February 8, 2012

Vladi­mir Putin is prime minister of Russia and a candidate for president. A longer version of this column, which was published in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, is available here.

True democracy is not created overnight. Society must be ready for democratic mechanisms. The majority of the population must feel they are citizens and be ready to devote attention, time and effort to participating in the process of government.

In the 1990s we in Russia encountered both anarchy and oligarchy. Our society consisted of people who had freed themselves from communism but who had not yet learned how to be masters of their own destinies. Society went through a difficult process of development. And this enabled us all, working together, to drag our country out of the mire, to revive the state and to restore the sovereignty of the Russian people, which is the basis of true democracy.

Among the rights that Russians consider essential, those that they treasure most are the right to work, free medical care and education for children. Today, however, our society is completely different from what it was at the turn of the 20th century. People are becoming more affluent, educated and demanding. The results of our efforts are new demands on the government and the advance of the middle class above the narrow objective of guaranteeing their own prosperity. We worked for that.

Our civil society has become much more mature, active and responsible. We need to modernize the mechanisms of our democracy so that they correspond to this increase in social activity. The political climate, like the investment climate, demands constant improvement.

But I strongly believe that we do not need a circus of candidates competing with each other to make increasingly unrealistic promises. And spin doctors and image makers should not control politicians.

We must create a political system in which it is possible — and necessary — to be honest. Whoever puts forward a proposal or a program should be responsible enough to carry it out. Those who elect decision makers should understand who and what they are voting for. This would produce trust, constructive dialogue and mutual respect between society and the government.

Modern democracy as government by the people cannot be limited to simply casting votes. Democracy, in my view, is the fundamental right of the people to elect their government as well as to continuously influence it and the decision-making process. In this regard, I propose introducing a rule for a mandatory parliamentary review of any legislative initiative that has more than 100,000 supporting signatures on the Internet. A similar practice exists in the United Kingdom.

Internet-based democracy should be integrated into the overall development of institutions, especially at the municipal and regional levels, creating a referendum-based democracy.

Local self-government is a school of civil responsibility. Today, at a new stage of our development, we are reintroducing direct elections of governors. I also propose that municipalities be entitled to manage all the taxes collected from small businesses, which currently are subject to special tax regimes. Stronger economic independence is particularly relevant to big and ­medium-size cities. Cities drive economic growth and are sources of civic initiatives.

The federal center should know how to delegate and redistribute not only authority but also sources of financing for local and regional budgets. Yet we must ensure that the country does not become uncontrollable in the process. Government authority is not to be squandered. It is inadmissible to mechanically reshuffle resources and powers between various government levels. Neither centralization or decentralization should be followed blindly.

Crucially, we need to oversee a shift in the mind-set of public service to build a competitive environment for living, creating and doing business in Russia. Talk about corruption in Russia is commonplace; in our history, there have been attempts to curb it through repression. Of course, the fight against bribery relies on repressive measures. But the problem is much more profound. It comes from government agencies’ lack of transparency and accountability to society and the poor motivation of civil servants. Here, in my view, we face huge difficulties.

Polls tell us that the teenagers who in the 1990s dreamed of becoming oligarchs now aspire to be public servants. Many view public service as a source of fast and easy cash. As long as this incentive exists, purges will be useless — unmasked thieves will only be replaced by others.

To combat systemic corruption we need to unbundle power and property and to separate executive power from the system of checks over it. The political responsibility for the fight against corruption must be shared by the government and the opposition.

We should identify corruption-prone functions within the executive power and the management of state corporations. An official in such a role should be eligible for a high salary but should agree to absolute transparency, including declaring their expenses and big family purchases, current place of residence, how they pay for vacations and so on.

Above all, we should make justice available to everyone by introducing administrative proceedings not only for businesses but also to hear disputes between citizens and officials. Civic organizations will be granted the right to file lawsuits with the aim of defending their members’ interests. A common database of all arbitration-court decisions is operational and accessible to all; now, we have to set up a similar database across the courts of general jurisdiction.

We will act consistently, reasonably and with determination. We will eliminate the root causes of corruption and punish particular officials. We defeated oligarchy. We will surely defeat corruption.