A silent 'voice' of Russian public


MOSCOW -- Before the institution's first day, the Kremlin bragged that the government's Public Chamber was another building block for democracy.

When the new advisory group convened early this year in a stately Kremlin hall, however, two qualities conspicuous by their absence were debate and dissent.

Here were the Public Chamber's 126 members, the men and women appointed to act as monitors over parliament and government agencies. Yet their vote for chamber secretary was unanimous. So were the votes for each of Public Chamber's 17 committee chairmen. And the votes for all the vice chairmen.

"We were all a bit hypnotized," conceded Sergei Borisov, a chamber member who is president of an association of small businesses. "I guess, deep in my soul, I just didn't want to ruin the celebration."

These first weeks of the Public Chamber are a reminder that "democracy" consists of more than elections and noble-sounding institutions. Last year, the Kremlin pressed for creation of the Public Chamber as a way to foster dialogue between the public and state. As proposed by President Vladimir V. Putin, the Public Chamber would serve as a watchdog over government.

The problem, critics say, is that the chamber is a government creation. And it risks becoming another voice endorsing the Kremlin's every move. A third of the chamber's members were picked by Putin; its work is financed by about $4 million in government funds.

Oksana Dmitrievna, one of the few independent members of parliament, voted against its creation, saying the Public Chamber would "distract the public's attention from what is a real diminishment of democracy."

"The main aim of the Kremlin was to try to gather a majority that will be well-behaved," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank in Moscow, who noted that only a handful of the chamber members are independent of the government.

"These people will play a democratic role, but it's a decorative role," he said. "In general, the role of the Public Chamber is quite decorative."

The Public Chamber can express an opinion on virtually anything.

After a knifing at a synagogue by a man who allegedly kept extremist literature at home, the chamber proposed creating a list of books that should be banned, including Hitler's Mein Kampf. After the abusive hazing of an army recruit in Siberia, chamber members traveled there to interview witnesses. When officials in Volgograd closed a newspaper that published a cartoon depicting Muhammad, Jesus, Moses and Buddha, the chamber called for a reconsideration of the decision.

According to its charter, the chamber has the right to review draft legislation and make recommendations to parliament and to the president. But none of chamber's recommendations is binding, which conveniently provides for the following possibility: If the Kremlin likes what the chamber has to say, the Kremlin will listen. If not, the government can ignore the chamber without consequences.

That has already happened once. In November, the chamber did not yet have its full membership but asked parliament to delay imposing new regulations on nonprofit groups until the full chamber could review them.

"There was no real reaction to that," said Igor Chestin, director of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund and a chamber member without ties to the Kremlin. Parliament passed the measure in December, and Putin signed it in early January, two weeks before the Public Chamber's first official meeting.

Chestin said Putin has talked of his desire for a dialogue involving civil groups. "If he really wants that, he should demonstrate that he's committed," Chestin said. "The role of the chamber will entirely depend on the president."

Yaroslav Kuzminov, rector of Moscow's Higher School of Economics and appointed to the chamber by Putin, said the chaos of the 1990s necessarily prompted Russia to respond by centralizing authority. He supports having a strong central authority while acknowledging the risks.

"The state became a body without ears, without eyes," he said. "It couldn't hear signals from the civil society."

"The essence of the Public Chamber is to compensate for the weakness of the state - being too powerful," Kuzminov said.

Addressing the Public Chamber as its first formal session, Putin said the members should be guided by professionalism and competence and carry out their work independent of politics.

With so many members on good terms with the Kremlin, that hardly seems likely. But the Public Chamber might have yet another difficulty representing the voice of the people: According to a January survey by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 37 percent of Russians know nothing about the group's work. Seventy-nine percent can't name a single member.

"At this point, I have an impression that the public really isn't thinking too much about the Public Chamber," said member Nikolai Svanidze, a news anchor for the state-run Rossiya channel.

"Our most important weapon is openness before the public," he said. "It may turn out that we won't be able to abolish all this bureaucracy and all these walls we're trying to break down, and the Public Chamber will be little by little forgotten."


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