Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

In The Shadows Of Successes

Andrei Yahorau
Center for European Transformation

The second Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership in Berlin was marked again by successes of the Belarusian delegation which, just like at the first Forum, looked a more prepared, substantially provided, and harmonious team. It introduced and promoted the ideas of “road maps” and a deeper substantial study of the recommendations of the Forum, and they actually dominated both in the groups’ work and at the only full-fledged plenary session. The idea to form National Platforms, which was perceived suspiciously by the first meeting in Brussels, was now almost unequivocally supported and approved by colleagues from civil society and high representatives of the European Commission. The delegates from civil society of Belarus were elected speakers of the whole Forum for the second time, which symbolically fixes quite deserved leadership. However, these positive moments should not cover all those serious blunders and defects that have not allowed the second Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership to implement its possibilities to the full. It is especially dangerous that all those errors have a non-random and consequently as though pardonable character. The majority of failures reveal chronic, structural illnesses of civil society of Belarus and the countries of the Eastern Partnership.

Unutilized opportunities

Civil societies of all partner-countries lack a strategic vision of their own development, development of their country, and the understanding of the meaning and purpose of the Eastern Partnership. Nowhere, including Belarus, is there full-fledged comprehension of the mission and role of civil society; there is no self-determination of civil society as an independent actor who work, first of all, on its own account. This lack of “actorization” comes to light in the dependent conceptualization about the role of civil society. The Forum and its participants are thought to have rather nebulous functions such as to provide recommendations, to control and monitor, but these functions are still not filled substantially. The Steering Committee of the Forum has not realized its political position, perceiving itself in a bigger degree as a subordinated element of the Eastern Partnership.

The minimal success in the advancement of the idea of “road maps” has to do, first of all, with the fact that there were no other proposals at the Forum. Still, the "road maps" are an element of a more general system of open coordination and monitoring of a multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership. When it is absent, the “road maps” are only a variant of formatting recommendations for the EU structures and national governments (similar to policy papers or other similar documents), a description of certain strategies of actions for civil society itself. Such a format is a step forward, but very weak and vague. The second Civil Society Forum has actually missed a chance to become “the ideological leader” for the Eastern Partnership. Free and independent organizations of civil society, which are not bound by numerous formal frameworks and diplomatic conventionalities of national and European governments, could become an objective critic of the Eastern Partnership and its most courageous strategist. They could, but it has not happened.

It has not taken place because of two fundamental reasons: due to the format of the organization of the work of the Forum, and because of the failure of the substantial work between the two Forums (in Brussels and Berlin). The format of the Forum was built in the worst traditions of the organization of similar actions. Elements of substantiality, publicity, and discussion were reduced to the minimum. Actually, the things gained by the Belarusian delegation at the first Forum, i.e. publicity and a strategic character of work, were totally absent in the work of the second Forum. It was expressed, for example, in the absence of full-fledged plenary sessions. At the second Forum, they were presented as monologue presentations of positions of high representatives of the EU or the same monologue reports on the work of the thematic groups. Only the last plenary session had some dialogue character. The group work, as a whole, was also ill-meaningful as neither moderators, nor majority of participants had any idea of what they had to do.

It is possible to speak about difficult working conditions of the Steering Committee of the Forum, which did a huge work on a free-of-charge basis, in the absence of the secretariat and resources, having contradictions in communication with the European Commission and the Economic and Social Committee, having almost no time for preparation, etc. It is true, and it is necessary to appreciate it. Still, it does not remove the appeared problems and does not correct mistakes. Procedural errors are not so difficult to correct if to understand and admit them.

The organization of work between the Forums is much worse. During the elapsed year, the basic achievement of civil society of the countries of the Eastern Partnership is a building of National Platforms. Such platforms have been created in all countries, except for Moldova and Ukraine. But how will the work of these National Platforms be organized? What is their meaning and task? In different countries, there are various attitudes towards and understanding of them. In the absence of adjusted communication between civil society organizations of the partner-countries, this fact will lead to an increasing gap between civil societies and National Platforms of the EaP countries.

