EU-Russia Civil Society Forum (CSF): Thank you very much for welcoming us at your office and for agreeing on this interview with the CSF. You are one of the founders of the CSF, what is the Forum’s value for you?
Stefanie Schiffer: The idea to set up this Forum emerged, when we understood that the government of the Russian Federation did not agree to join the EU Eastern Partnership Programme and by that also excluded the civil society of Russia from this intense cooperation with European structures. We understood that leaving the civil society of Russia out of this more intense exchange and cooperation with the EU would have long-lasting consequences. So, we tried in fact to set up this forum as an answer and to include Russia into this network. That is an aim of the Forum, and it is a challenge, it is a big task and it is a big work for everybody, who is involved in the work of the Forum.
Your organization, “European Exchange”, has been mostly involved in cooperation with Eastern Partnership countries like Belarus, Ukraine, Southern Caucasus and so on, but you also served as Director of the “German-Russian Exchange”, is that maybe also part of your motivation to work with Russia or maybe there are other reasons?
Sure, my work with Russia in the 90´s, a long time ago, and with Russia in the course of the 90´s but also the 2000´s, made me be aware of the big significance of the development of the Russian Federation, not only for Russia and the EU but for the whole Eastern European area. So, it was really the knowledge I got when working with the Russian civil society, what was very important for understanding the need for such a Forum. I think whoever works with Russia, knows Russia and understands Russia, knows that the development of Russian politics, of Russian (civil) society, is of most importance for the development of democracy in the Eastern Partnership countries. The links between Russia and former Soviet Union states are still until today very tight. Therefore, leaving Russian civil society out of European civil society cooperation would be a big mistake and we must draw much attention to develop a good, reliable working relationship with the Russian civil society.
Actually, nowadays, with the Ukrainian crisis, this cooperation is maybe even more important than before. How do you see the potential of the CSF and the cooperation with the Russian civil society to solve these problems and the crisis in Ukraine?
I think that everybody, every single person, every single organisation and network has to identify, has to understand what they can do, how they can contribute to solve this very difficult situation which is the most difficult and most tense situation that we have had since the end of WWII. This is a big challenge for everybody, and also the Forum has to understand its potential, its possibilities. I am sure, the Steering Committee is full of respect and full of responsibility towards this important question. Also I know that both the Forum and the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum are exploring new ways of cooperation – and this is very important.
What does your organisation do to help Ukraine in this difficult situation? I know you have some projects, like the Kyiv Dialogue, for example.
We, at the Secretariat, are trying to hold a new German-Ukrainian Conference format. It is a conference formed of civil society organisations, an annual conference. The next summit will be this September here in Berlin and will be devoted to the economic development in Ukraine. We decided to extend the work to Ukrainian regions. Regional discussion will be held, also trainings, seminars and so on. This is a consequence; we can say it has been exhilarated by the crisis. We had this decision to work in the Ukrainian regions before, but unfortunately only the crisis opened us the opportunities to make this intention come true since now the opportunities for financial support to work in Ukraine has been increased. This is a positive thing that we can extend the work but it is a consequence of a very tragic event. Another thing we are planning together with the CSF and the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum is to organise civil society and human rights monitoring missions to Eastern Ukraine. This is something we are still planning and it has not been decided yet. If it can be implemented then we can, together with Russian and Ukrainian organisations, assist the launch of such monitoring missions. This is very important because lies, propaganda, disinformation are big elements in this crisis (and I would even call it a “war”!). It is already not a crisis, but a war what is going on, even if politicians do not call it so. Getting information from the civil society about what is really going on in the country, who is an actor, who is a victim, who is a perpetrator – this is a very important information not only for people affected by these activities but for politicians having to take decisions. We hope to contribute on this unclearness with this project.
I would like to talk about another “child” of yours – European Platform for Democratic Elections. You are also one of the co-founders of this platform. What are the plans for the nearest future?
When we set up the platform, we very concretely understood the challenge we had by not having included Russia into the Eastern Partnership Programme, because our support for the platform is not emerging from the EU. It is mostly (although not totally) supported by the civil society in Eastern Partnership countries, and one of the most important supporters is the “Golos” Association from Russia. So, we have to try to also include Russia to achieve balance within this platform. Therefore, we understand that a balance and an equal support for civil society from both the Eastern Partnership countries and the Russian Federation are highly important. Otherwise, a breakaway of the Russian civil society wouldn’t be possible. In fact, the idea of having the European Platform for Democratic Elections is to exert civil control on the election processes all over Europe – not only in the Eastern Partnership countries or the Russian Federation but also in the EU, where we also face problems with fairness and transparency of the election processes. This is also a very interesting and challenging project, and we have managed to identify and invite very competent activists and organise monitoring of elections processes. The idea is mutual assistance, mutual training and also mutual missions. We arrange common missions, for instance, one mission to the Ukrainian parliamentary elections with lots of Russian civil society activists and observers. It was very instructive and helpful, especially the sign of solidarity during these difficult times between two countries. As I mentioned before, we are also looking forward to receive assistance and assessments of elections in the EU. We have some upcoming elections in Bulgaria, Romania, where we want to have some civil society eyes on the process. It is a challenging project, and I am glad that we have the Secretariat here at the “European Exchange” and cooperate with our members. One sad point is that the democracy process in some of our member countries is deteriorating. That makes it difficult. Work in some countries for our members is even impossible. Our member in Azerbaijan was arrested and has been in pretrial detention for half a year. The situation around “Golos” is not easy either. We try to assist our members – and that is what we are busy with right now.
Are you going to observe elections in Russia on September 14th?
Sure. Our member “Golos” has already started the observation. On August 18th, we published a report on the composition of election commissions in the Russian Federation. These elections decide on how the Moscow Parliament is elected. Besides, there are lots of governors’ and mayors’ elections. So, these are very important elections for Russia. “Golos” is observing them, and the EPDE is supporting.
Coming back to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum – what challenges do you see for the Forum right now?
I am not so much involved in the everyday work of the Forum, but I think the general challenge we have is the one we talked about earlier, which is the war between Russia and Ukraine and the enormous military aggression from the Russian side against the Eastern Ukraine regions. This is a challenge not only for Ukraine but for Europe as a whole, and the civil society has to be a place for discussion, a place for cooperation, and a place for open words in these times. We have to keep the doors open, and we have to keep the opportunities for cooperation with the Russian civil society or between Russian and other European societies. This is the biggest challenge for the Forum, and I hope it will be and stay such a place.
One last question, what would you wish to the members of the Forum? We have had 126 organisations so far.
I wish good and open work and discussions and a good understanding for all of us in every country, a good understating for all of us in Europe.
Thank you very much for your answers.
Interview conducted on August 19, 2014 by Sergei Tereshenkov, PR Co-Ordinator at the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum