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THE MOSCOW TIMES < go to "News from Russia" Index

Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2002.

Putin Pens Code for Ethical Conduct
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
Staff Writer

In an attempt to boost public trust in government and maintain control over the course of administrative reform, President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree outlining the general principles of ethical conduct for public officials, calling on them to be professional, efficient and conscientious.

The nonbinding three-page document, signed Monday and released by the Kremlin's press service Tuesday, instructs government officials to refrain from abusing their positions of power, to avoid conflicts of interest and to remain "politically neutral" in the interests of the public good.

"A civil servant ... must proceed on the premise that recognizing, upholding and protecting the rights and freedoms of people and citizens determine the main purpose and substance" of his work, reads the document.

On paper, the decree addresses a major concern of ordinary Russian citizens, who routinely find themselves at the mercy of corrupt officials and endless bureaucratic rigmarole -- often blamed for stifling personal initiative and private enterprise.

According to the decree, government officials must not favor any professional or social groups and should avoid situations when personal interest threatens to obstruct the diligent fulfillment of official duties.

If a conflict of interests -- the term, for greater clarity, is explicitly defined in the decree -- does arise, an official should inform his immediate superior and abide by his instructions to resolve the situation.

The presidential decree also takes issue with the widespread practice of using public office to promote a favorite candidate or cause. It says public officials should remain politically neutral, not allowing political parties or nongovernment organizations to affect their decision-making and never forcing their subordinates to take part in the activities of such parties or organizations.

Civil servants must be polite and attentive toward citizens and refrain from behavior that could cast doubt on their fairness.

In an apparent attempt to clamp down on embarrassing public spats between officials, which have become a frequent manifestation of democracy Russian-style, the decree recommends that officials refrain from public assessments of other government functionaries or state bodies unless making such assessments is among their direct duties.

At the same time, bureaucrats are called on to respect mass media and help them, as far as the law requires, to gather information. They should also be tolerant and respectful toward the customs and traditions of Russia's peoples and take into account cultural differences.

Dmitry Medvedev, the first deputy head of the presidential administration, said Tuesday that the recommendations would be valid until new laws on state service are passed, Interfax reported.

A package of legislation designed to replace a 1995 law on state service would soon be sent to the Cabinet and then to the State Duma, Medvedev said. He added that the main bill in the package could be up for consideration by parliament as early as September and would be followed by separate bills on civilian officials, military and law enforcement.

The issue of an ethics code for bureaucrats was first raised publicly in February by Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov. After a meeting with Putin, Nemtsov told reporters that he had proposed the idea to the president and Putin had reacted favorably.

A group of liberal lawmakers, including Nemtsov, fellow SPS Deputy Vladimir Yuzhakov and independent Vladimir Ryzhkov, submitted a bill on such an ethics code, which was passed by an overwhelming majority in the first reading May 17 despite opposition from the Kremlin and government. However, a second reading of the bill was stalled.

Dmitry Vasilyev, executive director of the Moscow-based Institute for Corporate Law and Government, criticized the deputies' effort for its lack of a systemic approach. In an analysis published by the Moscow Carnegie Center, Vasilyev said that European systems for maintaining norms of ethical conduct by public officials usually include two tiers: a general first-level code of conduct and more detailed second-level codes that are adopted within each specific agency. European systems also include other components, such as government watchdog agencies and training programs aimed at inculcating high ethical standards among bureaucrats.

Vasilyev opined that the approach to reforming civil service ethics as outlined in the bill stemmed "from an insufficient knowledge of the world record of administrative ethics regulation."

"Russian reformers are not always fully aware of the complexity of ethical readjustments and hence they concentrate solely on the better known and more popular kinds of institutions or regulatory acts," Vasilyev wrote. "It is this haphazard approach that has produced the 'curious' Code of Conduct ... that is as well intentioned as it is impracticable."

Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said Tuesday he had not yet seen the presidential decree but believed it was unlikely to have any tangible effect on the country's bureaucrats.

"First and foremost, the behavioral code [of public officials] is determined by socioeconomic conditions," Ryabov said by telephone. In reality, he added, many top-level functionaries depend on sources of income other than their official salaries and often use their positions for personal gain.

Ryabov speculated that the Kremlin's decision to issue the decree now may be an attempt to "seize the political initiative" and push its own version of administrative reform instead of the one submitted this spring by the Duma deputies.

"This must all be regarded as part of an election campaign," Ryabov said, referring to upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

"This is not the way to boost public trust," Ryabov added. "Public trust is boosted by the effectiveness of the state machine, and a reduction in the reams of paperwork that people are required to produce or obtain in their relations with the government. Unfortunately, in this sense, I doubt the code will accomplish anything."

Staff Writer Natalia Yefimova contributed to this report.