Not long after, Beketov was savagely beaten outside his home and left to bleed in the snow. Now he's in a wheelchair, his brain so damaged that he cannot utter a simple sentence.
The attack against Beketov in 2008 was the first of a wave of attacks against and harassment of Russian journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians. These attacks, along with the abolition of some local elections and other moves to concentrate power in the hands of the Kremlin, are all evidence that Russia is becoming an increasingly authoritarian country.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it looked like Russia might emerge as a true democracy. But democracy is not a natural fit for Russia. For 350 years, the country was ruled by powerful czars, and the Soviet UnionAmerica's adversary during the Cold Warwas a brutal Communist dictatorship dating back to the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Gorbachev Speaks Out
In the last decade, the Russian economy has thrived and foreign investment has soared. Consumer goods are widely available, and millions of Russians, part of a growing middle class, are able to afford them. But at the same time, the country has become less free.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who introduced a wide range of political and economic reforms as the last leader of the Soviet Union, has now become a prominent critic of the Kremlin. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, he says, is undermining Russia's fledgling democracy by crippling opposition forces.
"He thinks that democracy stands in his way," says Gorbachev, who won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his reform policies.
The U.S. shares his concerns. The release last month by Wikileaks of classified U.S. diplomatic communications included the statement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that "Russian democracy has disappeared."
In 2008, Putin found a way around the law that prevented him from running for President again when his second term expired: He handpicked Dmitri Medvedev as his successor, and after he won in a landslide, Medvedev appointed Putin as his Prime Minister. Although President Medvedev is technically the country's leader, Putin continues to wield considerable power. One of the leaked diplomatic cables describes Medvedev as "playing Robin to Putin's Batman."
When President Obama took office in 2009, he said he wanted to reset relations with Russia, hoping better ties would encourage Russia to get back on the road to democracy and work with the U.S. on issues of common interest, like blocking Iran's nuclear program.
But if anything, Russia has slipped backward. Putin's 2004 decision to eliminate elections for key regional governors and city mayors has angered critics, including Gorbachev. Those positions are now filled by Kremlin appointees.
"Democracy begins with elections," Gorbachev says. "Elections, accountability, and turnover."
Another key component is respect for the rule of law, which in Russia is frequently manipulated to serve the government's needs. Critics of the Kremlin are routinely denied permission for rallies, and the police detain anyone attending unauthorized demonstrations.
"We still live in a police state," says Eduard Limonov, leader of a banned opposition group.
Take the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who until 2003 was the billionaire head of Yukos Oil, the country's biggest oil company. After offering support to opposition political parties, he has spent the last seven years in jail on trumped-up charges. (His fateand the fact that his company was sold off to Putin supporters after he went to jailhas made foreign investors wary.)
Khodorkovsky's case is just the most high-profile example of how corrupt Russia's justice system has become. Jury trialsa foundation of U.S. lawwere supposed to change Russia's judicial system: Judges, who are appointed by the government, almost always convict, but a jury of ordinary people was expected to be more fair.
But jurors are frequently intimidated by the authorities, and when they acquit a defendant, their verdicts are routinely overturned. In addition, lawmakers have been cutting back on the types of crimes that qualify for a jury trial.
The overall effect is a justice system that in some ways has changed little since Soviet days. That seems to be exactly what concerns Gorbachev.
"Russia has a long way to go to usher in a new system of values, to create and provide for the proper functioning of the institutions and mechanisms of democracythe institutions of civil society," Gorbachev says.
"All this is done through a major transformation in people's brains. And this, clearly, is changing very slowly."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, January 10, 2011)