Conference on “The role of local self-government in the development of the territory: Russian and European experience”

St Petersburg, 18 October 2013

Speech by Knud Andersen, Rapporteur on the Russian Federation - Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Mr Chairman,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to thank the European Club of experts and in particular its President, Emil Markwart, for keeping up the tradition of debate on local self-government, and for inviting the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities to take part.

It is a third time that I participate in European Club conferences in as many years, and I am pleased to see many familiar faces here today. I very much appreciate this opportunity for a direct dialogue with Russian authorities and civil society, which represents for us a valuable source of information on the situation in this country.

As Rapporteur on the situation of local and regional democracy in Russia, I usually include in my presentation a summary of the latest recommendations of the Congress. I will not do it this time. First, because this Congress Recommendation 297, adopted in October 2010, has already been widely disseminated by now. Secondly, because the subject of the conference today has a broader focus of the current role of local self-government in territorial development. Finally, because the Congress is beginning a new cycle of monitoring Russia, and a new monitoring mission is planned for spring next year. So, we expect this recommendation to be updated in a not so distant future.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Congress that I represent, we are an assembly of local and regional elected politicians from 47 member states of the Council of Europe. Our aim is to advance local and regional democracy on this continent, and our core mission is to ensure the implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which lays downs the main principles of local democracy. This Charter is in fact a binding convention, a legal basis for local self-government. It has now been ratified by 46 countries and we are expecting a 47th ratification later this month. Only yesterday, this country’s Federation Council and Council on local self-government held a conference to mark fifteen years since the ratification of the Charter by Russia.

The reason why I pay so much attention to the Charter is not only because it represents the basis for monitoring local and regional democracy by the Congress. It is also because the Charter’s entry into force twenty-five years ago, in September 1988, marked a new era in the evolution of local self-government and democratic development at the grassroots. With the Charter, local democracy received a legal framework and a set of principles binding on national governments; our citizens received the right to self-government set in law, even in the Constitution; and local authorities received clearly defined rights and competences, and the possibility of defending them in court.

The principle of subsidiarity, laid down by the Charter, gave a legal basis to the decentralisation of competences in Europe towards local authorities. This devolution of power has helped to open the potential of local self-government to respond to the problems and concerns of citizens, at the level closest to them.

It also meant that local self-government began to assume primary responsibility for the development of their territory. The complexity of the problems faced by the society today makes it very difficult for national governments alone to deal with them effectively and efficiently. Hence the whole idea of transferring the responsibility for public services to the level where they can be delivered best.

But the transfer of competences further implies a transfer of financial means for their implementation, leading to a growing power of local authorities, in terms of both political responsibilities and financial capacity. Just to mention some figures, local and regional authorities today represent two thirds of all public investments and 30 per cent of public spending, including 60 per cent of all the expenditure on education, more than 30 per cent on health and between two thirds and three quarters on culture.

As a result, local authorities are taking on increasing responsibilities in the political, economic and social fields: responsibilities for implementing human rights in their communities, by ensuring conditions for their full exercise; environmental responsibilities to ensure sustainable development; social responsibilities for the well-being, cohesion and intercultural dialogue within their communities – and this list can go on.

We can conclude that today, local authorities are no longer mere providers of public services. They have become fully-fledged players in the development of their territory and even political partners of national governments, by contributing their knowledge and experience on the ground to national policy making.

When we speak of territorial development, we need to distinguish between the essential responsibilities that should be fulfilled by national governments, and those which belong to local self-government. It is essential that national governments implement the Charter, in order to provide local self-government with a legal framework, competences and means for the development of the territory.

However, it is equally important that local self-government properly plays its crucial role in this process and assumes its responsibility for ensuring a high quality of public services to citizens – through good local governance.

We are convinced that good local governance is the best way of ensuring the development of the territory – a kind of governance that is citizen-oriented, responsible, accountable, efficient, transparent, and open to citizen participation.

I would add to this list the importance of ethical governance, based on transparency and the fight against corruption and the abuse of power. Corruption is now seen as one of the biggest – if not the biggest - challenges to democratic development in many European countries.  It undermines the rule of law and slows down economic development. Making local self-government, so to speak, “lean and clean”, efficient and transparent, is a prerequisite for regaining public confidence and the trust of citizens, much of which has too often been lost through corrupt practices and the failure of public authorities to address this issue.

In this regard, I should mention the European Code of Conduct for local and regional elected representatives, which was adopted by the Congress in 1999 and which deals with their specific obligations during the taking, holding and relinquishing of office. We regard this as one of our reference texts. However, it is now 14 years since it was adopted and we are giving serious thought to revising this text.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about a particular importance of increasing citizen participation in local governance, which is also one of the Congress’ recommendations to Russia. Today, we are witnessing a growing gap between citizens and democratic institutions of governance unable to respond to citizens’ needs. This democratic deficit was made worse by the economic crisis. We are convinced that the response must be in engaging citizens in decision-making and giving them possibilities for a meaningful and direct participation in governance, not limited to elections alone.

The local level offers great opportunities for better citizen participation. This is why the Congress recommended, and member states adopted in 2009 an Additional Protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government. This Protocol deals with the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority. We strongly hope that the Russian Federation will sign and ratify it soon, and will take further steps for involving citizens directly in local governing processes. After all, such participation is a basis for a new model of participatory democracy which we are seeking to build.

And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, there is one thing of which we can be in no doubt – local authorities are and will remain the key to territorial development.

I would like to conclude on this note and to wish all of us a successful conference today.

Thank you.