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Vedran Džihić – We need new forms of social activism and citizen participation

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Vedran Džihić, lecturer at the Institute of Political Sciences of the University of Vienna, Austria, and Austrian Marshal Fund Fellow at the Centre for Transatlantic Relations (CTR) of the School of Advanced International Relations (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, was the main initiator and organizer of the “Bringing Civil Society in Western Balkans” conference that was held in Sarajevo, April 15-17.

After the conference, we talked to Džihić about the conference and follow up activities. The interview was conducted over Skype.

Vedran DžihićVedran Džihić

The conference is now behind us. Are you satisfied with how it went?
I am very satisfied, for a number of reasons. The first, rather banal reason, is that we actually managed to complete the budget in the end. As I mentioned several times during the conference, one donor cancelled the pledged contribution to our budget but we managed to collect the necessary funds in the end. In terms of technical organisation, everything went in perfect order. In terms of its contents, of the substantial side of the conference, I am satisfied that we managed to get these people together – a mix of civil society organisations, activists and individuals who may have not previously known about each other, they maybe didn't know that there are such good vibrations between them. I find that very positive.

Another thing, the whole process, starting with the opening address by Nerzuk (professor Nerzuk Ćurak from Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences) to the very end followed a line that, I believe and I am sure the other participants felt the same, led to that question – where are we now and how could we move from this dead-end, question filled with emotion and the people feel directly affected by the things that perspire in the civil society sphere. At moments I had the feeling that we now have to find again that commong ground, the constructive force that has to lead us to the Manifesto. We needed to focus on the goal and, I believe, to a great extent we achieved that. So, we first have Nerzuk with a very wide approach and then an open, some people may say emotional debate on the first day, and we discussed some very concrete things on the second day, in the debate on the European integrations. And then, the work in working groups with the four results we got was also, in my mind, very positive.

What were the reasons for you and ABF, as main organizers, to organize this conference?
Well, the American Bosnian Foundation was instrumental, above all, in the technical aspects of organisation of this event. Myself, I have been following the civil society scene in the Western Balkans for quite some time. In some segments I am a part of that scene, as an active citizen, as an academic, as commentator, and I have written a number of academic works in which I analyzed the scene. Over the last couple of years, in my contacts and discussions with different people – some of them were present here in the conference and are good friends of other who couldn't make it, and some of them were present at the conference held in June last year in Sarajevo – I felt two things.

The first thing I felt, and it was articulated by others, was that each individual country of the Western Balkans and Southeast Europe and their respective civil societies find themselves in some sort of small identity crisis. On the other hand, they are very much focused on their own national framework, their own state, or they are focused on survival, i.e. the fight with the donors, they find themselves between the government and some foreign donors, and that struggle has them exhausted. That is one element that many people discussed.

On the other hand, the motivation was a matter of principled approach. When I view the whole region of Western Balkans, and other people have noted that, there is evidently a crisis of the democratic system. There is a crisis of that democratic whole of which civil society want to be an integral part but can't, due to distorted communication channels between the political elites and the citizens, the lack of proper education levels of the public shere, prolonged and extended ethno-national conflicts, open sovereignty issues – in Kosovo, Serbia, in Macedonia – and other issues, play its role in society.

Then, after the last year's conference in Sarajevo, we understood and agreed to try to a) channel those frustrations in the direction of constructive action; b) to try – and there is the fact that structural problems in all these countries are similar, as is the said crisis of the democratic system – to create some form of regional networking that could help overcome that situation at least to some extent.

The third motivation was that the Western Balkans and Southeast Europe dramatically lost on their importance for Europe, for EU and the U.S., countries with which we maintain strong ties. Of course, even the foundations and organisations that provided strong support for civil society's activities are now cutting their budgets. They don't see the point of it and redirect their funds to other places. Therefore, the idea was to create something like a Manifesto which we could promote, and if we found a common voice towards America and EU, so that we could revive at least some of those things and reduce the consequences of the fatigue that America and Europe feel about the Balkans.

Does it mean that the Manifesto that should appear from this Conference is directed primarily outwards, towards the U.S., EU and the donor community? The book you edited together with Daniel Hamilton is named „Unfinished Business“...
No, if anything, that is true only in part. I wouldn't say that is the main direction, but it certainly is one of its aims. Still, I believe that the central point is, and it was demonstrated in the conference to some extent, the need for the region to have a system of networking, a living platform for us to gather and talk, to raise the level of coordination, activity, awareness, capacity, and so on. I believe that is central and important. There is also, of course, the consideration how to create new active forms of social activism and active participation of citizens in individual countries. Personally, I think that is much more important goal than to address America and Europe, although that is very important, too.

For reasons you mentioned already, apart from Venera Hairullahu, there were no other participants from Kosovo, there were too few people representing Macedonia and there was nobody from Albania at the conference... Do you intend to involve civil society representatives from those countries in the consultations during the writing of the Manifesto? Or, do you intend to present them with some sort of a complete document?
It was planned to have those people at the conference. For instance, we planned to have at least three or four important and relevant representatives from Macedonia who, for different reasons, being otherwise engaged or there were some last minute development, couldn't come. As far as Kosovo is concerned, there were five other important and relevant civil society representatives who were literally on their way to Sarajevo, but we ultimately couldn't provide for their stay here for the said financial problems. At this time, we didn't include Albania for a number of reasons. It may be an oversight on our behalf, maybe not, we are prepared to discuss that. In any case, the idea is to have these people from Macedonia and Kosovo who were already a part of the process – some of them already participated in that conference last year in Sarajevo – involved in this stage of drafting and writing of the Manifesto.

We have agreed with Venera Hajrullahu, two more colleagues and the local Soros's office in Prishtina, and we already mentioned that in the conference, that the first step after this event in Sarajevo should be some sort of regional activity, a mini-conference if you like, would be the presentation of the Manifesto in Prishtina. Then we will put stronger focus on Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania, bring some people from Albania in, incorporate the new context and expand the whole network, that open field that we move in. Venera Hajrullahu will support those efforts with her organization and I am convinced it will be successful.

When do you expect to have some sort of first draft or, if it isn't too early to talk about at this time, maybe a final version of the Manifesto?
First of all, we planned to collect additional information in communication with participants. We have prepared evaluation forms for the protocol which we should collect by next Monday, create working groups, etc. At the moment, the plan is to have the first, framework draft that would use all that information by May 15 or thereabout. That draft will be then sent to all participants, including those who were planned to participate but didn't make it, and start the consultations. Personally, I intend to travel a lot. I will go to Croatia, to Belgrade, by the end of April I will visit Kosovo to talk directly about it with some people, having in mind that the direct communication is the best approach. Of course, we will communication over e-mail and the whole process is very open. The idea is to gather as much feedback, as many concrete topics from the whole network for that final – well, only nominally final text of the Manifesto, by May 30, possibly June 10. The Manifesto is, in fact, just one element of the whole process. We will then make effort to finalize the Manifesto by June 15, June 20 at the latest. Now, the main process of promotion and future activities will most likely start in September. You know how it is in July and August...

Thank you for the interview and I wish you success in the future work on the initiative.
Thank you.

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