Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

The Civil Society Forum as an innovation within the Eastern Partnership: the experience of the first two years

Ulad Vialichka
Chairperson of International Consortium EUROBELARUS
Co-chair of the EaP Civil Society Forum’s Steering Committee.

If someone had told me back in 2007 that the European Union would soon extend a special political initiative directly towards the new Eastern European countries bordering Russia, I certainly wouldn't have taken the news seriously. There was not enough reason to believe that the European Union would have any particular vision of how to develop relations with those countries at all. However, today this idea has been embodied in a number of factors and causes, in the form of the Eastern Partnership, and it has become a political reality which largely determines the development not only of bilateral relations, but also throughout the region as a whole. A special place in the Eastern Partnership is occupied by the ‘non-governmental dimension’ of these international contacts – the Civil Society Forum, which was established and is evolving within the framework of this initiative.

How did the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum come about, and what is unique about it?

It’s not much of an exaggeration for me to call it an innovation. Moreover, an innovation which was born as a result of the efforts of various players. Traditionally it is accepted that international relations develop in the form of inter-state (or at a pinch, inter-parliamentary) contacts, and there is no room for civil society. At best, non-governmental actors in these circumstances are only needed to carry out monitoring functions (as watch-dogs). The European Commission officials were most likely thinking in this standard way, when they formulated their ideas within the concept that the Civil Society Forum would be just a yearly point for meeting and expressing the attitudes of NGOs, factories, trade unions, associations of workers and employers, independent funds and others, towards the Eastern Partnership’s current processes. However, the Forum has chosen a different path.

As early as the first meeting of the Civil Society Forum in Brussels, its participants made clear their different understanding of the Forum’s role and its place in the overall relations within the Eastern Partnership. We had to realise ourselves, our opportunities and challenges; the Forum expressed itself as a full partner in institutional relations, together with the European Commission, national governments and the parliamentary dimension of EURONEST. After November 2009, the time was used, as far as possible, to define the Forum’s topical agenda, and address the question of its internal self-organisation & external working relationships. Summing up the results of the second meeting in Berlin in November 2010, we have reason to believe that the Civil Society Forum has realised itself as an institution of the Eastern Partnership which offers an innovative role to civil society organisations – not just to monitor government activities and development initiatives, but also (often in the absence of such a possibility) the additional and equally important subject of multilateral relations.

Today, the Eastern Partnership’s Civil Society Forum is 18 months old. What is your assessment of its initial achievements?

Certainly one of the most important achievements is the Forum’s recognition as an important and indispensable player in the Eastern Partnership by the European Commission, a number of the EU member states’ national governments, as well as major international organisations and networks. The Forum’s steering committee has since carried out huge lobbying work to develop sustainable institutional relationships with partners such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the Council of Europe. Representatives of the Steering Committee and of various working groups from the Forum regularly participate in international conferences, round tables & other events, and organise international funds and analytical structures concerning the Eastern Partnership. On other occasions, with the support of the European Commission, we have also succeeded in making our presence felt as representatives of civil society at expert meetings and on intergovernmental platforms.

We should pay special attention to the development of the Forum’s national platforms, which have now been established in each of the six Eastern Partnership countries. Work is also under way on establishing an inter-state European platform. The brutal breakup of the peaceful demonstrations in Minsk in December 2010 and the ensuing repression, the acts of violence against participants in opposition rallies in Azerbaijan in April, and in Georgia in May 2011 – these acts have shown the need for parallel communication between various EU structures and the civil societies in these countries, which should be organised within the framework of the Forum’s national platforms. This makes it possible to articulate many of the problems which have been hushed up, as well as the existing positions within society which have been neglected by the national governments. In a sense, thanks to this mechanism, the public interest of the Eastern Partnership countries is much better represented by this initiative, and can be taken into account during the decision-making process.

But in my opinion, the main achievement of the Forum is that many civil society organisations have come to believe they can influence the inter-state processes within the Eastern Partnership, and can use this initiative not merely for pan-European integration, but also to improve the situations within their own countries. And success along the way comes only to those who believe in their own strength and take advantage of the available opportunities.

What is stopping the Eastern Partnership’s Civil Society Forum from developing more dynamically? Where do the weaknesses and failures of the Forum stem from?

