Prague, which already hosts US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, became the home on Thursday of Europe's new Civil Society Centre, with the backing of major human rights organizations.
Center director Rostislav Valvoda said "growing pressure" applied by "post-Soviet authoritarian regimes" was inhibiting efforts to establish civil society in countries such as Belarus (pictured above), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Central Asia.
The Civil Society Centre in its opening statement said its mission was to help create "more open societies" with respect to the rule of law, human rights, tolerance and dignity by becoming a "hub" for activists from all over Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia.
In recent years Russia has tightened conditions for foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and accused the West of interfering in Ukraine.
The center's statement was unclear on what it intended to do in war-torn Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have seized eastern regions bordering Russia.
The Prague-based center said its staff would use a mix of traditional and innovative approaches to assist non-governmental organizations in such countries as well as citizens, bloggers, journalists and artists, researchers and independent filmmakers.
It would award flexible grants and offer training in the form of seminars and online workshops. In partnership with one of Prague's universities it also aimed to establish a master's degree in "transition studies."
The center's institutional founders include the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs think tank, the Human Rights House Foundation based in Oslo and the People in Need relief organization based in Prague.
Initial funders had included two private donors (the C.S. Mott and Oak foundations), the US Agency for International Development, the Swedish and Czech foreign affairs ministries.
Azerbaijan as example
Last October, the 47-nation Council of Europe, a human rights body based in Strasbourg, accused Azerbaijan of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges which Baku denied.
Last month, it placed on trial prominent human rights activist Rasul Jafarov who had used Azerbaijan's staging of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 to highlight the ex-Soviet country's poor human rights record.
The energy-rich country on the Caspian Sea is led by veteran President Ilham Aliyev who began a third term in 2013.
The mainly Muslim country has said its nine million citizens enjoy freedom of speech and a lively opposition press.
ipj/kms (Reuters, AFP)