Public initiatives in the North Caucasus. Stories from practitioners

This book is a result of a larger project aimed at developing the capacity of community leaders in the North Caucasus, called “Development of Civil Initiatives in the North Caucasus through the strengthening and consolidation of regional civil society leaders”. Why has this region and these leaders been selected for the project?
According to reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, North Caucasus is the most problematic region of the Russian Federation. The recent military conflicts, counter-terrorism operations, systematic violation of human rights, high unemployment  rate and growth of Islamic fundamentalism have had a significant impact on the daily lives and the psychological state of the region's residents. The authorities have officially acknowledged that the methods used to combat armed violence are ineffective.

Today the most problematic areas of the North Caucasus are suffering from an acute shortage of 'opinion leaders' and activists of non-governmental organizations who would be able to promote grass-roots initiatives aimed at bringing local people together and helping them to find an adequate solution to the above mentioned complex issues. All these factors, along with other circumstances, have led to a complex socio-political situation in the region, in particular the crisis of values or anomie, alienation and apathy among the population. Widespread "customary law" and related practices, such as "honor killings" and early marriages, just aggravate the situation, which is reflected primarily on the women's status in the republics of the North Caucasus.

Nevertheless, in these adverse conditions dozens of public organizations have been formed and successfully operate in the region providing psychological, educational and legal assistance to the local population. Therefore we decided to focus on the support of community leaders whose competence and efficiency affects the whole social climate in the North Caucasus.

Participants in the project were the leaders, activists and volunteers of non-profit organizations as well as active youth, educators and journalists from four republics - Dagestan, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia. The project was implemented by the Union "Women of the Don Region" and Heinrich Boll Foundation with the financial support of the European Union. The main project consultants were staff of the German organization OWEN - Mobile Academy for Gender Equality and Peacemaking.

Our task was to help active and promising people to realize their strengths and believe in their abilities as well as teach them how to include socio-political issues, such as human rights, peacekeeping and gender equality, in their work. We believe that one person could make the world a better place and one active leader may initiate changes and be a role model for their surroundings. Therefore, we educated and empowered our participants in several directions. We discussed with them various issues relevant to the inhabitants of their regions and worked together to find ways and methods on how to tackle them.

The project was planned as a series of thematic training worskhops followed by small-grant projects initiated by the participants of these events. The first year there were organized two workshops in Russia and one capacity building trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The first thematic workshop was devoted to discussing the possibilities and limitations of civil societies' active participation in the life of the North Caucasus. Its main purpose was to discuss not only the current situation in Russia in general and the North Caucasus in particular, but also to delve deeper into issues that affect ordinary citizens and representatives of civil societies as well as to find ways to strengthen the influence of civil society organizations and launch effective initiatives in the region. The main methodology of the first workshop was sharing and exchanging personal stories as well as incorporating the "forum theater" designed  by Augusto Boal.

The participants identified five topics related to human rights issues in the North Caucasus region which they consider to be of grave importance to them and  they would like to tackle:

• public indifference to violence (for example, school bullying)
• human rights abuse by law enforcement agencies (for example, tortures by the police)
• high level of corruption in the country (for example, bribery in housing agencies);
• spread of drug addiction among young people (due to lack of working mechanisms of prevention and treatment);
• violation of the rights of local community residents by businesses (e.g. illegal construction of commercial buildings in residential areas).

As part of the forum theatre participants drew from their experiences and chose specific situations for the visualization of problems. In their small groups they acted out these situations as an 'initial state'. Then they acted out the scene (image) to reflect their vision of the future, when the problem is resolved. After watching all scenes  an analysis of the problematic situations was conducted.  Next the main actors  reflecting on their actions and  reactions came up with and discussed the possible strategies to change the situation.
Perhaps, the main result of this workshop was a feeling shared by many participants that a lot depends on each one of them, and that they can identify and solve problems - the main thing is to be active, work together and adhere to the law.

The second thematic workshop focused on the importance of gender equality.
A lot of people in the North Caucasus do not recognize issues - such as early marriage, "honor killings", control over the behavior women, the way they are dressed, domestic violence - as a problem and therefore do not discuss them in public. Consequently, the aim of this workshop was to  sensitize people and raise their awareness of the concept of women's rights, so  that human rights and gender equality can be deemed a prerequisite for effective peacekeeping.
The workshop was also conducted in an interactive form with the main methods being presentations, discussions, work in small groups, role-playing games.

The workshop program consisted of five thematic blocks.
In the first two blocks - "Human Rights Protection Mechanisms and Women's Rights in the UN System" and "Regional Mechanisms for Gender Equality: The Council of Europe, The European Union" - the participants investigated the individual cases and decisions that were made by ECHR, as well as got acquainted with the international experience of gender equality.

In the third block "Russian Mechanisms of Gender Equality" the participants discussed in small groups the situation of gender discrimination in Russia and looked for a joint solution to the problems associated with it, based on personal experience and knowledge, as well as identified some possible mechanisms and structures that could provide any necessary assistance for free.
In the fourth and fifth blocks - 'Equality, Discrimination, Methods of Protection Against Discrimination. Specifics of Discriminatory Practices in the North Caucasus' and 'Gender-based Violence, Security and Peacekeeping. Approaches to the Problem' - the participants analyzed  the cases of violence against women in the North Caucasus: such as the shooting with paintball guns of women not wearing headscarves in Chechnya, "honor killings" in Dagestan, violence against women and children in Kabardino-Balkaria. After that, the group came up with a plan of possible actions to reverse the situation.
Finally, in the last block called 'Civil Initiatives: Goals, Types, Forms and Content' the participants worked on the elaboration of individual and collective actions and projects.

