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BRICS Alliance and its Quest for Cultural Cooperation: Interview with Victoria Panova

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Modern Diplomacy brings you the final in the series of interviews that focus on BRICS Alliance and its Quest for Cultural Cooperation. In this interview, Victoria Panova, Co-Chair of the BRICS Civil Forum, Managing Director of the National Committee on BRICS Research, Scientific Supervisor of the BRICS Russian Organizing Committee Expert Council and Vice President for International Relations of Far Eastern Federal University, discusses most of the salient points. Here are the interview excerpts:

In 2015 you headed the NGO Working Group on BRICS, what would you say were the main non-government directions and, to what extent, these have been implemented over these past five years?

Panova:Back in 2006, when there was still the G8 and Russia was chairing the Group that year we, a group of dedicated representatives of civil society and academia led by prominent activist Ella Pamfilova, who was back then chairing the Council on development of human rights and civil society organizations in Russia together with our colleagues in the other G8 countries came up with the idea of the need of much deeper involvement and need for enhanced influence on the part of civil society of our countries on the otherwise quite closed process of governmental meetings of the G8 countries.

There were meetings with business that interested official representatives, but also parallel anti-globalist process trying to counter the official process. We thought that it is vital to make sure our governments here us, but we realized we have to act constructively and joined efforts to launch the full-blown Civil process at the G8, in fact that year was the first time that we garnered attention of all the nine Sherpas (including that of the EU) and had our ideas promoted among the governmental representatives urging them to be bolder and have a real connect with their proper civil societies.

The year 2015 came, the second time for Russia to host initiated BRICS alliance, the G8 was no longer existent at that time, but we were sure changing the composition of states is not altering the essence of what we were trying to do. And it goes without saying that in today’s world it should be two-way movement – not just people and society working for their country to be strong and efficient, but the country – its officials – should be ensuring the State does understand the vital needs and wishes of its people. And importance of this idea doesn’t change from one type of political regime to the other, doesn’t have a different meaning in the Western or Eastern hemisphere, doesn’t depend on the level of economic development of the given country and group of countries. Thus, once again, partly with the same enthusiastic civil society representatives, partly the newcomers we came up with the idea to enrich the second track of diplomacy and ensure a broader engagement of BRICS local communities in shaping the global agenda (it should be noted, that two years earlier similar process was also initiated at the Russian Chairmanship in the G20). Our goal was to create an environment for a constructive dialogue between governments and its citizens, promoting mutual understanding and acknowledgement of people’s concerns as well as encouraging strong problem-solving relations and generation of innovative ideas.

Within Russian Chairmanship in 2015, we kick-started the BRICS civil process by holding the first Civil Forum. We were looking at previous experience of the kind, but also tried to innovate with extra formats of involvement to ensure our voices are heard to their maximum. This year with the pandemic we experimented even further. In fact momentum wasn’t lost even with the travel restrictions and globally introduced lockdowns. We’ve held unprecedented number of online round tables across all the eight working groups in order to work out comprehensive and inclusive set of recommendations featuring wishes and needs of global, not just BRICS, civil society community.

This format received attention from the BRICS governments and it speaks volumes. As the BRICS governments’ officials traditionally attend some of our events, the credibility of our interaction platforms is widely recognized. I think that our important result is the creation of conditions for public sector and civil society representatives to discuss sensitive issues where they can go beyond official talking points and explore new ideas. These consultations provide policymakers with a better understanding of motivations and interests of the other actors and a clearer sense of how their policy initiatives are perceived by the citizens of BRICS countries.

Capabilities to offer policy advice and produce positive effects provided food for thought regarding institutionalization of the BRICS civil process. It would allow our societies to have more profound people-to-people connections, a wider range of joint activities, including cultural exchange. Emerging of intra-BRICS association of NGOs may also upgrade our current consultation platforms and mechanisms. It seems that we are on the way to it.

How would you argue that some of the initiatives have largely remained unrealized primarily due to diverse challenges and due to the geographical locations of BRICS members?

Panova:Challenges related to the geographical remoteness of the BRICS countries have been consistently associated with peculiarities of people-to-people cooperation. Long distances and high costs of travel within our countries, certain underdevelopment of services sectors and tourist infrastructure as well as burdensome visa procedures remain the foremost barriers for BRICS. We also have to remember that BRICS represents 40% of the world population and about 30 % world’s land surface that is why it takes time to raise awareness on BRICS and engage our societies into activities of the grouping. Our countries thereby seek to expand the geography of BRICS official events and promote each other’s cultures.

Outcome documents elaborated within the BRICS track 2 diplomacy have traditionally comprised recommendations and suggestions in these fields. Among them – to simplify visa procedures, to launch initiatives on cultural tourism, to harmonize standards of educational systems, to establish scholarship schemes promoting cultural and educational exchange. We may witness that these recommendations are gradually addressed, but tangible results could be expected in a long-term perspective only. 

Could you please discuss why empowering women, in particular, has become important as one of the latest NGO directions for BRICS? How has this stimulated interest among members of BRICS? 

Panova:A primary reason for the growing relevance of women empowerment agenda for BRICS is that in this context our countries encounter a variety of common challenges. Performance of BRICS countries in the international rankings, such as WEF Global Gender Gap Index and the OECD SDG Gender Index displays that we tend to be ranked lower than most of developed and some developing countries are. Despite the fact that our five countries demonstrate relatively high performance in the fields of education and health, we have major gaps in women’s economic and political participation.

Among these challenges, we may see the lack of transparency in gender budgeting, low participation of women in decision-making and political processes, gaps in implementation of women’s labour rights, including gender pay gap. In all BRICS countries women have to overcome barriers such as lack of professional training to obtain necessary digital skills, prevalence of informal employment and unpaid care work, lack of financing for women-owned businesses, and many others. In addition, stereotypes about the role of women in the society aggravate this situation.

I should say that this issue gained momentum in 2015, when BRICS countries made their commitments to adhere to Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. It also encouraged women and men worldwide to take more active roles in gender mainstreaming. It evolves as a trend, and upstream initiatives began to emerge. Topics on gender equality more often appear at BRICS events organized by our civil society organizations. 

Our civil society organizations persistently draw the attention of the BRICS Leaders to the gender agenda. Our governments repeatedly recognized empowerment of women as a driving force for economic growth and agreed on a set of key policy principles to improve the status of women. This year BRICS Women’s Business Alliance was established to foster female entrepreneurship and participation of women in international trade. There is still a room for action. Recently the world has seen implications of these gender disparity trends catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I can say that balance upset caused by the pandemic revealed those pre-existing problems and pushed forward gender mainstreaming in all countries of the world, not only in BRICS.

I think that continuing efforts of our civil society in this regard will contribute to further formation of BRICS as a prominent example of an alliance uniting socially responsible economies, attaching great importance to ensuring the inclusiveness of its communities and to meeting the needs of citizens.

Despite all you have said above, in what ways would you argue that the group has a unique for developing Civil Society? 

Panova:Indeed, BRICS is the grouping of countries from different parts of the world, countries with distinctive histories and cultures, but similar values. At the same time, BRICS brings together great minds of humanity with outstanding creative potential. BRICS is paying higher attention to its human capital and it is but natural to opt for the taking advantage exactly of this potential.

There is one thing that may “kill” the most innovative idea – lack of political will. In this context, BRICS represents an open platform established by our governments as a priority. This is also an important precondition for laying a solid groundwork for the advanced development of our societies.

So, are the negative perceptions really changing about BRICS? What keeps you personally motivated working for this Civil BRICS?

Panova:For over a decade the public image of the grouping has been transforming from “BRICS as marketable product” to “BRICS as a strategic partnership”. For some time, BRICS was perceived as not a very successful interpretation of Jim O’Neil’s ideas, for another period BRICS has been viewed as “a power to confront the Western dominance”. Luckily, the reality has nothing to do with both judgements.

BRICS perception of itself is close to the ideas or Yevgeny Primakov, Russian former Prime Minister. He drafted the concept of the need for maximum multi-vector engagement, championed the idea of no other alternative to the multipolar democratic world and as one of the prerequisites of such – the Russia – India – China strategic triangle which is considered to be a progenitor of future BRIC, and later – BRICS. Still, BRICS as a newly established club mechanism had to earn its place in the system of global governance.  

