Thursday, October 23, 2014

President of Russia

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Conference of the Russian Popular Front

Conference of the Russian Popular Front.

1/10 Photo: the Presidential Press and Information Office Full captionFull caption|||Minimise

Vladimir Putin took part in the first conference of the Russian Popular Front held under the theme Building Social Justice.

The conference participants included heads of federal ministries and agencies, Mr Putin’s election campaign supporters, heads of the Front’s regional offices, and members of the expert community and public organisations. 

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Excerpts from transcript of the conference of the Russian Popular Front

PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA VLADIMIR PUTIN: Friends,

It is a pleasure to welcome all members of the Russian Popular Front who gathered here today in this ancient and at the same time youthful and fast-growing city of Rostov-on-Don. I ask you all to thank the people of Rostov-on-Don for their hospitality and for letting us meet here today.

Colleagues, I welcome you to the first conference of the Russian Popular Front. Right at the start of our meeting and discussion today, I want to say that we should continue our work in this broad format on a regular basis over the coming months. We must do this so as to carry out all that we agreed on during last year’s election campaign, all that I set out in my articles and executive orders as the basis for our common programme. We must ensure that no matter what problems and difficulties we encounter, and we know that there are many of them, including the numerous uncertainties surrounding the global economic situation, we must nevertheless ensure that none of the development priorities we agreed on are forgotten, neglected, or tossed aside. 

This is tremendously important. Life can and does make changes to any plans of course. Life is always more diverse and complex than any plans we may draft. But if we do make any changes and adjustments, we must do so publicly and ensure they are clear and comprehensible for people, because only then will society accept and understand them. 

We have heard from many quarters, from colleagues and opponents, from right and left, from people of all different views that the priorities we have set are impossible to fulfil because they place too great a burden on the economy. If we carry out our plans, they say, especially our plans in the social sector, it will undermine our economy and budget and we will ultimately achieve nothing and get nowhere. At the same time, there are people who sincerely seek development and genuinely want to help others, but say that our plans do not go far enough and that we need to do more. In this respect I want to outline my position and ask for your support.

First of all, as I said, life can and does make changes. But this does not mean that when it comes to matters of principle we should make concessions. I say this because I believe that we can realise the goals we have set despite the difficulties we may encounter on the way.  

But we can achieve our goals only if we are determined and persistent in our work, take the initiative, and, most importantly, take a creative approach. Excuse my bluntness, but if we just sit there pumping money out of the budget of course we won’t get anywhere. If we look at how to restructure particular sectors however, and how to improve work in particular areas and spend public money more effectively, we will achieve our goals.

In this respect I ask our colleagues from the Government and the regional and municipal heads not to be so linear in their approach but to be more creative in resolving the problems before them. Let me stress though, that we must not simply pretend to be tackling the issues.

If we are looking at restructuring in particular sectors, for example, we need to carry it out in stages, calmly, without sudden upheavals. We must do it in a way the people find acceptable and at the same time ensure it fits with the real situation in their lives and the real state of our economy. But as I just said, we cannot set ourselves ambitious social goals without first carrying out the plans we already outlined. If we do not complete that work first, we will indeed end up getting nowhere.

We have drawn up a tight but realistic timetable for modernising the main areas of our life and the main directions of Russia’s economic development. I think that the Russian Popular Front can play a big part here as a broad platform where people with different views and approaches can work out a consensus on resolving our key development problems.

This is why I propose that we hold meetings like today’s on a regular basis. Moreover, I want to reaffirm that, as we agreed, the Russian Popular Front should become a public movement, and I therefore propose that we not delay this step, but hold the movement’s founding congress in a few weeks time, on June 11-12 this year. 

Now I want to turn to the issue of social justice, the issue that has brought you all here and is the theme of the discussions that began yesterday and are continuing today. Social justice is the kind of philosophical concept that one can discuss endlessly. We could philosophise about it too, but our task is to give the discussion a practical dimension and link it to our people’s lives.  

What is social justice? It is equal access to free, high quality medicine and education, care for families and children, support for mothers and children in general, including orphans, respect for labour, decent wages for one’s labour, and so on. These are all issues we can and must discuss in terms of practical measures and implementation. They are all key areas in any country’s life, Russia’s life too.  

I know that you began this discussion at the round tables yesterday. Let’s sum up the results of those discussions today. If you have any questions or proposals, I will try to answer your questions and will listen to your proposals, and I will try to implement them in practice in government documents or legislative acts.

Thank you very much for your attention.

VALERY TRAPEZNIKOV: Good afternoon, Mr President,

We held a round table on labour yesterday as it happens. I have 50 years’ work experience as a machine-tool operator. I recall that you spoke about reviving the Hero of Labour title or Order of Labour Glory. I’ve got a Hero of Russia sitting next to me here, why not have a Hero of Labour too? I’m thinking not of myself, but of my colleagues. That’s my first point. 

Second, we discussed the minimum wage. It is low of course, and this is something we should think about, all the more so when you look at the ‘golden parachutes’ that get paid out. Rostelekom, for example, pays 280 million rubles [$9 million] as dismissal compensation [to the company’s president]. I think that our public has a hard time understanding this kind of thing. What was he after all, a Nobel Prize winner? 

I’m not against people earning a lot of money, but there have to be limits! This is something we should reflect on.

Thank you very much.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Let’s start with the ‘golden parachutes’. This is a matter of debate not just in Russia but all around the world, especially in developed economies where this practice has existed for a long time. They are setting limits on it. I fully agree with you that we should reflect on and introduce some limits too. They should not dampen in any way top level managers’ incentive to be active, effective and useful, but should set some healthy limits. In this sense I agree with you. Let’s think about it together and formulate the relevant proposal. 

As for the Hero of Labour title, during the Soviet period there was the Hero of Socialist Labour title, and I think it was a justified thing overall. I know that the idea has support not just from people in professions like yours, people who use their hands and their heads in their work, but is also supported by key trade union groups in the country. Mr Shmakov [President of the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions] would probably give a nod here. We have discussed this matter together in the past.

I agree with you. Not only do I agree with you, but I think your proposals will be carried out before the day is over.

IRINA ILYICHEVA: Mr President, I am Irina Ilyicheva, director of Moscow school No. 1409, and I took part in the round table on traditions and quality in education.

We are working on modernising Russia’s education system. We discussed many questions at yesterday’s round table, including the issue of federal educational standards. The most sensitive issue we looked at yesterday was the question of textbooks on Russian history. 

If you permit, I’d like to give the floor to my colleague.

VIKTOR MALENKOV: Viktor Malenkov, from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, I’ve been teaching Russian history since 1982.

Mr President, colleagues,

I think that having a common history textbook would be a form of social justice for our country’s schoolchildren. We should not have a situation when students in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk learn one version of history, students in Moscow another, and students in Rostov another yet again. We should not have a situation when students from one place, having studied one version of history, come to another place to sit exams and find themselves facing a completely different set of demands. 

All schoolchildren should have equal opportunities. That is what social justice is all about. To achieve this, we need common standards for teaching history and in particular, a common history textbook.

I think that you should get the specialists to work out a basic module for this textbook.

Let me add that, following my logic, all of the subjects taught in the standard school programme should be based on a common set of standards.

Thank you very much.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I have been following the public debate on this issue as much as possible and have listened to different views on the matter. As a specialist, you know the different points of view better than I. In any case, for those of our colleagues who are not so familiar with the issue, let me clarify what the debate is about. People say that history should not be taught in uniform fashion, but at the same time, as our colleague just said, and as some specialists are saying too, there should be a set of general standards.

I agree with both sides in this debate. I believe too, that it is possible to reconcile both points of view.

How can we do this? First of all, I fully agree with the idea that there should be some kind of common set version of our history. Indeed, if we have students in the Far East learning one set of facts, students in the Urals learning a second, and in European Russia learning a third, overall this could undermine our multi-ethnic nation’s common humanitarian space, if I may put it that way. A common approach to fundamental historical epochs and events of greatest importance to our country is something we do need and should be reflected in a common textbook. I see nothing bad in this. 

But this in no way means that teachers, all the more so teachers with as much experience as our colleague here, shouldn’t bring to students’ attention other points of view and interpretations of particular events in our history during the teaching process. Indeed, in my view they have a duty to do so. 

There is nothing wrong with this. We have always said after all, and not just about history but about other subjects too, that we need to teach students how to learn and think. I can see that the rector of Moscow State University [Viktor Sadovnichy] agrees with me. The humanities are not mathematics after all, which is what Mr Sadovnichy has devoted his life to. They are a science, but one that requires a creative approach.

I see no contradiction between the two sides in this debate, and I think that we do need to have a common standard.

IRINA ILYICHEVA: Following on from this subject, there is also the question of the policy for mathematics education. If you permit, (addressing Alexei Semenov) could you say a few words and tell us your view? 

ALEXEI SEMENOV: Alexei Semenov, rector of the Moscow Institute of Open Education and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Let me start by saying that we see maths, like the humanities, as a science about people, about the way we think, reason, prove and argue. In this respect, we see a need for a common policy for developing maths education in Russia. 

A lot has already been accomplished. Specialists are taking part in this work, as are teachers, academics from Moscow State University, members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, people from many cities, including Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Ufa, and St Petersburg. [Presidential Aide] Andrei Fursenko and Viktor Sadovnichy are also helping with this work. 

Maths is a whole culture of thinking that can be cultivated through maths itself and then used in all different areas of life. It is a general cultural phenomenon that has become an inherent part of Russia. We think that our 300 years of developing mathematics in Russia is a source of national pride and an important part of our national culture, national idea, and social justice. Technology is impossible in modern world without mathematics.  

We are certain that mathematics knowledge, including the broad areas of applied mathematics and informatics, could become the base that could propel Russia to a leading position in the world of modern technology, including information technology based on mathematics.

Mass-scale maths education is the foundation for this. There are no children incapable of learning maths. I think this should become a principle for general education schools’ work and for our entire society’s understanding.

Developing maths skills begins through games and experiments already in kindergartens. We teach maths and computer science in elementary schools according to the federal standards. Monitoring the information environment helps us to follow each student’s progress and development. We teach students to apply maths, develop real maths, and use computers. In these areas we are among the world leaders.

We have a common open data base of mathematics tasks, similar to the data base of historical information that was spoken about today. This forms the future for maths education. 

We are in the process of creating the common open data base now and are working together on this with the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation. This is also very important. We know that the leaders in maths education are Korea, Japan and Singapore. We are close behind them. We are not quite breathing down their necks yet, but we are confident this will happen.

Maths competitions help us to find the most talented students and act as a complement to the national final school exam. What is important here is that the competitions are directly linked to the universities and are overseen by the Russian Rectors’ Union. At the last international maths competition, six Russian participants came away with four gold and two silver medals.

As for our proposals on maths education policy, we think that the state authorities should give everyone the chance to study any area of maths for free, if this study produces results. In other words, you cannot simply study, but have to show that you’ve actually understood what you’ve learnt. 

We need to compensate for the added costs of raising maths education’s quality and its increasing individualisation. Maths tools and literature should be available to all free of charge on the Russian internet. We need to support leaders in the field and establish the Eiler Higher Research Institute in St Petersburg, where the global maths potential will concentrate in order to develop Russia’s potential in this area. We need to support the best maths schools and teachers and give them federal status. 

Teachers are key figures in developing education. Work is underway on drafting a future professional standard for maths teachers. We need to select school graduates and train them specially to become teachers in classes made up of the best students of our country’s teacher training institutes and universities. Older teachers who have difficulties with the new school programmes could work as tutors and help students who are lagging behind. This would also help to ensure that everyone keeps up in maths. 

One final important point, looking at the situation in Russia today, we see that there is growing demand for engineers and that higher education is starting to develop a system of real aims. Universities’ maths teaching staff are becoming stronger with the arrival of mathematicians who are doing actual practical work. We need to introduce the title of federal professor, awarded through a competitive process, to mark leaders in this field. 

I think that if we implement this development policy we would make Russia the leader in maths education in the world within ten years.

Thank you.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: What is a federal professor? Could you clarify the idea?

ALEXEI SEMENOV: This would be a federal competition. We have federal universities, for example. Universities that are at the world level receive this designation. I think there are some objective criteria, including those that international experts could decide, that could determine who deserves to receive the title of federal professor. The title could be given for life in some cases, since mathematics talent isn’t something you ever lose. 

VLADIMIR PUTIN: When you started talking about maths, I remembered a well-known joke from back in the Soviet era: the teacher in maths class asks Givi what two plus two makes, and he replies, “Are we buying or selling?”

We need to be flexible, but not that flexible, certainly not in mathematics. Yes, maths is indeed one of the fields in which Russia can be proud of its achievements. This has always been the case. Maths has been the foundation of all of our big successes of the previous decades: the nuclear programme, the space programme, and our metals studies, with its implications for shipbuilding, our nuclear submarine fleet, and our achievements in space. All of this rests on mathematics. 

I know that specialists have some concerns. Mr Sadovnichy has spoken to me about this, as have [President of the Russian Academy of Sciences] Mr Osipov, [Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Nobel Prize laureate] Mr Alferov, and other specialists. It is sad that some of the specialised schools that searched for talented children all around the country and taught them according to their own special programmes have now disappeared. 

The things you said are proposals rather than questions. I fully agree with you. As I said, these are matters I have already discussed with my colleagues. We agreed to revive specialised educational institutions, including at the school level, and of course will reflect on how to breathe new life into maths teaching in general schools. 

I will not repeat the things you said, I agree with your points completely. We simply need to structure these proposals and look at what steps to take and how to go about them.

Thank you very much.

ALEXANDER BRECHALOV: Mr President, colleagues, good afternoon. Alexander Brechalov, president of OPORA Russia.

Mr President, I want to say a few words about individual entrepreneurs’ insurance payments. This was an issue that came up at almost all of the round tables yesterday. Most of the discussion reflected its urgent nature and was pretty much similar in tone.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I can guess what kind of tone you are talking about.

ALEXANDER BRECHALOV: I don’t want to get overly emotional in any way. We already had enough emotions. I want to talk about the specifics. Over this last month, the Russian Popular Front has had a working group looking into this issue, and it has accomplished a lot of work of very high quality. We got more than 100 municipal heads involved, and OPORA collected more than 135,000 signatures in support of our proposal. This was not just work for work’s sake, but is a very important process that has enabled us to get feedback. 

If we now examine the situation, it is clear in our view that the state’s tax policy towards micro and small business should be more differentiated in approach. There are individual entrepreneurs working in rural areas, in small towns. Consumption levels are limited from the outset in such places and these entrepreneurs have only limited possibilities, but rather than joining the ranks of the unemployed they work legally, trying to produce something, and they pay their taxes. These are entrepreneurs with annual turnover of only 100,000-150,000 rubles. It might be a surprise for some, but this is the case, and they get by quite comfortably with the help of their own gardens and so on. This is all normal. But the contributions they have to make are a burden they cannot bear. Meanwhile, there are individual entrepreneurs earning millions of rubles a year.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: How big exactly is this unbearable burden?

ALEXANDER BRECHALOV: The insurance payment they have to make is set at 35,000 rubles as from January 1, 2013.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: So, 37,000 in total.

ALEXANDER BRECHALOV: Yes.

The 350,000 entrepreneurs who had themselves taken off the register paid their insurance contribution last year. Looking at the situation, we consider the period from 2005 through to 2010 at least as positive for small business. The Economic Development Ministry’s programme alone increased from 1.5 billion [rubles] to 20 billion. Effective programmes that helped to develop small business were carried out.

Now we are taking not even one but two big steps backward. If we look at the figures, we have to see how much revenue the increased contributions will bring in, and also how much revenue will be lost if entrepreneurs deregister. We need to think about the price of confidence. In this respect we have a specific request, Mr President. There are still hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs who have not deregistered and are waiting in the hope that you and the Government will take a rational and balanced decision on this matter. Our request is that you introduce a moratorium on the increased insurance payments so that the payment this year would be 17,000 rubles as it was last year.

We need to take this step so that we can prepare the legislative amendments that will introduce the differentiated policy we need and have them ready for the State Duma to examine at its spring session. We will paint them the portrait of the micro-businesses that are earning money in rural areas and small towns but that only have limited resources. This is not because these people have no money or do not know how to run a business, but because, as I said, consumption is limited from the outset. We understand and support the principle that business should pay taxes and probably insurance contributions too, but I stress the need for a differentiated approach in this respect. We therefore ask you to bring in a moratorium and to support our initiative. There should be a programme for Russia’s individual entrepreneurs.

We have been concentrating lately on resolving the big problems, including the Pension Fund issue, as you know, but in this work we have not taken into account the possibilities and interests of this particular group of entrepreneurs and citizens. We believe that these people are not only economic actors but are social actors too. Someone running a business in a little town of only 500-1,000 people is helping to create life there. This was something said by many of the colleagues taking part in yesterday’s discussions.

We therefore propose drafting a programme and are already in the process of doing so. We have given it the name A Place for Business – a Place for Life, and will have it ready to present soon. This programme aims to stimulate small business development, especially in these small towns and rural areas.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: You wanted to add something, or you had another question? Please, go ahead.

CHAIRMAN OF THE RUSSIAN INDEPENDENT TRADE UNION OF COALMINERS IVAN MOKHNACHUK: Mr President, I have several questions, but I just want to follow up on what was said. Naturally, places that have small businesses see some kind of life, and these businesses must develop. But I think we need to look at it from a different angle. For example, today there are no businesses and no jobs – there are no taxes, no payments, and people get their unemployment benefits, subsidies and other allowances from public consumption funds. Tomorrow we go and create small businesses – and we have wages paid, income taxes paid and extra-budgetary fund payments made. So I think that micro businesses and small businesses that operate under A Place for Business – a Place for Life programme should be relieved from any kind of payment, and then they will make payments to social security funds and everything else. Because business means payments, and no business means no payments.

