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Speech at Meeting of Council for Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights

May 19, 2010, The Kremlin, Moscow

President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon, colleagues. Welcome to you all.

At an earlier meeting of the council we agreed to meet with members of NGOs from the North Caucasus to discuss the human rights situation in the region and look at the overall situation in the region. These are matters I deal with often in my day-to-day work, of course, but this is the first time we are holding a meeting of this kind.

We should probably start this discussion with the most basic and fundamental right of any human being – the right to life. We know that people in the North Caucasus, indeed, not just in the North Caucasus but throughout our country, still come under attack from terrorists. The sad reality is that the armed gangs operating in the Caucasus have long since become a part of the international crime network. These terrorists lure various people, young people, into their activities, and this creates more problems. 

According to Interior Ministry statistics, 544 crimes of a terrorist nature were committed in the North Caucasus in 2009. More than 750 attempts were made on the lives of law enforcement officers, with 235 of them killed and 686 injured. Over the last 12 years, 20 Muslim clerics have been killed and six have been wounded. More than ten well known journalists and human rights activists were killed over the period from 2008 to 2010. 

I have spoken about these problems on many occasions, of course, including in my Address to the Federal Assembly. A number of measures are currently being implemented in response. In January, I established the North Caucasus Federal District as a separate administrative division and appointed Alexander Khloponin as my envoy to the district and made him deputy prime minister at the same time. As plenipotentiary presidential envoy in the district Mr Khloponin has broad powers to strengthen law and order, develop the judicial system and ensure protection of human rights in the district, and also to take action to improve the social and economic situation and organise public dialogue. 

I have noted many times that a huge number of the problems in the Caucasus arise out of poor social organisation, very high unemployment, and very low living standards, even when compared to some other parts of the country.

We will discuss these issues separately, perhaps. Whatever the case, we need to carry out modern programmes to develop the Caucasus republics and we need to get our work in order in general. This also concerns the law enforcement agencies, which fall short of ideal in their work around the country in general, and in the Caucasus too. It must be said at the same time, as all of you here know, that law enforcement personnel are risking their lives every day, protecting the people living in the North Caucasus.

This is clearly a very complex situation and so the authorities at every level need to be in constant dialogue with the non-governmental organisations. I will hear from you about how your work is going, who is cooperating with you and who refuses to work together. I think that this kind of cooperation will be particularly useful once we have begun systemic work in the North Caucasus.

As I already said, one of the biggest problems we face today is that of issues affecting our young people. I have given the instruction to draw up a strategy for youth policy in the North Caucasus. This is a big subject. It will require proper funding too, of course, and these proposals are also being prepared now.

Whatever the situation, we need to address the unemployment. The total number of registered unemployed people of working age in the region now comes to more than 800,000 – approximately 20 percent of the population. If we count the non-registered unemployed the figure could be even higher. This does not mean that everyone without a job is scratching out a miserable existence, some of them are doing not so badly for themselves, but it does nonetheless affect the overall climate.

Another issue that I am sure you will raise in your speeches is that of corruption. Corruption is a crime in any region, not only in the North Caucasus. The difference is that in the North Caucasus it has reached a very dangerous point and is actually threatening our national security and weakening state and social institutions. The sad truth is that this corruption is essentially directly abetting the separatists and murderers at work in the North Caucasus.

As I have noted in the past, there is something else distinguishing the corruption in the Caucasus from corruption around Russia in general, and that is its clan-based nature, which makes it harder to combat. 

Another issue is that of strengthening the traditions of mutual respect between different ethnic groups. I do not want to repeat banalities, but we are all one people and we must live in peace together. This is a problem that we need to address at national level, a problem that has at least two dimensions.

The first dimension is that of the distrustful attitude that people from the Caucasus encounter in other parts of Russia. Often this is accompanied by more serious problems and even crimes committed against people from the Caucasus regions. At the same time, there is also the problem of ethnic Russians leaving the North Caucasus republics, and in a number of regions this has become a serious problem that is hindering full-fledged social and economic development.

I am sure that you will have your views to share on these matters and on what we can do, what the NGOs can do to help normalise this situation.

That sums up the general outline of the issues we could examine today. I have probably not named all of the possible subjects of discussion, and you might want to add some issues of your own. I am ready to listen to you with the utmost attention.

First of all, I give the floor to Ms Pamfilova [Ella Pamfilova, chairwoman of the Council] for a brief report, and then the floor will be open to whoever wishes to speak. I inform you from the outset that everything we say will be taken down and the transcript of our meeting will be published on the presidential website, so our work today will be public. I think this also has its value.

