PRAGUE -- The common sound of dialogue between civil society and the authorities in Russia often seems to be riot police in Moscow beating and arresting demonstrators insisting on their right to peaceful public protest.
Repressive laws, intimidation, and a good dose of ridicule have marginalized the role of NGOs and blunted their criticism since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came to power more than a decade ago.
But now activists from Russia and European countries hope to reverse the trend by inaugurating a new forum to influence the way the European Union speaks to Russia. Founding members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum are meeting in the sprawling palace that houses the Czech Foreign Ministry in Prague this week to lay their plans.
One of the organizers, Rostislav Valvoda of the Czech NGO People in Need, said the forum was unique for being a grassroots initiative. "Those of us who cooperate anyway wanted to bring that cooperation to a new level and draw in new organizations because we feel there can be interesting results if the Russians and Europeans cooperate more," he said.
Finnish Member of European Parliament Heidi Hautala (file photo)
European officials attending the conference say it should play an important policy role. Heidi Hautala, who chairs the European Parliament's Human Rights Subcommittee, told participants the forum's recommendations should be included in major summits and other meetings between European and Russian leaders.
"That's a demand that's been made many times in the past, but if it comes from this forum there will be more of a chance to have the Russians finally accept a very natural thing: the participation of civil society in official discussions," Hautala said.
More Than Just Lip Service?
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's top human rights adviser attended, too. Mikhail Fedotov admitted to serious problems for Russian civil society, but used careful wording to say the first step to improvement was for people in Europe and Russia to first understand each other.
"We're all members of one civil society on the planet Earth," Fedotov said. "And we all must understand that we have common values and views."
But Fedotov's failure to mention the government's role in suppressing civil society at home underscored just how far apart the aims of civil-society groups attending the forum are from the Kremlin's.
Putin, who has remained Russia's de facto ruler since stepping down as president in 2008, has periodically raised hopes that he would relax his grip on power by praising civil society and meeting with leading human rights activists who emerged to say he understood their concerns.
But the government's actions have shown otherwise, including the boosting of police powers even under Putin's ostensibly liberal successor, Medvedev.Reaching Out To Moscow
The activists in Prague nevertheless said they had some hope of helping force change. Veteran Russian activist Lev Ponomaryov of the group For Human Rights praised the new forum as the first significant attempt to bring together Russian and European NGOs, saying it's key they speak in one voice.
Lev Ponomaryov believes human rights needs to be a formal part of EU-Russia agreements.
"What can we demand of the government?" Ponomaryov asked. "That an EU-Russia partnership agreement that's been torturously negotiated for years include a separate section on guarantees for human rights."
Others were more cautious. Jens Seigert, who heads the Moscow office of Germany's Heinrich Boll Foundation, said the forum would make a difference only if its members persevered in making it an "official part of the Russia-EU framework."
"There's some danger it will become just another voice of opposition to the current Russian leadership," Seigert said. "That's not necessary, there are already so many critical voices in the EU. There must be a bridge between the critics and those able to talk [to the Russians]."
Organizers hope to hold the forum's first broad meeting of NGOs by early next year.