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Meeting with regional human rights ombudspersons

August 16, 2012, The Kremlin, Moscow

Vladimir Putin held a meeting with human rights ombudspersons from over 60 Russian regions.

Issues discussed at the meeting included improving the work of ombudsmen through legislative measures, the protection of social and labour rights, justice, the freedom of conscience and religion.

* * *

Excerpts from transcript of meeting with human rights ombudspersons in the Russian regions

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon,

Mr Lukin [the Russian Human Rights Ombudsman] and I have been planning this meeting for some time. The ombudsmen who have gathered here represent many Russian regions, although not all of them, and perhaps we could begin our meeting by discussing this issue.

First of all, I want to say that the state is doing a great deal to protect the legitimate rights and interests of its citizens. In fact, this is the main goal of any state and executive authority at any level, be it municipal, regional or federal.

At the same time, as you probably know better than anyone else, we do not always get the results we want. Unfortunately, there is excessive bureaucracy and many cases that are treated less thoroughly than they should be. In this regard, the work you do as agents who are totally independent of the state or municipal authorities takes on paramount importance. This is not just a figure of speech; I say it absolutely seriously. I believe that you are my best allies in the effort to protect the interests and legitimate rights of our citizens. This, I repeat, is the essence and goal of my entire activity, the biggest priority for the President and the authorities at any level.

In this regard, I want to return to the point I made at the beginning: 67 Russian regions have the office of the human rights ombudsman, someone who protects people's rights, the rights of our citizens. This means, unfortunately, that some regions have not established the office of rights ombudsman. I do not want to throw stones or blame anyone, but it seems that some regions do not really want to have this institution, a commissioner who is independent of the regional government and everyone else.

I know that some of you, including Vladimir Lukin, have submitted your proposals in preparation for today's meeting on the legislative improvement of your work. Let us discuss it today. We could decide to submit an initiative to the State Duma to make the office of ombudsman, the person who defends citizens’ rights, mandatory for every Russian region. We could also talk about granting some additional rights to those who protect human rights.

At the same time I would like to draw your attention to the fact that in Russia, like in all other countries, the human rights commissioner does not perform executive functions. In fact, that is how it should be because otherwise your work will involve excessive bureaucracy.

This institution is personalised; it is based on the authority of a particular individual, a person who enjoys the respect of the public in the region, city or entire country, and the authorities at any level must have regard for his or her opinion. That is why the public nature of your activities is the main instrument for achieving your objectives.

I agree with those of our colleagues, some of whom are present here today, who point out that when formulating proposals for improving the legal framework of the ombudspersons’ work, we should bear in mind that the ombudsman should not be associated with any political party and should not engage in politics, so that his work is absolutely detached from the political process and the potential PR opportunities it may offer. Because as soon as the temptation appears to promote one’s own interests, the human rights activities become discredited.

That is a brief outline of my own attitude to the issues we have met to talk about today. I hope that the discussion will be dynamic and constructive.

* * *

In their work, the regional human rights ombudspersons give a significant amount of attention specifically to social issues; I feel this is just as it should be. Though, I do not think that issues of a political nature, issues of defending human rights in the broader sense of the word, should be viewed as secondary. But the social issues should not be relegated to the background, either. And the fact that you, as experts in defending human rights, are paying attention to those social aspects is very good, because frankly, that’s the area where most peoples’ problems lie.

* * *

With regard to the crisis, it is true that the global and European economic situation is very complicated. And this does not just concern the European economy. In the United States, which has been the “locomotive” of the global economy up to now, the situation appears healthier on the surface, but the macroeconomic indicators, which are key to the economic stability, are no better than in Europe. For example, its national debt is 104 per cent. In European countries, the national debt is around 85 or 86 per cent, but in the US, it is 104 per cent. And the nation’s financial system is very much burdened by the fact that mortgages are generally backed by government guarantees, and this puts certain limitations on the budget. There are other problems as well. All of this, of course, gives rise to a certain amount of concern. Currently, we are receiving information that the economic growth rates in China have slowed and fallen somewhat, and China is one of the world’s largest manufacturers and consumers. This is certainly a worrisome signal.

We will hope that all of these concerns will not later spill out into a full-blown crisis. In theory, such a positive scenario is also possible. Thus, we need to abide by the well-known rule: we must hope for the best but prepare for the worst. That is why last year, when I was still Prime Minister, I instructed my colleagues – and the new Cabinet has continued this work – to prepare corresponding measures in the event that an unfavourable scenario plays out in the global economy. Overall, the Cabinet has already prepared such anti-crisis measures.

It has already designated certain resources, and the State Duma agreed and set aside 200 billion rubles at the beginning of the year. Now, we have agreed on another rather significant sum for the beginning of next year, which will be stipulated in the 2013 budget as the Government’s tactical reserve in order to promptly and effectively respond to any signs of economic crisis, if they occur.

Russia’s gold and foreign currency reserves, the Government reserves are rising. Currently, our Central Bank has somewhere between 512 and 514 billion dollars in gold and foreign currency reserves, which is the third highest figure in the world after China and Japan. We have the National Welfare Fund, which we use to finance the pension system deficit; that one is about $85 billion. We have the direct Government Reserve Fund, which is used for anti-crisis measures, that one is about $60 billion. We have minimal government debt of about 10 per cent. And only 2.5 per cent of that is foreign debt. The unemployment rate is less than the pre-crisis level; today it is slightly over five per cent.

Overall, the economy is showing fairly good growth rates. Last year, as you know, it was 4.2 per cent. This was the highest rate of economic growth among all developed nations with the exception of India and China. Their growth was higher, but Russia was in third place. We are in the fourth place in terms of industrial production growth, just a little behind Germany. In other words, overall, our economy today is in good shape. We are certain that if a crisis occurs, we have what we need to effectively withstand it.

* * *

(On migration issue). This is a very important, very sensitive and delicate topic for any nation, because it is a relevant problem for all developed nations that appeal to migrants. Europe has the same problems, as does the US. Incidentally, here in Russia, we have approximately the same number of emigrants from CIS nations, about ten to twelve million, as in Europe and the US – they have about the same number of undocumented immigrants. A nation as ethnically diverse as ours also faces domestic problems, there are specific issues, but they are still less pronounced than abroad. For example, some European nations that are famous for their liberalism have already declared the collapse of their multicultural policy.

It is a highly controversial idea, but it has become quite pointed there. Incidentally, I have long-standing personal relations with many European leaders. Even ten years ago, I was saying, “Listen, if the government does not react to what is happening with immigration, it will lead to an increase in right-wing, far right and quasi-fascist sentiments, because the local citizens will not feel protected against an influx of immigrants, from seeing them take local jobs and push local citizens out of the labour market.”

Our situation is different. Since its inception, from the very first steps of our state’s formation, Russia has been shaped as a multi-ethnic, multi-faith nation, because even the very first written Orthodox artefacts speak directly of a benevolent attitude to representatives of other cultures and other religions.

This speaks to the fact that when people were creating the nation of Russia, the presumption was that this territory was already, by definition, home to people of a wide range of ethnicities, cultures and religions. Take the northwest, for example, where I was born. It was home to the Ugro-Finnic peoples and Slavic tribes even before the formation of a centralised Russian state, and they lived fairly comfortably with one another. This was also true in other areas. All this came naturally. So, this is a relevant issue for us, particularly given the economic problems of the recent decades, but overall, it is not as acute as in Western Europe or even in the US. This also concerns the issue of language. These problems are even more charged over there than they are in our nation. But knowing what is happening there, naturally, we must promptly and efficiently respond to how the situation develops in Russia. This concerns, first and foremost, the culture and traditions of those regions that attract domestic migrants as well as immigrants from other nations.

Naturally, as I have said before, we must also create Russian cultural centres abroad, in the CIS. We must give greater attention within our nation, in our schools, to educating our children, as we heard our colleague from Daghestan here, and Daghestan is home to about 20 ethnic groups, perhaps even more. And what naturally occurs is that the language in which these groups communicate with one another is Russian. This is an example of just one republic, but it can be very clearly projected onto the entire Russian Federation. The Russian language is a natural means for interethnic communication. It is a natural instrument for communicating with one another, but it should certainly be supported as actively as possible within the education system. And the current efforts to do this are insufficient.

* * *

After all, why do people come here, for example, from the North Caucasus? Because the unemployment rate there is very high. Let’s take Daghestan as an example again, where unemployment among youth is 50 percent, and in Ingushetia, I believe it is even higher. Our nation’s overall unemployment level is less than 5 percent, 5.2 I think, or maybe 5.3 now, but in the North Caucasus, it is 24–25 percent, and around 50 for young people!

Naturally, we need to primarily focus our attention there on developing the economy, creating new jobs so that the people who are born and grow up in those regions do not feel like they want to move somewhere else; this is an obvious fact. Clearly, we cannot do this in one day. We have a development programme for the south of Russia and for individual regions within the Southern Federal District. In terms of inter-budgetary relations, I want to emphasise that the Russian Federation is constantly working on redistributing resources from year to year. What can I say, the so-called donor regions are unhappy with it, but we have no other way – we take certain resources from donor regions and direct them to the territories in need of additional support.

I would like to ask everyone here, as well as all of the citizens of our nation, to remember that we don’t do things thoughtlessly. If we are raising certain resources and redistributing them, it is only so that we can harmoniously develop the whole of the Russian Federation. This means not only creating production facilities and jobs, but also the social sector, services, medicine and education.

Right now, the social infrastructure there has fallen apart; I’m not even talking about Chechnya, which underwent a war, but other republics in the North Caucasus as well. All of it needs to be rebuilt, which requires time, resources and patience. But that does not mean we shouldn’t work with the people who come here, to the European or central part of our nation, to our large cities with population of over one million residents. They must certainly follow the local rules; that is clear. Just as those who come to other territories must be respectful of the cultures and customs of the local people. This is a common rule for everyone. We need to give this more attention. And we need to focus attention on these issues at a professional level, within the Cabinet and the Presidential Executive Office. Indeed, that is what we are striving for and it is what we will do.

* * *

By the way, there is another issue I would like to draw your attention to. You stated that any conflict immediately develops into an interethnic conflict, or even, god forbid, an inter-faith conflict. You know, that is not why it develops, not because the local residents do not like the eye colour or religion of individuals working on their territory. Usually, people protest against corruption within the local governments, because they are not being protected, and they feel that their rights are not being protected. That is the problem. If the law enforcement agencies treated everyone equally, regardless of ethnic and religious background, then I assure you, people would feel different about it. And in this regard, we have an enormous responsibility resting on our shoulders to monitor this area of activity.

* * *

Colleagues, I want to thank you. We had a lively discussion, so I do not need to make any lengthy closing remarks, since we essentially touched on all the main sets of issues (though, of course, not all the issues) in one way or another.

I want to say again that I have a great deal of respect for your work and I am determined to support it in every possible way.

Moreover, I myself rely on your active attitude.

Finally, I simply want to wish you success, because your work is not vested with titles, regalia or special powers, but it is very rewarding and brings satisfaction, since you are directly helping specific citizens.

I wish you success. Thank you very much.

August 16, 2012, The Kremlin, Moscow