On 1-3 February 2017, the 7th General Assembly (GA) of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum (CSF) took place in Helsinki, Finland. It gathered around 230 representatives of member organisations, observers, donors, and the media.

“Finland is a good place for civil society to be: There are 135,000 registered NGOs in the country with roughly 15 million members for 5.5 million inhabitants,’ says Anna Skvortsova, re-elected member of the Forum’s Steering Committee (SC) from St. Petersburg, Russia, co-moderator of the opening session on Finland. ‘This year, we are marking the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence and intense civil society evolution. With the General Assembly 2017, we used the opportunity to revive cooperation with local NGOs, to learn from them, to invite them to take active part in Forum’s discussions and let them speak about current challenges they face and new solutions.’

The GA touched a plenty of relevant topics for both the European Union and Russia – global nationalistic and conservative trends; modern wars, their legacies and memories; sustainable development and poverty reduction; future scenarios for the Baltic Sea Region; etc. The speakers and moderators included Pavel Antonov of the BlueLink Foundation, Bulgaria; Rilli Lappalainen of the Finnish NGDO Platform to the EU, Kehys, GA local partner; Grigori Okhotin of OVD-Info, Russia; Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz of the Stefan Batory Foundation, Poland; Marita Ruohonen of the Finnish Association for Mental Health; Stefanie Schiffer of the European Exchange, Germany; and others.

The importance of civil society within the shrinking space for its development was emphasised by Forum members as well as prominent guests – Stavros Lambrinidis, European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights; Karel Schwarzenberg, Chairperson of the Foreign Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic (2007-2009, 2010-2013); Peter Stenlund, Secretary of State of Finland as well as in the official address by Mikhail Fedotov, Chair of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.

‘This General Assembly managed to symbolically connect the EU and Russia – through a record number of events in both St. Petersburg and Helsinki,’ says Anna Sevortian, Executive Director of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. ‘The Forum also launched its State of the Civil Society Report. In 2016 edition, the researchers were focussing on Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Spain. Three public discussions – on the Russian civil society, media and news consumption, and trans-border corruption – were held at various locations in Helsinki. Besides, 18 projects by Forum members – from migration to radioactive waste disposal, from civic education to election observation, from de-radicalisation of conflicts to Respect comics, and many more – were displayed at the Project Fair. This GA was also special for the networking opportunities, thanks to lively engagement of the Finnish audience and civil society groups.’

Yet, this GA was equally important for discussion on CSF internal issues.

‘For us as the Forum, the civil society evolution also meant a decision to become our own independent association,’ informs Ralph du Long of UNITED for Intercultural Action, re-elected SC member from Assen, Netherlands and Co-Chair of the endorsed legal entity. ‘The Steering Committee was following an earlier decision by the General Assembly in 2014. We think this is the best way to ensure our common future of the Forum and we are grateful to the Forum members for making this important step in CSF development happen.”