Excerpts from meeting of Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, colleagues,
We have not met since the end of last year. Since then, Valery Abramkin [human rights activist and member of the Council] passed away in January this year. This is a great loss for all of us and for the human rights movement, and so I ask you to honour his memory now.
(Minute of silence)
Friends, we meet regularly, not very often, but nonetheless regularly, and we discuss issues together and try to find solutions to various problems, above all to the problems of concern to our people.
This year marks 20 years since a special human rights body was established. Back in September 1993, during a period of intense political confrontation, the decision was made to set up the Presidential Human Rights Commission. This was done so as to strengthen guarantees of civil and political rights. A decade later, Ella Pamfilova, who is here today, proposed transforming the commission into a council and extending its powers to cover civil society development as well.
Time has shown that this council, which is now formed through more open procedures, reflects Russian civil society in all its diversity. Resolving people’s problems often depends precisely on the persistence of human rights organisations and activists. It is very good to see that you are taking such an active part in the work, are continuing many of the initiatives the council’s previous members began, and are standing up for your position on problem issues.
The NGO sector’s activities are important for the country and for society. There is a need today to protect people’s rights and help them to resolve their social needs. Various public opinion surveys show that social rights are the rights people consider most important. These include the right to free medical care, labour and a fair wage, free education, and social welfare guarantees.
Our central focus must therefore be on people and their everyday cares and problems, and protecting people’s rights in their everyday dealings with state agencies and various organisations. This is all coming to the forefront now, and the human rights organisations need to take this into account and not limit their activities to what is going within the [central Moscow] Garden Ring alone.
But let me add immediately that political rights are without question the basic foundation of any society and state, and they obviously cannot and should not be relegated to some secondary place.
But I cannot but welcome the fact that the council has organised a whole number of activities in different parts of the country. It has held meetings in St Petersburg and Chechnya, and council members have visited Kopeysk, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Mordovia, and Karelia. I think this kind of practice and this kind of work are very useful and should continue.
Let me say a few words on another issue. I know that many of you are concerned about developments in the laws on NGOs. In this respect, I think that charity groups and organisations and humanitarian organisations involved in work of public importance should get particular support from the state authorities.
Russia travelled a difficult road to democracy. It required years of transformation, and our people went through trials and hardships. It is therefore especially important for Russia’s civil society to be as independent as possible.
World experience shows that political activity is above all the domain of political parties, and should be funded from within the country. Many countries have taken the step of establishing procedures and mechanisms that do not prohibit NGOs involved in politics from receiving foreign funding, but make it an open, clear and transparent process. This is what everyone is trying to achieve at any rate, a situation where it is clear as to where the foreign funds are coming from and what specific purposes they are being used for.
Russia’s laws have also been designed in such a way as to have NGOs using funds from abroad to carry out political activity openly declare their status. I think this is a completely fair and honest approach. These is nothing unusual here. The important thing is to have clearly thought-out procedures and clear and understandable criteria for putting NGOs under this status.
I agree with those who say that there are problems here. This is indeed the case. I have heard repeatedly from people involved in these areas about cases of people coming and saying, “It’s better if we just give up all our work, because we’ve got nothing to do with politics but formally still come [under this law] and so we’re having problems”. If this is the case then we need to think together about what we can do to avoid this kind of situation.
If you have proposals on how to improve these laws and procedures, I would be happy to listen to them. Let’s work together on finding solutions, all the more so that almost a year has gone by now since the last changes to the law, and we’ve built up some practice in the law’s application over this time.
In fact, not all countries take such a tolerant approach to foreign funding of NGOs. The US, for example, has a much tougher law. India has passed a law prohibiting NGOs engaged in political activity from receiving funding from abroad. They do not have the right to receive foreign funding at all. In an interview with one of India’s main newspapers, Sonya Gandhi, the Indian Congress Party leader and widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, said on this issue, “We did not achieve our independence so as to now let the Americans pull our NGOs by the strings.”
A lot is being done to make it possible for our NGOs to operate on Russian money. State financing for NGOs involved in human rights work increased more than three-fold this year, and we allocated more than 3.2 billion roubles [around $96 million] for carrying out socially important projects. The state has never put such levels of financing into this sector before.
This year, many NGOs involved in human rights have already received funds for supporting their projects. We plan to allocate another 200 million roubles [around $6 million] for NGOs involved in human rights by the end of the year, and tenders for the funds’ distribution will take place before the year ends.
