Excerpts from transcript of meeting of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, colleagues.
I would like to welcome all of you to our regular meeting, traditionally held on Human Rights Day.
Each of you and the Council in general, as well as other national human rights organisations, are making their contribution to protecting human rights and freedoms. I believe this is a vitally important and noble mission that is in high demand in society. It requires painstaking daily work, extensive knowledge, patience, generosity, and an ability to conduct dialogue and to defend one’s position in a well-substantiated way. Quite often, this also calls for courage and resolve.
I would like to note that precisely such people have always worked and continue to work in all line-ups of our Council. Friends, I want to sincerely congratulate you on Human Rights Day. I wish you every success in achieving the goals of your human rights activity.
Today, we will have to work remotely. We rarely meet in this format, but I can already see that quite a few people would like to speak. As agreed, Valery Fadeyev [Presidential Adviser and Council Chair) organised this work at the Presidential Executive Office. I have a very long list here, but I did not compile it. It was done by our Council’s Head and Presidential Adviser on these matters, who is in charge of this work. But I want to address all our colleagues ask you to keep it brief because we will work for about two hours. Otherwise, the focus of attention will shift, although we usually work slightly more than two hours. More of our colleagues from the Council will be able to speak and set forth their viewpoint on matters of common interest, if all of you keep your remarks as brief and concise as possible.
The pandemic has become a serious challenge for this country and the entire world. It has compelled people to analyse and even revise many key principles of social communication. Relations between the state and the people have also acquired new dimensions.
As you know, our struggle against the common threat under the motto We are Together has united representatives of practically all levels of authority, volunteers, non-profit organisations and thousands of caring and responsible people. That said, people were not only ready to take part in the joint efforts but also started voicing new demands to the state, especially as regards their rights in healthcare, education and protection of personal data.
In conditions where all countries have to seek a balance between the inevitable but forced restrictions and the basic freedoms, the expert estimate of our Council has been and remains in great demand. We all see what happens in some countries where the so-called lockdown rebels emphatically protest against the necessary steps by the state. It is essential to understand what is happening, what is necessary, as well as a professional assessment. To my knowledge, the council has already done much in this area. In part, it presented its report “The Lessons of the Epidemic in the Context of Human and Civil Rights and Freedoms” and today we will certainly discuss its main points.
Of course, I would like to thank you particularly for your active participation in the work on the Constitutional amendments. I know that people have different attitudes to this but the Council has made its contribution to this work and I would like to thank you for this, as well as for your assistance to citizens in exercising their rights during the nationwide voting.
I think we should also review the issues on which the council could focus its efforts in the near future.
One of the topical issues is, of course, the healthcare system and patients’ rights. This is about the quality and timeliness of medical aid.
Of course, the state is doing a great deal to make this work smoothly and beneficially for the people, but there are still setbacks here. This is obvious and I also know about this. Therefore, the work of human rights agencies is certainly in demand here as well, and not only because of the spread of the coronavirus.
I would like you to focus on the protection of human rights in primary healthcare, which is the closest to the people, and continue monitoring the provision of elective medical aid under individual plans, including, of course, oncological patients. In general, it is necessary to continuously analyse the organisation of elective care for patients with dangerous and chronic diseases.
There is still much room for improvement in humanising justice. We speak about this at every meeting. The council has many experienced lawyers and they made a number of proposals at the previous meeting. Not all, but some of these proposals enjoyed support and must be carried out.
Another important topic is the advantages and risks of digitisation. E-services are no longer a task for the future but an efficiently operating sector that is gaining momentum. New opportunities and new interests are being created. That said, the appearance of new interests is accompanied by the emergence of new threats.
Human rights and artificial intelligence is an area that has not yet been studied and comprehended in full. Therefore, what we need now are professional recommendations on how to develop digital services further, preventing the risks of human rights violations as regards confidentiality, privacy protection and freedom of expression. Incidentally, public opinion polls show that people are very concerned about the protection of personal data.
Our council deals with all these issues. It has been recently joined, among others, by specialists in this sphere. I believe this will considerably enhance its expert potential.
In short, I would like to repeat that we have a large backlog of topics for discussion. Let us go over to reports and remarks.
(Adviser to the President and Chair of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Valery Fadeyev was next to take the floor. He reported on the fulfilment of the President’s instructions of a year ago, the work of the Council and several problems to which it pays special attention.)
Vladimir Putin: I will give a very brief response to the most sensitive issues that were voiced now. I cannot reply to everything for lack of time.
