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Russia's OGP Concerns Show That Transparency Matters

BY David Eaves | Wednesday, May 22 2013

Last week, Russian officials announced they have withdrawn their letter of intent to join the Open Government Partnership. This has led a number of commentators to conclude that Russia will not join the organization of 57 countries that seeks to find legal and technological ways to improve citizen engagement and transparency, fight corruption and improve services.

Today, however, the situation is less clear. The Moscow Times has a statement to the Russian paper Kommersant from a presidential spokesman, saying, "We are not talking about winding up plans to join, but corrections in timing and the scale of participation are possible."

So Russia may still be in. Just not soon. And maybe never. Confused? You're not alone.

I actually find it fascinating that the Kremlin acts like "openness" and transparency matter. It speaks volumes about the power those terms have acquired. As I have previously argued, in a world where everyone claims to be democratic, openness and transparency are becoming more nuanced ways to assess the legitimacy of such a claim. So at least paying lip service to them may now be an additional hoop to jump through in addition to have a ballot box appear every 4-5 years.

There is, in Russia's case added complexity. One possibility is that the battle of openness is a proxy battle about corruption and credibility taking place between Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. It is no secret that Medvedev has been keen on the open government agenda. Indeed, I always sensed that "open government" provided a discourse to talk about corruption in Russia without having to say the word corruption - which, for the political class, has real benefits. But it was equally clear that Putin, while concerned about corruption insofar as it damages him politically, was always less interested.

That said, Russia's oscillation over whether or not it will participate may be one of the most reassuring things to have happened related to the OGP. Why? Because were the OGP a giant openwashing exercise with zero consequences, I suspect any government would be happy to join. The fact that the Kremlin is cautious suggests that the OGP matters. Even if it is simply delaying to refine its commitments, it is a signal that these commitments matter.

This is in part because of the OGP's two real strengths, both of which deserve applauding: The importance it places on civil society participation, and the independent reporting mechanism — the process by which countries are evaluated on their progress against their goals. The OGP essentially empowers civil society members, giving them an international stage to be critical about their government's progress. This is purely speculative, but it may be that the Russian government was unable to find any civil society members to sign off on its commitments. The independent reporting mechanism would have only added to the Kremlin's dilemma. The notion that a group of academics and civil society members would assess performance and the government would have little control over their output was only going to cause at best discomfort on the international stage and potentially give real legitimacy to the questions raised by dissententors.

This is not to say the OGP is perfect. I'm confident that a citizen of virtually every participating government can point to a practice of their government that runs counter to the spirit of the OGP. Nor is this to say that we wouldn't want Russia to join the OGP — quite the opposite. The very fact that the OGP might empower civil society members and give them some leverage would be very, very welcome in a country not known for treating journalists or others who disagree with it very well. A brighter international spotlight on those brave enough to say and do something would be good.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.