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Meeting of Council for Civil Society and Human Rights

April 28, 2012, Gorki, Moscow Region

Dmitry Medvedev held a meeting of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.

The meeting focused on the Council’s achievements over the past four years.

Among the Council’s successes Dmitry Medvedev named the establishment of Public Television, whose concept was developed with the Council’s active participation, the abolition of the three-year trial period for newly elected judges, and changes in legislation related to the medical examination of persons suspected or accused of committing crimes with the aim of replacing punitive measures.

According to the Council’s Chairman Mikhail Fedotov, the Council held 48 meetings over the course of four years. It has also prepared and submitted to the President 142 reports on various issues.

* * *

Excerpts from transcript of a meeting of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights

President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon, colleagues,

Let me start with a few words about our work together over the last four years. We agreed when the renewed Council began functioning that we would meet more often. I don’t know what your impression is, but I think we have not missed any meetings or events and have been successful in keeping to our plans.

What’s more, the practice of holding meetings in other locations around the country has given representatives of non-governmental organisations not just from Moscow – and there is life beyond Moscow, of course – but also from other places, the Urals, the Volga Region, and the North Caucasus, the chance to take part in our discussions. This was the first time since the Council’s founding in 1993 (it was called a Commission then) that we introduced this practice. I think it has proved its worth entirely and I hope that you too found it interesting and useful to travel to these different places.

Over these last four years, thanks to you and your efforts, I have studied a large number of reports and legislative proposals, coordinated with and approved by the Council. I can say frankly that on some issues I agreed, and on others did not. But whatever the case, many of these initiatives were useful, including in helping me and other state officials to get a better understanding of the situation in this or that area and make a number of timely decisions.

Colleagues, at the very least, there is one thing you cannot deny me, and that is that I have always listened as attentively as possible and have personally studied each of your appeals and letters and issued instructions accordingly to the different state agencies. After each meeting with you I have always been left with such a huge stack of documents on the desk, and I have gone through all of them thoroughly and given the necessary instructions.

As you know, in a number of cases (after making the necessary checks, of course) the state agencies have proposed a different solution, and in some cases the civil service has not always shown its best qualities. It is a big and unwieldy organisation that works at a leisurely pace, to put it mildly, and rather than looking to concerns of substance at times prefers to follow the logic of bureaucracy. But in a number of cases the Council has managed to speed things up, and you have shown perseverance in pushing through proposals based on people’s appeals and public demand.

I will not list all of the things accomplished over this time. The list is long, and so I will just name a few of what I think are some of the biggest achievements to which the Council has made a clear contribution.

Let me start with the recent executive order establishing public television. No matter what one thinks of the need for public television (some people say we missed the boat and should leave it at that, since we don’t need any public television now that we have the internet, and others say that we already have the state channels, which should become public television), the fact is that this institution did not exist before, and now it will. Let’s see how it develops. In any case, this institution’s establishment is also partly thanks to the Council, which was actively involved in drafting its development concept.

I also note the very important proposal about abolishing the three-year trial period for newly appointed judges. This proposal was aimed to make the judges more independent from the court presidents. It was supported and has become law. This proposal came out of our work within the Council and was something that we discussed together.

The Council has also made a positive contribution that is reflected in amendments to the criminal procedure laws, including the right to request a medical examination in order to determine the need to replace detention in custody with some other restraint measure. This particular amendment arose out of the well-known Magnitsky case.

Meetings focusing on one particular area, whether the human rights situation in the Caucasus, the environment, or other issues, have been very useful and produced a range of proposals concentrating on one area. The visits to the regions have also been useful in this respect. I think this practice has proved its value.

This amendment makes it possible for seriously ill people to remain in a hospital or under house arrest rather than be sent to a prison cell.

There were other useful new proposals, too, and also some ideas that were not carried out. Let’s discuss what we managed to accomplish, and what has not been done. Of course these are all interim results, because though my term in office ends very soon, I am sure that the Council will continue to function and, I hope, bring a lot of benefit to the country and its people. 

Before I conclude these opening remarks, let me note a few more points. If you allow, I would like to give a few words of advice on the Council’s future work, based on my experience over these last four years.

First, it has often been the case that we have tried to do too much at once and have ended up dispersing our efforts over too many different areas. This is understandable, given that we do not have the chance to meet so often, but it is at times counterproductive. Any authority, even presidential authority, is not enough to be able to solve all the different problems at a single meeting. Meetings focusing on one particular area, whether the human rights situation in the Caucasus, the environment, or other issues, have been very useful and produced a range of proposals concentrating on one area. The visits to the regions have also been useful in this respect. I think this practice has proved its value. 

Second, we often kept coming back to cases that have been in the headlines but are nonetheless individual cases. Just to give the most obvious examples, I am thinking of the Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky cases. In some respects this is all justified perhaps, but overall, it sometimes creates the impression that the Council is interested only in addressing the cases most in the public eye.

In this respect, I want to note that the number of people whose guilt or involvement in crime or other circumstances of a case generate doubts and questions, is in reality a lot greater, and we are all well aware of this.

I have received correspondence from many different places, including from our prisons, of course. People have put the question in their letters: ‘Why do you pay attention only to a handful of well-known cases? Who will do something for us, for the other prisoners, for those who feel that they have suffered at the hands of the law enforcement agencies?’ I think that we should remember this, even if we realise that there are some cases of particular significance that probably reflect and determine the general level of law and order in our country. 

Finally, life goes on and we can continue our work together through a variety of platforms, including through the Open Government system. I am sure that the need for civil society participation and involvement will grow from one year to the next, and this will require us to keep developing new forms of cooperation. In this respect, I remain at your disposal.

I thank each of you sincerely for your personal contribution to the Council’s performance and for giving so much of your time and your effort to serving the public. I thank you from all my heart for this.

* * *

I listened to all you had to say and want to start now by thanking you once more, because not only have you fulfilled your professional duties, but have done much to help me develop my skills and abilities as a politician. I can assure you that everyone in a leadership position, from a village elder right through to the president, suffers from a lack of tolerance. This is because our position obliges us to make the decisions. But each of my meetings with you has helped me to build up the needed qualities so that now, not only is it a pleasure to listen to you, but I find it much easier to do so now, to listen to what others are telling me, without trying to interrupt, glance frantically at my watch, or jump in to disagree, even though I do often think that not everything you say is fair. This has been a good school for me and I say a sincere thanks to you for this. This is the truth.

* * *

Let me turn now to the subject of our history and the question of a memorial to the victims of political repression, a memorial that would immortalise their memory. I think we do bear the responsibility for not having done this, not seen it through, and I am ready to help carry out this project, no matter where I am and what I am doing, whether in the Government (if I will be working there) or in any other organisation. I am ready to make organisational decisions and help to find the funding, even make a personal financial contribution, if we finalise exactly what the project will look like and involve.

We have had some impact on public opinion over these last years and have brought about some change. I think that credit here goes not only to the Council, and certainly not only to the President, but to all of the efforts and assessments made. You understand that it is not always easy for political leaders to make these assessments. It is easier for public figures, who are expressing their civic position that they are willing to fight for and defend. But it is much harder for political figures or leaders to take such stands because we realise that our society is diverse, variously shaped by the different processes within, and that different people hold different views on the saddest pages of our history. As you know, there were moments when I made remarks that immediately earned me floods of indignant cries: ‘He’s raised a hand against the holy of holies; we laid the foundations of a great economy; they were all saints at the helm then, and if they made mistakes, those were just trifles, just pennies to pay compared to the country we created’, and so on. No, these are not ‘just trifles’, but are things of huge importance for our future, for the future of those who will live in this country.

Regarding our efforts on reform of the courts and law enforcement agencies, I can say one thing, and that is that I am very pleased that we have worked together to get a number of projects through. Some of the new laws are in effect now, some are more effective, others less so. The whole idea that we need better courts and a more effective law enforcement system has now become a subject of discussion not just among the professionals or among civic activists, but has spread throughout society and is very much on the public agenda now. Everyone everywhere is talking about it now. Of course, the new information technology, new media and social networks play a part here. I am bold enough to hope, though, that our efforts have made their contribution too, including the draft laws that I submitted, that you proposed, and that we discussed, approved and put through together. All of this is valuable.

I am ready to continue promote these matters, though taking into account the division of powers between the different branches of power. The Government has broad responsibility and big powers. It deals with practically every area, and so I am ready to keep working in this area too, inasmuch as possible. This goes for modernising the court system and the law enforcement agencies, and for related issues.

”I am sure that the need for civil society participation and involvement will grow from one year to the next, and this will require us to keep developing new forms of cooperation.“

Of course, there are still many regional problems, many problems in the Caucasus. I will not repeat now issues that we have discussed on various occasions, issues on which we agree, other matters on which our views differ. I just want to make a few general points.

First, it is very important to speak openly about what is happening. This should be done not just in the public environment in general, the internet, on TV or elsewhere, but also at forums such as this one. After all, the things we say here will always attract a bigger share of attention – such are the laws of public life — and we agreed earlier that the transcripts of all our meetings would be published for all to see. It’s always the case that a president or other leader’s words always seem to carry more weight. And so we have a duty to be open.

