My reflections from the 2017 General Assembly of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum

It has been a week since I submitted my evaluation form of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum (CSF) and long time has passed since the General Assembly that took place in Helsinki on 1–3 February 2017. This fact gave me an opportunity and time to reflect my thoughts and ideas on the event, which I would like to share with you on the following lines.

My feelings about the #GAHelsinki (more information available here) were positive from the very first moment that I entered the Radisson Blue Seaside Hotel in the western part of Helsinki and remained the same during the rest of my stay in the Finnish capital. I was fascinated by the company of Russian and European participants that came from different corners of Europe to share and exchange their ideas on the future of the Forum and civil societies in all of our countries. The meeting place was not chosen by coincidence, as Finland celebrates 100 years since its establishment in 1917 and even more symbolically Helsinki represents a perfect bridge between the EU and Russia that hosted the 2012 General Assembly in St. Petersburg.

Moreover, it made me proud that the @EU_Russia_CSF was actually established in Prague in 2011 and the key note speech was delivered by the former Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg that I had an opportunity to discuss with in the cosy hotel lobby. As the first time participant of the Forum, I found it truly fascinating to be surrounded by so many interesting, devoted and brave representatives of the civil society having common goals and agenda embodied in cooperation between the EU and Russia. Especially nowadays, in hard times for civil society not only in Russia that has a history of repression of the civil society (in particular human rights activists and NGOs involved in the political life of the country), but also in countries of Central and Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, Poland and others. The cooperation between the EU’s and Russian civil society representatives is now more important than ever before, which was absolutely clear from the CSF speakers describing manifold challenges the civil society has been facing for the last couple of years.

The first day was devoted to discussions on broader and fundamental questions and challenges the EU and Russia are facing today. The decline of the Western liberal order, new challenges and opportunities for the civil society organisations or the Russian regime as a threat to the civil society and the West as a whole. The information war and Russian support to the extremist and radical parties all around the EU were thoroughly covered by Anton Shekhovtsov, visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) based in Vienna. Generally speaking, the CSF and the speakers chose very critical approach to Putin’s Russia and its new imperialism in the foreign policy very clearly visible since August 2008. However, the current Polish or Hungarian authorities were also not spared of criticism too.

After the time dedicated to the Working Groups, the CSF arranged a reception at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland that was attended by the Finnish State Secretary Peter Stenlund and the EU’s Special Representatives for Human Rights Stavros Lambridinis, who gave a particularly strong speech about the EU’s role in the global world and importance of human rights in the 21st century. He claimed:

“The EU is not perfect and of course it has its own problems with human rights, therefore it does not have the right to lecture people and countries around the world. However, those who care about human rights are always going to find an ally in the EU and its member states.”

In comparison to the first day, the Day 2 brought even more important issues on the agenda. Since early morning, the CSF members discussed the last six years of the CSF existence as an unofficial initiative. The Forum has passed a long way having its 7th General Assembly in 2017, established Secretariat and Steering Committee, but never gained a legal status, which became the focal point of the discussions. The problem was that CSF was first officially registered under the framework of Czech independent platform of NGOs called DEMAS. Later, it became part of the German-Russian Exchange, which appeared to be a burden for both organisation and required change in the status. With more than 150 NGOs united under the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum nowadays, the unofficial initiative required a legal status to further develop its structure, financial matters or relations with donors as well.

What might sounds like a very technical and legal problem, stirred up a debate especially among the Russian participants, who were afraid of consequences from the Putin’s regime. Especially, as the Steering Committee and the Secretariat decided that registration under the German law is the most suitable and similar to the current state of affairs. After discussions on the legal status and many other topics, the democratic elections in the afternoon approved the new legal entity and brought four new members of the Steering Committee. I was happy that the vote of Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague could move the CSF forward in its future development. With the new leadership and new legal status, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is ready to accommodate new members and spread its activities beyond the existing agenda. This was symbolised by establishment of the new Working Group dedicated to Migration and promotion of dialogue on the topic. Moreover, the General Assembly welcomed several new members who presented themselves at the beginning fot the General Assembly.

Concurrently, the second day offered an opportunity to get information about activities and projects of the EU-Russia CSF in form of the Project Fair, which even had to be divided into two parts, illustrating the number of projects that are currently running under the CSF. Among them, I found particularly interesting the one called ‘Human Faces of Conflict’ focusing on documenting people’s stories from wars and war zones in Eastern Europe, Caucasus or Balkans, or the ‘Different Wars’ comparing perspectives on the Second World War in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Russia, Germany, Italy and Poland (more projects can be found here). Finally, the second day was concluded by a banquet in the 19th century Helsinki City Hall.

The last day of the General Assembly concentrated on final comments, thanks and reflections of the previous very productive days. Except for that, the organisers prepared number of workshops and visits to local NGOs, which included for example a tour to the Helsinki Prison or other socially oriented NGOs that have particularly long tradition in Finland. I participated in the cyber security workshop aimed at enhancing the IT skills in the NGO sector. This was particularly useful for the older participants who lack the experience with the modern antivirus software, security of personal accounts or phishing, among others. We finished the 2017 General Assembly in Helsinki in informal discussions with new friends and colleagues.

For me personally, the General Assembly in Helsinki served as a unique opportunity to meet like-minded people from the EU and Russian Federation that have common goals and ideas of mutual cooperation, sharing the same values. However, the event went far beyond classic networking and helped me to established new friendships and contacts for future cooperation. Moreover, over the three days, I could see a lot of progress that was achieved thanks to democratic discussions and decisions on the future of the CSF that is going to become a legal entity in the coming months. I am very optimistic about future of the Civil Society Forum and can see the added value it brings as a platform for meeting and cooperation of organisations all around the EU and Russia. As one of the Russian members pointed out:

“For us, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum remains one of the few platforms to meet and discuss issues of common interest and that is why it is so important today.”