The Council’s ‘democratic’ reputation was forged by
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
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,
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, 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
‘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
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 ‘
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.