In 2020 Dutch National Agency of Erasmus+ program awarded with a grant our new project which we named “Return our Hug to the Hague”. Under this project frame, we were supposed to hold a four-day conference in the Hague, the conference participants were to be the teams of our partner organizations from the Eastern Partnership countries - Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus and from the EU countries - the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Spain, Latvia. A team of 7 people from each country was supposed to take part in the project. Among the participants - one decision maker - the leader of partner organizations participating in the project, one politician and 5 active young people from 18 to 30 years old.
The goals of the new conference were:
1.To get familiar with the Dutch experience of cooperation of young people with authorities
2.To create space for exchange and dialogue about ways to eliminate the consequences of COVID-19 infection between different stakeholders, such as policy makers, NGO representatives, young people and youth workers
3.To define the best practices of youth participation in support of the population during COVID-19 infection
4.To foster discussions between youth, youth organizations and policy makers about the role of youth in responding to COVID-19
5.To find out how cooperation between youth from the EU and EaP countries will help in eliminating the consequences of COVID-19 infection.
6.To develop recommendations on youth inclusion and participation into the democratic institutions, addressing local and regional authorities responsible for eliminating the consequences of COVID-19
However, it was not possible to implement such a conference in the Netherlands until spring 2022 because of the COVID pandemic. Dutch National Agency Erasmus+ understood well the situation and kindly agreed to extend our project until August 2022.
Thus, even when COVID-19 ceased to threaten Europe and the world, other international threats appeared that could affect the fate of our conference. In February 2022, the Russian government sent its troops to Ukraine and started bombing Ukrainian cities. A missile strike in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchug, where our partner organization came from, destroyed a shopping center. Many innocent people suffered. To get to the Hague, the Ukrainian team had to get to Poland and take a plane there. It was a risky undertaking. However, Alena Glazkova, decision maker of Kremenchuk informative-elucidative center European Club, confirmed that the Ukrainian team will take part in the conference
Unfortunately, the team from Belarus could no longer participate in the conference because of the EU sanctions. In addition, our letters and phone calls to the project participants – partner organizations from Italy and Greece remained unanswered. It is known that, due to COVID-19, many enterprises in Europe have been closed. It was especially difficult for NGOs to continue working during the pandemic. As a result, it was necessary to urgently find two new partners. In Greece, we have a great partner organization - System and G. We are very grateful to them. They responded promptly and sent an excellent team to the Hague. Attempts to find another organization in Italy were unsuccessful. Then we decided to invite our partner organization Integra Plus from Dresden, Germany. This organization runs cross-cultural communication projects, which are mainly attended by people from the countries of the former Soviet Union. With the outbreak of the war, Germany, in particular Dresden, received a large number of refugees from Ukraine, many of whom did not speak German. Integra Plus, with the support of the municipality of Dresden, held several concerts with the participation of refugees from Ukraine, so that the residents of the city could better know Ukrainian culture. One of the concerts was attended by the mayor of Dresden.
COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine have created other problems for Europe. In summer of 2022, airfare prices skyrocketed. In addition, tourists from all over the world aspired to the Netherlands. Due to EU sanctions, now a large number of Russian citizens are forced to travel to Europe through Armenia and Georgia. There are no direct flights to the Netherlands from these cities.
We were lucky that the youth and decision makers from Armenian and Georgian teams were still able to purchase tickets to the Netherlands. The policy-makers of these countries were less fortunate. While they were going through a long process of getting permission from their superiors to attend the conference, ticket prices soared to 1,500 euros. We had to address the ambassadors of Armenia and Georgia in the Hague so that they could take this role. We are very grateful to them for taking part in the conference and doing an excellent job as policy-makers.
Back to May, with a great difficulty, we managed to find a hostel in the Hague ready to host 60 people during the conference. It was no less difficult to find a hall for plenary sessions. Fortunately, the Koorenhuis Cultural and Entertainment Complex, where we held the Plenary Session, was two steps away from our hostel. The funds that the Erasmus+ Program allocates for accommodation and meals for participants in the KA3 for the Netherlands, even for the spring of 2019, were modest. In the summer of 2022 in the Hague, these funds became very modest. Therefore, we are grateful to all the participants who, despite such harsh living and dining conditions, agreed to participate in the conference.
Taking into account the changing situation in Europe, we have introduced additional topics for the conference.
Additional objectives (developed in 2022)
1. To create space for exchange and dialogue about the consequences of the war in Ukraine between different stakeholders, such as policy makers, NGO representatives, young people and youth workers.
2. Find out how cooperation between youth from the EU and EaP countries will help in eliminating the consequences of the war in Ukraine.
The Netherlands strongly condemned the military invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine. Ukrainian flags hang on many buildings in the Hague and Amsterdam, in that way state bodies and private campaigns demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Ukraine. In the Hague, Ukrainian speech is heard everywhere. These are refugees from Ukrainian cities who were sheltered by the Netherlands.
