The Russian Federation has more territory than any other country in the world, spanning two continents and northern Eurasia. It has a population of 142 million people, 80% of whom are ethnic Russians. Russia remains a diverse country, however, with populations of over 150 different ethnic groups and indigenous peoples living within its boundaries. Its political structures are governed by the constitution adopted in 1993 under Boris Yeltsin. Though nominally a democracy with periodic elections, this constitution granted to the Presidency extensive power over both the legislative process and the state's executive functions. In the 2000s, President Vladimir Putin exploited these institutional levers to gain the kind of authority usually associated with authoritarianism.
To understand many Russians' enthusiasm for Putin's heavy-handed rule, one must understand that most Russians experienced the collapse of Soviet power as a time of political chaos and economic hardship. Under Yeltsin's rule, Russian political institutions became quite weak, undermined by a lack of resources, widespread corruption and competing jurisdictions between governments at the central, regional and local levels. Fortunately, the figurative "war of sovereignties" escalated to genuine armed conflict only in Chechnya, but in the ensuing years the conflict has expanded increasingly into the North Caucasus and provoked terrorist actions within Moscow's city limits. Meanwhile, the Russian economy suffered a systemic collapse. Despite substantial immigration from former Soviet republics, Russia's population has declined by about six million since 1991. The life expectancy fell to about 63 years for a Russian man, and 74 years for a Russian women, and the birth rate declined to record lows for peacetime.
In this context, Putin's promise in 2000 to restore economic and political order was hugely popular. By the time he stepped down in 2008, the Putin administration had established control over most of the mass media, the regional leadership, the political parties and even civil society. His economic success, however, could be attributed in large part to the high price of oil. The economic crisis of 2008 hit Russia hard, and one is beginning to see some dissatisfaction among the Russian populatioin. Earlier in 2008, Putin stepped down from the Presidency in favor of his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, and accepted the position of Prime Minister instead. Since then, official rhetoric between the government and human rights workers and other activists has softened somewhat, but the general lines of policy remain the same. Meanwhile, it remains unclear precisely how power is shared in the "tandemocracy" of Putin and Medvedev, and whether or not the current relations between the two will remain as they are.
During the Russian-Georgian conflict in August 2008, Amnesty International USA acquired satellite imagery to analyze and document the destruction to Tskhinvali and 24 of its surrounding villages. Much of the observed damage occurred after the major hostilities of the first two days of the conflict.
The greatest concerns for human rights in the Russian Federation concern the ongoing conflicts in the North Caucasus, where reports of enforced disappearances, the killings of civilians and torture remain commonplace. Related to this violence have been ongoing efforts to silence voices of dissent. Most famously, the outspoken advocate of human rights in Chechnya, Anna Politikovskaya, was murdered in her Moscow apartment building in 2006. But in 2009 alone, under President Medvedev, four other prominent human rights activists were assassinated, including Natalia Estemirova, Stanislav Markelov Marksharip Aushev and Ivan Khutorskii. It remains unclear who ordered these murders and for what reasons, as none of the perpetrators in these four cases have been brought to justice. Less dramatically, the regime has continued its harass oppositional leaders, human rights activists, and environmental activists, among others, under the guise of the struggle against extremism. Meanwhile, the exercise of justince continues to be selective and even arbitrary in many cases.
In addition to these concerns, other human rights issues in Russia include the treatment of prisoners in the Russian criminal justice system, incidents of racial violence against ethnic minorities and other foreigners living in Russia, the treatment of migrant workers, and domestic violence.