Jerzy Pomianowski: France could do more for human rights

Jerzy Pomianowski. [Georgi Gotev]

Jerzy Pomianowski [Georgi Gotev]

France spends too little of its development aid on support for democracy and has not yet contributed to funding the European Endowment for Democracy, a new independent foundation that supports local actors in EU’s neighbourhood for democratic change, Jerzy Pomianowski, the executive director of the organisation has told EURACTIV in an interview.

Jerzy Pomianowski was appointed to lead the European Endowment for Democracy in January 2013. A career diplomat, Pominowski served previously as Poland’s undersecretary of state for foreign affairs. He is also president of the Polish Aikido Federation. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

You are a former Polish diplomat and we are speaking on the premises of the European Endowment for Democracy, a beautiful Brussels house owned by the Polish state. Does it mean that the Endowment is a Polish initiative, perhaps with a little bit of EU salt?

It is definitely a valid impression that the Polish government has made big efforts, first to make this idea happen, by going through the political process in the EU and to convince partners, including those who were reluctant, for example the Commission, which was for some time reluctant, and then both financial contribution and contribution in kind was a way to show support and commitment. It was a coincidence that the premises had been vacated a few months before the European Endowment for Democracy was scheduled to start operations. The fact that I was already elected executive director of the Endowment and I knew details that this premises were already available made it possible that we are using it now.

But this is a temporary location and provided a quick solution. I would guess Endowment has earned three to four months of time to seek and get approval from its board for its headquarters.

Of course the first few months this political stamp of Endowment being a Polish initiative, of being a legacy of the Polish EU presidency [second half of 2011] is still with us. Nevertheless the recruitment of our staff shows that this is a European and open set-up. The staff recruited is really international, we have many nationalities here without any dominating. Including me, only two people out of 14 working now are Polish. We have two Germans, a French, a UK national, a Belgian, a Dane, a Slovak represented here, all selected in a very competitive way.

So this is the first sign that we are more than a Polish initiative. Second, we are very careful in our work to keep a balance between South and East neighbourhood. Out of the €5 million we committed until today, €2.5 is committed to projects in the Southern Mediterranean, and €2.5 to the Eastern Partnership countries. And as you know, Poland is much more focused on the East.

For the better understanding of your work, Endowment covers the countries of the European neighbourhood policy, but not countries on their way to EU accession, such as Turkey and the Western Balkan countries, and you don’t cover Russia?


But if you had a branch in Russia, would the Russian authorities call them “foreign agents”?

Yes, definitely, the type of support under Putin’s law would qualify our partners as foreign agents. And this is the paradigm that on every possible forum I try to find and push back: we cannot use the terminology and we cannot be cornered by the logic of Putin. This is a false paradigm, because the foreign agents are the guys paid by Moscow operating now in Ukraine, secretly, without insignia on their uniforms. These are really foreign agents. And the people asking for support, because they want to change something in their countries for the better, they believe in the same values as we do and I call this solidarity.

Speaking about funds, it looks like not all EU countries are supporting financially the initiative? Why are some countries less interested?

We haven’t received any clear signals from those countries who are not yet contributing to Endowment. Important is to say that all of them have made a political pledge that they do support Endowment, and they do sit in our governing board. So even those who are not paying are controlling us. We have a strange situation in which the traditional rule “no taxation without representation” is not valid in our case, because countries exercise their power and participate in decision-making, but don’t pay.

Can you name some of them?

First of all, the big five, except Germany. Only Germany contributes out of the big five, so the UK, France, Spain and Italy are not yet contributing.

That’s strange. Isn’t France the symbol of human rights, which is Endowment’s main field of activity?

France is and it is not the symbol, because if you look at the official statistics of France’s development cooperation, it is number five or six, according to OECD-DAC statistics, but in the French reports, when you look at the part relating to democracy support, the share is only 2.5% of the whole development cooperation support.

You mean only 2.5% of the French development cooperation aid is for democracy support?

Yes. In terms of democracy support, France as a donor ranks 22nd.                      

But what is the percentage for other big Western countries?

Much different. In the case of the US, Sweden and others, usually the positions are more or less similar. Meaning that if a country is number 7 in terms of development cooperation support, it is number 7 in terms of democracy support.

So in these statistics we see that France is a special case and specialist journalists could analyse it or seek explanation. I’m only quoting from official statistics.

But you do have contacts with French officials, diplomats. What do they say?

Basically it’s “let’s wait and see”, “we need to see more of your results”, or “we are considering, but the budget situation is difficult”. I hear a similar message from Spain, that they have a very difficult budgetary situation. But at the same time countries with an even more difficult budgetary situation, like Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, they are contributing. And we are having a very strange and fascinating phenomenon where almost all new member states except the Czech Republic are contributing to the Endowment, and sending a signal to “old Europe”. The newcomers feel a moral obligation to engage in this endeavour and support the democratic transformations in the East and in the South of Europe. Yet, those older players are still hesitating.

So we are giving them more time to think, of course not sparing any occasion to motivate them, to stimulate them, but for now the effort has not produced any formal pledge.

Fundraising is an important side of your work, but projects are probably even more important. What is the major difference between the projects of Endowment and those of the Commission? Where is your added value?

