Citizens to Gauge Power Ministries

President Vladimir Putin has ordered the Public Chamber to create public councils to oversee each of the power ministries, which include the Federal Security Service, the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry.

While the agencies badly need oversight, the new councils are likely to be packed with Kremlin loyalists who would sideline independent groups in evaluating the agencies' work, independent nongovernmental organizations said Monday.

"Public Chamber is a mock-up of civil society, and this mock-up has been tasked with forming councils that will also be mock-ups," veteran rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva said.

In a decree signed Saturday, Putin ordered the Public Chamber to draw up lists of candidates to sit on councils for every federal agency that answers directly to him and to submit them to the agencies' heads for approval. The heads will have two months to make their decisions. The agencies will cover the councils' expenses, but members will not receive any pay for their work.

The councils will be made up of Public Chamber members and regional experts, some of whom might be human rights activists, Public Chamber deputy head Sergei Katyrin said.

"The councils will not advise the agencies on their direct duties or work, which in some cases might be state secrets, but can initiate a public discussion of matters that concern everyone or many people," said Katyrin, vice president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He said the FSB's public council, for example, could press the security service to define for researchers what constitutes a state secret. The FSB has accused a series of researchers of divulging secrets in their work with foreign companies and fellow researchers.

In addition to the FSB and Defense and Interior ministries, the power ministries include the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Guard Service, the Emergency Situations Ministry, the State Couriers Service and the presidential property department.

The Public Chamber will start recruiting council members next month, Katyrin said, adding that independent NGOs would be considered if they applied. "We would prefer to draw people familiar with the situation, but nothing prevents various NGOs from submitting their services to the councils," he said.

Independent NGOs boycotted the Public Chamber when its members were decided last year, criticizing it as little more than democratic window-dressing. Putin had proposed the chamber as bridge between the state and civil society when he abolished gubernatorial elections after the Beslan school attack in 2004.

Perhaps the chamber's most high-profile campaign so far has been an attempt to force government officials to refer to prices in rubles, not dollars or euros.

Alexeyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, said outspoken human rights activists had no chance of being invited to sit on a public council.

"It is quite clear that Public Chamber members, who were appointed from above, will name people the ministers are not allergic of," she said.

Katyrin hinted that groups like the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, which defends conscripts' rights and has often clashed publicly with military brass, had little chance of getting on the Defense Ministry's council.

Valery Abramkin, head of the Moscow Center for Prison Reform, a nongovernmental group monitoring prisoners' rights, and a member of a current Justice Ministry council of prominent human rights advocates, said he saw nothing alarming about the Public Chamber forming the new councils because it was the agency heads who determined the effectiveness of their work.

"The efficiency of such councils largely depends on the minister. The way such bodies are formed is not very important," said Abramkin, who previously praised Yury Chaika's cooperation with independent NGOs when he was justice minister.

Katyrin said existing councils such as the one with the Justice Ministry might be left untouched.

But Abramkin, who co-authored a prison reform carried out under Chaika, said no council meetings had been held since Chaika was replaced by Vladimir Ustinov in June.

"No one has informed us of any changes," he said.

Alexeyeva said the idea of equipping each power agency with a council was a good one but should have been approached differently.

"Our authorities are high and inaccessible, so we do need bridges to connect them with the people," she said. However, "usually whatever is appointed from above proves to be unviable."