President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Colleagues,
We have already established a special format for getting together with political parties in this government complex [Barvikha]. In my view this has been very successful, and now you can judge for yourselves.
I have met with the parties represented in our parliament, the State Duma. Today it is the turn of the parties that unfortunately have no such representation, but are likely to get back into parliament sooner or later.
Since in addition to the tens of thousands of party members who constitute your supporters, you have lots of sympathizers who are not party members but who share your ideology, I consider this sort of meeting very useful. I specifically emphasized that I wanted to meet with representatives of our major political parties that were not represented in parliament.
We can talk about anything you think appropriate, there is no particular agenda. Of course we'll discuss the political system and the initiatives that have recently gone through the State Duma. Although one can question any one of these initiatives, I believe that they are measures designed to develop a modern, more democratic political system in our country. Of course, the process of shaping a political system is a work in constant progress, and perhaps you have your own ideas about what should have been done and what should not have been done – this is your opportunity to tell me what you think.
There is one subject that unites us all, our desire to resolve the current economic crisis. This is a difficult time in our country's history and in the history of other countries, so I think it would be a good idea to talk about this as well. In any case, you will have your own ideas about how to extricate ourselves from the difficult economic situation in our country.
The agenda is wide open, I am ready to listen and of course to make whatever comments I think necessary. In concluding these brief opening remarks, let me congratulate you all on the upcoming national holiday, the Day of Russia.
Given that you brought up several important topics, I will not address everything. We will share our impressions later, and other colleagues will also get a chance to speak. But there are several issues that I would like to comment on.
The first topic you brought up is the question of whether non-parliamentary parties have the same opportunities as parties already in the parliament. You said that they do not, and I agree with you: they don’t have the same opportunities. But it seems to me that to a certain degree, this is fair, since parliamentary parties (regardless of our attitudes toward our colleagues in the parliament, the parliamentary resources available to them, and their ideological stances) fought a political battle and won the right to represent the interests of Russian citizens in our parliament.
Another question that came up is whether there should be a great divide between the parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties, a divide that non-parliamentary parties cannot overcome. Again, the answer is no. In my view, this is unnecessary for our government and our fledgling political system, so I am not against any of the suggestions you listed. Still, I think that we can discuss many possible improvements to the current legislature.
For example, I’m not sure that right now, we can or should instate state financing for all the parties. But nevertheless, I am not rejecting this idea entirely.
As far as equal access to the media is concerned: indeed, just recently, a law was passed, on my initiative, to provide the parliamentary parties access to media, particularly electronic media.
Our colleagues [from the parliamentary parties] voiced their reservations regarding this law in this very room, expressing a number of doubts. Here is what I told them, and what I would also like to say to you: let’s see how this law is applied. It is experimental, and it has been passed first and foremost in order to defend the rights of opposition parties – those that are not nearest to the seat of power, but have nevertheless been elected to parliament. I am open to expanding this legislation in the future, but first, we need some practice in applying it, to see its strengths and weaknesses in action.
I will begin with what you have defined as a flaw in our current political system: the centralisation of power, the power vertical.
You know, it’s not about the term really and not about the administrative control methods. What is the power vertical? It is a vertical subordination. Actually this is what has been accepted by the entire world. What else should be there – a power horizontal?
Reply: A division [of power].
Dmitry Medvedev: That is a different matter. I’m talking about a single authority. The executive branch, for example, needs to have a solid consolidation of power, in order not to lose its governance grip over the country. In the 1990s, we had a very dysfunctional model of governance. There was no consolidation of power, and as a result, decisions on a federal level made jointly by both the President and the Government, in some cases were not carried out by executive bodies in the federal constituent entities. This reflected a collapsing government. These tendencies can be observed in some of Russia’s neighbouring countries, and I would not want to be in their place. Thus, the term “centralization of power” is neither bad nor good, and it serves no purpose to obsess over it. I would summarise this issue in a different way: the government reaches into a lot of places where we don’t need it. That, I think, is one of the real problems we’re facing, because we do not have a structured civil society and because a large share of our civil servants are acting unacceptably; you are 100% right about this. Moreover, at a certain point, being a civil servant became a popular career aspiration.