Prospects of the Eastern Partnership receive very different estimations in the countries of the Eastern Partnership. Ukraine and Moldova, both at the official level and at the level of civil society, feel some disappointment in the Eastern Partnership which does not offer any prospects of membership in the EU. In other countries, on the contrary, even the declared advantages of the Eastern Partnership in the form of creation of a zone of profound trade, visa liberalization, or infrastructural investments, etc. seem little realistic. At the level of the whole initiative, this skepticism creates a problem of general passivity of the partner-countries and their civil societies. The Eastern Partnership and EU are expected to propose clear and ponderable incentives (“carrots”) in order to widen and intensify participation in the initiative.

Civil society also waits for such offers from the EU and, in a sense, receives signs that such stimuli exist. The European Commission, at least at the rhetoric level, is inclined to expand participation and growth of the role of civil society in the Eastern Partnership. Nowadays, Belarus is proposed a rather tempting prospect of opening a tripartite “structural dialogue” with participation of the European Commission and the Belarusian authorities. However, one has to manage to notice the presence of the stimuli and prospects in the offered formats, which is not always an easy thing to do. Civil society, not having any clear program and strategy of its own development, often does not recognize the proposed chances and childishly takes offence, saying that “too little” is offered to us, or rejects any suggestions at once as they “cannot be implemented”.

Political role and format of the work of the Forum

Let's imagine the Forum not as a single event (as it is now), but as a certain structure, platform, where strategic proposals and opinions of civil society are presented and where decisions are made (as it should be). In such a statement of tasks, it becomes obvious that there must be someone who has to prepare solutions and decisions. Such decisions can be prepared by multilateral expert groups requested by the National platforms, and then they are to pass three circles of coordination and decision-making: at the National Platforms, at meetings of thematic working groups of the Forum, and actually at the Forum. Decisions and offers should be prepared by experts during a long period of time (5-6 months), while meetings of thematic groups and the Forum itself should not develop any recommendations. The Forum should discuss the already prepared alternative proposals, accept or reject them, and solve questions of the policy and strategy of the Forum and the Eastern Partnership. This, apparently, clear and reasonable format of the work, as it happened, is the most difficult thing to implement.

The Belarusians have shown their ability to work out “road maps”, but there is no confidence that it will serve as a stimulus for a similar work in other countries, as there is no confidence that there is any understanding of the necessity in coordination of these “road maps” between different countries. There is no-one to organize this process, except for national coordinators, coordinators of working groups of the Forum, and representatives of the National Platforms. Still, they do not have such a duty, therefore there are no guarantees that this work will be done, either.

The organization and definition of the format of the work of the Forum now is in the competence of the Steering Committee. Its creation at the first Forum was aimed at making the Civil Society Forum a full-fledged political subject within the scope of the Eastern Partnership. However, during the work, instead of a political structure, the Steering Committee turns into a secretarial device or a free subcommittee of the European Commission. In many respects, it is the result of a combination of political and administrative functions where the latter supersedes the former. The forces and volunteers’ enthusiasm are used for coordination.

Besides, the performance of the political function is hampered by doubts in the legitimacy of the Steering Committee of the Forum, as well as in that of the Forum itself. Delegates of the Forum can represent only the National Platforms of civil society, organized according to the principle of maximal openness. In case of the absence of National Platforms, delegates represent nobody, but themselves, and national coordinators have nothing to coordinate. Now when National Platforms are formed in the majority of the countries, the legitimacy of the Forum should grow. It is a formal condition of a growth of the political value of the Forum. Still, besides formal conditions, actual leaders of the Steering Committee should change their understanding about themselves and about the role of the Forum.

It is bureaucratization (the performance of administrative and coordinating functions to the detriment of political ones) of the Steering Committee has not allowed it to bring the most important and vital issues into the general discussion. Namely: where to and how should the Eastern Partnership develop? Has it advanced? What is the actual role and tasks of the Civil Society Forum? These are the basic strategic questions which were only casually mentioned by participants. When there is such a format of discussions where everyone has the right to speak while there are no preliminary, already discussed documents, no strategic decisions could be accepted. Meanwhile, strategic workings-out were offered in March, 2010.