Second, one very important matter is how our positions are received by civic activists, non-governmental organisations, and the regional and local authorities, especially in complicated regions like the North Caucasus. We know that the North Caucasus is a specific region in many ways, and much there depends on the leaders. I am not going to praise or reproach anyone, for I do not have the right to do so in any case and must remain neutral, but let me give one example and say that after the leadership change in Ingushetia, I think you will agree with me that the situation has changed for the better. This is not to say that everything is fine there now. No, things are still difficult there, unemployment is very high, there are still problems, and still bandits to deal with too. But the atmosphere has changed there. This is because our colleague there, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov wants to work.

I would like to see other colleagues work just as energetically as him. What’s more, he is not a coward. You know that an attempt was made to blow him up and that he almost died. Those behind that attack, as I am personally sure, should have been punished, but he did not lay down his arms and say that he would no longer have any dealings with such monsters. He continues to engage everyone in dialogue, even people who, if not actually involved in those events themselves, do not always share his views as the republic’s leader. He offers a good example worthy of emulation. 

* * *

On the question of civil liberties, I will not say commonplace words but will just make one point. I do not know who is making a fuss about NGOs being a danger to the state, but I do not think this is serious these days. I don’t think there is anyone now who could say such things in all seriousness. I am sure that everything will be fine, though of course, it all depends on the NGOs and their activeness too. 

On the question of International Labour Organisation and other conventions, I will certainly look into the situation with them.

Let me make one more comment regarding the laws on freedom of assembly. Of course, these laws must change too and cannot stay static. The question is one of their application, their suitability, and how scrupulously they are followed. But the thought that comes to my mind in this respect is that, looking at the way civic activeness in our country is increasing – something positive overall – the rules on administrative liability for violations – and violations do occur, let’s not idealise everyone who takes part in meetings and demonstrations – should become a lot more flexible than they are now.

We need a much broader range of liability measures than we have now, so as to ensure effective responsibility while at the same time avoiding heavy-handed sanctions not keeping with the nature of the administrative offences in question. Various countries have their own measures in these areas and enforce them in different ways, and in many countries administrative detention is used. I am not saying this in order to divert attention away from Russia’s own situation, but let’s look too at the way administrative measures and policing practice is used in prominent cases such Occupy Wall Street and so on. The point I want to make here is simply that we need a broader range of legal measures in this area.

I suppose the only thing I absolutely cannot agree with is the statement that freedom of speech on the Internet is at risk. I fully disagree with that. In my view, there isn’t any threat to freedom of speech on the Internet. We may have other concerns, but that is one problem we do not have in our country, and in all likelihood, will never have since overall, you know everything yourselves, you see what people are saying, what they are writing, how they are talking. And the authorities have no intention to interfere.

Another issue is that we are to look at certain absolutely destructive trends – I think you won’t argue that when search engines are used to spread recipes for preparing drugs or creating explosives, the authorities should probably take action as that is not freedom of speech. Let alone paedophilia, child pornography and other crimes that are investigated and very harshly punished throughout the entire world.

With regard to the Foreign Ministry, I am not trying to idealise it. Our Foreign Ministry is what it is with both the strong and rather weak points of the ideas of [its early ministers] Chicherin and Molotov. (Laughter.)

As head of state, I have spoken about this issue many times, but ultimately, here is what I cannot agree with. The Foreign Ministry must certainly hold an adequate position, but believing that the Foreign Ministry stings only those who sting us is not quite fair, although throughout the world foreign ministries are instruments of state policy.

”We cannot have modernisation without support from civil society. There will be no modernisation in our lives if civil society does not strive for it.“

You will surely agree that at some point both the Foreign Ministry and I had to make some rather harsh statements concerning human rights in Belarus and Ukraine. The fact is, it was difficult, because these really are very close nations, and they have even taken offence after hearing our references to various cases examined by their courts, but nevertheless, that was my position, and I gave the Foreign Ministry instructions, stating that persecuting political opponents is absolutely unacceptable, it casts a shadow on both the state itself, as in the case of Ukraine, and on the people who make those decisions. You can hate one another, you can say whatever you want in a polemic fervour and in the passion of a political battle, but when participants in the presidential race, direct opponents in the political process, end up in courts and in jail, this is at the very least very perplexing, even taking into account our rich totalitarian traditions.

As for a hotline within the Ministry of the Interior, I hear you. We will try to push this issue through the Cabinet and, of course, the Ministry of the Interior. 

I would also like to say I’m very happy that you mentioned the topic of day-to-day corruption, because I keep talking about it, but very often, it elicits a kind of disapproval, or even a flurry of indignation. Some say, he is talking about this day-to-day corruption again, laying blame on ordinary people because he doesn’t want to turn in his own people, he’s just like all the others. Still, it’s very important to have not only the President and the Government, but also the experts saying that corruption starts on a small scale. When people give bribes to the traffic police or the doctor, they do not think that the ministers or somebody else may be doing the same thing, they simply pay off. This does not mean that we should not fight large-scale corruption, on the contrary, the Open Government session that you mentioned was largely devoted to the issue of large-scale corruption. But in my view, and perhaps I’m wrong of course, but I believe that, strange as it may seem, large-scale corruption is easier to fight than day-to-day corruption. We know that countries which are advanced in their non-corrupt behaviour have first and foremost one thing in common: they have no day-to-day corruption.

