24th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 19-21 March 2013)

Statement by Valentina Matvienko, Chairperson of the Council of the Federation

Debate "Russia - Council of Europe: Building a Europe of democracy and prosperity together"

Strasbourg, March 20, 2013

Dear Mr. President! Dear colleagues!

Ladies and gentlemen!

It is a great honour for me to speak from the rostrum of the Palace of Europe, which has added so many vivid pages to the history of modern democracy.

The participation in the Council of Europe has a considerable influence on democratic transformations in Russia. The collaboration with the Congress, for example, enables to implement the best European experience into the work of regional and local authorities. I am talking about that not only as the Speaker of the upper house of the Parliament - the house of regions, but also proceeding from my personal long experience of practical work as the governor of St. Petersburg.

1. Modern Russia is a dynamically developing democratic state. Russia over only two decades, the shortest time by historical standards, has managed to lay the foundations for its democratic system.

I can say with confidence that democracy has been established in Russia, and this process is irreversible. Moreover, we tried to take into consideration not only our own traditions, specific conditions and experience, the level of development of civil society, but, of course, the European standards of democracy. There is no doubt that reforms are going on in a complicated and non-linear manner. It is due to the size of the country, an uneasy experience of the past, the diversity of cultures of its peoples. According to the census of 2010, there are more than 200 nationalities, speaking more than 100 languages and dialects in Russia. It is not enough to proclaim a rule and incorporate it into the legislation, a no less important thing is to make this rule work, accepted and understood by citizens, so that it could become natural. That is where the main difficulty in building a rule-of-law state and pluralistic democracy is. Nevertheless, we steadily and progressively move further.

Today, the Russian legislation on elections and political parties fully corresponds to modern standards of democracy.

The Federal Law taking into account the Congress's Recommendation 297 on Russia (October 28, 2010) concerning the reintroduction of direct elections for regional governors has been in force since June 1, 2012. The role of municipal structures in this process has been significantly enhanced: nomination for a governor’s office should be supported by members of representative bodies or elected heads of municipalities. The first elections under the new law have already been held in five constituent entities of the Russian Federation

The procedure of registration of political parties has been simplified. There are 59 such parties already. We abolished the requirement for political parties to collect signatures in order to participate in the elections to the State Duma - the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament - and legislative assemblies of the entities of the Russian Federation. The number of signatures needed for a presidential candidate to be registered has been reduced.

The new procedure for the formation of the Council of Federation has been introduced. Its advantage is the more extensive use of the mechanisms allowing voters to express their will when executive and legislative regional bodies vest members of the chamber with powers. Senators representing executive bodies will be elected by the population of the region on an alternative basis along with governors. Representatives of legislative bodies can only be chosen from among the members of legislative assemblies of the entities of the Russian Federation. This ensures direct interaction between Members of the Council of Federation and the regions. In addition, the new law will bring stability to the chamber's work, as its Members will be elected for the whole term of office of the head of the region and the legislative assembly of the Federation’s entity.

The Russian President has recently introduced a draft law on the implementation of a mixed electoral system for elections to the State Duma: half of the deputies will be elected through the majority voting system and the other one - through the party list voting.

We are continuously striving to make the government more transparent. Public and review councils are being created under federal and regional bodies of state power. The practice of public discussion of the most important draft laws is gaining ground. Should a draft law stir up public interest, it becomes a subject of broad public discussions in the Council of the Federation. An increasing number of events, including sessions of the chamber, are open and being broadcast on-line.

Another issue of importance for all of us that should be mentioned is the fight against corruption. Russia has become a full-fledged member of the Group of States against Corruption, it has ratified the UN Convention against Corruption and the Council of Europe Criminal Law Convention on Corruption. The adoption of the law on monitoring correspondence between spending and incomes of state officials has become an important step in forging anticorruption standards in the public sphere; this experience has proven to work in the European countries. An appropriate anticorruption framework has been created on the federal, regional and local levels. It goes without saying that the European expertise in countering corruption on the local and regional levels is also of interest for us.

2. The development of a legal framework for local self-government remains our priority. In today's Russia local authorities have really started to work. An integrated system of state support of local self-government both on the federal and regional levels has been created. This is, first of all, the President's Council for the Local Self-government Development. Similar councils exist in almost all the constituent entities of the Russian Federation. Taking into account the increasing role of the local level of state power, at the initiative of the Council of the Federation April 21 has been proclaimed as the Day of Local Self-Government. The initiative by the Congress to hold annual "Local Democracy Weeks" is being successfully implemented.