First of all, we are much faster, more flexible. If you compare our projects with those of the Commission, you will find supporting unregistered groups, providing support, on an ongoing basis, providing support for companies, not necessarily NGOs. Because in some countries if you register as a company you can do human rights activism, avoiding the Putin-type laws which limit your activity by registering any grant. Unlike the Commission, we can do this.

So we are a kind of gap-filler, filling holes in the system. And then of course we are coming with support for initiatives seen as too sensitive by member states. And this is very visible in the case of Azerbaijan. Many of our members have bilateral relations with Azerbaijan sensitive enough not to engage directly in democracy support. And from some of them we received clear indications: we would like someone to do this, but we don’t want to do it ourselves. We, as an independent NGO, can do the work that our member countries avoid to do for political reasons.

Another aspect is that even though our member countries are engaged in some countries in our neighbourhood like Ukraine, Egypt or Tunisia, they consider some projects as too politically sensitive from an internal point of view.  Because if a country is supporting a political campaign of the opposition, it can be seen as interference in internal relations. So if such projects are strongly country-branded, for example Germany  does a big project in Moldova, it may be seen that Germany interferes in the internal affairs of Moldova. But if it is done on behalf of Europe, where many interests are combined, and when it is done by an independent NGO, it is no longer politically sensitive.

Experts have said that the Eastern Partnership is too bureaucratic. And you can be faster?

Faster and less formal.

Can you give an example of when you reacted quickly and achieved what the Commission could not have done, because of its heavier bureaucratic procedures?

A very clear recent example is with the Kyiv Post, the [Ukrainian] English-language newspaper and news website, which during violent clashes with riot police in mid-January lost like 60 or 70% of their equipment.

Like photo cameras?

Yes, and they came to the Delegation of the European Commission for support, as they needed something like 30 or 40 thousand euro. And the Commission said we cannot help you, for us only to process this request will require 4 or 5 months, and we don’t have any envelop from where to take this money, although we understand the situation and you deserve support. But we know someone who can do it. And they directed them to us. And within 48 hours the money to replace the damaged equipment was provided.

Can you mention one important initiative to the benefit of countries from the Mediterranean?

As I said, our commitment for the Mediterranean is exactly the same as for the Eastern Partnership, namely €2.5 million for nine months, although we had not set this goal for an exact balance. These are 40 projects, the biggest being in Egypt. Unfortunately I cannot tell you details about those interesting projects, because in Egypt the situation is extremely difficult for the civil society. And we have very interesting projects in Tunisia and in Lebanon, mostly reaching out to activists outside of capitals. In Lebanon we have projects in very sensitive areas such as the Bekaa valley where you have a very strong Shia community and Hezbollah still operating. In the case of Tunisia and Morocco, the projects are of a different kind, reaching to already existing civil society groups, with small experience but interesting ideas. On our website, we provide space for the beneficiaries themselves to report on such projects.

Regarding Syria, we supported a project of discussions about the country’s transition roadmap. There is a Syria expert house, composed of experts staying outside the country, the document they prepared was adopted by the Syrian coalition as a kind of guiding document for the future transition of the country. This is a huge piece of expert work, and now they are trying to discuss it with the people in different location, also in areas Assad still controls. And in this document not everything is political, there are many practical things as well.

National Endowment for Democracy was a US organisation established in 1983 which helped bring down the Berlin Wall. Why was its name copied?

That’s an easy association regarding names, but there is also a political background for this, because in the mid of the year 2000, Markus Meckel [German Social-Democrat and former Bundestag member, he was also the penultimate foreign minister of the GDR] said “why don’t we have in Europe [a body] similar to the US Endowment for democracy?” I think his message was heard. In his mind the European Endowment was not a copy of the American one, it was about the need to have an EU organisation that would be flexible, dealing directly with beneficiaries, it was about equipping the EU with a tool for making its action for supporting democracy more effective.

If we compare today the Eastern Partnership with the Barcelona Process, we can easily see that in the latter the direct dialogue with societies was done in a very limited way. There was the Anna Lindh foundation established and there were huge programs for economic cooperation with Mubarak’s Egypt, with ben Ali’s Tunisia, with other countries, but really not much effort to reach to societies. The Eastern Partnership was established later and included from the beginning, apart from the traditional government-to-government flow of work, in parallel, work with civil society.

So I see the establishment of Endowment as a result of this new trend, but obviously as we see from the reaction of some big EU states regarding funding, this trend is not yet deeply rooted.

And one important difference with the US National Endowment for Democracy. It has had its successes, but it also has a weakness, because it generally promotes the American model. Here, because we are composed of many countries, we do not promote any single model, whether French, or Polish, or German, or any other. What we promote is a set of core values and in a sense we provide a spectrum of options.  When we talk to our beneficiaries we tell them – you can come and choose which model fits you better. If you deal with judiciary reform, look at France, look at Poland, if you deal with corruption, look at Bulgaria, how successful it is. In Poland it’s a bit more successful: choose. From mistakes you can also learn. This is in essence the value-added of Endowment, that we are not so strongly identified as a promoter of a single model. 

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