Excerpts from transcript of meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, colleagues.
I am happy to welcome you to our traditional meeting, which is taking place on the eve of the Council’s tenth anniversary.
I would like to begin by saying that in these years the Council has truly become an important instrument for protecting human rights in Russia. It has a very broad range of responsibilities: from performing a general analysis of the situation with human rights in the country and making recommendations to the head of state to providing assistance in specific cases when citizens need protection.
All human rights and freedoms are of supreme value, and this is stated clearly in our Constitution. Represented on our Council are many influential organisations, whose members are authoritative experts on human rights and political freedoms. I would like to begin this meeting by saying that I find it very important that the Council members and their organisations manage to find such a balance between their various activities, between political freedoms, voting rights and social issues.
At the previous Council meetings last year and this year we considered ways to ensure people’s rights to accessible housing, healthcare, the support of young families and orphaned children, issues of domestic violence, the reform of the penitentiary system and so forth.
I am certain that we need to continue this well-balanced work in the future. Unfortunately for the state, it sometimes happens that in the final count a citizen can only rely on people who are doing this work out of idealism and have no ties whatsoever to any official organisations.
The state will continue its support of civil society institutions, it will help them to implement their socially and politically important projects, including by providing funding. In 2013, 2.7 billion rubles [over $66 million] were allocated for this purpose from the federal budget, while the plan for next year is about 4.7 billion rubles.
I would like to touch upon another acute issue, one that can leave none of us indifferent – I am referring to the developments in Ukraine. We have all been following them lately. These developments have revealed a large-scale crisis in terms of international law, the basic norms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. We see numerous violations of Articles 3, 4, 5, 7 and 11 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of Article 3 of the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of December 9, 1948.
We are witnessing the application of double standards in the assessment of crimes against the civilian population of southeastern Ukraine, violations of the fundamental human rights to life and personal integrity. People are subjected to torture, to cruel and humiliating punishment, discrimination and illegal rulings.
Unfortunately, many international human rights organisations close their eyes to what is going on there, hypocritically turning away. Meanwhile, look at what is happening now, in the course of the election campaign – and this has to do with voting rights – do we not see it? Those in disagreement are beaten up and humiliated all the time. What kind of democracy is it that is being imposed on this territory?
I know that Council members here have assumed an honest position on this matter; they travelled to the sites and helped those who found themselves in a crisis, sometimes at an impasse. I would like to thank you for this and say that we will support this activity. However, I would like to call on you to be careful – I am referring here to your personal safety as well. This is something I would like to talk about today and to hear your assessments of.
This is all I wanted to say as an opening.
Vladimir Putin: I would like to briefly respond to what was said here, and then we can have an exchange on these or other issues.
Let us begin with the most pressing, most widely discussed issue – the developments in Ukraine. I fully agree that we need to demilitarise public awareness. However, primarily, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the authorities are not doing this on purpose: first, they are not consciously demilitarising awareness; second, this is very hard to do unilaterally. This takes some goodwill on both sides.
You know, the media has shown over the past few days – today and yesterday – they are celebrating OUN-UIA, this nationalistic, pro-fascist organisation; it is practically an official celebration in Ukraine accompanied by calls for reprisals against representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy. All this while the Patriarch is doing everything to stop the fratricidal conflict. The Patriarch himself and other Church Primates are doing so much and are being attacked: 18 churches have already been taken away and believers are chased out of churches.
Where are the human rights activists regarding the right to religious worship and freedom of religion? There is almost total silence here, by the way. Not a word, as if nothing is happening, while this is very serious. People are being chased out of churches, beaten up and humiliated and their property is taken away. Therefore, this needs to be done. We should move in this direction because, first of all, one cannot look at what is going on there without tears, and second, the greatest tragedy is unfolding in front of our very eyes.
The greatest tragedy here is the alienation of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. This is the worst thing. Regardless of all the issues we are facing today, we need to find ways to overcome this. However, I would like to repeat that this has to be done jointly with the Ukrainian authorities. This is the first thing I wanted to draw you attention to.
