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Interviews

[EWB Interview] Engaged Democracy Initiative – Regional cooperation for solving common challenges

What is the Engaged Democracy Initiative (EDI), how did the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB) and the Institute for Democratic Engagement Southeast Europe (IDESE) come together and create this initiative, and what would be the purpose of the EDI, the European Western Balkans spoke with Aleksandra Tomanić, Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, Vedran Džihić, BiEPAG member and a Senior Researcher with the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, Co-Director of the Center for Advanced Studies, and Senior Lecturer at the University of Vienna, Katarina Tadić, Program Manager at European Fund for the Balkans, and Gazela Pudar Draško, Director at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Belgrade.

European Western Balkans: Many of the challenges faced by the Western Balkans transcend borders. In recent years, engaged citizens and local initiatives seem to be a promising actor in demanding accountability and defending public interest. Do you think that stronger regional connections would be useful and what are the potential obstacles in forming them?

Aleksandra Tomanić: The European Fund for the Balkans is a regional organisation, our approach is to always cover the entire region. So, when we decided last year to add a new dimension to our work, focussing on bottom-up democratisation processes by putting citizens’ needs and demands at the forefront, one of the main questions was how to link this local aspect with the regional one. There are, of course, already a number of connections, as we have witnessed regional solidarity, shown in the 2014 floods, as did the reaction to the 2019 earthquake in Albania, or that to the earthquakes in Croatia. Solidarity, support, help among neighbours. We would like to contribute to raising the awareness on the fact that we share many challenges and problems.

In late October, we had a first joint regional endeavour of this type – Trees of Friendship, which was undertaken in all 6 capitals of the region, with a lot of joy and enthusiasm. At the end of this month, a regional campaign “Balkans United for Clean Air” will be launched. Just to name two concrete examples of  local actors’ connection on a regional level.

Read more: EFB lanches regional campaign “Balkans United for Clean Air”

Katarina Tadić: In the entire region we are witnessing brave individuals, men and women, who are voicing their concerns, staying put and often literally defending public interest and common goods with their own bodies. They all act in an environment in which space for civil society and civic engagement is shrinking and the freedom of expression is endangered. Teaming them up and providing space for their national and regional collaboration and knowledge exchange increases their visibility and strengthens their position towards authoritarian governments. I like to think of them as sparkles that, when put together, will light up the Balkans.

Gazela Pudar Draško: Yes, I think that there is no real advancement of this region without meaningful regional cooperation on all levels. Too frequently, narratives on cooperation are focussed on the economy and free movement of capital. However, that is not enough. Our heritage is common in most of the cases, as are our issues and problems that affect citizens across the region. I am certain that closer ties between civil society, movements and the academic/expert community could develop fruitful paths towards better societies in the Balkans. However, the strongest obstacle remains political entrepreneurship relying on nurturing old enmities, mostly based on ethnicity and religion. Without engaged actors who are able to push for solidarity and acceptance of the Others, there is little hope that we can make progress in the region.

Vedran Džihić: Adding to what my colleagues said I just want to underline the importance of not only connecting the region, but creating functional regional structures for learning from each other, developing new ties and mutual support. We are working towards a needs-based digital platform and we are planning a major convention of engaged citizens in Belgrade in September.

Speaking about transregional action in the Western Balkans, we should not leave out yet another very important transcending dimension, namely the European one. We share common problems and challenges with other parts of Europe, be it questions of inequality and social justice, climate change, air pollution or political challenges such as the rise of far-right populism and authoritarian tendencies. Our initiative has established initial ties with ongoing similar ones in the EU, such as the European Hub for Civic Engagement, and is firmly anchored in European debates on civic engagement.

This is an element that we will bring into the region, giving our best to include Western Balkan civic initiatives into larger European debates.

EWB: What is the Engaged Democracy Initiative (EDI) and how will it respond to the abovementioned regional challenges? Also, what kind of local movements and organisations will be the focus of the EDI?

AT: Engaged citizens, local initiatives and movements throughout the region have shown that there is energy and will for changes and that people are ready to invest their time, as well as their integrity to fight for concrete changes and build trust within their communities. This is a very important starting point, as various reports and analyses state a lack of engagement (e.g. in elections) and a lack of trust. Throughout the region, we are witnessing great examples of people organising themselves in their neighbourhoods, coming together to fight for their rivers, parks, and cities, thus completely overcoming ethnic narratives and divisions and recognising themselves as citizens, as constituents.

VDŽ / GPD: The vision behind EDI is a joint engagement by local movements’ representatives, academic community, media and social entrepreneurship for bringing in narratives that Yes, we can benefit from networking throughout the region and Yes, we can show that positive examples exist, as an inspiration to others throughout the region. Movements and civic initiatives are very active, but mostly on the local or national levels.

