A new “ethics code” for Russian officialdom looks suspiciously like a permanent gag order
It’s not like it was ever easy for me or other journalists in Russia openly critical of the authorities to persuade officials to speak on the record. But evasive bureaucrats did actually have to bother to provide an acceptable reason for avoiding comment. To their credit, not everyone was bold enough to simply hang up or bark out something like “you’re all foreign spies.”
President Dmitry Medvedev has made it easy for such bureaucrats through a new decree issued in July. They have simply been ordered not to talk publicly about any state business. And so they no longer have to invent reasons not to do so.
The presidential order stipulates that “state officials, being aware of their responsibility to the state, society, and citizens, are asked to refrain from any public statements, judgments, and opinions regarding any state organizations and their leaders, if doing so is not part of their professional duties.”
Indeed, unless they are officially assigned to posts in public or media relations, bureaucrats are forbidden from giving out any information at all.
However, what worries me most about the new decree is that the state is rapidly losing transparency. And that it will now be even more difficult for journalists to get information about the interests of officials, or the state, in certain important projects or initiatives.
Authorities across Russia have long punished newspapers and broadcast outlets by limiting their access to key events; they know that guarding information is the best way to conceal corruption. Individual journalists and entire publications seen to be critical of state bureaucrats often have trouble obtaining accreditation to important events.
Furthermore, in Russia almost all kinds of information are considered sensitive, and if you insist on disclosure you may be in for trouble, as it will appear tantamount to an attempt to reveal corruption.
The level of accountability of Russian state bureaucrats to the public is already very low. City governors as well as heads of regions are all appointed, not elected. Medvedev’s gag order adds to the centralization of power while further limiting officials’ accountability to the people.
UNITED WE STAND
Most Russian citizens learn about the activities of the state from the media. But it is not the only source. In February 2003, the Russian government issued a decree that obliged all state bodies to set up websites in order to communicate directly with the public and provide information about their activities. In practice, most of these websites contain no specific information, such as, for instance, on state tenders, and are updated only very occasionally. Many people complain that the websites are useless, but there is no decree that would compel officials to provide real content online.
The Russian Constitution does guarantee people’s right to receive information. The only problem is that just like all other Russian laws it is hardly observed. Officials have learned to obey orders but have yet to learn to respect the law. It doesn’t help matters that in Russia there is no great tradition of respect for individual rights. So most people have no faith in the operation of justice and are not willing to fight the system.
Confusingly, Medvedev’s decree, advertised as a kind of ethics code for officials, also tells them to “maintain neutrality and exclude the possibility of any political parties influencing their work.” Yet it says nothing about government employees joining political parties, thus creating a possible conflict of interest for many Russian bureaucrats.
Most Russian governors and other state officials are members of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party headed by Vladimir Putin. The party’s charter advises its members to “give all possible assistance in the realization of the party’s program” and “personally fulfill and actively support all decisions of the party’s leadership.”
Russia’s second-largest party, the similarly pro-Kremlin Just Russia, has a very similar charter. During election campaigns, officials strongly support their party candidates and even run for office on party lists. These people will now have to balance the risk of violating professional ethics against failing to act according to their party’s wishes.
Conveniently for pro-Kremlin parties though, Medvedev’s decree is rather vaguely worded. When accused of being influenced by United Russia, officials can always hide behind “state interests.” And those typically happen to coincide with the declared goals of United Russia.
Transitions Online, 19 August 2009
* Galina Stolyarova is a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.