Mr Melle, thank you very much for agreeing to give an interview to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. In March, DRA / German-Russian Exchange celebrates its 25th anniversary. Which projects and programmes can you emphasise throughout these 25 years? And what can the German-Russian Exchange be proud of?
I think that there are quite a few things to be proud of. The organisation started its operation in 1992. It was a time, when civil initiatives and organisations were appearing throughout Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia. For us, it was clear from the very beginning that supporting the growth of civil society was our main task. Thus, our range of activities was quite wide - starting with the NGO support centres in a number of Russian regions (St. Petersburg, Perm, Volgograd, Novosibirsk), which in the middle of the 1990s were transferred to Russian colleagues, who at that time were already able to do the work on their own. Since then, our focus has been on joint programmes developed in collaboration with various NGOs as well as on a cross-sectorial cooperation with educational institutions, regional and other agencies. Our topics changed as well. Initially, we focused on social aspects – programmes for homeless people, socially disadvantaged groups, etc. Our activities now also include an environmental programme, a history programme, and work with municipalities. There are new areas of our engagement - such as peacebuilding and mutual understanding, which is very important today. I think that one thing that has made a great contribution to the relations of Eastern European countries with Germany is a volunteer exchange. We invited volunteers to Western Europe, to Germany, and also sent volunteers to various Eastern European countries, primarily to Russia. We have worked with around 700 people during these years. Many of them have remained in this field. And I am talking not only about supporters but about active people, who now work in their own organisations, foundations, private companies, public service institutions or embarked upon a political career. A notable part of the German professional community working on Eastern Europe is alumni of the German-Russian Exchange programme.
Now the activities of the German-Russian Exchange include not only a volunteer exchange programme, not only Germany and Russia, but also other countries. What are the most relevant activities of your organisation at the moment?
Since the 1990s, we have been working not only with Russia. In 1998, we extended our programme range to Belarus and Ukraine. Then, step by step, cooperation with our partners in various European countries has developed. We have been engaged in quite big projects – citizens’ participation at the local level, civic education, etc. We realised the importance of our work with the renewed vigour from the beginning of 2014, when the annexation of Crimea took place and the war in the East of Ukraine broke out. Then, it became clear that it was vital to deal with the common European issues, try to restore peace and repair relations. Thus, we are now working quite a lot with Ukraine and dealing with the issues of Donbas. We are building a coalition of European organisations including Russian and Ukrainian NGOs for overcoming the war in Ukraine. There is another programme on civic education, which covers Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia and includes the topics of youth participation in civil activities and political initiatives. And there is a programme on environmental work with local civil society organisations at the city and regional level in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.