Ms Pamfilova, you have the floor.

* * *

You know, this is the right discussion. It is very diverse in terms of the speeches made and the words said, and not because we have different people sitting here at one table, — we are all different, but because we have actually specified two principal questions that are of great concern to us as regards the [North] Caucasus.

On the one hand, the speeches project such great pain as to what is happening there, the reasons behind it, and how to deal with it, and on the other hand, there is, as we say, a positive aspect to today’s agenda: looking at how to proceed in this situation.

I understand that many things, such as social and economic programmes, the creation of tourist clusters, and others things, pale beside the passional, the list of people killed there, and that no one will ever be able to give these victims back to their loved ones. Right now, I’m not going to talk in depth about this problem, the causes, or even whom they [the victims] sided with. But I feel that under no circumstances should we play off one against another.

I don’t support the idea that first we need to deal with extrajudicial killings and kidnappings and track down every affiliate to these killings, like this is the most important thing, while the rest is penny-ante. I think that if we follow this principle, we will never make life in the Caucasus normal. We need to deal with many issues at the same time, and really, we need to work on the future that should unite everybody. Thus, I would like to say that overall, I support the idea of creating various new structures that would operate under the plenipotentiary envoy or in some other way; perhaps, they can even operate under the President, if we all feel that this could work. After all, our today’s meeting is the first one. We spent a fairly long time preparing for it, but still our views and positions are too different, which is probably a good thing. But I think that a public council under the plenipotentiary envoy is absolutely the right way to go. I am giving Mr Khloponin instructions on this matter. We can certainly create such a structure and the council of elders as well, as discussed earlier. We just need to think about what it will be like, and most importantly, how to ensure that its decisions are effective, rather than just an attempt to blow off steam, which is what often happens with groups like this.

Nearly all of today’s speeches mentioned the very right idea that a significant number of people living in the Caucasus need to be integrated as full-fledged members of Russian society. This may sound bookish, but it’s true. We also need to move toward the creation of a full-fledged Russian identity that includes all our peoples, as was also rightly noted. That is precisely why I reacted so sharply to our colleague’s slip of the tongue when, in his speech, he contrasted the republic and Russia as a whole. Our task is to create a new Russian identity. If we are unable to do it, then our nation is in for a very dire fate.

But you know, human experience shows that everything is possible. The 19th century events in various countries demonstrate that today’s successful nations were formed as a result of very difficult events. Yes, we have been unable to recreate the community, the solidarity we had in Soviet times, but we know what it was like back then and how, in many ways, it was quite false. Still, we have the strength and all the possibilities to create our own identity – a new Russian identity, as the speakers said. I want to repeat again that these things may garner some loud reactions, but we have to think about it; otherwise, we will only work on very depressing issues, and we will have no vision of the future. A person cannot live without such a vision.

I want to talk about specific problems that were brought up here by the speakers. As we have always agreed with Ms Pamfilova, along with several members of the Presidential Council, in this case, I am appealing to everyone present: if you have any documents, any papers for me to look at, I have decided that following this meeting I will personally look at the, without passing this task on to the Presidential Executive Office or someone else. Thus, I am ready to respond personally to your papers, although this does not guarantee that I’ll be able to look into them quickly or successfully, for obvious reasons; still, at the very least, they will be dealt with by the President.

There is another matter that I need to talk about. The governors of Russia’s regions within the North Caucasus Federal District are all different people with different experience, although recently, as you know, I have made a number of decisions to make changes to the list of governors and bring in some new people.

I have just one, personal request to everyone. Please do not pit them against one another. People in the Caucasus are very sensitive and quick to take offence. People are touchy in general, but particularly so in the Caucasus. Many of the people here today are from the Caucasus, so you know this. As soon as people start to say that Kadyrov is bad and Yevkurov is good… Everyone has flaws, we all know this, and if you think that I don’t know some of the facts, well, that’s not the case. I know more than anyone else here, because it is my job to know. Have no doubt; I know some very sad things. But we don’t need to pit people against each other even if you do not like someone for some reason, or think that they are a person who is making erroneous or even bad decisions, because ultimately, this can cause even more harm.

But on the other hand, this does not mean that you need to remain silent about problems. They need to be spoken about openly and directly, just as you did today, with some of you using some very harsh words. I am happy that you spoke about these things here in this hall, at the Kremlin. Many of you have probably wanted to say them to me for a long time. At the very least, that is the purpose of today’s meeting.

Moreover, I’ve grown convinced that the human rights movement in the Caucasus is alive. It is not an underground movement, despite the difficulties you face, since this work is always difficult – and incidentally, not only in Russia; we should not idealise other nations. This is difficult work in general, but nevertheless, you are saying everything you feel necessary and doing what you believe is right. And that is the purpose of your work.

I’ll say a few words on socio-economic problems, rather than issues related to law enforcement. I absolutely agree that the deterioration of education has led to some very unfortunate consequences in the Caucasus. In general, when education deteriorates, it tends to create a society that starts functioning under alternative laws. And so, we need to pay close attention to the problems that our system of general education faces, that the healthcare system in the Caucasus faces, because this, too, is an important element in our lives, a criterion we use to assess government performance.

What you said about schools being closed down in villages and small communities is a very dangerous trend. Regardless of any per capita funding ideas (an idea I myself promoted), you are absolutely right in saying that we cannot just proceed by the numbers. If a school is closed in the centre of Russia, at worst, there will be another school within ten or twenty kilometres where those children can be taken. In the Caucasus, however, this is often impossible for a variety of reasons – for example, it may simply not be possible to get there. And so, perhaps we need to prepare instructions, Mr Surkov [Vladislav Surkov, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office], on creating some kind of separate programme for having small schools in the Caucasus. And naturally, I am appealing to my plenipotentiary envoy, Mr Khloponin, to also consider this issue. It is an even more serious problem than small schools in central Russia. The same is true of problems related to medical assistance and midwife centres. The healthcare system requires our close attention. There are some things we may not think much about, which they were nevertheless very interesting for me to hear about today on an emotional level –regarding the number of roadblocks and checkpoints, for example. I will think about how to deal with this.

There are some very serious issues, which require us to make responsible decisions. One of the speeches mentioned the idea of a body identification laboratory in the republic. If it is impossible to work on this saddening problem without one, then we need to create such a laboratory.

Many true things were said that sound more ideological rather than practical, but which I am fully ready to sign onto; for example, what many of you said about the inefficiency of extrajudicial repression, even without looking at the moral implications of this problem. Indeed, that is precisely why I am very sensitive to statements about courts; this is not the first time that I am talking about it with members of this group. Because everything else may bring only temporary results, but the effects will be quite the opposite. I think it is good that you feel the same way about this. It means that we have similar views on this problem.

There are some areas where we need to be more careful with terminology that we use – at least, it is like that for me. I will not accept the term ‘partisan war,’ which is a term that has even been used in some of our colleagues’ speeches today. How is it a partisan war if its participants are militants and terrorists? They are either terrorists, or partisans. Unfortunately, our human rights colleagues in the West often make this mistake, but it seems to me that we ought to be more careful and accurate in using these terms. This is not a partisan war.

I absolutely agree with Ms Alekseyeva that we truly need what you briefly described as a simultaneous restoration of trust and an effort to eliminate unlawful armed groups. That is the most accurate way to put it. And the governors who are prioritising work in these two areas have a chance at success. It is the governors’ sacred duty to engage in dialogue with various forces operating in the North Caucasus republics. They do not need to talk with the armed groups, but it is their responsibility to engage in talks with different forces. And the governors who are not doing this must ultimately leave, because otherwise, they will not achieve anything. Personnel decisions I have made in this regard – I am not going to give any names, you are all smart people and know who I am referring to – were made because some of our colleagues working as governors in the North Caucasus Federal District lost contact with the various civil forces, and simply hid behind the fence without doing anything, living in their bubbles.

The second note I would like to make with regard to Ms Alekseyeva’s speech concerns the idea of holding a major conference that would bring together human rights activists and politicians in the Caucasus. I have no objection to this, and am ready to give respective instructions. Mr Khloponin, please give it a thought; we could perhaps do it in Stavropol, or somewhere else. What’s important here is that we need a well-prepared, open and sincere conference, moreover, a conference that would produce concrete decisions. Incidentally, if we hold this conference, then different authorities need to attend – not just the plenipotentiary envoys or members of the federal government. It needs to also bring together members of law enforcement, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the FSB, the police, the investigative committee – in other words, everyone who is working on these issues. We need to have a real dialogue. It cannot be a monologue by members of the government or a monologue by human rights activists.

Colleagues, I am grateful to you for spending these two and a half hours at the Kremlin. This is our first experience discussing this topic. For me, it was useful, and I hope that it will lead to practical outcomes. I also hope that it was interesting for you as well. See you next time.

May 19, 2010, The Kremlin, Moscow