Capital Belgrade
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 381
Mobile Codes 60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67
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Currency Dinar (1EUR = 101RSD)
Land Area 88,361 sq km
Population 7.3 million (excl. Kosovo)
Language Serbian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Civil Society’s Continuing Role in Serbia and the Western Balkans: Interview with Sonja Licht

Editor’s note: Since the end of Communism, the development of ‘civil society’ has been deemed to be of utmost importance for strengthening democratic institutions in the Western Balkans. In the following new interview, contributor Maria Neag gets the insight of Sonja Licht, a distinguished activist in many non-governmental organizations, and a woman considered to be one of the architects of the modern civil society movement in Serbia.

Ms Licht is currently president and founder of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, an NGO that is part of a Network of Schools of Political Studies in South East Europe, which itself operates under the auspices of the Council of Europe with the aim of creating and developing a democratic political elite.

Among her many distinctions, Ms Licht has recently been recognized by the European Movement in Serbia and the International European Movement with an award granted each year to “the person who contributed the most to the process of European integration and the promotion of European ideas and values in Serbia” – “Contribution of the Year Award 2011.”

Living Together- Separately?

Maria Neag: Given your work and research experience on issues related to human rights, minorities, cohabitation and ethnic conflicts, what could you tell us about Serbia in this context? Have Serbians yet recovered after the wars that dissolved Yugoslavia? What is their relationship with and attitude towards Serbia’s neighbours and other ethnic groups?

Sonja Licht: The disintegration of Yugoslavia left deep scars throughout the entire ex-Yugoslav space, from Slovenia to Macedonia. And it would be foolish to believe that it could be otherwise. Yugoslavia existed for more than 70 years. People did live together – from being neighbors to getting married and forming new family ties. Many moved from poor to more developed parts of the country. Economic, cultural, educational relations created numerous networks that were often very much interdependent.

Thus, the dissolution of the country would be a very painful process even without wars. The wars added to the traumas and tragedies. There are still more than half a million people in Serbia who came to the country as refugees during the nineties, and at least 100,000 so called IDPs, people who escaped from Kosovo immediately after the NATO intervention in 1999. This means, that among other things, the ethnic composition of some places changed quite dramatically.

For example, during the nineties many ethnic Hungarians left for Hungary (escaping the drafting or direct discrimination and pressure, finding better work opportunities, studying at Hungarian universities etc.). The percentage of Croats who left Vojvodina is even higher. During the same time, many Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia came to Vojvodina. Many of them joined relatives there who settled after the first and second world wars. All these processes, as results of wars and ethnic cleansings, made inter-ethnic relations even more difficult. And yet I am convinced that the overall development since the democratic, pro-European forces came to power 11 years ago is going in the right direction.

There is growing institutional recognition of the needs of minority populations, including all minorities, not only the ethnic ones. For example, the Law on National Minority Councils (20 councils in total) provides legal opportunities for minorities to form their own educational and cultural institutions and media in their own languages. I believe this approach of the state could be a major step in changing the overall climate as well, although the distance between various ethnic groups is still high- though decreasing in most of the cases, except toward the Roma. The other minority group still faced with a very strong animosity is the LGBT population. It is of utmost importance that all the social and political actors work on the implementation of the anti-discrimination law and, among others, strengthen the role of the Commissioner for Equality in Serbia.

The attitude towards Serbia’s neighbours is changing for the better as well. To mention a few examples: each July thousands of young people from neighbouring countries attend the Exit festival in Novi Sad; it became a custom that huge number of youngsters from Slovenia are coming to Belgrade to the New Year’s festivities. The number of Serbian tourists in Croatia is growing every year. In Montenegro, Serbian citizens remain the most numerous tourist group every summer. This does not mean that tensions disappeared. There are still political and other types of disputes, but the communication is becoming more intensive among ordinary citizens as well as between states officials, including communication on the most sensitive issues such as justice and home affairs.

