By the end of the latest electoral cycle in Russia, the Open Government was put forward as a key principle of Medvedev’s government. It was argued that such an endeavor would qualitatively improve the effectiveness of the executive branch, as it was considered that it would bind the government to the emergent activated society and its demands.
Leaving his presidency to take on the post of prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev introduced an Open Government initiative last year to make the executive branch more transparent and “user-friendly.” As part of this initiative, in April 2012 Russia declared its intention to join the global Open Government Partnership (OGP), and its full membership is expected to commence in spring 2013.
The OGP is a global community which was launched in September 2011 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly by eight countries, led by the United States. The idea was to promote the availability of information about government activities, broader civic participation, higher ethical standards for public officials, and new technologies for openness and transparency. In order to become a member of the Partnership, an aspiring country must agree with the basic principles set forth in the Open Government Declaration, and work out a plan for the country on the basis of a broad public consultation, with certain commitments needing to be fulfilled at the outset.
By the end of the latest electoral cycle in Russia, the Open Government was put forward as a key principle of Medvedev’s government. It was argued that such an endeavor would qualitatively improve the effectiveness of the executive branch, as it was considered that it would bind the government to the emergent activated society and its demands. The main problem was to arrange and support an issue-oriented and ongoing dialogue between officials and society on their bilateral needs and expectations. In this sense, the OGP is likely to be considered a workable framework that will provide all the necessary tools.
Since its launch in Russia in May 2012, the Open Government has manifested itself in the form of a selected minister, a government office unit, a council of experts for the prime minister and a series of discussions on topical issues. All year, the country's plan, as laid out by the OGP, has been taking shape through various public mechanisms. In December 2012 it was presented by the working group, and as far as can be gleaned from the final draft, the key contributors to it after the presupposed broad public consultation consist of only four organizations. It is difficult to say if at least some of them might not be considered affiliated.
However the OGP is different from other international endeavors, as it does not involve legally binding obligations (the OGP declaration is considered voluntary and the country's plan is considered to be a country’s sovereign self-commitment). That means there is no need to ratify the membership agreement through the legislative procedure in the parliament. And even though the OGP itself is aimed at public discussion of the country’s prospects within the Partnership, it defines neither the scale nor the conclusion of such a discussion. In terms of the non-participation of the parliament in this process, and still underdeveloped civil society, Russia is challenged with some political obligations without going through the only legitimate public procedure in the representative body.
In fact the Open Government initiative is a very modern and quite topical issue on the global agenda. It was one of the initial projects of the first Obama administration four years ago. Then it went external: in 2011 the OGP was formed and in 2013 open governments became one of the pillars of the UK presidency of the G8, along with open economies and open societies. That is the situation in which Russia does not seem to be falling too far behind, but rather, is promoting this trend very actively. In a global sense, this is a convenient subject for Russia to push the dialogue when its reset policy with the US is, in fact, over, and the overall relations with the West lack any positive passion.
The problem is that the people of Russia, who are indeed the essential prospective beneficiaries of the Open Government, do not seem too enthusiastic, or at least sufficiently aware of the idea. Unfortunately it remains a discourse for the elite, and even they are not reasonably supportive of it.
As for international cooperation on open governments, this has not yet provided observers with clear definitions. What is open government in the general sense, which could be applied in every case? What are the limits for openness, both acceptable and unacceptable? How do we balance openness with sovereignty, in terms of sensible information for whatever reason? The OGP risks being perceived as a virtual framework – which in addition is not entirely democratic due to its non-parliamentary character – if it fails to “open” open government itself and demonstrate any synergy of such a partnership. Now the world has experienced Wikileaks. Isn’t it a global opening of some governments?
The Russian bid to join the OGP is not very media-attractive, and it could never compete with its bids to join the WTO or the OECD. Instead, it is likely to result in a nice two-part news hook: externally it maintains its dialogue with the West, and internally at least it legitimizes the Open Government activity in the country with some objective check-points. That is quite in keeping with the political context.