Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

Is the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights 'Democratic'? Implications for Russian Governance

By Catherine Owen.

In Russia the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights is a remarkable institution. It is composed of public figures from the NGO community, the media and arts, academia and business, whose job is to inform the President on the state of human rights and civil society at home and abroad, assist him in the protection of rights and freedoms as set out in the Russian constitution, and prepare recommendations on how to develop the institutions of civil society and protect human rights. Although the Council has no legal powers and its members are not elected by the Russian people, the Council is widely seen as one of the most democratic institutions in the country. What is understood by 'democratic' in this context? Is it any more than a talking shop for career-minded social activists? What can recent developments in the Council tell us about emerging modes of governance in Russia?

The Council's 'democratic' reputation was forged by Ella Pamfilova, who headed the organisation between 2002 and 2010. Under her dynamic and energetic leadership, it became a place of independent criticism of the government, providing a liberal critique of state policy in Russia's narrow political environment in which such views are ridiculed and marginalised. It was therefore surprising that a government-founded institution could criticise the government so vociferously, even if its critiques tended to fall on deaf ears.

According to research done by the Council itself, just five percent of their policy recommendations are put into practice. Nonetheless, the Council has published damning reports on some of the most salient social issues in the country, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky , Pussy Riot, and the election falsifications of December 2011. Indeed, some members consider it the Council's main task to help form public opinion on critical social matters, although the extent to which the average Russian is aware of the Presidential Council, let alone accesses its reports, is debatable. Yet, despite its generally low impact level, some inside the Kremlin have lamented the unchecked voice of the Council, and events of the past year may signify the end of the Council as the government's voice of conscience.

In 2010 Pamfilova suddenly resigned as head of the organisation. Although she did not give an official reason, she privately mentioned that she had been repeatedly targeted by the pro-Kremlin youth movement, Nashi. Her successor, Mikhail Fedotov, a journalist and human rights promoter, is widely seen as a worthy successor. Indeed, the Council's continuing democratic reputation no doubt comes from its membership: a large majority of those in the Council's earlier compositions were regarded as critical and independent individuals by the NGO community. According to one veteran rights activist and former Council member Boris Pustyntsev, the previous make-up contained only fifteen to twenty percent Kremlin loyalists. It is, of course, highly unusual for a government body in a non-democratic state to comprise a majority who are either sympathetic to or active in the opposition, and the fact that this was the case with the Presidential Council contributed to its somewhat superficial designation as 'democratic'.

However, in the last six months, seventeen of the most respected and outspoken members of the Russian democracy movement have quit the Council, including Liudmila Alexeeva, Gannushkina, and Dmitry Oreshkin. Two main reasons have been given: eleven members left as Putin returned to the Presidency, stating that it would be hypocritical to advise that same person against whom they organise in the opposition movement. A second wave of members left in June, declaring that the new selection method of members to the Council, based on a public consultation conducted via the internet, was non-transparent and could be easily manipulated.

Liudmila Alexeeva, widely seen as the figurehead of the Russian human rights movement, stated she would remain in the Council until its formation was complete and then decide whether or not she would be able to work in the new environment. However, she quit the Council mid-way through the process, stating in her blog that the media

'Salivated over the smallest details of this process and turned them into scandals, constantly complaining about the cunning plans of the Council members to push through "their" candidates. At the same time in the internet, there was shamelessly blatant falsification of support for certain candidates. For example, during the night in the course of a few minutes, support ratings showed that more than a thousand people a minute had voted for a particular candidate. I had the lasting impression that they were deliberately trying to make the Council a laughing stock, and to deliberately discredit its members.'

It was unclear to what extent the public consultation influenced the decision on who to appoint and, in fact, after voting took place, Putin decided to increase the number of members from forty to sixty-five. The Council now includes a mixture of loyal Kremlin servants such as project co-ordinator at the ruling party's youth group Molodaya Gvardia, Yana Lantratova, and fierce critics such as director of the maligned election monitoring organisation, GOLOS, and head of human rights lawyers' association, Agora, Pavel Chikov. But bar a few 'celebrities', members of the new Council are not as well-known as those of the previous composition. Could it be that the Kremlin thinks they will be easier to ignore? It is unclear yet whether the new Council will retain its critical stance on rights issues: the expansion of the Council could be a ploy in order to eschew the kind of independent advice that the Council has given in the past. Certainly, it will be hard to gain consensus on which recommendations to give to the President.

The first meeting of the new Council with President Putin was held on 12th November. During the session he promised to revisit the laws passed over the summer, which include a greatly expanded definition of treason and a requirement that NGOs receiving foreign funding label themselves as foreign agent on all print and online material. However, it remains unclear as to why he did not wait to discuss the laws with the new Council before passing them; reconsidering laws already in the statute book will require work that could easily have been avoided. Perhaps the current repressive trend in Russian social politics demonstrates the true irrelevance of this Council; no one is really expecting that these promises will be kept. Overall, the meeting was described as 'chaotic, a lot of people, everyone wanted to say what was on their mind, so we kept jumping from topic to topic.'

This raises the question of what the Presidential Council is actually for. On one hand, if its role is indeed to represent a cross-section of society to the President, one could say that a broader mix of political orientations could better embody the heterogeneous and conflictual nature of society. In which case it is a good thing that the Council should have difficulty reaching consensus, as it is hard to imagine a situation in which society at large could do so. On the other hand, if its role is to present clear advice to the President in the field of rights, including members who are neither experts nor interested in a rights agenda seems to defeat the object. The Council's three roles as described on its website are to assist, inform and advise the President. This does suggest the need for a coherent voice from the Council and, if coupled with the requirement implied in the new make-up of the Council that it should reflect society at large, seems to imply that the Kremlin's vision of Russian society is that of a unified servant to the state. As evidenced by the chaos of the first meeting, it is likely that the construction of the Council simultaneously as a cross-section of society and as an advisor to the President will be the further undoing of the Council as an effective institution.

Critics have claimed that the Council is nothing but a decorative institution, a Potemkin village designed to give the illusion that the Russian government does care about human rights. But members, as well as some social scientists, argue that such mediating institutions are important for countries moving away from dictatorial rule in which there often lacks a clear feedback mechanism between society and the state. In countries in which elections are often tampered with, mass media lack freedom and civil society groups do not enjoy broad support, such formal meetings between state and society are seen both as important for the state in understanding social problems and working to diffuse tension, and for society, which can bring pressing issues to the seat of power. And in fact, the Presidential Council is just one of a huge trend of Public Councils in Russia in which prominent citizens advise government officials both at regional and national levels.

But if we consider this new trend in governance in Russia under the rubric of 'mediating institutions', questions of legitimacy and accountability become even more salient. The process of mediation implies a harmonisation of interests between state and society. What gives these members the right to represent the interests of society before decision-makers, other than the fact they have done well enough in their careers to be considered 'public figures'? And when they pursue their own interests at the expense of society via these Councils, through which mechanisms can they be held to account? Currently there are no mechanisms that ensure Public Council members are either legitimate or accountable.

While it is important to be open to other forms of democratic organisation that move away from the electoral model of Western democracies, the Presidential Council as an effective 'mediating' institution demands serious reconsideration. If members of the Presidential Council are taking on a representative function, their legitimacy has to be grounded in a broad process of societal consultation and mechanisms of accountability need to be in place. If the Presidential Council is an advisory body, it should be comprised of experts on human rights and civil society chosen by the President. The blurring of these functions is indicative of a broader problem with the development of this new mode of governance in Russia.