Building Bridges - New Dialogue for Russian Civil Society




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Mar 03, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Building Bridges - New Dialogue for Russian Civil Society

Symposium to address challenges currently facing civil society in Russia to harbor new understanding and participation in “Euro-Atlantic” relations.   Russian Civil Society Symposium: Building Bridges to the Future (April 1 to 4, 2014)

Winston Churchill famously quipped that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. In a different century, that has seen massive global changes in the intervening decades, the remark still generates a certain resonance today; Russia remains at odds with Europe, Asia and the United States on many issues.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1990s opened with the promise of a hugely increased civil society sector in Russia, instigating hopes for effective and efficient social institutions both on a national and international scene. The new era ushered in the idea of a Russia that would not only revolutionise its social position, but reimagine its global power, providing positive geo-political support and aid.

However, this vision has been dismantled of late. Strains on political relationships in the Euro-Atlantic community have struck a chord of dissonance on an international level. The 2011 Democracy Index argued that Russia had, in the past decade, entered once more into “a long process of regression [that] culminated in a move from a hybrid to an authoritarian regime”, levelling accusations at the candidacy plans of then President-elect, Vladimir Putin.

Recent developments in civil society have culminated in a dialogue breakdown. Whilst the world watches the Winter Olympic Games, a symbolic boycott sees few world leaders attend the event. Following Russia’s tough stance on LGBT laws, the homosexual community faces increased discrimination thanks to imposed propaganda laws.

But this is not the only civil blockade in Russian society. Increased restrictions on demonstrations now leaves little room for Russians to question laws and express their dissatisfaction. After a brief sojourn from state control, media autonomy is lacking in the country, and actors have a limited output to express change. An oligarchic society is reforming, with a narrow elite, uninterested in general state problems. Russian unemployment rates remain at almost double the level of Communist Russia, totalling 8% of the labour force.

Internationally, Russia stands accused of providing asylum to Edward Snowden and is viewed as a catalyst for mounting antagonism in Ukraine. Both internally and externally, there is an intensifying malaise surrounding Russian policies.

At the session, Russian Civil Society Symposium: Building Bridges to the Future, hosted from April 1 to 4 at Schloss Leopoldskron, participants will be invited to consider the role of Russia and its civil society in a wider context, reflecting on exchanging culture, the ways in which the former soviet bloc has moved to integrate itself into Western traditions and how to further overcome disparities in cultural norms that threaten to destroy links with the East.

In order to promote an open discourse and exchange, the Symposium will bring together respected leaders and thinkers, including representatives of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), legal experts and financial entrepreneurs. They aim to critically assess recent developments in the civil society structures in Russia, promote an understanding of power dynamics and identify key areas in which civil society interventions may help to promote a more harmonious relationship both nationally and internationally.

Participants will question the role of domestic and international donors in effecting change, which legal frameworks hamper civil society developments, and what tools and dialogue can be used to better promote an environment for change. These far-reaching questions will involve considering the legal, economic, and political frameworks through which to generate civil change, be it in culture, education, or social justice.

In addition to presentations, there will be individual working groups to examine specific ideas in greater detail, and encourage participants to share experiences from their own cultures and countries.

“Russia will not soon become, if it ever becomes, a second copy of the United States or England” declared Putin when re-elected President. The symposium aims at addressing this head on: how to develop a Russian civil society that does not mirror other countries, but that can enjoy a fruitful international relationship. Following a century of continuous political, cultural and economic upheaval and revolutions, international will needs to ensure that there are no more walls to scale or curtains to lift.

For more information, please see the session page: