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The Pontis Foundation was established in 1997. Which programmes and projects may you be especially proud of in your history?
I would say, every milestone of the Pontis Foundation had something we are proud of. We are proud of having been in the beginning of development of the civil society. Thanks to foreign funds, we granted the first chance to Slovak citizens for implementation of their projects and introduction of their concepts of the public policy in Slovakia. I am very proud of all the projects we have done so far. One of the examples is mobilisation of young people for participation in the 1998 and 2002 elections, which brought change to the country. I am very proud of that we were the first foundation, which started to work with corporations. These were us, who initiated awarding of the corporations for their credits, philanthropy, and – later on – the corporate responsibility. I am proud of that a number of projects, we have been implementing in cooperation with corporations, brings a real systemic change. The way we work with the homeless and hearing-impaired people or our current work with watchdog organisations – nothing would have been possible without the wonderful Slovak civil society, which we were able to support. And I am also very proud of a number of tools that we had developed at the Pontis Foundation – tools assisting individual fundraising, tools helping corporations to be responsible, or those helping the volunteering. Now we are also heading to a private philanthropy.  And the last point that I am very glad to mention is that now we are working in other countries like Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, or Russia, but also, for instance, in Kenya. And I am glad to have been a part of the foundation for all these years.
Nowadays, the activities of the Pontis Foundation reach out far beyond Slovakia. How did you develop societies in these countries?
Well, I would say that, first of all, the most important subject today is partnership. But when I think of the past trying to find people, who were among the dissidents, people, who were healthy voices of those societies, we did our best to provide support and encouragement to them, express the solidarity of our people with them.  In countries like Cuba, we really focus on dissidents and other voices expressing the solidarity with them. We also bring some financial support and let them know that they are not alone. But we also reach out to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the European MPs and try to bring them message that the healthy voices of civil society should not be abandoned there. In countries like Belarus, Moldova,  Ukraine, or in the Balkans, we have been bringing a know-how we have learnt in our country, when we were trying to establish an independent state in Slovakia and build its independent institutions. That is what we have learnt while joining the European Union or NATO and later on, while building a civil society and going through a series of reforms. In places like Kenya, it is about partnership, like it is in any other place. We always go into a partnership with a strong organisation with a similar mission, similar visions, similar ideas. In Kenya, we work with a wonderful partner on establishing the IT knowledge among children. And now it has shown such a progress that we found training companies already. We are working together with the iHub on creating the first start-ups there. That is very exciting!
The current refugee crisis in Europe shows that a lot of people fleeing conflict areas need support. Slovakia opposed binding quotas for refugees’ reception. How do you support refugees in Slovakia?
It is not an easy topic. And I feel like that there are two camps in Slovakia. My organization and many organisations in the third sector belong to the camp of people, who understand that we have responsibility and it has been not so long ago, when we were assisted as a country. Therefore, we shouldn’t insist on refugees going back, if they seek help. And I am very glad that there is a great spontaneous effort of thousands of Slovaks, who assist the refugees in Hungary as well as in Austria, in the places, where people come. I feel that the government has to take a clearer position towards solidarity with refugees. At the same time, I am very glad that the President spoke in the Parliament trying to put some values forward that we should be embracing. There are also a lot of activities connected with the Ministry of Health of Slovakia, which works closely with the Red Cross; there are also activities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and some aid is going to be given to humanitarian missions and human rights NGOs that have been actively working in the refugee camps in Slovakia.
Which current challenges do you see for the work of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum?
I would say, there are three main challenges. The first one is trying to engage even more NGOs from the EU to become the members of the Forum and to share their experiences as well as to gain knowledge about the current situation of the Russian NGOs. The second is to try to find the jewels in the Russian civil society. And those jewels are usually not in the capital or in a big city but in the regions. It is important to fund and help them, connect with them, and start working in the synergies, provide them advice, found valuable partnerships for them in the field we work. The third is – in terms of advocacy – something similar that we have done years and years ago with Belarus. There is a need in Brussels to have a very clear voice of the civil society, of a different Russia. In the past, the office for an independent Belarus was established this way. And I see that the Forum can play a very active role in this respect, especially organisations from Russia, which present data and up-to-date informations about the current situation in Russia.
What is the Forum’s value for your organisation?
For the Pontis Foundation, the Forum is a very interesting place, where we can learn much about the processes happening in Russia or in its NGOs. It is a very nice platform. But it is also a platform for European NGOs, which would like to establish valuable partnerships.
What would you like to wish to the Forum’s members?
I would like to wish to have a free environment for working, partners, whom we can rely on, and enough resources, what is probably not really possible. But I would like to wish to people, who have been working under really hard conditions, that this situation would not last forever and there would be an opportunity for changes.
The interview was shot on 21 October 2015 by Petra Nagyová, PR Manager at the Pontis Foundation.