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Meeting with young parliamentary deputies

May 13, 2011, Kostroma

Dmitry Medvedev discussed the development of Russia’s political system with young parliamentary deputies.

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Excerpts from transcript of meeting with young parliamentary deputies

President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: I wish you all welcome.

It is a real pleasure to have this chance to meet today with young deputies representing our various political parties in the regional parliaments.

It is symbolic that we are meeting here in Kostroma, a beautiful and ancient Russian city. At the same time, this city has to deal with various problems, like all of our country. This meeting is important because it is quite a while since I have had the chance to talk with representatives of the regional parliaments, and with young deputies what’s more.

You are the most energetic in promoting your parties’ lines and views in the regional parliaments. Each of you defends your party’s positions and the interests of your voters. Each of you does this in your own way, using your own political rhetoric, but I am sure that all of you are effective, because otherwise you would probably not be sitting here today. 

I am very interested to have this chance to exchange views with you on our political system’s development. I think we have succeeded in optimising our system a bit over these last few years. I am never under the illusion that we now have a fully regulated and effectively functioning mechanism in place. No, of course there is still work to do. But I do think we have improved the system’s quality, and the consultations that have taken place at various levels have contributed greatly to this process.

I meet regularly with the leaders of all the parties represented in the parliament, with the leaders of their factions in the State Duma. These are informal discussions at which the leaders of the various parties you represent tell me about the changes they think are needed in the country’s life in general, in the economy, and of course, the adjustments they would like to see made to the country’s political system. Some of the proposals sound rather radical at first, but upon reflection, my colleagues and I come round to the conclusion that these are actually interesting ideas, and they subsequently gain concrete form as presidential legislative initiatives or become implemented in practice through other means.

I think these meetings have helped us over the last few years to improve the quality of Russia’s parliamentary system. This does not mean, as I said, that everything is perfect and complete. We are still in the process of fine-tuning the system. I would say that what we have at the moment is a political system and degree of parliamentary development that corresponds to our society’s level of development. Our parliamentary system is neither better nor worse in its level of development than our society in general and its level of preparedness. 

It is essential to think about the future, and the future is in your hands of course, because you are still young, but have already achieved much in life, becoming elected to regional parliaments, showing that you know how to defend your positions with solid arguments and firm conviction, and that, when your views go unheeded, you know how to use other methods of political work in accordance with the law.

I want to discuss with you today the outlines of our political system’s development. This is particularly important with the two big political events ahead: the State Duma elections and the presidential elections that will follow. 

We continue to develop the political system. New rules are in place now in your parliaments, in the regions’ legislative assemblies, that will help us to develop and make full use of their potential.

I am referring to the reports governors are now required to make before the regional parliaments, the chance for parties that have received more than 5 percent of votes to obtain seats in regional parliaments, the general opportunities regarding access to state-owned mass media, and various other opportunities.

I just visited the regional election commission, which is a very important organisation in any region, as its work is crucial in ensuring quality representation in the parliaments. The regional election commissions are responsible for putting in place the necessary procedures and ensuring compliance with election legislation. 

Our political system is already part way along its development road – we have been working on it for two decades now – but we are nonetheless still only at the start of the journey, and it is important to remember this.

This is why it is so important for the president to meet with parliamentary party leaders and deputies, not only at federal level, not only in Moscow, but in the regions too. I hope that today’s meeting will be one of the important events that help us in our efforts to build a modern political system in Russia.

I will stop here for now and listen to what you, the representatives of the various political parties, have to say, and then, if you have any questions, I will be happy to answer them.

* * *

It was really very interesting to listen to all you had to say. For one thing, it made me realise that you merit the office you hold and were elected with good reason. You are able to formulate and stand up for your views, and I think this is probably the most important quality for any practising politician. Along with inner convictions and moral qualities, the ability to debate, to argue one’s position, is probably most essential of all for anyone acting on the political stage. This gives me confidence that the future of our country’s parliamentary system is therefore in reliable hands, and I wish you continued success in your career.