MN: We are witnessing a polarisation of the political spectrum and the emergence of extremist and populist political parties in Europe, including Serbia. What role can or should the civil society play in the fight against the rise of xenophobia, intolerance and anti-migrants feelings?

SL: Civil society could and should play a much more comprehensive role than it is playing now. However, it is very important that both national authorities and international organizations, including the European Union, Council of Europe and OSCE take its potential much more seriously. Civil society could play a much more active role in opening new ways of communications and building bridges between various groups, by initiating public dialogue about difficult issues that concern the relations between the locals and the people with migrant background, issues that are sometimes too sensitive and unpopular for the politicians. Civil society should also play a more prominent role in life long education.

However, this requires a much more responsible attitude of the media toward the danger of rising xenophobia, intolerance and anti-migrant feelings and attitudes. It is sad to witness how independent, autonomous, progressive media – outlets that fought a courageous battle against the autocratic, nationalist regimes of the nineties both in Serbia and Croatia – have been disappearing since they were not able or ready to cope with the primitive but omnipotent commercialization of the media.

MN Both Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have spoken of the failure of multiculturalism. Do you think the European identity will ever prevail over the national identities? What are the public and civil society’s views on this topic since Serbia is also a multi-ethnic country? What is the way forward to surpass this ideological/philosophical deadlock?

SL: I had the honour to be part of the Group of Eminent Persons of the Council of Europe that prepared the report “Living Together – Combining diversity and freedom in 21st-century Europe.” The report based its recommendations firmly on the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights, especially individual freedom and equality before the law. It holds firmly that “identities are voluntary matter for the individual concerned, and that no one should be forced to choose or accept one primary identity to the exclusion of others.

It argues that European societies need to embrace diversity, and accept that one can be a ‘hyphenated European’ – for instance a Turkish-German, a North African-Frenchwomen or an Asian-Brit.” With its guiding principles and recommendations for action I believe that this report could be a very useful guidebook for debates, especially with young people and teachers, with the media and cultural operators, and, last but not least, civil society actors and political activists and leaders in designing various actions in fighting xenophobia and fear-of-the-other. Civil society in Serbia and our whole Balkan region has an impressive experience in dealing with these menaces and I strongly believe that we could both offer our lessons learned and learn from others how to establish a renewed, but extremely important, culture of living together in challenging circumstances.

The EU and Civil Society’s Influence in the Decision-making Process

MN: Many of the political decisions in Serbia are taken in order to pursue the European perspective and the EU is pushing forward the reform process. In this context, can the civil society be considered a motor for change in Serbia? In what way does the civil society influence the decision-making process?

SL: Civil society was the real motor of both resistance and change during the times of Milosevic’s autocratic regime. After the democratic forces came to power the situation became much more complex concerning the role of civil society. Some decided to focus on setting the agenda and build partnerships with the decision-making bodies, others to remain in a more or less pure watch-dog capacity, the third to deal with humanitarian and development issues etc.

I believe that diversification is extremely important for civil society’s strength and sustainability. It needs to remain independent from various power centers, including the political and financial ones, a very difficult approach to maintain when foreign donors are cutting down their assistance and the countries, including Serbia, are facing protracted economic crisis. And all this is happening in parallel with real potential for growing influence of the civil society on the decision-making process, especially in protection of human and minority rights, gender equality, civic education and capacity-building in general. Just to mention one of the latest examples: in May 2011, at the peak of the debate about changes of the electoral law, there was a strong push to avoid [the stipulation] that every third member of the parliament must be from the less represented gender. A short but well coordinated campaign by the civil society, supported by some political activists, prevented this from happening, and for the first time in the history of Serbian parliamentary life, every third member of the parliament will be a woman.

MN: Serbia is facing a difficult challenge with regard to young and educated people who decide to study and look for employment opportunities abroad. You and the NGOs with which you are collaborating have been very active in implementing programmes to address the “brain drain” phenomenon in Serbia. What were the most successful initiatives in this sense and what input has civil society brought to the drafting process of the governmental strategies for “brain gain”?