Our research and talks with engaged citizens and movements from all over the region in the last few months clearly show that regional connections are valued but absent. They also stress that they could profit a lot from learning about their colleagues’ experiences from other countries and that structured communication and proper tools for exchange and a joint struggle based on common goals and solidarity would help the common cause. That is why we joined forces with EFB to try to design a framework which will provide engaged citizens with the tools that are meaningful for their everyday activism and, one hopes, future success.

KT: A significant aspect of the Engaged Democracy Initiative is the digital platform mentioned by Vedran, which is envisaged as a digital safe space, of sorts. Namely, we intend to support the creation of a platform that will serve as an interactive space for engaged citizens and movements to get to know each other, communicate, exchange know-how, and support each other. In doing so, we believe it is crucial to be inclusive and involve individuals from initiatives and movements, assigning them with decisive roles in developing the platform so as to truly respond to their needs and provide tools to support their work and amplify the impact of their social engagement.

EWB: Can you explain the process preceding the Engaged Democracy Initiative, in other words, how did the EFB and IDESE come together and create this initiative?

GDP: Well, it was a lucky coincidence of similar ideas at a similar time, born out of the common frustration with state and institutional capture in our region and motivated by the great levels of enthusiasm, positive solidary action and work by citizens.

IDESE has been working for several years on linking academia and civil society in an attempt to produce a pool of people able and willing to create meaningful initiatives and inspire actions and positive political and societal change. The process of joint design thinking gave birth to the idea of an annual convention, a high-level regional event gathering all relevant engaged actors struggling for democracy – that’s the origin of the Engaged Democracy Initiative.

The launch convention should take place in September 2021 if we finally return to some level of post-COVID-19 pandemic normalcy. We intend to gather representatives of all the abovementioned target groups and give a strong impetus to local movements and their networking for the benefit of the region’s citizens.

AT: When EFB added this new dimension to its programme, we were fully convinced that we need to partner and team up if we want to try to make some real, “beyond-project-cycle” impact. We had numerous talks and recognized that we share similar views on the situation and potential reactions to it with the colleagues from IDESE.

EWB: Engaged Democracy Initiative has a goal to become a rhizome – a hierarchiless and horizontal regional network for supporting, promoting and pursuing values of open and democratic societies across our region. Why do you believe that this is the best structure for such an initiative?

VDŽ: Throughout our participation in and exchange with numerous civic initiatives in the region in the last few years, we have learned to appreciate the power of equal, solidary and common action among individuals and groups without the old hierarchical and power games we all know by heart from the political arena. Looking for a powerful metaphor for this kind of horizontal process of working and acting together equally and without hierarchies we rediscovered the term “rhizome”.

In biology, it stands for a stem of plants that grows horizontally, often under the ground, and produces a multiplicity of roots and leaves. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze used the positive connotations of the term and the metaphor to develop an entire philosophical concept of rhizome, focussing on principles of connections, multiplicities of our relations to other people, and also a principle of possible ruptures – even when a rhizome breaks it starts to grow again along its old or new lines. And this is precisely what we want to achieve with EDI and what EDI stands for – establishing equal connections, sharing knowledge and experiences, show solidarity with others, and never give up the fight for a better society.

AT: This interview set-up itself is a small indication on how this horizontal process with numerous voices could work.

Read more: [EWB Interview] Tomanić: Consequences of state capture in WB are now clearer than ever

EWB: What are the EFB and IDESE aiming to achieve through EDI, considering  that the process will involve a broader spectrum of participants? Can you share where you stand now and your plans for the upcoming months?

AT: We believe that all societal actors – active citizens and civic initiatives, academia, civil society organizations, etc. – need to reach a consensus on the fact that the future of our region as a whole depends on genuine democratic reforms of all its societies. Consequently, we want to contribute to providing means that enable informed and empowered citizens to take action and demand accountable institutions and democracy from decision-makers.

KT: Working regionally is challenging enough without COVID-19, but even in these conditions we have managed to virtually meet around 70 people and discuss their views, needs, plans, and to get feedback on our ideas and proposals.

Now, in parallel with thematic meetings, we will be working on identifying individuals to help us with the digital platform. Also, all meetings serve as an initial input for setting up an agenda for the Convention which is already in its planning stages. Hopefully, this year we will all be more adapted to living in a pandemic and thus able to reach a broader number of engaged citizens and representatives of movements, and to include them in our process.

VDŽ: Last but not least, we will work towards establishing ties and cooperation with similar civic initiatives on the European level. The European Hub for Civic Engagement is one example, initiatives ran by the Innovation in Politics Institute and its partners are another one. We already have ideas in the pipeline that will help mobilise and then showcase all the important and positive initiatives in the region which we hope to be able to present later this year. We will also reach out to EU institutions and use our good reputations and knowledge to argue that civic engagement and bottom-up local initiatives in the Western Balkans stand for a true alternative and a better future of the region. The agenda for 2021 and even beyond, is packed – we are very ambitious and enthusiastic about EDI and will be very persistent in our quest and work towards a different, better and citizens-oriented future of the Western Balkans.

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