27 december 2011

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Russian Popular Front’s campaign headquarters and Coordinating Council

Vladimir Putin

At a meeting of Popular Front’s headquarters and Coordinating Council

“When I talk about the need to ensure transparent elections, I want you to remember that it is above all us who need transparency, because we must be confident of people’s support. This is a fundamental issue, for it is impossible to implement such challenging plans without people’s support.”

Transcript of the beginning of the meeting:

Vladimir Putin: Ladies and gentlemen, I have asked you to attend this meeting and invited Minister of Communications and Mass Media Igor Shchegolev to tell us how his ministry, working jointly with the Central Election Commission at my request, is supplying web cameras to the polling stations ahead of the presidential elections.

Presidential elections will be the most important domestic political event of the coming year. We understand that the point at issue is not choosing this or that individual, but a development strategy for our country. In this context, I would like to say the following. We have such a strategy, which is aimed at strengthening and further developing our democratic institutes. I spoke about this during the live televised Q&A session. Dmitry Medvedev stated it clearly in his address to the Federal Assembly.

Our agenda includes economic modernisation, a deep economic reform that stipulates transition to innovative development. Our agenda includes issues of social modernisation. We have challenging plans for strengthening the country's defences and security. Everything we discuss has been clearly structured and presented to the public. People know what we plan to do and how. When I speak about the need to ensure transparent elections, I want you to remember that it is above all us who need transparency, because we must be confident of people's support. This is a fundamental issue, for it is impossible to implement such challenging plans without people's support. Of course, there are forces in this country and in all other countries that don't need a development perspective but Brownian motion. Do you remember the Trotskyite slogan, "The movement is everything, the ultimate goal nothing"? I repeat once again, there are and will always be such people, so more power to them. They have a right to exist and I actually believe they deserve respect.

The problem here is that there is no single programme (there are many programmes but no single one), no clear and understandable ways to attain goals that are unclear. There aren't any people who are able to accomplish specific tasks. In these cases people start claiming that everything in the public sphere is illegitimate and unimportant, including the election process. This is one of the issues on today’s agenda. We must do our best to make the election transparent, clear and objective. But I don't think we can do this alone. This must be done in conjunction with our people, with our supporters, with the public. I sent my proposal to the Communications Minister to equip every polling station with webcams and CCTV, but it is important to work out how this will be done.

I suggested that the political powers that won mandates and are now represented in the State Duma should definitely participate in the pre-election process for the election of the new president; they could be present at polling stations to supervise the whole process, while cameras would work 24/7 and film both the voting and the tallying.

First of all, I need your advice. What else do we need to do in order to ensure that the election is objective and transparent and that no one has doubts? Obviously, we have to act in accordance with the law. I would like to emphasise this point. There is no place for unprofessionalism here, but everything that can be done legally must be done.

I would like to stress once again that we must consult with the people, the public organisations, and listen to their proposals. I asked Mr Shchеgolev (Igor Shchegolev) to speak here today and tell us what the Communications Ministry and the Central Electoral Commission are working together to do in this regard. I did not meet with Mr Churov (Chairman of the Central Election Commission), but I’m ready to meet with him and talk if he has any questions or recommendations. This kind of discussion, I think, must be prompted online so that we can hear what the people have to say, so we can hear their suggestions and draw a conclusion. If you find any particular proposals that can enhance the transparency of the election, we must employ them – we must thank the people and implement these proposals. If you do not object I would like to give the floor to Mr Shchegolev and we can exchange our views later. Mr Shchegolev, please.

Igor Shchegolev: Thank you, Mr Putin. Colleagues, there are presentations on your desks. According to the instructions we were given, in the course of a week, we prepared a technical solution for live video streaming at polling stations – together with experts and simply concerned individuals – and gained approval from a large number of people. The goal is to provide hundreds of thousands, and millions of our citizens with the ability to take a virtual tour of any polling station on the day of the election. Considering the scale of the country and complexity of the task, it will be an expensive project and we must think about how the system might be put to use afterwards. Basically, this task was put forth by Mr Putin. The time factor is crucial here because there are many technical elements to consider and a lot of work to do. One of the obstacles we face is that manufacturers do not have sufficient volumes of equipment -- we are talking about over 90,000 voting stations. As of today, 30,000 of these stations are not even connected to the Internet, through which the video will be streamed. These factors and deadlines speak to the uniqueness of this project in our country and the world. There will be around 200,000 cameras. I will tell you about the principles of their layout. There is no other network in the world that consists of so many cameras and that streams so many video feeds online, so this requires an unconventional approach.

