President’s candid dialogue with human rights defenders
Today’s dialogue between the president and representatives of international and Russian non-governmental organisations, who came together in Moscow for the Civil G8 forum, was a barbed and candid affair.
This meeting was unusual in that leaders usually only meet with societal activists from their own countries prior to summits. No foreign delegates have been invited before. Vladimir Putin has made the first exception to this rule. More details in Anton Vernitsky’s report.
The sheer participant numbers at the Civil G8 NGO forum, around seven hundred, had led journalists assembled in the hall to wonder from the very beginning whether this forum would turn into a tangled mess. After all, there was only one thing uniting its participants: NGO status. In everything else they were utterly different, something that is obvious from their names alone: ‘Amnesty International’, ‘Press Development Institute’, ‘Greenpeace’, ‘International Association for Conservation of Birds’, ‘Project for Installation of Industrial Wind Generators’, and many more.
The goal set by the forum was to develop recommendations for the G8 leaders, in order to ensure that issues concerning NGOs would be discussed at the leaders’ meetings. This was an opportunity for NGOs to point to the issues worrying them and call on the leaders to discuss these problems.
I’ll state first of all that development of recommendations was successful. Although such a large number of NGO representatives, moreover from such a range of countries, had never met together prior to any G8 summit, in order to develop recommendations the forum’s participants split into working groups by activity area – for example, one for energy, another for environmental protection, a third for personal protection. Concluding documents were passed to Vladimir Putin, this year’s G8 president, who having studied them, said that they partially coincide with the themes he had wanted to propose for discussion in Saint Petersburg.
Not just partially, Putin corrected himself. And the dialogue began from there. The issues brought forward for discussion related to a wide range of topics, from the fight against poverty to the activities of non-governmental organisations themselves. As the president himself put it, there is only one thing that will always concern him with regard to the issue of NGO activities.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation: To be entirely sincere and frank with you, I personally have only one concern that I will always oppose and combat. I am against having foreign governments finance political activity in our country, just as our government should not finance political activity in other countries. This is an area for our citizens and for their own organisations, and activity in this area should be financed by our people, by our public or financial organisations.
One of the Civil G8’s recommendations was that in Saint Petersburg the leaders should discuss banning use of nuclear energy.
To press the point home, a group of young people in black t-shirts stood up on the chairs in the hall, showing the slogan ‘No to nuclear power’. Mr. Putin remarked that it is unlikely that all the G8 leaders would agree with this. For example, in France 80% of power is of nuclear origin.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation: “Well, you had to propose something. Thank you. Don’t, let them stand. Let them do their thing, that’s what they came here to do”.
Ella Pamfilova: “…they can stay standing till the end of the forum…”
The people did not remain there to the end, particularly as the attendees then began discussing different themes. Canada’s Diana Richler requested 10 billion dollars from the G8 for education of disabled children, and handed Mr. Putin a badge with the slogan ‘For universal education’.
Joest van Endert of the Netherlands raised the issue of drug addiction and called on the G8 leaders to create a single centre for fighting AIDS.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation: “You spoke about drug addicts there. And this coincides with the fight against terrorism. Today 90 percent of heroin comes from Afghanistan”.
Claire (UK): “We call on the G8 leaders to protect refugees, to review anti-terrorism legislation in the G8 countries, and to put a stop to the combat operations in Iraq and Chechnya”
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation: “There are no combat operations there. What there are is outbreaks of terrorist activity. The army is in the barracks, training, maintaining readiness, just like in other parts of the Russian Federation. As regards Iraq, that will be clearer to you. You are from the UK, and there are no Russian troops there”.
The conversation then turned to human rights. The Russian president stated that of course this issue would be discussed at the summit, just as in previous years and at all previous G8 summits.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation: “I am ashamed to admit it, but we will be discussing this in the ‘miscellaneous’ category. This is because no-one wants to discuss human rights in their own countries; everyone wants the conversation to be limited to other countries”.
Next came racism and xenophobia, strategic arms reduction and the Iranian nuclear programme, global warming, and one further important global theme – hunger.
Olga Pomezova: “Every day 15 thousand people die of hunger”.
The forum participants proposed that the G8 move more quickly to cancel the debts of the poorest countries. These countries include some of our nearest neighbours – countries of the CIS.
The conversation also touched on the fight against global warming, as well as genetically modified products.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation: “I am very happy to have come here today because I feel as though I am here among like-minded people. Some countries are making it a condition of WTO entry that we stop informing our citizens about GM foods”.
Slightly later Mr. Putin clarified at a meeting with representatives of the International Chamber of Commerce, another non-governmental organisation, and one of the world’s oldest – it has been working since 1919, that talks on Russia’s WTO ascension have been concluded with all countries except one: the USA.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation: “If for some reasons we are unable to reach an accord, we will discharge ourselves from our obligations under the arrangements we have not only accepted, but are also carrying out without even being members of this organisation”.
The Civil G8 forum was taking place in this format for the first time in history, and this is the reason for the large number of themes discussed with the president. One of the last, which came just as Mr. Putin was preparing to leave, was corruption, incidentally at global level. The Russian president said that this issue would definitely be raised at the summit.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation: “Well, as you are always calling on us for something, this time I will call on you: don’t give anything to anyone, and don’t bribe anyone”.
The end of the session left the forum participants discussing how they had not expected such a good dialogue, and especially such understanding of their problems. After all, this was the first time that the leader of the G8 president nation had talked with a forum containing non-governmental organisations from all over the world and not just the president country.
Roberto Bissio, coordinator, ‘Public Control’ (Uruguay): “In the past four years I have four times participated in similar forums prior to G8 summits. And I want to say that this is the first time that a head of state has communicated with such a large audience or NGO heads. Before the Gleneagles summit Tony Blair talked with 25 representatives, and Chirac with fifteen. And here there are so many participants in the dialogue.”
Peter Ritchie, coordinator, programme for cooperation with non-governmental organisations (UK): “This is a unique opportunity to meet with the current head of the G8. I hope that many of the issues discussed here concerning civil society will be touched on by the president during the summit”.
And Mr. Putin did indeed promise the Civil G8 participants that he would try to discuss all issues that they raised at the forum with his colleagues in Saint Petersburg. The G8 summit begins as soon as next week – on 15 July.
And today the president’s dialogue with NGO leaders continued in more informal surroundings – at the president’s out-of-town residence at Novo-Ogorev. At this meeting Mr. Putin proposed thinking about creation of a mechanism for dialogue between G8 leaders and international non-governmental organisations.