A New Year Address by the Co-Chairs of the Board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum

 

’Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.’

Arundhati Roy, ‘The Pandemic Is a Portal

This year has been one of the hardest and weirdest we can remember. The new designation, denoting the virus, which hardly existed at the beginning of the year, has profoundly shaken our world and turned it upside down. It has created a new discourse, heavily saturating our private, business and public communication, and pushed us to the realms of safe and remote socialising and work. It changed the perception of everyday life, our self-understood sense of security, commodity and liberties. In the face of this extraordinary threat, we had to give up ‘our way of life’ to an extent that was previously unimaginable.

This new ‘normal’ puts an enormous pressure on all the social systems (public and private), on states, economies and communities requiring them to maintain and enhance trust. Without trust — both vertical and horizontal — managing the pandemic would have been impossible. The gravity of the situation was accompanied by revealing weaknesses of our political systems and habits: governments’ reactions can serve to a certain extent as good indicators of how political systems work in normal situations.

The pandemic has also brought the invisible into light. It has shown all the weak points of our health systems, made us more conscious of the importance of our living conditions, the widespread nature of domestic violence, and the often underpaid and under-evaluated contribution of essential workers. In an optimistic view, this can create an opportunity to pause, re-assess and re-imagine our systems of governance, communication and solidarity.

Besides the pandemic, we have also faced a number of crises of purely political character. The process of amending the Russian constitution gave rise to many legal concerns and worrisome political implications. The whole process, as we stressed, signals a further deterioration of democratic standards. Pressure on the civil society continued throughout the year reaching its climax in paving the way to the amendments of the law regulating the work of NGOs, putting even more severe restrictions on the already weakened and exhausted organisations, especially those labelled as “foreign agents.”

Elections in Belarus showed all the difficulties arising from a legitimation crisis of undemocratic governance and the transition towards democracy. While catching our breath between two waves of the pandemic, we witnessed the catastrophe of war in the region of Nagorno- Karabakh.

Within the EU, the space for civil society is also not in a favourable position either, as we have shown in our Report on the State of Civil Society in the EU and Russia. The adoption of the new multiannual framework and the recovery fund has been halted due to the different conceptions and values of what the EU stands for and transformed into a political battle, which could have serious consequences for the future of Europe. The end of the year will mark a new chapter in the relations between EU and the Great Britain, and is still bearing a number of uncertainties.

Despite all these circumstances, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum has managed to find its way forward. As an association, we adapted to this new reality and switched to an online or hybrid mode. The Forum membership adopted our new strategy until 2025. We also held our first virtual General Assembly. Although the pandemic prevented us from meeting in person, it showed the strength of both the association and our member and supporter organisations. We exchanged ideas, discussed future plans and voted – just like at any other annual assembly.

With travel becoming impossible and the whole world switching to a new format, not only losses but also new opportunities were created. We join regular webinars to learn, meet in smaller groups to fine-tune our strategy and have online advocacy meetings. The physical distance forced on us does not have to translate into isolation. Technology, creativity and solidarity can help us overcome this new barrier.

Once the pandemic is over, it is really up to us how we make the best of both worlds. Also, as much as we have been criticising and trying to improve the old “normal”, we will continue to challenge all the negative features of any future iterations of the new “normal”. In the spirit of Arundhrati Roy’s opening quote, we hope to be ready and brave enough to imagine another, more just world, and we invite you all to accompany us on this journey.

Wishing you all a peaceful holiday season and a happy New Year!

Anikó Bakonyi and Nikola Mokrović, Co-Chairs of the Board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum