The Autonomous Non-Commercial Organization of Information, Expert and Consulting Services ‘Center in Support of Democracy and Human Rights Helix’ (Helix Center) was created in March 2008. So far, its most important activities have been implemented within the organizational framework developed for the Inter-Regional Electoral Network of Assistance (IRENA) and the Making Small Beautiful: Education for Democracy in the Countryside and Small Towns of Russia project, both sponsored by the European Union under the auspices of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) program.
The IRENA is a non-political, country-level project focused on underpinning the democratic processes in Russia’s regions. It includes the Helix office located in St. Petersburg and Regional Electoral Assistance Locations (REALs) in 14 regions of Russia: Altai territory, the Republic of Karelia, Krasnodar territory, Leningrad province, Moscow, Nizhnii Novgorod province, Perm territory, Samara province, Saratov province, Tula province, St. Petersburg, Sverdlovsk province, Tambov province, and Tula province. The REALs are standing offices that, in their current capacity, mostly focus on information and enlightenment activities both in the administrative centers of the respective regions and, within the framework of the Making Small Beautiful project, at their peripheries. During 2007-2010, the IRENA has organized more than 600 events of different formats (seminars, discussions, round tables, conferences, etc.) that were attended by about 10,000 participants across Russia.
The Helix Center is a value-based organization. Its activities are aimed at promoting democratic, , free-market development in the Russian Federation. Our fundamental values are those of market economy, the freedom of association, speech, and assembly. The goal of the Helix Center is to promote these values and practices related to them throughout the Russian Federation. In order to achieve this goal, we undertake projects and implement individual activities both nationally and locally.
We pursue a two-dimensional strategy of extension: first, widening the territorial activities to as many regions as possible, and second, deepening territorial penetration to the peripheries of the regions. When choosing among the potential regions of project implementation under resource constraints, we tend to select those which have larger populations, and those which are traditionally considered as centers of inter-regional communication and are prepared for this role from an infrastructural point of view. This allows for extending activities to several adjacent regions.
The choice of our projects is determined primarily by our value commitment, as characterized at the beginning of this statement. Communality of values is also the fundamental criterion for selecting partners. It is important to stress that joint values, as understood by the Helix Center, are not narrow ideological and / or political commitments, but rather a shared philosophy based on the recognition of freedom as a cornerstone for economic and social progress. Hence the activities of the Helix Center are non-political and non-partisan. We have neither a specific political agenda to advocate nor politically preferred partners to cooperate with. Moreover, we are convinced both philosophically and by practical experience that while everybody touched by politics does indeed have specific interests, and these interests often contradict to the interests of other actors, such contradictions do not preclude cooperation based on the adherence to shared values.
Hence the participants and partners in our projects come from different political destinations, and they operate accordingly within their own environments. This basic tenet of our philosophy has important practical implications for our strategies.
First, for nation-wide activities to be implemented, it is essential for them to be adoptable to the local realities in a country with conditions as diverse as they are in Russia. Our strategy overcomes this difficulty by building non-partisan networks.
Second, our strategy of basing a network on joint values rather than on narrow commitments allows for developing social solidarity and trust in wider societal environments, which is crucially important for undertaking joint efforts for change. The lack of trust and cooperation is often viewed, and rightly so, as a fundamental evil plaguing the Russian society. We believe that by evoking joint values as an impetus for practical action, we create environments in which trust and cooperation cease to be abstract notions and become practical routines, thus opening the way for good practices of concerted activism.
The other cornerstone of our philosophy in application to the choice of partners and participants in our projects is widely understood professionalism. We believe in the importance of specialized social knowledge, be it produced in the academy or by practical experience, for the improvement of social and political life. Hence our regional partners are either higher learning institutions or NGOs. Yet, irrespective of the kind of partnership we choose, our aim is not to confine the selected partner to the circle of communication which she already belongs to, but rather to open her to new working relationships.
In this way, each of the regional centers of our activities has to become a hub for communication among the regional expert communities, practitioners, and the general public. Our purpose is to gather as many different people as possible around the same table. From this point of view, our belief in the value of specialized knowledge is strategically instrumental. Joint value commitments are essential but not sufficient for concerted activism. It has to be mutually beneficial for all parties involved, which involves sharing resources accumulated by each of the participants. In our view, such resources of shared utility are not so much material but rather intellectual, and there have to be channels for transmitting them among different societal sectors. Our commitment is to create such channels.
