What I Learned From Freedom House…

My latest for the US-Russia Experts Panel and VoR.

In this latest Panel, Vlad Sobell asks us supposed Russia “experts” whether Freedom House’s “alarmist stance” towards Russia is justified. Well, what do YOU think? I don’t think you need to be an expert to answer this; it’s an elementary issue of common sense and face validity. Consider the following:

Freedom House gives Russia a 5.5/7 on its “freedom” score, in which 7 is totalitarianism (e.g. North Korea) and 1 is complete freedom (e.g. the post-NDAA US).

This would make Putin’s Russia about as “unfree” as the following polities, as we learn from Freedom House:

  • The United Arab Emirates, a “federation of seven absolute dynastic monarchs whose appointees make all legislative and executive decisions”… where there are “no political parties” and court rulings are “subject to review by the political leadership” (quoting Daniel Treisman and Freedom House itself);
  • Bahrain, which recently shot up a ton of Shia demonstrators, and indefinitely arrested doctors for having the temerity to follow the Hippocratic oath and treat wounded protesters;
  • Any of the 1980’s “death-squad democracies” of Central America, in which tens of thousands of Communist sympathizers or just democracy supporters were forcibly disappeared;
  • The Argentinian junta, which “disappeared” tens of thousands of undesirables, some of whom were dropped from planes over the Atlantic Ocean;
  • Yemen, which lives under a strict interpretation of sharia law and where the sole candidate to the Presidency was elected with 100% of the vote in 2012 (which Hillary Clinton described as “another important step forward in their democratic transition process”).

Putin’s Russia is also, we are to believe, a lot more repressive than these polities:

  • South Korea in the 1980’s, a military dictatorship which carried out a massacre in Gwangju on the same scale as that of Tiananmen Square, for which China would be endlessly condemned;
  • Turkey, which bans YouTube from time to time, and today carries the dubious distinction of hosting more imprisoned journalists – 49 of them, according to the CPJ – than any other country, including Syria, Iran, and China. (Russia imprisons none).
  • Mexico under the PRI, which falsified elections throughout the years of its dominance to at least the same extent as United Russia.
  • Singapore, whose parliament makes the Duma look like a vibrant multiparty democracy and uses libel law to sue political opponents into bankruptcy. (In the meantime, Nemtsov is free to continue writing his screeds about Putin’s yachts and Swiss bank accounts).
  • Kuwait, where women only got the vote in 2005.

I’d say it’s pretty obvious that Freedom House has a definite bias which looks something like this: +1 points for being friendly with the West, -1 if not, and -2 if you also happen to have oil, and are thus in special urgent need of a color revolution. Then again, some call me a Kremlin troll, so you might be wiser to trust an organization that was until recently chaired by a former director of the CIA, an avowed neocon given to ranting about Russia’s backsliding into “fascism” among other things. If that’s the case you’re probably also the type who believes Iraq was 45 minutes away from launching WMD’s and that Islamist terrorists “hate us for our freedom.”

PS. If you want a reasonably accurate and well-researched political freedoms rating, check out the Polity IV series. Unfortunately, while it’s a thousand times better than Freedom House, it’s also about a thousand times less well-known.


  1. The Reporters Without Borders rated Russia and Ukraine below Tajikistan on press freedom ratings. So much for objectivity of these “bona fide” Western organisations.

    Since it is blatantly obvious that these organisations and their ratings are not objective, one should in my opinion treat them accordingly.

  2. “In the meantime, Nemtsov is free to continue writing his screeds”

    Nemtsov actually has more access to the American political system than virtually all American citizens…so much for American democracy.


  3. Polity IV is far better than Freedom House, but still have to be taken with a grain of salt. (Plus a 21-point scale from +10 to -10 is just as bizarre–and even more unwieldy for computation than Freedom House’s 7-point scale.) Grr. Ok. Rant over.

  4. Dear Anatoly,

    Having read all the various contributions to this discussion I want to say that I think yours was certainly the best. It cuts through all the nonsense and exposes the gross partisanship and absurdity of the Freedom House survey.

    The big question for me is why does Russia so consistently come out at the bottom of these sort of surveys (eg. Freedom House, Trasparency International, university rankings, international credit ratings etc) when any impartial consideration of the facts shows how wrong these surveys are? The other question is do these bad rankings cause Russia harm? The short answer in my opinion is that they definitely do. I know at least one British businessman who told me that his company (the big retailer Tesco) has been deterred from investing in Russia because of the violence and corruption there as reported by Transparency International and the like. I told him that this is completely out of date and that Tesco is missing out on Europe’s fastest growing and potentially biggest consumer market but anything I say was hardly going to change his mind or that of his company. It must also make life harder for the Russian government to try to govern a country like Russia against the background of a constant critical chorus about anything it does. Anyone who has tried to work with a hostile critic lurking constantly in the background will know the feeling.