President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon, colleagues,
The first meeting of the Civic Chamber took place almost five years ago, although not in this hall, so we may say that the Civic Chamber is five years old already. During this time through the efforts of various public movements, associations and public figures, which covers everyone present here and some who are absent because the composition of the Civic Chamber changes over time, we have managed to create an influential public forum. This forum is open for debate on a wide variety of issues and it helps non-profit organisations to establish horizontal communication and to make their interaction with the government authorities more effective. Individuals and organisations turn to the Civic Chamber for assistance, for help, people who come across problems in their everyday lives or problems related to their dealings with the authorities or with ordinary corruption.
The Chamber’s experts study various issues, decide on their compliance with the Constitution and our laws. Therefore, I would like to begin by thanking all those present for their proactive stance, for helping ordinary people and our non-profit organisations and for strengthening civil society in our country.
In 2010, the Chamber examined the most important draft laws, some of which I had submitted personally. I would like to thank you for that as well.
You participate in the work on documents that have relevance for all Russians, including Federal Law On the Budget, which determines the state and the overall development of our entire economy, the Law On the Police Force, which is currently being debated in the Federal Assembly, and the Law On Education, which is being discussed at the moment. The Chamber also organised debates on some very resonant issues, such as the construction of Okhta Centre in St Petersburg or the Moscow-St Petersburg expressway through the Khimki forest, the situation with the Rechnik community in Moscow and a number of other issues that were at the focus of public attention. You set up hotlines for housing and utilities issues, the National Final School Exam, the environment and social guarantees for veterans. This is real work.
I would like to note especially the speed with which the Civic Chamber has responded to my initiative to raise funds for those affected by wildfires last summer. I recall that you collected nearly 300 million rubles [about $10 million] in two weeks. I would like to thank you for organising this effort, and of course all the individuals and companies that made donations.
The Civic Chamber established public monitoring commissions in line with the law on public control. Over 500 people are working in 77 regions today. The Public Monitoring Commissions Council of Chairpersons has also begun its work.
You support various public movements, including those concerned with the environment. With your help, public complaints have prompted inspections of enterprises that pollute the environment, those that are detrimental to human health. This is a very important job, especially since the Civic Chamber approaches it without unnecessary emotions, seriously and quietly, which, strictly speaking, is what is needed to achieve results.
Five years is a sufficiently long time and we should not just summarise results (I hope we will hear about that in the report to be delivered by Mr Velikhov [Evgeny Velikhov, Secretary of the Civic Chamber]), but also to identify new challenges the Chamber could tackle with the participation of all those present here.
Not so long ago at the last meeting of the Anti-Corruption Council, I proposed that the Civic Chamber should submit an annual report on the effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts. Given the scale of corruption, there is no doubt you will have plenty of work to do over a lengthy period of time.
There is another issue I would like to highlight related to corruption: public control over officials’ incomes. This subject never fails to provoke a genuine interest among different people. But most importantly, you must make sure that the checks that have been introduced at my direct insistence are effective. We all know that it is easy enough to file a formal declaration and even to report to the media on it. What is much more important is that this declaration is consistent with the actual income received.
The entire world has learned to do it. We must also tackle this through state channels, and I issued corresponding instructions to state agencies, and through public organisations and public agencies. I think that is important.
Another very complex and vitally important issue is to maintain civil accord and interethnic and interreligious harmony in our country. It is not only a prerequisite for the modernisation of our state, which goes without saying, I don’t even want to go into that; it is simply crucial for the preservation of our state in its current form. Therefore, we must take very serious measures to prevent the spread of ethnic extremism, which is based on lies, on the distortion of cultural traditions, and often on the distortion of history. To achieve this we must safeguard and promote the genuine values – and not the stereotypes – of all the peoples living in our multinational country, their cultures, including, of course, the Russian culture, which has always been the backbone of our state.
Today we can discuss how to do this in practice, what mechanisms and forms of support can be employed here, what public institutions could be useful, and the positive contribution to these processes that could be made by civil society.
One last issue before I finish: civil society is based on a feedback system between the authorities and citizens, between the authorities and public associations, ultimately between the state and civil society. Simply put, it is a system that allows the state to hear what people say. The quality of our feedback system is not great so far, to put it mildly.
I have repeatedly talked about this to different audiences. It is a duty of all public officials to communicate with people both directly, in person and indirectly, through traditional channels and in electronic form. This greatly reduces the distance between the government and people, and the smaller this distance, the more developed the civil society.
I think that is all the issues for now. In order to lead by example, as they say, I am planning to set up a series of meetings in the near future with representatives of various professions and social groups through public organisations because sometimes the conversations I have with people during my trips around the country, and even more so the communication through formal channels, is not entirely representative. The authorities at every level, including the President, must hear what people say, and what they usually talk about is their problems. There are plenty of such problems and they are all well known, including housing and utilities services, prices, education, healthcare and the pension system.
