Sofia Ivanova on the All-Russian Civic Forum: "If we want to change something about our lives, we can’t expect anyone else to do it for us"

posted 8 Dec 2019, 05:40 by Translation Service   [ updated 18 Dec 2019, 14:06 by Rights in Russia ]
Image may contain: 1 person, eyeglasses and text3 December 2019

Sofia Ivanova is a human rights defender from Ryazan, a city where she is chair of the regional branch of Golos, the independent election monitor. She recently attended the All-Russian Civic Forum in Moscow and writes here about her impressions.

After having attended the All-Russian Civic Forum twice, I had decided that it wasn’t for me. I do not like it when civil society platforms call on us to engage in dialogue between the “third sector” and the government in order to build a stable democratic society. In this context, “dialogue” looks like thousands of representatives of NGOs with very different purposes and priorities (flown in courtesy of the organisers) sitting in a darkened auditorium and watching a small number of VIPs on the stage, listening to their speeches, applauding them, taking photographs of them and so on. During topic-based panel discussions, the crème de la crème talk about what is wrong and put forward proposals that the Forum is supposed to pass on to the Government. Then these VIPs go away, and the representatives of NGOs introduce themselves to each other… And the end result is a document of some kind that calls on the Government to help address problems in various spheres of public life, and that contains a number of concrete proposals as well as many platitudes about the significance of activities focused on the social good. Topics covered include the environment, human rights, torture in prison, infringements of the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association and citizens’ voting rights, housing and public utilities, pensions, medicine and education. The document is handed over to the organisational committee for revision, and is then published. Apparently all that is needed is for the people to be heard.

A year passes and nothing changes. Another year passes, and things only get worse, because the Government does not listen. Even the most pressing, topical and very concrete proposals put forward by civil society are simply ignored. The Government clamps down even harder. But the Forum meets for a third, fourth and fifth time, and this strange imitation of “dialogue” between the Government and civil society continues. Apparently there are no problems relating to civil society in Russia, since civil society is obedient and easily managed – and if anyone dares to think differently, they will feel the full force of government repression.

This time I attended the Forum with the aim of catching up with my fellow members of “Golos”, an organisation that defends citizens’ voting rights, since we have not had any other opportunity to meet recently owing to cost constraints. The Forum presented itself as the ideal space for discussions on the forthcoming elections. I am under no illusion that anyone has listened to us, and that these future elections will be honest. And I steeled myself to endure overly long speeches about how we must “listen”, “join together”, “pay attention to recent developments” etc. Nevertheless, the chance to sit down together with like-minded persons from near and far and discuss the vital work that will need to
be done in order to monitor the elections was too good an opportunity to pass up. In order to make our discussion about the elections more productive, I signed up as a moderator – and I have no regrets about that at all.

This was the first Forum I left with a feeling of accomplishment. Why? First of all, because the participants did not ask the Government for anything or pander to it in any way, but merely noted that real progress and change in the country will only be brought about by civil society. Secondly, I was one of around 100 moderators, and I am confident that every single one of us enjoyed the process of preparing for and leading our sessions.

The Forum has always been a meeting place for many interesting, intelligent and proactive people that can come up with constructive suggestions, but this year they were no longer sitting unseen in a dark auditorium, politely clapping, but working in small groups and taking part in lively and person-centred exchanges.

There were some people who felt bored at this year’s Forum, but I subscribe to the old adage that if you want people to have positive memories of an event you should get them involved, give them responsibility and keep them busy )))

Another significant change related to the final document produced by the Forum, which formerly called on the authorities, but now calls on civil society, the citizens, and specific people. At least 1,000 people voted to adopt this document at the 2019 All-Russian Civil Forum.

Naturally I am under no illusion that the Forum will solve any problems, or that our lives will now change. But this time I heard other people saying something I have understood myself for a long time – if we want to change something about our lives, we can’t expect anyone else to do it for us. We must rely on ourselves and on like-minded individuals, and we must accomplish small but concrete steps forward, supporting one another, standing in the way of tyranny and forcing the Government to perform the tasks assigned to it in the Constitution of the Russian Federation. At the 2019 All-Russian
Civic Forum I learned that I am not the only one who thinks along these lines, and this is an incentive to
keep moving forward when the task seems too daunting.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds