Mr Melle, thank you very much for agreeing to give an interview to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. In March, DRA / German-Russian Exchange celebrates its 25th anniversary. Which projects and programmes can you emphasise throughout these 25 years? And what can the German-Russian Exchange be proud of?
I think that there are quite a few things to be proud of. The organisation started its operation in 1992. It was a time, when civil initiatives and organisations were appearing throughout Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia. For us, it was clear from the very beginning that supporting the growth of civil society was our main task. Thus, our range of activities was quite wide – starting with the NGO support centres in a number of Russian regions (St. Petersburg, Perm, Volgograd, Novosibirsk), which in the middle of the 1990s were transferred to Russian colleagues, who at that time were already able to do the work on their own. Since then, our focus has been on joint programmes developed in collaboration with various NGOs as well as on a cross-sectorial cooperation with educational institutions, regional and other agencies. Our topics changed as well. Initially, we focused on social aspects – programmes for homeless people, socially disadvantaged groups, etc. Our activities now also include an environmental programme, a history programme, and work with municipalities. There are new areas of our engagement – such as peacebuilding and mutual understanding, which is very important today. I think that one thing that has made a great contribution to the relations of Eastern European countries with Germany is a volunteer exchange. We invited volunteers to Western Europe, to Germany, and also sent volunteers to various Eastern European countries, primarily to Russia. We have worked with around 700 people during these years. Many of them have remained in this field. And I am talking not only about supporters but about active people, who now work in their own organisations, foundations, private companies, public service institutions or embarked upon a political career. A notable part of the German professional community working on Eastern Europe is alumni of the German-Russian Exchange programme.
Now the activities of the German-Russian Exchange include not only a volunteer exchange programme, not only Germany and Russia, but also other countries. What are the most relevant activities of your organisation at the moment?
Since the 1990s, we have been working not only with Russia. In 1998, we extended our programme range to Belarus and Ukraine. Then, step by step, cooperation with our partners in various European countries has developed. We have been engaged in quite big projects –citizens’ participation at the local level, civic education, etc. We realised the importance of our work with the renewed vigour from the beginning of 2014, when the annexation of Crimea took place and the war in the East of Ukraine broke out. Then, it became clear that it was vital to deal with the common European issues, try to restore peace and repair relations. Thus, we are now working quite a lot with Ukraine and dealing with the issues of Donbas. We are building a coalition of European organisations including Russian and Ukrainian NGOs for overcoming the war in Ukraine. There is another programme on civic education, which covers Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia and includes the topics of youth participation in civil activities and political initiatives. And there is a programme on environmental work with local civil society organisations at the city and regional level in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.
What kind of future do you see for the German-Russian Exchange? What other areas of activities are you currently developing?
I think that the German-Russian Exchange will develop further and extend its activities, as all issues we are now working at are included in a European and sometimes even in a global context. We perceive ourselves as an organisation, which intends to work and already works with different European countries, but our focus will still be on Eastern Europe. With that, I mean not only Russia but also Ukraine, Belarus, the post-Soviet space, the Baltic states as well as Central and Eastern Europe. We hope that Europe will remain an open society with open borders, good interstate relations, and mutual respect, where border issues are resolved once and forever. It is cooperation and not borders that matter. All topics, which can only emerge in civil society organisations and in a society, can affect us and become important for us. For now, these are migration issues that would stay for a longer period of time. Of course, we will apply our previous experiences in integrating the Russian-speaking population in Germany to other programs. We will continue working on the sustainable development of European countries in the field of ecology, environmental protection, etc. We will deal with the issues of social justice and inclusion of various groups in political processes. In general, our task is to support and contribute to the democratic development.
A few questions about the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. It is especially relevant as it was born here, at the German-Russian Exchange; in the other office located opposite this one, though. Why was it important to establish the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in 2011? How would you assess the development of the Forum throughout these years?
Hundreds of people have contributed to the development of the Forum so far. It would have not become a prominent, significant, and great, as it is now without these contributions. Indeed, the Forum was born at the German-Russian Exchange. In 2009, with the beginning of Dmitri Medvedev’s presidential term, a window of mutual understanding and a liberal approach to joint processes was opened. We saw an opportunity to develop EU-Russia relations. I created a working group at the German-Russian Exchange, we posed the question: ‘What to offer?’. And in autumn 2009, we developed a position paper with different proposals including more support to civil society organisations in Russia, new engagement programmes, visa rules facilitation… One of the points in the paper was the foundation of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. It was important that this process had a bottom-up nature and was not a state or an interstate initiative. This idea was put on the table, because the time had come. It seemed important to us that civil society organisations would find their own format of interaction. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum can cover all topics, formats, and countries. It is also capable of independently acting virtually in every process, if the positions are spelled out and developed professionally. It seems to me that such an influence of civil society organisations on their societies and on the common European space is the main goal of the Forum. It does matter from the citizens’ perspective and in light of their initiatives and joint vision, which still needs to be worked out. This is a dialogue, a process, in which people need to communicate and find their own points of view. This is a permanent task, which requires attention to one’s own circle of like-minded people and understanding of the societal development in the 21st century. We undertook a huge task, and many people started facing the challenge. It is possible to develop the Forum by including more people, creating open, transparent, and democratic structures from within. I think that the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum has a great future and an extremely useful and significant role.
What would you like to wish to the Forum’s members?
I wish prosperity to everyone in the broad sense of the word. I wish all Forum members to have an opportunity to operate freely, have close connections with the society and not experience repressions by any state or other structures. I wish all members to remain attentive to one’s own societies and environment, do what is important and necessary – interact with each other, find common grounds, become a united society, a prominent, amicable, and professional one, as well as play an important role in Europe.
Thank you very much for this interview.
The interview was recorded on 20 March 2017 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Berlin, Germany.