On December 5, 6 and 7 a representative from the East Bridges Foundation attended the 14th Annual Assembly of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum in Prague. This forum is in place to ensure and enable a platform for a strong and independent civil society, democracy and European integration in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The theme of this year's assembly was "Resilient Civil Society for a More Ambitious Eastern Partnership" and it was centered around the Russian aggression in the war on Ukraine.
The opening of the forum took place in the Czech Parliament, where deputy foreign minister of the Czech Republic Jaroslav Kurfüst spoke on the challenges for civil society during these difficult times of conflict for the countries in the Eastern Partnership. He also handed out the Civil Society Award 2022 to the Ukrainian National Platform. The second day of the Assembly was the start of the substantive meeting. The event provided three panel debates, which hosted various representatives of civil society organizations from the six countries of the Eastern Partnership and in addition a representative from a European Union institution as well. The first panel debate discussed: A stronger Eastern Partnership that Withstands War and was very much focused on the War in Ukraine and how (Ukrainian) civil society has a role in this war. The panelists touched upon the different ambitions that the countries in the partnership have towards the EU, while they do face similar challenges. Some panelists, as well as participants of the assembly pointed out that the focus of the war in Ukraine tends to overshadow large conflicts and problems that other countries in the partnership go through, such as the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The second panel debate discussed the strengthening of energy security through the Eastern Partnership multilateral cooperation. The discussion was focused around the way that Russia has weaponized energy and what the alternatives are in regards to energy for the EU and its partners. This discussion was very interesting as one of the conclusions was that the energy crisis risks favoring anti-democratic forces, such as the Azerbaijani government which is an essential actor when it comes to alternatives for energy in the region. This favoring feeds populism and extremism in both the Eastern Partnership as well as in the European Union. The avoidance of dependence on one country such as Russia, or China was also discussed.
Later on the second day thematic sessions took place in groups discussing one of the following subjects: Green reconstruction in the EaP; addressing the environmental impact of the war in a sustainable way; Eastern Partnership Stress Test: Between Plans and Realities. The most important take-away for the first session was that the EaP countries should intensify cooperation with the EU institutions in strengthening the common security system and attracting additional investment in green energy. The second session concluded that there is more oversight needed of companies and foreign governments selling surveillance technology used for spying on citizens, activists, journalists and political opposition. The stress test concluded that the EaP should become a platform for the transfer of experience between the six countries and the EU, balancing multi-speed dynamics.
On the last day, the Czech foreign minister Jan Lipavský spoke to the assembly where he stressed that the support to civil society was an important priority for the Czech foreign policy and the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union. He reiterated that it is essential to keep maintaining this as a priority. Furthermore, the last panel discussion took place, which focused on the support to civil society in the EaP countries in light of new developments. The civil society panelists re-affirmed the need for on-going support by the EU institutions for the work that they do. The EU institutions' representative provided an affirmation of the importance of civil society and a commitment for further support. At the end of this final day, the Czech and Swedish presidencies engaged in a symbolic handover. Jan Marian, Special Envoy for the Eastern Partnership (Czech foreign ministry) talked about the main successes of their presidency, such as the support to Ukraine and Christina Johannesson, EaP Ambassador (Swedish foreign ministry) spoke about the priorities of the Swedish presidency.
The forum provided an interesting space for us as an NGO to interact with other actors from civil society in the Eastern Partnership countries. It was nice to meet and speak to people who, as a civil society, are at the frontline in their countries navigating through war, conflicts and political and economic setbacks. The EaP Civil Society Forum enabled us as organizations to engage in fruitful discussions and receive interesting and useful new insights. We, as an organization have taken these insights with us and plan to involve these in our future endeavors.