* * *

You raised a whole number of issues concerning improvements to our political system. I said in my opening remarks that I do not see our system as some kind of now completed construction that cannot be added too or altered. On the contrary, we have made changes to the system over these last years. Often I hear the reproach that we go too slowly in our changes and make only cosmetic alterations when in reality the whole construction needs a complete overhaul. But these reproaches usually come from people hardly familiar with actual political practice. All of you here are involved in real political life, representing various parties in the various regional parliaments, and you all understand that we can't just belt the system about like a punching bag, because it simply might not withstand the blows. 

We went through a completely radical transition from the Soviet period into the new Russia. This was a very complicated time, and many of you probably do not really remember it, but you all are certainly aware of the dramatic events of 1991–1993 that brought our country to the brink of civil war. It was only by a miracle that we managed to hold the country back from internal bloodshed.

No matter what the various views on the authorities at that time, I think that ultimately, we must thank them for keeping the country from toppling over the edge of the abyss back then, toppling into bloodshed, even if they did commit many mistakes. But as we all know, the only people who make no mistakes are those who do nothing at all. We all make mistakes, and I no doubt have my share of them too. It is important to try to keep an objective view of one’s own actions.

You mentioned the separation of business and federal authorities. In fact, we have practically accomplished this separation now, and I think it is important that a similar process takes place in the regions. I am not saying that the regional authorities should be free of businesspeople, of course not, after all businesspeople are also part of our society and play a big part in helping to create and build our new life.

But you are right that of course we cannot let businesspeople buy out local bodies of power.

This is exactly the same kind of corruption, the same kind of merger between power and business that we had in the upper echelons of governance at one time. Not that we have completely eradicated it yet, but we have reduced it considerably, and today, the members of the State Duma are there through the parties they represent, and not through their wallets.

All political parties need money of course, and make efforts to raise funds. But parties must do this in accordance with the law, and taking care not to destroy the existing balance. Our goal is not to stop some kind of people from having a place in the parliaments, and I think this is right, but we need professionals in the parliaments, and not those looking to buy themselves insurance in the form of a seat in parliament.

I myself was in business for 10 years, and I can say that you have to choose one or the other, be a professional politician, or be in business, but you can’t do both at once. You have to make a choice. I think there’s nothing wrong with first earning the money that will enable you to launch a political career, and then putting business aside and entering politics, as happens in other countries. But people must not use politics for their own enrichment, or at least, must minimise this side of things. This is all part of the political culture that, unfortunately, has not yet reached a very high level here yet.

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Coming now to the fact that we have never had national leader who does not belong to a political party, it all depends on what you take as the starting point. Every person has their own convictions, and in this sense take sides, are closer to this or that party, but circumstances are such that under our Constitution the president may or may not belong to a political party.

Actually, I thought it was a good thing that the president was not a member of any party, but to be honest, I am not sure this will always be the case. In fact, I think the reverse will be true and sooner or later we will have a president who does belong to a party. When will this happen?

Well, it will happen when it happens, and when the vast majority of our people are ready to accept it, so that it does not end up making our political construction vulnerable. Overall, I think it would actually be positive, because I can hardly think of any example of a president free from some political force or other. But as I said, the right conditions are to be in place first for this to happen.

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I am utterly convinced that our country’s size, history, and extremely complex ethnic and religious makeup make a presidential republic the only suitable form of rule. I have absolutely no doubt on this question. The experience of countries of similar size and complexity shows that the presidential system copes pretty well on the whole with its responsibilities.

This should in no way be interpreted as a desire to suppress parliamentary power, weaken the legislative branch and do away with the theory of division of powers. The division of powers is a sensible idea and was created for completely pragmatic purposes and not for the sake of its authors’ ambitions. Our position is that the parliament, the Federal Assembly, and the local legislative assemblies, are all vital parts of the political system, and the executive branch must not try to limit them in any way.