We have done everything so that somebody of the officials of the Netherlands and the European Commission could come to our conference. Invitations were sent to the the Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations European Commission, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the House of Representatives and the Mayor of the Hague. However, holidays began in Europe, including the Netherlands, and many government officials were resting away from the country. As a result, only the program director, Armand Brinkman, who is in charge of the organization of refugee shelters and social services for Ukrainian refugees in the Hague, took part in our conference from the authorities. We hope that he will share with the mayor of the Hague information about the work of our conference.
The organization and holding of the conference was hosted by an international team - Lusine Hayrapetyan from INTERNATINAL RELATIONS DEVELOPMENT, Yerevan, Mato Hakhverdyan from the Abovian Armenian Center, the Hague, Lusy Manukyan from the West-East Bridges Foundation, Amsterdam and Alena Glazkova from the Kremenchuk informative-elucidative center European Club. Alena was a very professional facilitator at our Plenary sessions.
The first day of the conference, July 18th was only for youth and decision makers - leaders of the partner organizations participating in the project. In plenary, the participants got to know each other and the organizations they represent, they got familiar with the methods of finding compromises and general solution making. Six mixed working groups were formed, each group included 9 participants, so there were represented by 9 different countries in a group. During the group work, participants shared practices of providing support to the population in their country by the youth organization during the infection of COVID-19. Young people also had to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the armed conflicts that took place in the past two years in Europe. The activity was led by decision makers. They were later to present the results of the work in a group of members created on Facebook.
During the second day, July 19th the policy-makers joined the conference. There happened a confusion. Sixty participants of the conference, plus the Ambassador of Armenia Tigran Balayan, the Ambassador of Georgia David Solomonia, as well as the charming Tatiana Pârvu, the Ambassador of Moldova to the Netherlands, the program director Armand Brinkman of the city Hall of the Hague, the representatives of the Erasmus+ National Agency in the Netherlands Linda Janmmat stood at the entrance of the Cultural and Entertainment Complex Koorenhuis, where the Plenary session was to begin, and could not get inside, because there was no one there and the door was closed. This is where the youth conferences differ from other conferences. Young people laughed and joked, actively and loudly discussed something, some were in a hurry to get acquainted with the guests. Not even 10 minutes had passed when the director of the Koorenhuis Cultural and Entertainment Complex ran in slippers and shorts and opened the door. It turned out that he was on holiday, but we were lucky, he appeared to be at home which was nearby.
The conference began with a speech of a policy-maker from West-East Bridges Foundation Inge Drost. She has experience in both government and public organizations. She told the participants about the Netherlands. It should be noted here that, at our request, the leaders of the partner organizations chose young people who are actively working in public organizations, but who had never been to the Netherlands before. Inge's story was more addressed to them. She noted that the Netherlands needs to strengthen the voice of young people by giving them a platform and ensuring that their voice is heard in dialogue with governments, international partners and businesses in the regions. Working with other partners, the Netherlands wants to invest in youth perspectives. This will pay dividends for the rest of these young people's lives. Stability elsewhere enhances our own security and prosperity.
After Inge, Lusy Manukyan from the West-East Bridges Foundation team pronounced her speech. She outlined the position of our organization on the causes of the outbreak of war in Ukraine, and how the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to this. During the lockdown due to COVID-19, people experienced very great psychological stress. As a result, a large conflict potential has accumulated in many countries. This was especially noticeable in countries where the main budget item was oil imports.
On 23rd of March 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged warring parties across the world to lay down their weapons in support of the bigger battle against COVID-19. Nevertheless, on September 27 of this year, the Azerbaijani army, with the support of Turkey and mercenaries from Syria, began full-scale military operations along the entire border of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
As a result of this war
• President Aliyev became a national hero of Azerbaijan
• Russian troops entered the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh,
• The Russian authorities have decided that because of the pandemic, the EU and the US are busier with their own problems. And this means that Ukraine's desire to build a free and democratic country is unworthy for the US and the EU to help Ukraine if Russia sends its troops there.
The war in Ukraine has been going on for almost half a year. Tens of thousands of people have already died, millions of Ukrainians have become refugees. The resolution of the UN General Assembly of March 2, 2022, adopted by the overwhelming majority of the UN member countries, condemned the Russian invasion to Ukraine and demanded the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. However, the Russian authorities ignored this resolution. At the same time, the rating of the President of the Russian Federation has grown significantly. Unfortunately, young people have no influence on those European countries that have decided to use military force against their neighbors. As a result, after the pandemic, when a huge number of young people were left without work, Europe was drawn into a new crisis situation, where young people die the most.
After Lusy, ambassadors began to perform. The time limit was set to 10 minutes. But the topic was very relevant, and young people from 9 countries were very nice. And it was hard for the ambassadors to stop. In addition, there were many questions from the audience. As a result, two fused hours flew by unnoticed, and it was decided that policy-makers from other countries would speak the next day. Again, 6 mixed working groups were formed, policy-makers joined them. And they were given the task to discuss the issues that were raised at the last Plenary meeting and on the previous day of the conference. On this day in the Hague was a record temperature of +35 degrees. And on this and other days, the Working Groups had the right to determine for themselves where it is convenient for them to work.
