Serbia: the government’s hypocritical dialogue with civil society / Serbia / Areas / Home
“It doesn’t make sense that civil society is spending time helping the state design a strategy that will never be implemented. In a country where the rule of law does not exist, there is no point in adopting new laws and strategies ”. A meeting with Maja Stojanovic, director of Građanske Initiative
Maja Stojanović conducts Građanske Initiative (Civic Initiatives), a non-governmental organization that has worked hard for twenty-five years to strengthen democratic values in Serbia. One of the country’s most renowned activists, Stojanovic has been committed for years to strengthening civil society through education, democracy promotion and support for active citizenship. In this interview, she discusses the authoritarian nature of the current political leadership in Belgrade, the attacks and smear campaigns against non-governmental organizations, and the hitherto unproductive dialogue between the government and civil society.
How would you describe the relationship between political leaders and Serbian civil society?
According to all relevant national and international non-governmental organizations, the Serbian leadership has been steadily moving away from democratic principles for ten years now. Civil society is the first pillar of democracy and its main objective is to preserve and strengthen the democratic values of a society. With these premises, it is not difficult to imagine what is the relationship between the government and Serbian civil society.
If a country’s government and civil society do not share the same goals – rule of law, respect for human rights, strengthening democratic institutions, separation of powers – one cannot expect that they establish a relationship of constructive collaboration that can contribute to the achievement of the above-mentioned objectives. And if the government has an authoritarian character, it is inevitable that the situation will deteriorate further. The authoritarian character of a government is reflected in the tendency to interpret any criticism as an attack on the state and to systematically violate freedom of expression and association, trying to silence the professional media which inform citizens of the real situation in the country. .
Recently, some independent media and non-governmental organizations, including Civic Initiatives, sent an open letter to Gordana Comic, Minister of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue. Can you tell us more about this initiative?
This is the umpteenth letter that civil society and independent media have sent to various government officials in recent years. After the last change of power – so to speak, because Serbia has been ruled by the same political parties since 2012, winning a series of snap elections with the sole aim of keeping citizens in a state of perpetual tension – a new ministry for Human Rights and Minority Rights and for social dialogue was set up, led by a person who had previously been part of the opposition.
The government’s move could be interpreted as an attempt to finally solve some of the country’s most pressing problems, and the international community apparently tends to interpret it in that light. However, many seem to ignore the fact that Minister Comic has publicly stated that none of the issues of great importance to democracy – including the defense of freedom of association and expression and the protection of the most vulnerable groups – is not in its domain, thus pushing these problems under the carpet. We sent the aforementioned letter to Minister Comic with two objectives: to highlight the dire situation of the media and civil society in Serbia and to express our opposition to the Minister’s decision to declare herself incompetent on matters of fundamental importance to society. protection of human rights and minorities.
Did Minister Comic react to your letter?
The president of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) read the letter to Minister Comic at a meeting, but she did not react in any way. Some conclusions can be drawn from the minister’s decision to remain silent, including the fact that the ministry she heads seems reluctant to abandon a policy, which has lasted for decades, aimed at undermining democracy and is not ready. to take responsibility for the current situation. .
Last year, a few dozen Serbian people, media and civil society organizations were subjected to checks by the Department for the Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing of the Ministry of the Interior. Why this operation?
The state simply abused the existing legislation and the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on the prevention of money laundering to attack organizations that bring to light various corrupt practices, violations human rights, but also the importance of confronting the past, and against journalists who do their job professionally and refuse to give in to political and financial pressures from the leadership in power.
The management had sent a letter to all banks in Serbia, stating that they suspected some people and organizations to be involved in money laundering and terrorist financing operations, and therefore the banks could only comply with the law and transmit to management all information concerning accounts and transactions carried out by suspects. After receiving the requested data, the Director of Management stated that the subjects in question had never aroused any suspicion from the Management, but that this was the only way to obtain the data from the banks. In other words, the Management lied about the existence of a suspicion against certain people and organizations, in order to force the banks to provide them with data that they would not otherwise have been able to obtain, since this is data that banks are required to protect.
How did this story end?
The only epilogue is the defamation campaigns carried out continuously by pro-government tabloids which use this data to discredit civil society and the independent media, accusing them of being mercenaries in the pay of foreigners. The Department for the Prevention of Money Laundering has never been called upon to take responsibility for what happened.
On the other hand, many institutions and international organizations have criticized the behavior of the management. For example, Moneyval, the Council of Europe body that oversees the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing, issued a statement indicating that the Directorate can only request such data if there is a suspicion. founded, also adding that the member states of the Council of Europe may not abuse the recommendations of the FATF with the aim of discrediting civil society.
Why have non-governmental organizations decided not to participate in the consultations organized by the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights for the development of a strategy for the creation of an environment conducive to the development of civil society in Serbia?
A few years ago, the process of adopting a new media strategy was halted due to pressure from independent media and civil society, who deemed the government’s proposed strategy inadequate, also believing that the whole of the procedure was not very inclusive. Then the government launched a new, much more inclusive process by all international standards, and a year later the new media strategy was finally adopted. Although this is a fairly adequate strategy, the media situation in the country has deteriorated since its adoption. This example shows better than any other why it makes no sense for civil society to devote its resources and time to helping the state develop a strategy that will never be implemented. In a country where the rule of law does not exist, there is no point in adopting new laws and strategies. The situation of Serbian civil society and media would improve greatly if only existing laws were applied.
What are the prerequisites for initiating a real dialogue between the leaders in power and civil society? In your opinion, is such a dialogue possible in Serbia?
I believe the government only wants a purely formal dialogue. Its aim is to make the international community believe that the government is ready to listen to the opinions of citizens. However, when the time comes to accept such views, the government backs down. It should also be noted that civil society has always participated in consultative processes organized by the government. Civil society organizations participate in public debates, are part of various working groups responsible for developing new laws and strategies, and organize meetings with government officials, in accordance with the laws in force. However, this collaboration – as the civil society has repeatedly stressed – is not bearing fruit. So, we don’t need to open another dialogue, we need real communication with the government and to see the results of the processes already underway. Why the state claims it is only now willing to engage in dialogue with civil society, outside of its current regulatory framework – we should ask the government.
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