Regarding the questions that were raised here. Of course, we must and we will help the children and adults who have found themselves in a difficult situation. You know this is not easy. You saw with your own eyes how when we brought some of the children whom we could only help here, we were immediately accused of kidnapping them. These accusations were made several times. I believe some of the children were returned after they got help. If a person does not want to return, we cannot force them and will not do it.
The same goes for medications and food that people in the southeast of Ukraine need so much. You have also seen this for yourselves. We simply could not reach agreement with them on humanitarian convoys to the area. They found all sorts of excuses not to let us in. I will not go into the details of these negotiations. However, we were forced to simply send out the convoys on our own. We let the Ukrainian border guards and customs officers cross over to our territory to inspect the cargo, and they just sat there. They did not inspect the goods. So why were they sitting there?
The Red Cross worked on and off, because they have specific regulations for situations when a country where they propose to perform certain actions does not take part, they don’t not take part either. What are we to do? Where are the medications and food? Should we simply let people die there?
These are all very complicated issues having to do with various aspects, both legal and humanitarian. I am certain that in this case the humanitarian aspect is more important. We cannot sit and watch people die of hunger and cold, as you said here, or without medications and medical aid. Meanwhile I’ve heard complaints about this from our Ukrainian colleagues, as well as from the Europeans and Americans. This is strange, but it is a fact. It is simply incredible, but it is a fact. Nevertheless, we will continue to work patiently with everyone to resolve all these issues, but we should resolve them by agreeing on joint efforts rather than through confrontation.
Now regarding those who would like to obtain refugee status. We will of course work this out. The same goes for funding. We need to fund the humanitarian aid and the accommodation for those who would like to stay. The Government has received corresponding instructions and we have already reached agreement. We will either issue an executive order or amend the law, but we will make the funding available.
Over to gratitude to our employees. This is their work. I will hug and kiss them all. This would be enough for a start. However, we should wait until we see the results. We have to judge by the results. If there is anyone the state should reward, it is primarily people like you. As for those for whom this is just a job – we will not forget them, but we will assess the results.
Regarding those in Ukraine who refuse to provide aid or pay allowances. There is nothing we can do about this. I can tell you in this connection that here too bureaucrats do not always do their job properly in certain situations, while in Ukraine this is even more complicated, and there are all sorts of people there. However, if some bureaucrat, as you mentioned, said that Kramatorsk or some other city is not really Ukraine – well, that person is a fool to boot. Not only did he fail to do his duty, but he is also committing a crime against his own country by knowingly cutting its territory. I do not know if anyone authorised him to say so, but I think this is foolishness. There is nothing we can do about this. What can we do? As I have already said, we can and will render aid and support, and I would like to reiterate that we will try to do this not unilaterally, but jointly with the Ukrainian authorities and the people who live in the southeast of Ukraine.
Now over to the legal issues pertaining to providing advanced medical assistance to people without citizenship. I was not aware the problem even existed. We will try to amend the legal base as much as possible to rule out such obstacles.
Regarding university graduates who would like to stay, who do not wish to return to Ukraine because of the situation there — this is understandable. I also agree on this and we will help them.
Now over to another issue that was mentioned today. Despite all the problems that draw our attention to the developments in Ukraine, that attract public attention, we should never forget our own issues dealing with society and the state in the social, political or any other sphere. Corruption remains a grave issue. We should never forget our own problems and deficiencies. Therefore, all the proposals made here will be at least considered, while we should also try to jointly organise this work.
You spoke in favour of stepping up criminal action against corruption; I am not against it but this needs to be discussed with public organisations, including your colleagues who are present here and represent other areas of human rights, and with experts. In general, I am in favour of increasing penalties for corruption. Of course, we need to remove all loopholes in the regulatory framework in order for all the decisions made earlier to function effectively. And they must not just work effectively, but simply work, period. We need to ensure that everything functions. So I agree with you that we need to conduct such a comprehensive audit along this track. Of course, you yourself mentioned the Popular Front; colleagues there also have certain proposals. Let’s do this together with you, the Russian Popular Front, the public, and government agencies. This will certainly be useful. And let’s see how the work is currently organised and what will need to be done in addition. If we all come to the conclusion that we need to increase liability for these cases, let’s do it. Some things, perhaps, might even be excessive, in my view; I am referring to the possibility – or the impossibility, so to speak – of amnesty and so on for this category of individuals. But if the human rights movement feels that we even need to cancel amnesty provisions for these types of crimes, I suppose we could move in that direction; but I still think that’s excessively strict. However, if you think that needs to be done, let’s do it.
