In addition to the members of the federal Civic Chamber, the meeting in the Kremlin was attended by representatives of regional civic chambers from Russia’s 84 regions.
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Excerpts from transcript of Civic Chamber’s plenary session
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, friends.
It is a great pleasure to welcome you here and to congratulate you on this momentous event, the 10th anniversary of the Civic Chamber’s establishment. Over the years you have accumulated a wealth of experience and implemented numerous initiatives aimed primarily at improving people’s lives and fostering our country’s development.
The Chamber’s composition has changed several times over these years. Undoubtedly, what is most important is that there should be continuity in your work, accumulated know-how and growing influence. This is the most convincing proof that the Civic Chamber has come into its own, and the expert community and state authorities must and do respect its views, conclusions and proposals.
A wide variety of issues fall into your scope of activity. They include promoting interethnic relations, combating corruption, dealing with environmental problems, as well as issues in healthcare, culture and education. The Civic Chamber has become an effective body providing high-quality expert assessments, first and foremost of draft laws, as well as an effective platform for dialogue between the public and authorities.
The Civic Chamber has been influential in forming a culture of public debate, which is very important, particularly for starting the work. At the same time, we remember quite well how this debate developed. Sometimes we wanted to see qualitative improvement. I want to say again – I think you have made a significant input into this positive process.
The interests of our nation’s citizens, of the public, have always been at the forefront of the Civic Chamber. I sincerely thank you for the help you provided to residents of Russian regions that were affected by various natural disasters. You promptly carry out large-scale campaigns and always collect significant resources. This active participation serves as evidence of how much you care about people and the life of society overall.
Over the past decade, many of the Chamber’s initiatives have been turned into legislation or received active support from the Government. This includes contributions to the development of charitable activities and volunteer work, the creation of conditions for public monitoring of government agencies’ performance, the launch of a public monitoring system over the National Final School Exam, as well as the organisation of public supervisory commissions for the observance of human rights in detention centres, regulation of gambling and certain other areas.
I would like to highlight your support for the non-governmental sector. You actively participated in the development of amendments to laws that concerned socially-focused non-governmental organisations and the creation of conditions for their work.
The Civic Chamber’s initial readings of socially significant bills also had enormous significance. This is routine work that provides public access to legislation, and is a real mechanism for direct democracy, which we are consistently developing, and will continue to develop in the future.
I know that the Chamber presented a suggestion on renewing legislative regulation over the non-governmental sector, including the creation of a modern common NGO registry. The need for such amendments resulted from a thorough analysis of the work by non-governmental organisations. There are over 220,000 NGOs in Russia. We obviously need clear criteria that can be used to identify the areas of work that are most greatly needed by society. It is important that these legislative initiatives are now being developed in close cooperation with representatives of the so-called third sector.
I also welcome the new Prospects project from the Chamber. Its goal is to identify NGO leaders working on projects that are useful to society in the regions and who are held in high esteem by our citizens. I view this approach as very timely; after all, active civic and social participation not only helps address many long-standing problems, but also strengthens the patriotic spirit, promoting our shared national values. This position, this attitude towards life and towards one’s nation, should be encouraged by society in every possible way.
Moreover, it is useful to know which NGOs are doing what and how their projects are working in practice, whether they are receiving budgetary assistance or other support in their regions, what difficulties they face in tackling the challenges that they were created to combat. This information is a great foundation for the future, the basis for further successful development of the third sector, which is capable of working side by side with small businesses and municipal institutions in a wide range of social areas.
Friends, public activism is strictly voluntary work. It does not promise benefits of privileges, but requires a great deal of responsibility. People engage in it following the call of their hearts, often combining it with fulfilling their professional duties and giving all their free time to public activism. Over the past decade, you have been able to do a great deal of useful and necessary work for our nation, and society rightly expects that the effectiveness of your work will only increase – in any case, that is our hope.
Thank you all very much!
Initially we planned the Russian Civic Chamber, the principles of its formation and its activities as a means to broaden the foundation of democracy in the literal sense of the word, without making a show of it. That is the case,because the existing agencies not only in our nation but in many others are insufficient.
Parliamentary democracy no longer addresses all our needs. Unfortunately, national parliaments, and not just ours, do not always fully reflect society’s opinion, so this is an additional instrument. But nevertheless, we need to ensure that civic chambers are not a “second edition” of the regional parliament.
We need to carefully define their authority and formation principles. Give us your projects – we will analyse them and work on this together.
I truly believed and continue to believe that initial readings are a very important instrument in increasing the quality of legislative work, a highly important element because not only in our nation but throughout the world, and in certain countries this activity is even legalised – I am talking about lobbying, it is highly active and sometimes quite effective.
Since we are speaking openly, I’ll say that it’s possible that lobbying can and will likely be extended to the Civic Chamber – in the sense that initial readings, one way or another, affect the final legislative decisions. This is probably inevitable. The only thing I would like to wish is for this to always be an alternate point of view, so that these so-called lobbyists do not contrive to use all the instruments to achieve goals that are exclusively theirs. I ask you to always keep that in mind.