This is the trade union’s position, this is my position, and maybe not everyone likes it, but I feel that this is a better approach. And if microbusinesses know that they pay nothing to extra-budgetary funds but taxes, income taxes and payroll taxes, they will have an opportunity to develop, they will go and work in places where they are needed. I think this is the right approach, as nothing gives nothing, while something leads to more. Perhaps we just need to change our philosophy a little, especially in the Finance Ministry, because they always seem very jealous. They talk about shortfall in income but there simply aren’t any incomes. What shortfall are we talking about? So I think that this needs to be looked at.

To continue what Valery Trapeznikov was saying, with regard to ‘golden parachutes,’ I think we need to give this matter some thought as well, because throughout the world, in many nations, there are progressive income taxes that even out the incomes between individuals where there are large gaps. We have a flat tax, and if we are talking about the budget – I gave you the data for Krasnoyarsk – the income in one of the public organisations was 2 million rubles. You and I, all our citizens, we all form the budget, while some public sector organisations pay insane salaries, dozens of times greater than other peoples’ salaries. Now we have dealt with this issue and established an eight-fold income divide. But there is another issue, there is the private sector which says, “The President cannot meddle in our affairs, he cannot command us and we will pay whatever we want.” And as a result, the private sector has 20 to 30-fold salary gaps. This leads to an enormous social divide and social discontent among people.

And moreover, I will tell you this, though I am ashamed to talk about it: the executives in the coal mining sector said that your Executive Order No. 597, which refers to the need to increase salaries 1.5-fold, does not apply to them. The Executive Order reads as follows: a salary increase of 1.4 to 1.5-fold by 2018. This will allow more money to be pumped into the budget, to increase salaries in the public sector. And they say, “The President does not have the right to order us to do this, so we won’t.” But it seems to me that someone needs to explain things to them, so that they are set straight and something changes.

And with regard to the minimum wage amount, Valery Trapeznikov touched on this issue, and I would also like to say that today, according to the law, nobody pays salaries that are below the minimum subsistence level, however the minimum wage amount is much lower. And in general, I feel that if we are talking about social justice, demographics and development, then we should probably pass a law or otherwise obligate companies to pay no less than 150 percent of the minimum subsistence level in the region. A minimum subsistence level for a specific person, then another minimum subsistence level for manpower replacement, and another one for children. So that these children have shoes and clothes, and can then replace us when we retire. That is the position I would like to express. Thank you.

ALEXANDER BRECHALOV: Mr President, excuse me but I would like to return to the topic of individual entrepreneurs. Union members, thank you very much for this suggestion. Businesses are ready to pay. We need to pay taxes and make insurance payments – we have to do this, but things should be reasonable here, in accordance with our ability to do so. Thank you.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: The round table continues.

Mr Mokhnachuk, you know how much I respect trade unions, as well as your position and that of the head of the Independent Trade Unions’ Federation. We often meet and have discussions. But the minimum wage amount is a separate issue. It is important because it lies at the foundation of many calculations, including in the social sphere. And I would like to ask that we return to what I said at the beginning: all our plans must be realistic. We must calculate everything carefully. And we must at least try to do things so that our decisions can be implemented.

As far as increasing the level of wages is concerned, it is one of the key questions in the social sphere, if not the most important. It determines the level of our citizens’ well-being. Naturally, the President cannot give orders to everyone; he can give orders to some as Commander-in-Chief, but not to others, nor should he. There are other instruments, including the Russian Popular Front, which can initiate certain things that can be implemented through laws. And it is no accident that many of our colleagues came to the State Duma via the Russian Popular Front; they are working there and can initiate certain things that other deputies can and should support. We have instruments.

But the second issue you touched on is extremely important. Naturally, it relates directly to social justice. This is an issue of wealth divide, which is extreme in our nation. I must say that our nation is not the only one that has such problems. The situation is similar in the United States. I just visited South Africa, where this divide is dozens of times greater than in Russia. I believe we have variations of 15- or 16-fold, while there it’s something like 120. But of course, we must not use these examples as benchmarks; we should use better examples. And we will work toward this.

As for ‘golden parachutes’, I have already answered that.

As for social security contributions and your suggestion that we should let certain business segments pay nothing at all – look what it says here: Building Social Justice, Rostov. Your suggestion is reminiscent of the USSR era.

After all, what do these contributions go toward? As our business representative just said, they go toward creating pension rights for the citizens themselves. The money they contribute today will pay their pensions tomorrow. Then what? If they do not contribute anything but they want to receive a pension (and they will receive it – they must), then the budget would have to take this upon itself. Can the budget do this? Wouldn’t we cheat people if we were to do this? You see, that is the question that would arise, and we must not cheat the people.

IVAN MOKHNACHUK: It’s a question of not making them pay additional payments other than salaries, income tax and extra-budgetary funds. They should pay those. But it would be better if they didn’t make other payments; I meant that if there is no business, there are no payments.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: In any event, I agree with you and your colleague who represents the interests of small businesses and self-employed citizens that we must aim to create conditions for their existence and development. So you are absolutely right, if we undermine the economic basis of their existence, they will go to the unemployment office and receive social benefits. And here, Mr Mokhnachuk is absolutely right, I fully agree with him.

Now to talk specifically about your topic. It deserves special attention on its own, as it is highly important.

Indeed, at the end of last year, sometime in November, the Government made the decision you spoke about, and the budget was calculated on the assumption of two minimum wage levels for self-employed individuals and small businesses, rather than one, as was the case before. And as you say, this greatly complicated the economic situation of these enterprises and self-employed individuals. Presidential Commissioner for Entrepreneurs’ Rights Boris Titov recently told me about this – I meet with him every once in a while. It is no accident that we have created this the institution of an entrepreneurs’ rights commissioner. He also told me about this. Of course, the Government does monitor this matter, but after he spoke to me about these issues, I also looked into it more carefully.

You are right: it is true that if we calculate from the end of November through now, in December, January, February and March, we saw some 352,000 small enterprises and self-employed individuals’ businesses close. This is a lot, and it is cause for alarm. That is certainly true. At the same time, the tax service says that of all the businesses that closed (if we look at them structurally), only 27 percent were registered with tax authorities – in other words, they were actually doing business. Only 27 percent! And the tax people insist that this speaks to the fact that the other nearly 80 percent were not seriously engaged in business activities. They had some kind of parallel company for the convenience of organising their businesses. Perhaps that is partially the case, or perhaps not.

I do not want to start a discussion on this right now, but I agree with you that this issue requires a thorough and diligent investigation – by you as a business representative and by government agencies such as the Finance Ministry, the Economic Development Ministry, social departments, including the Labour and Social Protection Ministry, and Tax Service. I will certainly give corresponding instructions to government agencies. You will need to meet very soon – literally this week or next – and present your suggestions in two weeks time. The worst thing that can happen in this area is if we bounce from one decision to another. We need stability here.

But what has happened requires further analysis. Your suggestion was, “Let’s impose a moratorium and leave one minimum wage amount that will be taken into account in calculating these payments.” But that is not a moratorium. A moratorium is what we have today: you leave things as they are. But you want us to change them. There are different modes of action here. For example, we can change things, as you suggest, if members of the agencies I spoke about jointly conclude that this is necessary. We could improve this system. In what way? For people with a trade turnover of, let’s say, 350 to 368 thousand [rubles], we can return to one minimum wage amount, and for those whose incomes are higher we can introduce a graduated scale of contributions.

Or we can do everything differently. Tax Service and government agencies’ representatives have different options. You need to get together, analyse everything and make decisions within two weeks. I promise you that I will agree to the suggestions you all agree on and we will implement them. But these suggestions need to be based on solid analysis that takes into account current economic situation, including in this sector. Our goal is not to maintain this sector but to develop it; this is absolutely clear.

HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSPERSON FOR THE KOMI REPUBLIC OLGA SAVASTYANOVA: Mr President, I would like to raise some of the issues that were discussed during the Strong Family and Child Protection round table.  To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by that conversation because our round table was attended by people from different regions, different organisations, different areas of expertise but they were all united by the family theme. And they weren’t just united in talking about this matter but in their desire to join in the efforts in addressing this issue.

As a result, our discussion was very substantial and concrete, focused on involvement rather than reproaches; we talked about what is not working, why it is not working and what can be done not just to resolve a few problems, but to turn the situation around. I am very grateful to my colleagues and I think this was a hallmark meeting.

We discussed several issues and would like to raise them in this conversation with you. The first matter concerns orphans. It is very important for every child to be raised in a family, but it is even more important for the child to be raised in a loving family, a family that decides to take in the child for his or her own good, and not to solve their own problems and get additional benefits. 

I would like to give the floor to Galina Semya, who will expand on this issue and tell you about the results of our discussion.

GALINA SEMYA: Good afternoon. My name is Galina Semya, I have a doctorate in Psychology and have been working on orphans’ issues since 1995.

We discussed a lot of issues yesterday. I would like to draw your attention to four of them, very briefly.

The first issue concerns different forms of placing orphans with families. Following your executive order issued in December, adoptions are developing very successfully. However, adoption remains only at 15% of total family placements. The other forms are foster care and guardianship.

(Galina Semya goes on to describe problems with various forms of foster care, children with disabilities and the introduction of a professional substitute family.)

The second issue has to do with simplifying the adoption procedure, followed by the other forms of family placement – this was also specified in your December executive order and now attracts a large number of bona fide candidates. The process has become smoother and it is easier for the candidates, but there are risks. The risk that unscrupulous people will get involved appeared when the regions started paying out large sums of money as rewards or benefits.

There must be some deterrence mechanisms. One such factor is the school for foster parents, but there are not enough of them. So now experts are discussing the possibility (and it would be very interesting to hear your opinion on this) of introducing psychological testing at foster parent schools to identify people who are prone to violence, abuse, inappropriate forms of upbringing, and to help the families with problems that have been identified during testing to become good foster families.

The third issue has to do with the professionalism of the specialists working in the foster care and guardianship system. As it has turned out, we have no professional standards for these specialists, and hence there are no education standards for their training. Currently the Labour and Social Protection Ministry is drafting such professional cross-sector standards.

We would like to ask you to put the adoption of professional standards in the plan for 2013. This will solve many existing problems.

The final issue is the most difficult and very uncertain, and it has to do with the reform of the system of institutions for orphans. The idea is that placing a child in a children's home is a temporary measure prior to placing him or her with a family.

Our active efforts to place orphans with families have led to the situation where the categories of children in orphanages have changed dramatically: now 70% are teenagers, 25% are children with special needs, and 20% are brothers and sisters who can not be divided during adoption, and so on.

When the new law on educations enters into force on September 1, orphanages will no longer be classed as educational institutions. Now the regions will have to come up with an alternative to the orphanage. The state must introduce requirements for the organisation of these children’s homes, so that they resemble more closely conditions in a family.

Over the course of his childhood, each orphan changes several institutions because they are subordinate to different agencies: first there is the orphanage nursery, then the children's home, followed by the boarding school, and so on. That undermines the whole system of orphan education and care. Perhaps it would make sense to combine them under a single agency.

What is your opinion on whether or not to introduce a new classification or to reform this system through gradual measures? Should we use some regions’ experience (some of it is very interesting) and introduce evolutionary change? Thank you.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: This is a very important and long-term issue. I think all of us understand that. It should not be associated with recent discussions, with our laws, or with isolated foreign adoption cases. It is a fundamental issue for any country, including ours.

I'll start with the last point, whether it would be better to introduce evolutionary change at children's institutions or to reform them by a single decision. I do not want this to be perceived as a final decision, but, in my opinion, it would be best to analyse the system, identify the positive regional and federal practices, present the data systematically, discuss it with experts, such as you – psychologists, social workers and the public – and introduce uniform practices for the entire system.

Some of the things you have mentioned were new to me. I have never realised (and I regret this) that this chain exists but it is segmented, whereas it should be a single system, starting from the orphanage nursery, followed by the children's home, and so on. I think it is better to think about it all together and initially adopt a single decision.

We can make adjustments later, when we see how the system functions, but there must be a single standard and uniformity, at least when it comes to methodology. Naturally, we must think about ways to enforce this methodological uniformity. This is the regions’ responsibility but we could set some basic conditions at the federal level and encourage the regions to act in one way or another. That is the first.

Second, on the psychological guidance for foster and adoptive families. This is very important and I am pleased to note that professionals like you, psychologists, have been actively working on this issue because it would not be possible to address it efficiently and properly without such experts as you.

Many of you know that most children are adopted under the age of twelve months. It is more difficult with older children, as well as children with disabilities, who are often placed in patronate families. But there is a lack of legislation regulating the details of interaction between the family and the child, and this too must be done.

A patronate family is responsible for the child’s life, health and education, but it does not have authority to act on property issues. This must also be adjusted.

It would be good not only to provide psychological and professional training for these families but also to provide continued guidance without interference in their family life. After all, if such guidance becomes overbearing, nobody will want to take in children, if it means that social workers will come over and lecture them all the time on what they should and shouldn’t do. This support should be very tactful and professional.

As for the standards, we always say that all standards should be professional in all sectors: new, modern, and efficient, promoting the growth of these sectors. In this area, we must certainly adopt the standards as soon as possible. I will discuss it with colleagues in the Government. Do we have a Government member here who is in charge of this issue?

Here we have the Labour Minister, he can tell us about it. I would ask you to fulfil this request and develop such a standard by the end of the year. Is that possible?

LABOUR AND SOCIAL PROTECTION MINISTER MAXIM TOPILIN: Mr President, colleagues,

We are familiar with this issue and we have studied it together with experts. Yes, it is possible, but I would ask for a little more time to discuss the matter. There are social workers, psychologists and other professionals working at foster care institutions, and we think that it would be very difficult to introduce a single professional standard for foster care institutions because they employ different professionals.

I would like to take charge of this task. Our colleagues will work on it and report our conclusions to you. However, we could develop a standard, for example, for social workers or psychologists in 2013.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Why just foster care? We need standards for all professionals working in this field. You have named them: social workers, psychologists, and so on. I'm not sure that we have professional standards for them. That is what is at stake. Is that what you were talking about?

GALINA SEMYA: I meant primarily the professionals working in foster care and guardianship. There are all kinds of people employed in this field, with different education, but there are no professional standards and no profession.

I am a member of these working groups on developing standards. Currently we are drafting standards for professionals who work with families. But initially we need to quickly adopt the standards for foster care specialists, so that they don’t take children away...

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I tend to agree with my colleague here. Can I tell you why? After all, which aspect of psychology is her field of expertise? If a person works as a psychologist in this area, he or she should be professionally oriented towards obtaining the best result in this field, and not in general psychology, labour relations, or conflict resolution, and so on.

There are many different kinds of psychologists, and they work in different fields. The specialist working in this field must have their own professional standards. Think about it.

MAXIM TOPILIN: We will.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Thank you.

I see someone I know, a mother who also raises foster children. How many children do you have? Tell us please.

NATALYA SARGANOVA: I'm just a mom. I have raised and continue to raise 35 foster children and two children of my own.  

Today I want to talk about how my family lives, and about one of my older children, my daughter Tatyana. She already has three children of her own and wants to have a fourth child. And sometimes we hear about a fifth. But everyone, except of course our family, has only one question for her: “Why do you need this? Why do you want this?” In response Tanya says: “I want to have children, I love children.” Unfortunately, for some reason our society does not accept or understand parents with many children.

Mr President, as you know we have been building a house for twenty-four years now. And thanks to your help – and I would like to thank you for this again – we completed construction this year. But we started to build a house on a vacant lot without any other homes around it, and a suburban settlement has gradually grown up around our house.

Once when I was invited to a meeting there, people said to me: "Natasha, we are collecting money – 50,000 rubles [$1,600] for the road." I tried to explain that we do not have that kind of money, that we are a large family, and that our house was not yet finished. And then I heard an indignant voice in the crowd: “I wonder how a large family appeared in our elite village?”

(Ms Sarganova spoke further of the need to raise the status of large families and about their problems.)

In general, we very much want our children to receive an education and to realise their potential. We want to raise decent people, decent citizens of Russia. Thank you.

REMARK: This is a hero of labour, a real hero of labour (Applause.)

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I would like to express my hope that the voice you heard at the meeting in your village does not reflect public opinion in our country. On the contrary, public opinion is in favour of developing effective support for people like you – both moral and financial support.

And I would invite all colleagues from the Government who are present here today, and perhaps those who are not here today – I am referring to those who work in various economic departments – to all think about how we can implement what was just said, how many resources we need, and at what pace we should proceed. 

I think that this development is absolutely in the right direction. And we will not only think about this, we will proceed as aggressively as we did when we were implementing certain measures to address demographic trends in the past few years. Measures that I believe have been very effective in supporting positive demographic developments in our country.

Thank you. Thank you very much.

<...>

YANA LANTRATOVA: Mr President, colleagues,

I represent the non-governmental organisation Union of Russian Volunteers, which is active in 76 Russian regions. And one of our priority activities is protecting children's rights and preserving family values.

I would now like to focus on a question of vital importance. Just recently when I was passing by a playground, I overheard a conversation between two schoolchildren. The older child was instructing the younger one, saying: "You know, be patient, I have heard that they will adopt a law so that you can complain about your parents and they will be punished." He did not say anything about the fatal consequences of this slander, and he probably did not know that at that point "good" people would come and take him away from his family, and that he would destroy both his own life and that of his parents.

I am not making a fuss about nothing. While working on issues relating to the protection of children, we recently dealt with an instance when officials raided a family home and seized five children just because their wallpaper was not hung properly. We dealt with another occasion when officials burst in at night and took away the children to an unknown destination because there were crumbs on the table. This is living history, which actually took place.

And no one had anticipated the fact that these children would run away and jump out of hospital windows because they wanted to return to their moms and dads. And for that reason the parent community reacted so strongly to the draft law on social patronage. A Russian Congress of Parents was held and a new nation-wide organisation was created at that time. I was also personally involved, because this issue concerns me too.

I am a young working mother, my child is ten months old, and right now he is in Moscow with his nanny. And I too fell into the category of families at risk, whose actions or inactions prevent their normal development.

