Business knocks on government’s door

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has agreed to allow the Russian business elite to officially attend government sessions.

The decision was made following his meeting with the head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) Aleksander Shokhin. On Monday, Shokhin managed to convince Putin that representatives of large business should be invited to government meetings.

The head of the Russian government noted that Mikhail Shmakov, Chairman of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions regularly attends White House meetings.

“Perhaps, for the sake of fairness, it would not be a bad idea to invite businesses as well,” Shokhin was quoted as saying on the official website of the Russian government.

Putin’s answer was short. “Agreed,” he said.

According to Shokhin, 2010 “will still be very challenging,” therefore “many RSPP members are drawing up business strategies that focus on post-crisis development and modernization.”

“It is very important to ensure close cooperation with the government on routine issues, as well as with leading ministries and agencies,” he said.

Before the decision, which has already been dubbed “historic” by the Russian media, RSPP members could be invited to attend government meetings but not as official participants. And only White House functionaries could sit on the panel.

Until now, the only site for regular interaction between the government, trade unions and employers’ representatives was the Trilateral Commission.

Aleksander Shokhin, who represents employers at the commission, said its work has been effective.

“At the government's initiative – and this is very important – we submit for consideration key regulatory acts for discussion,” he said. “These are not only draft laws but also the government's regulatory decisions, which are often hotly debated…However, we manage to reach compromises.”

At the same time, the RSPP head noted that very often the commission “considers draft decisions that the government has formally or virtually approved.”

“In these cases it is not easy for us to compromise and reach a consensus,” Shokhin added.

Business wants to be heard

RSPP participation in government meetings could be just the beginning of better interaction between business and power, but it was actually not the main point of the meeting with Vladimir Putin, Shokhin told RT.

“In fact, we were discussing the position of the RSPP and the government on key issues that business is interested in,” he said. That included the taxation system, insurance payments, new legislation, human capital, issues of financial recovery of companies and the future of state corporations.

A call for a better dialogue between the business sector and the government was voiced by Shokhin last year, during a meeting between President Medvedev and representatives of the RSPP.

“When they [the government] want to see us at discussions – they invite us, when they do not – they do it with functionaries only,” he told Medvedev as quoted on Shokhin’s official website.

According to what he said then, the business elite would like to see its dialogue with the authorities “more institutionalized and formalized.”

On Tuesday, in an interview with RT the head of the non-government organization reiterated his position and clarified what he meant by “institutionalization.” Shokhin said that he would like to see business representatives participating in draft laws and bills. Moreover, that right should be regulated by law.

In other words, simply participating in government meetings is not quite enough and the RSPP would prefer to be integrated into power.

The government, Shokhin said, would make a list of requirements that business unions would have to follow in order to take part.

“In return… the RSPP must present to the government the procedure of agreeing on the stance of business and working out a consolidated position so that it would not be just a point of view of certain companies,” he said. “It is very important that the government would trust our expertise,” Shokhin stressed.

He added that business should not slow down legislation and a limited time should be set for experts to draw their conclusions. In addition, “no one says the government would be obliged to consider business’ point of view,” he said.

At the very least, “the business community would get a chance to be informed in time about draft laws being prepared and express their opinion on them,” Shokhin told RT.

The RSPP president noted that unlike big players, small business is already “institutionally” integrated into power.

Will Russia return to oligarchy?

The possibility of an increase of power of the wealthy raises some fears of a return to the situation in the 90s when oligarchs ruled the day in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was during this period that “oligarch” became a common name for the rich in Russia.

So, if the RSPP starts taking part in government meetings can they formally be called “oligarchs”?

According to Shokhin, today’s Russia should not be compared to what it was at the end of last century.

“To put it mildly, at that time business was not transparent when lobbying its interests,” Shokhin said adding that now the RSPP suggests a different, “transparent” approach.

As for a thorn in Russia’s flesh – corruption – the organization’s leader believes the risk would be smaller with business taking an active and open part in decision making.

“Business’ lobbying of its interests would become clear and regulated,” he said.

Step is good, but small

Russia’s business representatives have generally welcomed the news.

However, according to Boris Titov, Chairman of the All-Russian Business Organization Delovaya Rossiya (Business Russia), “If we really want our country to follow the path of modernization and diversification of the economy, it is the process industry representatives that should be taking part in such meetings.”

Currently, he said, the RSPP consists mainly of those involved in the raw materials industry.

The move is a step in the right direction, though a “very modest step,” agreed Dmitry Oreshkin, Head of Mercator Group – a company that specializes in production of information graphics, presentations and videos for businesses.

“Putin has repeatedly said that Russia should build a liberal economy. And that is a correct approach since in such a country as Russia, the economy can only be liberal. It is too large and cannot be ruled from a united center,” he told RT.

“It is important to understand that the RSPP is a bureaucratic structure that seriously depends on the government. Therefore we cannot expect it to be uncompromising when fighting for the interests of business,” Oreshkin said.

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