I should say I see much less skepticism about BRICS lately. Probably it is changing due to certain global outcomes of the BRICS economic cooperation while it is only one of three pillars of our partnership (other two are “politics and security” and “humanitarian and cultural cooperation”). Let me give you some examples: in 2020, the total GDP of the BRICS countries amounted to 25 % of the global GDP and in 2015-2019 our GDP have been growing faster than the global GDP. In 2020, the share of BRICS in international trade reached 20 % while over the past five years the mutual exports of have also grown by 45 %. BRICS countries were capable of establishing the New Development Bank and launch effective solutions globally. I must emphasize that it became the first case in history when so called “club mechanism” managed to create its full-fledged financial institution and created it in less than five years.

What keeps me personally motivated is keen interest of our countries’ citizens to shape and take part in BRICS agenda. This interest is growing beyond BRICS – today we witness ever-increasing engagement of representatives from non-BRICS societies that is also a positive trend. BRICS is getting more demanded for people, and there is a strong message from our governments that BRICS should be a people-centered institution. I think these are the most essential conditions for creativity and innovation.

In terms of strategic outlook, is it appropriate to conclude the discussion here that BRICS is purposefully looking for a unified Soft Power as part of efforts in dealing with dominance by Western and European countries?

Panova:As I briefly mentioned in my previous answer – BRICS has never intended to be the power dealing with dominance of any states or groups of states. BRICS has grown to be self-sufficient mechanism, and it means that our governments need to respond to the needs of their citizens. These needs formulate grand strategy of the grouping, and it coincides with interests of the most countries in the world. Expanding outreach to its networks, BRICS serves as a proponent of the renewed world order that implies several decision-making centers. I think this circumstance could raise the idea that BRICS endeavors to undermine the world order.

On the contrary, our countries aim to play a stabilizing role in global affairs by promoting respect for the principles of national sovereignty, non-intervention in internal affairs, mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests as well as respect of the international law. As BRICS stands for multipolar, democratic, just and fair world order, it undertakes efforts to make the voices of the developing world heard. And aren’t those the core features of peaceful and harmonic world?(Modern Diplomacy)

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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“Kharibulbul” festival represents a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional and multicultural Azerbaijan

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As a country of multiculturalism, Azerbaijan promotes the cross-cultural dialogue inside the country, but also at the regional level. The modern Republic of Azerbaijan regards the existence of a people as the result of the civil and political self-determination of the peoples in Azerbaijan. For the time being, Azerbaijan is populated by representatives of over 30 national minorities such as Talysh, Kurd, Lezghi, Tat, Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Inghiloy, Tatar, Avar, Ahyska Turk, Jewish, German, Greek and others. All of them enjoy the cultural societies. Representatives of three main religious confessions – Islamic, Christian and Judaic communities participate jointly at various public ceremonies and cultural events. Support and preservation of the cultural diversity are reflected in the State policy of Azerbaijan.

The ongoing clashes near Nagorno-Karabakh started after Armenia attacked Azerbaijani civilians and military on September 27. Azerbaijan won its historic Victory in 44 days, liberated its lands, dealt crushing blows to the enemy, and defeated Armenia. As a result of this defeat, Armenia was forced to sign capitulation and surrender. Thus, Armenia’s 30-year policy of aggression has come to an end. During this time, the glorious Azerbaijani Army has liberated many settlements from the enemy. Thousands of citizens have volunteered for military service across the country to fight Armenia’s increased military aggression. The volunteers come from various ethnic, religious, social backgrounds and are united around the cause to restore the country’s territorial integrity as well as justice.

Despite all this, Azerbaijanis are not the enemy of the Armenian people. Azerbaijan is a multinational state. Thousands of Armenians live in Azerbaijan, primarily in Baku. Armenia, which has created a society intolerant towards other nations and religions, has tried to completely erase the ancient Albanian, Orthodox, Muslim religious and cultural heritage that historically existed in the occupied territories of multi-ethnic and multi-religious Azerbaijan. It has either completely destroyed cultural and spiritual heritage of the Azerbaijani people or falsified their history and origins by Armenianizing and Gregorianizing it. In the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, mosques, temples and cemeteries, historical monuments, museums, libraries have been destroyed and looted, Caucasian Albanian Christian temples and Russian Orthodox churches have been Gregorianized, mosques have been turned into barns and subjected to unprecedented insults such as keeping animals forbidden in Islam in them. The Armenian regime, which has been pursuing aggressive policies for years, has ignored the norms of international law and international humanitarian law, has committed environmental crimes in the occupied territories through fires, the use of phosphorus bombs, poisonous substances and mines. Today, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh region, also they can normally live only within the Azerbaijani state. The Azerbaijani people are tolerant.

