Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The First Steps of Russia's Public Chamber: Representation or Coordination?

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The First Steps of Russia's Public Chamber: Representation or Coordination?

Article excerpt

Abstract: Russian President Vladimir Putin created the Public Chamber to institutionalize a civil society that would provide feedback to the state while remaining within the boundaries of legitimate conflict. Putin's critics predicted that the Public Chamber would be a Kremlin puppet. During the first few months of its functioning, however, chamber members proved to be bolder than those critics expected and did not hesitate to criticize some of the state's policies. The Public Chamber's dependence on the presidential administration for its status is both an asset and a source of restraint for the Public Chamber members.

Keywords: civil society, nongovernmental organizations, Public Chamber, Vladimir Putin, Russia


As president of Russia, Vladimir Putin made speeches containing many references to the importance of building a strong civil society. Yet, in light of his consistent efforts to centralize power, what is the nature of Putin's conception of civil society? (1) Most scholars of civil society view it as the sphere of organized social life that gives scope to Russian citizens' initiative and is relatively independent from the state. (2) In contrast to this notion, in April 2005, I argued that "Putin envisions a well-ordered civil society as a network of organizations that formally remain outside the boundaries of the state and provide needed representation for citizens' interests while also serving as part of the system of support for the structures of political authority." (3) Inherent tension exists between the desire to maintain control over the framework within which social organizations operate and the hope that such organizations will effectively voice their members' demands.

Putin's speeches emphasize integrating civil society into the Russian executive branch's network of support for several years, but determined moves to translate that goal into reality began only in early 2004, and toward the end of his term, Putin's regime made progress fleshing out the structures of civil society in a form that Putin considers appropriate for Russia. (4) A variety of political systems' experiences teach us that the meaning of any broad idea concerning the creation of new institutional structures may change in subtle ways during its implementation. Here, I examine the creation of the Public Chamber (OP), a new institution that was created to form the capstone of a corporatist quasi-civil society in Russia under Putin, and the actions it took during its first year. The OP has not resolved the tension between the apparently contradictory themes in Putin's design for civil society, emphasizing both the independence of social organizations and their dedication to the state's goals, and indeed, that tension has heightened as the most prominent institution introduced in pursuit of Putin's goals for civil society has taken on a life of its own in an ambiguous manner.

The Public Chamber: Proposal and Creation

It is possible to see the November 2001 Civic Forum held in Moscow as foreshadowing the OR The Civic Forum brought together 5,000 representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to meet government officials. In John Squier's assessment, the Civic Forum's purpose was to integrate "civil society organizations throughout Russia into a single corporatist body that would allow them an official consultative role with the government." (5) Complaints from many social organizations' leaders apparently discouraged the government from following through on that plan after the Civic Forum adjourned. The essential conception was not forgotten, however. Putin revived the idea in a speech he delivered in September 2004 after

the Beslan school hostage crisis. Putin stressed the need to tighten the unity of the executive authority's chain of command in Russia, so that executive organs will "work as a single integrated organism with a clear structure of subordination. …

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