Who are we and who are the others in the Barents region? What are the conditions for cross-border cooperation in a time of sanctions? Can dialogue at grassroot level make a difference?
These and other questions were raised when students from universities in the Barents region were gathered in Petrozovodsk to study and discuss theoretical and practical issues of interaction between North-European countries and Russia and their involvement in international affairs. Issues of identity, “we and us” mindset concepts as well as perspectives on peace and peace research in the 21st century were dealt with. The International autumn school on “Peace and Conflict Transformation in Northern Europe” was held at the Petrozovodsk State University October 14 – 17.
This autumn school is part of Barents Peace Education Network (BPEN) , a cooperation between the Universities in Arkhangelsk, Murmansk, Petrozovodsk and Tromsø. The venue was perfect at the Petrozovodsk State University in the capitol of Karelia, a Russian republic in the Barents region with historical connections to Finland and Nordic countries.
Alexandra Smirnova, lecturer at Petrozovodsk State University is the initiator and organiser of the programme. In addition to academic lectures on the topics she invited Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD) to share experiences from practical peace work and to facilitate workshop on dialogue and conflict transformation. Alexandra explains why;
“The practitioners’ perspective is extremely relevant in Russia. We don’t have these close links between NGOs (non governmental organisations) and ministries, usually foreign affairs are conducted by officials. Norway is one of the exceptions where they give a role to NGOs. In terms of conflict resolution and conflict transformation I have seen some studies that show that using civilians is more efficient because people would not like to contact eg. peacekeepers with arms. The experiences and practical tools of NCPD is of great value to us.”
The next part of this article is based on an interview with Alexandra made in a minibus on our field trip to rural Karelia. I asked her a few questions, Alexandra elaborated:
– What are the conditions for working with civil society in Russia these days?
“As you know there are some limitations for Russian civil society organisations that cooperates internationally. We have this “Law about foreign agents”. Organisations that are funded from foreign countries and work with politics must register there. For conflict resolution I don’t know if it goes in the sphere of politics, it depends on the level, if you work on intergroup conflict it should not be a problem, mediation after minor crimes is for example becoming more and more popular.”
– How is the interest for international relations in Russia?
“Our people have not always been considered political, there is even a common notion that political culture in Russia is not very high because they believe that the welfare of society depends upon individual actions of people. I hear from many people that they just want to do their work and they don’t want anybody to interfere. Recently because of Ukraine and Syria people are more interested in foreign relations and the sanctions also. These are a result of international relations and people are interested in that but they have a different perspective of international relations because we live in Russia and we have very different notion of peace and even of liberalism and democracy.
When liberals came to power, Gorbatsjov and Jeltsin, the country was facing real drastic transformation, everything was changed, even though the ideas were OK the implications in practice was very tragic for Russian people. Many lost the stability that they had during Soviet time, they had to face capitalism. Some were better off and managed to privatize companies while others suffered economically. This is why Russian people are sceptical, they see that good ideas do not necessarily lead to good politics.
And this is why more Russian people are quite critical to the foreign policy of the United States because we see that every time they do something like a peacekeeping operation it is approved by the western states. Personally I believe that Russian international politics in Middle East have been more cohesive. We haven’t changed our opinion as world leaders like France did or the United States.
For us stability in the region is very important because we are afraid that the consequences can become international, and this is what we are seeing. And that is why Russia is saying, although Assad is not a saint, in order to fight ISIL you need to cooperate with him. That is just one example, speaking about the negative attitude towards western states that we see these days. Of course we know that people living in those states are really nice, intelligent people and we have nothing against them. However Russians suffer from the sanctions and the people who suffers are regular people like me, teachers, small business owners. They have the lowest salaries and because of inflation their salaries have decreased and in this situation they did not feel any empathy from Western states. They felt as it was Russia against the world.
If the sanctions were established to make the Russian people more critical to the government it actually works the other way around. That is my explanation why right now the policies of Putin are popular and not the western states approach, people have been disappointed in that.
Another explanation of why Russians are sceptical towards western state policies is this insistence on democracy and human rights, and these values are very good and very important. However sometimes they feel that , specially US are quite picky and selective on deciding which country is democratic and which country is not. And they can cooperate with some states like China, like Saudi Arabia and on the other hand they will harshly criticize other leaders including Putin. This is why many Russians feel that international relations is realm of the strong states and this is why realism is popular.”
– Do you see any way out of this situation with sanctions against Russia ?
“ I would say communication, if I were to speak to Norwegian officials I would say it is better to state your motivations very clearly, and I am borrowing this idea from Andreas Heinemann-Grüder who I met at the EuPRA (European Peace Research Association) conference in Tromsø in September. It seems to me that the Russian people do not know what the west wants and the government also seems not to know what it wants.
On behalf of Russia as well, and I really believe in grassroot diplomacy, in this case because you know the common saying is that if we get rid of the government the people will be fine and live peacefully and that is what professor Ilya Solomeshchs yesterday showed in his lecture, when he spoke about cooperation of Karelian peasants in medieval times.
– Your lecture was about peace and pacifism in Russia from a historical perspective, where do you see these ideas today?
“ It is hard to say for sure because I haven’t seen comprehensive research of what is going on today. What I do know from being a citizen in this society is that there are people who think war is a terrible crime no matter where it is happening. We have had marches for peace, against the war in Ukraine and in Syria. There are pictures online of these demonstrations and I would say that often representatives of pacifism are also human rights activists and they are representatives of the opposition,
I wouldn’t say that it is a very large group, but because of the events that took place after the Olympic games in Russia these people are becoming less and less credible. It is harder to explain that you are not a traitor and that you do not want orange revolution in Russia, this is why the protest movement is kind of weakened. I think now the problem is of reaching out to the majority and to those who are more conservative than liberals. From my opinion these ideas should go above political preferences and power level. I wish a conversation could be started about the value of human life, about peace, but also I wish the international climate was so that Russians would feel safe.
I feel that Russian foreign policy have in many cases been reactions. They have not been so much initiated by Russia, they are reactions. I think the invasion in Crimea was very much a reaction to Ukraine. The Crimeans have a majority that strongly identifies with Russia and the population was very happy about becoming part of Russia. I don’t think this referendum was fake or something. It is surprising that people would like to live in Russia, I am ironic about that, but the fact is that they really did. But right now we do not feel this trust between us and the western developed states. I wish there was more trust and the politics within Russia would also be less hostile and people would be more willing to talk about peace and pacifism as well.“
Alexandra is ready to make a new Autumn School next year provided funds are released, but perhaps next time it will be in the spring. The response from the students was overwhelming. They appreciated the variety and relevance of the programme. The notion of “we and the others” was challenged academically and practically. A door was opened for new links and friendships and for ways to participate and communicate across borders.
This article is written by Norunn Grande, Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue, lecturer and facilitator at the International Autumn School “Peace and Conflict Transformation in Northern Europe” at Petrozovodsk State University, October 14 – 17, 2015.