Vladimir Putin: There was a proposal to make transparent ballot boxes. Do we have transparent boxes? Let’s install them. We should ask Mr Churov (Vladimir Churov). If there is not enough money, we will allocate money for transparent ballot boxes. And everything will be transparent!

Igor Shchegolev: Considering that constitutional rights of all our voters are concerned, we posted the draft specification online right after our last meeting, as you requested. In two days we set up a platform for discussion. Thousands responded. We established a special technical public council to include deputies of the State Duma, members of the Federation Council, and representatives of the Finance Ministry, the Central Election Commission (CEC), the Academy of Sciences as well as Internet and communications experts. The website proved to be popular – more than 34,000 visited it in a week, making the discussion public.

First, this public discussion prompted us to take into account some technical moments and also the need to ensure local storage of video recordings at voting stations and data processing centres. This is important because if the connection is not stable, it will be possible to use backup copies if need be. Second, a lot of people favoured sound recording. As for broadcasts, members of the public council were not unanimous on this score, but we decided broadcasts must be recorded and made accessible if need be.

We can guarantee access to broadcasts for political parties and public organisations. Recordings and broadcasts are not a problem but theInternet has some limitations – if a hundred million people want to look at the same thing at once, it will simply freeze. This happens in countries with a much more sophisticated and powerful communications infrastructure. There is a television network in the United States that broadcasts on the web and has a million subscribers. As soon as 300,000 of them switch on this system to watch video, they occupy one third of the entire US Internet space. And we are talking about 300,000. Therefore, we must make sure that when parties make their decision, we can provide them with access to the broadcasts no matter what happens with the net. We made this requirement part of our technical assignment. This was not our initiative – it came from members of the public council and participants in the public discussion.

According to the task set by Mr Putin and coordinated with the CEC, each voting station must have two cameras. This is important because every additional camera will make the project 30%-40% more expensive. Each station will have a computer for simultaneous recording. It will also convert information into the required format, transmit it through different connections to the Internet, and this distributed network will guarantee steady delivery of this signal.

We also show how a standard voting station may be equipped as well as the technical solutions that we have discussed and rejected. We will have two cameras, local computer storage, a source of uninterrupted power and a communications modem that will transmit it on to the net. We have decided to use web-cameras. There are also IP-cameras that may work without computers but they require much more powerful communications channels. If the latter are available at a particular station, IP-cameras can be used.

There were proposals to distribute or purchase smartphones and transmit broadcasts via their cameras. We even had to run an experiment because this would be a huge load on these devices (they are not made for this) – their batteries run out and have to be plugged in to keep them going. Otherwise batteries run out in two hours. It’s hard to imagine anyone standing with a smartphone for a whole day without moving, and our objection was accepted. If someone wants to use smartphones, please go ahead but we cannot guarantee their operation and this is why we discarded their use as a systemic decision.

As I have said, the net’s capacity is a restriction. We have considered all possibilities and believe we can guarantee a speed of 512 kb/s for 50% –  on the right you can see that the resolution is a bit better. For 33% the speed will be 265 kb/s – you can see this on the left. And for 17% the speed will be 128 kb/s – these are primarily sites that can only be reached via satellites. The capacity of satellites is also limited – even if we rush around the globe and contact all producers we won’t be able to build and launch an extra satellite. Therefore, we will have to manoeuvre within the existing capabilities, and this is also a limitation – the picture quality will be a bit worse and the resolution a bit lower. Naturally, the quality of the connection will affect the quality of the transmitted picture, but it will be very good in half of all cases and acceptable in the rest. At any rate, it will be good enough for our purposes.

Considering the complexity and urgency of the task, we have agreed that it should be done through a single provider, because if we accept bids in line with our legislation and count only working days, we will complete the collection of bids by March 1. This is unrealistic. We are lucky to have a company with state participation. It has 180,000 employees and has just undergone serious reform. This force is sufficient to fulfil this task, which explains our decision. We have accordingly provided a legal formula for the three tasks which the company of our choice will carry out.

The key task is to establish a connection. After that we will tackle the issue of equipment, the hardware. And lastly, we need software. Since it will be a super-modern high-tech network, we have discussed, including with participants in our public discussion, how to utilise it subsequently. We proceed from the fact that many polling stations are set up at schools. We have held a video conference today with all regions, deputy governors and heads of departments responsible for this work. All of them say that about half of the polling stations (more in some regions and less in others) are located at schools. After the elections, we could use this network for video conferences, distance education and, if the Ministry of Education supports this proposal, for monitoring the unified state examination. It can also be used for online seminars. In short, this network can be used after elections, and between them. Libraries and cultural centres will have additional access to educational resources, such as films and research and culture funds.

