Ms Uggla, Östgruppen has just become a member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Was it your idea to apply for membership? How did you learn about the Forum?
We at Östgruppen are very glad that we at last have become members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum! We have discussed it for a long period, but haven’t had the opportunity to apply until now. Our partner organizations in Russia have recommended us for a long time to become members, and I would say it’s originally their idea. We see it as an excellent way to broaden and strengthen our contacts with the independent Russian civil society. And I think it’s about time that a Swedish organization becomes a member as well.
So let me welcome you once again! Could you tell us more about your organisation? Östgruppen focuses on human rights abuses in Eastern Europe, mainly in Belarus and Russia, right?
Yes we do. Our main focus until now has been Belarus, though we do work with Russia as well. Our plan is now to extend our work with Russia in the near future. Today we mostly focus on questions as freedom of association and freedom of assembly, and we do follow the developments in Russia closely. Our main task we see as dissemination of information on human rights violations and advocacy in Sweden, and the EU. For example we arrange seminars, meetings and pickets; conduct research, write reports, articles, blog posts and opinion pieces; monitor human rights developments in the region as well as Sweden’s and EU’s politics toward the region; disseminate information through mass media, participate in radio, TV and Newspapers; conduct advocacy towards the Swedish politicians on Eastern Europe, mostly on Russia and Belarus through press releases, articles, contacts with MPs, MFA civil servants etc.
What are the main obstacles in your work?
Regarding our work in Sweden I would say our main obstacles are funding and the small interest towards the development in Russia in the Swedish society. It is possible to get funding to support the work in Russia, but it is harder to get funding for work conducted in Sweden.
And how tight is your cooperation with Russian NGOs?
We have cooperated with different Russian organizations for a long time, among them the Youth Human Rights Movement and the Russian Chechen Friendship Society. At times the cooperation is quite tight, but it is tighter with Belarusian organizations and we would like to achieve that level of cooperation with Russian organizations as well.
You said there is no big interest in Russia or Russian civil society in Sweden..?
I wouldn’t say that there is a big interest in Russia in Sweden. But it is of course a question of whom you talk about. The Swedes in common still think of Russia as basically a possible military threat against our country, I would say. This winter the debate has been quite loud on this topic. But not all Swedes think that of course, and we do have a long tradition in supporting democracy and human rights in Russia. There are some really good Swedish journalists covering Russia. As for the interest in Russian civil society I’m sorry to say it is very small. There are quite few persons and organizations engaged in this topic. Our goal is to broaden this interest, though! Earlier Swedish mass media very seldom covered such topics, but they have done that lately – due to the extraordinary situation of course and the deteriorating situation of the independent civil society.
What changes do you expect from the current situation in Russia?
Östgruppen is very very concerned about the situation. I hope that the international donors that left Russia some years ago will wake up and consider to return to Russia now in this difficult period for the civil society. And that the donors that are still engaged in supporting the civil society will enhance their efforts and be open to a constructive way of support. International donors are used to work in countries with a situation that is similar to the one in Russia today. If there is a will to help there is also a possibility. Most important is that they will not abandon Russia in this difficult moment. I wish that the Swedish Government and the EU would become more outspoken and frank in their dialogue with their Russian counterparts.
How do you see the future development of the relations between civil society organisations in Russia and Sweden/ EU?
Between some Swedish and Russian organisations there are quite tight bonds, as a result of a long ongoing partnership relation. But when Sweden as many international donors chose to cut almost all our financial support to Russia many of the similar contacts if not ended, but anyhow got less intense. We work to enhance the Swedish support to the independent civil society in Russia and hope that the cooperation and bonds between our countries will tighten again.
What are you expecting from the Forum?
We hope to get to know the Russian civil society better and to broaden our contacts with new interesting organisations, Russian as well as other European organisations working with Russia. Our main expectation is networking. But of course we’re also curious on how the discussion on different topics develops.
Thank you! We wish you a very good start in the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum!
Interview conducted by Polina Baigarova, EU-Russia Civil Society Forum
Östgruppen is member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum since 16.04.2013.