On the third day at 13.00 the conference participants gathered at the Abovian Armenian Cultural Center. The hospitable hosts arranged refreshments for the conference participants. In their speech, they talked about the work that the Center is doing to preserve the language and culture of Armenians living in the Netherlands. According to the forecast, on this day in the Hague there should have been a real storm with rain and heavy winds. The weather favored the conference participants, most of whom walked from the hostel to the Armenian Center. There was only a little light rain. Thus, we couldn't escape the storm. A storm of passions accompanied the performances of policy-makers from Germany and Ukraine at the Abovian Armenian Cultural Center. Liliia Shkyra a policy-maker from Ukraine - chief Specialist of the Department of Regional Youth Policy and Support of Youth Initiatives of the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, in her speech used the expression "Russia attacked Ukraine", "Russia is bombing our cities, killing our children." Policy-maker from Germany Anke Lietzmann, an employee of the Municipality of Dresden, said that one cannot blame all Russians for the war in Ukraine. The leadership of Russia is to be blamed for unleashing this war. “If only the leadership of Russia is to be blamed for the outbreak of the war, then we can assume that the 100,000-strong army that has now invaded the territory of Ukraine, which is killing Ukrainians and destroying Ukrainian cities, consists exclusively of the Russian leadership,” representatives of the Ukrainian team reasonably hurried.
In fact, in the center of Europe, the discussion - whether all the Russians are to blamed for the unleashing a big war, or not - began a long time ago. A number of popular people, including Russian citizens, believe that yes, all Russian citizens who could not or did not want to fight against the Putin regime are to be blamed. The regime, to which it is not enough that the citizens meekly approve any of the decisions of the authorities, this regime is striving now to force the peoples from neighboring countries to behave the same way. Many of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU, the United States and various international organizations are affecting ordinary citizens the most. For example, the closure of air and rail links between Russia and Europe, the rejection of bank transfers from Russia. Now, in order for Russian citizens to meet their relatives in Amsterdam, they have to fly by plane to Yerevan or Istanbul, and only from there can one get to Europe. It is also not a secret that in many European countries they have begun to refuse any projects where Russian citizens participate, no matter if those projects are cultural, educational or sports. Moreover, some firms began to fire Russians who had long since successfully settled in Europe. This situation is most offensive for the citizens of Russia, who left the country after the start of the war with Ukraine. Putin and the Russian Generals are far away, but here they are, the new Russian migrants, here, nearby, in the Netherlands, Germany, France. And not infrequently they are told all the hatred and disgust that the inhabitants of Europe have for Russia after the outbreak of the armed conflict in Ukraine.
Inga Berenhardt, the decision maker of the German organization Integra Plus, is originally from Russia, but has been living in Dresden for a long time and is a German citizen. She, like many Russians living in Europe, could not influence the political situation in Russia in any way. Many years ago, she took a conscious step by choosing Dresden as the city where she likes to live and work more. Naturally, she does not consider herself guilty that Russian troops invaded Ukrainian soil. Of course, she agreed with Anke, who said that you cannot accuse entire nations of committing a crime. It should be emphasized that the Government of Germany appealed to its citizens with a demand not to allow any persecution against Russians living in the country. Mane Tsaturyan from the Armenian team said that during the last war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, young people she knew died, but she does not hate Azerbaijanis, realizing that in countries where there is no democracy, decisions about war and peace are made by one people, and others go to war.
The speakers could not get rid of emotions, which sometimes just went wild. Employees at the Abovian Armenian Cultural Center listened with amazement to this controversy, and could not understand why the participants decided to sort things out right in the Center. The situation changed when the policy-maker of the Greek team Napoleon Blatsioris started speaking. Handsome, big, broad-shouldered, he apologized that he did not speak English well and therefore he would read his text from a piece of paper. He read slowly, stumbling over every third word. The text must have been prepared a month ago. When Napoleon crossed the third page and turned the sheet over, the participants found that there were still the same number of pages left. The participants started to laugh. We must give it its due, Napoleon did not hesitate and began to laugh himself. The hall began to applaud him.
At the end of the day, at the plenary session, the participants were again divided into six groups and they were given the task of asking passers-by in the Hague how they were affected by the war in Ukraine. THe results can be found here.
On the fourth day, the participants in their national teams developed Recommendations to their authorities and youth organizations in their countries. During the last plenary session held at the end of that day, we asked the participants to share with the groups their most interesting memories of their time in the Hague. We decided not to discuss the Recommendations developed by the national teams, realizing that they can be very different, and therefore it will be difficult to make one common resolution on behalf of all participants. We have decided to publish Resolutions of all national teams. They can be found here.
We are very grateful to the teams that they expressed their position even when it was clear that other participants think completely differently. The recommendations of the conference should be forwarded by the national teams to the authorities of their country and through social networks to other NGOs and youth organizations. We will also send these recommendations to the Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations European Commission.
To participate in the conference, the Ukrainian team spent two days to get to the Hague and the same number of days to get back. We are very happy that they reached their homes safely!
West-East Bridges Foundation team
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