Monday, September 14, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Social Chamber a ‘Special Operation’ Designed to ‘Imitate Public Opinion,’ Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 14 – Since its creation five years ago, Russia’s Social Chamber has not achieved its ostensible goals of serving as place for the Russian public to speak to and watch over power, a Moscow analyst says. Instead, it appears to represent “the latest ‘special operation’” of Moscow’s security service state to “imitate public opinion.”
In a comment on Ekho Moskvy at the end of last week, Yevgeny Gontmakher, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Development, recalls the discussion that took place in the Russian capital when then President Vladimir Putin created the Social Chamber (
“As always,” he suggested, “something very contemporary was wanted, namely the creation of an organ which would not allow to sleep peacefully either deputies or minister or, it is terrible to say, the President himself.” But each of the four ostensible premises of the organization has proved to be false.
First, Gontmakher says, this organization was not supposed to be converted into a “talk shop” of well-known people, but “alas that is exactly what happened: for every really active member of the Chamber, there were several ‘dead souls’ who have big names but no interest in doing any work.
Second, he continues, the chamber was not supposed “to become a place where estates or confessions were represented.” Its value, its backers claimed, was that it would consist of experts and social activists “even if they did not have big names but knew on their own skin what work in an NGO is.” But that did not happen, and both religions and estates were major players.
Third, Gontmakher says, the body was not intended to be a place for big names but for experts and social activists who knew their business and could provide the government with real input on what works and what does not and what the powers that be should do next to solve the country’s pressing problems. But that has not proved to be the case either.
And fourth, the prominent social critic adds, the Social Chamber was intended at least ostensibly to be “independent from any organ of power.” The president names a third of its members, but two thirds come from other places. But despite that, the membership has proven completely under the thumb of the powers that be.
All too often, people who disagree or have alternative ideas keep quiet – and others speak only if they are authorities by “petty bureaucrats from the Foreign Policy Directorate of the Presidential Administration” or on bigger questions told what they should say by Vladislav Surkov “himself.”
“Therefore,” Gontmakher concludes, “the main goal of the creation of the Social chamber as a genuinely independent institution with teeth n the good sense has not been achieved, And it is possible,” he continues, “that this was never the goal and that we are dealing with the latest ‘special operation’ for imitating public opinion.”
The likelihood that he is right on that makes the current speculation about the meaning of changes in the composition of the Social Chamber a less than fruitful exercise, but an article in “Gazeta” about probable shifts is nonetheless worthy of note as an indication of the problems of trying to have a venue of controlled public opinion.
On the one hand, the paper’s journalists report, Valery Tishkov, the outspoken and controversial director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology is out, something that will likely reduce the attention his support of a supra-ethnic “Russian nation” will receive in the coming months (
But on the other, changes in the representation of religious groups is more instructive, particularly the planned replacement of Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, to Ismail Berdiyev, head of the Muslim Spiritual Administration (MSD) of the North Caucasus, could change the nature of discussions about Islam in Russia.
However that may be, a poll published today suggests few Russians will be paying much attention. While 60 percent said three years ago said they knew about the Social Chamber, only 42 percent tell the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion that they have heard of it (
More important, only 17 percent now say that the Social Chamber is a mediator between the population and the powers that be, and only 12 percent suggest that this body is responsible for exercising “independent civic control over the activities of the powers that be,” an indication that most Russians have dismissed a group that outside observers have nonetheless focused on.

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