Russian Intelligence: Government Transparency in Moscow

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Natalia Chernysheva, Moscow Zuzino District

Natalia Chernysheva is a Municipal Council Deputy, elected to serve her second term for the Zuzino District within Moscow in 2012. Prior to public service, Natalia worked as an auditor for the International Consulting and Legal Center and later became partner and Deputy CEO at Baker Tilly Russaudit. She is the founder of the Organization for Civil Control, an NGO advocating for government transparency in Russia.

You advocate for more public control over government authorities. Why is an informed and vocal public dialogue vital to a successful government?

Before I was elected, I was a professional auditor; I checked financial statements. After I became the municipal deputy, I realized it was even more important to be able to look at the financial records of our local and higher ranking authorities. In my post I established an organization promoting civil control. We inform people of how they can go and ask for any financial information from their local authorities. There are forty-six financial divisions in the various regions of Russia and a few divisions within Moscow, and our goal is to give the people instructions on how make requests to view the regions’ financial information. Also, we show them how to analyze it and use it to inform other local people about what’s going on with their government’s finances.

People are very interested in this, but sometimes our authorities are reluctant to give their information to the public. It seems they want to keep it secret. My organization places advertisements about public budget hearings to encourage people to come to their local government’s budget hearings and ask questions.

When I was first named Deputy of the Municipal Council, I understood our accountant was not very professional. I spoke up about the accounting mistakes, and they fired that accountant and hired another one, then they fired that one, and now we are on our third accountant. She is a professional. She makes her financial statements in the way our organization wants to see them, so they are useful for the people. Overall, we are working on our authorities and making them better.

Do people in Russia want to be engaged with their government, or is there a sense of apathy? What is the climate of the political activism there?

It can make a difference if we have a public hearing about, for example, a road that will affect their house. Of course people will come to those hearings, as people are very interested in how the road will affect the prices of homes. But sometimes we have to push people toward making their government authorities change.

What government practices are you most intrigued by in the promotion of a unified, free society?

I am very interested in the techniques of an open government, especially transparency in financial statements. I have learned about the Freedom of Information Act here in the U.S. – it is very important to Russia that we have a law analogous to this. Sometimes authorities in Russia don’t understand why we are making them give us this information, whether they want to or not.

When my organization first started I was even “invited” to the police department because they couldn’t understand what I was doing and why I was asking for government documents. I told them, “Here is the law that says you must release these financial statements.” But the head authority wouldn’t give them to me. I explained to him that he was breaking the law. Finally they let me go, but the head authority still wouldn’t give me the information I was after. So we organized a local rally and meetings with local people, and we were outside their offices with placards and signs saying, “Give us the information” and “Disclose the financial information!” After that they gave us everything we wanted. But this has been a slow process, and transparency is very hard to understand by many governmental agencies in Russia. But we realize we must fight so that fraud can be at its lowest.

I know you advocate for the people against utility price gauging. What are the main sources of utility energy in Russia? Are there efforts in Russia to move toward cleaner, more sustainable, and cheaper energy?

The main thing, beyond the source of the energy, is that prices for our utilities are far too high – sometimes the Russian people pay more in utilities for a one-bedroom flat than a German would pay for a three-bedroom house. The trouble is that the prices for gas, electric, and water are established by monopolies. And the monopolies, of course, have an agreement with government. I keep asking, “Let’s do an independent audit of tariffs and rates, and after that we’ll find out whether our utility prices are okay or are far too high.” But the companies will not do that. They didn’t like that every time we have one of our big rallies or when I have a chance to speak, I always speak about this problem, and about them. Now it is a popular social issue in Russia. Six months ago nobody knew about our asking for an independent audit of utility rates, but now we think we’ll make the authorities succumb to us. The regional deputies have to look at utility rates and establish them, but of course they are not auditors or specialists; they just sign what they’re given.

In an ideal world, what is the one policy you would see implemented in Russia?

When I was invited to serve on the President’s Council on Civil Society, we developed a law called the Law on Civil Control. This law allowed anybody to check the financial reports of any entity, commercial or noncommercial, that was using budgetary funds. In Russia it is very difficult to check subcontracts that are using budgetary money. I was the author of the clause that said no matter the source, or no matter what form of the company uses the money, if it’s a government contract, it’s subject to checking. All budgetary money should be subjected to audits by civil society.

This law was quite good. Quite a few professionals worked on it, and the team did a good job in drafting it. However, we knew the government wouldn’t like it in the form we created. And sure enough, they gave it to another team that was more “associated” with the authorities, and what they did to our law was terrible. I was unhappy to see what the result was. Of course, I would like to see the law established in our form. But they said, “We have our own methods for checking, on our own.” However, our struggle for a proper law is not finished yet, and I am sure we will succeed.

It is a frustrating process at times, but we have developed a group of uncorrupt checkers. I like to say I am the Eliot Ness of Russia – I have gathered my own team that won’t take bribes and wants transparency in government. One final story: in one situation where we were trying to gain access to information, some authorities tried to bribe us, but we said we didn’t want any money at all. They were confused, and said, “Then what do you bloody want?” And we said, “All we want is for you to do your job properly!”

Feature photo: cc/archer10 (Dennis)'
Lindsay Haymes
Lindsay Haymes is the Editor-in-Chief of the Review. She is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in food policy, education policy, and international development.

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