ROAR: Public vaguely aware of the Public Chamber

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
The Russian president will develop his strategy for strengthening civil society by filling his quota in the Public Chamber with “new faces,” the media and analysts predict.

The Public Chamber was organized as a state oversight and consultative institution in 2005. It is supposed to consider draft legislation and monitor the activities of the Russian parliament, government and regional bodies.

Then-President Vladimir Putin selected 42 members of the 126-seat chamber. They, in their turn, elected 42 more deputies from public associations. Then members of the body elected 42 representatives of regional and interregional public associations.

Some analysts say that the members of the chamber are not active enough in solving the problems of society. But the Public Chamber “may serve to open up some channels of communication between society and the state’s leaders,” Peter Rutland, professor of government at Wesleyan University, told RT.

However, it is an open question “whether, on balance, the Public Chamber serves to increase or decrease honest dialogue between state and society,” Rutland said. There is also “a risk that in co-opting certain public intellectuals they might be less willing to criticize government actions,” he added.

Observers are asking if the new composition of the Public Chamber may be more active than the previous one. Meanwhile, Medvedev’s list of new members is expected to be published soon. Izvestia daily wrote that only some 20% of those selected by Putin for “the chamber’s presidential third” would save their seats. “Rotations [of the members of the chamber] that were conducted during Putin’s presidency were not so considerable,” the paper added.

The daily’s source in the chamber said that the invitations for the next term had been sent to the incumbent secretary of the body, Evgeny Velikhov, his deputy Mikhail Ostrovsky, prominent journalists Nikolay Svanidze and Maksim Shevchenko, along with human rights activists Alla Gerber and Aleksandr Brod.

Valery Fadeev, chairman of the commission on economic development and editor-in-chief of Expert magazine, told website that “it is necessary to have new faces in the chamber” because some current members are not active enough.

“It would be ridiculous if Medvedev composed the body of the same people who had been invited by Putin,” Maria Slobodskaya, chairman of the Chamber’s Commission on the Development of Civil Society, believes.

“Although Medvedev and Putin work together, they are different people and Medvedev has different views from those who work in the chamber,” she told Slobodskaya herself has not received an invitation from Medvedev.

New members of the Public Chamber appointed by Medvedev are likely to be people from the president’s personnel reserve, Aleksey Mukhin, general director of the Center for Political Information, told RT.

Medvedev will try to fill the chamber to the maximum with “his people,” Mukhin said. But this actually will not have “an explosive political effect” because this body plays a minor role compared to other organs of power, he stressed. Its status is not determined in the constitution, the analyst added.

For this organ to work effectively it would be necessary to make amendments to the constitution, Mukhin noted. “However, Medvedev has already demonstrated that he is able and ready to make such amendments,” the analyst said.

It would be a logical step to do this again and to give the Public Chamber the status of a controlling organ, Mukhin said. If the constitution is not amended and the status of the chamber is not changed, then any rotations of its members will be senseless and useless, Mukhin stressed.

Dmitry Badovsky, a member of the Public Chamber, told that the personnel changes would be considerable because “Medvedev has shaped his course toward a dialog with civil society.”

At the same time, according to a recent poll, only 42% of Russians know something about this body. Some five percent of those polled by the All-Russian Public Opinion Study Center (VTsIOM) said they know “a lot” about the chamber, some 37% “have heard something about it.” In 2006 some 60% of respondents were aware of the work of this organ.

Some 17% of respondents said that the Public Chamber had been created mainly to mediate between the authorities and people and to promote civil initiatives. About 12% of those surveyed said that the main function of the chamber should be independent citizens’ control over the activities of power.

Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva is the best known member of the Public Chamber, but fewer than 10% of respondents know about her activities in this field. Another well-known person is prominent lawyer Anatoly Kucherena – some six percent of those polled are aware of his public duties.

The fact that many Russians do not know anything about the Public Chamber reflects the state of civil society in the country, many observers say. Peter Rutland of Wesleyan University agrees that “civil society is quite weak in Russia.” At the same time, he thinks that “sometimes Western commentary overlooks the evidence for some social activism at a grass-roots level.”

“The weakness of civil society is the result of deep historical process,” Rutland said. Asked if the state or society is to blame for this state of affairs, he said that it was not “appropriate” to attach the word “blame”.

“For a civil society to develop in Russia there would have to be changes in the behavior of both state officials and ordinary people,” Rutland told RT. “At the same time, it seems reasonable to argue that people with more wealth, power and authority can be seen as having more responsibility to make the necessary changes,” he added.

Sergey Borisov, RT