And now, with regard to the victims of political repression. Of course, it’s strange that here in Moscow, the issue of memorialising these victims has still not been resolved. We need to do it, of course. As for the federal targeted programme, at first glance, it certainly appears somewhat comical. When Mr Medvedev was President, he supported it, and later, when he became Prime Minister, the Cabinet turned down these proposals. You know, this is a manifestation of the omnipotence of bureaucracy. There is a certain bureaucratic logic, and it is not at all Mr Medvedev’s fault. I am sure that he is all for focussing attention on resolving these problems.
The point is that there is an established opinion prevailing in the depths of various departments that we cannot endlessly expand federal targeted programmes. Also, there are certain matters that require particular attention and could be best implemented in particular areas: in education, culture and so on. So the goal is not to forget this topic and completely dispose of it, but rather, how to best organise this work. The differing opinions are in conflict with one another. But this does not mean the idea of the federal targeted programme itself is entirely dead; let’s come back to this and think about it together.
Vladimir Putin: As for the Petersburg Dialogue [the Russian-German public forum], the German side’s logic is that under modern conditions, given our complicated relations with Europe, in order to save the Petersburg Dialogue, it is better to postpone it so as not to harm the process itself. After all, the Petersburg Dialogue was conceived as a platform for interaction between the two nations’ civil societies. Thus, this is a method for finding solutions to existing problems, but that is the logic of our German partners. Well, I suppose there is a rational element to this. If you have a different opinion, go ahead, you can discuss it with your colleagues, including your German colleagues.
chairman of the Council For Civil Society and Human Rights Mikhail Fedotov: Mr President, going back to the topic of the Petersburg Dialogue. When two nations have good, friendly relations, instead of a dialogue, you can simply go to a pub, have a beer and talk about this or that. But when the situation is tense, when the situation is complicated, that is when dialogue is crucial. How else can we talk, if not in a dialogue format?
Vladimir Putin: I will tell Madame Chancellor this; I will see her in a few days in Milan and we will talk.
Vladimir Putin: (addressing Nikolai Svanidze, who mentioned problems concerning the Crimean Tatars in his remarks) Thank you very much for bringing this issue to our attention. I think that you, I and all objective observers realise that in modern Russia, thank God, there are and cannot be any problems with the Crimean Tatars. There simply are no problems. Decisions such as those that we have made were not taken when they were part of Ukraine. These decisions are of vital importance for the people living there. First of all is the decision on rehabilitation. This is important for people because they do not want to feel like some kind of criminals. They want society to apologise to them. The rehabilitation decision has significance in this sense too in that it is a way of apologising to them. We were not involved in the decisions made back then [the deportation of the Crimean Tartars], but we nonetheless have the right to make our decisions today. We had a duty to do this and we have done so. This is my first point.
Second, as you mentioned, the Crimean Tatar language never had the status of an official language. Now, when official events take place, such as the planned population census, everything will be in the Crimean Tatar language too. This is a fundamental right of our citizens and we will ensure this right is protected.
But regarding the incidents you mention, any incidents must be investigated thoroughly of course. I thank you for bringing this to our attention. This is the first time I have heard about cases of people disappearing.
Nikolai Svanidze: There are cases of people disappearing and direct abduction of individuals by people without any identifying insignia.
Vladimir Putin: It’s hard to understand who could be doing this and why. I don’t understand this at all. What I do know for certain is that we will do what no one previously did for the Crimean Tatars. One of their biggest problems was getting legal recognition of their property and land rights. This is a key issue and we will help them here. We are taking steps to meet their needs.