When I was graduating from university, and I imagine that the same was true for many of you, working for the government was not regarded as a special, popular, or advantageous profession. It was regarded as hard work, although it provided certain opportunities. But at some point, university-bound students began to look at this line of work differently, and now, many people become civil servants for the chance to make good money. This is a very negative change in motivation. This really is an issue that provides opportunities for joint work between parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties, as well as civil society overall.
You spoke about widespread breaches of people’s rights. Our country does have complicated attitudes of tolerance toward such breaches, which is an issue that I have addressed many times. But people need to know how to fight for their rights, and currently, this is not part of our culture. What happens elsewhere when civil rights are breached? First, civil groups are formed, to try to resolve the problems at a lower judicial level. If they are unable to do so, and the issue at hand is a serious one, they hire a lawyer on social causes and human rights, and the lawyer goes to court and takes the matter to the highest judicial level. In fact, lawyers sometimes do this pro bono, simply to ensure that people are given their rights, while the lawyer gains publicity, thereby earning political credibility. As we all know, many political leaders started out exactly this way, as lawyers. Next, a ruling is made, and once it is made, it is strictly carried out. “Let there be justice, though the world perish.”
Now, what happens in Russia? First, people go to a civil servant. They come to him several times, but this does not result in anything. Next, they go to the media, as an alternative source of authority. If that doesn’t work, you know whom they write to?
Reply: To you.
Dmitry Medvedev: To me. That’s right. This is our hierarchy in the defence of human rights.
Reply: They also write to Strasbourg [European Court of Human Rights].
Dmitry Medvedev: Yes; after all, we have a free country, regardless of what anyone says. So if going to the President or government institutions doesn’t work, people send letters abroad. But we know that this is not the best way to fight for our own rights; we just don’t know the right way to do it. The civic organisations that should be addressing these issues are not well-developed. Non-profit organisations are either unable to work on these issues or, more often, they focus on political issues – the issues that should be dealt with by politicians – rather than human rights. Meanwhile, you are doing the things that they should be doing, which isn’t right either, because you should be fighting for representation in parliament. Thus, this issue is muddled.
Not long ago, I met with our colleagues from NGOs. Afterwards, the Presidential Executive Office went to work on their suggestions, and soon, I will be meeting those representatives again and making amendments to the law on NGOs and public associations. Thus, it is important for people to know how to fight for their rights, and to do so in a civilized way. Clearly, this culture cannot spring up overnight. But in any case, things have already improved since Soviet times. Back then, there was only one place people could send letters to: the Communist Party committee [partkom], and then the general secretary. Today, at least, people have some sort of choice.
Reply: Or the NKVD [People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs].
Dmitry Medvedev: That was even earlier.
Another issue that you brought up is corruption. This is something that you spoke about in detail, and I agree with about 90 percent of what you said (although there were also a few points I disagree with). Corruption results from non-transparency and from breaches of human rights and lack of savvy in defence against the government. I will not repeat what you said, but I want to emphasise again that I agree with much of it. Still, in discussing various major projects and programmes, I would like to say the following: we may have a good idea – for example, to implement a major programme devoted to housing, roads, and land. I discussed this with Mr Grigory Yavlinsky [member of the Yabloko party political committee] when we met. At the same time, I don’t think that legislation in this domain should not be a motivating factor. You brought up the example of land allotted specifically for construction. I think that our legislation needs to be stricter, but also more amenable to people’s requests. It should be easier for people to receive land, but at the same time, there should be harsher penalties for requesting land and failing to build on the land, or using it for other purposes, including eviction.
The same is true of arable land (this issue was also brought up at many of my meetings with other political parties). We should make it easier for people to acquire land, but at the same time, there should be rules against failing to use this land for agricultural purposes; if you don’t begin using it for that purpose in three to five years, you lose the land.
