On 2 July 2014, the Russian State Duma passed the highly controversial draft law 'On the Foundations of Public Oversight in the Russian Federation' at its second reading. This law defines the basis on which citizens may interact with authorities and stipulates that such interaction can only be conducted through state-sanctioned bodies. Now in the hands of the Russian parliament's Upper House, which must give its approval before the draft can become law, the proposals could have profound implications for civic participation in governance and should be of great concern to those who care about civil liberties in Russia.
The law centres on the slippery concept, obshchestvennyi kontrol', which translates into English as public oversight, public monitoring or public scrutiny. It is used both by the Kremlin and by independent civic groups to refer to ways in which citizens can monitor the activities of local and regional government. Kremlin-founded corporate bodies such as the Federal Public Chamber and the myriad public councils attached to government ministries claim to enact obshchestvennyi kontrol' by acting as discussion platforms for government-selected 'civil society leaders' and officials. The plethora of grassroots collectives that sprang up to monitor the Presidential election in March 2012, widely perceived to be riddled with fraud, also used the concept to refer to their activities. The fact that this form of obshchestvennyi kontrol' played a key role in drawing citizens to some of the largest protests seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union should not be overlooked as a possible motive for the decision to restrict this concept in law.
While the law states that obshchestvennyi kontrol' may take any form that does not contradict the principles set out in the document, it nonetheless delineates five examples of what such activities should consist of, what their outputs should be and how government departments should respond. First, a public examination (obshchestvennaya ekspertiza) requires 'public experts', that is local academics, researchers or NGO leaders, to study draft laws and existing legislation and assess their social impact and whether they comply with the 'public interest'. Second, public discussions (obshchestvennye obshuzhdeniya) consist of public meetings between public monitory bodies and local government, which aim 'to include the widest range of views of different social groups' in the development of legislation. Third, public hearings (obshchestvennye slushaniya) are similar to public discussions, but allow any concerned citizen to take part. Fourth, public monitoring (obshchestvennyi monitoring) is an on-going form of surveillance of local government activities. Fifth, public inspections (obshchestvennie proverki) are auditing processes of government bodies or official perceived to be failing in the work, which involve public monitory bodies collecting information and developing proposals to remedy the situation. Importantly, in order to enact obshchestvennyi kontrol', interested parties must join the existing network of Kremlin-initiated corporate bodies. Citizens and NGOs cannot take part independently. It thus harks back to the governance practices of the Soviet Union, in which practices of narodnyi kontrol' (people's oversight) were co-ordinated through centrally controlled monitory bodies (and frequently resulted in the co-optation of the so-called people's inspectors into the corrupt system they were supposed to be monitoring).
The law is a product of the growing desire to shift the state-dependent Soviet-era mentality still common among the population by fostering active citizens and including them in governance processes, as stipulated in the second wave of government administrative reforms between 2006 and 2010. These reforms were based on the assumption that one of the main problems with the administrative system was its closed nature and the lack of feedback channels between the authorities and the citizens. Information held by the authorities was considered secret and there were no structural opportunities for consultation with civil society groups before decisions were made. Thus, institutional mechanisms were proposed, which would promote more effective engagement between NGOs and the authorities and increase the overall transparency of government activity. In order to do this, a system of 'public councils' was mooted, which would bring citizens and authorities together to debate policy areas, conduct scrutiny of government decisions, and include 'civil society' in oversight commissions and working groups. This network of public councils and other similar bodies would provide the framework through which NGOs could influence decision-making and work with the state on policy delivery. It is this network that has now been charged with co-ordinating the sum total of civic engagement in Russia.
The development of the law has spanned the last two years and has clearly been a pet project of Vladimir Putin, who has championed obshchestvennyi kontrol' in his own speeches and articles to the nation. For instance, in his February 2012 pre-election article 'Democracy and the Quality of the State', Putin made it clear that the extension of obshchestvennyi kontrol' would be central to developing civic participation in governance in his coming term. 'Above all,' he stated, 'it is a citizens-wide discussion of the draft laws, decisions and programmes adopted at all levels of government, as well as the evaluation of existing laws and their application.' Similarly, in his Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly 2013, Putin reiterated his desire to see more discussion and collaboration between the authorities and citizens: 'Modern Russia needs a broad public debate, moreover, with practical results, when public initiatives are part of public policy and society monitors their execution.' He went on to ask the Public Chamber and the Presidential Human Rights Council to work hard on the preparation of the law.
In January 2014, the first draft of the proposals were sent to the Presidential Administration for further development. It was at this point the provisions on who could conduct obshchestvennyi kontrol' were changed: the original idea was to allow every citizen and NGO to monitor the authorities, now only the existing state-controlled bodies could do so. It also deleted the clause stipulating the creation of a single unified portal through which the results of scrutiny exercises would be published, citing a lack of funding and stating that it would be more efficient to use the Federal Public Chamber website. On 12 March 2014, Putin introduced the law into the Duma. On 25 March 2014, during a Duma debate, it was noted that the passing of the law would require more than 25 changes to existing legislation. However, the Federation Council indicated their support and called for the bill to be passed quickly. In May 2014, the bill received prime airtime on Russian state-controlled TV channels. On 2nd July, it was passed by the Duma. Given the Federation Council's vocal support, we can expect the bill to become law imminently.
Now, the meaning of obshchestvennyi kontrol' has been fixed as the monitoring of the activities of government departments by state-founded corporate bodies. Its aims include protecting the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens and enabling the consideration of public opinion during government decision-making processes. According to the document, the proposals will help to develop a sense of legal consciousness in citizens, as well as increase the level of trust in the actions of the state, facilitate the realisation of civic projects, and reduce corruption.
However, this new law could have at least three serious consequences for state-society relations in Russia. First, the narrow definition of what it means to enact obshchestvennyi kontrol' will curtail the development of new and imaginative ways in which citizens can engage with authorities – and possibly prevent such activities as independent election monitoring. Second, since all monitoring activities must be conducted through the Kremlin's existing corporate bodies, the authorities will retain an oblique control over who can take part and will be able to influence the processes and outcomes of the public monitoring exercises. Third, while the law recognises that citizens are an important source of expertise, it nonetheless seeks to control and direct this knowledge. The law promotes a consensual relationship between authorities and citizens and discourages political contestation, the essence of a vibrant public sphere. In sum, it could signal a death knoll for independent civic life in Russia.