Russia has declared that it no longer intends to become a member of the Open Government Partnership – what is it that the country is so afraid to lose? 

Photo: Kommersant

International and local civil society groups, as well as open government enthusiasts, were appalled by Russia’s recent retraction of its letter of intent to join the Open Government Partnership. The news, however, made more headlines internationally than domestically.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) was established by the United States, the UK, Brazil, Norway, Mexico, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Africa in September of 2011. Forty-seven other states later joined the partnership, aimed at making the work of governments more open. Participating countries have to ensure transparency in their budget spending and give citizens the right to access information and to participate in the political decision-making process. Adherence to the partnership rules is monitored by OGP with the help of local experts.

To the general Russian public, OGP is at best associated with Dmitry Medvedev’s initiative to broaden expert engagement in policymaking. Then-president Medvedev proclaimed Russia’s interest in joining the partnership in February of last year, and two months later the Foreign Ministry sent the partnership an official letter declaring Russia’s intent to join.

To government critics, however, the withdrawal is just another sign of Vladimir Putin’s administration lacking a commitment to openness and transparency. Bloggers posted on the OGP website that the withdrawal is “disappointing, yet not surprising” and “unsportsmanlike.”

The official announcement first came via OGP’s Twitter account late on Friday night Moscow time, and was not confirmed by the Russian government until after the weekend. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to save face by explaining that Russia is merely postponing its entry into OGP. Most Russian news outlets quoted Peskov, but his statement was clearly meant primarily for a foreign audience. The reasons for Russia’s withdrawal were largely associated with the very nature of OGP.

The Open Government Partnership can be considered an inter-governmental organization, which is defined as “institutions established by a treaty or agreement and joined by governments,” which gives them authority to make collective decisions to manage particular problems on the global agenda (see, for example, the book “World Politics: Trends and Transformation” by Charles Kegley).

However, OGP uses very different language, calling itself a “global effort” and a “multilateral initiative” created “in the spirit of a multi-stakeholder collaboration.” It is not a unique, but a rare example of an international organization that come into being as a result of an initiative spearheaded by an NGO. 

It also has an unorthodox management structure, as its activities are overseen by a steering committee of governments and civil society organizations. While OGP members must embrace a “non-binding declaration of principles,” it also requires that they submit action plans and “commitments” to improve transparency, accountability, and citizen participation of governments, as well as commit to independent reporting. The Russian government under Putin is well known for its commitment to preserving the national sovereignty, and joining a de facto NGO-led community may contradict that principle.

Membership eligibility criteria are another issue, reflecting the non-traditional nature of the organization. Typically, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) use objective economic and geographic criteria to decide on eligibility. Many IGOs admit members based on a vote by other member states. Some international institutions that are not formal IGOs (like Kimberley Process, an international initiative designed to prevent the sale of “conflict diamonds”) have rigid and unequivocal entry requirements that must be complied with by its members.

OGP is again different in this respect, because it judges eligibility based on a fairly subjective set of criteria, such as fiscal transparency, access to information, disclosures related to public officers, and citizen engagement, out of which only one dataset is provided by an international organization (World Bank). The most subjective and political of these is the assessment of citizen participation based on the Economist Intelligence Unit 2010 study.

It is thus not surprising that Putin and the conservative elites in Moscow felt uncomfortable about joining such a structure. The issue of the Russian government’s ability or inability to fulfill the rigorous transparency and openness requirement notwithstanding, the proposed governance structure screams “loss of sovereignty.” It was really hard for OGP membership proponents to make the case where the benefits would outweigh the security and public relations risks for Russia.

Membership in OGP may give Russia access to the best practices and even improve the Russian government’s reputation by signaling its commitment to transparency. However, it is questionable whether Russia would be able to explore the best practices through direct contacts with OGP members and non-members.

As far as reputation is concerned – any poor performance or uncovered false reporting will cancel out any image gains. Add potential exposure to criticism and scrutiny by international civil society organizations and foreign governments, as well as the potential risk of failing to meet membership criteria (e.g. on citizen engagement, where Russia barely passes), and there are grounds for very serious doubts.

Russia’s withdrawal should also be viewed in the context of its recently published foreign relations strategy, which clearly reiterates the importance of preserving national sovereignty and expresses concerns over the use of soft power instruments to exert political pressure on sovereign nations (see, for example, “How Moscow understands soft power” by Alexey Dolinsky). 

There is no question that OGP, an initiative launched by the United States, is a soft power tool, as U.S. State Department officials, including Hillary Clinton, have repeatedly mentioned. It is also an embodiment of the Russian leadership’s greatest fears of how soft power can be used against Russia.

It is easy, however, to overlook the fact that Russia is not the only major international player that chose to take it slow, and not even the first one, for that matter. This is not the only civil-society driven initiative that was not able to attract all major states as members. India, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, and France have not committed yet. China is not eligible. In fact, of the world’s ten largest economies, only four joined OGP, and of the BRICS countries, only Brazil and South Africa did.

Germany has been especially reluctant to join the U.S.-led initiative, citing cooperation, initiatives, and knowledge exchange on the EU, federal and local levels as having more “direct and practical” impact on Germany. Germany, the largest EU economy, even co-organized DACHLi, an open government data conference for German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein), none of which are members of OGP.

India, which participates in U.S.-Indian Open Government Dialogue and was an active member of OGP’s formative discussions, also withdrew from OGP, apparently uncomfortable with the independent review mechanism, which involves assessment of adherence to OGP commitments by civil society organizations.

Other major international players have not publicly commented on why they do not plan to join OGP, but it is clear that their reasons would be either issues with its unconventional nature and perceived threats to sovereignty or the unclear benefits of spending resources on global engagement, as opposed to participating in national, regional or bilateral initiatives.

Given the existing nature of OGP, assuaging Russia’s concerns will not be an easy task. If bringing Russia on board is important, OGP will have to adopt a more traditional governance structure. Another opportunity is designing new cooperation arrangements, which would allow countries like Russia to engage and collaborate with OGP without formally joining.

But regardless of whether Russia joins or not, it is important for both sides to concentrate on sharing knowledge, disseminating technology and explaining the benefits of open government initiatives.