Russia: The Early Days of Government Transparency

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011/12.

“Make your work available online.”

It may seem a harmless demand, but in Russia it's more than that. Such a request led to Alexey Navalny, a famed anti-establishment blogger and activist, scrutinizing public procurement contracts to expose shady practices by officials and private companies.

Navalny's project, RosPil [ru], helped earn him the reputation of Russia's most viable opposition leader — though he says he won't partake in or respect elections that aren't clean (a popular stance these days).

The RosPil project exposes corruption in Russia Photo: Sven Hultberg Carlsson

The RosPil project exposes corruption in Russia. Photo: Sven Hultberg Carlsson

That Navalny and other contributors to RosPil were able to examine public procurements — a job that needs doing not only in Russia — is thanks to a small triumph of open governance. At the end of 2005, enough pressure had been laid on the Kremlin for its leaders to make public procurement contracts available to the public.

The simple but insistent demand had come from the Freedom of Information Foundation (FIF) [ru], a non-profit founded in 2004. In a recent interview with Global Voices, Ivan Pavlov, its chairman, argues that open access to government information enbles citizens to act as a check on their rulers:

Everyone agrees that corruption is a huge problem in Russia. But the government's solution has been stronger government control. I believe that public control is much more effective. Government information must therefore be available so that the public can exercise control over it and oversee its actions.

Our demand is that the government and all public institutions make everything that isn't secret available to the public on a website.

The Foundation has made encouraging advances in their field. Early in Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, when his reform initiatives had a semblance of bite to them, work on Russia's Freedom of Information Act began to gain momentum.

With the help of persistent officials at Russia's Ministry of Economic Development — officials who, coincidentally or not, “no longer work there” — the Duma passed what Pavlov deems a “revolutionary” and “very progressive” piece of legislation:

The Freedom of Information Act was Medvedev's greatest achievement as president. I am an optimist and still believe the act will change the whole Russian system. But the government has to use this immense resource as a way to change. So far, that hasn't happened.

The act has been in effect since 2010. Its implementation is lacking. Little if any information is provided when requests are put to authorities, prompting the Foundation to litigate against secretive bodies that, believe it or not, are breaking the law.

Veracity tests have become a daily routine. When Medvedev proclaimed the need for an independent judiciary, Pavlov’s organisation put Russian courts to the test.

Many courts were unwilling to publish short bios and pictures of their judges online, but some reacted positively to the challenge. Pavlov says:

The courts may have published this information because they wanted to take the lead in our ratings. But I hope that these courts also understand how such a decision can contribute to society.

Of course, making information available online does not guarantee transparent governance. Pavlov admits that sensitive information is the hardest to expose.

Very few government agencies, federal or regional, want their financial records in public view. Information on cash flow, which could expose corruption, is kept secret — not only by the authorities, but by non-profit organisations as well.

And in the week of Russia’s presidential elections, there is an elephant in the room. Vladimir Putin, very likely about to enter his third term as president, favours a closed society. Russia’s ministries, reluctant collaborators even during Medvedev’s presidency, are much less prone to cooperation now.

The Freedom of Information Foundation operate from their offices in St. Petersburg

The Freedom of Information Foundation operate from their offices in St. Petersburg. Photo: Sven Hultberg Carlsson

Even historical records, politically less toxic for today's leaders, are off limits. Historians researching the Soviet-era repressions cannot examine victims’ records without explicit approval by each related family.

Why, then, would information incriminating the Kremlin directly be brought to light?

Pavlov explains:

Putin cannot control the whole system. My hope is that the popular demands we have seen increase since the Duma elections last year will bring about change.

We see Russia developing in our research. In 2005 two thirds of Russia's federal executive agencies had no websites. Today all of them do.

But projects like RosPil cannot be alone. Civil activists and NGOs must use the Freedom of Information Act to expose situations where there is no justice.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011/12.

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