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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Captive Chamber for a Captive Nation

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President Vladimir Putin recently gave a touching rationale for the new Public Chamber, stating, "People have the right to make sure their voice is heard." The 10-page document approved by the State Duma in its second reading last Friday specifies the essentials of this new creation, outlining its mission, organization and responsibilities. Yet the question remains whether this body will become an effective vehicle for channeling society's interests and influencing government policy. This will depend on the answers to three very straightforward and pragmatic questions: How will the chamber be formed, operated and financed? Sadly, the bill on the Public Chamber responds by creating yet another arm of the all-mighty state to keep social interests at the mercy of the powerful bureaucracy.

Who has the right to assemble an organization with the mission of representing the interests of the entire society? Putin believes he is just the man for the job. The legislation stipulates that Putin will handpick 42 distinguished individuals to form the core of the organization. These individuals will then choose other members for the chamber. From the standpoint of organizational logic, this mechanism seems quite rational and reasonable. Someone, after all, has to start the process. However, it lacks one important feature -- transparency -- and makes the discretionary powers of the president absolute.

In his last state of the nation address, Putin made a very unambiguous statement about his vision for civil society in Russia. According to the president, some NGOs in Russia are not "serving the interests of society" but are advocating the private interests of their sponsors. While the president has the right to an opinion just like any other citizen, he hardly has the mandate to decide which interests should or should not be articulated within the social realm as defined by the Constitution. The failure of recent social reforms should prompt the president to see that he is perhaps not as omnipotent as it might appear from behind the Kremlin walls. While Putin may think that he knows what is best for society, it is up to the people themselves to define the parameters of social organizations. Even in its currently weak and underdeveloped form, civil society in Russia is fully capable of figuring out how it should be organized, without any help from Kremlin officials.

Moreover, hand-picked chamber members, as the bill stipulates, make the body extremely vulnerable to what is known as adverse selection bias, a problem when those with higher risks seek out extra insurance and protection. The chain of appointments does not involve broad public initiative at any stage. The president selects the first members. They then make their choices based on the available supply of candidates from nongovernmental organizations. This tightly controlled competition for membership in the chamber will trigger demand from organizations that lack other, independent sources of social and financial support. They will crowd out potential members from truly strong organizations that do not need the legitimacy chamber participation may provide. Ultimately, this will force the chamber to admit candidates who value loyalty to the state over loyalty toward their constituencies.

The way the new chamber will operate also gives cause to doubt its potential to become a vital social organization. The bill proposes that the chamber meet at plenary sessions twice a year, while the everyday business of its operations will be executed by a small group of administrators. A government-appointed official will head this executive body. While it is not uncommon for public chambers in other countries to be closely associated with government, none is run by a centrally appointed executive who is directly accountable to the prime minister and ultimately to the president.

The Russian authors of the chamber bill often point to the French Economic and Social Council, which has proven to be effective in enabling strong relations between the state and society. However, since its founding in 1958, the Conseil Economique et Social has held plenary sessions twice a month, and during each session, it examines one or two draft recommendations. The council's day-to-day operations are managed by a secretary general, an official appointed by the council's board. The Economic and Social Council takes its pride and strength from being an institution completely independent from all branches of government.

Financial independence is another goal the new Public Chamber will likely never achieve. All it can count on is a separate line item in the federal budget. Lawmakers decided to allocate a portion of taxpayers' money to the chamber on a year-to-year basis. Therefore, every year the chamber's funding will come up for approval and revision by the legislature. This provision deprives the organization of long-term financial stability, which can be achieved only through independent and committed endowment.

Organizations shaping civil society throughout the world are supported by private corporations and individual donors. The interests of various institutions sometimes come into conflict with one another and often challenge state policy through organized lobbying and advocacy of group interests. Putin, however, does not want private business to fund civil society organizations. On the contrary, he firmly believes that it is in the capacity and mission of the state to nurture, breed and control them. However, this position seems terribly divorced from reality. Harsh social reforms, which recently brought about unrest in most of Russia's regions and major cities, demonstrated that civil society is more than a collection of organizations loyal to the president.

The administration wants to make sure that NGOs produce no challenges to its policies and that they can be used to mobilize support if necessary. In the typology of political regimes offered by well-known American political scientist Adam Przeworski, the decision to create the Public Chamber resembles the framework of a classic authoritarian regime. To illustrate this point, we only need to recall that the only thing vaguely resembling critique of the legislation the Duma standing committee offered centered on the definition of "social expertise" and "social control." The committee asked for these items to be defined explicitly in order to avoid potential unwanted enquiries and challenges from members of the chamber.

In democracies, nongovernmental organizations are often viewed as the engine of social development and learning. Autocracies tend to force civil society to serve the state. Judging by the blueprints for the new Public Chamber, it appears that this institution will be deprived of real independence and therefore will support the state rather than protect the interests of its citizens.

The idea of creating a vehicle for advancing the public's wants and needs is in itself very noble and very necessary in today's Russia. However, the state in its current form is not credibly committed to taking people seriously. Putin's administration is operating under the false premise that it has the right to full control of civil society. The administration has already made its way into the State Duma, stunted political competition and party development, suppressed the independent media, destroyed the legitimacy of regional leaders and eliminated single mandate electoral districts. Now, with creation of the Public Chamber, the executive branch will be at liberty to manipulate society's demands and mobilize public support.

Or so it believes. According to several independent public opinion polls conducted over the last two years, only 8 percent of pro-Putin voters believe that the threat of terrorism decreased during his first term in office, only 11 percent think that the crime rate is falling, and a mere 3 percent agree that the gap between rich and poor has narrowed. While the president's personal approval rating remains high, it has recently started to slide downward. When all the corridors of power lead to one office, the political system overall becomes increasingly unstable and vulnerable to external shocks. Russians have already begun to feel the gap between what they expect and what the state delivers. The Public Chamber is unlikely to be able to address these grievances.

Alexei Sitnikov is senior researcher at the Institute of Open Economy in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.