Ms Miezaine, your organisation – “Risinājumu darbnīca” (Workshop of Solutions) is inter alia involved in projects with international students coming to Latvia. Can you please describe the projects you implement and tell about the students, who have been involved in those?
Thank you for your interest. We really work with various countries, and our aim is primarily to promote involvement of people in decision-making. We understand this very wide and mean by that not only civil society organisations or NGOs but also people as such. People may be not always organised, it is responsibility of governments to learn their needs and opinions to shape policies. So, we do this in Latvia, and we promote those ideas in other countries. With Russia, we have been working in a format of study visits: We introduce our guests to organisations or local governments or ministries, which are quite good at learning people’s needs, communicating with them. And communicating not unilaterally like “we meet a decision – and they inform people” but really listening to the people – asking about planned policies, problems, and possible solutions. So it is where we are. “Workshop of Solutions” is always looking for policy solutions, which are good for people. We listen to different opinions and try to understand, how these interests can be reconciled.
We also worked in Moldova and Transnistria working together with NGOs and people from local governments. These people came together in order to discuss their daily work, which was getting better, especially for the socially vulnerable groups. Thinking together on how to address their needs, they became much more tolerant towards each other and started to develop projects together, have ideas together, think about each other in a better way. It is really hard for them, because they have tanks on borders and soldiers, which give a subconscious idea that there are enemies on the other bank of the Dniester River, particularly Moldovans. We try to make people establish good working relations. That is what we do.
Let’s come back to Latvia. Do you think that many people from other countries are interested in immigrating to Latvia or going for studies to Latvia? What is your current perception of this situation? How do you deal with those people?
Surely, there is an interest to come to Latvia. But as far as I have contacts with foreign students, for example, those, who study in Latvia, it is usually more like a gate to Europe for them, not a final destination for people to stay. And I think it is because it is very cold here, winters are quite cold. And our social system is not as generous as it is in other European countries. At the same time, there are people who come and stay. And usually those are romantics, probably. Yes, there are people who really love Latvia and decide to stay here. But the first idea for people to come is: ‘Oh, it is something like Europe, it is good to be there knowing only Russian language but not other European languages.’ Students come from Ukraine and elsewhere. They know or they have heard that they can survive in Latvia knowing Russian only. It is a “softer” way to come to Europe.
When we talk about the people going to Latvia, whom you have been working with, are these mostly people from the Eastern Partnership countries and Russia?
The population of foreign people in Latvia is quite diverse. We had projects with people from Nigeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, Turkey but also from the US and Canada. There is a diversity of people living here. And for sure, expectations of people from outside post-Soviet space are different in comparison to people from the former Soviet countries.
Are these expectations higher or lower?
They vary. People from the Western world usually think they would be more integrated with Latvian people, they would have more contacts, the Latvians would be more open towards them. Those with different skin color meet strangers staring at them. If you come to Latvia, you will see how homogenous society is here. Very few people with different skin color or of different origins. People are hesitant and not always welcome strangers. As it is elsewhere.
But it can also be changed to some extent, when new EU migration policies apply. While expecting migrants from outside the European Union, are you going to have projects with them? How are you preparing for that?
You are right, there can be new developments regarding asylum seekers in European countries, also in Latvia. Serious problems may evolve. There is a really very harsh debate now in the Latvian society about, who these people would be, what their aims are, what their plans are for coming to Latvia. There are two directions to work in. The first one is preparing people coming here about what Latvia is, what they can expect and what they would not get here, clarifying, why people are the way they are. Some historic knowledge helps to understand Latvians: Why they are strange, cold, or not-welcoming. And, on the other hand, it is something to work with the local society explaining to them, who these people are. It is about providing opportunities to them to come together, to meet each other under normal conditions and to find out that they are normal people with feelings, emotions, knowledge, expectations, stories, etc.
And what we always try to do in our workshops is not-touching the issues of values. We know that they cannot be resolved in a debate. Values are important for everybody. They are individual. We do try to find things, which are in common – how you cook or spend spare time, which music is your favourite one, what we can build together, how we care for our kids, how we paint… Those are the things, which unite nations. This is what we start from, when we want to build communication between people. It is about particular people and not about groups of people – Christians are like this or Muslims are like that. We have an individual approach. My perception is that everybody in the society forms his/her opinion through their own experience.
I also have a question regarding your membership in the LAPAS Association uniting different NGOs from all over the country. It is also a member in the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. What is your involvement in its activities? There is a big event held by the Lapas Association – Attistības Forums, or the Development Forum. Should you have been there, perhaps, you will be able to share your impressions.
Latvian Association for Development Assistance is an organisation for those, who think we are not alone here in Latvia but everything we do here somehow is related to other countries and the world. There are organisations for sustainable development and economical use of resources or sustainable consumption in the Association structure. What I buy in a shop affects other countries, children living in China, for example. And there are also organisations like ours, which really go to other countries and provide technical assistance.
We also have a wonderful organisation, which helps families in Guatemala, for whom Latvian people can donate money. This organization buys hens in Guatemala from farmers and donate money to a particular family, whose life becomes better: For instance, a child gets an egg every morning for breakfast – and it is a lot in Guatemala.
Regarding the Development Forum, I wasn’t there this time. My perception is that it is all about those ideas, how the world is interconnected and how behavior in one country affects others. If they misbehave here, life in another country becomes worse.
It is very good that you mentioned this interconnection of the world. The motto of your organisation – “Workshop of Solutions” – is: ’Everything Has More than One Solution.’ If we talk about the EU-Russia relations now, what are the challenges and what are the possible solutions for the evolved crisis?
I wish I knew… What I know and what I can do is to support small projects or implement small projects, which affect perhaps only few people, but I think this public diplomacy is something to keep alive. And all this information that there are enemies living in Russia, that everyone wants to invade Latvia or that it is bad to go there and have any relations with people in Russia – this is too exaggerated. We lose opportunities to tell people, what we really think and what those people in Russia think about us. Public diplomacy is something that should be promoted and which we are trying to promote.
Actually, that is what the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum does as well. And my last question would be: What would you like to wish to the Forum members?
It is very important that you can say after another project: ‘OK, this was not for the sake of report, this was for people, and we felt it had benefited participants of the project.’ Then it means it was worth having done this.
Thank you very much for the interview.
The interview was shot on 12 August 2015 via Skype by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.