In connection with fact that the Civil Society Forum is an innovative phenomenon for the major European programmes such as the Eastern Partnership, it has experienced growing pains, which is completely natural in this situation. Only now, having solved the major issues of self-organisation, can the Forum’s working group go deeper into expert work, providing an intergovernmental dimension with the relevant thematic products (surveys, monitoring reports, expert opinions, etc.). However, this process has been hampered by the fact that the dynamics of inter-state cooperation within the Eastern Partnership are relatively low. In particular this concerns the flagship initiatives and thematic platforms, where civil society has simply not had anything to monitor and control, as many projects were still in the state of a lethargic dream.

A separate challenge to the Forum today is to find an adequate format for further joint work of the civil society in the Eastern Partnership countries. My colleagues Andrei Yegorov and Tatiana Vodolazhskaya of the Centre for European Transformation have suggested synchronising the activities of all participants in the Eastern Partnership’s road map, coupled with the method of open coordination which the EU already uses. This idea has already been submitted to the Belarusian delegation and supported by other participants at the second meeting of the Forum in Berlin in 2010. However, for its full implementation, a major challenge must be overcome – the low level of interest from the Eastern Partnership’s national governments in cooperating with civil society.

Unlike their European counterparts, the government officials of the EU’s eastern neighbours have neither the habit or any urgent need to work closely with civil society, to consider the views and interests of various groups and organisations, or to understand the obvious mutual benefit from such interaction. In countries where such cooperation is possible in principle, the governments’ representatives have shown some caution, assuming that civil society on the whole can only criticise, rather than work constructively within the framework of common interests. To promote and improve the effectiveness of the Forum’s work, it is very important to overcome such prejudices.

It was a challenge to create and run the national platforms of the Civil Society Forum. Each of them was born and developed in specific circumstances within their own national context. Although the national platforms that now exist in each EaP country may be regarded as a matter of particular pride, most of them are facing significant difficulties in the process of building dialogue. There is a clear trend in many countries to divide the organisation of the platforms into pro-government and opposition.

Particular attention should be paid to the question of funding. As I noted above, the original concept of the Civil Society Forum was not institutionalised, and the European Commission originally intended to assign the resources for NGO projects (in support of the Eastern Partnership) to those programmes which already existed (such as EIDHR and NSA-LA). Thus, the new role of the Forum and its institutional strengthening were not provided with even minimal available resources; the funds allotted will only be enough to organise an annual event of the Forum, additional ad hoc meetings of working groups, the launch of the official site, and several meetings of the Forum’s steering committee during the year.

To improve its efficiency, the Forum urgently needs substantial additional funds for the partner organisations’ project activities, to support the ideas and objectives of the Eastern Partnership. Individual assistance is needed to organise the work of the Secretariat, acting as a coordinator of the Forum’s executive structure; it is very underdeveloped now, and so many good initiatives from member organisations do not receive adequate development or harmonisation.

What ideas are there concerning the future of the Civil Society Forum? What changes should be implemented to make it more effective?

One of the main tasks for the immediate future is to raise the public profile of the Forum and the numerous actions undertaken within its framework. Civil society organisations have shown a lot of activity and interest: they hold conferences, hearings, round tables, and they have prepared expert surveys of various topics; they are taking statements and resolutions, implementing common projects at both regional and national levels. Unfortunately, we have not been able to do all this work in a sufficiently visible way, or present its results to the general public or the other interested parties (such as governments, parliaments, communities of experts, and so on).

Special attention should be paid to coordinating the positions and efforts of civil society organisations, so that all these efforts can become links of the same chain. In this vein, the Steering Committee, which focuses on public policy issues, can only partially fulfil these functions, so we cannot overstate the importance of developing and launching the Secretariat’s work as the executive coordinating body of the Forum.

The Steering Committee has also initiated the process of developing, discussing and adopting a new concept of the Forum for its next meeting in Poznań. This new concept is based on ideas which were initially developed by the European Commission, but since then it has been greatly expanded, and includes a more complete description of the purpose and objectives of the Forum, as well as its products, partnerships and institutional set-up (the Steering Committee, national platforms, expert sub-groups, and so on).

In summary, it should be noted that the effectiveness of the Forum depends only partly on its participants – to a large extent, it requires much greater engagement from its other partners, especially the national governments of the Eastern Partnership, the members of EURONEST, and various structures of the European Union. I am convinced that civil society will do everything possible to make an even greater contribution to the development of the Eastern Partnership, to make its ideas and objectives as broadly known as possible, and to share them with a wide range of our countries’ citizens.

Project funded by the European UnionEU