After idea of establishing a French-Russian Civil Forum had been verbalised at the meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin in Versailles in May 2017, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum asked Nina Berezner, Founder and President of the D’EST Association (Paris, France), for her opinion:
Despite the fact that France and Russia share common values and interests, the relations between the two countries are largely built on mutual distrust – at the official level – and partly on mutual misunderstanding – in the civic and in the expert communities of both countries.
In the past few years, the perception of Russia has been focused on analysing the country’s official policy, and most of the debate around the situation in Russia invariably boils down to the geopolitical and foreign policy agenda only and its impact on the world. At the same time, domestic policy in Russia itself is often ignored. Meanwhile, the situation in the country should not be limited only to the level of strategic interests and geopolitics: Economic and social issues play an equally important role, and they, if not dictate, then certainly affect the foreign agenda. The public and state structures that exist in Russia on different levels have a largely imitative nature. There is no understanding of the importance of basic values and meanings for solving "grassroots" practical problems, and there are no working mechanisms, practical skills in use.
One should not forget that in order to establish a constructive dialogue, it is necessary to move away from the generally accepted clichés that the country is not only its leaders but also ordinary citizens, various civil initiatives, NGOs, independent experts, human rights defenders – and they all indicate great potential for development. However, development is impossible without exchange of information and real dialogue both between different political parties and between representatives of different cultures, a dialogue that would aim at education, establishment, and improvement of political culture.
It is also important to note that while many experts recognise the importance of the existence of civil society in Russia and its contribution to the development and change of the internal situation in the country, the issue of Russian civil society is rarely risen in expert circles in the West, and the experts there mostly quote negative statistics in relation to society in Russia, for example, the fact that 86% of Russia’s population support Putin. However, we should not forget that in any statistics there are many nuances, and one need to invest time and resources in the creation and formation of civil society. In this regard, Western human rights groups are trying to attract more attention to the situation inside Russia. Nevertheless, petitions and protests are also not enough. In order to move away from political templates and loud slogans and statements to build a constructive dialogue, joint search for solutions and exchange of ideas, the first crucial step is to achieve mutual understanding.
Based on the experience of international platforms, as well as some Russian organisations aimed at sharing experiences, one can conclude that education is the starting point. We are talking about the need for two types of interaction: on the one hand, interaction with Russian civil society, and, on the other hand, with the French expert community.
It is quite natural that Western and, in particular, French experts work in a system that is familiar and understandable to them. However, it is important not to forget that, while Russia hardly has a "special path", it nevertheless has its own specificity that must be taken into account when working with both civil society and the independent expert community. At the same time, due to the lack of opportunities for obtaining qualitative education, the lack of working institutions, and mechanisms for comparison, most people have developed their own "norms" that in many respects are very far from the norms of Western countries.
Therefore, it is necessary to focus efforts, firstly, on educational programmes in France for young representatives of Russian civil society that work with different topics: The exchange of experience between the two countries should facilitate the opportunity to show people a different "norms" and, as a result, to integrate new knowledge into the Russian socio-political system, even if this takes time. As a result, the relations between representatives of the French and Russian societies should strengthen horizontal and institutional ties, too. Secondly, it is necessary to draw attention of political and public figures in France to the importance of social issues in Russia through direct contact with Russian experts in the field of political science, sociology, economics and human rights – by establishing expert missions of Russian political scientists, economists, sociologists and representatives of Russian NGOs to France for meeting with leading French journalists, politicians and experts; lobbying for the idea of the importance of civil society in Russia among French and European specialists.
Now that the new French President Emmanuel Macron has introduced a new policy line towards Russia aimed at dialogue and cooperation on several issues, including the civil aspect, it is necessary to create an open platform for dialogue on the situation in Russia, where it would be possible to present different points of view and discuss them. It is necessary to draw attention to those problems within Russia, which we consider to be of the utmost importance. Among them, of course, there are issues of corruption, political prisoners, elections, opposition candidates, the economic situation in Russia, the situation in Chechnya, the system of impunity for the Russian authorities, etc.
It is now extremely important to try to reach an understanding with the French political establishment: Neither Russia nor France should miss the opportunity to reset the political and civic dialogue.