Working group:
Values and People

Co-chairs: Zhanna Nemtsova and Rostislav Valvoda

This working group looked at the importance of shared values and mutual contacts in the context of the evolving relationship between EU and Russia as well as ways to ensure a European future for Russia. The instruments of cooperation between European institutions and civil society in Russia were broadly discussed.

The space for dialogue between Russia and the EU is narrowing, and today it is crucial for Russian and European activists to find common ground to maintain cooperation and make sure that this space does not disappear completely. The current regime has been relentlessly pushing for a democratic rollback in Russia, though, as this working group noted, it is not just a Russian problem—many Western countries are facing similar challenges as the ultra-right and ultra-left forces are gaining momentum across the globe.

Among some of the issues obstructing the EU-Russia civil dialogue are the numerous controversial laws passed by the Russian parliament, e.g. the so-called Yarovaya law and the “foreign agents” law. The former requires all companies working in Russia to keep their data inside the country, thus potentially undermining the privacy and security of their business operations. The latter requires that nonprofit organizations receiving foreign funding for what can be viewed as political activity (and the definition of such an activity is too vague, according to many legal experts) should be registered as “foreign agents” by the Ministry of Justice. The “foreign agents” law is especially damaging for Russia’s already fragile civil society, as many of the NGOs labeled as “foreign agents” risk losing their funding, which will eventually lead to their extinction.

Another obstruction for the dialogue mentioned by the working group is the corruption issue facing many Western companies working in Russia. One of the costs of doing business in Russia is constant exposure to the Kremlin’s corruption networks that pollute business standards and procedures forcing these companies to become enmeshed in the country’s corrupt system.

At the moment, one of the most promising areas for dialogue might be culture, however, the Russian state has been intervening in this sphere as well in its effort to take control over the remaining freedoms of expression in the country. These efforts have become more persistent as political protest has been increasingly taking an artistic form. Despite these challenges, cultural initiatives are still widespread in Russia, offering an outlet for civil society development via cultural exchange with Europe.

According to the working group, the EU’s support for Russian civil society is crucial. Moreover, by providing support, the EU strengthens its own democratic values and invests in a better future. Therefore, the group argued that the EU should open all possible channels of cooperation to foster dialogue in areas that truly matter to people, such as science, culture, sports, and youth exchanges — albeit, without political undertones.

For example, scientific cooperation could be facilitated by holding international conferences to which Russian scientists would be invited to collaborate with their Western counterparts. A suggestion was put forward that scientists from Crimea should not be banned from the global scientific community, because their isolation is extremely harmful for scientific development in the region.

In terms of cultural cooperation, some participants suggested that the EU should offer support to art projects in Russia as art is currently facing difficulties because it often takes a form of  political protest and thus becomes subject to government control. However, others cautioned that such a shift from supporting traditional civil society organizations to supporting art, may endanger the latter, especially given the growing domestic pressure from the state.

As for youth exchanges, the working group observed that the currently suspended dialogue on visa facilitation could eventually progress to ensure greater people-to-people engagement, especially for those aged 25 and younger. An argument was made that young Russians should be able to travel to the EU countries without a visa. Currently, the EU visa application process is a time-consuming and expensive process, which makes foreign travel impossible for many young people in Russia. Short-term visits (for several days only) could provide an opportunity for them to see how Europe lives and works and overcome myths and falsehoods promoted by the Kremlin propaganda.

Discussing a different set of initiatives that could stimulate the EU-Russia dialogue, the working group argued that there are many people in Russia who adhere to European values and work tirelessly to defend their rights, including by bringing their cases to court. It was suggested that the Russian opposition would benefit from participating in court hearings held by both European and non-European organizations since this will help members of the opposition become better informed and more experienced in terms of legal procedures and defences. Publishing and distributing court speeches in the media would be helpful as well.

In the same vein, a discussion was held on how the EU member states should leverage Russia’s membership in values-based organizations, such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE to ensure that the Russian government respects human rights and democratic values.

The group concluded that genuine and lasting cooperation between the EU and Russia could only be based on trust. Given the damage caused by the Kremlin propaganda campaign, restoration of trust will be a challenging and, likely, lengthy process. But it is the only way forward. The participants agreed that there are enough active people on both sides willing to restore mutual trust, foster people-to-people dialogue, and build a better, more genuine relationship together.

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