As regards online education: it is extremely important. I have already said at the recent meeting with volunteers, and recalled the position of the UN, and its Secretary-General, who says that we may lose a whole generation because the pandemic is doing enormous damage to the entire process of education, primarily affecting, of course, school-aged children. At this point, it is very important to have access to up-to-date methods of gaining knowledge: this is the so-called hardware that costs a lot, computer equipment as such and all kinds of software, broadband internet access and so on – we have seen many problems related to all this.
At the same time, our country proved to be better prepared than we had even expected ourselves and better than many other states for the transition to the online format not only in education but also in other areas. Although this is not enough, and I fully agree with you on this point. We will work on this issue. The Government has a plan of action. I will not list everything here since it is all publicly available. We will work on this.
As for the stratification of school children – some are doing better and some are not, it is necessary to consider these expanding opportunities of today and tailor teaching methods accordingly.
Now a few words about foreign agents and individuals that may fall and will fall in this category. Those who proposed this report that it is linked with an attempt to avoid mentioning a relevant legal entity as a recipient of funds from abroad. Some people are simply inventing new ways of getting money from abroad for their activities. This is the first point.
Now the second point. Let me repeat again: we still proceed from the assumption that this does not lead to any bans on behalf of the state. So, if you think that there are risks in it and if the judicial explanation of this law is not clear enough on the important items of this law, it is certainly necessary to work on it, I agree.
As for foreign agents in the public councils of government authorities, this sounds pretty strange, of course. I just cannot imagine foreign agents in the US coming and demanding that they be allowed to take part in the public council of the Department of State, silly as it sounds, or the Department of Homeland Security. You understand that this is simply ridiculous and impossible to imagine. We can imagine that such issues are being discussed here but to assume it’s possible there – I can’t imagine.
Don’t forget the recent events that are familiar to everybody when our citizens were kept behind bars there. Incidentally, they were accused of being foreign agents without any grounds. They were kept in prisons and threatened with long sentences.
Nevertheless, I agree with you that if there are certain risks in this, we should look at them carefully. It is necessary to make sure that this does not limit people and their activities. We have always assumed that this is linked with only one goal – to ensure non-interference of foreign states in our domestic affairs. This is something they are actively working on. We do know this: they are actively working on this. How? They are giving money to promote their agenda in our domestic political life.
On the one hand, we must protect ourselves against this, and on the other, we should not enact excessive restrictions. I agree with you on this. Let’s think it over. I will ask the Executive Office and State Duma deputies to think about it. To be honest, I do not even know who initiated this, but we will certainly look at it more carefully.
Now about the blocking. Of course, I see the risks involved in blocking foreign networks that are being used by thousands of Russian citizens, including those, as you said, who are earning money through them. Indeed, it is necessary to act with caution in this respect. Although you showed yourself what our so-called partners are doing: they are engaged in censorship. This is an absolutely obvious thing that any sensible person understands. This is censorship, a field of information confrontation. It is not us who is doing this. I am pointing this out; please note that this is not us. But we have to react to this somehow, we must respond.
Let’s do it to avoid shooting ourselves in the foot. Let’s develop our own services and our own networks, provide quality services at home and not restrict people in areas where it makes absolutely no sense. I have always believed that any of our response actions should not harm ourselves.
(HRC member Kirill Kabanov raised the issue of ensuring the protection of Russians’ digital rights in the 21st century and, on behalf of the Council, asked the President to instruct the Government to develop, together with the Council, a draft concept for ensuring the protection of human and civil rights and interests in the digital landscape.)
Vladimir Putin: Mr Kabanov, you are unfair to us in not seeing that the government is concerned about this. Not just the government – the people are concerned. The state takes the cue from the people’s needs and demands.
I have already mentioned opinion polls. They suggest that what people are concerned about the most with regard to their rights are their health and healthcare rights; education, their rights in education is in the second place; and the third concern is the protection of their personal data and all things related to their personal lives, in this area, among others. That is, people are really concerned about it.
You said society is not aware of the threat, but it is. And the fact that you are doing this professionally is just great, thank you very much for that.
If you follow the developments, Sberbank recently held an international event on artificial intelligence, and all the participants, literally everyone, highlighted this problem there, and so did I. I completely agree with you, I fully agree with you: we cannot make such fundamental decisions or adopt some of our fundamental conceptual documents in the field of artificial intelligence and the digital economy without resolving problems and without creating the necessary regulatory framework to ensure people’s interests and rights in this domain.
Kirill Kabanov: And security.
Vladimir Putin: I fully agree.
You asked for an instruction – in fact, the Government is working on this, but, apparently, we need to bring to the Government’s attention – I will definitely do this – the fact that they need to attract your groups and specialists like you, who are working on this independently of the bureaucratic organisations. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I will definitely do it, I promise.
