RUSSIALINK TRANSCRIPT: [Vladimir Putin and Igor Borisov at] Meeting of Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (transcript concluded)” – KremlinRu

Kremlin and River

(Kremlin.ru – October 30, 2017)

[Full transcript here en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55947]

Vladimir Putin chaired a meeting of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin ….

Igor Borisov: Mr President, thank you for giving me the floor.

I have just a few words about the elections. I understand we have a very compressed schedule; Mr Fedotov is ready to hand in a full report with 500 pages of appendices.

For the third consecutive year, we at the Human Rights Council monitoring group have monitored the single voting day. The purpose of our observations is to promote the implementation of the people’s electoral rights. I would like to draw your attention to the legal regulation on our monitoring group, which is perhaps the only regulatory document, which says simply, “Promotion of the implementation of citizens’ electoral rights.”

We can see that even the instructions of the parties that send observers offer no such goal. They contain every other possible reason for observing, from collecting data on violations by the commission to promulgating those violations with official statements to the media. But they say nothing about assisting the electoral system; the monitoring group is the first to do so.

As for the monitoring results, we are observing positive changes in our electoral system in response to society’s demands, which are reflected, among other things, in our reports to the HRC. The procedures for organising elections continue to improve, and objectively we feel that the former distrust (mostly for the Central Election Commission) is fading.

We want this situation to continue expanding to all election commissions (regional, territorial, and local), and this process is gradually moving ahead, as we can see. We would certainly like to speed it up, something we are working on.

Our main conclusion in the run-up to the presidential election is that we do not see any problems for the planned March 2018 election, which will be organised under Russian law and in line with international standards.

But as in any society, there are some people who would like to ascribe negative character to indisputably positive trends, using for this purpose (this is my position) even fake interpreters that try to apply to the electoral system the law of the distribution of apples falling from an apple tree in a bid to explain the election results by various mathematical methods, saying that every electoral district should have the same distribution of votes and blaming the electoral system if this is not the case.

Such patterns exist. We tried to analyse the election of the current US President using the same methods. They do not have normal distribution either, but for some reason nobody is dealing with this issue despite the advanced system and technology in the US.

However, we are reproached for not following the laws of the distribution of the normal fall of apples from an apple tree – they fall on different sides. In other words, we believe this is an impossible attempt to apply a mathematical model to the social behaviour of voters. There are different opinions on the matter and I assume they will be voiced today.

Here are the positive aspects we have noted.

First, Mr President, we have made and submitted to you a consolidated report that was compiled by about 30 various NGOs. We have civil society today in its current form and we have come to common conclusions and have written about 20 recommendations.

Incidentally, I must say that Ms Ella Pamfilova, who heads the Central Election Commission, told us that she has already started implementing the majority of recommendations we mentioned to her, without even waiting for this report. Therefore, our positions on the development of the electoral system coincide and we are very pleased about that.

We have also recorded a steady development of the electoral system. I will repeat that maybe it is not going at the pace we expected but it continues moving forward nonetheless. Urgent issues are resolved through the automation of this process: the use of QR-codes, the opportunity to vote at a location without absentee ballots, and video monitoring that was first introduced at your initiative in 2012 and is being developed. We believe it should be developed and it makes sense to install video cameras at the commission.

Notably, the trend of not removing observers from polling stations has taken root. However, most of the lawyers who have evaluated this regulation believe that it is non-applicable altogether.

During the recent elections there were two instances of removal with only one done in line with the procedure established by the law, i.e., through court. Therefore, we need to think about it and decide whether to actually apply this regulation or repeal it altogether. I am referring to the practice of removing observers from polling stations.

Of course, our report does not claim that our electoral system has become perfect. There were certain procedural violations, and we noted them as well.

Nevertheless, we are saying that the procedural violations noted by our council’s monitoring group did not affect individual electoral rights. That is, we have not observed any incidents to this effect.

There are issues and certain challenges that the electoral system is faced with, which we have also seen and noted in our report.

To reiterate, first, video broadcasting is mandatory. We also note the need to regulate the use of video traffic that comes from polling stations.

Today, this traffic is not regulated. However, in accordance with part three of Article 17 of the Constitution, the exercise of the rights and freedoms of a person and citizen must not violate the rights and freedoms of other individuals.

According to our data – I made inquiries with relevant organisations – please note that 950,000 viewings as of September 10, almost a million, were initiated from international IP addresses.

The question is why are such vast numbers of people interested in watching our elections and recording the voters? How could this be further used in light of today’s technology?

My personal concern is that the images of my fellow citizens end up in the wrong hands, and it is unclear how and for what purposes they will remain there.

Moreover, I am aware of at least one instance where a voter simply refused to go to the polls saying that the place was equipped with video cameras. To reiterate, this is an isolated instance. Still, we can assume that such challenges might be used by those who want to thwart the turnout. For example, they could post online warnings to those who do not want to be in the spotlight with their image ending up in someone’s hands, like “Do not go to the polls; cameras are watching.”

Second, we note the municipal filter’s faulty operation. Clearly, this norm will not apply to the March elections, but we also mention in our report that it needs to be further discussed and finalised. I suppose that the working group in your Executive Office, Mr President, will continue to work on this issue with our participation following the March elections.

Cases of abusing the law have not been eradicated, including during the most recent September 10 elections. Some of them call for amending the law. (Mr Bobrov enumerated some of these issues, such as abuses of the rights of observers and media representatives, as well as anonymity of online complaints about violations during elections.)

The proposals that I would like to draw your attention to are also included in the report.

It is imperative to include public monitoring during elections on the list of activities of socially-oriented non-profit organisations. The issue is simple here: if a country is unwilling to feed its observers, another country will. We are all aware of such instances.

We also suggest that the Interior Ministry and the CEC, in conjunction with our Council, develop more detailed instructions for the police, specifying their rights and duties at the polling stations, in order to avoid provocations.

Mr President, in closing, I would like to say that history moves in a spiral, and we must always learn from our mistakes. Currently, in Russia, “the matter of prime importance is the emergence of independent forces in society, which would set themselves the task of protecting order and counteracting reckless demands and anarchic fermentation of the minds.”

These are not my words. Boris Chicherin, who was a leading Russian jurist and one of the founders of constitutional law, spoke them over 100 years ago. Today, 100 years later, is probably the right time to recall these words, which he spoke on the eve of the revolutionary events that marked the first two decades of the 20th century in our country.

Also, Mr President, in closing, I would like to hand you two notes covering what I have just said for further study and possible decision making.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Borisov, I will not go into detail.

Obviously, the work that you and your colleagues are doing is extremely important for civil society, for the state, for all citizens, because the relationship between society and government depends on this; trust in society must be rooted in this, or there can be none.

Therefore, I will not go into detail, but my colleagues and I will certainly look at the results of your work. This is also an occasion to once again turn to the current legislation, to law enforcement practice and to administrative procedures. All this will be analysed.

As for recognising organisations that observe elections as socially-oriented non-profits, it is possible to do this, but not those which are financed from abroad. And the method of financing does not matter: whether these are direct transfers or cash.

If they are financed, they cannot be recognised as socially oriented, because they are oriented towards the interests of another state, if they work in the political sphere. On the whole, I think that everyone is interested in having this type of civic activity based on a solid foundation so it can make its significant contribution to strengthening Russia’s statehood.

As for the fact that images of our citizens and voters are collected by someone and used somehow… It is not that bad, but do you know that biological material is collected all over the country, from different ethnic groups and people living in different geographical locations of Russia? But what for?

They do it purposefully and professionally. We are an object of very great interest. Therefore, what I said in the first part and this is all interconnected. We need to treat it without fear. Let them do it, and we must do what we must. Taking into account your comments, we will arrange this work.

Colleagues, we still have several minutes. So, if someone wants to add something, please, go ahead.

Maxim Shevchenko: Mr President, thank you very much for this opportunity.

You are absolutely right. Russia is a free country and the public discourse here is among the freest and most wide-ranging. I have been to many countries. The passions that run high around these debates are a testament to one’s internal freedom and desire to speak up.

I would like to touch upon one topic that is very popular among young people – the blogosphere. YouTube is developing at a crazy rate and the blogosphere is a manifestation of the carnival-like, free culture of criticism and mockery aimed at those in power and the wealthy, which is traditional for the Russian people as well.

There was recently an egregious case where guys from Kemerovo that are very popular on the internet ridiculed one oligarch. A task force flew from Moscow to Kemerovo, broke into their premises and took their equipment.

It would seem that even if this is a civilian suit and someone is aggrieved, usually an inquiry is made on site or some instruction is issued. I believe this egregious case should be properly assessed. It is important to guarantee people the freedom to speak up, joke, criticise and be Russian citizens in full measure, as guaranteed by the Constitution.

And the second aspect that I cannot fail to mention concerns the rights of inmates in today’s prisons. I would like to recall those who are, regrettably, among the most disenfranchised inmates – Muslims. Every arrested Muslim immediately receives a black mark that says he is almost a terrorist, a member of ISIS, and it is possible to do anything with him.

Human rights organisations do not protect Muslims well enough, and the term “political prisoners” is applied to activists who were detained for 20 to 30 days rather than those who have been sentenced to long prison terms. There is much evidence – I can forward it to the Presidential Executive Office so as not to take up your time now – much evidence that people are not allowed to pray, they are forced to eat pork and have their beards shaved off.

The latest outrageous example is the case of an imam from Khasavyurt, the father of seven who has been sent to a penal colony settlement. Under the article in question, he should not be sent more than 400 kilometres away from the crime scene, but this man has been transferred from Khasavyurt to Omsk.

He cannot take care of his seven children, he has been shaved and before the human rights activists interfered, he could not pray or ritualise, even though this is not a high-security prison. I know that you are a merciful person who has always upheld human rights and constitutional principles. I am asking you to take note of these two problems.

Thank you very much, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: I will need the materials.

Maxim Shevchenko: Of course, I handed them over.

Vladimir Putin: Ok. Both these issues need our additional attention. The first case you mentioned is a complete disgrace. If a task force is sent to deal with a personal disagreement, this may mean that law enforcement officers are at the oligarchs’ beck and call. We need to do something about this, but I do not know the details of this case. We will certainly act on this.

Alexander Brod: Mr President, I have sent you a briefing note, Discrimination against Russian Citizens Abroad. We analysed the situation over the past five years and concluded that Russian citizens have been detained, arrested or deported illegally, that their rights in detention places abroad were grossly violated, and that Russian diplomats, public figures, human rights activists and journalists have been persecuted for doing their professional duties. The paper includes a long list of such glaring facts.

So, the recommendations are the following: to create, maybe at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, a working group that would comprise representatives from the relevant NGOs, as well as lawyers to monitor the facts of discrimination against Russian citizens abroad and propose mechanisms for a legal response and for protection in such cases. We also need to consider methods to support the NGOs that provide legal assistance to Russian citizens abroad and to promote the development of these NGOs’ international activities, including at the UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. These NGOs also need to more actively promote contact with partner NGOs and the legal community in foreign countries so as to enhance the effectiveness of legal protection for Russian citizens abroad.

Vladimir Putin: To cut a long story short, I think this is a good idea. I believe that this could be even more effective than the administrative measures taken by the Foreign Ministry in such cases.

Please.

Lilia Shibanova: Thank you for this opportunity.

Mr Borisov talked about elections, but he mostly expressed his own opinion. What can I add in this regard?

In our report, we point out that the main problem at elections is the declining, or more precisely, plummeting voter turnout. The voter turnout of 32 percent at the recent gubernatorial election is considered high.

This is an issue of the biggest concern to society. We are losing the institution of elections because people are not using this tool.

What are the reasons for this? We believe the main reason is minimal competition. The second reason is, definitely, declining public trust in election results. As for decreasing competition, there are many issues that need to be discussed.

These include the revival of electoral blocs for small parties, because the vast number of registered parties cannot take part in elections due to unequal terms compared to the parliamentary parties, which enjoy certain privileges. Electoral blocs were stipulated in past legislation. We believe we should revive this system.

Restoring minimum voter turnout requirements that used to be stipulated by law would also make sense with a 25 percent threshold for local elections and a 50 percent voter turnout requirement for federal elections. This would provide a major impetus to all government agencies to promote the elections. What we saw in Moscow was an attempt to lower voter turnout. The same is taking place in a number of other regions. In fact, only core voters were mobilised while the rest were not even aware of the elections.

There is another issue that you can resolve in no time at all. It is a controversial issue, and there has been a lot of talk about it recently within the election commission. I am talking about video monitoring. It was introduced in the last elections, which was a breakthrough that deserves credit, because with 100,000 polling stations, there was no way to monitor the process in a regular way everywhere.

There is no doubt that video monitoring is a unique tool for understanding what happened on election day and for preventing any speculation. Moreover, this unique tool should not only be used for recording how the vote proceeds, but also for analysing afterwards what was actually going on at the polling stations.

You may remember that last time presidential elections in Astrakhan coincided with the election of the region’s governor, and Mr Shein went on a 40-day hunger strike to obtain video footage and analyse it. There was even a documentary, Hunger Strike in Astrakhan, which can still be found online. Being able to obtain footage after the election is a matter of principle for us, since it would enable us to, number one, analyse what happened and, number two, use footage as evidence in court, so that it can be accepted as such in claims alleging electoral fraud.

This is a major issue. A special hearing was held to showcase our findings for one of St Petersburg’s districts, where one hundred people were involved in carousel voting, meaning that they voted multiple times at various polling stations. The materials were analysed and photo images and video footage were sent to court, which refused to accept it. This is a major issue.

The second important issue for us is election monitoring by non-governmental organisations. Mr Borisov was expressing his personal point of view and no one else’s when he proposed restoring civic chambers in their right to monitor elections. No, this right should be restored for non-governmental organisations in general.

What we want is for election monitoring to be a public, not political, process, which means that specialised non-governmental organisations focused on protecting electoral rights should be the ones to be granted this right. This is the main safeguard against fraud.

Of course, there is no way this issue can be resolved by monitors alone, as I said one year ago. Mr President, you also highlighted this point back then. I would like to raise this issue once again. Apart from election monitors, we need to ensure that election commissions are independent from the executive branch. There used to be a legal provision whereby not more than 25 percent of election commission members could represent the executive. Now we have 50 percent.

Despite Ms Pamfilova’s efforts to address this issue, despite her attempts to use her own methods to change the balance of power within election commissions, it would be better to deal with this situation through legislation. Making sure that election commissions are independent would solve this major issue.

I will finish here, because I understand that everyone here has a lot of things to share.

Vladimir Putin: I am sorry, Mr Fedotov is telling me that we have an event outside, and that people are already waiting for us. Unfortunately, we will have to finish this meeting. I beg for your understanding, but we really need to end it here.

However, I would like to respond very briefly to Ms Shibanova. The points she raised are of course all very important. The drop in the voter turnout is a serious issue. That said, it is not happening just in Russia, but everywhere, unless there is some kind of an upsurge due to a specific political context. Voter turnout in Russia is comparable to other countries.

This does not mean, however, that we should sit back and do nothing. I agree with Ms Shibanova in that we need to work with people to show them that elections matter at any level. We must also ensure competition as a way of making people more interested. This is not just about getting people interested, but about electing better representatives who would be more effective in fulfilling people’s aspirations. This is what matters the most.

As for practical matters, such as the revival or creation of blocs, I do not know that the legislation stipulated them. But of course, we need to seriously consider this matter, to weigh all the pros and cons. You believe that party blocs should be reintroduced, but you also said that this issue should be put up for discussion. So, let us discuss it, and let those who consider this idea inexpedient have their say as well.

We must look how this can help our political system. Will it just increase the amount of idle talk, or will it allow people who represent the minority to receive a place in government, where they will put forth their views and otherwise keep the authorities moving at all levels, from the municipal level to the very top. But we need to seriously consider all the possible consequences.

The same is true about the idea that public organisations should be able to nominate observers. On the one hand, this sounds like a good idea, and I would support it, honestly. But we also need to discuss this with political parties, so as to understand their views on this matter.

As for the video recording of elections, I did not know that somebody requested to see the records and then went on a hunger strike when his request was denied. Frankly, this information has not reached me, for some reason, because it was I who had proposed video monitoring. But I believed that it would be streamed online, and that these records can be stored forever. I do not understand the essence of the problem.

Remark: The courts do not accept these records.

Vladimir Putin: The courts do not accept them? I see. All right, we will have to think about this. Frankly, I did not imagine this could happen. I believed that video streaming can be recorded and that anyone will be able to store or use these records. I see what you mean. Honestly, this is completely unexpected. We will certainly analyse this problem.

Thank you.

Colleagues, I am sorry but we need to go now, for it is very cold. We will meet in December next time, or as Mr Fedotov said, next year. We will not procrastinate. I believe our meetings are very useful. Thank you very much.

I take it that we are headed for the memorial unveiling ceremony now. I am not saying good-bye, because we will meet again very soon.