It is a very dangerous thing indeed to concentrate too much power in any one body, as has happened in our country in the past. This usually leads to stagnation or to civil war, and so we cannot allow this to happen and must act strictly in accordance with the Constitution. Attempts to design power structure for the needs of a specific individual are always dangerous whatever the case. Even if at the given moment they seem to cause no problems, you can be sure that in the future they will soon create great problems for the country, and for the individual concerned. This is something we must keep in mind. We are to remember our history’s lessons.

Parliamentary control is certainly a crucial part of the control system in place in the country. I believe that not only the president should have oversight powers, but we should develop parliamentary control too in all its various forms. If required, laws can be amended, and I am willing to consider this in order to make parliamentary control more effective.

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Krasnodar TerritORY LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY DEPUTY FROM UNITED RUSSIA YURY SAPRYKIN : We just celebrated May 9, Victory Day, a few days ago, our great holiday commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany. No matter what our political preferences, we all took part in the celebrations in our towns and villages, and watched the parade on Red Square.

At the same time we know too that right on our borders, unfortunate and I would even say insulting events are taking place in neighbouring republics. In Estonia, for example, young thugs march along waving SS flags, while the authorities turn a blind eye; in Georgia, not far from Krasnodar where I live, they blow up monuments to the fallen in the Great Patriotic War; and then there were the latest completely outrageous events in Lvov [Ukraine], when people beat veterans and trampled underfoot the St George ribbon – the symbol of victory.

The United Russia faction in the State Duma has introduced a draft law to amend the Criminal Code by adding provisions on liability for rehabilitating Nazism. 

Do you think we need to toughen our laws in this area so as to stop our history from being trampled in the mud?

Dmitry Medvedev: Yury, what is your professional background?

Yury Saprykin: Applied mathematics.

Dmitry Medvedev: I was not in applied mathematics but have a completely different background, and when I hear people say, “We need to toughen the laws”, it always makes me think twice. I am not against the idea of toughening laws in principle, but rather than simply being tough, the laws must be effective above all.

We could, say, increase the prison terms for this or that crime, including those of propagandising Nazism, fascism, or crimes against Russia’s territorial integrity, for example. But the question is how effective these provisions would be. I think we are to concentrate above all not on the Criminal Code’s severity, but on making sure it works.

And the reality is that it often does not work. Goodness knows who goes marching around with all manner of flags, raises salutes, and propagandises things that make our old people’s hair stand on end. The dead would turn in their graves if they knew that citizens of the former Soviet Union, citizens of Russia, are doing these things. But no one pays it any attention. These are the things we should work on above all. We need to ensure full respect for and compliance with the criminal law provisions currently in force, and ensure they apply to all who live in our country. Perhaps then we would not face such problems in our country.

As for Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the events there sadden me every bit as much as they do you. It is sad and painful to see these things. It is a sign of the political foundations’ immaturity in these countries, but it is not our place to criticise them; the voters there choose their own governments. If the authorities ‘dance on the bones’ of those who once defended their lands, we are to realise what kind of attitude we should take towards them, and adjust our foreign policy accordingly. But as I say, this is an issue for these countries’ citizens. As for us, we will adjust our foreign policy priorities accordingly. That is the situation.

Head of the Communist Party Faction In the Moscow City Duma ANDREI KLYCHKOV: I would like to draw your attention to the issue of education. Not long ago, in Yaroslavl, you identified education, science, and the economy as priority development areas. Regretfully, in reality the budget approved by the State Duma does not envisage sufficient funding for these domains. When the country and each of the parliamentary factions are focused on modernisation and development, there should be clear understanding that the success will ultimately depend on those very economic and related components made available.

Sadly, the situation we are seeing in education and the suggested problem-solving options do not encourage any fundamental changes. There is a draft law on education submitted by the Education Ministry intended to modernise national education and set new driving targets, but one can find nothing in the draft apart from a detailed structure.

Therefore, the faction of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation has prepared an alternative draft law contributed to by Nobel Prize winner Zhores Alferov, Moscow State University professor Ivan Melnikov, [State Duma Education Committee deputy chairman] Oleg Smolin, and many others, which stipulates that the share of the national education in Russia’s consolidated budget should be no less than seven percent or over five percent of the Russian Federation’s budget expenses.

Hence the question: would you support the suggestions of the Communist Party faction before the draft law is submitted to the State Duma, so that they could be reviewed by the expert community and subsequently incorporated in the final version of the law on education?

Dmitry Medvedev: Like you, I am not entirely satisfied with how things are going in education, to put it lightly. And you know why? Not just because it is my duty as President to oversee education and other areas, which is quite evident.

The fact is, thirteen years of my life were devoted to education as while living in St Petersburg, along with my legal practice, I was also a university lecturer, so I am truly familiar with this area.

There are many problems in education and there are no doubts the best achievements reached in the education in the USSR should be preserved. Nevertheless, in my view, not a single education system whether inherited from the USSR or currently functioning anywhere in the world may be implemented here in Russia integrally.

We have to design a system of our own incorporating only the best achievements of the pre-revolutionary Russia, the USSR, and the present-day experiences.

The law on education is a document eliciting debate, so I have suggested to launch a nation-wide public discussion of the law which will certainly be a document of concord and compromise much dictated by our current financial resources.

You suggest committing to the education seven percent of the budget, or whatever other percentage. You see, that is appealing and at some point that was the practice, but the problem is that throughout the history of the contemporary Russia not a single budget expenditure item set as a percentage of the aggregate amount has ever been met due to various reasons and lots of unforeseen circumstances.

Indeed, we should aim to spend more money on education.As you may be aware, national aggregate spending on education is over two trillion rubles which for our budget and for our national budgetary expenditure is an enormous amount of money. So, in the budget of the Russian Federation, and in the budgets of the territories, regions, and cities there are funds intended for education, but the question is whether or not they are spent properly and that is precisely the aspects where things should be straightened out, as spending priorities are all too often set absolutely arbitrarily while the money in many cases never reaches the funding recipients.

We must make sure that the future law on education be enforceable. I am prepared to issue additional instructions to once again review the draft law you are referring to, particularly since it was prepared by true professionals I personally know well, such as Academician Zhores Alferov and others with whom I have regular contacts. I am ready to consider having your suggestions examined again, and integrating the elements that correspond to the main ideas of the legislation to the final draft.

Stavropol CITY DUMA DEPUTY FROM THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF RUSSIA DENIS KUSHNAREV: The position of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia on supporting Russians and specifically the Russians living abroad is well known. We always stand for defending the rights of ethnic Russians who are not the majority ethnicity in the nations where they reside.

Urgent attention must be paid to the situation with the ethnic Russians living in Russia where Russians are the ethnic majority. The analysis of the statistics on key positions held by ethnic Russians — even without considering ethnic republics — in, for example, Stavropol Territory, Krasnodar Territory or Rostov Region, is shocking; ethnic Russians only make one third, one fourth, if not one fifth of all officers among local prosecutors, policemen or FSB staff.

Mr President, don’t you think the time has come for this matter to be addressed?

Dmitry Medvedev: Denis, you are raising a topic that is very delicate in our country, because as soon as a national leader starts publicly discussing percentage representation of certain ethnicities within bodies of power and governance, tension is felt in all ethnicities and nationalities living in our country.

You mentioned protecting Russians abroad. Without a doubt, protecting our compatriots and ethnic Russians abroad is one of our priorities.

You said that ethnic Russians must be protected everywhere, including in the Russian Federation, which is absolutely true. However, it is not any less true for other ethnicities and other nationalities living in our country.

The real question requiring a straightforward answer is whether today’s decision-making practice in, for example, filling vacancies or making appointments in law enforcement agencies adequately reflects the current balance of ethnicities in our nation, and here I would like to make a few points myself.

