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Vera Vladimirovna, I heard a lot about the Сity of Tyumen, and what I heard was very positive, for instance, in the field of urban infrastructure and community building. Your foundation, the Community Foundation of Tyumen, primarily deals with community building. Please tell us about your major directions of activities and name some of your most favourite projects.
Vera Barova: The city of Tyumen is historically the first Russian city beyond the Ural Mountains. Since Ermak’s troops had settled here, the people of Tyumen really liked to be pioneers. So, when the idea of creating community foundations came to Russia, we also took part in the CAF foundation Programme. Our foundation was established in 1999, fifteen years ago, and became the second of such kind in the country. It brings together commercial structures as founders and trustees, but in fact, it is a centre of attraction for new ideas that come from citizens’ active groups, NGOs, and business associations. For fifteen years, we have been, in fact, working in two directions: We inspire our benefactors – those who allocate resources, and beneficiaries – those who share great ideas and, thanks to financial support of our foundation, increase the amount of ongoing projects literally threefold thanks to raised funds and thereby strengthen this city. The city is really interesting, and there has lately been a lot of positive changes here. It became more comfortable, though it has always lacked attention. It was the oil capital of the vast Tyumen region, rich in oil and gas, but there has never been enough time and effort put to deal with its problems. 
I’ve heard about "New Tyumen" initiative, about how citizens themselves influence the life in the city and even influence local authorities. How is it possible, especially in Russia, to influence authorities, to attract business structures, and thus to move in this triangle "authorities-business-society"?
It is a great project, which was initiated by young people – successful scholars, IT experts. They came up with such a resource, which has created an open space, and primarily focused their attention on the definition of problem areas that interfere with the everyday life. Today, as we keep developing this project, we want to initiate a programme of a "live city" or "city for the people", which would create a city capable of creating a new environment to enable active citizens to make their wonderful projects come true. A public, so-called “people’s” walk organised as a part of the "New Tyumen” Project revealed 78 problem areas in the city just in one day. We had an open conversation at the office of our foundation with the city authorities (the first deputy of the Head of the City Administration), where our participants simply and clearly explained to the officials, without any fuss or shouting, that Tyumen were the city where they wanted to live and raise their children. That’s why they didn’t want to put up with these malfunctions. They came up with a wonderful mechanism: Once a request received no response from the City Administration, they immediately placed the request on the Governor’s blog. Our Governor has been working in an open space, like the regional government, so such kind of feedback was a great idea. I am pleased that the city leaders, who were aware of possible consequences of their inaction, have established a three-day deadline, within which a request from community members should receive a specific answer. This is how this programme started, and I think that it will be continued. We sent Vladimir Suvorov to Krasnoyarsk to take part in the "School of Urban Change" that takes place at a large book fair in Krasnoyarsk. I am glad that we found out about it on time, and now we plan a big meeting with interested people to design a new city, accessible to all creative people.
“School of Urban Change” has been operated by Forum members – the MitOst Association and the NGO "Interra" from Krasnoyarsk. Please tell us how it is possible nowadays, when it is not a general practice, to say the least, to have contacts with foreign organisations, to still maintain this link and find opportunities for a dialogue?
The formation of our organisation happened to be associated with granting from international funds. For the first two years, we had to explain to both journalists and government officials who assumed that there were no such thing as a free lunch. Today, everyone can see that any project, any programme that the Community Foundation of Tyumen brings to the city thanks to such contacts, is primarily aimed at solving social problems, to find their optimal solutions. As I like to say in public, there is no need to reinvent a bicycle today, it is important to see how others do it. Even if we do not like this experience, we will simply avoid mistakes, find our own way, and – most importantly – get results. A constructive approach to problem solving is our main goal in implementing projects.
Now, when everything is clear with local authorities, let’s analyse the situation with business structures. Why is it important for Tyumen businesses to invest in social projects? It is not obvious for Russian commercial structures, like it is even not for business structures in other countries.
The idea of our community foundation itself has been developed as some kind of a business offer to corresponding structures. We guarantee to them – and we were able to keep our promise – to avoid extra expenses when it comes to social programmes. We offered ourselves as administrators of social welfare programmes and were understood very well. Today, we have kept all the partners who believed in us fifteen years ago. We have gained new partners, as long as – in the times of particular financial hardships – no one can understand it better than a businessman that optimal consumption of funds to ensure the outcome is the only possible way to go. Therefore, we do not have any random partner companies. Our partners are the companies that develop their businesses here, because they want to strengthen this city and stay in it. They see us as a reliable partner, and we do not forget to thank them. We have a title, which we cherish, – "Philanthropist of the Year", and as of today only about ten companies are holders of this title – and this in fifteen years. We have raised the bar pretty high with this award, and we are happy that the businessmen also cherish it.
I would also like to ask you a question about the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Why is the membership in the Forum important to you? What challenges do you see for the Forum at the moment?
We had some kind of doubts whether joining the Forum or not, but not for a long time. In terms of the format, we are a community foundation owned by the city. But in the course of the years of development, we stepped beyond the city borders, we became an interregional resource centre for support of socially oriented NGOs in the Urals Federal District. In addition, we are part of some larger coalitions, such as the “Movement against Poverty”. We took part in the “Civil G20” process. It was this experience of international coalition interaction that has convinced us that we were able to be helpful. I once came across a wonderful saying: ‘Never doubt that one person can change the world.’ That’s the way it is. I think that the contribution of our organisation as part of our Working Group is still the same topic on which we have been working for all these years, ie social problems and civic participation, which became prominent thanks to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and will keep developing.
Our conversation today takes place at the 5th General Assembly of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, but the interview will be published right before the New Year’s Eve. Therefore I would like to hear from you some wishes to the members of the Forum as results of the General Assembly and, perhaps, for the next year as well.
I think that the Forum has passed a long and difficult road since the moment of its foundation. It overcame a number of reefs. And this will lead us to the success of our further joint voyage. Certainly, the experience of European organisations is very valuable to us. But today, Russian organisations also become holders of interesting unique practices. Since the complete implementation of European organisations’ formats under the Russian conditions is not possible, I am glad that my colleagues are very creative in finding new solutions and new opportunities to adapt these practices. Therefore, I wish to all our colleagues to preserve an interest in each other, which is very important to strengthen partnerships, and, of course, the most important human value and even wealth is communication. I wish you never to lose it but only to strengthen and develop it!
Thanks a lot, Vera Vladimirovna. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Thank you. Happy New Year!
Interview conducted on 28 November 2014 by Sergei Tereshenkov, PR Co-Ordinator at the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum