Cablegate: New Faces Join Russia's Public Chamber

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1. (SBU) When Russia's 126-member Public Chamber convenes in
January, its new ranks will include two well-known human rights
activists, who had been dismissive of the Public Chamber when it was
first established. Civil society activists remain divided on the
value of the Chamber, often concluding that it is "better than
nothing." Moscow Helsinki Group's Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a strong
critic has changed her stance towards the Chamber, accepting state
funds in order to demonstrate that civil society is prepared to work
constructively with the GOR. Despite the addition of new members,
it is unlikely the Public Chamber will work aggressively to hold the
government accountable, preferring instead to tinker on the margins
of major social issues. End summary.

Building the Public Chamber

2. (U) The second convocation of the Public Chamber will begin in
January 2008. As per the complicated nominations process, on
October 1, President Putin appointed the first third of the 126
members who will serve in the Chamber, half of whom are new to the
Chamber, while the others are current members. The next third will
be selected by those who were appointed by the President. They will
come from national civil society organizations. The final 42
members will come from regional and local organizations. They will
in turn be selected by the first two-thirds. In an effort to ensure
better geographical distribution, each region of Russia will be
assigned a number of Public Chamber slots.

3. (SBU) According to Anatoliy Kucherena, a civil rights lawyer who
has been reappointed to the Public Chamber, the selection of the
second tranche will be competitive and interested members will only
be considered if they have been with a civil society organization
for at least a year and have results to show for their work. More
than 300 people have expressed interest in joining the Public
Chamber, according to Kucherena.

Changes in Membership

4. (SBU) Putin's appointees include a few serious human rights
figures among a diverse group of academics, artists and economists.
Notable among the new members are 1990's economic reform architect,
Yevgeniy Yasin; Editor-in-Chief of the weekly "Arguments and Facts"
newspaper, Nikolay Zyatkov; President of the Holocaust Foundation,
Alla Gerber; and Director of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau,
Aleksandr Brod. Both Yasin and Brod told us they were surprised by
their nominations. Yasin's daughter Irina Yasina told us he was
grateful for the "cover" provided by serving in the Chamber and
looked forward to using the forum to express his reformist views.
Yasina speculated that the addition of her father, Brod and Gerber
to the Chamber was part of a strategy to bring in people who have
cachet with those who have questioned the legitimacy of the Chamber.
Rabbi Lazar, a current member of the Chamber who will continue to
serve in the second convocation, said the addition of the two human
rights activists is a positive development.

5. (SBU) Bishop Sergey Ryakhovskiy, who has been a member of the
Public Chamber since its inception and will continue to serve, said
he was pleased with the contingent nominated by the President. He
told us he expects the Chamber to be more professional than its
predecessor. Commentators noted that among those not reappointed to
the Chamber were pop diva Alla Pugacheva and Olympic figure skater
Irina Rodnina, who had made no pretense of toiling in the Chamber,
and had declined even to attend its infrequent public sessions.

Smokescreen or Voice of the People

6. (SBU) When first established in 2005, the Public Chamber was
criticized by some civil society and human rights activists as being
a smokescreen to "distract the public's attention from what is a
real diminishment of democracy," said independent Duma Deputy Oksana
Dmitrieva at the time, who worried that the Public Chamber would
"usurp parliament's role." Alekseyeva of Moscow Helskinki Group was
among those who argued that the Public Chamber was "a pathetic
appendage of the government." Alekseyeva further contended that
some sought membership in the Public Chamber, not as a public
service, but as a way of gaining credibility and legitimacy.

7. (SBU) However, in the past two years, there has been some
mellowing of the criticism, with activists seeking to exploit the
Chamber's limited utility. Alekseyeva reversed course and in 2007
sought a grant from a state fund set aside to support civil society.
Grants were awarded to domestic NGOs through a competitive process
led by 6 NGOs selected by the Public Chamber. Moscow Helsinki Group

MOSCOW 00005337 002.2 OF 002

(MHG) requested and received a 2.5 million ruble grant to open a
public office. Alekseyeva told us that MHG did not want to fuel GOR
charges that NGOs were beholden only to western governments, and
sought to demonstrate civil society's readiness to work
constructively with the Russian government. Other Russian human
rights organizations also received grants including Memorial and For
Human Rights.

8. (SBU) Vyacheslav Glazychev, President of the Academy of Urban
Environment and a current Public Chamber member who has been
reappointed by the President, insisted to us that the Public Chamber
has proved to be valuable. He cited one example of the chamber
playing the role of "middle man" between students, who were
protesting for better quality teachers, and faculty at a
sociological institute. He said the Chamber was not a substitute
for the Duma but an institution that was important for society given
the parliament's orientation toward party interests. Kucherena told
us the development of the Public Chamber was part of the long
process of changing the Soviet mentality of the country. While he
said at first it was difficult to work with the Duma due to lack of
understanding about the role of the Public Chamber, the situation
has improved. William Smirnov, executive secretary of the
President's Human Rights Council, who is not affiliated with the
Chamber, called it "better than nothing."


9. (SBU) The Public Chamber, although conceived as an institution to
develop civil society, will likely remain an institution that
tinkers around the edges of major social ills but does little to
hold the government or administration accountable. In the two years
since it was established, it has served as a forum for discussion of
various issues, but these discussions have yet to include outright
criticism of government or administration actions. As the Public
Chamber enters its third year, its willingness to tackle
controversial issues will be the test of its value.

© Scoop Media

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