Clearly, law enforcement agencies must hire officers subject to their professional suitability and it doesn’t matter what their surname is, whether it is Russian, or Ukrainian, or Caucasian, or of whatever other ethnicities. But if there are doubts about whether all the people working at a given law enforcement agency were selected for their professional skills, then that actually is a cause for concern.

I do not mean any nation-wide generalisations or claims that somebody is being restricted for ethnic reasons, or that some force is driving Russians or somebody else out of local bodies of power, of governance, or of law enforcement, the question is about the decision- making mechanisms.

I do see what you are hinting at, but in fact it is all about trivial but omnipresent corruption, when a particular area or a particular law enforcement office sees a sharp increase in employees of a particular ethnicity. The motivation and reasoning behind that is after all irrelevant, but the fact is that appearance of an ethnic group is usually the result of corruption and bribery when a representative of an ethnic diaspora offers preferences and promotions to other diaspora members in exchange for money. And, again, this can be the case with any ethnic group, but it is certainly something to be countered as a source of tension and disturbance among people.

This challenge concerns more than just the law enforcement officials. To be frank, this is also a task for the governors who do not appoint policemen, prosecutors, or other law enforcement officers, but who are nevertheless responsible for the overall situation in their regions. After all, they must understand that if some disparity of this kind emerges, then in an ethnically sophisticated country it may lead to a conflict as has already happened in our history.

Thus, the governors should exert their influence on the situation, same as various political forces. But such influence must be as accurate as possible. If a political party or a party faction becomes aware of such abuses, you are to make it public knowledge – fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to do this, including Internet.

The leader of your faction in the State Duma and the leader of your party regularly furnishes me with statements on the subject, and does this quite actively, for which I have to give him credit. I think that others must do the same, they must raise these kinds of problems, reveal these problems to improve the situation.

And under no circumstances can decisions on these matters be taken by putting together some sort of lists or establishing some kind of ethnic quotas, because in that case, we will simply destroy the country. We must engage in targeted, systematic efforts complying with the law.

Head of A Just Russia Party Faction In the Togliatti City Duma Mikhail Maryakhin: I have a fairly simple question. It is a commonplace situation when a civil servant after a year or two of holding an office becomes an owner of a country mansion, apartments, luxury cars, and watches worth another house or apartment. For such situations, Western nations have found a solution and have ratified Article 20 of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. I believe this article is important for Russia as well. How do you see the resolution to this problem?

Dmitry Medvedev: Mikhail, I hope you do not expect me to state that if we ratify Article 20, or even the entire Convention, then our country will immediately become a nation of general prosperity where corruption will disappear. As a lawyer with a vast experience I am rather sceptical about effectiveness of the legal instruments per se.

They are certainly very important, and we truly must build a rule-of-law state, but the law is not an all-purpose mechanism, it is only one of the instruments. Many things exist as ideas, and they certainly should be influenced by laws, among other things.

By and large, I believe that we have to do everything to be on par with other civilised states, including joining international conventions aimed at fighting corruption. But it’s another matter how these laws will function in our nation, and you no doubt understand these are different aspects of a different nature. Nobody has invented a vaccine against corruption yet, so it exists in every country, even though in ours it is particularly exorbitant and unfortunately absolutely anarchic.

In my view, there is only one thing that can reduce corruption significantly, if not overcome it completely, and that is our personal attitudes toward it and the shaping of a fundamentally different political culture, based not only on fear, but also on the understanding that corruption is indecent and unacceptable because it will ruin one’s career by offering an absolutely different life-starting situation if one is found engaging in some kind of corruption-related crime.

After all, for now, many of the civil servants when speculating on the subject believe that all of it applies to other people only. They would think, ‘I am smarter, I will not get caught, and I have not done anything extraordinary after all as the very same thing is done in the office next door. Why should I be different? If I refuse to take bribes, then my colleagues will look at me askance and I will end up driven out of my job, and I want to remain here!’ So long as such attitudes remain, we will not find any definitive recipe for resolving this problem.

