The Public Chamber: All Smoke and Mirrors

Almost two years have passed since the Public Chamber was established, and this provides a good occasion to draw some preliminary conclusions regarding its work — most important, its real impact on the development of civil society.

The upcoming two-year anniversary of the chamber is also important because its members are scheduled to be rotated. This has prompted a flurry of activity in the organization. For example, the chamber leadership recently met with President Vladimir Putin, it has initiated a bunch of new laws and it has even been given the power to carry out civil investigations.

When the chamber was established two years ago, I had my own thoughts as to the real reasons why the authorities needed to create such an institution:

  • To keep track of foreign and domestic nongovernmental organizations in order to expose which NGOs were in opposition to the Kremlin, and, most important, to find out exactly who was bankrolling them.

  • To turn the chamber into a civil society ministry, so to speak, by applying the Kremlin’s version of the “power vertical” to the social sphere.

  • To try to minimize street protests by serving as an alternative channel for public discontent. If successful, this strategy would weaken various human rights, ecological and other groups that oppose the government’s policies.

  • To create a mechanism for putting pressure on federal and regional bureaucrats using “soft power,” applied under the Kremlin’s direction, in the same manner that the Audit Chamber does.

  • To create the impression of a “counterbalance” to the State Duma along the lines of the Federation Council. In reality, of course, the chamber is a mere copy of the institutions that it is purportedly trying to counterbalance.

  • To provide a highly visible and easily controllable arena for conducting “virtual” public discussion, which, for all intents and purposes, has been eliminated by the Federation Council, regional elections and the Duma.

  • To create an additional means for legitimizing the existing power structure. This is a way of creating the impression that the government is “relying on society.” It is also a convenient way to shift responsibility or blame for making unpopular or anti-democratic decisions as the need arises.

  • To establish the government’s “corporate rules of behavior” by masking what is essentially government censorship. This is accomplished by inculcating and institutionalizing a sense of self-censorship among the chamber members in their everyday work.

The Public Chamber, it can be said, has fulfilled those functions with varying degrees of success since its inception.

Waiting an additional six months before formally establishing the chamber in 2005 enabled officials to compile a complete list of NGOs on the regional, federal district and national levels. The result was that organizations most favored by authorities received grant money from the state budget. With the chamber’s upcoming membership rotation, it will be necessary to take a new look at all NGOs.

It would be impossible to compose a list of all of society’s ailments based on the issues that the chamber has taken on. For example, the chamber rallied with much fanfare to the defense of citizens in relatively petty cases, but, at the same time, it ignored much more serious issues. Its role can at least partly be described by the famous bureaucratic saying, “If you can’t hinder something — control it.” For this reason, the chamber rarely took any common positions as a unified body. Instead, its members usually acted individually and often at variance with one another. Later, the chamber manipulated the facts by crediting itself with playing a critical role in resolving practically all of the major conflicts between citizens and the authorities.

Regarding pressure on government officials, the much-publicized hazing cases in the army come to mind. These incidents were used by the chamber to a significant degree against then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Another example: the protests in the Moscow neighborhood of Yuzhnoye Butovo, which were instigated to undermine Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

The Public Chamber never became a second Duma, although some deputies were initially concerned that it might. In fact, it turned out to be almost the opposite. The media-hungry individual personalities in the chamber eclipsed the collective work of the body itself. In the Duma, it was the Duma as an institution — and not individual personalities — that was credited with delivering concrete proposals and other actions.

Without a doubt, the Public Chamber played a role in reviving and strengthening the worn-out democratic agenda of the current political regime, although to a lesser degree than might have been expected. Or is the best yet to come?

It is important to note that the mere existence of the Public Chamber has brought about more significant changes to society than have the specific actions taken by this body. The chamber’s most important achievement has been its ability to draw attention — from the general public as well as from all levels of government — on the general problems of civil society and on the fact that citizens and authorities do not speak and listen to each other.

The very process of establishing the Public Chamber has had an even wider and deeper impact on municipal and regional public chambers and social councils within federal districts. Notwithstanding the fact that many of these recently created institutions are submissive to the authorities because they are on their payroll, their establishment has brought some life to the concept of civil society beyond its merely superficial manifestations. The Public Chamber conducts numerous meetings and hearings, and many qualified experts from a wide range of disciplines have been involved in its activities.

On the whole, however, the Public Chamber, is largely a meaningless institution. Although there are a number of strong and ambitious individuals who have sharply increased their popularity as a result of their activity in the chamber, this is probably not in the best interests of the public because it often only advances their personal agenda. On the weak foundation of civil society, the following notable “champions of civil society” have emerged on the political and social scene: lawyer Anatoly Kucherena; professor and architect Vyacheslav Glazychev; president of the Institute for Civil Society Issues think tank, Maria Slobodskaya; director of the Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Valery Tishkov; president of the Politika Foundation think tank, Vyacheslav Nikonov; and pediatrician Leonid Roshal.

Regardless of your opinions on the Public Chamber, it is worth noting that it is a living and growing institution that serves both civil and government interests. The most important question is whose interests are being served more — the government’s or the public’s. Society itself can help determine the answer to this question.

Moscow Times

By Nikolai Petrov. Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

July 20, 2007

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