I say this to make sure that it is not only the members of the Civic Chamber who hear me, but also public officials and regional leaders. They all have to get involved.
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I will begin with the more serious issues that, incidentally, were mentioned by nearly everyone. This is a common situation in the legal sphere and it is among the fundamental problems: respecting the courts. I, too, think about it often. I have the feeling that we often facilitate the reduction of the courts’ authority and influence on a day-to-day level and a state level. Sometimes, this is done absolutely consciously in order to reach completely self-serving goals, including by those same lawyers. Sometimes, it is done entirely or almost unconsciously, as an emotional impulse. But in any event, both the media and Twitter – I looked, they carried out a sort of a quiz there, which showed that 80 per cent of respondents do not believe that court decisions are fair. Overall, this is an extremely grave symptom, even if the real figures are somewhat different, because I do not know how much this representative average reflects the actual situation.
And there are many reasons for this; I have spoken about them many times – including about our very difficult history. The courts in our nation have never been especially respected; that was the case even during the reign of the Tsars. People believed in good-hearted Tsars, or even good landlords, but they did not believe in courts, or public institutions staffed by civil servants that settled disputes or dealt with other property-related matters, or administrated punishments.
Unfortunately, this has continued all throughout our history to recent times – essentially, since the appearance of modern courts, courts in the form of adversary proceedings (this was 150 years ago) and up to today. I feel that ultimately, everyone is responsible for these attitudes toward the courts: the government, society, and the courts themselves.
Therefore we absolutely need to make some serious efforts in order for the courts to take their rightful place in our system of values. I want to emphasise: not in the state machine but in the system of values, because the courts are a value category. And if there is a feeling that there will be no justice for your case (regardless of who examines it), then this is no longer an issue of legal norms but of value judgements.
What must we do? I am not going to make a big speech about it; you already know what those things are. I simply call on you to be as respectful of the courts as possible in your daily work, including the work of the media.
You know, people often come to me with suggestions and sometimes the make hard statements: ‘Mr President, why don’t you fix this court decision.’ It doesn’t matter who is being judged: a businessperson, a drug addict, or someone else. This is how the disease really begins. Incidentally, even foreign leaders make such requests to me. It’s mind-boggling! We will never have a law-abiding state if leaders at any level, beginning with the President and ending with a village elder, will moralise and demand that there be pressure on the courts. We need to ensure that the courts are as independent as possible of other authorities and at the same time, entirely dependent on society.
Judges are not a closed body. Don’t we know that judges take bribes? Yes, they do. Who is it easier to catch red-handed, a policeman or a judge? A policeman, of course, or an investigator, or a prosecutor, or a civil servant. Go and try catching a judge! There’s an absolute corporate secrecy. At one point, we ourselves fought for it, because Soviet judges did not have a single one of the necessary forms of immunity. But we created an ironhard body. And unfortunately, this body is not capable of complete self-purification. If it were able to expel those who have broken the law on its own, this would have been good, but unfortunately, it is unable to do this today.
Therefore, I wanted to inform you that I will be thinking over mechanisms that will give us valid constitutional methods to monitor the situation within this judicial corporation.
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Now, I’d like to talk about our great classical culture. I have had to say many times that it truly has enormous value. It is simply the foundation, the cement that holds our society. We need to treat it very reverently and at the same time, we should not regard our classical culture as having ended in the 19th or 20th century. Because we all know that in even the 19th century there were people saying that the writers we praise today as classics did not know how to write, had absolutely no topics to write about, and their writing was feeble-minded and vulgar. Today, we excitedly read their works and want our children to do the same. Classical culture did not end in the 19th or 20th century. It continues. That itself is the great Russian culture. But naturally, we need to strive for the best examples.
The development of electronic media has greatly expanded all kinds of cultures, including classical culture, and has created a whole range of problems that we have repeatedly discussed. I remember my meeting with musicians where we discussed intellectual property issues. Unfortunately, not all of these issues can be resolved within Russia’s legislative field. I will be going to Davos and it is likely that in my speech, I will appeal to other leaders and the business community to attempt to create a new convention basis regulating copyright issues. The current copyright conventions, created in late 19th to mid 20th century, do not work in the electronic world. They do not work in the Internet space, and unfortunately, they cannot always be applied to modern society. We need new decisions.
The same issue generally concerns the development of electronic media. Some here have said that this development is not following our rules. That is true. And I do not know if we have a chance of interfering in this process.
But we must try. We have spent a fair amount of time discussing whether Russia needs its own search engine. Right now, these efforts are continuing. It is not a question of national prestige; rather, if you will, it is also an issue of identity, because when a search engine is built on the basis of the English language, that’s one thing, but when it offers options to search for Russian-language equivalents, that’s another matter. Ultimately, it is also a question of culture, and not just a question of state independence or something else.
We must therefore try to truly influence the development of the electronic media and the development of the Internet. But at the same time, our opportunities are fairly limited, because this space is evolving according to its own laws. And overall, that is probably its value.