Watch the interview on YouTube (in Russian)
Nina, when was founded your organisation, “Destination Est”?
Our organisation has existed in France since July 2014. At that time our first seminar took place at the French Parliament. By that, we celebrated our birthday.
The most known format by D’est is workshops being held in summer and winter. Can you tell me more about this project?
Actually, we provide several activities, among them workshops, which we call “ateliers” in French. At the workshops, we work with civil society representatives from different regions of Russia, we invite them to take part in a two-week trip to France. In particular, every summer we hold workshops on municipal policy and urban policy – with the Embassy of France and the Higher School of Urban Studies at the Higher School of Economics as our partners. In addition, we worked with such topics as “journalism” and “children of refugees and migrants” (together with the Civic Assistance Committee by Svetlana Gannushkina).
Are those workshops held both in France and Russia?
We invite 10-12 participants from Russia to come to France for 10-14 days. We organise meetings accompanied by share of opinions and experiences with French colleagues on specific topics. For instance, within the topic “municipal policy”, we arrange meetings at different levels – starting with the Mayor’s Office of Paris and the ministries and up to appointments with local associations and district mayor’s offices in Paris. In addition, we travel outside Paris to compare how they work in the capital and other cities of France.
What progress have you made during the project? What can you be especially proud of?
During the last visit, colleagues from the Higher School of Urban Studies decided to shoot a film on the basis of our workshops, with interviews with French experts on housing urban policy conducted. This film was released in December 2017 and has already been a part of two shows – a closed and an open one. Additionally, we are going to send the film to festivals and arrange its show in France. The film has provoked a stormy discussion among urbanists already and collected standing ovations, what we consider as one of our successes.
In addition, after the workshops, some of our participants independently organised various seminars and lectures in their regions of Russia and invited French experts, to whom we introduced them. As a matter of fact, since we are engaged in trying to establish contacts between representatives of the Russian civil society and French professionals, we are proud that a network has emerged, which facilitates the implementation of a large number of projects in the future.
We are now talking in Berlin, where tomorrow the meeting of the Advocacy Group of the EU-Russia Civil Forum is starting, and you will join this meeting as well. In this regard, I cannot help but ask about another important aspect of your work – the protection of human rights. In particular, I mean a discussion on the situation of homosexuals in Chechnya and the situation with human rights in the Chechen Republic as a whole that was held last September at the European Parliament.
This is the second part of the activities by our organisation – advocacy. I am engaged in it in France and try to expand its range to Europe as a whole.
Since I am simultaneously a member of “Memorial”, where my main occupation is exactly Chechnya, I consider the topic of this region to be important for a common understanding of the situation with human rights in the Russian Federation as such. Although everyone knows that Chechnya is part of Russia, many Russians believe that the Chechen Republic is somewhere far away and everything that is happening there is happening far from them. Since Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, the Convention on the Protection of Human Rights ratified by the Russian Federation must be applied to the entire territory of our state.
Unfortunately, in Europe, very few people spoke of Chechnya before the huge scandal about the infringement of the rights of representatives of the LGBT community and torture. In partnership with the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, DRA / German-Russian Exchange, and the Permanent Representation of Estonia to the EU, we organised a seminar in Brussels. Its topic was not only the LGBT agenda but also the general situation with violations of rights and freedoms in Russia.
Just now, the tragic plot with Oyub Titiev and his family is on-going. What are you doing now to help and raise awareness of this situation?
As a result of the Brussels seminar, it was decided to establish a monitoring group of the members of the European Parliament to continuously observe the cases of human rights violations in Chechnya. We would also like to send a mission of MEPs and representatives of embassies to Chechnya. I do not know if this will work out: In fact, as you know, the region is rather closed. But, nevertheless, it is necessary to continue to emphasise that Chechnya is a part of Russia and this means that the same laws should apply there as throughout the country. Therefore, it is possible to go there, see what happens, write reports, and raise the topic to a higher level.
You say that Chechnya must have the same laws as it is the case in the rest of Russia. Recently, I have read on social networks that even in St. Petersburg similar methods of intimidation were applied and that Chechnya somehow was “extending” to other cities and its “laws” were operating in other regions of Russia. How do you assess this situation?
That is why it seems to me this is necessary to focus on what is happening in Chechnya, because through Chechnya it is possible to give a complete description in terms of what happens in Russia in general: Our country is huge, and it is rather difficult to observe what is happening at a local level. Chechnya is a small region, where the efforts of human rights defenders are constantly opposed by the Chechen government. In particular, Kadyrov himself says: ‘In Chechnya, I am engaged in the human rights protection!’ But he was the one who promised to ‘break the backbone’ of human rights activists, just few days ago.
You have already said that it was necessary to monitor the situation in Chechnya and in Russia in general. What else do you see as a mission for the EU-Russia Civil Forum? What are the main topics for the dialogue?
The Forum has perfectly proved itself already, thanks to a clear idea of what could have been done in Europe, a large number of contacts, and trustworthiness. It has already implemented many remarkable projects in Russia and with the participation of the Russian civil society in the EU. Thus, in the future the Forum should use all its contacts and forces to draw attention of the members of the European Parliament, the Bundestag, or in the Élysée Palace regarding the situation in Chechnya.
Why is it important for your organisation to be a member of the Forum?
The advocacy work I do in France coincides with the activities of the Forum on a more global level, and for me it is important to be a part of this network. Moreover, I am a member of the Working Groups on Migration and on Civic Education. Indeed, civic education is exactly what we do at our workshops. Therefore, it seems to me that the Forum has common goals with those of our organisation, and I am very glad to be a part of this community.
You are engaged in exchange projects with Russia, aiming at a better understanding of the situation in Russia. Would you like to initiate a project aimed specifically at covering the situation in France some time?
One day it would be interesting, but for now I am trying to work with the French understanding of the situation in Russia, because, as you know, there are totally different perceptions in different countries. Therefore, a part of my advocacy work is that I bring famous Russian experts to France and arrange their meetings with French political scientists and politicians, who will further influence the engagement with the Russian Federation. At the moment, it is probably enough but, maybe, in the future the range of priorities will extend.
What would you like to wish to the members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum?
In the light of recent events and what happens to civil society in Russia, I would like to wish all of us to remain in good health and… free.
Thank you very much for this interview.
The interview was shot by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum on 30 January 2018 in Berlin, Germany.