Fraser Cameron is a former British diplomat, former European Commission advisor and well-known policy analyst, author and commentator on EU and international affairs. He is Director of EU-Russia Centre and EuroFocus-Brussels, as well as Adjunct Professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.
Your organisation, the EU-Russia Centre, was among the founders of the CSF, member of the Consortium and one of the most active in CSF history. What do you think the Forum has accomplished since its founding meeting? What did it practically mean for the EU-Russia Centre to be part of the Consortium?
The Forum has achieved much in its first two and a half years. Simply putting together the basic structures of the Forum (Steering Committee and website) were important steps. Then we have had numerous events and some useful publications. We are also being taken seriously at the highest levels in the EU which is good even though more could be done. On the other side we are not given the same access in Russia even though the establishment of the Forum was welcomed at a recent EU-Russia summit. The EU-Russia Centre has a track record of promoting greater democracy and the rule of law in Russia so joining the Forum was a natural step. It was a fruitful experience for us making new contacts across Europe and Russia.
You served as Steering Committee (SC) member from the Founding meeting in Prague (March 2011) until the General Assembly in The Hague (Ocotber 2013). Reflecting on your mandate, have you achieved any of the aims that lead you to run for SC candidacy in 2011?
It has been a basically positive experience. We could probably have done more to reach out to the regions in Russia and to try and secure civil society support from at least one NGO in every EU member state. But the reality is that not everyone is interested in Russia (especially under Putin) and the economic problems in recent years have proved difficult for civil society in Europe as well as Russia. I would also like to see more practical cooperation between European and Russian NGOs. The language barrier is sometimes a problem but we should be doing more together.
As recent developments have shown, EU-Russia are moving apart in their relations. In this context, which were the main difficulties the Forum experienced? To what extent the Forum represent a platform to exert influence on official EU-Russian level?
The Forum was never received by the Russian government which made our work sometimes seem anti-Kremlin. But you have to distinguish between campaigning for changes to the laws eg on foreign agents and trying to change the regime. We want a democratic and stable Russia that lives up to its commitments under the UN and Council of Europe. Some official Russian representatives, however, seem to think that all civil society activity is anti-Russian.
The Forum has had some influence on the officlal EU-Russia relationship. We provide a valuable source of information about the situation on the ground in Russia. We input into the human rights consultations. We suggest changes that the EU should seek. But civil society is just one part of the overall relationship which tends to be dominated by energy lobbies.
Which are the main challenges you see in the near future of CSF? What can the Forum do to improve itself within EU-Russia relations’ framework?
The Forum has to have a more solid base, including a permanent secretariat. The steering committee have given up masses of their time to serve but there are limts on what anyone can do when they have to run their own NGO. The Forum also has to broaden its appeal and widen its financial support. It cannot continue for ever relying on EU contributions. The Forum should also continue to seek niche areas for research and maintain its excellent advocacy and information activities. Improving EU-Russia relations is a long-term challenge but one in which civil society has a vital part to play.
Thank you very much for your time and for sharing your experience with us!
Interview conducted on 14 October 2013 by Serena Bonato, EU-Russia Centre Project Assistant “EU-Russia Civil Society Forum”.
EU-Russia Centre is the leading independent information and expertise resource for anyone interested in modern Russia, its democratic status and the future of EU-Russia relations. It seeks to promote closer ties between the EU and Russia and to develop ideas about the future of the relationship.