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Group lists Russia as 'not free'

Rights status said worst since 1989

MOSCOW -- Russia has restricted rights to such an extent that it has joined the countries that are ''not free" for the first time since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, Freedom House said yesterday, marking Moscow's march away from the Western democracies it has embraced as diplomatic partners.

''This setback for freedom represented the year's most important political trend," the US-based nongovernmental organization wrote in its annual study, Freedom in the World 2005.

Freedom House, a Washington-based, nonpartisan group, noted increased Kremlin control over national television and other media, limitations on local government, and parliamentary and presidential elections it said were neither free nor fair.

''Russia's step backward into the 'Not Free' category is the culmination of a growing trend under President Vladimir Putin to concentrate political authority, harass and intimidate the media, and politicize the country's law-enforcement system," executive director Jennifer L. Windsor said in a statement.

''These moves mark a dangerous and disturbing drift toward authoritarianism in Russia, made more worrisome by President Putin's recent heavy-handed meddling in political developments in neighboring countries, such as Ukraine."

The report accused Putin of exploiting the terrorist seizure of a school in southern Russia to ram through what Freedom House called the dismantling of local authority.

After the September attack, which killed more than 330 people, Putin introduced a plan to end the election of governors by popular vote and the election of legislators in individual races. Currently, the 450 seats in the lower house of parliament are equally split between those filled through party lists and those contested in district races.

The Russian Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the report, which said that Russia had reached its lowest point where political rights and civic freedoms are concerned since 1989.

Grigory Yavlinsky, a former member of parliament with the liberal Yabloko party, said Russia has been ''not free" for more than a decade now.

''Today in Russia, there are no independent mass media, no independent court, parliament, business. There is no public control over special forces and police. There are practically no elections which are not controlled by the authorities," he said.

Freedom House said that on balance, the world saw increased freedom in 2004: 26 countries showed gains while 11 showed decline. Of the world's 192 countries, it judged 46 percent free, 26 percent not free, and the rest partly free. Eight rated as the most repressive: Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan.

The NGO said that only Central and Eastern Europe had seen ''dramatic progress" over the past year. It noted that Bosnia-Herzegovina's rating had improved following the first elections organized entirely by Bosnian institutions. In the Middle East, Freedom House rated just Israel as free. Five countries in the region, including Jordan and Yemen, are partly free, and 12 are not free. It said the territories occupied by Israel and run by the Palestinian Authority were not free. Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Qatar registered modest gains.

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