The main outcome of this workshop was the realization of the importance and seriousness of gender among the participants. Many stated that it hadn't occurred to them how significant issues related to women are, or that they hadn't even been aware of respective issues. Therefore, the workshop allowed the participants to activate their "gender optics" and expand the arsenal of methods for their contribution to social actions and projects in collaboration with the wider local community.

The first year of the project ended with a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina to exchange their experiences with local public organizations and get familiar with their initiatives.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has been chosen by chance as the recent history of this region is related to bloody civil wars and harsh religious conflicts. Currently non-governmental organizations there have enhanced the work for peacekeeping and peacemaking and make efforts for mutual understanding between the different ethnic groups inhabiting this region.

Project participants got acquainted with the activities of eight organizations in three cities:
in Sarajevo - Sarajevo Open Center, Foundation CURE, Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Peace-Building Network;
in Mostar - Nansen Dialogue Center, OKC Abrasevic;
and in Srebrenica - Memorial Center Potočari - Srebrenica, Association Friends of Srebrenica.

The last trip to the Srebrenica's memorial left an indelible mark in the hearts of Russian visitors. The moment we walked through the memorial - along the endless field of white gravestones of killed Muslims, middle-aged men, old men, young men -  was tragically shocking. The horror of the Srebrenica's tragedy awakened own memories in every one of our members, which are associated with several military conflicts in the North Caucasus. Unfortunately, we could not get an answer to the question - If local NGOs work with women - the victims of the tragedy, the victims of war. A lot of them lost their husbands and sons in the massacre and some thousands of them were raped during the civil war.

The experience of the BiH organizations seemed also very useful and practical: Russian participants discussed the similarity of their problems such as "divided  / fragmented society", alienation, youth unemployment,  lack of adequate social and youth policy. But almost all of the participants admitted that they did not know the point of view and arguments of representatives of 'the other side of the barricades' - the second party of the conflict (Serbians).
Overall, this trip has left a deep impression and has spawned many ideas on new forms of social work: someone decided to create in their own country a center similar to the “Abrasevic Youth Cultural Center” in  Mostar which brings together Bosnian and Serbian young people through cultural events: performances, exhibitions, discussions about culture, theater productions. Another one saw an opportunity to organize movie events in their community which would be the basis for discussing complex and taboo topics. Participants also noted that peacekeeping can be generated and promoted even via quite simple practices, such as joint cleaning of parks.

The next big stage of our project was independent sub - projects elaborated by the participants of five NGOs from the North Caucasus.
In February 2014 a competition was announced with the reward being funding four different projects. The key condition was that the applicants should have participated in at least one of the above mentioned events.

There were twelve entries, all very different in their design and topics - from discussion clubs to educational courses, and research to psychological counseling centers.

Although it was initially planned to fund a maximum of four projects, the entries were so remarkable that the jury decided to increase this number to five.

By the end of 2014 all projects were successfully completed, but we hope that the good seeds that were planted during this period will yield fruit.

This book tells the stories of these projects, as well as some stories about their authors and participants: their intentions, expectations, analysis of the difficulties they faced during the implementation of the project and the ways  they used to tackle them.
During those two years that the project lasted we went through a lot of changes and hardships.

Firstly the notorious 'foreign agents' law was adopted in Russia which affected the course of the project directly. For example, some potential participants in the first workshop who had applied and intended to come suddenly began to decline the event invitations in unexpectedly big numbers. In the workshop itself partly joking partly seriously many participants made comments that they would be recruited by 'foreign secret services'.

A few days after the workshop an odious publication appeared on the Internet titled 'Achtung! They are marching!'. The publication dictated a direct appeal to the local law enforcement agencies to make an inspection of the NGO Union 'Women of the Don Region' - as it was the workshop's main organizer - and also it contained abusive language and accusations towards our colleagues from the German organization OWEN who were trainers at the workshop. Therefore it is not surprising that the inspection has begun!

For instance, many workshop participants from different regions have been invited to “talk” to the FSB (Federal security Service of Russia). The outcome of this check was a special document , which was presented to the Union 'Women of the Don Region'. It contains the accusation of being active in politics using 'foreign money' – therefore according to the new law they should be registered as “foreign agents”. The FSB's “evidence” that there was political activity taking place in the workshop was based on a story told by one participant about Michael Savva, a human rights activist from the Krasnodar region, who was a political prisoner at that time.  But this was just the beginning of the nightmare.

Almost throughout the entire 2014 many of the Russian NGOs had to undergo numerous inspections. In the autumn of 2014 another tragic piece of news came - one of the project participants, Timur Kuashev,  journalist and human rights activist from Nalchik, was killed under obscure circumstances.

In such a difficult situation we approached the end of our project. We all have become more experienced, wiser and aware that we can go through thick and thin. Some people found the topics and the format of the project too risky or irrelevant and left at the beginning. But many good people actively participated and now they are developing their own ideas, collaborating together and working on new projects for their communities. Thanks to them we can affirm that the project was successful. It has changed a lot from the original design and plan, but this is natural and understandable - we keep trying to respond and react flexibly to the changes occurring in the country and the North Caucasus regions.

We sincerely hope that the outcomes of this project set out in this booklet will be useful and interesting to many active community leaders, not only from the North Caucasus, but also from other regions and even countries.

Sincerely yours,

Irina Kosterina and Valentina Cherevatenko

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