I feel that this is important.
The tariff issue is also quite complicated. Clearly, the current tariff increase is no accident. This is a planned action on the part of the Government, one that needs to continue. Why? In order to make our own economy more competitive. At the same time, though, we are in a crisis, and we must monitor these processes with particular care. In many cases, we can limit our consumption and limit certain programmes, for example, although this may not be good for the economy. But one thing I certainly agree on is that we need to monitor consumption by large companies that receive government assistance.
In fact, I first spoke about this in London, and the Government implemented this decision quite quickly. Currently, decisions have already been made regarding bonuses paid in companies receiving government assistance. First of all, such bonuses are now publicly-known, and second, these bonuses are on hold. There are also non-transparent expenditures involved, such as various bids and decisions regarding who will be the prime supplier. This is always a complicated issue. As you know, I spent a lot of time on executive board. I know how these processes work, and how difficult it sometimes is to distinguish between the real necessity to buy a certain product from a particular supplier, and the management’s desire to gain a little something from the deal. Thus, this is indeed an issue that executive boards and state representatives within those companies need to be aware of.
Now, regarding the idea that small parties will never get ahead if large parties are given special advantages. There should not be any great divide between those who made it into the State Duma in the last election, and those who did not, especially since some of the parties present here have already been elected to the State Duma before. Everyone goes through difficult times. Your popularity may drop, or something else may happen. Thus, I think that there should be differences between parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties, but they should not be so dramatic as to make this divide even greater. That is in fact something we have been working on; the fact that I have been talking with you and Mr Gennady Semigin [chairman of the Patriots of Russia party], is also aimed toward reducing those differences.
I will say just a few words on the issue brought up by Mr Boris Titov [co-chairman of the Right Cause party]. First, regarding innovation. Although I have some experience in the entrepreneurial sphere and have been engaged in business, I still do not fully agree with you that businesses are in such a tight spot and therefore do not want to work on innovation or make investments. I think that this is a matter of mindset. For many entrepreneurs…
(Turning to Mr Yavlinsky) Mr Yavlinsky, do you find this boring?
Grigory Yavlinsky: I’m sorry.
Dmitry Medvedev: I didn’t interrupt you. I realize that your party is not the one speaking right now, but you need to give your colleagues a chance to speak as well. I know that you dislike the Right Cause, but have some respect.
As far as investments in innovation are concerned, I think this really is a matter of mindset, regardless of your attempts to convince me otherwise. I think this is neither an issue of bureaucratic pressure, nor the lack of technical regulations. After all, I talk with various entrepreneurs representing large and medium-sized businesses, and some of my close friends represent very small businesses indeed. But they will not make investments until their general idea of how to proceed changes. To help them do that, we must create the right conditions. In this regard, you are right.
Regarding technical regulations: in recent years, the situation has begun to change. When I first began working for the Government, I was shocked: we passed a law on technical regulations (around 2005) and the law just didn’t work at all. In the two or three years that it was in place, not a single technical regulation was made. Then, we started working on this as part of our national projects, which at least got things moving somewhat. Furthermore, I lobbied to change the order for accepting technical regulations, because at the time, they were only accepted as laws. You can hardly imagine what it was like. There were tomes describing complicated technical issues, which could be accepted as laws by the State Duma, in the form of government acts or departmental documents.
Now, a certain number of technical regulations has been accepted, including basic ones. But unfortunately, this process is quite slow, even for technical regulations on construction. I do not think that we can accept the European Union’s technical regulations as universal, but we can probably use individual ones as a basis to develop our own, especially since we are calling for universal compatibility in the economy. We have a very strong relationship with the European Union; it is our largest market, and we are theirs.
Regarding the Conference on Effective Bureaucracy Against Corruption: let’s hold one, I’m not against it. We would just need to think about who would be invited as an example of an effective bureaucrat. Tell me who these people are, so that we can show them to others.
Reply: Who else is there, besides yourself?
D.Medvedev: Well, at least that’s one. That’s already a good start.