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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Power to the People or People to the Power?

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Today in our country the powers are choosing the people, as the former assemble the latter for the new Public Chamber. But let's be more precise: The powers aren't choosing the whole of our people for this chamber, of course -- no, they're appointing a very select few, a small part of the nation whom they consider worthy of conducting a dialogue with the administration on everyone else's behalf. In most countries this role is played by a parliament; but in our case the parliament, as the administration sees it, can't really fill this bill: It's drowsy, faceless and lacking in independence. It was pointless for the powers to create such a State Duma, just as it's pointless for them to create this Public Chamber.

The important thing to recognize about this new chamber is that it is made up of people who have not, in fact, been chosen by the people (not even with a hint from the Kremlin). No, it is made up of people chosen by the president, and these chosen few will be augmented shortly by another layer of designees: people chosen by people chosen by the president.

Is this a replica of our society? In a certain sense it is. What it replicates, however, is not the actual civil society we see around us, but rather that society as the powers would like to see it. The composition of the chamber, whose unrepresentative nature has loosed a flood tide of ink here lately, is not really interesting in and of itself; but it is of interest for the peculiarities of the crooked-mirror reflection it provides -- a reflection not of the society the chamber supposedly serves, but of the powers that created it.

Among the Kremlin appointees there are no serious critics of the administration, not even in the guise of a bought-and-paid-for civilian aristocracy. The greater part of the chamber's membership consists of obscure individuals, and the dozen or so more well-known members may be categorized as either people dependent on this administration for their well being, people of proven loyalty to it or, the third and most popular category, people who qualify on both counts.

Beyond this weakness stands another: There are no chamber members with large-scale organizations behind them, if you don't count a great all-time union leader and the representatives of the main religious groups.

So the chamber is in fact doubly unrepresentative, owing both to the top-down principles on which it was founded and to its very make-up. In their blessedly naive commentaries on this new institution, the creators of the enabling legislation behind it -- those worthy tinkerers at the Institute of Social Planning -- proclaimed that the law that established France's Economic and Social Council, the model that they drew on heavily, directly designated various social organizations to nominate members for this council. But in Russia, the planners went on, obvious candidates for this role did not exist among our social organizations, and in any case, Russian society "would not accept a system of authorized social organizations." As a result of this our Public Chamber, version 2005.0, has been formed less democratically that its analogue of 1989 -- the role of which was played by a third of the Congress of People's Deputies (with quota-based membership drawn from social organizations). And beyond all this, the present chamber simply and utterly lacks the luster of its predecessor.

I hasten to add, of course, that among the members of the chamber there are figures both very worthy and very authoritative -- not many of them, but there are some. And it seems to me that their consenting to join the chamber is entirely justifiable: Their voices will take on new weight there. The important thing, at all events, is for these voices to be heard.

By the end of November the president's appointees are to select 42 additional chamber members from national-level social organizations. Then together with these new inductees they will select the chamber's final third from the regions (six members from each federal district). And indeed, in the regions the pot is busily being stirred: The local powers are doing inventories of "correct" social organizations and selecting delegates for district conventions. The center likewise has its own pot-stirring to do: A building on Miusskaya Ploshchad is being readied to house the chamber; a 100-member bureaucratic apparat is being assembled to manage things, and some 15 to 20 committees of chamber members are being organized, along with various commissions. By the beginning of 2006, the chamber will be completely set up and will begin its work. It won't work too long, however: Its tenure is a mere two years -- right up to the next presidential election, in other words.

Now that the president has created his third of the chamber, it is worth asking once again about the institution's functions, setting aside for the moment those who say that its content renders its functions moot. Really now: Why does the Kremlin need a Public Chamber? Let me count the ways -- and set all but one aside.

(1) To create the appearance of national unity and give weight and authority to the administration's decisions? The composition of the chamber is too weak for that. (2) To create a channel for communication between society and the administration? Well, the channel created will only be open for upward communication in small, controlled and pleasant-tasting doses. (3) Perhaps the administration need experts. Really? What's stopping them from taking on experts to work on legislation within the government itself, or at least in the Duma? In any case, as it stands now you can count the experts among the chamber membership on the fingers of one hand (with a few fingers left over). (4) To be a "managed" organ of apolitical representation, performing a role sometimes played by "Soviet public opinion" in the old days: a council within a ministry of public well-being to advise the administration as to whom and at what it should channel money? Yes, this would seem to be it.

There's nothing really bad about this new Kremlin toy -- but there's nothing really good about it either, truth to tell. This infant social institution, as far as its officially advertised capacity is concerned, is still-born. But so what, you ask. At the end of the day, the Kremlin has the right to create a Public Chamber within the presidential administration, as it is doing now, or to create any other organ it sees fit to help it carry out its functions.

But let us note one thing: What the powers should not do in this process is call such an organ, without a basis for doing so, a bridge between the administration and society, between the power and the people. Illusions like that are harmful to both.

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