MOSCOW (RIA Novosti political commentator Vasily Kononenko.) -- The Cabinet of Ministers recently approved a draft federal law on information transparency at state bodies.
Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, who introduced the bill, said it introduced a presumption of transparency. Officials can now be fined a minimum of 30 minimum wages for failing to provide non-classified information on demand.
In his 1998 state of the nation address, titled "Together for the Revival of Russia," President Boris Yeltsin demanded that departmental secrets be curtailed and that state officials be trained to work in conditions of information transparency. Nearly all government bodies now have websites with information about their work, but the amount of useful information available has shrunk, according to the authors of the annual survey by the Commission on the Freedom of Access to Information.
According to the Commission, financial and commercial (private) structures are currently the least transparent, followed by law enforcement and judicial bodies and executive authorities. The situation is slightly better in the legislative branch and political parties, while individuals are the most open section of Russian society: Everyone seems to know everything about them, even without their permission.
Experts say Russia was most open in the first two or three years after the end of the Soviet Union, before 1993, after which the situation deteriorated. Gref, who claims the role of "the opener of the information clam," says the country is ranked 40th of 48 countries in terms of information and political transparency.
Boris Reznik, a member of the State Duma committee on the information policy, said his five-year long correspondence with Gref's ministry shows that it is "one of the most secretive" bodies in Russia.
"They have learned to write formal non-committal replies. They are imitating the struggle against evil," Reznik said. "They want the appearance rather than the essence."
But there is another side to the problem. The Commission's survey shows that the media and civil society institutions should take most responsibility for insisting on official transparency. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to expect them to do this.
Experts say the former charisma of journalism, which people used to see as their last resort, has been greatly undermined, if not destroyed in the recent years. Today public response to any media exposure is usually: "Who ordered it?"
As for the counterbalancing role of non-governmental organizations, political scientist and rights activist Iosif Dzyaloshinsky is pessimistic.
"Hardly had they appeared when they became part of the management system and an instrument of power," he said. "It is believed that a dense network of civil associations promotes stability and effectiveness of democratic government. But this is a myth that we must dispel in order to ensure the transparency of power."
The new draft law is promising, and will be enforced quickly. The Duma will most probably support the government's initiative, which stems from presidential instructions. But there will not be rapid changes in this delicate sphere: It takes long to develop a relationship culture between minor bureaucrats and civil society institutions. Deputies said "both they" - meaning the current generation of bureaucrats - "and we should go for power in Russia to become transparent."