Volgograd Forum, February 1, 2002

Volgograd Free Speech Forum Begins the Eighth Year of Regular Meetings

For our first program of 2002 we invited Chairman of the Volgograd City Council Sergei Mikhailov. 

A former military pilot, Mr. Mikhailov introduced to the City Council some days earlier a draft bill proposing to set up the Public Security Board in Volgograd. To justify his motion, he referred to such threats as possible terrorist attacks from the neighboring Chechnya, or danger of violent conflicts between local ethnic groups, the necessity to fight corruption in the local government etc.

Most of these threats are real, but democratic organizations in the city expressed their concern about his project because, according to the draft, it was the body with unclear functions and powers. It also drew attention of human rights groups that Mr. Mikhailov suggested to include into this Board representatives of FSB (which replaced KGB) and local militia (police).

We titled our program as "Public Security in Volgograd: Problems and Ways of Solving", because most of the people who made reservations for this meeting wanted to hear Chairman Mikhailov talk not only on the particular issue of a new government body but on how much freedom citizens may be required to sacrifice for their security.

Mr. Mikhailov came accompanied by the FSB man who is responsible for fighting corruption in the city. They both spoke and gave a good talk defending their project. They tried to reassure the audience saying citizens' rights would not be infringed upon.

Mr. Mikhailov claimed the proposed Board would be a counseling body without powers to penalize anybody.

Yet the audience and later mass media reporting on the Forum were skeptical: if the Board has no powers, it will be just another podium for idle-talk. It is not certain whether the City Council will vote in favor of this bill, though.

As I mentioned in my previous report, the Civic Forum of non-government organizations (NGO) took place in Volgograd on January 26. Leaders and activists of some 200 NGO, including myself, participated in this conference. After a short plenary meeting the delegates divided into seven discussion groups. I was invited as an expert to speak to the one which discussed "Civic Control of the Mass Media". This issue has become especially topical after the closure of the TV-6, the independent Russian TV company.

Speaking at the panel I put forward a proposal to introduce public control over editorial policies of the mass media that are owned by the state or financed from the state or municipal budgets.

Since these media outlets get taxpayers' money, I pointed out, they must serve not the authorities that assign means for them but the public, pursuing a balanced and integral editorial policy. For this purpose I proposed to create a Public Supervisory Board, which could monitor all state-owned mass media. Such a Board could be made up of representatives of all political parties which got more than 5 percent popular vote at elections in the territory, activists of private independent groups advocating free speech and other respected personalities.

Such collective bodies could monitor editorial policies of the mass media and issue warnings or prescriptions to them if they are considered biased or corrupted.

Theoretically all proposals that we made public at the Civic Forum were summarized and handed over to the authorities who promised to study them and give a reply.

I do not know what will become of it. But it is certainly a positive development that a Forum like this assembled and that the authorities agreed to listen to and consider our proposals.

Now that the anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan is nearing to an end, Russian critics of President Putin have become more vocal. They accuse him of repeating the mistake of his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsyn who, according to them, surrendered too much to the West, having won nothing in exchange. 

Though senior officers of the Russian Army make statements supporting President Putin's decisions on issues like dismantling the Lourdes intelligence-gathering base in Cuba or allowing the US troops to use Central Asian military bases, there are rumors that the Russian generals are also displeased with him.

I am not inclined to think though, that there will be any major changes in President Putin's foreign policy. First, he has publicly committed himself to this course and, unless the US administration does something really stupid or degrading to Russia, he will not turn back. Besides, the President still enjoys a wide public support, which recent opinion polls show. But analysts predict that this support may fade unless there are changes for the better in the economy.

In my opinion, President Putin will have to demonstrate to the citizens benefits of his pro-Western policies in the nearest future, preferably in the field of the economy, like the increase of foreign investments or more favorable treatment of Russian exports to the West. Otherwise, he will have no trumps in dealing with his opponents.

Alexander Yevreinov
Director, Volgograd Free Speech Forum


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