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Who are the allies of the civil society in Serbia?

In December last year, for the second time in fifteen months, the Serbian Ministry of Interior tried to push through a new Law on Internal Affairs. The controversial law would introduce extremely problematic articles jeopardising citizens’ rights hard-won after the 2000 democratic revolution. If adopted, the Law would make Serbia the first European country conducting Chinese-style permanent indiscriminate surveillance of citizens in public spaces. Thanks to the mobilisation of some key civil society organisations that monitored the process and alarmed the public on time, the Government backed down and withdrew the Draft Law from the parliamentary procedure.

This, most recent example, demonstrates that open and public confrontation with the government remains the only option for the civil society sector in Serbia. Due to the non-transparent decision-making process that excludes consultations with CSOs and other stakeholders, the only tool that CSOs have for influencing decision-making process is public confrontation and mobilisation of citizens and media. Creating a unified front of national and international organisations hoping that the state apparatus will crack under a sandwich of domestic and international pressure is the only available weapon to fight against deficient legislative measures.

During ten years of the rule of the Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska napredna stranka (SNS)), Serbia has been quickly sliding towards an authoritarian regime. Thanks to the links with organised crime, the ruling party has captured the state while continuing to mimic some basic democratic functions (e.g. elections). Intolerant to any kind of criticism, the regime often wages attacks on civil society organisations and media through tabloids and TVs stations it controls. The public funds are misused for the purpose of assuring continuous power and access to public resources for the ruling elite. The proposed Draft Law had the same purpose, further politicising the police with more competences in surveilling citizens.

Having the Government engaged in closing the space for the civil society poses the question of what role can the civil society sector play in today’s Serbia?

From partnership to confrontation – ten years of SNS rule

 The civil society sector in Serbia finds itself in a challenging position. The dominant framework for understanding the work of CSOs and the financial assistance they have received in the last 10 years was the EU enlargement process. The CSOs were seen as key actors in enhancing the administrative capacities of the state to fulfill the accession criteria and reach EU standards in almost all areas. This became particularly significant after 2012 when Serbia was officially granted the candidate status and started EU accession negotiations in 2014. Around the same time, the country witnessed the flourishing of think tanks whose purpose was to make policy making more inclusive and evidence-based. Therefore, the dominant understanding of the role of the CSOs was to act in a partnership with the state.

Yet, these developments coincided with the coming into power of the newly founded Serbian Progressive Party in 2012 and a rapid rise of illiberalism in Serbia that occurred as a consequence of SNS’s rise to power. Initially praised as pro-democratic, ten years of SNS ruling gradually led to shrinking space for CSOs, democratic backsliding and increased pressure on the media. What was called a “dominant executive” in 2018 in the meantime has become a full-scale authoritarian regime mimicking that of Orban’s Hungary. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine further brought to the surface the true nature of the regime in Serbia, with increased direct verbal and physical attacks on citizens and civil society.

From an initial partnership we have entered a new-old phase of polarisation and confrontation of the authoritarian regime with the liberal segments of the civil society, much like in the 1990s Milošević years. The tabloid headlines targeting a handful of remaining independent journalists are commonly using the rhetoric that characterised that dark decade of the Serbian history: “foreign mercenaries”, “domestic traitors”, “enemies of the state “. And similar to the 1990s, Serbia is slowly heading towards the international isolation, the EU accession process is stalled, and the grip on critical and liberal voices is tightening.

In these circumstances, the civil society has two options. One is to continue with business as usual and thus risk becoming an accomplice of the regime (a path taken by some organisations already). The second is to resist and try to form new alliances, inside and outside of the country. As the Draft Law on Internal Affairs demonstrates, these new coalitions can bare results.

International support

The international community is already an ally and can play even more constructive role, but it needs to reframe its role and offer a new concept of assistance for the civil society in Serbia (and the region). The old priorities and instruments, designed for friendly legal and institutional environment, are inadequate and futile in the current authoritarian regime.

It has to be recognised that programmes that aim to improve the dialogue between the civil society and the government often end up as a whitewashing instrument for the undemocratic regime in Serbia. Instead of putting the pressure on civil society to cooperate with the regime, the donor community should place the burden of proof on the side of the government. If Serbian government wanted to improve relations with citizens, it would stop dividing them to those who are pro or against the SNS, or it would stop labeling them as “enemies”. Expecting that civil society should maintain the positive relationship with the institutions plays well for the regime in maintaining its “democratic” face to the West while at the same time deligitimises the NGOs in the eyes of citizens.

Navigating the way forward

Together with international partners and donors, the civil society needs to reframe its role and position within the society. Instead of “a domain uncorrupted by party politics”, the civil society actors need to engage in what is traditionally considered a political game and to voice grievances and demands of the captured society.

It requires more often than not taking a confrontational position and acknowledging that institutional channels and instruments are a décor of the corrupted regime. As the example of the Draft Law illustrates, fighting for the public interest means having political allies and international support rather than a seat in the Working Group for drafting the law. The partnership phase is long gone and what is at stake now is the fight for basic rights, e.g. to preserve the privacy of your own home that the new Draft Law was trying to effectively cancel.

The new paradigm must also recognise that grassroots politically-motivated activism is a legitimate form of civic struggle. This new wave of citizens’ mobilisation at the local is a direct reaction to increasing oppression from the state. Grassroots movements are partly a response to the failed attempts of ensuring participation of citizens in decision making though the reform of state administration. Some CSOs have recognized the democratic and emancipatory potential of new movements, providing them with help and resources.

This new approach would be beneficial for at least two reasons. First, it would anchor the civil society within the society it claims it represents thus strengthening their legitimacy and protecting them from Government attacks that usually include efforts to delegitimise CSOs. Second, by redefining its role and relationship with the state, the civil society would be able to develop and embrace some maybe more disruptive practices and tactics that would ultimately be more effective in limiting the wrongdoings of a deeply captured state.

This article is part of a research project produced within the framework of the Kosovo Research and Analysis Fellowship, supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society.

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