Activist Solidarity Across the EU-Russia Divide
European and Russian activists expressed support for Bulgaria’s environmental and human rights movements, demanded the release of the imprisoned head of Memorial in Grozny, Oyub Titiev, and exchanged lessons learned in upholding democratic rights and freedoms. These happened as part of the 8th General Assembly of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum (CSF), held in Sofia on May 15 – 17, 2018. The international event gathered independent critical voices from the EU and Russia at a time when democracy and European values are seen as being threatened.
The civic assembly in Sofia brought together over 100 CSF members, observers, official representatives and guest participants from EU member states and Russia. The forum addressed recent developments and ways to cooperate in the future. The values upon which the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is based are under threat in Russia and across some of the EU member states, warned Ralph du Long, co-chair of the Forum. Independent journalists and human rights activists are the ones most affected by this, Du Long pointed out.
“A healthy society is one where voices are diverse and people are free to express their view without fear”, said Riamondo Bussi, Deputy Head of Unit, Service for Foreign Policy Instruments, European Commission. He was the highest ranking EU official to attend the forum. Heads of state and high level EU officials were also in Sofia at the same time but attended the Western Balkans Summit, organised by the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Unfortunately, it has recently become more difficult for Russian civil society to contribute to public debate and decision-making, Bussi observed. He emphasised the importance of solidarity and representing civil society and human rights defenders, regardless if they belong to Russia or the EU.
During the past several years, laws were adopted in Russia to persecute activists named as foreign agents. Mass media inflict hatred on any critical voices, and the number of physical attacks by the so-called patriotic groups against journalists and activists are on the rise, explained Natalia Taubina of the Public Verdict Foundation in Moscow. However, despite the restrictions and oppressive laws, civil society in Russia remains active, she assured the forum. Increasing youth participation in street protests and plentiful activism via the internet create an opportunity to continue the work and fight for rights in Russia, Taubina explained.
At a flash mob in front of Russia’s embassy in Sofia, participants in the General Assembly demanded the release of Oyub Titiev, the imprisoned head of human rights’ watchdog Memorial in Grozny. Citizens of over 10 EU member states joined the action, as part of an international #FreeOyub/#FreeMemorial campaign. “Our colleague has been arrested without any plausible proof of his guilt. It is literally the question of life and death”, said Elena Zhemkova, Executive Director at Memorial International. Protesters’ demands included: a full and objective investigation of Oyub Titiev’s complaint that police officers planted drugs in his car for the purpose of detaining him; transferring the investigation from a regional to federal level; and the ultimate release of Titiev, as there are no legal grounds for his detention (see video report from the flash mob above).
Europe not immune to pressure
Currently women’s rights organizations in Poland are under various forms of pressure, claims Marcelina Zawisza, co-founder of the Razem party in Poland. Mass media often accuse them of being funded by US philanthropist and financial magnate George Soros or other foreign donors, Zawisza explained. At the same time, the government also prevents them from receiving Polish funding. As a result, crucial support facilities, including a hotline for victims of domestic violence, had to be shut down.
Zawisza was a co-organiser of the first ‘Black Protest’ back in October 2016, where women wore black to demand the right to an abortion. Polish law allows termination of a pregnancy for three reasons: when the pregnancy is a result of a crime; when the fetus is seriously damaged; and when the life of the woman is in danger, the activist said. The problem is that even these limited rights are not guaranteed for Polish women. “Women can’t get an abortion because doctors say they won’t do it”, Zawisza explained. In some cases women are refused medical treatment while they are pregnant because doctors are scared they would threaten the baby, she added.
“Because of the rise of neo-fascists and neo-Nazis in Poland people are scared. Those who have a different skin color or those who do not believe in the Catholic God get beaten”, said Zawisza. Her party, Razem, was founded to uphold the rights of women and other minorities against increasing governmental pressure. Rallies against this pressure involve more and more people, Zawisza reported. “People woke up and they want to do something because they don’t want to see their country destroyed”, she explained to BlueLink Stories.
Bulgaria losing ground since EU accession
Bulgaria’s first decade in the European Union was the subject of a heated discussion among activists at the forum. At a thematic session, experts in media, environment and civil society highlighted various challenges to the country’s state of democracy.
“In a democratic society there are three mechanism for protection: independent judiciary, effective and independent media and working civil society. In our democracies, the ones that are in transition, there are some shortcomings and these three mechanisms are practically not working”, warned Bulgarian Toma Belev, defender of the environment and rule of law.
Those who are corrupt fear investigative journalists and protests, said Yordan Karabinov of the newly funded Anticorruption Fund. The fight against corruption in Bulgaria is highly underfunded, and where EU funds are available, they are not channelled in the right way, he explained. Karabinov called upon the EU to start funding investigative journalism to expose corruption. NGOs also need to unite in the common goal to expose corruption as well, said Karabinov.
Protection of whistle-blowers is very weak in Bulgaria, Karabinov warned. “Our only hope is to lobby the EU to impose such protection, as corrupt governments hate whistle-blowers and are not interested in their protection”, he admitted.
Bulgaria’s ongoing presidency of the Council of the EU has not included a single event or initiative dedicated to human rights, pointed out Mariana Katzarova of the Society for Justice Foundation. She insisted that EU’s officials should demand member states, including Bulgaria, to actually live up to the EU’s human rights commitments.
It is tempting to blame Russia for the oppressive anti democratic trends and pressure against civil society, but nepotism, corruption and bad governance that exist within the EU are not necessarily designed in Moscow, said BlueLink’s executive editor Pavel Antonov, who attended the forum. It does not matter who bribes our corrupt officials, unethical journalists or public manipulators; what matters is that we should get rid of them and make sure that our democratic institutions defend our public interest adequately, Antonov highlighted.
It does not matter who bribes our corrupt officials, unethical journalists or public manipulators; what matters is that we should get rid of them!
Members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum signed a declaration in support of Bulgarian civil society organisations that engage in the struggle for rule of law and defend environmental, democratic, social justice and human rights norms of the EU. “We are concerned with the existing democratic deficits, revealed by the ongoing pressure by connected political and business interests with increasingly consolidating hold over mass media and democratic institutions against critical civil society voices in Bulgaria. We demand the urgent attention and decisive actions of Bulgaria’s authorities and the institutions of the European Union, whose Council of the Ministers Bulgaria currently presides upon”, the declaration reads.
The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum was established in 2011 as a network of thematically diverse non-governmental organisations from Russia and the European Union. It serves as a platform for members to engage in joint activities, articulate common positions, provide support and solidarity and exert civic influence on policy- and decision-making at the (inter)governmental level. Driven by a vision of “the civil society beyond borders”, the Forum brings together organisations and people and contributes to the integration between Russia and the EU, based on common values of pluralistic democracy, rule of law, human rights and social justice. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum often declares its firm position against various forms of pressure on democracy and civil society.
More BlueLink Stories about civil organisations and activists under pressure
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This journalistic article was published as a part of the project “Remembering Europe: Civil Society Under Pressure Again”, implemented by the BlueLink Foundation with co-funding from the EU’s Europe for Citizens Programme. No responsibility for the content of this articice could in any way be attributed to the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency and the European Commission. All responsibility for the content lies with the BlueLink Foundation.