Watch the interview on YouTube (in Russian)
Sergei, “Decembrists” recently celebrated the fifth anniversary. Over the years, what has the organisation achieved? Which projects do you remember most?
“Decembrists” was originally a community of activists in Berlin, whose members, for the most part, were students from Berlin universities, sociologists, researchers, Russian-speaking citizens but also German human rights defenders, who all gathered on 10 December 2011 in front of the Russian Embassy to protest against the Duma election fraud. After several actions, discussions, and video screenings, we decided that we needed to start engaging in activities to promote dialogue, develop international cooperation with civil society organisations from Russia and Eastern Europe. As a result, we created our own association, and over the last five years, one of the most important achievements was probably our network of like-minded people, professionals, innovators, journalists, artists, writers, and artists from Germany, primarily Berlin, but also from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet states. This network allows us to implement our projects, organise events, fulfil our stated goals, and exchange ideas for cooperation and search for new ways of solving problems, new projects, developing a dialogue, and planning joint actions.
The first two words that come to my mind when I hear about “Decembrists” are social innovations and cultural projects. Which of these areas is the most important to you? Or, perhaps, are all directions equally important?
Indeed, four years ago we asked ourselves the question, what new we can offer in this area, as there is a bunch of organisations, especially in Berlin, which have been actively participating in public and political life. We searched for alternative ways, tried to involve young people, new players, initiators of change in our projects and discussions about changes.
One of our main directions was the Social Innovation School, which we have been running since 2015. Initially, that was planned as an exchange programme for young social innovators, but now it has grown to a multi-level programme – starting from seminars on mainly social entrepreneurship, people, money, and financial instruments and up to promotion or PR. Last year we launched a small acceleration programme. Within that frame, we have been matching our young participants with professionals from the same field through a deep immersion, including online coaching. For 2018, we have scheduled several trainings aimed at social innovators from Russia only. In addition, our main programme will expand: Participants from Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine will be able to work together on their projects in smaller groups, primarily in the areas of social inclusion, green economy, and creative economics.
Since last year, we have been very active in the field of green economy. We have been developing a direction for sustainable development. At the global level, this strategy was adopted by the UN in 2015, and it seems to us that it can have a serious impact on the development of civil society in Russia, because some of these problems are also being discussed in the country. By the way, in addition to ecology, this strategy has a number of goals that can be found in the charter of our organisation, in particular, activities aimed at achieving peace, equality, and protection of human rights.
We also had a lot of activities in the cultural field. The main event here is “Ruberoid”, a Festival of Young Art, which will be held again in early May this year at one of the Berlin squares. In addition, our cultural projects include exhibitions of artists from Eastern Europe, including EU member states. Within such projects, we have been also raising questions on how far the art has an impact on the consolidation of peace processes in post-conflict countries and regions, how it promotes dialogue, which tools there are for this in the world, and how Eastern Europe can share its unique experiences in order to encourage society to look at conflicts in a new way – through the lens of a human not politics or images created by media, through individual stories of people.
2018 is another election year in Russia. Do you plan any activities related to this event?
The election to the State Duma in 2011 was the starting point for our organisation. We got acquainted with the first members of the future structure while having observed that election at the polling stations of the Russian Embassy in Berlin.
This year, we planned one discussion about the opposition strategy already – about boycotting the election – by meaning, first of all, Alexei Navalny. On 1 February, a discussion with experts from Russia and Germany on this matter, about what everyone should do in the current situation, when elections in Russia are used as a legitimation of power will be held at the Panda Theatre. Should we boycott the election? or become observers? or choose another democratic way? I think that just before or after the elections, we will also hold a rally or a small public event on the subject of what we should expect in the next six years.
I would like to return to the topic of social entrepreneurship. One of the projects of “Decembrists” supported by the EU-Russia Civil Forum was a “Green School” in Buryatiya. What impressions did you bring back from that school? And why is it important for your organisation to be a part of the Forum?
Our organisation is relatively new to the Forum. At the General Assembly in Helsinki, we met a number of affiliated organisations, some Forum’s old-timers, – and we found a common ground. And literally whilst drinking a beer, after the last workshop, we decided to organise a training on green economy. For us, it was not only an experience of creating an interesting project and training but also that of communicating with a completely new partner, who was six time zones away from us, – the fact, which, of course, also made communication difficult. Nevertheless, in four months we have created a truly unique programme.
Our partners, including the Buryat Regional Union on Lake Baikal and its Head Sergei Shapkhaev, the community of ecologists managed to find the most promising eco-activists, who are starting to develop social entrepreneurship in their region as well as in the Irkutsk and the Trans-Baikal Region. In addition, we invited representatives of the WWF of the Altai Territory and conducted a 2-day training on project management and development of sustainable business models for green economy. At the end of the second day, two round tables were held – with representatives of civil society organisations and ministries of the Republic of Buryatiya, also a head of a regional district. Representatives of state-owned business structures joined us as well.
We saw, how important it is to speak even about well-known points on the UN Sustainable Development Strategy, and it seemed to me that we found common ground for the development of regional strategies for Southern Siberia, most of all for Buryatiya, regarding achieving the SDGs. We are very pleased that one of the results of our work in December 2017 was establishment of a Centre for Social Innovations and that the coordinator of our project now heads this centre. By the way, our colleagues have already found funding for the operation of this centre. We are also pleased that the creation of this centre is going hand in hand with a business incubator and that business coaches will be able to conduct trainings and seminars there, help young projects, find innovative solutions to issues and problems, and connect the civil sector with businesses.
The first impressions from the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum are quite positive, especially because of the interesting discussions and new contacts with NGOs from all over Europe – Italy, France, Scandinavia, or the Eastern Europe.
Since January 2018, the Forum has been fully functioning as a new legal entity. What would you like to wish members of the new association, present and future ones, and supporters of the Forum?
Solidarity and new ideas, new projects, development of communications between Forum members and supporters for the sake of building a joint civil society space in Europe.
The interview was recorded on 11 January 2018 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Forum e.V. in Berlin (Germany).