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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Gives Public Chamber a Warning

Itar-TassVelikhov, Surkov and Putin attending the first session of the Public Chamber.
At the Public Chamber's first full session on Sunday, President Vladimir Putin warned the 126 members that they would face an uphill struggle with state officials reluctant to accept supervision from the new body.

Putin also raised issues that the chamber will have to address, including the new NGO law and efforts to confront ethnic hatred.

The chamber unanimously elected as its head Yevgeny Velikhov, president of the Kurchatov nuclear research institute, and as its deputy head Sergei Katyrin, the vice president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The session brought an eclectic group of people -- including pop diva Alla Pugachyova, billionaire Mikhail Fridman, academic luminaries, religious leaders and lesser-known members from the regions -- together in the gold-and-white St. George Hall in the Kremlin.

Before the session began, Kremlin-connected spin doctor and chamber member Sergei Markov chatted with presidential administration deputy chief Vladislav Surkov, who often nodded in agreement.

Putin proposed the chamber as a bridge between the state and civil society as he abolished gubernatorial elections after the Beslan attack in 2004. The chamber can make nonbinding recommendations on bills, supervise officials' compliance with the law and offer opinions on the nation's current affairs. Human rights groups and liberal politicians have called the body little more than window-dressing.

Putin said in a speech that the chamber would encounter resistance from bureaucrats to any oversight and advice. "Officials in any country are more or less a close-knit corporation," he said. "You will run into difficulties. You aren't welcome everywhere."

Putin set a number of priorities for the chamber, starting with the fight against ethnic hatred. He said a politician's career must end if he promotes ethnic or religious intolerance.

"Any manifestations of ethnic or religious discord, any calls for hatred and intolerance, must become an end of their authors' public and political career in Russia," he said.

Putin urged the chamber to help create conditions that would leave no place for ethnic hatred. "I very much count on your understanding and support in this aspect of your task," he said.

A young man stabbed several people in an apparent anti-Semitic attack in a Moscow synagogue earlier this month.

Putin said the chamber must also oversee how officials implement a contentious law on nongovernmental organizations that NGOs have complained is too restrictive. "The Public Chamber could assume the role of an expert in resolving any contentions in this area," he said. The law comes into effect April 10.

The chamber may also recommend state funding for public initiatives, Putin said. The federal budget earmarks 500 million rubles ($18 million) to support NGO projects in 2006, he said.

In addition, Putin asked the chamber to supervise "huge" spending in his social plan to plow $4.6 billion into health care, education, agriculture and housing this year and next.

The chamber has the power to address freedom of speech, and Putin said the chamber should make sure that news media are unbiased and independent.

The chamber should engage in public discussions as much as possible so "citizens understand how the authorities in the country operate in practice and don't feel detached from the decisions that authorities make."

Putin said he hoped that the chamber would raise the influence of citizens and civic institutions. The chamber should also pay attention to developing charity activity in Russia, he said.

Lawyer Anatoly Kucherena gave a speech after Putin's in which he also braced his colleagues for the challenge ahead. "We first of all must believe in ourselves," he said. "We will be regarded as people representing the interests of society. It's important not to betray its trust."

Kucherena said the chamber could demand a revision of the NGO law if "we are convinced that the this law hinders the development of civil society."

Renowned pediatrician Leonid Roshal, whom analysts named as one of the few independent voices in the chamber, said in a speech that the quick passage of the law, without taking in the opinion of the full chamber, was the State Duma's "mistake."

Roshal said politicians who stoked ethnic hatred should be prosecuted because it could lead to Russia's disintegration, which is what "many in the West want and may be financing."

At the session, the chamber formed 17 commissions. Billionaire Vladimir Potanin was elected head of the commission for charity development; Kucherena head of the commission for supervision of law enforcement agencies; Roshal head of the health care commission; and Moskovsky Komsomolets editor Pavel Gusev head of the commission for freedom of speech.

Potanin told reporters that he would begin by analyzing laws that regulate charities and would then formulate suggestions that "would allow benefactors to commit acts of charity with greater comfort and dignity."

Pugachyova said she would focus on social such as women and family, rather than cultural issues. She said pensions should be at least 15,000 rubles and named prison reform as a priority. With a smile, she added that she was referring not only to Mikhail Khodorkovsky when she spoke about the conditions in which prisoners live.