Galina Osokina: On the threshold of the New Year, I would like to start with this beautiful tradition, the Wishing Tree. As you know, Mr President, I took a bauble from this tree and realised I was not able to make this wish come true. A 97-year-old woman from Stavropol Territory dreams of speaking to the President of Russia by phone. As we have already scheduled a meeting, I decided to give this bauble to you. Perhaps it is not possible now, but I think we will be able to fulfil this woman’s dream.
Vladimir Putin: About this elderly lady who wants to talk to me, of course, I would be happy to talk to her, only you did not give her phone number.
Well, then, give me her number. Can you give me her phone number?
Galina Osokina: There is no phone number. It only says that she wants to talk to you and her last name. Natalya Donskova, Stavropol Territory. We can find her anyway.
Vladimir Putin: Donskova.
We always find fault with our law enforcement system. Let us ask them to do something good: ask the director of the Federal Security Service or the Internal Affairs Minister to find Ms Donskova.
Galina Osokina: Stavropol Territory.
Vladimir Putin: Stavropol Territory, Natalya Donskova, 97 years old, isn’t she?
Galina Osokina: 97 years old.
Vladimir Putin: I think our colleagues can hear us. Please help us find Ms Natalya Donskova.
(Pavel Gusev spoke about the work of journalists at public events and the obstacles Russian journalists encounter in some countries.)
Vladimir Putin: Mr Gusev, you have said that the Law on Mass Media must guarantee freedom of information, but at the beginning of your statement, you said that journalists present their views on developments. Is this just your position? So, should journalists offer their views on developments or only provide objective information about them?
Pavel Gusev: Above all, they must provide information.
Vladimir Putin: I see. So, it was a slip of the tongue, so to speak. Good.
Pavel Gusev: Yes, it was.
Vladimir Putin: This is not the point, though. The point is, actually, that you are right. The truth is that no matter whether the events are authorised or unauthorised, journalists must have a right to freely report on them and to spread this information. You pointed out that this practice has been developed, by and large, in Moscow and Moscow Region and asked for the plenipotentiary envoys in the regions to be instructed to analyse this experience. I promise that this instruction will be issued. Our colleagues are most probably listening to us right now. I can assure you that I would like people of your profession to be able to work freely so that I too can have access, including via the mass media, to reliable, objective and prompt information about developments in the country. This is very important. We will definitely look into the matter.
Now about the work of our journalists abroad. Yes, we can see that in many countries, at least in those that are developing their relations with Russia as a potential competitor or even an adversary, we can see that some countries’ doctrines openly define Russia as a geopolitical adversary, which I regard as absolutely unacceptable. Unfortunately, this is not our choice, but this is indeed how it is in some countries. They start putting pressure on our journalists, because despite their proclaimed commitment to freedom of the media they actually pursue a different course, a course of promoting their own information content in the interests of their domestic and foreign policies. They are using this as an instrument for attaining their objectives on the international stage, in this case, regarding Russia.
You have said and asked for Foreign Ministry support. The Foreign Ministry is already doing this. But I think that this is not enough. Our public organisations, including the journalistic community, should work directly with their colleagues abroad, telling them that only by pooling the efforts of the entire journalistic community throughout the world, at least the independent-minded part of the journalistic community, will it be possible to attain the goal the people of your profession set themselves, that is, to objectively inform their compatriots about developments, so that life becomes more interesting, brighter and more substantive and aimed at removing any elements that prevent us from moving forward.
In other words, I will issue additional instructions to the Foreign Ministry, of course. But I would also like to ask you to encourage your colleagues and the entire journalistic community to make use of public organisations to show what is really happening in this extremely important, delicate and professional, I would even say highly professional sphere, which ordinary people sometimes find extremely difficult to comprehend.
When we come across obvious facts of infringement on the rights of the journalistic community, or at least the rights of our journalists abroad, we must respond to them quickly and as harshly as possible. I fully agree with your on that. We will be working together.
(Natalia Yevdokimova spoke sharply of the problems faced by NGOs recognised as foreign agents.)
Vladimir Putin: Ms Yevdokimova,
I can see that you are a straightforward person, committed to seeing all the institutions in Russian society – both government agencies and public institutions – work effectively and for the good of our country. I have no doubt about that, believe me.
Moreover, I will say something that is, perhaps, unexpected: I am sure that those people or organisations (the people working in them) that receive money from abroad for certain purposes, they also, as a rule, are very decent, honest people who are making an effort to address certain issues and challenges facing our country. Because they have failed to find any other sources of funding, they receive this money from abroad and believe that, relying on these resources, they can resolve some of the tasks facing our society.
