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By Vladimir Kovalyev

More than just rhetoric

The Moscow Times, June 18, 2001, p. 10

The first national Yabloko Party Congress in St. Petersburg last weekend surprised many who think the only thing that party does is criticize the present administration.

Grigory Yavlinsky is often criticized by his opponents for being all talk and no action. They say he has not come up with substantive proposals to improve the country's situation, and that he has passed up a chance for greater influence by refusing to take a government post or cooperate with the authorities. "He likes to be in the opposition and needs nothing else."

But last weekend's congress offered a different picture that suggests Yabloko's critics have focused too much on Yavlinsky. They have not acknowledged all those Yabloko activists doing real work in Russia's regions and making corrupt local authorities decidedly unhappy.

The main goal of the congress was to share the experience of regional activists in an effort to make their work more effective. And there was a lot of experience to share.

Yabloko delegates discussed their experiences in municipal finance. Igor Artemyev, the former chairman of the St. Petersburg municipal finance committee, who works with Governor Vladimir Yakovlev's administration, focused on Yabloko's effort to set up a transparent financial management system.

During Artemyev's two years in power, he made the city budget more transparent and set up an open system to attract bank loans for city projects. Unfortunately, the system collapsed shortly after Artemyev left City Hall in 1998.

"You know how it was with loans," Artemyev told the congress. "The authorities would call a bank and negotiate a loan at 30 percent interest against a market rate of 25 percent. Obviously the difference ended up in somebody's pocket."

Artemyev's new system was really just a computer that gathered data on the terms of various bank loans on a particular day when the city needed a loan. Three officials one from the finance committee, one from the city treasury and one from the FSB would use this information to see if the city could have gotten a better deal. Naturally, the authorities didn't like this system, but it worked well for several months. "Shortly after I left office," Artemyev said, "I was told that the [computer running this] system had accidentally burned up."

But one thing did remain, which is still considered a big Yabloko achievement: a more or less transparent budget. Before Artemyev took office, the municipal budget was about eight pages long. When he left, it was 600 pages.

"There are still many regions where authorities are happy with three-page budgets, and this is intolerable," Artemyev declared. He urged his colleagues to work on this matter when they returned home.

"It's very easy for officials to hide wrongful spendingunder vague budget articles .
This is taxpayer money, so we must do something about it," he said.

The congress, then, was in a sense a public relations action to demonstrate Yabloko's involvement in important, practical activity in the regions. Such an event should have taken place long ago, but better late than never.

It worked to some extent. Some journalists were surprised that about 300 Yabloko members from 45 regions attended the congress. A reporter from pro-government Itar-Tass asked, "Why have you hidden the fact that there are so many members of Yabloko working in legislative and executive branches all across Russia?" That made Yavlinsky smile.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times.

See also:

Grigory Yavlinsky does not see any alternative to the development of a new liberal democratic course for reforms in Russia
Press release, 09.06.2001

All-Russia Forum of Yabloko's representatives in the legislative and executive authorities to be held in St. Petersburg
Press release, 08.06.2001

The Moscow Times, June 18, 2001, p. 10

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