13 december 2012

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attends an international conference on open government at Skolkovo



Dmitry Medvedev: Greetings, everyone – not from myself, but on behalf of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is here on a visit. It's no secret that Brazil is one of the countries to have suggested the theme, along with our American and some other partners. Let me begin by making some related comments and then I’ll take your questions and respond to positions that may be different from my own. 

I cannot say I've believed all along that what we've been doing in the government and what civil society has been doing is something crucial, really. Each person should arrive at his or her own conclusions on the basis of his or her own experiences. The world was so different just a short while ago and, as colleagues have so rightly noted, the internet has created an entirely new matrix for global communication. Communication is a thing to be enjoyed, at least with nice people... The internet has created a new communication matrix, as well as a different paradigm of communication between government and society. Although I personally have never removed myself from civil society, quite frankly.  I believe the saying "there's civil society and there's the ruling elite" is false, because those at the top are also human beings and they also are part of the community and civil society.

It may sound sacrilegious to some, but the president and the prime minister, too, are humans, not functions, and they also make errors and mistakes while at the same time holding a civic stance of their own, which may differ from their official position, but which does influence this latter. And their civic stance is governed by some other things, not just law.

So, the world has changed and what has happened should have created a different communication system. And this is, in fact, the case. Is this good or bad? Without a doubt, I think this is a positive thing because it removes a huge number of obstacles in communication between people and the authorities. We all remember how it was in the past, when a mere application to government agencies was immeasurably more difficult. I am not even speaking about corruption; just the system of relationships was much more difficult than it is now.

Next item. We are looking towards the future and thinking of how to arrange our own system of communication and exchange. About one year ago, we decided to set up an expert platform and the Open Government in this country. About the same time, we decided we should join the Open Government’s system of partnership. But don’t think that everyone greeted this idea with applause. I had to have many conversations with my colleagues, who were sincerely perplexed and asked: “What is the point of it? It won’t work, it will just be a whole lot of bother; you won’t be able to reply to everyone, you won’t be able to put their wishes into practice…” But I think that we took a different path and did the right thing. Today we have a communications system, which is not ideal, of course, but it works and the Government is using it via the Open Government platform and the Expert Council.

No one is perfect, but we take decisions on the basis of what our experts say. The responsibility lies with the authorities in any event, but to a certain extent we share this responsibility with the experts and civil society. A considerable number of draft laws and Government decrees have been discussed on this platform. This means that the system is working.

I was told some other things, too, like, “You know, people don’t believe you, they are not interested. Why are you making all this fuss about this open communications system? People will still say that their views were ignored, that you will never do what they think is the right thing, that you will be guided by your own self-interests, and that this new system will never overcome corruption. And in general, they said – Mr Abyzov was present during our discussions (Russian Federation Minister Mikhail Abyzov) – it’s really of no interest. People are interested in other things – football, music, chatting with each other, social networks, where people are in direct contact with each other, etc. – that’s what interests them. How are you going to be of interest to them? Everyone has had enough of you as it is; they see you on TV, you attend this and that event… And you hope that on top of that people will communicate with you online through the Open Government? Forget it!”

I think that this is also wrong, because my modest experience in communications shows that this can be of some use and may lead to direct practical results. Maybe we are to blame to some extent that people do not trust us completely. Perhaps we don’t explain things properly or are not doing them right. Yet simply giving up on it and saying “it won’t work” is no good, especially in Russia and with your administrative experience. Some 20 years ago you lived in the Soviet Union. What Open Government could you have there? It was the most closed country and had the most closed government. But if we don’t change ourselves nothing will happen. I’m very glad that our colleagues have begun to introduce in the regions everything we have started doing at the level of our government, the Russian federal government. Do they make mistakes? Of course, they do. Does everyone trust them? Of course, not. But they are working and this is a system of communications. I think this may become the most important result of our work.

Now I’d like to say a few words about our decision to adopt the national plan and eventually establish a partnership. My colleagues will give us all the required recommendations. I’m grateful to Mr Vein (Chris Vein, Chief Innovation Officer for Global Information and Communications Technology Development at the World Bank) and other colleagues who have asked provocative questions here and answered them themselves, and offered their options. I’m sure you see some things better than we do and sometimes it is simpler for you to name problems. There are other things you don’t know about because you are working in different conditions. But this does not mean we must build some peculiar system of the Open Government that would only suit this country. No, the principles should be very similar for all governments. This is normal. So we are grateful and will continue working. We have really done something and we are grateful for your assessments and for what Ivan said here. But this is just the beginning.

The issue of declarations that was discussed here is not limited to government transparency. There were many disputes as to whether we need only to declare income as the United States and the absolute majority of other countries do or we also need to declare expenses. I think we need what corresponds to our social habits, what we are ready to do. If it is not enough to declare incomes only, our officials will have to declare their expenses until society says income declarations are transparent enough and it is no longer interesting to know who bought what car. So we should make this decision ourselves with due account of our conditions, legal awareness, social habits and mentality.

Returning to the questions that have just been asked, I can say that I have a little more skeptical attitude to this than you. I think that any function may allow corruption. If an official wants to make money on his job he or she will be able to. We cannot single out some functions as absolutely clean and immune to corruption because this is primarily a problem of mentality and law. The unavoidability of punishment is essential. Even if in 10 out of 100 cases officials understand that they will fall through, they won’t do anything in 90% of cases. This is absolutely clear, this is global law and this is how corruption was countered in other countries. This does not mean we should announce mass terror but this should become reality rather than just talk.

As for football, I have no doubts that we will have it in this country and not only despite our fans but owing to them. It’s just that these fans should change like all of us. Now emotions are running so high that everyone must realise – I’m appealing to those who love Russian football and their teams – that the more improperly they behave the fewer chances they will have to watch a football match or they will even face legal problems. It is the task of the united fans to clean out their ranks. The government won’t take part in it or say: “This is an awful guy, we won’t let him go anywhere and this one is kind and good…” The fans must do this themselves. But we must change the law. There should be punishment for such actions.

At the Government meeting I said we should impose lifetime bans. Naturally, there was a roar of indignation. “How can he dare touch what is sacred? We won’t be allowed to a stadium.” But what did I have in mind? (Regrettably, people often do not hear well when new ideas appear.) If someone has committed a crime at a stadium, the state has the right and is obliged to prohibit him or her from coming to the stadium for a long time. If criminals are released from prison, they can watch football on TV at home. But why should we subject to risks those who are sitting next to them at stadiums? This is an issue for discussion and a relevant proposal is being drafted now. At any rate, everything will be okay with football. We are looking forward to the arrival of guests for the World Cup in 2018 and the Olympic Games in 2014, the Student Games in 2013 and many other sports events.

And finally, the last point – dear friends, I hope we will join the partnership in the near future but not just to participate in one more international organisation and take part in the global coterie. The reason is fairly practical – we need it ourselves. You are absolutely right – the Open Government Partnership is not a goal. It is a mechanism for resolving a wide variety of tasks. It is not ideal but helpful nonetheless.

I’m very happy to see you here at Skolkovo. This is just one of the many facilities that will be built here, but I hope it will be an interesting place in the future too. Thank you very much!