Kristina Smolijaninovaite is the coordinator of the Youth Exchange Programme and of the Expert Group Focusing on Visa Facilitation and Liberalisation between the EU and Russia. She is also a member of the team which prepares the European Youth Forum “Pilorama Lab” as well as part of the Communication Team of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.
Born in Palanga, Lithuania, she has been living in Germany since 2002, being a graduate of the masters “World Heritage Studies” at the Brandenburg University of Technology in Cottbus. Since October 2011 she has been working for the German-Russian Exchange, which is a member organisation of the Steering Committee and the Consortium of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

Hi Kristina,

Thank you so much for your time and willingness to tell us a little bit about the actual CSF happenings. I am afraid we have to start with bad news: the EU-Russia CSF project "Pilorama Laboratory"*, which was scheduled for the end of July, was unexpectedly cancelled. Why was it cancelled?  Last year it was very successful and received many positive reactions. 

Indeed, we had a promising start last year. To our great regret, the second European Forum of Young Professionals “Pilorama Lab” this year had to be suddenly cancelled. Officially, this was due to some formal irregularities in the agreement previously signed by the Ministry of Culture of the Perm Region. After the Ministry had withdrawn its financial contribution to Pilorama Lab, which made up half of the budget, it became financially impossible to carry out the event in the same format, extent and quality originally conceived.  Therefore, the event had to be cancelled. This is particularly bitter as the intensive preparatory work had already started almost a year ago.

In addition to the “Pilorama Lab” workshops, the organising team had originally planned to hold two panel discussions in the frame of “Pilorama”: "Europe and the Crisis. Perspectives for the EU-Russia Relations" and "Public Journalism – Opinion Leaders or Outsiders?".  After the cancellation of the Youth Forum, we decided not to abandon this idea, but unfortunately it was not to be realised as well. With very short notice, just couple of weeks before the beginning of “Pilorama”, it was made public that the Ministry of Culture of the Perm Region has to cut funding by 50%, allegedly due to budget deficit. Thus, “Pilorama 2013”had to be cancelled as well in the very last minute. These were very sad news. The reality might be more complicated than mere financial deficit the Ministry is experiencing, cited as a reason for the last-minute cancellation. Sad to say, the civil society in Russia is experiencing extreme constraints, especially bearing in mind the notorious law on “Foreign Agents”.      

How did you react to such a turn of events?

It was clear from the beginning that to keep silent and simply accept the situation would have been wrong. Therefore, together with a number of CSF member organisations, we decided to organise a solidarity event in Perm to express our support for civil society in Russia in general and in the Perm region in particular. For us it was very important that local NGOs  and “Perm 36”-  the main organiser of “Pilorama” – would support such solidarity event and they did!
What will this solidarity event be about?

We still plan to hold the panel discussions planned beforehand in Perm (learn more here). The event’s guests speakers are experts from the Netherlands, Poland, Croatia, Germany and other Russian regions, as well as several members of CSF. During this time our guests and experts will have an opportunity to go to “Perm-36” as well as to meet young activists from “Youth Memorial” Perm and people working at Perm-36.

I think it is very important to hold this event in Perm despite all. It is a symbolic act.

Therefore, we hope for the best! Kristina, you are also the coordinator of two more CSF projects. Please tell us more about them.

Yes, I coordinate several other projects on behalf of CSF. One of them is the Youth Exchange which provides young employees from CSF member organisations the opportunity to work in another CSF organisation. By now all the participants of the programme (this year the participants were six girls) have completed their internships and are currently preparing for the General Assembly, taking place from 5 to 7 October in The Hague. At the General Assembly they will present the exchange programme, introduce their projects and suggest ideas on how the programme could be improved in the future. This year the programme was attended by NGOs from Poland, Russia, Germany, Czech Republic and Italy.  

The other project I am coordinating is the Expert Group Focused on Visa Facilitation and Liberalisation between EU and Russia. It is based on systematic work, we have published several official appeals and policy briefs on the EU-Russia visa dialogue and sent them among others to President Putin, Mr Lavrov, Mr Barroso, Ms Ashton and Mr Van Rompuy. In April, upon invitation of the member of the European Parliament Mr Werner Schulz, two representatives of the CSF Visa Group participated in the discussion on visa issues in the framework of the meeting between representatives of the Russian State Duma and of the EU Delegation in Kaliningrad. I think that the “visa group” is an increasingly established work area of the CSF, as it provides valuable expertise to this important EU-Russia dialogue. As the project coordinator, I am very pleased that the results of our work are increasingly seriously recognised by officials both on the EU and Russia side.  I hope that we will contribute towards facilitating direct communication between citizens of the EU countries and Russia. By the way, we have our own Facebook page.

Please tell us how did it happen that you became coordinator of many CSF project at once?

I first came to work in the framework of CSF right before the General Assembly in Warsaw in October 2011, when I worked as an editor for the CSF website at German-Russian Exchange.  I am from Lithuania, but by that time I had lived for some time in Berlin. Some time later, German-Russian Exchange became a member of the CSF Consortium, that is one of the six organisations responsible for carrying out a number of projects. They were looking for a project coordinator and I was glad to continue working with the CSF, with new challenges and more responsibilities. The work in the CSF is very intense and time-consuming, but at the same time I like its dynamism and creativity.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges and difficulties of the CSF work?

I think that a lot of challenges are related to the issue of funding, especially if you consider that the Forum is growing and developing fast (at the moment there are twice as many members as two years ago). More support in the everyday work would mean a more developed secretariat assisting the coordination of all the CSF projects. The secretariat should become the main link in the external and internal communication. I hope this is a matter of time.

Perhaps the next General Assembly in The Hague may become a turning point? Since the founding meeting in Prague two and a half years have passed , a new Steering Committee has to be elected, some projects are coming to an end. How do you see the future development of the Forum?

I hope that the Forum will attract more organisations from Southern and Western Europe which is at the moment underrepresented. I think that in the future the Forum will need to work more thematically with more diverse topics like, for instance, migration or historical memory that would unite several organisations from EU countries and Russia. At the same time, in my opinion, there is great potential for the Forum to engage other existing platforms, such as the Eastern Partnership (EaP). We have a lot of themes in common and I believe that the development of the dialogue between the EU and Russia should go hand-in-hand with the dialogue between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries. On the whole I think that the voice of the Forum will be more and more recognised and heard by the officials and political decision makers from both sides – EU and Russia. To some extent, this can be already observed.

What will be your next steps within the CSF work?

Well, as I have mentioned, at the moment we are preparing for the solidarity event taking place in Perm from July 26 to 28.  Then there is the ongoing work with the projects I coordinate. In addition, I am a member of the so-called “Communication Team”, which partially fulfill the tasks of the secretariat. There is always something to do  – work on the website, newsletter as well as with organisational tasks and so on. September and October will be very busy in preparation to the General Assembly in The Hague as well as for the open discussion on visa issues scheduled for October in Moscow.  Therefore a lot of work, as always!

Thank you for the time you dedicated us! Good luck in Perm and in Moscow and see you in The Hague!

Thank you, see you soon!

16 July 2013
The interview was conducted by Polina Baigarova, EU-Russia Civil Society Forum

* The European Youth Forum “Pilorama Laboratory” (“Pilorama Lab”) is a project held under the auspices of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Perm in the framework of the International Civil Society Forum “Pilorama”- the annual meeting of politicians, human rights activists, journalists, artists, actors, musicians and public opinion members from various Russian regions and from abroad. The “Pilorama Lab” and the “Pilorama” are held at the Memorial Centre of the history of political repression “Perm-36”, a one-of-its-kind museum in Russia. From the EU-Russia CSF side, the coordination of the project involves the Civic Engagement Institute (Perm), the German-Russian Exchange (Berlin) and MitOst (Berlin). The first “Pilorama Lab” held from 25 to 28 July 2012 was a great success.