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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'We Are Not a Kremlin Reception Office'

While not always helpful, the Public Chamber has not harmed civil society as many feared it would during its first year of existence, its members and independent rights advocates said Monday.

As the Kremlin-friendly civil society watchdog celebrated the anniversary of its first meeting, it touted a handful of victories, such as its successful efforts to take to court the case of Private Andrei Sychyov, whose legs and genitals were amputated after a brutal hazing last January.

"We are not a reception office for the Kremlin," said the chamber's head, Yevgeny Velikhov, who is the president of the Kurchatov Institute for nuclear research.

"Our task is to help citizens to solve their problems by themselves so that civil society grows organically."

Former Kremlin economic adviser Andrei Illarionov noted in December a rise in civil activity over the year, but he did not attribute it to the Public Chamber, which comprises 126 academics, religious leaders, billionaires, Olympic champions and artists.

The Public Chamber said Monday that its other achievements last year included the reversal of the conviction of the driver involved in the car crash that killed Altai Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov and the prevention of the eviction of families from Southern Butovo in Moscow's outskirts. A court overturned the driver's conviction after drivers across the country staged protests and United Russia officials intervened. The city of Moscow wants to evict the Butovo residents to clear land for new construction. Litigation is still going on.

Independent human rights activists, who boycotted the chamber over fears that it would be a Kremlin puppet, conceded that it had done some good.

"With Sychyov, they opened the eyes of society to what is happening in the Army," said Lev Ponomaryov, head of the group For Human Rights.

"Regarding Butovo, it's good that they helped people who were being hassled by officials," said Oleg Orlov, chairman of the Memorial human rights group.

The chamber faced problems with the State Duma. Part of its mandate is to offer advice on controversial bills, and it reviewed a total of 18. The Duma, however, largely ignored its suggestions.

"We are not content with the passage of many bills in the Duma, such as the water and the forest codes and the law on nongovernmental organizations," Velikhov said at a news conference.

He expressed hope that deputies would be more willing to listen after Duma elections, slated for December.

In its latest outcry over legislation, the chamber on Friday sharply criticized a bill that would allow authorities to bar rallies two weeks before and after elections.

Igor Chestin, the head of the World Wildlife Fund's Moscow office and one of a handful of chamber members seen as independent, said Monday that ignored advice was still better than no advice. "At least that shows that citizens believe otherwise," he said by telephone. "It's probably better with the chamber than without. At least, it didn't bring any harm."

Semyon Charny, a researcher with the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, which deals with racially motivated crimes, praised the chamber's recommendations on fighting extremism but said officials did not adopt them. The chamber should seek a requirement that would bind the Duma or government agencies to heed its advice, he said.

President Vladimir Putin set up the chamber as he tightened Kremlin control over the country after the Beslan hostage tragedy. He said the chamber should serve as a bridge between the public and authorities, but critics said at the time that the new body, where one-third of members are Kremlin appointees, would lack independence and turn into a window-dressing of democracy. The chamber's decisions are nonbinding.

Chamber member Maria Slobodskaya, who is the president of the Institute of the Civil Society Issues, a think tank, insisted that the body was independent from the Kremlin. The chamber, she said, had nominated two independent rights groups, Memorial and For Civil Rights, for presidential grants. "They are absolutely oppositional," she said.

Orlov said three regional branches of Memorial did receive small grants. But he said most of the 250 million rubles ($9.4 million) in presidential grant money went to organizations linked with chamber members. "This is a very strange story. People who give grants shouldn't get them," he said.

Ponomaryov said he had applied for a grant for the head office and regional branches but that the chamber had denied his request. Nevertheless, one branch, in Kostroma, had received a small grant, he said, quickly adding that the branch's head was also a United Russia member.

Chestin, of the World Wildlife Fund, said the fears that the body would serve as merely democratic window-dressing had not come true. "The chamber is no doubt independent," he said.

Some of the chamber's proposals over the past year created bewilderment, Orlov acknowledged, including Velikhov's populist request to prohibit officials from using the word "dollar" when discussing Russian finances.

Ponomaryov said that while some proposals were laughable, he would still seek support from the chamber in important issues. "We interact with all state agencies," he said.