SL: Unfortunately the “brain drain” will be impossible to stop, especially in these times of severe economic crisis. What we are trying to do is to provide a better insight into the entire situation, and to help in designing methods for a parallel “brain gain” approach/policy. This means that we are advocating for a much better communication with both young people in the country and already abroad, for an easier access to job opportunities and diversification of ways by which those who remain abroad could be connected to institutions and projects in the country. We are organizing round tables and conferences that include all the relevant stakeholders and trying to encourage everyone – and especially the authorities – to develop policies and practices which would address these issues in a systemic and strategic way.

The International Community’s Presence in the Balkans

MN: During the wars of the 1990’s, the international community intervened in the interest of conflict resolution, peacekeeping and peace-building. It has remained present until today in the Western Balkans, and has influenced the democratic and economic development of the region. To your mind, is the international community’s presence still needed? How would you quantify its involvement in Serbia?

SL: The international community’s presence has been very important, I would say crucial in developing an autonomous civil society in Serbia and the entire Balkan region. I would have to limit myself to this part of the answer- otherwise this set of questions could be answered only in the form of a much longer text.

Although there have been different experiences with different organizations and donors, one has to be fair and to state that without them, an autonomous civil society would not have had a chance to develop as a genuine actor of social change. It is true that there were many mistakes, development of donor dependency- for example, misunderstandings of specific needs and problems of finding the right timing, especially in the second half of the nineties, but one has to be fair and say that without democracy assistance from abroad, including the huge support after the democratic change in October 2000, Serbia would not be the same country: it would have been much less ready to proceed on the path to European integration.

This support is still needed, of course, especially through various EU funds, both for institution-building and also for the development of political culture and development in general, for example, in the fields of environmental protection and the shaping of a new energy future for Serbia and the whole region.

It is very difficult to quantify its overall involvement, but let me give you again two concrete examples related to my organization. At the beginning of 2011, the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence initiated the launch of a new event- the Belgrade Security Forum. There have been similar regular events in Bratislava, Riga, Brussels and Munich organized for years. In partnership with two other CSOs, the European Movement in Serbia and the Belgrade Centre for Security Policies we are organizing the First Belgrade Security Forum, September 14 to 16 this year with more than 70 distinguished guests from abroad.

This would simply have not been possible without the generous support of the Slovak, Czech, US, and Norwegian governments, the UNDP, the Balkan Trust for Democracy of GMF, the European Fund for the Balkans and a few local corporate donors. The same is true for another project we are working on, Public Dialogue for Sustainable Use of Energy in SEE. This project was launched with the support of the German GIZ and the International Visegrad Fund. I am mentioning these two projects as personal testimony for why, without international donors they would either have to wait for years to be realized or would not happen at all.

MN: Recently, we have seen a withdrawal trend of the US from Balkan affairs. The US is stepping back while the EU is showing more and more interest in becoming a mediator in the remaining conflicts in the region. Is this shift of international actors going to affect Serbia?

SL: It is fully understandable that the EU is taking a much more active mediating role in the Balkan region, including the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. All these countries want to join the Union, and the Thessaloniki agenda is still on the table. On the path toward full integration in the EU, it is absolutely essential to build the strongest possible mutual understanding and trust between all of us and our future “home,” especially having in mind that we shall also be active participants in a common European foreign and security policy and possibly even a common fiscal policy (given that the membership of these countries, except Croatia, is still quite far away).

Present Leaders and the Future Political Elite of Serbia

MN: As the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE) promotes leaders engaged in the political realm, as well as in the administrative sector, media, culture etc., it is clear that you had the chance to get familiar with the activities and goals they embrace. What can you tell us about their backgrounds? What are the criteria for receiving consideration from your organization?

SL: BFPE worked with several hundred people from various political parties, including those who occupy very high positions, more than a hundred MPs, many local officials, as well as people coming from all other relevant sectors of the society. First of all, the majority of those who take part in our programs do so because they are eager to learn more about topics covered by BFPE: from the functioning of European institutions to the major issues related to stability, security and regional cooperation, from economy to ecology.

