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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Civic Activists Storm the Kremlin

MTPutin listening as Auzan tells an attendee, complaining the Kremlin had ignored his appeals, that dialogue with Putin is now direct.
Thousands of civic activists from across the country swooped down on Moscow for a Kremlin-sponsored Civic Forum on Wednesday to tackle the elusive concept of opening up a dialogue with the authorities.

The Kremlin quickly got its first taste of civic society as a crowd of self-made social workers, environmentalists, human rights advocates, stamp collectors, scouts, noblemen, ethnic culture protectionists and others started grumbling and shoving when they found themselves in hour-long waits in chilly weather outside the Kremlin gates. Pushing their way past metal detectors and bag checks, many of the 5,000 attendees seemed to have forgotten the warning on their invitations to show up two hours early.

And it was just the beginning of an event whose chaos, organizers said, would not be fought with an iron fist but redirected into achieving concrete ideas, projects and relationships.

"Kremlin employees are telling me that they have never seen such a mess in 20 years here," said one of the organizers, sociologist Alexander Oslon. "But excuse me. These are the people who have come. That's what society is. This is not a congress but a forum."

Stamping out fears that the forum was an attempt to put Russia's fledgling civil society under government control, one of the country's most respected human rights advocates, Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva, said in her opening remarks at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses that there would be no presidium, no voting and no resolutions.

She pointed out that the attendees represented more than 350,000 nongovernmental organizations employing about 1 million people. They assist some 20 million Russians.

"These figures are a major proof that civil society already exists in Russia," Alexeyeva said.

Alexeyeva then gave the floor to President Vladimir Putin, who did not disappoint the audience.

"I think everyone understands -- including, I assure you, government officials -- that civil society cannot be formed at the initiative of government officials," Putin said. "Yes, our civil society cannot be called completely formed, but I doubt there is any country where you can say civil society is completely formed. ... For Russia, we must admit the process is only beginning."

Putin then listened to presentations made by a number of speakers. As he sat there, a pile of personal petitions began to grow on his desk.

At one point, a St. Petersburg man burst on stage and interrupted the speaker to complain to Putin that the presidential administration had not responded to previous petitions.

The head of the Federation of Consumers Societies, Alexander Auzan, who was at the rostrum, retorted: "As we see, the dialogue between civil society and the president is already direct."

By the time Putin excused himself more than an hour later, he had a heap of petitions in front of him so big that his protocol chief, Oleg Rakhmanin, had to return three times to carry them away.

Organizers, centered around Gleb Pavlovsky's Efficient Policy Fund, came up with a special schedule to facilitate dialogue at the two-day event. On Wednesday afternoon, participants broke into 21 discussion groups covering topics such as the Chechen conflict, health, women's issues and foreign policy. The discussion groups, numbering up to 300 people each, are to break into roundtables of no more than 100 people each Thursday morning. By Thursday afternoon, the roundtables are to delegate some 15 people with concrete proposals to so-called talk rooms with top government officials.

Oslon said that Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov had ordered that the Cabinet shutdown Thursday afternoon to allow ministers and their deputies to meet with civic activists.

He said the forum would be considered a success if delegates agree with their government counterparts to continue talks. All participants are to gather in the Kremlin on Thursday evening to hear an address by Kasyanov and reports from the groups.

The forum also aims to have NGO activists, who often dislike each other, meet and acknowledge their existence as a civil society, Olson said.

"Social workers tend to hate human rights people, and human rights people recognize only environmentalists as equals," he said.

Stavropol resident Valery Mitrofanenko, who heads a group called No to Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, said networking alone at the forum would be a positive step forward. If a mechanism for cooperation with the government can be developed, it would only be icing on the cake, he said.

"No matter how much disorganization there is, the main thing is to bring the important topics up for discussion," Mitrofanenko said. "We want an open competition of ideas so that the best ones are put to use."

There were also number of skeptics at the forum Wednesday who argued about whether there actually is a civil society in Russia and whether a dialogue with the authorities could be established.

A lack of organization made it difficult for some discussion groups to even start.

At a military reform discussion in the afternoon, the moderator, Soldiers Mothers Committee executive secretary Valentina Melnikova, and her bus jammed with other participants were an hour late because of heavy traffic. By the time they arrived at the Russian Army House on Suvorov Square, five generals and Deputy Defense Minister Lyubov Kudelina had already listened to several passionate speeches.

Army veterans complained about poverty within the ranks and a lack of adequate training for soldiers, while a soldier's mother from the Vladimir region complained about hazing and difficulties in receiving letters from soldiers in Chechnya.

Colonel General Vladislav Putilin, head of the General Staff's organization and mobilization department, reported about plans to cut down the number of troops in the army and complained about a lack of financing for army reform.

Then Melnikova took the floor.

"Our goal is to form tomorrow's roundtables and dialogue with government representatives," she said. "Let's not talk again about what is bad, but talk about what we can do."