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Countries to watch

"Countries to watch" Continued...

Issue: "2010 The Year Ahead," Jan. 16, 2010

Russia

Though Russia ended 2009 in the throes of an economic crisis that gripped most of the world, the largest country on earth exerted its might through a natural resource that left many of its European neighbors beholden to the regime: oil.

Russia remains the world's second-largest producer and exporter of oil, and while Russian leaders proved their willingness to exercise military force in Moscow's 2008 invasion of nearby Georgia, many experts expect the giant to rely on economic and psychological prowess to continue to build a regime with abuses that often escape Western scrutiny.

The U.S. State Department has noted that human-rights conditions in Russia remain poor: Stories of murdered journalists and human-rights attorneys draw attention to the country's tight-fisted grip on media and free speech. Churches report increased attention from authorities, and they fear that more harassment could follow in the year ahead.

Human-rights and religious freedom advocates will watch the nation closely in 2010 to see if conditions worsen, and to see how the United States will respond to any deterioration, as well as Russia's willingness to aid the belligerent nation of Iran.

Handfuls of both conservatives and liberals have criticized the Obama administration's soft approach to nations like Russia, a complaint Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dismissed, saying the administration is practicing low-key diplomacy that is "pragmatic and agile."

Still, Clinton couldn't deny that Russian leaders remain impervious to human-rights complaints, and she offered a brief criticism that perhaps doubled as a warning: "With Russia, we deplore the murders of journalists and activists and support the courageous individuals who advocate at great peril for democracy."

Vietnam

Human rights may prove a central issue for Vietnam in 2010, as the Asian nation seeks more prominence and influence on the international scene. In January, the country assumes the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organization billed as promoting economic and political cooperation and regional stability. The United States retains good relations with the organization, which may put pressure on the Obama administration to look more closely at the head country's human-rights record. Though the State Department notes improvements in Vietnam, Christians and Catholics in the country's Central Highlands report a significant level of ongoing persecution in the communist nation. The adoption of Vietnamese children remains closed to Americans, after a report of severe corruption in the nation's system for orphans.

Religious freedom advocates will watch to see if the U.S. State Department returns Vietnam to its list of Countries of Particular Concern for religious freedom violations, a move the administration has resisted but may find difficult to withstand as violations continue.

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