Vladimir Putin: All this has to do with the use of this equipment after the election?

Igor Shchegolev: Like the Olympic heritage, so we will have election heritage.

Vladimir Putin: A post-election heritage.

Igor Shchegolev: Of course, with regard to healthcare… The only thing we have discussed is that it will be difficult to broadcast from certain polling stations (the CEC agrees with this), such as military units and hospitals (due to issues of patient confidentiality). But we will still establish a connection with most polling stations and record the proceedings. Broadcasting will be a more challenging task, especially considering the specific features of our legislation. But this concerns a small number of polling stations, about 1,500. And we will tackle this problem, one way or another.

Vladimir Putin: There are only 1,500 such stations of the total 93,000, right?

Igor Shchegolev: Right.

Vladimir Putin: That is, 95,000.

Igor Shchegolev: As for municipalities, governors’ representatives have asked today if they may use the network for their official purposes. Yes, of course, they may use it to organise access to state services and create video reception rooms for the public, especially in outlying regions that are difficult to access (mountains, etc.). In other words, this network will truly serve the state after the elections. So, although it is expensive… We have calculated that it will cost more than 14 billion roubles including VAT, but I can tell you that Brazil, for example, has earmarked $6 billion, or about 180 billion roubles, for electronic services and for connecting municipalities to the network. Brazil is comparable to Russia in terms of its territory, which means that its allocations are substantial, but not unfounded. I would say that this sum is appropriate for the tasks we are facing. If I may, there is a polling station in this building…

Vladimir Putin: Have the elections begun?

Igor Shchegolev: We have installed cameras there. Preparations for the New Year celebrations are underway there, in fact, celebrations are already being held. This camera is for a medium flow of traffic, 256 kb/s and the resolution is not the best possible. As you can see, this is enough to see on a big screen what is going on at the polling station.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. Mr Govorukhin (Stanislav Govorukhin, head of the Putin election headquarters), do you want to add anything?

Stanislav Govorukhin: No, but I have a question. How much will this cost the economy, the budget, including the budget of each family, and each citizen?

Vladimir Putin: Quite a lot -- as they said, it will cost 14 billion roubles.

Stanislav Govorukhin: So, is this justified?

Vladimir Putin: Mr Govorukhin, I think that the question that we will address at the presidential elections, as I have said, does not concern the choice of an individual, but a development strategy for the nation. This is very important, which is why we must do our best not to give our opponents reasons for declaring that the elections are illegitimate. Yes, this will be costly, but as the minister has said, we will act based on the idea that this network will not be dismantled and discarded after the elections, but will be used by the state, municipalities, schools and libraries for their own needs. In other words, this network will continue to serve people.

More to be posted soon...

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Prime Minister Putin's comments on speeches by meeting participants:

...Those who use vulgar and offensive language only show their own weakness. This is their problem. Those who would rather use their fists than their brains can't think or express what they want clearly ... My point is that they don't have a single programme or a clear vision of how to achieve their goals, which they haven't even defined yet. They don't have people who can do this job. You named some of them, but I can't picture any of them doing any concrete work for the benefit of our nation. When you lack all of the above, you resort to cheap arguments and use offensive language against other people. I have already said that hurling insults at a working man is totally out of line and tells me that people who think in such terms have not bound their individual lives to the future of the nation.

...The elections to the State Duma are over. Members of the parliament have begun their work, elected a speaker, and the Duma is functioning. There can be no discussions about revising the elections results. The only legal recourse left is filing a lawsuit. The court should consider the matter, and, if there were violations, make an objective ruling. However, the Duma has already begun its work. We should focus now on the presidential election.

...Speaking about web cameras... No one demanded that they be installed; it was my idea. I would like to repeat that none of us, including myself as a presidential candidate, need to manipulate the voting process. I personally want the upcoming election to be as transparent as possible. I want to make this clear for everyone. I want to find support in people's expression of their will and in their trust. If there's no trust, then there's no point in continuing to work. There's no point, you see? Therefore, I personally want the elections to be as transparent as possible so that they reflect the situation objectively. Certainly, I expect the Russian people to support me. However, we should do away with any and all insinuations about the illegal nature of this process: this is important for the country and for the state. Of course, it's a pity to spend that much money – 14 billion roubles is a huge amount of money – and I agree with Mr Govorukhin on this one. However, as the minister reported, we will try to ensure that this equipment can be used at schools, libraries and municipal buildings after the election is over.

...Web cameras will be switched on and tested as soon as they are installed. I believe that they should be in place around mid-February.