Mr President, different opinions exist and thank you very much for coming to our Congress to hear peoples’ views and express your own principled position on this issue. However, shortly afterwards there were instances of several community workers and people interested in furthering juvenile justice in our country who used the media to openly apologise to the West, and said that this was just a small hitch, that juvenile justice would nevertheless be introduced in Russia.

In this regard, Mr President, I am addressing you on behalf of our young people who want to have children, but who are afraid that their future children will be taken away. I would ask you to please take this matter under your personal control to prevent the destruction of the traditional Russian family.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: And where did you hear that conversation between the children?

YANA LANTRATOVA: Walking past the playground in St Petersburg, where I'm from.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I see. Eavesdropping is not good, I learned this during my time working for the KGB, so I don’t do that.  

But the fact that you have such an open and clear position on this issue is a good thing. In my view, we certainly need to protect children’s rights. It is extremely important that you and your young colleagues work at this. I am saying this without any irony or any kidding whatsoever.

It is so important that young people get involved in this issue and I take my hat off to you. Well done! But I ask you to think about how to help us reduce violence against children in the family. Unfortunately, we still have this problem, and these facts are often ignored.

You gave examples of interfering in family lives; we are well aware of such examples in neighbouring countries and we must not allow them to occur here. Our Constitution does not have such a jurisdiction as juvenile justice, and before we introduce it, we have to analyse how it works in countries that currently have one. And in this respect we are well aware of the bureaucratic arbitrariness that occurs in various places. We must not, cannot, and will not allow this to happen here.

YANA LANTRATOVA: Thank you.

<...>

VLADIMIR PUTIN (Answering a question from Southern Federal University Rector Marina Borovskaya about the role of education in upward social mobility): Often, and sometimes rightly, we criticise everything that happened in Soviet times, but I must say that quality education in the Soviet Union really did contribute to upward social mobility. I know this from my friends, my acquaintances, and my personal experience. It is well-known that I come from a working class family: my father was a blue-collar worker and my mother was simply a general labourer. Family income was extremely modest.

I just recalled my time in the KGB. I was already working in the KGB, but we were still living in a shared apartment without any modern amenities. And if it were not for the opportunities the Soviet regime provided to young people like me – to get a decent education, then go abroad to work, be invited to work at a university as the rector’s assistant, and then the Leningrad City Council and so on – I would have never had a chance to do all this. And perhaps today it is quite difficult to do this, and this is our common misfortune. We need to return this quality to our education – make it work as means of social mobility.

If we are specifically talking about degrees with honours, and generally about those students who perform well, first and foremost we need to encourage them by providing higher scholarships. Generally, this is already occurring. As a matter of fact, decisions to increase scholarships, including for first-year students, have been taken and promises made during the election campaign have been fulfilled. By the way, I'm afraid to make a mistake in the figures, but I think that last year we had about 10.2 billion rubles in our scholarship fund, and this year there are 16 billion and some. How much is there?

RESPONSE: This year alone 16.8 billion rubles have been allocated to increase the scholarship fund.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: This is quite a serious increase

VALERY YAKUSHEV: Valery Yakushev, Nizhny Tagil, Sverdlovsk Region.

Mr President, you mentioned at the outset that the question of social justice is a comprehensive one, a question that affects all of our lives. Our people are waiting for us to build a socially just society. But we cannot build it until we have entirely wiped out the corruption that corrodes our society. And we must win this fight first; only then can we further social justice.

And I would urge all of you present here, all Russians and all parties, to make every effort to fight corruption. Then we can build a society based on social justice. Thank you.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I will not comment on what was just said, it is obvious that I fully share this approach. And I must say that recently we have made persistent attempts to break out of the stalemate regarding this difficult problem, including by introducing some restrictions concerning the holdings and property (including abroad) for persons holding certain public offices. They must declare not only their income, but also its sources and so on and so forth.

I want to tell you that along with enhancing law enforcement, we will aggressively continue to proceed this way in the future. I fully agree with your position.

(Director of St Petersburg’s Djanelidze Research Institute of Emergency Medicine Sergei Bagnenko, and Director of Moscow’s Research and Clinical Institute of Emergency Children’s Surgery and Trauma and head of the National Medical Chamber Dr Leonid Roshal spoke about the work of the round table devoted to healthcare problems. In particular, participants discussed the standards of medical care, the way work is organised in hospitals, health insurance, the training and remuneration of medical personnel, and blood donation.)

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I think that this programme [the construction of new perinatal centres] is extremely important. We have built 22 regional centres and two federal ones; we are currently completing the last one. And where these perinatal centres have been built (they are modern maternity hospitals with good facilities and highly qualified personnel), the maternal mortality rate has fallen to nearly zero, and the infant mortality rate has been reduced significantly, many times over. And this is despite the fact that we have seen a slight increase in infant mortality because we have adopted international standards for registering infants depending on their birth weight.

But in general, of course new centres have resulted in a significant reduction in infant mortality. And the maternal mortality rate, I repeat, has been reduced to nearly zero in certain regions. This acts as a powerful stimulus for our demographic development, a high-tech boost.

Together with the Government we thought long and hard about how to continue this programme. We made a decision: this year we will allocate a minimum of 50 billion rubles [$1,6 billion] for this purpose. All of these funds cannot be used instantaneously, it is unlikely that they will be used before the year’s end, but the Government needs to outline a programme for continuing the construction of perinatal centres in those regions where they are particularly in demand.

Is the Minister with us? Could you please say a few words?

HEALTHCARE MINISTER VERONIKA SKVORTSOVA: About the perinatal centres, Mr President, this programme was designed as per your instructions. We are planning to build an additional 34 perinatal centres. This year we may already begin construction on the first nine, and in general we will complete the programme in 2016.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Good.

Now please let me answer those questions that were asked and respond to the position that has been set out.

It is the case that problems related to medical care are among the priorities for Russian citizens. People are watching very closely what is happening in this field. And of course the desire of citizens to improve the quality of services, while preserving what is currently free of charge, is very big and well founded. For that reason we must and will do everything possible to save the free, compulsory aspects of care for citizens of the Russian Federation. According to our Constitution our citizens have this right and it must be ensured. That is the first thing I would like to say.

