A new centre designed to promote civic engagement in post-Soviet countries has formally begun operating in Prague. Backed, among others, by Czech charity People in Need, the Prague Civil Society Centre is seeking to cultivate values such as openness and human rights in countries including Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine. The move comes amidst growing tensions between the West and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I spoke with Rostislav Valvoda, head of the centre, and began by asking him to explain its mission:
“The mission of the centre is to empower civil society across the countries of Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. This means civil society organizations, NGOs, and citizen initiatives that can be both physical and online-based bloggers. We simply use a broad understanding of civil society to include opinion-makers as well as some professional groups such as journalists, independent filmmakers, artists and so on.”
Cultivating this kind of civic engagement could arguably be viewed by the leadership in Russia – Vladimir Putin – as some kind of meddling in his “sphere of influence”…
“We do not see this as meddling. We see it as supporting a civil society in terms of what a civil society wants, and what the needs of the people on the ground are.”
Tell me something about the funding that has come together for this project. I understand it is a kind of joint operation with People in Need, the US Agency for International Development, the Swedish and Czech governments too, as well as some private foundations.
“The centre is being established in partnership with two founding organizations – People in Need, and the Human Rights House Foundation, a Norwegian-based NGO, and also in co-operation with the renowned Polish think-tank the Institute for Public Affairs. These are the three founding organizations. And we have attracted funding from five donors – two private donors, the CS Mott Foundation and the Oak Foundation; and then the US, Swedish, and Czech governments.”
Given that Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty is also situated in Prague and is also beaming news in an eastward direction, is the Czech Republic becoming a kind of centre for cultivating democracy in post-communist countries?
“We certainly hope that the centre will become a hub for activists and civil society actors from Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. But at the same time that the centre will not be just a big brick and mortar institution, but rather a coordinating centre, and the activities will take place in other countries in the region, and also across Central Europe – that means in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and even in Germany.”
Why is such a centre necessary? Obviously, given the growing tensions between the West and Russia, do you feel that there is more need for a centre like this now than there may have been ten years ago or so?
“We do not see the reason for the centre’s creation being rooted in the current tensions. Rather, we see the necessity by the growing pressure that is being put on civil society in places to the east of the Czech Republic. Meaning, we are seeing growing pressure through legislation with ever more curbs being put on NGOs and human rights defenders, for instance, in places such as Russia and Azerbaijan, and we think that this trend is of concern.