Russian domestic policy

In June, President Medvedev took some measures to ease the situation of NGOs in Russia. On 17 June the president introduced into the Duma a bill to amend NGO legislation. A first reading of this bill was approved by 391 (out of 450) members. Those in favour included members of the United Russia, Just Russian and Liberal Democrat parties with the communists against.

Garri Minch, the president’s representative in the Duma, said the purpose of the bill was to liberalise the legal position of NGOs. In future, NGOs seeking (re) -registration should receive it within three months if they had produced all the required documents. If registration were refused the notification period would be reduced from three months to 14 working days and notice of this decision would be given within three days. NGOs will only need to renew their registration every three years instead of the current annual requirement.

This bill was drafted by a presidential working group under the chairmanship of Vladislav Surkov, first deputy leader of the presidential administration and included representatives from the justice ministry, the Duma, the Federal Council and civil society. It was the result of a long process in which Medvedev had recognised the problems facing NGOs in Russia. This is in contrast to Prime Minister Putin, who, in 2005, sought to make life for NGOs more difficult and then because of pressure from outside the country had to ease some of his proposed measures.

In a speech to the committee formed to promote civil society and human rights on 15 April, Medvedev declared that improvements to NGO legislation were possible and also necessary. The chair of this committee is Ella Pamfilova, a well-known human rights activist and former minister for social affairs (1991-1994) who stood against Putin in the 2000 presidential election. The other 36 members represent a wide spectrum of political organisations, academia and respected NGOs such as the Helsinki Group, Transparency International and Greenpeace. The director of the think tank formed by Medvedev, (Institute for Modern Development, Igor Jurgens (see May report) is also a participant.

Medvedev believes that the law to improve the situation of NGOs will need to deal with the following areas: their fiscal position, their relationship with government agencies, how they inform the wider public, their state subsidies, how best to use their expertise and public hearings on the most pressing questions facing society today.

Medvedev has also called for a heightened role for the 126 strong Public Chamber (comprised partly of representatives of NGOs) in consultations dealing with the legislative process. The Duma now has to send draft legislation to the Public Chamber, whose members are allowed to make short statements in parliament on matters that affect citizens’ rights. It is possible that Medvedev hopes, in this fashion, to gain allies for his domestic reforms. In addition he is hoping that should the economic situation worsen, NGOs will be able to act as a buffer and channel some of the protests away from the government.

Medvedev & The Press

On 13 April 2008, Medvedev gave his first interview to a Russian newspaper. He chose Novaya Gazeta a newspaper that is critical of the Kremlin and known for its hard-hitting investigative journalism. Four journalists working for this newspaper have been murdered in the last ten years, including Anna Politkovskaya. The latest journalist from this newspaper to be murdered was Anastasia Baburova who was shot in the street on 19 January 2009, within view of the Kremlin, as she stood with Stanislav Markelov, Politkovskaya’s lawyer.

At the time there was no top level political reaction. It was ten days later that Medvedev had a meeting in the Kremlin with the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Dimitri Muratov and Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the paper’s owners. In a one hour discussion, where Medvedev stated his regret at the murders and accepted that his silence had been an error. More important than the content of the interview given to Novaya Gazeta was the fact that it took place at all. Medvedev’s spokesperson, Natalia Timakova, said that it was an expression of the president’s moral support for the newspaper.

In the interview, the president came out strongly against any social contract that exchanged civil rights for economic wellbeing. On the subject of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he said he was in favour of an independent judiciary and, as president could therefore not get involved in an ongoing legal case.

A new programme to deal with economic crisis

On 19 June 2008 Prime Minister Putin signed the government’s new anti crisis programme. The first programme appeared on 7 November to demonstrate that the government was taking action in the face of the economic downturn. Medvedev’s contribution had been the creation of a council to develop financial markets in the Federation on 17 October 2008 (the prime minister was not a member) alongside the measures laid down in his state of the nation address on 5 November 2008.

The Putin anti crisis plan foresees the following priorities: the state would fulfil all of its social obligations to the people; develop industrial and technological potential; increase domestic demand as a platform for export growth; encourage economic innovation and structural change; create better conditions for economic growth by improving elements of the market economy and removing barriers to business; create a more stable financial system to promote more reliable economic growth.

Overall the programme’s 29 pages are geared to strengthening the financial sector, assisting the ‘real economy’ and implementing social measures.

Protests against the economic situation

According to the Ministry of the Interior, there were 2500 protests provoked by the economic situation during the first quarter of 2009. There were some 200 protests in the heavy industry Ural region alone and 140 of these involved violation of the law. These figures show that the economic crisis has affected the population and the protesters have made clear that they are no longer prepared to stand quietly by and put up with things, even if it means having to break the law now and again.

Most of the protests took place in the 700 one-industry towns where one of the big companies in each has collapsed. The government now wants to set up a working group to look at this problem. Moscow is increasingly nationalising businesses that have got into trouble as a result of the crisis. (The Moscow Times 04.06.2009).

Nationalisation is often taking place at the request of workers who have often not been paid for months and who are unable to feed their families. There are numerous examples from around the Federation where whole towns and surrounding areas are suffering economic and social distress. Putin has indicated that governors who have failed to control unemployment and allowed workers to go unpaid will be dismissed.

The Moscow-based Centre for Political Economy has suggested that in future potential protests could come from four different areas:

  • Those in the military who are unhappy with the reform of the armed forces.
  • University students and recent graduates, many of whom will not find employment this year.
  • Migrant workers millions of whom live in the Moscow and St Petersburg areas. At present they have not organised any protests as they are too culturally diverse and poorly integrated into Russian society.
  • Low and mid level members of the security services. Protection money that they had previously been able to extract from small and medium businesses has disappeared as these firms have fallen victim to the economic crisis. The higher ranks of the security services do not have this problem as they ‘protect’ the larger businesses that receive help from the state. The discontent at lower levels will not be demonstrated publicly but they will be able to sabotage some of the government’s anti crisis measures.

Until now the government has been able to end protests by providing funds to pay wages that have not been paid by private companies and then it has nationalized the companies concerned. If this situation gets worse in the autumn, as some in Moscow believe, then there will be more than just isolated protest demonstrations. In this case the government may well see itself forced to adopt more repressive measures, especially when the reserve fund has been exhausted. Analysts at the economic magazine ‘Kommersant’ (01.07.2009) estimate that these funds will be exhausted by the middle of May 2010.

It could be a difficult autumn for the government.

Eberhard Schneider, Professor, member of the EURC advisory board

№7-8(35), 2009