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Bringing Civil Society in Western Balkans

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The “Bringing Civil Society in Western Balkans” regional conference, organized by the Centre for Transatlantic Relations (CTR) of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Relations (SAIS), in partnership with TACSO and the American-Bosnian Foundation, was held at the beginning of last week (April 15-17, 2012), in Sarajevo.

The Conference gathered more than 60 important and relevant civil society representatives from the countries of the Western Balkans to discuss, as we were told by Vedran Džihić, Austrian Marshall Fund Fellow at CTR, in a short interview (it will be published soon), the evident crisis of identity of the civil society and the crisis of the democratic system in the countries in the region.

From the first plennary session of the working part of the Conference at Sarajevo Town HallFrom the first plennary session of the working part of the Conference at Sarajevo Town Hall

The Conference aimed to get the civil society representatives to debate and consider the current situation of civil society in the region, the challenges, to try to find the common ground and renewed energy to work to shake up things from the current lull, and to ultimately lead to a Manifesto of the civil society in the Western Balkans.

That manifesto should reaffirm the need for a system of networking in the region and a living platform that will gather the civil society and facilitate debate, improve coordination, actions, awareness, capacities of the civil society. As Džihić says, it ultimately aims to explore ways „to create new active forms of social activism and participation of citizens in individual countries“.

The conference opened on Sunday, April 15, with a ceremony held at the Town Hall of Sarajevo (the City of Sarajevo was one of the sponsors of the event. Representatives of TACSO, American-Bosnian Foundation, CEI CSO network and the City of Sarajevo greeted the Conference, and professor Nerzuk Ćurak from the Sarajevo University's Faculty of Political Sciences provided the introductory lecture to the conference.

The working part of the conference started on Monday, April 16, at the Town Hall of Sarajevo, with a plenary session on the topic of „Challenges for Civil Society in BiH and the Region“, with addresses by the Mayor of Sarajevo Alija Behmen, who spoke about the cooperation the Sarajevo City Administration has with the civil society and noted the importance of NGOs and civil society organisations in political life in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

„The role of civil society and NGO sector and their contribution, even on most serious matters of a society is immeasurable. As it happens, often the parliamentary life fails to ensure sufficient debate and representation of different interests of the citizens regarding social processes and changes, such as constitutional changes in BiH, which are important for the very organisation of society”, Behmen said.

Renzo Daviddi, Deputy Head of the EU Delegation to BiH, CEI Secretary General Ambassador Gerhard Pfanzelter, Italian Ambassador to BiH Raimondo De Cardona, TACSO BiH Representative Slavica Drašković, and a representative of the Council of Europe, talked about the need for civil society actors to get more involved in political life of their respective countries, but also on regional level, and reconfirmed their dedication to the development of strong civil society that would be ready and prepared to act as their partner.

„Civil society, not just governments, is key partner for EU and citizens at large in the integration process. In BiH specifically there is developing positive presence of NGOs and CSO. From our direct experience we have seen that the civil society is able to work closely with EU and with politicians, and to participate effectively in decision-making processes and policy development“, Renzo Daviddi said.

The Conference then moved to the premises of Hotel Sarajevo, and the real work started with a workshop and debates on the four thematic groups - processes of EU reform and the role of civil society; political participation of youth and the education system; open society and its opponents: corruption, nepotism and clientilism; and ecologically sustainable development: civil society's vision.

The two workshops and debates on Monday, April 16, focused on youth participation in political life and the issue of corruption and related ills as enemies of civil societies.

Jasmin Jašarević from PRONI, Brčko, Aida Ćorović from Urban In association from Novi Pazar, Ajša Hadžibegović from the Civic Alliance from Montenegro and Borislav Đurić from „Centar“ association from Mrkonjić Grad presented their experiences in youth activism. They noted the successes and failures in their past activities, the differences in views and approaches when one is young and the tendency to become more concerned, reserved and cautious once a person enters his or her 30s, as Jašarević said.

The introductory remarks and the subsequent debate and interventions focused on several important issues, the fact that the current political system, incarnated in the political parties, manages easily to co-opt former youth activist who, it was said, should try and change and adapt the system, instead of adapting themselves to it and accept its corrupt ways.

The introductory note on the fight against the enemies of civil society - corruption, nepotism and clientilism - was given by Feđad Forto, journalist of FENA news agency, who fought and won, in his private capacity as a citizen, a prolonged battle with a public housing enterprise.

The debate after his remarks identified the judiciaries of all individual countries in the region as the most corrupt institutions and in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as noted by Kurt Bassuener from the Democratization Policy Council, the very structure of political power was set up to allow for corrupt national politics and politicians to be virtually unpenetrable. Also, one intervention noted the need to make the distinction between the „petty administrative corruption“ and „systemic corruption“ as they „need different approaches and different ways of dealing with them.

The morning session of the second working day of the conference, Tuesday, April 17, was dedicated to the topic of „Visions and Challenges for Civil Society in the Context of EU-integration in BiH and the region“. Representatives from competent civil society organisations from BiH, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo talked about their experiences in different areas and discussed different aspects of EU integration process.

The group that worked on the EU reforms and civil society in the last session of the ConferenceThe group that worked on the EU reforms and civil society in the last session of the Conference

Before the final afternoon session, professor Filip Kovačević from University of Montenegro gave a lecture on public activism and the role of civil society in crisis, titled „Action, not Prozak“.

For the afternoon session, the participants divided into four groups, to cover the four thematic groups, and were asked through discussion, analysis of the current situation, synthesis of the remarks, to produce a set of recommended actions for the future. (The results will be available, in organized fashion, after they are properly processed).

Also under the auspices of the conference, the book „Unfinished Business: the Western Balkans and the International Community“, edited by Vedran Džihić and Dan Hamilton from the Center for Transatlantic Relations, was presented at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo, with participation of several of the authors that contributed their essays for the book.

Finally, it should be noted that some last-minute and unforeseen problems with funding resulted in a situation where only one of the six planned participants from Kosovo and, similarly, just two (if you count in your reporter) of the planned five participants from Macedonia made it to Sarajevo, while Albanian civil society was completely overlooked.

However, as Džihić told us, steps will be taken to remedy that situation, with plans already in the work to ensure that the civil society in the three countries will be properly consulted and involved in the process of drafting of the planned Civil Society Manifesto and subsequent activities.

The said activities should, according to the organizers, contribute to greater cooperation and improved dialogue accross the region and creation of strong links and networks between organisations and institutions in the region, in the EU and in the U.S., in view of future joint initiatives and projects, but also direct access to institutions and policy makers.

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