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Yabloko's Real Efforts Lie Beneath the Surface

The St. Petersburg Times, Friday, June 15, 2001

The First National Yabloko Party Congress, which took place in St. Petersburg last weekend, may have come as a big surprise for many who believed that the only thing that party and its leaders do is criticize the present administration.

Grigory Yavlinsky has often been criticized by his opponents for being all talk and no action. They say that he has not proposed anything substantial to, for instance, improve the country's economy.

"He had the chance to influence government policy, but refused to take a position in the government." "He doesn't want to cooperate with authorities." "He likes to be in opposition to the power, and he does not need anything else." These are the kinds of things you hear about Yavlinsky all the time. But last weekend's congress demonstrated that these statements aren't fair.

It turns out that Yabloko's critics have only noticed the tip of the iceberg - Yavlinsky himself. They have failed to acknowledge all those Yabloko people who are doing real work in regions across Russia - many of which make corrupt local authorities decidedly unhappy.

The main goal of the congress was to exchange experience among Yabloko's regional representatives to make their work more effective, especially regarding regional economics. And there was indeed a lot of experience to share.

Our local Yabloko people discussed their experiences dealing with municipal finance. Igor Artemyev, the former chairman of the Municipal Finance Committee, presented the results of his work with Governor Vladimir Yakov lev's administration, especially on a Yabloko effort to set up a truly transparent financial-management system.

During the two years that Artemyev was in power, he succeeded in making the city budget more transparent and set up a new, open system to attract bank loans to finance city projects. The system, though, was not long-lived. Shortly after Artemyev left City Hall in 1998, it collapsed.

"You know how it was before with loans," Artemyev told the congress. "The authorities would make a call to a bank and negotiate a loan at 30 percent interest, when the market rate at the time was 25 percent. It isn't hard to figure out that 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 Financial 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 much, but it worked well for several months anyway.

"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 for city's economy: 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 and he urged his colleagues to work on this matter when they returned home.

"It's very easy for officials to hide wrongful spending under vague budget articles... This our taxpayers' money, so we must do something about it," he said.

The congress, then, was something of a public-relations action to show the country that Yabloko is really involved in some important, practical activity in the regions. Such an event should have taken place a long, long time ago, but better late than never.

And it looks like it worked to some extent. There were about 300 Yabloko members from 45 regions at the congress - a number that surprised some journalists, including one from the pro-government news agency Itar-Tass.

"Why have you hidden the fact that there are so many members of Yabloko working in legislative and executive branches all across Russia?" she asked. That made Yavlinsky smile.

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The St. Petersburg Times, Friday, June 15, 2001

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