The Council is meeting for the first time since its membership was renewed. The latest rotation in membership took place based on the results of public discussions and internet voting, in which more than 100,000 people took part.
In accordance with the President’s Executive Order, the Council has 62 members, of which 39 are new members.
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Excerpts from transcript of Council for Civil Society and Human Rights meeting
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, colleagues.
This is the Council’s first meeting since the membership was renewed. Many of you I already know, while for others it will be the first time that we are working together.
As you know, broad discussions and internet voting on the Council’s members took place. I remind you that more than 100,000 people took part in the voting and there were more than 400,000 visits (430,000, I think) to the sites where people could make their vote.
Choosing the Council’s members drew a lot of public interest. This is why Mr Fedotov [Presidential Adviser and Chairman of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Mikhail Fedotov] and I decided to increase the number of members so as to include all of those who received the most votes, given that people clearly want to see you have a place on this presidential advisory body.
This in turn raises questions about the Council’s management. With this many members, we have to organise efforts in such a way as to ensure that not only does it help me in my work, but that we can have an impact together on the performance of the country’s executive bodies and law enforcement agencies in general.
There are several proposals in this respect. One proposal is to establish a presidium, the membership of which will rotate on a regular basis, or to set up specific working groups for the areas of activity of greatest interest to particular Council members. The important thing in all of this is to ensure that we have direct contact of course, and that this direct contact helps us to carry out the Council’s tasks and objectives.
As far as the tasks are concerned, there is nothing really new here, I think. I hope very much that our work will continue what has already been accomplished over these last years. We must certainly pay attention to all aspects of our life: political issues, the way our society and state are organised, and social issues.
No doubt, people expect that those professionally involved in human rights will be able to give them substantial support, especially at moments when there are breakdowns in the state mechanisms. I look upon our cooperation as a form of direct feedback from Russian society, reaching right to the top level of power, and this enables us to work together on improving our instruments of government and establishing the conditions that will let us solve our country’s problems in our citizens’ interests above all.
I will not make a long speech and want to give the floor now to Mr Fedotov. After that, we will discuss all of the issues that you think most important and fitting to raise at this first meeting.
You mentioned that we established the Council in 2004. Let me remind you of the circumstances of that time. The situation was very complicated back then. The country had been going through what was in effect a state of civil war, albeit not of an acute form, but nonetheless a very painful and bloody armed conflict. Let me be frank here, as those working at that time no doubt remember, my view often did not coincide with that of the Council members on a number of the key issues concerning our country’s functioning at that time.
Today’s situation is vastly, if not totally, different, although big problems still remain as we can see from the flare-ups in terrorist activity, acts of terrorism, organised crime and so on. But overall, there has been substantial change, fundamental change, I would say. I cannot assert that everything I thought right back then did indeed turn out to be so, but nor can I say that everything the Council members asked or demanded of me was justified.
I remember very clearly my discussions with your colleagues from Europe back then. There were many such discussions, but I remember particularly clearly one discussion when a woman who was very pleasant in all respects – and I am not being ironic here – said that she took a very critical view of what we (Russia and myself) were doing in the Caucasus. She said we were using very harsh methods that are unacceptable in today’s world. I asked her, ‘Look at what they’re doing there. What methods should we use to stop them in your view?’ She said, ‘We condemn their actions too, but we criticise you because this is a part of your territory and you are failing to ensure order there’. I asked her, ‘How can we restore order if we do not use the methods you condemn?’ ‘I don’t know’, she replied.
Why do I bring this up again now? People might criticise a government for its actions, and this criticism might even be fair and justified, but when no one knows what to do there has to be someone willing to take on the responsibility. Do not be offended at me if our views do not always coincide, and I in turn will do everything I can not to take offence at anything I hear from you. But I ask you, please, to do the same for me. Our work together must be direct, open and honest.
Mr Fedotov spoke just before about direct forms of democracy, and said that the way the Council members are chosen is not perhaps the best method: experts should choose experts, but then administrators should choose administrators and so on. It’s a debatable idea. There is no disputing however, that we should develop forms of direct democracy. One possible step in this respect is the idea that 100,000 identifiable signatures collected via the internet on a specific proposal would be enough to have it examined in parliament. Of course, not all issues raised in this way would necessarily concern federal-level matters. They could be regional or municipal issues too, and so we would need to decide the procedures for working with these kinds of proposals.
(On migration) This is a sensitive, delicate and complex issue. I have already stated my position in the past but can do so again now. Most of the migration to Russia is labour migration, and we need to differentiate between these migrants and our compatriots returning to their homeland.
We know that the Soviet Union’s collapse left 25 million ethnic Russians or those who consider their roots to be in Russia outside the Russian Federation borders. They found themselves beyond our borders not of their own free will, and it is our duty to help those of them who wish to do so, without imposing anything on anyone, to return to Russia.
Labour migrants are another matter. It is not by chance that you, someone from the construction sector, should have raised this issue. We know that many migrants work in this particular sector. Indeed, foreign labour plays a big part in developing this sector and a number of other sectors in our economy. The only thing is we need to ensure that this process does not undermine our country’s own labour market. That is the first consideration.
Second, we need to settle matters concerning the rights and lawful interests of our citizens living in areas with a large inflow of migrants.
Third – not in terms of importance, but simply in sequence of course – is the need to protect the rights and interests of the migrants themselves, and this is also something we must not forget.
A fourth issue to consider is that millions of people from the former Soviet republics who come to work in Russia are not only earning money here and sending it back home to support their families, but are also maintaining ties with Russia and keeping up the interest in Russia. For all the problems that accompany this migration influx, these people are continuing the interest in our culture and our language, and this is one of the factors helping to preserve our common economic and humanitarian space. In this sense migration plays a positive part. At the same time, the migration process is also very complicated. We certainly do need to address the problems it creates, but we must do so very carefully.
(On the law regulating the activities of NGOs acting as foreign agents) My position was that everything not directly related to politics should be excluded [from this law]. The only purpose of this law after all was to ensure that foreign organisations representing outside interests, not those of the Russian state, would not intervene in our domestic affairs. This is something that no self-respecting country can accept.
I do not think there is anything in this law that contradicts democratic development in our country. But the law should not apply to activities not related to politics. Let’s take another look at it.
I have already discussed this matter with Mr Fedotov. We could meet in a broader format and have an open discussion on the matter. We do not have any issues that are not open for discussion. After all, everything we do, we do with the sole objective of making our country stronger and more stable and effective.
But our country cannot become stronger and more stable by relying on the powers of law enforcement and security agencies alone. It will be stronger if our society is more united, effective and responsible, and if we establish good contact between society, citizens, and the state authorities. In this respect I agree completely with you that human rights activists, who bring our citizens’ problems to the attention of society, play a very important part in helping us to reach our national objective.
Thank you very much for the work together. I am sorry that not everyone had the chance to speak. We have agreed not to take offense at each other.
The meeting is over then. Thank you.