Last time we met, Mr Fedotov [Presidential Adviser and Chairman of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights] noted that we need to pay particular attention to human rights NGOs, give them our support, and raised the issue of additional financing for their work. This decision was made.
This practice will continue. In addition to the funds I just mentioned, starting in 2014, we will allocate a further 500 million roubles [around $15 million] a year as grants for NGOs involved in protecting human rights and freedoms.
It is important that this money be distributed autonomously from the state authorities by the NGOs themselves with the participation of human rights organisations and activists and respected civil society experts.
[Human Rights Ombudsman] Mr Lukin and Mr Fedotov therefore decided that the grants for human rights activity would be distributed by the national public movement Civic Dignity, which Ms Pamfilova heads. As I understand it, she initially refused the idea, but Mr Fedotov and Mr Lukin managed to convince her to take part, talked things over and agreed to work together.
Let me say again that the main thing is for all of this work to be as transparent as possible and not look like a case of the state buying someone off and paying for some concrete future result – that’s to put it bluntly. This is absolutely not our intention. Let me assure you, the state authorities have no interest in such a thing.
What we want is for the people working in this sector to feel genuinely independent. I believe that only in this case will they be able to work effectively and draw to the state authorities’ attention the problems and flaws in our own work, and this will only make the country stronger.
In conclusion, I want to highlight too the importance of your participation in the big international summits and events taking place in Russia.
The Civil G20 meeting took place in June. I found it very interesting and I won’t hide that it was useful to have this chance to talk with the participants. We agreed that we would inform our colleagues of the meeting’s results in St Petersburg, where they are already starting to gather now for the [G20] summit. I want to thank all of you for helping to organise this work. It was very useful and interesting.
The next G8 summit will also be preceded by a meeting of our countries’ civil society representatives. I hope the council will be active in helping to organise this event.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Let’s now start discussing the issues that have brought us here today.
Vladimir Putin: Regarding Syria. If you believe it would help to somehow talk to your colleagues, go ahead – I am prepared to instruct the Foreign Ministry to assist you in establishing the needed contacts with American non-profits and civil society.
In that sense, the situation there is complicated for the US administration. There are organisations that openly state that the evidence offered by the administration is flimsy and does not prove anything. They are saying it is unclear whether or not chemical weapons were used, and by whom. Overall, they have almost expressed our arguments.
Moreover, I would like to point out that we are currently focused on the fact that the US Congress and Senate are discussing authorisation for use of force. But this is a downright substation of common sense, a distortion of the understanding of international law. No congress of any country can authorise something like this. What are they authorising? They are authorising aggression, because anything that is outside the UN Security Council is aggression, aside from self-defence. As you know, Syria is not attacking the US, so there is no question of self-defence, and anything else lacking UN authorisation is an act of aggression.
In essence, the US Congress and Senate are now trying to legitimise aggression, and we are all glued to our televisions, waiting to see if they will get the approval. Instead, however, we should be discussing the fact that this is fundamentally unacceptable.
But that’s how it is. Still, creating contacts would be a positive step. Granted, I don’t think they will lead to the desired effect, but in any case, our conscience will be clean, because we will have done everything we can to prevent this massacre, although it will, of course, happen anyway. Incidentally, I want to point out that the images being diffused – and I just mentioned this to an American journalist – do not show those dead children’s parents. There are no medical personnel. Indeed, they feature no women at all, only big, healthy men.
I already said this and I’ll say it again. It is simply absurd to imagine that Assad used chemical weapons, given that he is gaining ground. After all, this is a weapon of last resort, if you will. And if he is gaining ground, if he has encircled his adversaries in some places and is finishing them off, then they need immediate help. Why do they say there is not a single American soldier on that territory? They believe it is unnecessary, that these rebels will handle things on their own, they just need support with weapons and methods they do not possess – they do not have aviation or rocket technology – and it should be given to them. So they will now give it to them.
I won’t go on, so as not to waste time. And they are lying, of course, shamelessly. I watched the congress debates. A congressman asked Mr Kerry, “Is Al-Qaeda present there? I’ve heard they have gained momentum.” He replied, “No. I can tell you earnestly, they are not.” The main combat unit, the so-called Al-Nusra, is an Al-Qaeda subdivision; they know about this. It just felt unpleasant to me. After all, it is clear… we communicate with them, we assume they are decent people. But he is lying, and he knows he is lying. It is sad.