The organizational philosophy of the Helix Center is based on three cornerstones, autonomy, personal responsibility, and local ownership. Autonomy means that when a value-based partnership is established, the local partners are free to determine their own mode of operation in a way that fits into the joint goal and the specific project in which they are involved, and within the constraints set by this goal and the available means of its implementation. While strategic goal-setting and overall planning within the projects implemented by the Helix Center is naturally performed by the Center itself, our strong preference is that beyond these functions, our involvement in project implementation would be merely logistical, reducible to the simple functions of financial management and overall coordination / control.
The implication for our strategy is that we deal primarily with organizations that are already sustainable and self-sufficient in their regions, possessing a good track record of achievements and large practical experience. When operating under the auspices of such organizations, be it higher learning institutions or NGOs, our regional centers gain in several crucial respects, especially by utilizing local resources (primarily, the accumulated social capital) for the benefit of Helix-coordinated joint endeavors. The Helix Center, by performing its logistical functions, ensures that the sharing of resources does not lead to their outflow from its projects.
Individual responsibility means that while integrated into local organizations, the coordinators of the activities locally implemented by the Helix Center maintain sufficient autonomy not only from us but also from the leadership of these organizations. That is why we avoid formalizing partnerships with these organizations in our projects. Rather, the routine of our inter-regional cooperation is a two-step procedure that involves two stages, first, establishing a substantive agreement on cooperation with an organization, and second, identifying a person within that organization who will carry on the activities and be personally responsible for the results. This practice proved to be mutually beneficial both to the partner organizations and to the Helix Center. In particular, we believe that only personal responsibility ensures that project activities are carried on irrespective of local conflicts and complications, which greatly enhances the sustainability of our action.
Local ownership means that all products of our projects have to remain in possession of the beneficiaries in the regions, even though we expect them to share these projects with wider publics. The principle of local ownership is too self-evident to be argued for at length. What is important to mention in this connection is that for us, local ownership is not only an element of organizational philosophy but also a practical guarantee of the sustainability of our action. Our philosophy in this respect is that projects, being limited in time, might come and go. But once formed, the regional centers in themselves become banks of accumulated social capital available both to the local populations and to us, as hubs for extending our action and bringing new dimensions into it. In these conditions, the lack of local ownership would limit our own capacity.
Last but not least, it has to be emphasized that while much of the activities of the Helix Center have always been implemented in the regions, our ambition is to create and maintain a nation-wide network of cooperation, assistance, and mutual exchange. The strategic functions of the Helix Center within such network are not limited to the development of locally implemented projects but also include creating products of general utility as vehicles for such cooperation. Such vehicles include the open-access databases, Russian Electoral Statistics; the journal, Russian Electoral Review; the Internet site; and the national conferences and forums held or co-sponsored by the Helix Center. These vehicles, for all their functional peculiarities, are based on one fundamental premise, inclusiveness. We want them to be joint ventures involving as many people as possible, coming from as many quarters as possible. To cite one example, while many of the national publications limit the circles of their authors to small groups of scholars or journalists, which is viewed as a means of guaranteeing quality, our endeavor is different, to raise the quality of intellectual activity in the regions to higher standards. That is why the Russian Electoral Review journal includes the rubric ‘Regional perspectives’ that contains articles by regional authors and about the regions. These raised standards, when returning to the regions, contribute to the accumulation of social capital available to our partners.
In order to fulfill its goal to provide high-quality information about the political to the citizens, the Helix Center maintains two additional Internet resources, The Federal Government of Russia database and the KOMMUTATOR. The former is the most comprehensive open source of factual information on the personal composition of the central Russian government from 1990 to present days. The latter collects and presents to the attention of the Internet users a variety of practically relevant practical aids, instructions, manuals and recommendations educating citizens about various forms of civic engagement.
Thus our aspiration, materialized in our practical strategy, is to combine thinking nationally with acting locally. We believe that the overall improvement in the Russian Federation can be achieved only by a concerted effort of different actors at a national scale. Yet the implementation of this effort will be local, and this is what we have to contribute to.
The Director of the Helix Center is Iulia Shevchenko.