We have also organized specialized seminars on minority and human rights, human security, empowerment of women in politics, poverty reduction, energy efficiency, how to face climate change, etc. People participating in these programs gain additional knowledge but also use these opportunities to get to know each other better. There are still very few inter-party, inter-sectoral dialogues in Serbian society; thus by participating in our programs they also create informal networks and start to understand each other much better. Our main requirements in selecting the participants are that they come from different institutional and organizational backgrounds, want to learn, to transfer experience and are ready for mutual exchange in a tolerant atmosphere.

MN: Could you say that Serbia’s leaders are, somehow, atypical?

SL: I don’t think that they are atypical at all. We have many regional gatherings where participants from other schools of our Network come together, and once a year there is a major gathering at the Summer University for Democracy in the Council of Europe. In all these situations it is more than visible that especially those from our region not only share the same concerns and hopes, but that they find a very easy way to communicate with each other. Tim Judah would find this to be a genuine proof of his theses about the ‘Yugo-sphere.’

MN: What about the future political class? Did you notice any noteworthy evolution among the young politicians? How prepared are they to face future Serbian and EU challenges?

SL: It is extremely important for them to find their own ways of expression, to define their own views and not to be only followers of the existing patterns of political behavior. I am hoping that our activities, as the activities of our entire Network (16 schools in total, with one in every capital in the Western Balkans) will contribute to the development of their knowledge and self-esteem and even attract some additional bright, decent, socially conscious young people to take part in political life. I must say that in my opinion, most of our participants are ready to face the future Serbian and EU challenges, but I am hoping for even more: for a new generation of politicians both in Serbia and Europe who will bring ethics back into politics and to build a political class that will enhance democratic governance and restore citizens’ trust in politics.

Serbia’s Role in Reinventing the Balkans

MN: In a speech made during an event in the European Parliament (Serbia and its contribution to the regional cooperation in the Western Balkans, May 26, 2011), you stated that Serbia has the role of reinventing the Balkans as a European place. By what means could Serbia undertake this responsibility?

SL: Serbia and all the other countries of the region, I strongly believe, have the same responsibility and the same opportunity- to develop not only themselves but indeed the whole region into a genuine European place. When you speak with citizens from any of these countries they will all tell you that they are very proud of their history, of their cultural heritage, of the fact that since Roman times they have been part of Europe.

However, this is not enough to be part of the common European space. We must adopt all those values and standards built by contemporary Europe, i.e. the EU. And we also must convince this very special club that we are bringing in some added values. These values are [not only] our cultures, our potential to face the past and get rid of our demons, but also our geography and our history.

MN: Can the Balkans be called a “success story” considering the clashes of the past and the unresolved issues regarding Kosovo or the difficult situation in Bosnia & Herzegovina?

SL: Yes I am absolutely convinced that the Balkans is one step away from being considered a “success story”- of course, when compared with other post-conflict areas in the world today. A decade after the armed conflict ended, we have developed relations in some of the most sensitive areas, such as cooperation in fighting organized crime, in the military field, as well as in other relevant security areas. Economic cooperation is growing, as well as educational and cultural exchanges. [Not to mention] the growing awareness that only as a region can we provide enough energy security and thus development for our countries.

The signs about a changing climate are everywhere: just a few days ago the Belgrade Philharmony, conducted by Zubin Mehta, was met in Dubrovnik with ovations. Film directors are regularly inviting actors from various Balkan countries to play in their films, concerts of Serbian singers in Croatia or Bosnia & Herzegovina, and vice versa, are not news any more. When the Macedonian Tose Proeski, singer, song-writer and actor was killed in a car accident the entire region was in mourning. And the most popular Croatian pop-singer Severina is expecting a baby with her Serbian boyfriend, while all the popular magazines are following her pregnancy with great interest and sympathies. The ingredients and potential for a “success story” are already present, it depends on all of us and especially our political leaders as to whether they will be wise enough and responsible enough to transform them into a long-term policy, and thus to secure the European future for our entire region.