(To Veronika Skvortsova) What percentage of our GDP is currently devoted to medicine? 3.6 percent?

VERONIKA SKVORTSOVA: 3.7 percent.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: 3.7 percent. I would draw your attention to the fact that this is probably not enough, and some countries allocate more funds.

I would also draw your attention to the fact that we spend 2.5 percent on defence. (There are not only doctors here, but also representatives of the defence industry, where millions of Russian citizens work.) Is this fair or not, if we were to continue your comparison?  

And those who work in the defence industry also want good medical care. But if we do not give them jobs, if we do not ensure our country’s defence capabilities, this may also lead us into a dead end.

You know, I looked at what our colleagues from the medical profession said and I believe that such meetings are particularly in demand. In general they uncover problems, and they give all levels of government the opportunity to reorient themselves and better understand the priorities of what we are working on and how we work.

<...>

(Participants in the round table Russia: A Country Without Poverty talked about their work. In particular, subjects discussed included the quality and standards of social services, support for families with children, and children with disabilities.)

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (On combating poverty) I must say at once that this is a crucial issue in all our work. There are still many problems in this respect.

I also want to draw your attention to the fact that in 2000 30 percent of our citizens were living below the poverty line, that is one in three Russians have lived in poverty. Now the figures are changing: it was 15 percent and then 17 percent. The numbers vary in the light of certain calculations. How many are there now?

REPLY: 11.2.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: 11.2 percent living below the poverty line and before that it was 30; this still represents significant progress. But 11.2 is undoubtedly a lot and for that reason one of our principal objectives and most important tasks remains combating poverty.  

Because when a person is in dire circumstances themselves they cannot solve family problems, or their children’s problems, or even be an effective employee, and so on. Therefore we will continue this work. But of course the main thing here is to increase the level of incomes, wages, social security benefits, pensions, and so on.

Although there are specific problems too. What you just said and what you talked about, namely the standards in this field and unconditional access to social services for people who, unfortunately, live at or under the poverty level today. And these standards and this access, unconditional access to social services, must certainly be provided. And for that reason we need to monitor everything that goes on in this field, and react in a timely and appropriate fashion or formulate certain proposals. And we will work together with you, I simply promise you this.

Now about families that have children with disabilities. We heard concrete proposals related to how we could divide these disabilities into groups and set up a system of early intervention and support for their families. I absolutely agree with you.

Naturally, these are not simply regional questions. They are first and foremost the concerns of experts who work together with the regions and the federal government. The federal authorities should remain involved in this work, at least in its methodology aspect.

We need to raise this work to its proper level, because in the end I'm not only talking about justice – though it would be just – but it is also profitable from an economic point of view.  

You are absolutely right that it is better to create conditions when a child lives in the family and is surrounded by love, than to send this child to some institution or have his or her parents do the same. I completely agree with you in this respect and we will work on this with the regions.

About a Disability Ombudsman: we have a Human Rights Ombudsman [Vladimir Lukin] and I met with him yesterday. If you feel that this work is too broad and we should create a separate position, let's talk about this and discuss it.

All the more so since we have an Ombudsman for Children's Rights and an Ombudsman for Entrepreneurs’ Rights. This is an extremely delicate subject, support for people with disabilities, it is extremely important. And I’m not against discussing this and, in the end, making this decision and finding a suitable candidate.

<...>

(The round table on educational issues discussed, in particular, the development of regional higher educational institutions.)

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Regarding regional universities and specialised higher education institutions, I will not hide the fact that we discussed this topic with colleagues. I have something to say about this.

Of course, the most qualified people are concentrated in the so-called capital cities (I mean not only Moscow and St Petersburg, but other major cities too), while the main demand is in other Russian regions. And once people come to these capital cities they rarely return, even after receiving a specialised education.

Many universities were founded at the outset as technical higher educational institutions, in response to the needs of individual industries and sectors. Then they developed and became powerful educational and scientific centres in their own right, which is a good thing. But of course the issue of specialist training should be resolved in such a way so that training occurs as close as possible to regions where there is a demand for personnel trained in these institutions.

Of course this cannot be done in an excessively single-minded way (and I would draw the attention of my colleagues from the Ministry of Education to this issue), nor can it be done hurriedly, but it can be done gradually. We need to encourage highly qualified teaching staff to work in those institutions of higher education that are specifically linked to particular labour markets.

Probably many of you have seen and heard what’s going on at the Far Eastern Federal University. There they have set up a certain system of incentives for faculty and now there’s a queue of highly qualified professors, including foreigners. And for some positions the number of experts – not only Russians, but foreigners too – applying is ten per position.  

There are people from Japan, South Korea and the United States, people ready to come to the Far East, to our Far East, to Vladivostok, and work there. That’s the result of our system of incentives. And a system of incentives can be set up in regions that need adequate personnel and experts.

In addition to this, the government can arrange things to increase the number of budget-funded positions in those higher education institutions, which, as I said, are geographically linked to specific labour markets. If we manage to do all this (there are other components too), it seems to me that we would be moving in the right direction.

Friends, do not be angry with me but I have to go. I understand that many problems remain unresolved.

QUESTION: I am a member of the federal organising committee for preparations for the Russian Popular Front congress. And today there is only one organisational question left: if you can, tell us once again the congress’s exact date, because we really are waiting for it.

And the second thing. Today a large number of people in the regions want to join the Russian Popular Front, but they are not always community figures or active people, and perhaps not always patriots of their cities and regions. And there are a lot of relatives, bureaucrats, and all those who want to bask in your glory or, to put it crudely, just get additional PR for themselves thanks to you.  

What represents the Russian Popular Front today, and who are the people you want to see in it?

Thank you very much.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Thank you very much for such high praise for my modest work.

Let's just set a date again. I propose that we hold our congress on June 11-12, 2013. And there we can discuss the issues that we were not able to discuss today in such an expanded format. We will absolutely do this.  

Moreover, I already said that we shall not be able to meet frequently, but we shall meet regularly in this format in order to keep track of the resolution of the problems we formulated together, those in our pre-election programmes and our common pre-election programme. We shall meet in order to make sure that we don’t forget any of the things that we promised our people, our citizens.

Thank you very much for your work.

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