political choice is increasing. The most prominent religious groups are able to operate relatively freely and progress has been made in regards to strengthening the rights of people with disabilities. The activities of opposition parties, alternative media, and the newly expanded Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights limit the ability of the regime to control opposition politics and indicate that the Russian state is, despite the very real concerns, not a dictatorship. There is a mix of democratic and autocratic elements. While the situation has worsened domestically recently during the 2000s Russia was certainly a hybrid regime.

FH Ratings

FH produces an average score of democracy based on eight criteria (Table 1). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7 for measuring freedom which forms the basis for its democracy assignments. 1 represents the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. Based on the average score, FH classifies political systems in five categories: consolidated democracies (1.00–2.99), semi-consolidated democracies (3.00–3.99), transitional governments or hybrid regimes (4.00–4.99), semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes (5.00–5.99), and consolidated authoritarian regimes (6.00–7.00). Countries receiving a rating between 5.5 and 7 are considered to be ‘Not Free’.

FH ratings of Russia ratings across time are summarized (Table 1). To assess the overtime evolution of the ratings, we use five data points, 1997, 2002, 2005, 2011 and 2013. In 1997 Russia was viewed as a semi-consolidated democracy. In 2002, the country’s rating indicated the beginning of its descent to the category of semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes (5.00), alongside countries such as Jordon, Togo and Ethiopia (Freedom House 2002). In 2005, Russia was moved further in the authoritarian direction (5.61), listing it next to states such as Afghanistan, Chad, Rwanda and Cambodia (Freedom House 2005), and in 2011 it was rated as a consolidated authoritarian regime (6.18). According to FH, the country became such regime in 2009 (6.11) (Freedom House 2011). The most recent ratings of Russia continue to classify the country as a consolidated authoritarian regime (Freedom House 2013).

Table 1. FH Ratings of Russia, 1997-2011




2011 2013

1. Electoral Process




6.75 6.75

2. Civil Society




5.50 5.50

3. Independent Media




6.25 6.25

4. Governance




n/a n/a

5. National Democratic Governance



6.50 6.50

6. Local Democratic Governance



6.50 6.00

7. Judicial Framework and Independence




5.75 6.00

8. Corruption




6.50 6.50

Democracy Score




6.18 6.21

*Until 2003, this category combined constitutional, legislative, and judicial framework.

Sources: Freedom House, Nations In Transit: Russia. Reports from 2003- 2013. Available at:,

The political context of U.S.-Russian bi-lateral relations during these years highlights the scope and limits of FH influence. For two of those years identified as highlighting Russia’s slide (2002 and 2011), U.S.-Russian relations were improving, with U.S. administrations praising Russia’s global role and democratic trajectory. For example, following Russia’s support for the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the 2002 National Security Strategy stated that Russia was, ‘in the midst of a hopeful transition, reaching for its democratic future’ (US National Security Strategy 2002, p. v). Similarly, in 2011 relations were experiencing an upswing following Obama’s ‘reset’ and the successful signing of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (NST). In late 2010 Obama (2010) described the relationship in terms of ‘…key partners in global security’ and hailed the signing of NST as ‘testament to the truth that old adversaries can forge new partnerships’ (Obama and Medvedev 2010). This was a time when FH was active in denouncing the Kremlin and Obama’s administration for not doing enough to call the Kremlin to account on its human rights violations. FH lobbied in support of the Magnitsky Act, which denies visas and and freezes assets of Russian ruling elites implicated in the case of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky –who died in a Russian jail following his claim to have discovered mass fraud and subsequently being accused of tax evasion himself. FH President, David J. Kramer, published, on behalf of FH, ‘Contending with Putin’s Russia: Proposals for a New Approach’ (Kramer and Cork 2013) as well as other influential Op-Eds. Even when not enjoying a firm base of support within government (as seems to be the case currently with the more realist-leaning Obama administration), FH serves as a source for information about, and analysis of, Russia and contributed to public denouncements of Russia and failures on the U.S. part.

Comparative Perspective on FH Ratings

Other agencies rate Russia’s political system differently. Polity IV, affiliated with George Mason University, also adopts institutional criteria, such as political competition, and constraints on executive action by combining the Polity score. The score ranges from -10 (fully institutionalized autocracy) to +10 (fully institutionalized democracy) (Marshall and Cole 2009, p. 9). Polity IV identifies a middling category, anocracy, which combines a mix of democratic and autocratic traits and practices ranging from −5 to +5. Overall, the agency identified five groups: full democracy (10), democracy (6 to 9), open anocracy (1 to 5), closed anocracy (-5 to 0), autocracy (-10 to -6) (Ibid, p. 12). In the ‘Global Report 2009’ Russia is listed as an open anocracy in the group of countries including Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Ecuador, Venezuela, Thailand, and Singapore (Ibid, pp. 25-30). Countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan were listed as autocracies (Ibid, pp. 26-27). In 2011 Polity IV again listed Russia as an open anocracy (Marshall and Cole 2011, p. 33).

The EIU measures five dimensions: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture by assigning scores from 10 to 0 (10 being the highest and 0 the lowest in democracy progress). The EIU preferred categories are full democracies (approximately 10 to 8), flawed democracies (8 to 6), hybrid regimes (6 to 4), and authoritarian regimes (4 to 0). Russia was classified as a hybrid regime with the overall score of 5.02 (rank 102) in 2007 and 4.26 (rank 107) in 2010. By comparison, states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan were listed as authoritarian regimes (Kekic 2007, p.4, Democracy Index 2010, p. 5). In 2011 EIU ranked Russia as autocratic for the first time.

Finally, Political Atlas (PA) assessed, among other developments, the institutional basis of democracy. The used criteria included competition for the executive, parliamentary competition and electoral inclusiveness (Melville et al 2010, p. 114). On the scale of democratic progress from 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest and 0 the lowest, PA assigned Russia the score of 5.24 (rank 93). Russia was rated considerably higher than Afghanistan (4.21), Azerbaijan (3.46), Egypt (2.21), Kazakhstan (2.10), and China (0.69) (Ibid, pp. 143-145). By placing Russia in the upper-middle position, PA acknowledged that the country ‘has a long way to go to catch up with advanced European and/or European-type democracies’. Nevertheless, the group stressed that Russia is not an authoritarian country for it has already put in place ‘a set of institutions … essential for sustainable democratic governance’ (Ibid, pp. 229-230). Of course, an index put together by Russian academics has the potential to suffer from the same biases towards Russia that critics charge FH of displaying towards the United States. This article does not reject this concern but it is important to stress that PA is put together by those associated with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and The Higher School of Economics which generally lean in the Kremlin-critical direction.

(Table 2) summarizes the ratings of Russia by the four agencies since 2005. Prior to this point only FH was regularly rating democracy levels. Only FH has consistently rated Russia as ruled by an authoritarian (non-free) regime. Others, while noting the country’s alarming trends, generally characterized its political system either as a mixed or hybrid regime. The ratings assigned to China highlight that FH ratings are not consistently more negative than the other agencies. All four indexes assign China their lowest category of rating yet it is only FH that groups Russia in the same category as China. Only FH releases democracy ratings annually so for some years it is impossible to do same year comparisons.

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