There are some purely economic and legal problems there, but we will find solutions and not simply leave the situation suspended. Nothing was ever done there to provide normal everyday living conditions for people. We have approved a programme, are making the funds available, and will carry this out. This work involves building kindergartens, medical centres, developing infrastructure and so on. None of this was done before. People arrived and settled where they could. This was essentially squatting, but at the same time, you cannot deny people the right to live on the land where their forebears lived. All of this needs to be put in order and given legal recognition. We have no desire to drive the situation into a dead end. On the contrary, we want to resolve the problems.
But let me note too that we also must remember that the Crimean Tatars share this land with Greeks, Ukrainians, Germans and Russians. This is a very sensitive issue. Not everyone there shares the same views on what is happening with respect to these matters. We cannot do anything that would provoke any sort of interethnic tension. This is a very delicate matter. The threats that exist are not just idle talk but could be very real in the midst of all this situation, and so we must be very careful in our actions. At the same time, we will certainly support the people involved, except for those who call themselves representatives of the Crimean Tatars but in reality are pursuing different goals. There are people who have long been involved in human rights work and defending the Crimean Tatars’ interests, but who have kept their Ukrainian citizenship and are deputies in the Rada [Ukrainian parliament]. They take part as representatives of Ukraine in international events held in other countries, while at the same time claiming to speak for those who live in Crimea and have taken Russian citizenship. This is all a complicated mix of issues. I hope these people will not speculate on their past, their very noble past in some cases, to look after themselves personally now and tomorrow. At the same time though, we are willing to hold contacts with them and try to make some progress.
I am grateful to you for bringing this issue to my attention. Some of these things really do need looking into.
Vladimir Putin: We would be equally happy to help not only the Crimean Tatars but also the Germans, Armenians and all other peoples who lived there [in Crimea], were deported and suffered. I think that we should do this, but, if you’ll excuse the bureaucratic jargon, I think this should be part of our routine ongoing work.
I worked on the issue of resettling the Germans back when I was still working in St Petersburg. We built whole villages there as part of a joint programme with Germany. In this case we were dealing with Germans returning from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian republics and from other regions. We built these villages and I hope they are still functioning now. I am familiar with all the different aspects involved as I have practical experience with this matter. The big issue is the cost of course. I hope very much that we will finally sort this matter out, taking the position that we have some moral obligations that we have to fulfil despite the never-ending budget constraints.
Vladimir Putin: I want to say that this meeting has not been in vain. We have not managed to achieve all of our objectives, as you noted, but you also noted that some progress is taking place. We will continue our work together to ensure that we achieve more of what we plan, raise our results. This is very useful and also of great interest. I hope very much that the various matters we have discussed today will be followed up and addressed in proper fashion. I promise you that we will certainly give these matters our attention: interethnic relations, electoral rights – we will of course keep analysing this, and the political and material aspects of our life.
Stanislav Kucher: My question is a simple one. Many people I spoke with yesterday, who knew I would be at this meeting, asked me to put it to you. Mr President, do you plan to change this system in which everything depends solely on you? And if yes, then how?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, I think you are mistaken. It’s a very common view that everything depends solely on the President, but this is not the case. Many matters are decided without the President’s involvement and come under the responsibility of the various bodies that take the corresponding decisions. This concerns the Government, the courts, and the law enforcement system, and also the regional authorities. This is all the more true of local government, where the state’s involvement is defined entirely through the legal base, and direct intervention would be of little or no help at all in achieving anything there. But many colleagues want someone to be the one who ultimately bears all the responsibility, and so I end up often playing this role.
I don’t resist, because in the end, we all bear our share of responsibility even for what would seem to be not part of our direct jurisdiction. This is true of any country and not just Russia with its well-known historic traditions. For everything to work smoothly and not depend on the people at the top, we need to improve the institutions of civil society, improve our system of democracy, eradicate corruption, which we spoke about today, improve the work of the courts and the law enforcement system and of public administration in general. Our public administration’s quality of work has to improve radically, and discussions such as this one today can help with this, as can the subsequent decisions that we will certainly implement together with your help.
Thank you very much.