It is also well known by the world public that the Republic of Azerbaijan, diverse in terms of ethnic and religious background, fought to liberate its historic territories from occupation that had nothing to do with Christianity. Secondly, Muslims, Christians, and Jews – representatives of all nations and religions living in our country – fought alongside Azerbaijanis in the armed forces of Azerbaijan. These people were united around the “ Karabakh is Azerbaijan!” slogan by Mr. Ilham Aliyev, Commander – in – Chief of the victorious army, and not false religious appeals. Among them are those who displayed unequalled heroism falling martyrs, wounded, and awarded with supreme orders and medals of the Republic of Azerbaijan. 

 As with the beginning of the conflict, there are lots of officers and soldiers – representatives of the nations and religious communities living in Azerbaijan – who serve in Azerbaijan’s national army and display outstanding valor in liberating our country from occupation. Azerbaijani nation doesn’t discriminate between its heroic sons and martyrs on ethnic and religious background.

Mr. President Ilham Aliyev, who played a major role in this historic victory of Azerbaijan, said the followings: “Our advantage lies in the fact that representatives of all nations living in Azerbaijan feel themselves as comfortable as in their families and motherland. The fraternity and friendly relationships between various nations is our big wealth and we have to protect it. Our policy will also be pursued in the future. Representative of all the nations living in Azerbaijan displayed outstanding courage and heroism in the Second Karabakh war, falling martyrs, fighting for the cause of Motherland, and embracing death under the Azerbaijani flag. This is the society we have in our country and it is our big wealth».

For your information, “Kharibulbul” music  festival, bearing the name of symbolic flower growing in Shusha, was first organized in Shusha’s fabulous Jidyr glade in May 1989.  30 years later on May, the 12th “Kharibulbul” music  festival in Azerbaijan’s cultural capital Shusha was organized by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and will be held every year hereafter.

Musical creativity of different nations living in Azerbaijan on Jidyr glade within the festival was introduced devoted to “ Multiculturalism in Azerbaijani music” as a program comprising folk and classic musics.

Representatives of various nations living in our country demonstrated stage performance. All nations living in Azerbaijan have contributed to our joint victory. The Patriotic War once again proved that all nations live in fraternity, friendhips, and solidarity in Azerbaijan and there is national unity and solidarity in the country.We are sure that Shusha will host numerous music festivals and international conferences.

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Priyanka Banerjee exposes the harsh realities of rape culture in India in her short film “Devi”

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Priyanka Banerjee is the writer and director of the award winning film “Devi”. Devi as a film explores ideas related to rape culture in India. The entire short film is shot inside a theatre style single room. All the women in the film are sitting together in a room after their death and discussing how crowded the room is getting. The plot soon reveals that all these women have been raped.

The climax of the film catches all viewers off-guard and exposes them to the harsh realities of today’s India.

Tell us more about your journey as a director and writer

I have no formal education in writing and direction. I took theatre arts in school and got a little experience there and then started a theatre company, Leogirl Productions (today it does content and video for clients). Along the way, I taught myself screenwriting from online courses. Many people believe that films are very technical. However, I think that if you are curious enough, you can learn it on the job. My first short film was released in 2016. I did not then imagine that I would work on a film which will win the filmfare. The idea for Devi came along in 2018 and it took a while to work on the idea and bring it to the screen.

What inspires you to make films?

Movies are very relatable. I end up thinking of movies most often when I am having a moment – good or bad. I think of movie scenes which relate to how I am feeling all the time. I think movies are capable of leaving a deep impression on people and creating an impact. I want to create an impact on people via my storytelling and make films which people will remember.

What inspired you to write and direct Devi?

My very first draft was actually called candlelight. However, once the film was ready, our producer Niranjan Iyengar suggested we call it “Devi” and that immediately stuck.

When the Kathua Rape case happened a few years ago, I watched the news on television and felt numb. For the first time ever, I did not have a reaction to something that usually impacted me a lot. This scared me a little. Not having a reaction meant that rape news was normalised, I was desensitised. I wrote Devi with that frustration in mind.    