With such an enormous number of legislative acts adopted by the State Duma and Federation Council over the course of the year, it is highly important to know the opinions of those who believe a particular issue should be resolved somewhat differently. The law is an instrument that regulates relations in society, relations between people. It is important to balance these interests in society. So I would like to thank you for this and wish you success.
The Civic Chamber and Russian Popular Front are broad, large instruments. For example, civic chambers in the regions we just discussed are the instruments for balancing societal interests, a very important instrument to avoid any kind of monopoly, either by administrative or municipal agencies, for example, on life in a district, in a town, or the state overall. This balancing tool is highly important. In this regard, we certainly need non-profit organisations that are an even finer instrument for achieving this balance of interests. So we have supported and will certainly support further this area of activity.
Do we need any additional benefits? I have no doubt that we need some sort of support, because there are some things (I won’t list them now) that look quite unfair, since non-profits face a certain burden from the fiscal authorities, and in general, their work is not aimed at generating profit. So this is highly important.
But here, we also see certain dangers, which you just mentioned, like tax benefits, because as soon as benefits are made available, some companies emerge under the guise of NGO activity that make everything – from nails to diamonds – and all of this as an NGO. Sometimes, it is very difficult to manage and identify this, sometimes even impossible. So let’s think together about this system of support and keep in mind the aspect I just mentioned.
There were many questions about so-called foreign agents. I don’t really want to return to this issue again, but at the same time, I also agree with the colleagues who say that certain matters require further adjustment. It’s true, I have come across this myself, and it is clear that some of the wording in the law may be interpreted inconsistently, and overall can sometimes be damaging even to the work of absolutely loyal, pro-Russian organisations designed to help people.
But still, our working practices and the latest data prove that we were right in introducing this concept. A recent event – I no longer remember the name of the organisation, but it supposedly served the consumers – so it began to give recommendations on how our tourists should behave in Crimea and how they should resolve property issues in Crimea. Is that serving Russian citizens? No, that’s serving the interests of foreign states with regard to Russia.
That is precisely why we introduces the “foreign agent” concept, so that foreign states do not use such instruments to meddle in our domestic affairs. Nevertheless, this sphere of activity requires additional regulation and additional analysis and corresponding decision-making. So we will continue working on this together.
(On the relationship between local authorities and the media) Of course, the authorities at any level – municipal, regional or national – should publicise their work. And to do this, we must allocate funding, because without financial provision, nothing is possible here.
But this funding should be limited, while the information should cover only certain facts, no more than that. And if budget money is essentially allocated and used for publicity purposes of certain individuals or officials, there is nothing good about that.
That is essentially the misuse of funds, and we need to come up with a mechanism that would not allow money that could be used for resolving social tasks, particularly for the construction of kindergartens, to be spent on blatant PR. I fully agree.
I have already asked the Cabinet to consider protection instruments, and the Presidential Executive Office is putting forward various solutions; we will limit expenditures in various ways. But our people are inventive. They will immediately think of some new source, seemingly not from the budget, they will involve an allied businessand so on. So public monitoring and professional assessments by the community are highly needed, and this is also an area we must work in.
But there is another danger that we have encounteredlately. You spoke about direct bribery, but there is another component: ‘articles for hire’. They pay journalists for not writing anything bad about them, while those who can do that resort to blackmail, and that includes some of your guild fellows. So we need to carefully monitor what is happening within the administrative and bureaucratic community, as well as in the other one – you understand what I am talking about. It is no easy work, but it needs to be done on a regular basis.
(On the creation of public councils under regional government agencies) Naturally, a government agency is either a federal agency or a regional one. When a civic chamber is formed, let’s be honest, we are all humans, when you form a civic chamber, are you going to invite critics as members? No, you will invite people who tell you nice things, or at least well-wishing experts whose opinion can be used externally and for yourself, to take it into account. That is what a smart person would do. But you would unlikely invite people who will criticise you.
We do not need to launch hostilities around regional government agencies, but we need entirely independent, good, open expertise on all decisions made at the regional level – this is highly important. Russia, like any other nation, is about its regions, so a great deal depends on the quality of work done by the regional authorities. In this respect, public control is highly important at this level. I would like to have your proposals on how to set firth these requirements to public councils. This is very important.
I want to wish you success. I want to thank you for your joint work over the course of the last several years and once again stress that the Civic Chamber is fulfilling a very important function in our nation, in our society and in the state in a very wide range of areas. Just now, we spoke about what is important for cadet corps, for motherhood and childhood, for non-profit organisations, for good-faith buyers of housing and so in. If we look at each of these issues, it does not seem that huge, but all together, they form the foundation of life of any ordinary Russian; and what could be more important?
I wish you success! Thank you very much.