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Solidarity in times of troubles: central and east European NGOs discuss mutual aid under the conservative turn

Is solidarity possible anymore? What practical steps can civil society take when national borders and space for voluntary sector are closing?

March 2018 rally against Polish government's proposed new legislation on abortions. Photo: Jaap Arriens/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.With the resurgence of right-wing political movements across Europe and the US, solidarity across societies and their members is becoming more and more difficult to maintain. Big cities are haunted by gentrification and ethnic segregation; smaller towns are struggling to keep their communities intact against the unemployment and outward migration. How can we support solidarity in times of the conservative turn, and what is the role of the civil society here?

The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is fighting to keep ties between NGOs, governments and international organisations alive in Europe today. Solidarity is the Forum’s key principle: the Forum currently unites 133 organisations across different fields of interest and different countries.

A significant thrust of Forum’s energy is directed towards educating NGO professionals across Russia and EU. Europe Lab, a summer school for Forum members, takes place annually in different locations. The 2017 Europe Lab was held in the European Center for Solidarity in Gdansk and the choice of location has determined the focus of most events.

Here, oDR speaks to Europe Lab alumni to find out what solidarity means to them in practical terms –  and about what needs to be done to preserve it in times of conservative turn. Our interviewees are:

Anna Szilágyi-Nagy at kultúrAktív, Hungary –  an NGO engaging in environment education and urban development based in Pécs.

Krzysztof Mrozek at Stefan Batory Foundation, Poland –  a debate platform and a grant donor to non-governmental organisations engaged in public benefit activity in Poland and in Central and Eastern Europe.

Natalia Zviagina at Interregional Human Rights Group, Russia –  an advocacy and research hub based in Voronezh. Natalia also coordinates the Forum’s expert group on migration.

What does solidarity mean to you as civil society activists?

Krzysztof: Solidarity is a big topic in Poland because, well, first of all, it is the country of Solidarity, a major political movement. We are used to references to “solidarity” in most aspects of public life in Poland but usually it’s without any content, often it’s just a political slogan. One has to be very careful in Poland when using this concept. But I think we do practise solidarity quite a lot here in the Stefan Batory Foundation. I can give you more than one example from my own work for the Foundation’s international programme, Open Europe.

Just recently we have conducted Polish-Ukrainian Forum concerning the conflict over history politics between Poland and Ukraine. The conflict is about massacres in the borderlands that happened during the Second World War; Poland still cannot agree with our Ukrainian neighbours about the common interpretation of these events. And now as both governments in Kyiv and Warsaw are trying to strengthen their positions, the topic came back with a very intense discourse –  anti-Ukrainian in Poland and anti-Polish in Ukraine. We conducted this Polish-Ukrainian Forum where historians, experts, politicians, journalists were discussing this issue.

We do not seek to achieve absolute agreement, but we set out to have an open discussion about issues we disagree upon

We didn’t expect them to come up with the interpretation of the massacres of the 1940s everyone would agree on. Instead, we were trying to find out how we deal with the problem in the current political context, and I think this describes our understanding of solidarity quite well. We do not seek to achieve absolute agreement, but we set out to have an open discussion about issues we disagree upon.

Anna: The NGO I work for is called kultúrAktív, and the bulk of our work is about environment education for children and youths. Our projects are about solidarity in urban life, we are aiming to show young people ways in which they can relate to the city, participate in it, make decisions about city life. To us solidarity is related to this local, proactive approach to urban environment and urban communities. For example, together with our partners in Russia and Belarus we developed a year-long urban game called PlayHelloCity which ran in Törökbálint, Minsk and Perm. In the course of 52 weeks, participants across different cities got a card with a very small and simple challenge, like “go and out talk to someone”, or “go to a neighborhood you haven’t been to previously”. The purpose is to challenge yourself a little bit and get out of everyday environment.

Source: kultúrAktív.The game sites were very different: Törökbálint has only 15,000 people, Minsk has two million and Perm has 1.5 million. So, we really tried to make it flexible, and the experiences were very different. Our participants shared their impressions on Facebook in their own national groups, but in future we would like to create a common platform for all participants across cities and countries and share our observations so that we have a better understanding not just of our own perspective but also of the others.

So, to summarise: for us solidarity is local and very tangible.

Natalia: Solidarity, cooperation, mutual support ... Due to the historical experience of Russia, in my opinion, solidarity has left ideas behind the word. In a good way.

Today, when we organise crowdfunding campaigns to support NGO projects it is much easier to involve older people –  who are prone to conservatism – via appeals to their Soviet experience of solidarity. People remember how, for example, they sent letters of support to Angela Davis. The whole of the USSR advocated her liberation: people bought souvenirs to raise funds, they wrote letters to her and to authorities of another country.

Today, memories of this experience help people to donate to support human rights projects, modern political prisoners. Last year, Angela Davis spoke on a women's march on the same stage with Madonna and modern pop-stars. Probably, it would be possible to start talking about the rights of women in our country from this news. We have not tried it yet, unfortunately.

It can be said that today civil society has taken this solidarity value from left-wing organisations. Now this is monopolised from the left only. It is very important for our organisation that we support each other with our colleagues. For example, we teamed up with the Human Rights House in one city.

International solidarity is also very important. For me, Solidarity is very much associated with the experience and practice of the largest human rights organisation, Amnesty International. It works when not only the leaders of the countries but also ordinary people from all over the world reminded the Turkish president that it is necessary to release people arrested on political charges, including the director of the office of Amnesty International. By the way, many years ago Amnesty supported Erdogan himself, who was arrested for his poems. Then he said it was quite different because he was accused really unfairly ... Nevertheless, solidarity was important that time and from now on.

Your organisations operate in countries that are experiencing a conservative turn. You work in an atmosphere where more effort is being put into disengaging people from each other, rather than building an agenda for everyone. How does this affect your work? Do you feel understood and supported by local authorities, by the government, or are you increasingly finding yourself in conflict with the state agenda?

Anna: All our activities are connected to local identity and local urban scale, so we have several projects in which we bridge youths and their opinion and municipalities. And I wouldn’t say that in Hungary there’s such interest in these kinds of community-based design and planning processes.

When we do these kinds of programmes we always want to have small achievements, like a one-day event, or an exhibition in a city where it is not a traditional format of public forums. When municipalities hold public hearings on programmes they develop, there is some discussion space, of course, but often it turns into a stressful environment where people step up shouting at each other. Exhibitions are less stressful, it is a better place for young people to come and they can express their needs and opinions about how the city should change. I think those are very motivating moments for municipal workers, too, when they got feedback about what they did earlier.

Normally when all you have is a paper-based communication process, you only get feedback when something goes wrong. So I think this is important to build processes in which public sphere and the civil servant can build a constructive dialogue and truly discuss something and give feedback. For this you need an environment that is comfortable and safe for all participants, rather than a situation when everyone just wants to protect themselves.

Krzysztof: When it comes to relations with the authorities, since Law and Justice won the parliamentary election in 2015, the Batory Foundation has been openly criticised by government representatives. Besides, we were established by George Soros which is also very controversial now, not as much as in Hungary, but getting there. On several occasions, we were criticised on state media for being connected to corrupt judges and foreign funding, in a violent, offensive way.

We’ve never had such good cooperation with other organisations to maintain our independence

We criticise actions of the current government publicly, we issue recommendations that they seem not to listen to, we organise press conferences, we contribute to public hearings on proposed pieces of legislation that concern not only the state of civil society but in general the freedoms of individuals in Poland. The government tries to link us to political opposition but that’s not true because we aren’t leaning to any political parties. In short, the relations with the government are bad.

The positive aspect of this stand-off is that it is strengthening solidarity among civil society organisations. We’ve never had such good cooperation with other organisations to maintain our independence.

Natalia: I have many friends in the international Youth Human Rights Movement network. Solidarity as a willingness to support participants when others are under pressure is not just a value in this community. This is something like a code of ethics. Good manners and vital necessity. For example, there were many cases when activists, who faced the risk of arrest in Belarus, came to Russia to live until the danger is over. Now there are many programmes to protect human rights defenders, but you can not have enough time to be included to such programmes and friends can help you faster.