Vladimir Putin: Now, regarding the floods. You stated that we were unprepared and so on. That is not quite true. You know, ultimately, a great deal was done there in previous years and ahead of the flood: dams were built, corresponding work was done, evacuation centres were established, and manpower, resources and troops were brought in.
You know, if you look at it from the outside, it resembles a large-scale military operation, with heavy machinery roaring. Of course, things are hard for people, and there is frustration and dissatisfaction concerning how certain things are done there, how people are being supported and so on. But I spoke with local residents who say, “You know, we ourselves did not realise that we live in this kind of country; we truly saw the power of the Russian Government when all this happened.” Thousands of people from the Emergencies Ministry and the Defence Ministry have been working hard. But again, there are still many problems and omissions. Naturally, the supervision by public organisations and NGOs is still in demand.
I said the same thing yesterday at a meeting with journalists. We are not finished after evacuating people from dangerous areas; we cannot just decide that we are done, mission accomplished. No. However difficult it may be, however hard they may be working there, day and night, saving people and their property. We did better in some places than others, but overall, we succeeded. At least there are no lives lost, we did everything on time.
We cannot simply decide that we are done. No, the mission is not yet accomplished; we need to bring everything to full completion. We must accommodate people under normal, humane conditions. And most importantly, we have everything we need to achieve this. We need to provide attention, organise the work competently and react quickly.
But you must understand, the scale of this disaster is enormous; there has never been anything like it. Even at the peak of the flooding in previous years, in the previous decades – they have all been surpassed. We have never had anything like this, and nobody can even understand why. I have already stated that when you look at it from a helicopter, it is as though you are flying over the sea, and I only feel horror at observing the rooftops of houses sticking out of that sea, whose shores cannot be seen. Thus, the fight against this flood is such a large-scale undertaking that it is unlikely we could have prepared for it 100%. But now, we need to work efficiently, and oversight certainly doesn’t hurt.
Vladimir Putin: I will try to respond to some of your comments, as usual.
Regarding the Internet. You said that many resources are blocked. Of course, we need to look into the technology for executing these laws. Let’s look. You yourself said that theft is a sin, and I think that most people would agree. And we understand that what is happening, or what was happening, is downright theft.
After all, we didn’t come up with this ourselves; over the course of several years, Russian on-stage performance groups and individual artists representing various art forms turned to us with urgent requests to do something to protect their interests. Otherwise, they said, everything would stop completely, they would stop writing books or making films.
You know that as soon as a movie is filmed, it immediately makes its way online and is downloaded illegally. People online say it directly: “download for free.” But what does “free” mean? It means freeloading. Meanwhile, those who invested their money hope to distribute their film, but it’s already clear they are broke and won’t make anything from such distribution.
The same is true of music and others. It is entirely clear that there should be some technologies that do not allow any abuse of laws protecting intellectual property.
I am happy to look into it. I must admit that I have not studied the details, and I am prepared to delve into it and take a look, because this truly is a very important matter. Intellectual rights should be protected, but we should not overdo it, so as not to kill the internet.
This concerns the antipiracy law and several other elements.
You also said that the Internet is a weapon, an uncontrollable weapon. I agree with you on your first point, that it’s a weapon. But I do not agree that it is uncontrollable. Indeed, it is being controlled quite effectively and, in general, we are not the ones with the tools to manage it, when the servers are over there – we have seen this. You may be working in human rights or similar domains, but I assure you, believe me, we have seen the way it is controlled. During election campaigns, we know that our colleagues support this candidate and do not support that one. As soon as something appears online regarding a candidate they do not like – boom! They delete it immediately. It gets posted again, and boom! They remove it again. So it’s very controlled.
Russia Today is getting more and more traffic – this is our TV channel broadcasting abroad in various languages. Just now, as we started discussing Syria… our opponents’ positions are very weak, if we are to be honest. They are flimsy. They only lead to aggression, that’s all. There is no explanation or justification for the aggression, other than that the Syrian army used chemical weapons. But they came to the verdict that they [the Syrian army] used chemical weapons even before the UN inspectors completed their work. It is just unacceptable.
They say the UN Security Council is ineffective or completely dysfunctional. But the Security Council is not there to rubberstamp decisions that are convenient for one side and serve the political interests of one of the participants in this process. If that were the case, the UN would simply need to be shut down; it would be a pointless organisation.