Our people are all honest, kind and well organised in doing their work, but those who pay them, as a rule, are guided by other goals. They are not interested in strengthening Russia, but in deterring it. This is the real point of the problem.
One of your colleagues has just spoken about attacks on our journalists abroad, about limitations put on their work, and the sometimes brutal violence used against them, as well as criminal prosecution. This is further confirmation that what I am saying is actually true.
But there is something you are absolutely right about – there is this whole plain where we are active, also jointly with our foreign partners, because there can certainly be public organisations in other countries, as well as honest and decent people who unite in professional communities that do not know state borders. I am referring to healthcare, and environmental protection, protection for mothers and children, maybe, and so on. There are many tracks for this kind of activity. I certainly agree with you. I have always thought, sincerely, and I still think that it is certainly a sensitive sphere that requires precise and clear legal approaches, and an understanding of what is written on paper – and what is being actually implemented. I would like to assure you that I will do everything in my power to straighten out the system if it is getting out of hand.
We need to protect our domestic interests and internal policy from interference, on the one hand, and on the other, to give people the opportunity to work without looking over their shoulder. Let us take another look at this. The heads of the Executive Office can hear us now, and I am sure that the State Duma leaders do too. We will all look at this again. We do not want to stifle or repress anyone, but we want to protect ourselves from interference. Look at what happens in some countries. I will not even go there now, so as not to waste our time and to give others the opportunity to speak. But I have heard you.
(Kirill Vyshinsky spoke about the discrimination of compatriots abroad, especially in Ukraine and the Baltic countries, about world digital platforms that censor Russian content and the need for regulations that would compel large foreign internet platforms to register as entities in the Russian legal field.)
Vladimir Putin: Mr Vyshinsky, the first idea you proposed is to formulate rules for criminal prosecution for limiting the activities of for taking other illegal actions against our citizens, including journalists, abroad. This is possible, of course. In fact, these laws are in force and are based on an existing legal foundation. But of course, it is possible to create some special standards. How effective would this be regrading those who are doing this abroad? Though it would still be a tool of a kind.
I cannot say that I am ready to start this now, but I understand the concept and agree with you in principle that it may exist.
As for the second part – YouTube and the like, their servers are located abroad and the special services of the countries where they are located are using all this. They use this in competition and are doing so in bad faith. Many people – hundreds of thousands and maybe even millions all over the world, including this country, do not even suspect that they are an object of manipulation.
Needless to say, we must impose all these restrictions if they are feasible, without hurting ourselves. Of course, it is necessary and possible to upgrade the legal foundation, and the work of these organisations on our territory. It is certainly worth thinking about this, and I will instruct my colleagues in the Executive Office and the Government accordingly, by all means. Let me assure you, they are already thinking about this. But it is perfectly obvious that this needs to be done (it is difficult and will require financial investment and time). It is necessary to eliminate our rivals’ technological advantage.
They are using the technological advantage that they have gained over the years. Unfortunately, we did not pay enough attention to this in our country. Now we understand the real urgency and importance of this area of work. As you can see, we are working on the internet and artificial intelligence. We have every chance to make a serious, big leap forward. We will work on this and create new opportunities. This is the main point; this is what we must deal with.
As for a legal foundation, it must certainly be adjusted, I agree. Let me repeat that we will work on this. Thank you for paying attention to this issue.
(Nikolai Svanidze focused on several high-profile cases, in particular, the case of Alexei Navalny.)
Vladimir Putin: Now, with regard to the above high-profile cases and the poisoning of the well-known person in question. A probe is underway. We simply cannot do this as part of a criminal case because there are no materials. The Prosecutor's Office has repeatedly asked its colleagues to send at least their official findings in writing. By and large, it would be nice if they let our specialists work on the case, which I asked for. They are ready to go to France, Germany, or the Netherlands to talk to the specialists who claim that poisonous agents were found. However, nobody is inviting us. We invited them to come here. They would not come. They do not let us have access to official materials or biological materials, either. What are we supposed to do?
Nikolai Svanidze: Mr President, sorry to interrupt you. But the man almost died.
Vladimir Putin: I know.
Nikolai Svanidze: Can we open a criminal case here?
Vladimir Putin: No, we cannot. If a person almost died, it does not mean that any such occasion can be used to open a criminal case. However, a probe is underway, Mr Svanidze. I asked for this, and the Prosecutor's Office and the Investigative Committee are on it. The materials that are at the disposal of our investigative bodies are being analysed. We are ready to do this.
I have said this to my colleagues many times, and I want to say it to you again. You are aware of it. The high-profile murder of Galina Starovoitova, also a St Petersburg resident. The killers were found, held accountable and put behind bars. The murder of Nemtsov. Recently, I discussed this with my colleagues. There may be certain aspects that need more of our attention, but, in general, everything is clear, the perpetrators were identified, as well as those behind the hit order.
Nikolai Svanidze: The ones who ordered the hit were not.
Vladimir Putin: They were sentenced to fairly harsh punishment. They are all in prison, behind bars.
Vladimir Putin: Mr Svanidze, we are ready to work on this case as well, but will someone give us the materials please? No one can explain why they cannot do so. I asked them, “Why don't you give us the materials? Is it a problem for you to send us a piece of paper, or what? Where is the Novichok? Show it to us.”
Nobody gives us anything. Most importantly, they cannot tell us why. I recently spoke with a colleague and asked him to give me the papers and documents. To no avail. They sent everything to the OPCW. We are willing to meet with them here. Let them come, bring the materials and show us the Novichok.
Clearly, it could be anything. We have had cases of poisoning in our recent history. Let us look into that. Show us what this is. However, nobody is giving us anything. Mr Svanidze, this is the problem. We would be delighted to investigate this case, and do so thoroughly.
Vladimir Putin: In any case, everything should end on a positive note. During the discussion, one person mentioned our grandmothers, and I tried to protect them by saying that we are proud of our grandmothers and grandfathers. At the beginning of our conversation, someone also said that she spoke with an elderly woman, Natalya Donskova.
I asked our colleagues in law enforcement to find her. They did. You know, everyone in our meeting will keep me honest, so to speak: what happens next is not a trick I had up my sleeve. I want to tell you who Natalya Donskova is.
She was born in Essentuki on September 8, 1923. She is a veteran of the Great Patriotic War; in 1941–1945 she fought on the frontlines and was a medical worker. She was not yet 18 years old when she joined the Red Army and fought the entire war with the 8th Guards Army. She started her combat career as a rank-and-file soldier and ended as a First Sergeant in the medical service, helping doctors treat wounded and seriously ill patients. Putting her own life in jeopardy, she saved the lives of others and performed surgery. Natalya donated blood dozens of times. She took part in the battles of Stalingrad and the Kursk Bulge, and fighting in Ukraine and in Europe. She entered Berlin with the 8th army, 88th division.
Donskova was wounded twice during her military service. By now, she has been awarded 22 medals, including the Medal for Combat Merit, the Marshal Zhukov Medal and the Order of the Patriotic War.
Let us try to contact Ms Donskova and talk to her. Do you have her phone number? Please, dial it. Thank you.
Shall we wait a minute? Who asked me to talk to Ms Donskova? Please raise your hand. Show it on the screen please. We have many images, it is hard to figure out which is the right one immediately.
What is your name?
Galina Osokina: Galina Osokina.
Vladimir Putin: Ms Osokina, what shall we say to Natalya Donskova?
Galina Osokina: It should be said that she is a wonderful woman who lives everyday with this background and these achievements. Let us just simply wish her good health and promise to celebrate her centenary with her.
Vladimir Putin: All right.
Naturally, this is the first time I have seen this biography reference. It is not a big surprise. These are the grandmothers and grandfathers we have.
But hers is a surprising biography. Natalya Donskova was a medical worker and this is so topical today. She fought in the most difficult places: Stalingrad, the Kursk Bulge, Ukraine and Europe. She went all the way to Berlin. This is incredible! Quite a surprise!
(Telephone conversation with Natalya Donskova.) Hello! Ms Donskova, good afternoon. Yes, Putin speaking. Yes, this is I. Ms Osokina said you wanted to talk with me. Yes, I am listening.
Ms Donskova, Essentuki has become so beautiful. Your city has become so nice. Essentuki has become a wonderful city because you and your generation, people like you ensured our victory in the Great Patriotic War, and we have managed to fully use the results of this victory. However, relying on what you have done we must do even more than you did.
I read your biography. It is surprising. We wish you health and all the very best. Thank you, Ms Donskova.
We just had a meeting with the members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. We sincerely wish you the best of everything.
You are not just a nurse. You are a nationally merited person. I have now read your biography, the main points. I would like to give you a big hug. All the best to you. Goodbye!
(Addressing the audience.) We must applaud Ms Donskova and wish her all the best. (Applause)
Ms Osokina, thank you for paying attention to this.
I would like to thank everyone for our work today. I will try to respond to what was discussed here today.
All the best to you. Goodbye.