President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon. Mr Astakhov, you have worked as Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights for a month now. We have met and discussed various issues. Of course we’re not expecting you to summarise the results of your work but you have identified and assessed the problems that exist. I’ve read a number of your presentations, and they struck me as both reasonable and accurate responses to the problems now confronting us. On what are you planning to focus? What do you see as the most important challenges in the current situation?
Presidential Commissioner For Children’S Rights Pavel Astakhov: First of all, Mr President, I would like to thank you for the confidence that you have shown in me. This is the first opportunity I have had to do that personally, officially. During my first month in the new position, unfortunately the main priority has simply been trying to save the children. Of course I would like to focus on other areas as well. There are a lot of them, including teaching families their responsibilities, which I believe should be one of the nation’s main priorities. We often see children and teenagers who grow up with no understanding of what constitutes a responsible approach to creating a family, to raising children in a family, because unfortunately many of them have never known it themselves.
Currently we are concentrating on trying to comply with your instruction that was explicitly set out in your executive order concerning the creation of regional commissioners for children’s rights across the country. In some places the results have been positive: the first commissioners appeared in 1998, as the result of an experiment that UNICEF suggested. This was successful in various places, for example, in Kaluga and Volgograd Regions there are still such commissioners, but elsewhere they have been abolished, for example, in Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg, though St Petersburg has now created a commissioner in compliance with your order. I think we need to complete this network of commissioners as soon as possible, because they have proven to be very effective units on the ground.
Dmitry Medvedev: I imagine so. The only thing I would like to warn you against is creating a bureaucratic system of commissioners, in the vertical form we know so well. But if they comprise efficient and independent people who are not unduly influenced by the local authorities and willing to work strictly within the law to protect the interests of the child and family in the broadest sense, that would be good.
Pavel Astakhov: That is exactly the sort of people that I want in these positions, because my previous profession has made the bureaucracy totally alien to me.
Dmitry Medvedev: I hope so. This is one of our most serious problems and you need to take up arms against it.
Pavel Astakhov: Generally speaking I am not a narrow specialist in children’s rights, but the more I deal with people, with professionals, the more convinced I am that it is more important to show children sincere love and respect than it is to teach them their rights. So precisely what we need here is not so much cool, calculating people who understand what to do, but people who care passionately about this problem. There are such people.
Dmitry Medvedev: You know as well as anyone, a knowledge of the law is still a very important thing. As lawyers we both understand this. Because after all in the regions and municipalities there has been a great deal of lawlessness. Nobody respects or bothers to look at authorised documents. At best, some papers get shifted from place to place.
So if the President sets the post of Commissioner for Children’s Rights and there are commissioners working in the field who will be addressing the same subject and drum into the heads of officials and other persons involved in raising and educating children some of the basic formulas of family law, this would be no bad thing. Of course that is not in itself enough. We need to respond to the situations you’ve described, but we also need to educate.
Pavel Astakhov: I absolutely agree. The latest developments in Izhevsk about which you probably heard …
Dmitry Medvedev: I did.
Pavel Astakhov: … They just confirm that even attempts to drum these things into people’s heads are sometimes not enough. One of our commissioners works in Izhevsk. She has been talking for a whole year about the terrible situation in this boarding school, and no one has been listening. Now they are involved in extensive meetings, they are making decisions. Perhaps I’m wrong but I’m recommending on the basis of the information at my disposal that we abolish this boarding school. Because we need to save children who have not been damaged by this internal contagion.
Dmitry Medvedev: As you know, we obviously have to look into this. It is indeed a very sad thing, a very sad event. We need to look into this. You have already given the necessary signal. We need to get in touch with the Prosecutor General’s Office and come up with a final decision: what to do with this boarding school and what actions to take against those who worked there and are still working there.
So my message to you and the Prosecutor General’s Office is to continue work on this incident. Find out what you can then report back to me.
PAVEL ASTAKHOV: I’ll report to you without fail. Because God forbid that we should ever have such a situation again. It will serve as an example of what must not happen. So we need to unearth all the facts; I understand your instruction and it will be carried out.
I also have to ask you to give me time – I would say a month – in order to come up with a detailed analysis of the existing legislation, because in principle I can say that the primary legislation in place is sufficient to protect children and to monitor adoption and foster families.
So now all we need to do is review law enforcement practices and see if there are any gaps and opportunities for improvement, additions or changes to the legislation, and I would ask you to give us that opportunity. I’ll report back to you in a month on what actions still need to be taken, particularly in so far as legislation is concerned.
Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I also agree with you on this because at some point I was involved in this issue when studying and assessing the laws. Our legislation is not that bad: it is actually quite modern and up to date – we changed it in the 1990s. So when the call goes out for drafting some totally new law, we know that this all stems from illusions about the nature of legislation. But of course we must take stock of what we have and adapt things if there are some gaps that need to be filled. And of course the most important and most difficult thing is enforcement, i.e. the way the legislation on the family must function in our cities, in schools and institutions, and in our families themselves.
Pavel Astakhov: Unfortunately these laws are not always well enforced. We know that.
There’s another thing I want to say in this regard – and I am speaking here of what is currently a general trend, something I have already seen in practice – without public organisations, without NGOs, without the non-profit organisations, in particular the socially-oriented ones singled out in recent legislation, we simply cannot succeed. Because there are some places that government authorities cannot reach: we cannot look everywhere or find out to what extent every child feels safe.
Dmitry Medvedev: And rightly so that there are places the government cannot reach. This is really the task of civil society. After all, the challenge for representatives such as Commissioner for Children’s Rights is to create momentum, to respond to the most complex situations, to propose measures to improve laws and enforcement practices, but all the basic, everyday work has to be done by civil society, by non-profit organisations. This is precisely why they exist all over the world: they keep an eye on how things are going in different families. Incidentally, they are responsible for mediation of various kinds relating to children, and in this way they develop relations with parents. So the better you build relationships with non-profit organisations – especially now that we have this new legislation on socially-oriented NGOs – the easier your work will be and, most importantly, the better its results will be.