In for­mer Soviet re­publics, a new re­sis­tance is stir­ring

The Guardian - Journal - - Europe now - Bar­bara von Ow-Frey­tag Bar­bara von Ow-Frey­tag is a writer and po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist based in Brus­sels

An ex­cit­ing wave of in­no­va­tive ac­tivism is emerg­ing across the for­mer Soviet Union. I work for an or­gan­i­sa­tion that sup­ports civic ac­tivists and I see a new en­ergy, self-be­lief and cre­ativ­ity that de­fies the pes­simism per­me­at­ing western de­bates about civil so­ci­ety in the re­gion. What’s re­fresh­ing about these Gen­er­a­tion Z ac­tivists is that they’ve linked up with de­sign­ers, tech ex­perts and artists to test new forms of ad­vo­cacy, cam­paign­ing and sto­ry­telling. This has led to a surge of on­line mul­time­dia cam­paigns and in­ter­ac­tive games on so­cial is­sues. Some have used chat­bots to of­fer in­stant sup­port to vic­tims of hu­man rights abuses.

In Rus­sia, an ex­per­i­men­tal in­ter­ac­tive on­line film launched by the in­de­pen­dent news out­let Takie Dela tells the story of Katya, a young Rus­sian girl liv­ing with the stigma of HIV. View­ers are in­vited to step into Katya’s shoes and are con­fronted with her life choices. It’s been an in­stant suc­cess, at­tract­ing up to 800,000 views in just a few months. Starring well-known young Rus­sian ac­tors, and with ac­ces­si­ble di­a­logue and a slick pro­duc­tion, the film reaches more peo­ple than a single NGO ever could.

This mat­ters im­mensely in a coun­try where the gov­ern­ment has failed to cope with one of the fastest-grow­ing HIV epi­demics in the world. Stig­ma­ti­sa­tion and ig­no­rance are cat­a­strophic. Local sup­port groups are un­der grow­ing pres­sure. They suf­fer from smear cam­paigns, fund­ing cuts and be­ing dis­con­nected from in­ter­na­tional part­ners. Since the in­tro­duc­tion of a law tar­get­ing NGOs as “for­eign agents”, find­ing new ways to act is cru­cial. It isn’t just tech­nol­ogy to which these new ac­tivists are turn­ing. They’re fill­ing a vacuum cre­ated by the grow­ing rift be­tween the gov­ern­ment and or­di­nary Rus­sians. In a re­cent study, 94% of Rus­sians said they no longer rely on the state to solve their prob­lems. That amounts to a break­down of the “so­cial con­tract” on which Vladimir Putin’s regime has long re­lied. It also gives Gen­er­a­tion Z groups a chance to ex­pand.

Takie Dela is a fron­trun­ner, com­bin­ing in-depth jour­nal­ism with di­rect sup­port for char­i­ties work­ing on is­sues it writes about. Last year it at­tracted 250,000 on­line do­na­tions. Other re­cent fundrais­ing cam­paigns launched by Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional Moscow, as well as the in­de­pen­dent Novoe Vremie (New Times) news­pa­per, which had been slapped with court fines, have also been suc­cess­ful – surely a sign of a new will­ing­ness among Rus­sians to de­fend and sup­port in­de­pen­dent civil so­ci­ety.

And it’s par­tic­u­larly en­cour­ag­ing to see this ap­ply to “harder” hu­man rights is­sues such as prison con­di­tions and tor­ture. Stud­ies show Rus­sians no longer list “strong gov­ern­ment” but “jus­tice” as their pri­mary de­mand, and rights groups are be­gin­ning to re­spond to this shift. Some merge ac­tivism with jour­nal­ism, de­sign, art and film.

Team 29, a St Peters­burg-based group de­fend­ing me­dia free­dom, brings to­gether lawyers and jour­nal­ists. It runs an in­for­ma­tion plat­form that pro­vides qual­ity re­port­ing on court cases, new leg­is­la­tion and hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. It pro­duces an­i­mated dig­i­tal hand­books (such as “How to go to a protest and not mess it up”), and an on­line game of­fer­ing ad­vice on how to be­have if you’re de­tained. With 75% of its users younger than 35, it man­ages to en­gage new au­di­ences com­pared with more tra­di­tional hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tions.

This civic shift isn’t hap­pen­ing just in Rus­sia. In Ar­me­nia, the op­ti­mism and en­ergy of young civil so­ci­ety is con­ta­gious. Any­one still con­vinced that all is doom and gloom in the post-Soviet era should pay a visit. Last year, young tech-savvy ac­tivists played a key part in en­cour­ag­ing cit­i­zens to take to the streets – a grass­roots mo­bil­i­sa­tion that led to the res­ig­na­tion of the prime min­is­ter. Their com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills also en­sured the protests re­mained peace­ful.

In Be­larus, dig­i­tal cam­paign­ers have built a web­site to help cit­i­zens. The re­sponse prompted the gov­ern­ment to amend a con­tro­ver­sial law on pen­sion re­form.

Daria Sazanovich, who de­scribes her­self as a “so­cially en­gaged il­lus­tra­tor”, uses drawings and car­toons to raise aware­ness of the need for change. NGOs “are of­ten caught in facts and fig­ures”, she says. “We know how to bet­ter reach au­di­ences.”

In Azer­bai­jan, where civic space is prac­ti­cally closed, ex­iled ac­tivists are con­nect­ing with those at home. Mey­dan TV, an on­line TV chan­nel run from Ber­lin, reaches an au­di­ence of more than 500,000 in­side Azer­bai­jan. Mean­while, a pop­u­lar Azer­bai­jani rap­per Ja­mal Ali, who now lives in Ger­many, has gone vi­ral with hard-hit­ting lyrics against cor­rup­tion and in­jus­tice.

The new ac­tivists like to reach out to the pub­lic through art. In the south­ern Rus­sian cities of Vol­gograd and Vladikavkaz, An­ton Valkovsky, a young cu­ra­tor, or­gan­ises “mi­cro-in­ter­ven­tions” in pub­lic squares and aban­doned build­ings as a way of prompt­ing de­bate about so­cial is­sues such as poor ur­ban man­age­ment, ne­glect of the el­derly and his­tor­i­cal mem­ory. “Par­tic­i­pa­tory art is sim­ple, cheap and pro­duc­tive,” he tells me. “It in­volves cit­i­zens in a way that clas­si­cal civic ac­tivism alone of­ten can’t.”

These groups may seem mar­ginal in coun­tries that are marked by ris­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, but they’re draw­ing at­ten­tion to con­crete prob­lems such as health is­sues, air pol­lu­tion, so­cial stig­mas and bad gov­er­nance.

This is the first gen­uinely post-Soviet gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivists. They’re us­ing tech­nol­ogy and hu­mour to con­nect, in ways that set them apart from their pre­de­ces­sors. They’re prov­ing to be more ac­tive, dy­namic and re­silient than many of us ex­pected. Theirs is prob­a­bly a long strug­gle, but their in­no­va­tive spirit gives them a fight­ing chance. They de­serve our sup­port.

In Ar­me­nia the op­ti­mism is con­ta­gious. Any­one who be­lieves all is doom and gloom should pay a visit

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