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Russia: Forum Aims To Foster Conditions For Civic Society

  • Francesca Mereu

Thousands of members of Russia's civic and human rights organizations gathered in Moscow yesterday for the opening of a two-day Kremlin-sponsored Civic Forum. President Vladimir Putin said the government is ready to work with the public to create a better civic life in Russia. But many activists aren't convinced the government's attitude toward human rights and the creation of a truly civic society will ever really change.

Moscow, 22 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- About 5,000 representatives of citizens' groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gathered yesterday at the Kremlin State Palace to begin a two-day Civic Forum.

The Forum, organized by the Kremlin and other branches of the Russian government, is intended to create favorable conditions for the development of an independent and stable civic society in Russia. A civic society is one in which NGOs and numerous other institutions form a buffer between the people and a government, one which limits the power of the government and empowers ordinary citizens.

In a speech opening the forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin told delegates his government is ready to work with the public to improve civic life in the country. Putin said that in order to have both a stable state and a prosperous society, it is necessary for the state and society to start a dialogue: "It is impossible to have a strong state, a flourishing and prosperous society, if there isn't good relations of partnership between the state and civic society. [To achieve it,] it is necessary to start a dialogue on equal terms. We understand that the effectiveness of such a dialogue to a large extent depends on us, on the representatives of the authorities and on the authorities as a whole. As far as this is concerned, we are ready to carry out the essential organizational measures and, if needed, legislative measures."

Putin acknowledged that civic society in Russia is still not "fully mature." He said the goal of the authorities is to create favorable conditions for the development of a civic society: "The state has only one task here. It must create the most favorable environment to develop a civic society. It is the main task, and essentially the only one [that the state has]."

Putin promised that the state will not try to take control of civic society and underlined that, in the end, a civic society cannot be created by instruction of the authorities: "Everyone understands that a civic society cannot be formed at the initiative of government officials. I think it is absolutely unproductive, practically impossible and even dangerous to try to create a civic society from the top down."

Ella Panfilova, the leader of the Movement for Civilian Dignity and a deputy in the State Duma, or lower house, is one of the organizers of the Civic Forum. She tells RFE/RL that it is important for Putin to work with the numerous NGOs spread across Russia. She says Putin has instituted a variety of reforms in Russia, including an effort to introduce a more Western European approach in the judiciary, as well as dramatic tax reforms.

Putin, Panfilova adds, needs the support of Russian citizens to keep the reforms moving forward: "[Putin] understands that to accomplish the big reforms [he has begun], he cannot count only on bureaucrats and government officials. [The Russian president] and [the] authorities carry the reforms in people's interests, and people have to be involved in the reform process."

Aleksandr Vyeshnyakov is the chairman of Russia's Central Election Commission. He tells RFE/RL that sometimes "those in power" do not understand the needs of society and that, as a result, the authorities are often seen as being "at the opposition." Now, he points out, the situation has changed, and the Civic Forum is an expression of the Russian government's will to start a dialogue with Russian society: "In my point of view, [this forum] is an attempt to start a normal and constructive dialogue between those in power and the society. In my point of view, [Russian] society has to support this [initiative]. And as a representative of those in power, I can say that I'm [ready] to start such a dialogue with pleasure."

According to Lyudmila Alekseyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, there are about 70,000 public organizations in Russia with a total membership of about 1 million people. These organizations provide services to about 20 million people.

Many of these organizations, however, are refusing to take part in the Civic Forum. Some of them believe Russian authorities are unlikely ever to truly change their attitudes toward human rights. Others criticize the Forum as simply a public relations exercise organized by the Kremlin to prove to the West that Russia is not only participating in the fight against terrorism, but that it is going ahead with democratic reforms.

Critics of the Civic Forum quote Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's media adviser and director of the Effective Policy Foundation, as saying recently that the millions of people involved with Russian NGOs represent about 10 percent of voters and that, for this reason, the authorities cannot afford to overlook them.

Yevgeny Klyod of St. Petersburg heads Nadezhda (Hope), an organization that helps orphans. He said he decided to take part in the Civic Forum in the hope that things will change in Russia. In particular, Klyod says he hopes the government's attitude toward organizations such as his will change. He says people who are ready to help Nadezhda often change their minds when they discover how much red tape they must endure: "I think things will change. [The authorities] have to change the existing mechanism used to solve the present problems. We have good laws, but the application of it is imperfect [since] bureaucracy slows everything down."

Roman Chyorny is the representative of the Civic Commission for Human Rights of St. Petersburg, an organization that helps the mentally challenged. Chyorny -- alluding to opening speeches made by government officials -- says the Forum was well-organized by the Kremlin's image-makers. He says the authorities who spoke said exactly what the people wanted to hear: "It is evident that [those who spoke today] used the results of some polls. I'll use the term 'push-button.' I mean, they were able to push the right buttons. They knew what could make people react, and they spoke about it. They spoke about problems, but they were not able to suggest any solutions to it. [Authorities] didn't even indicate that it could be possible to find a solution to [our] problems and how to do it."

Mikhail Smorchevsky is the president of a Moscow association that helps the children of servicemen who died while on duty. He said he is disappointed with the Forum. He says the authorities are using it as an arena to express their points of view and that there isn't any chance for real dialogue with civic organizations: "A forum is when representatives of society and [the] authorities speak together. But here they just spoke for formality's sake and left. They left the Forum to [speak] to itself. We gathered here to speak with the president, [to] ask him questions."

In order to avoid being used by the Kremlin, the NGOs adopted a set of rules, including guidelines for transparent financing and agreement about the non-election of any presidium or governing bodies. Participants also agreed not to issue any declarations.

In special sessions yesterday, Forum participants discussed some of Russia's most pressing problems, including measures to combat corruption, social protection of military service people, the reform of Russia's military, educational system and youth and migration policies, the rights of refugees and migrants, and how to achieve peace in Chechnya.