One of the platforms that effectively represent the interests of municipalities on the federal level is the Council for the Local Self-Government Development under the Chair of the Council of the Federation. It works closely with the All-Russian Congress of Municipal Units, a partner of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. Taking this opportunity, I invite representatives of the Congress to take part in the meeting of the Local Self-Government Council that will take place this autumn on the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of ratification of the European Charter of Local Self-Government by Russia. This date has particular importance for us because the fundamental principles of the autonomy of local authorities enshrined in the Charter have become the conceptual framework of the basic law on local self-government adopted in 2003. Nowadays, possible signing as soon as possible of an Additional protocol to this Charter on the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority is being actively considered in Russia.

However, the work towards improving local self-government has not been finished. Today, the agenda includes the tasks of enhancing financial independence of regions and municipalities. Therefore, about 130 billion euro will be allocated from the federal budget for the period up to 2020 for implementation of the corresponding federal programs. They are aimed at developing a common regional policy, enhancing financial independence of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation and municipalities, creating equal conditions for them to fulfill their expenditure commitments.

3. This year the ongoing financial and economic crisis has been deliberately chosen as one of the main themes for discussion. The scale of the problems faced practically by all developed countries turned out to be much greater than expected. Russia is very interested in the European experience in this sphere, in particular in its municipal and regional aspects. However, we also have our own experience in overcoming the consequences of the crisis.

Amidst the crisis, for the first time Russia has started a massive crediting of the economy from its own funds. Around 10 per cent of its GDP was allocated for supporting the real sector of the economy and ensuring liquidity of the banking sector. Measures were taken to improve the investment climate and develop the industrial export.

The programs of social and economic development of the regions that are underway take into account intrinsic competitive advantages of these regions and specific conditions related to Russia’s membership in WTO and the Customs Union. The “new industrialization” encourages the development of green economy; scientific and industrial clusters – the centers of innovative development – are being formed. Certain regions have proven to be attractive for investments: the Kaluga Region, the Leningrad Region, and the Belgorod Region. Special economic zones, science cities, technology parks, small and medium enterprises are actively developing. The Council of Development of Science Cities in Russia has been established and is actively working. We intend to use these points of growth as much as possible and make them a driving force for regional development and even the European development in the future.

4.Welfare and health of people are the main priority of our public policy. Therefore, despite the crisis, we are building a comprehensive system of social protection. The relevant public spending has grown significantly. For example, the total cost of the regional programs for healthcare modernization amounted to 17.5 billion Euro. As a result, during the last five years the life expectancy in Russia has risen by more than 4 years and reached around 70 years. This is the best figure in the whole history of our country. The total mortality has fallen by almost 20 per cent and infant mortality - by 34 per cent.

The constituent entities of the Russian Federation have adopted regional programs to improve the quality of life for senior citizens. The strategy of the long-term development of the pension system has been approved. The State program “An Accessible Environment” is implemented in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ratified by Russia. A new mechanism of social support for low-income citizens on the basis of the social contract has been introduced.

Children present our special concern. Last year a National action strategy in children's best interests was adopted. An Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse were signed and are being prepared for ratification. Such an institution as the Children's Ombudsman is fully operating in all the regions. The network of basic schools is being formed where children with disabilities and children without developmental disorders study together.

Particular attention is paid to finding families for orphans. We have been already implementing practical steps towards preventing social orphanhood, reducing the number of orphanages, encouraging Russian families to practice adoption. We will simplify the adoption procedure, raise social benefits to parents who adopted children with disabilities, ensure more qualified patronage over troubled and replacing families. The creation of an Alimony Fund is being considered.

Many other projects on child protection, including international ones, are being implemented. Today, 18 Russian cities already participate in the UNICEF Global initiative “Child Friendly Cities”. The Pact of Towns and Regions under the Council of Europe's One in Five campaign to prevent sexual violence against children, to which Russia adhered a year ago, has been adopted.

5. Against the background of real achievements of our country it would be a mistake not to mention the problems and difficulties we face. We still have room for improvements in health care, child protection, education, development of science and culture, modernization of housing and utility services, energy efficiency, as well as in environmental protection. Poverty level remains high. We have not closed the problem of some hundreds of one-factory towns with the population of more than 16 million people. The Russian economy remains dependent on oil and gas revenues. Revenues from oil and gas still make almost half of the federal budget. To lower such a dependency by spurring development of modern high-tech economic sectors is a key task of the state economic policy.

6.Dear colleagues! Russia will continue its efforts to strengthen the Council of Europe as the universal European organization, that is ensuring unity of the legal and humanitarian space of the continent. We believe that the Council of Europe should contribute by its activities to the aim set out in Article 1 of the Charter, i.e. it should promote greater unity among the member states and, thus, to promote a unifying agenda, being above short-term political interests. We consider it important to strengthen the role of the Council of Europe as a unique mechanism of sectoral cooperation between European countries. We need to strengthen the treaty framework of the Council of Europe by modernizing and improving the effectiveness of the conventions. We consider the MEDICRIME convention, signed in Moscow on October 28, 2011, to be a perfect example of such work.