Threats and challenges of Belarusian civil society

Besides the general problems, the basic obstacles and threats for development of the National Platform of civil society in Belarus are not overcome, either. As it was predicted, there was a natural recession of dynamics and intensity of activity on the Eastern Partnership. Working, routine questions of preparation of road maps and development of the National Platform do not cause any special enthusiasm neither among journalists, nor civil society. The delay of intensity of work opens possibilities for interception of the initiative in the Eastern Partnership from civil society by the state, which was brightly shown by the attempt of building the “vertical” of civil society in August-November, 2010.

The active opposition to attempts of imitation of a dialogue with civil society has led to a temporary intensification and bigger unity of some consolidated organizations of civil society around the National Platform. But this unity should not mask the fact that there are serious contradictions and a competition for leadership inside the organizing committee of the National platform. It can be both factor of its development and step to its débâcle. Meanwhile, the generality of interests cements the fragile unity of the coalition, but the recession of the external pressure and a transition in a slow working process will strengthen centrifugal tendencies.

The absence of a uniform strategic platform or program does not promote consolidation, either. The majority of Belarus’ civil society organizations has got used to live and work in the regime of short-term projects and small tasks, while major tasks and problems of a national level have no short-term solutions. Without civil society organizations’ acceptance of the national program and uniform strategy of the National platform, they will hardly be able to keep their leadership.

Plans and prospects of the nearest period

The primary goal at the national level is development of the National platform:

  1. Today, civil society of Belarus can conditionally enough be divided into political parties, civil and political campaigns, trade unions, associations of employers, organizations of civil society, etc. All these structures do not basically differ as for their political value, functions, personnel structure, and activity forms. Still, there is a number of barriers and obstacles for their joint activity. These obstacles must be eliminated by expanding the structure of participants of the National platform on the threshold of the beginning of the structural dialogue. Actually, the dialogue between all subjects of civil society about the uniform platform and strategy of actions should become the first step to the beginning of the structural dialogue.
  2. The National platform should coordinate the conceptualization (concept) on the essence and procedure of the structural dialogue, issued as a document (or documents). This concept should have several forms of its usage and serve:
    1. as a guide to actions for the National platform and interested organizations of civil society;
    2. as a “model” process for the National platforms of the other partner-countries and the Steering Committee of the Forum;
    3. as an official proposal about the beginning of the structural dialogue for the European Commission;
    4. as an official proposal about the beginning of the structural dialogue for the Public Coordination Council and the Administration of the President.

At the level of the countries of the region of the Eastern Partnership, the primary goal is to strengthen regional cooperation between civil societies in order to:

  1. form expert working groups which should work out road maps and carry out monitoring researches;
  2. promote the idea of the open coordination method for the Eastern Partnership.

At the level of the Steering Committee of the Eastern Partnership, the primary goal is to strengthen its own political and strategic function:

  1. The Steering Committee should begin a procedure of working out and coordinating the concept of the further development of the Forum, as well as work out strategic offers for the Eastern Partnership as a whole. On the threshold of the summit of the Eastern Partnership in May, 2011, the voice of civil society will be in demand, and it is necessary to be ready to present substantial offers.
  2. The Steering Committee should initiate a number of missives, inquiries, and launch official communication with the structures of the Eastern Partnership. In particular, the Steering Committee should react on:
    1. statements of the Economic and Social Committee on the limited presence of representatives of parties of the social dialogue (trade unions and unions of employers) in the work of the Forum;
    2. the actual format and restriction of participation of representatives of civil society in the work of interstate platforms (in particular, on the official note of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs);
    3. the statement of European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle about the necessity to widen civil society’s participation in the initiative and to grant bigger access to the information with a proposal of ways to solve this task.

Project funded by the European UnionEU