Krzysztof has talked about some important issues. Russian independent activists and NGOs are trapped by marginalisation. Because of external threats, we spend more time protecting our NGOs and helping other NGOs to survive and preserve public institutions. We started interact more closely within our communities because of the limited resources. This is important –  it's easier to defend ourselves. But the living organism renews and expands. And it is very important to find the strength to look for reasons for expanding our audience and to find new supporters.

Indeed, external pressure from the government can sometimes increase the level of solidarity across the whole civil society sector. Some Russian activists also believe that in their country the adoption of the foreign agent law has also increased solidarity in the third sector. In particular, multiple human rights organisations and law-defending organisations have sprung to defend the third sector from the outcomes of this foreign agent law. What does cooperation between NGOs look like in your countries?

Krzysztof: I will start with a more general remark. The central government here in Warsaw tries to undermine the solidarity among the civil society organisations by passing legislation that practically allows them to choose who to finance and who to deprive from public funding. We have a nationwide Forum of Polish NGOs where we try to build very strong solidarity and cooperation between organisations so the government sees that we’re a big an equal partner for a debate.

Also, we started to cooperate conservative NGOs, supportive or neutral towards current government, on –  for instance – developing funding schemes that we could recommend to the government, so that no organisation’s excluded and the process is transparent and efficient. So this could be one example: we want to include anyone who’s interested in working on the new system of funding or some basic freedoms, the rule of law, things that we could agree on. So we have to find the basis on which we could agree and then develop it. We realised that we are not that different in the end in terms of our challenges and achievements as organisations.

Anna: In Hungary, we also have very similar tendencies and the situation for NGOs is not that different. We used to have many many local, very small initiatives dependent on governmental funds, however, now these kinds of financial base are closed or limited. We need to learn how to find other sources, like strengthening private donations, professionalise fundraising, build up social enterprises. These kinds of financial limitations can push us to think differently and establish a bigger freedom, financially and mentally alike.

Words of support could only be, “well, guys, you’re not alone”

With the increase of administrative duties it is quite challenging to be an NGO because we can’t access expensive lawyers and this kind of legal help. This kind of administrative year-by-year renewal can be very tough for small NGOs.

And also, I wanted to add: I’m not sure if it’s the same, the foreign agent law, but now we also have this law that we need to register if we are financed by foreign donations. And like in Russia, we also have a law now that requires all organisations with foreign donations to get registered.

Natalia: I observe how the restrictions of the NGOs activities at the national level contribute to the development of international cooperation. Some NGOs don’t have the opportunity to share their experience with colleagues in the country, but they can go abroad for such communication. Thus, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum appeared and has developed. On its platform, Russian NGOs discussed a situation with the law on foreign agents in Hungary the most active. This is also a good example of how society is rebuilt. International solidarity in action.

Civil organisations is like a motorbike rider. He can be weaker and smaller, but it is easier to go forward, especially in a traffic jam. Massive trucks are standing. Individual vehicles are standing still. The motorcyclist passes between them like a snake and moves forward.

How is the cooperation with your Russian colleagues working out since the foreign agents law has been passed?

Natalia: We did the reverse. Because of this new law, we decided to have an institutional partners in Poland and Romania. Not as an organisation, but as a group of people, we organised the INLAR project, the International network of legal assistance to refugees, with lawyers from these countries. In our opinion, especially at the time of creation of this project it was an important problem for the whole Europe and we wanted to be able to contribute to a solution. Now we are trying to register NGOs in Poland.

For me, this is an opportunity to be useful and not get stuck in the world of one country, which goes mad. International cooperation helps to maintain a positive view on the world. All countries around are not enemies, viceversa foreign people are partners that you can cooperate with. We can help them, they to us.

Is there anything from your perspective that you could recommend to Russian NGOs who are in a similar situation to the NGOs in Poland and Hungary?

Krzysztof: Situation of NGOs in Poland, Hungary and Russia is different, but some attempts to control the civil society by the government have common denominator. Words of support could only be, “well, guys, you’re not alone”.

Natalia: It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, try not to get caught up in your own problems. Always try to rely on the experience of other countries and regions. Situations that appear new to you might have already been in place, and there are people who have coped with them. Organise common projects with countries who can still collaborate with even if your possibilities are limited. Recommend support and solutions to colleagues who are facing difficulties, and try to get new people and supporters on your side so that you don’t remain isolated during a rough stretch.

 


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