Russia urges to resist the reproduction of destructive logic of dividing Europe into old and new democracies, into teachers and students. We should reject the politicization, the artificially imposed divisive approaches. We must recognize that no one is perfect in terms of democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. No single country, or group of countries, can have aso-called “benchmark” democratic system that was once reached and still remains stable and infallible. We urge to consolidate our efforts to find answers to challenges and threats which are common for all European citizens,including terrorism, uncontrolled migration, drug trafficking, extremism,nationalism and neo-Nazism, that are raising heads in a number of European countries, "non-citizenship", intolerance and discrimination based on ethnic, religious, cultural, and other criteria.

Unfortunately, the Council of Europe family is not complete, while it lacks Belarus - the last European state that has not yet joined the Strasbourg organization. Sure, it has certain problems and discrepancies with some standards of the Council of Europe. But after all, this country has not yet been directly covered by the legal field of the organization. Public authorities inevitably adopt the logic of effective approaches to building democratic social and political processes of the pan-European scale by including the legal standards of the Council of Europe in its legislation, by participating in the monitoring and pursuing substantive cooperation programs. It is encouraging that the Congress is one of the few structures of the Council of Europe that regularly invites Belarus representatives to its sessions.

Our cooperation with the Congress was established long ago and acquires new dimensions and reaches a higher level each and every year. We note with satisfaction that the activities, style and working methods of the Congress have significantly improved and become more effective in recent years.

We are open to a transparent and constructive dialogue. That is confirmed by all the work carried out by the Russian delegation. Russia highly appreciates the Congress's work on monitoring the implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which has its clear criteria and become business-like, steady and systematic in nature over the past two years. I believe that the monitoring procedures of the Congress can serve as a good example for PACE also.

Let me thank you for the expert help, particularly for your assistance in the implementation of the municipal reform. We are willing to continue and intensify our cooperation.

We consider quite relevant the priority activities for 2013-2016 which have been approved by the Congress taking into account our delegation’s proposals, which relate to counteracting the effects of the world crisis at regional and local levels, the exchange of experience in the areas of sustainable development and modernization, ecology, solutions to social problems, protection of the rights of children and disabled persons.

It is important to note that the Congress members may get acquainted with the progress in democratic and socio-economic transformation in Russia not only from reports, but from their personal experience gathered during field sessions of the working bodies of the Congress and presentations of Russian regions in the Council of Europe. Thus, in recent years Congress field sessions have been held not only in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but also in Kemerovo, Kazan, Saratov and Uglich. Many major Russian regions have made their presentations in Strasbourg. In 2006 when I was the governor I took part in the presentation of the city of Saint Petersburg. And as you know, yesterday an exhibition dedicated to the Summer Universiade in Kazan – capital of Tatarstan - was opened.

In our work we attach great importance to cross-border, interregional and intermunicipal cooperation. Indeed, Russia has borders with 18 countries, 9 of which also belong to the Council of Europe. On June 8, 2012 we signed the last, third Protocol to the European Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation between Territorial Communities or Authorities concerning Euroregional Co-operation Groupings. At present, Russian regions and municipalities participate in the activities of 11 Euroregions. Russian cities are widely developing their twinning ties. It is no coincidence that the Russian city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) is justly considered to be one of the founders of the town twinning movement. By the way, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad which was the turning point of World War II helping Europe to eliminate the most terrible threat of Nazism.

We attach great importance to the work in international parliamentary organizations. We actively participate in the activities of the Inter-parliamentary Assembly of Member Nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States. There are a number of major international forums being held under the auspices of the Council of the Federation such as the Nevsky International Ecological Congress, International Congress on Road Safety, and Russian-Polish Regions Forum. Traditionally, we invite Congress leaders to participate in these events.

7.Dear colleagues! Russia is a country with dynamically developing regions and local communities. And one of the core pillars of our development is represented by our rich and diverse culture. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov – these are the names that are known worldwide. Russia is one of the countries that make a significant contribution to the heritage of world civilization. We have decided to declare 2014 the Year of Culture in Russia. We are open for cooperation in this regard with the Council of Europe and the Congress. As the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky said “We, Russian people, have two motherlands – our Russia and Europe”. And when saying so, he perceived Russia and Europe as an indivisible single space.

I am confident that the real wealth for Russia as well as for Europe is people. The more and the better we take their interests into account, the more successful democracy will develop at all levels. And it will be easier not only to overcome the crisis but to build a democratic and prosperous Wider Europe through joint efforts.

Thank you.