I am someone who takes time to write and work on films. I started working on Devi in 2018 however, it finally only released in March 2020.

Why was Royal Stag barrel select short films chosen as a platform to launch Devi?

The producers generally choose which platform a film should release on. Royal Stag Barrel Short Films has a great collection of films and I am happy that the film found the right platform for release.

What strikes you as the most impactful scene in “Devi”?

I was deeply impacted by two scenes in the film, even as I was writing them. One scene was when the maushi told the medical student,  “You are studying for an exam you are never going to give”. The second impactful scene is a more popular one. It was when the little girl walked into the room and the deaf girl signed and told her,  “You are safe here”. The scene implied that the girl was finally safer after her death than while alive. Both scenes impacted me as I was writing them, and I’m glad they were received the same way.

What can be done to change rape culture in India?

I think rape is not so much about sex as it is about power. Many Indians’ sexual desires are repressed, desires are considered taboo, not to mention there is a total lack of empowerment even when it comes to education or employment. Therefore, they find empowerment is hurting another. Not to mention the total lack of sensitivity when it comes to how women are spoken of by the media, by politicians, by influencers in everyday life. Each of these things causes a systemic rot which has to be cleaned out with every generation. Awareness of these various aspects of what can take us to the root of the problem, I think.

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Art Is a Mirror Of The Magnitude Of Human Achievement

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Dr. Sofija Bajrektarevic, Culture for peace to culture of peace(left); Reine Hirano, Artist (right)

The ‘From Culture for Peace to Culture of Peace’ (known also as the Culture for Peace – Unifying Potentials for the Future) Initiative was once again participating in the ‘Vienna Processes’ conference series program by wishing to emphasize the importance of cultural diplomacy in the processes of creating and maintaining dialogue and the well-being of society.

On the historic date of March 08th – International Women’s Day, a large number of international affairs specialists gathered for the second consecutive summit in Vienna, Austria. This leg of the Vienna Process event titled: “Europe – Future – Neighbourhood at 75: Disruptions Recalibration Continuity”. The conference, jointly organized by four different entities (the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy, Scientific Journal European Perspectives, and Action Platform Culture for Peace) with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, was aimed at discussing the future of Europe and its neighbourhood in the wake of its old and new challenges.

This highly anticipated conference gathered over twenty high ranking speakers from three continents, and the viewers from Australia to Canada and from Chile to Far East. The day was filled by three panels focusing on the rethinking and revisiting Europe and its three equally important neighbourhoods: Euro-Med, Eastern and trans-Atlantic (or as the Romano Prodi’s EU Commission coined it back in 2000s – “from Morocco to Russia – everything but the institutions”); the socio-political and economic greening; as well as the legacy of WWII, Nuremberg Trials and Code, the European Human Rights Charter and their relevance in the 21st century.

The event was probably the largest gathering since the beginning of 2021 for this part of Europe.

For this occasion, the selected work of artist Alem Korkut is on the Conference poster.This artist work with the motto/message: ‘Sustainable Future – Quo Vadis?’ is a standing part of the Initiative project. This previously launched initiative refers to the visual arts and the engagement of artists in the field of ‘culture for peace and culture of peace’.

“Europe Future Neighborhood” Conference poster

In addition to the artistic visualization of the theme and message of the conference (same as it was a case with the first conference in the series ‘Vienna Process’), this Conference leg was closed in the big hall of the Austrian Diplomatic Academy with a well-chosen artistic musical performance.

This time, conference participants and attendees were able to listen to the selected parts of Suite No. 1 in G major for solo cello from J.S. Bach, performed by Japanese artist Reine Hirano.As a solo and chamber musician she performs in concert halls worldwide, including the Konzerthaus in Vienna and the Suntory Hallin Tokyo.

It was to emphasize the importance of culture, science and arts as essential binding and effective tool of cultural diplomacy. Utilized to support dialogue, these types of interventions of the Culture for PeaceUnifying Potentials for the Future Platform already became a regular accompanying part of the ‘Vienna Process’, which makes it special – quite different from the usual conference forms of geopolitical, legal and economic contents.

Conclusively, art – indeed – is a mirror of the magnitude of human achievement, but also a message of how fragile those achievements are.

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