I do not know whether we will be able to introduce principles of criminal liability for unlawful enrichment. I do not know, because I do not have absolute certainty that it would be good for our still developing society. Naturally, you may not agree with me, but there is a very shaky division line between criminal liability for unlawful enrichment and the return to a society which imposes absolute [consumption] equality and barracks socialism. I do not want to live in such a society.

That does not mean that we shouldn’t fight corruption, including the cause of that corruption – unlawful self-enrichment. But I have some doubts about introducing this kind of straightforward liability. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps this measure will turn out to be effective and prove to be a good thing, but I have my own understanding of how the criminal sanction system, the penitentiary system, should work.

In any case, the dialogue on this topic is to continue, and the fact that criminal liability for other offences will be introduced, the fact that major expenditures by civil servants will be monitored, is certainly a step in the right direction even with the understanding that it is not a radical step, and it probably involves its own shortcomings.

What I fully agree with is that we are currently doing well with income declarations, or at least the formal side of declaring. Everyone is filing declarations, everyone is at least formally laying themselves bare, and many seem even grateful for the practice now introduced. I should admit that when I was introducing this practice, I spoke with several of my colleagues who came to me and said, ‘What should we do? We have this situation: our wives are earning significant incomes’. I said, ‘Do you feel it is lawful income?’ They said, ‘Yes, we believe it is lawful income, and there are no conflicts of interest. That’s how it was from the start’. And so on. I said, ‘If that’s the case, then you should be happy that at a certain point, you will demonstrate all that, and afterwards, you will not have any more problems’ since credit history is important for everyone. And now, everyone is aware of the situation, some people find it normal, some may think it is power abuse and hate civil servants for it. But in any case, it is in the open. I think that’s very important.

But one thing I heard today that I fully agree with is that we do not have any accountability for conflicts of interest. This is a framework that has already been around for about ten years, and incidentally, I was involved in its creation in 2002 or 2003, I can’t remember which year that law was drafted. Almost nothing has changed. Nobody cares about this conflict of interest. I think that this is a place where we could adopt a stricter approach and perhaps even introduce criminal liability for not declaring a conflict of interest, not only to fire individuals but perhaps in some situations even make them criminally accountable. This is certainly better than just culpability for what somebody earned or somehow acquired.

True, the authorities never want to punish themselves. It’s a common knowledge and it’s true. One can certainly fight corruption without being a member of the Council, but if you find the strength to stay, I would be grateful to you for it, simply because your work as civil activists (all of you are doing it, and quite successfully), your very presence in a presidential council or some kind of expert forum under the Government – it is still a very important objective. It is exactly the kind of contact that is so important for our civil society.

The last thing I want to say is that I would like to agree with the three points voiced by Ms Alekseyeva [Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Council member and chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group]. I agree wholeheartedly.

First of all, we cannot have modernisation without support from civil society. There will be no modernisation in our lives if civil society does not strive for it. I am not saying this for the sake of magniloquent words but simply because I myself came to this conclusion during the process of collaboration.

Second, I also fully agree that bureaucracy will never want to reform itself. And this is not a Russian trait, it is not a characteristic of Russian bureaucracy but a feature of any bureaucracy: why reform itself when everything is good anyway, when things work out either way? But that is precisely why we have civil society and communication channels. It is civil society that hounds bureaucracy and the authorities, and as a result, the authorities must make some steps. If the authorities find the courage to respond to criticism, then the authorities and the system of relationships stay in place. Authority cannot last forever so if the authorities cannot find the courage to meet the demands of the civil society, it leads to political catastrophes. We had enough of these catastrophes in the 20th century. I hope that we will follow the first path.

And finally, the third point which concerns the quality of our Council. You stated that it includes professionals, very different people, but all these individuals are most interested in promoting their ideas and reaching their goals. I also fully agree with this. I admit that it hasn’t always been easy for me to listen to what you say and agree with it, but what you have said has always been absolutely sincere, from the heart, and usually very, very well-reasoned. I truly, genuinely hope that this high-calibre composition of individuals in the Council will be maintained and employed for the benefit of our Fatherland.

Finally, my very last point. If you offer me your help, then I would like to say in return that I am always ready to meet with you, be it within the Open Government platform, or the “buttoned up”, closed, small Government – whichever you prefer – and discuss any subject that you find important for our country.

I want to thank you once again for your help and support.

April 28, 2012, Gorki, Moscow Region