So I say, addressing all of you, that the challenge is to design a new political culture, and that political culture should be shaped by younger people. The success of these efforts will depend on the behaviour pattern you will choose to follow. If you go with the flow – and we know what the flow is, it is quite murky – then you will also soon become a part of this corrupt system.

It is very hard to resist it, but ultimately, it is a question of personal choice for each individual.

Deputy of Stavropol City Duma From the Just Russia Party Kirill Kuzmin: Recently, I happened to re-watch K-19, a movie based on a true story of a Soviet submarine. It’s a fairly controversial American film, but I remember one clear, striking episode. When the nuclear reactor breaks down developing a radiation leak, the captain of the submarine sends a maintenance crew of six to fix it. He very clearly understands that he is sending people to their certain death. Nevertheless, he makes that decision, thereby preventing a global catastrophe.

In our lives today, we often see situations where necessity deprives us of the freedom of choice. Please tell us, do you find yourself in situations when President Medvedev is in conflict with Citizen Medvedev or, perhaps, Blogger Medvedev? And who comes out the winner in those situations?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I try to act in such a way that there is no disharmony between Citizen Medvedev, President Medvedev or Blogger Medvedev, because otherwise, I need to be doing something different.

Nevertheless, in all seriousness, there are some very difficult moments in the life of any manager, especially a Head of State. You have given an example involving a catastrophe, an accident in a submarine. You know, I remember August 2008, when I had to make a very difficult decision on sending our troops to defend our interests.

I can tell you honestly: this was very hard. Because when I made that decision as the current President, I could not help but be aware that some of those people would not return. Perhaps this is a very meaningful situation, but it is very difficult for any leader of any nation. Somebody who has never made decisions like that will never understand me. And I would very much like for there to be very few such decisions in the history of our nation and our state.

* * *

I think that the club that you have created is genuinely useful because, first of all, you are sharpening your political know-how, which is very important for our political culture; and second, you are meeting and socialising.

You are all current politicians – you are young, but active politicians. And the fact that you have common platforms for meeting, the fact that you are finding common ground, that you are not allergic to one another even if you hold cardinally different positions – that is the formation of a new political class. It gives us good assurance that we will have a modern political system. So I would recommend continuing to hold meetings like this one (though naturally, I cannot force you into anything).

* * *

I am just thinking about one thing. The only thing sad for me personally in this situation is realising that I am surrounded by people who are referred to as young politicians, and I am not a member of that category. Just recently, it seemed to me that I was still quite young.

You see, our lives are truly short. You are currently at the beginning of your political careers, and at the same time, each of you has already achieved a great deal – you are recognised by your colleagues, you have become influencers for a large number of people, your parties are promoting you, and you have good prospects. These are truly major life successes!

Perhaps you do not even fully understand, because you may be thinking, “What kind of life success is this? You are standing here, you are the President of a large nation – that’s success. And I’m still just a deputy from a relatively small regional parliament or local government.” But please know that without small successes, there can be no big successes. The question is, how will you use that capital?

It is a matter of how you perceive yourselves during each specific period. You cannot let yourselves be discouraged, you must try to work very hard (perhaps I am making some trite statements) for the benefit of the people who believed in you, for the benefit of our common nation, which we all love in different ways, even when we are quite critical of it and when we berate the nation’s leaders and various heads, criticising ourselves and our sluggishness, as well as some of our less positive habits, of which, unfortunately, we have many. We are still doing it for our nation and for our people.

Thus, I very sincerely hope you will take full advantage of the opportunities you have before you. I am truly quite envious of you. Why? Because everything is still ahead of you; you are just beginning your political career. But it was a real pleasure for me to talk with you, because I will tell you frankly, I am not ashamed or scared to admit that my generation of politicians will eventually be replaced by people like you. I am referring to everyone present in this hall, as well as the young politicians who are not here today.

So allow me to wish you great success, because your success will ultimately mean success for our nation. I hope that we will meet sooner or later to continue our discussions. Be active! Until next time!

May 13, 2011, Kostroma