Mr Sheida, you are Head of the Altai Regional Public Foundation for Social Support and Civic Initiatives, which counts 20 years of history already. Which projects are you currently implementing? Which topics are the most important ones for your organization nowadays?
Yes, that’s right, our organisation has turned 20 on 5 May 2016. Today, we are one of the oldest public organisations in the Altai Region. One of the main topics of our activities is citizenship education. That is the reason why we joined the Working Group “Citizenship Education” of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Right now we have been implementing the Public Project “Altai School of Practice and Leadership”, or “SHPILka” (“hairpin”), as we call it. “SHPILka” is a real civic project attended by students from different Barnaul universities. Invited experts are well-known personalities in the city – civil society activists, journalists, deputies, politicians, or businessmen. We also work at legal expert opinions. For instance, last year we composed a very detailed report on the law on citizens’ watch, which was being debated the regional parliament. We had a lot of remarks on it and sent our suggestions to the legislative body. Yet, none of our recommendations were taken into consideration, as it is often the case in the modern Russia. As a result, we can see that the law doesn’t work in practice. This is what we foresaw actually. We have a very close cooperation with Alexei Kudrin’s Committee of Civic Initiatives (CCI). There is a branch of the Committee in the city, and our organization is a part of this. We have been actively participating in the All-Russian Civic Forum by Mr Kudrin and his team. The Forum is one of the most important and well-established platforms of the country. Although the Forum has been still in its origins, we can see the first reactions to initiatives by the Third Forum of 2015 already.
You have mentioned that some of your initiatives were not supported on the regional level. And how far are young people interested in civil society initiatives and in the third sector in general in the region in the region?
This question is quite hard to answer and needs a detailed sociological research. Nevertheless, the experiences of our activities and our organisation show that there is a strong interest in our projects. For instance, a new semester of our school for already the second group in this year started in April. Although there are quite a lot of such offers from public organisations, we know our niche and our possibilities and wake an interest in the topics we suggest – fight against corruption, development of independent media, activities of business communities and the local parliament. I would say that the Altai Region is a positive example in comparison to the Russian civil society landscape, hopefully, also thanks to our efforts. We have quite a lot of initiatives, and the most of them are not being suppressed, while the most striking issues like, eg, protection of unique Altai pine forests have no chance not to become public. The government puts pressure on some people or organisations, includes NGOs into the list of “foreign agents”, but it has to cooperate in some cases anyway. Besides, new initiatives have been evolving. All in all, one can’t say that possibilities of civil society have been narrowing down under conditions of a stronger executive power. The civil society is alive and has been developing.
Yet, it was exactly the Altai Region, where the so-called “Siberian Davos” Forum was cancelled this year. The forum, which had been taking place throughout the years and in whose work you actively participated. In your opinion, why did it happen?
Indeed, for already 23 years, an independent platform of experts in the form of a conference in the Altai Region has taken place – the so-called “Siberian Davos”. This year, Vygaudas Ušackas, Ambassador of the European Union to the Russian Federation, came to join the forum. Yet, due to a number of circumstances, which are mostly connected to the cooling in the relations between Russia and the European Union and the West in general, someone from the government had the idea to disrupt the event, but he or she failed. The participants met anyway and discussed the topics, which were important to them. The most interesting thing is that the forum would be extremely useful for the Altai Region and for its development as a tourist region. But someone decided to disturb the forum. In the end, a completely different result came up. The representatives from the media and the expert community recognised all the absurdity of hindering this process, and the event got a great response in the society. The interest to this site doesn’t go down, and we are sure that the next forum will take place.
You have been personally involved in the activities of the Committee of Civic Initiatives and are one of its representatives in the region. How far do you feel the CCI support? Why is it important to you to be a part of the Committee?
Yes, the cooperation with the Committee of Civic Initiatives was a huge help for us. We see this assistance in projects, which are supported by the Committee, as well as in an opportunity to convey our position through the information resources of the Committee and participation in the All-Russian Civic Forum as the CCI Altai Group. Among young people, civic activists of the Altai Region, seminars of the Committee of Civic Initiatives are quite popular. Unfortunately, this year forms of such events changed: Now much more seminars on a remote basis or webinars are offered. Yet, we regularly conduct seminars online, work in social networks and can observe – based on the number of the views – that the interest doesn’t cease. We hope that soon the Committee will come back to the offline activities in the regions like it used to be last year. Certainly, we have been cooperating with the leading members of the Committee of Civic Initiatives – such as Evgeni Gontmakher or Elena Shatalova. At the Forum 2016, our group is going to establish a booth on activities of business communities and raise of business activities under conditions of the socioeconomic crisis. We can see that the country and the region need new initiatives: This is not a coincidence that Alexei Kudrin was invited to elaborate a socioeconomic programme. Within our group, we hope to contribute to that, as long as there is survival of the Altai business and the region as a whole at stake now.
We have talked about regional and partly international cooperation already. My next question concerns your participation in the work of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Which topics appear the most important to you now? What do you like the most about the Forum?
The Forum enables dialogue with our colleagues from Russia and the European Union. I would like to emphasise a positive role of Andrei Suslov from Perm, Coordinator of our Working Group: Within the Working Group “Citizenship Education”, we have been regularly sharing messages and information coming from the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Forum newsletters have been posted on our Facebook Group “For Development of Civil Society” attended not only by representatives from Siberia but also by those from other Russian regions.
It is not easy to say which topics would be important for our cooperation: We can see that EU-Russia relations are on their nadir, as some members of the Valdai Club assume. This situation bothers us a lot. Certainly, we have to find the reasons for what is going on right now and the answer to the question what civil society can do in Russia and in the European Union to stop this negative process between us. However, we think that this is a temporary situation, which will be overcome, and the dialogue will be recovered. We do and will do everything on the local level what we can. If we take topics, which are vital for Russia, these are deficit of resources, crackdown on independent NGOs, insufficient dialogue between the civil society sectors as well as with business communities and trade unions. And exactly in these fields, we rely on the possibilities of influence through the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and the Committee of Civic Initiatives. This is not bad that the Forum’s General Assembly takes place, after the leading public organisations have gathered at the All-Russian Civic Forum. Hence, we can come with better prepared suggestions, assessments, and recommendations to the General Assembly.
These days, we have been celebrating the 5th anniversary of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. What would you like to wish to the Forum’s members?
I would like to wish the continuation of the Forum’s development. Today, the Forum is really important both for the civil society and the authorities. We shouldn’t allow deepening of the confrontation between Russia and the European Union. What the Forum has been doing is important for our peoples and citizens. I would like to wish to the Forum new topics, a closer cooperation, enlargement, and development.
Mr Sheida, thank you for this interview.
The interview was shot via Skype on 15 April 2016 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.