Friday, March 6, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Regional Governments in Russia Vary Widely on Information Openness

Paul Goble

Columbus, March 6 – Despite universal recognition that “access to information is one of the fundamental rights in any legal democratic state,” governments in Russia’s regions and republics vary extremely widely in terms of their openness, and those differences have a profound effect on the ability of the population to know enough to judge their performance.
That is just one of the conclusions offered by a joint study of the openness of executive agencies of government power in the Russian Federation conducted by the Institutes of Sociology and of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences and the Expertise Agency of Sociological Research (
Scholars from these three institutions examined how much information the executive agencies released, how much was covered in the mass media, and how easy it was for citizens to get the information they needed either via the media or through direct contact with government offices or elected officials.
And on the basis of that, the scholars rank ordered the 83 federal subjects. The ten most open were Khanty-Mansiisk AO in first place with a rating of 73.1 percent openness, Voronezh oblast, Tatarstan, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Karelia, Murmansk, Tomsk, Leningrad, and Krasnoyarsk in 10th place with a rating of 51.7 percent.
The ten least open were Ingushetia with a rating of 11.27 percent openness, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Transbaikal kray, Chechnya, Kalmykia, Tyva, Mordvinia, and Kamchatka with an openness rating of 21.75 percent, all figures less than half those of the ten most open governments.
The specific figures are of less interest than the overall rankings, and it is certain that these rankings which were made on the basis of a survey conducted last year would probably be different if the research were repeated. Ingushetia, which ranked dead last when Murat Zyazikov was president, almost certainly would receive a better rating now that he has been replaced.
Two aspects of this study’s ranking are striking. On the one hand, the republics of the North Caucasus are as might have been predicted the least open over all, but on the other hand, non-Russian regions are sprinkled through the more open federal subjects and some Russian ones are to be found among the least open on this measure.
Consequently, it would be a mistake to conclude, as some observers have, that Russian regions are universally more open and non-Russian republics are always more closed. The evidence does not support that conclusion, and the findings of this study thus call for a closer investigation of the specific features of each place.
Such research is now beginning. One of the first of the federal subjects to be examined in this way is Mari El, a republic that the openness study ranked 73rd (22.09 percent), just above the bottom ten and a place where there have been frequent clashes between the media and the administration over information (
According to that study, “the overwhelming majority of employees of the organs of power in Mari El consider that there are no problems about access to information in [their] republic.” Such views with which neither journalists nor ordinary citizens agree reflect three underlying realities.
First, most of the officials do not believe that the population needs or should have a great deal of information. Second, they view all information as a form of public relations and block efforts by journalists or citizens to gain other data. And third, they view the media as main channel for the release of information, and they are in a position to control such outlets.
(As the economic situation in the Russian Federation worsens, fewer and fewer media outlets are in a position to pay journalists to track what the authorities are doing. Advertising revenues are down, and print runs are as well. As a result, the influence of regional governments on media outlets is probably greater today than it was a year ago.)
The Mari El study offers an enormous range of specific data on the nature of openness or, in the case of that republic, the lack of such openness. But perhaps its most useful contribution to a broader understanding of the nature of government-media interaction in Russia’s regions lies with its enumeration of more general problems.
The study found that even when information is released, it is put out in a form or in places that make it difficult for the ordinary citizen to get at it. Much of the information is so unclear that no can be exactly sure what is going on. And efforts to follow up either by journalists or by citizens through visits to government offices are actively discouraged.
And the Mari El project stressed that the executive branch there as is the case in most federal subjects lacks a single press office. As a result, those who seek information often have to run around or perhaps more precisely are given the run around if they attempt to find out anything that the powers that be do not want them to know.

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