These are global things. But, either way, it is highly controlled. And overall, we need to think about how to make the Internet truly, genuinely independent. Of course, it is much more independent than some other media, but it is still controlled.
Let’s come back to these laws and I promise that we will definitely look into it.
Now, concerning Snowden. This question came up several times. You said it required courage, it was a hard decision to make. Thank you very much for these assessments, but no courage was necessary here and nothing about making this decision was difficult. I already said this yesterday. Russia is a sovereign state; there was no other option in this situation.
I already said this to Russian and foreign journalists yesterday, and I can say it again to you; it seems it will come out, so it is no secret. Snowden approached us at our Hong Kong consulate and proposed that we work together, but not as a spy; he didn’t give us anything, but he offered to work together to fight for human rights and the right to disseminate information, to suppress unlawful activities by the US administration and special services. I asked our diplomatic representatives to tell him that if he wanted to stay in Russia and feel safe here, he could do that, but we would not fight with him. This work is for the human rights organisations (you, who are present here), but the Russian government would not get involved, because it has its own state interests.
We do not want to wreck our relations with the US. We told him he could relax and live in Russia, but we would ask him not to engage in any of these activities. He replied, “No, I am not satisfied with that, I have to continue the fight.” I said, “Then let him go elsewhere and continue it.”
Several days or weeks later, he ended up in a plane and was passing through our nation on his way to Latin America. Here, [Russian comedian] Zadornov, who tells funny stories about Americans, comes to mind. Instead of letting him keep on going and then do the same boorish they did with the President of Bolivia’s airplane – they could have requested the plane to land, taken Snowden off, and that would be it – they scared everyone to death and everyone called us, saying “Whatever you do, don’t let him come to our nation.” So he got stuck in our airport. That was the result. And what were we to do with him?
It is true, our partners tried to pressure us to hand him over. But look, maybe we would have handed him over if we had an agreement. After all, we offered to sign an extradition treaty with them several times. They refused. So we asked them to hand over the bandits serving sentences in their country, who have been involved in crimes, bloody, violent crimes, kidnapping and human trafficking. And they said, “No, they’re on our territory, forget it.” That was their answer: “They are on our territory, forget about them.” Well, okay.
Now Snowden is in our country, and thankfully, he hasn’t killed anyone. They are telling is, “He’s a criminal, hand him over.” But we don’t know whether he’s a criminal or not, and he hasn’t committed any crimes on our territory.
International relations practice requires mutual respect toward one another. And these types of issues are resolved on the basis of reciprocity. Why are they being so snobbish?
So there was nothing complicated in this situation, we simply could not have done otherwise. And that is what we told our colleagues directly: “Don’t insist on this. Let’s sign agreements and work as partners and colleagues.”
We don’t know what he will do next. That’s his choice, his fate, which he has chosen for himself. To be honest, I sometimes think about it. He is a young man, and he has chosen his own fate; what will he do next? How will he live? Where will he go? Will he spend the rest of his life in Russia, or what? But he is who he is: he decided that he must be at the forefront of the struggle.
I’m just telling you about it for your information.
With regard to defending the rights of our compatriots abroad. Of course, in recent years, we have continued trying to organise this work; the foreign ministry and other institutions involved are cooperating and working abroad. This is probably insufficient. If our human rights organisations get their directions, we will certainly support them in various ways.
And finally, regarding our human rights advocates’ possible trip to Syria. I cannot forbid it, but I do not encourage it. It is dangerous; it’s not a walk in the park. And it’s not even a question of American rockets or bombs, although they, too, are not selective enough, they can miss and unintentionally hit something else. But the regular Syrian army is fighting against a wide variety of people. Do you understand? There truly are units… not everyone is like that, but the core combat units consist of Al-Qaeda divisions. They are absolutely unruly and very cruel people. Our journalists were there and saw it with their own eyes. I am asking you not to do this, not to go there. I cannot forbid it, but I do not support it.
In conclusion, I want to say that our conversation and discussion today once again showed me that the work you are doing – many of you are truly doing it because you are driven in your hearts to do it – is very much necessary and in high demand. Without your help and support, not only would we likely be unable to react effectively, but we might not even be fully capable of understanding and learning about problems that people are dealing with.
I very much count on continuing our joint, fruitful work.
Thank you very much. Goodbye.