Balkan Civic Practices: Promoting civil space

Civil society has an extremely important role in achieving sustainable social and democratic change, but CSOs and civil movements in the Balkans, and even around Europe, still lack enough space in order to achieve this change. The debated Law on Freedom of Association in NGOs in Kosovo and the regressive legislation changes in Montenegro, GONGOs rising in Serbia and Poland, smear campaigns by media and politicians against civil society leaders and activists in Slovakia and Romania and elsewhere… All these phenomena contribute to what we call a ‘shrinking civic space’. Instead of securing the democratic checks and balances and letting citizens express their views through CSOs and spontaneous groups, many governments take the other direction – limiting the freedoms in public spheres. While regressive forces are trying to consolidate their partnerships and are identifying common “enemies”, CSOs and activists lack spaces for their work. However, by limiting the freedoms and spaces, governments face a growing resistance in Europe. Again, civil society activists and organizations are at the forefront to resist these dangerous restrictions of liberties and growing tensions within societies. Citizens keep mobilizing and fighting for the freedom of expression, the right to peacefully gather and to join forces through associations, movements and so on.

It is with these challenges in mind that this Balkan Civic Practices edition brings together professionals, academics and activists from the BCSDN and its partners in the region, to debate what can be done to promote civic space in the Western Balkan countries and further. The second Balkan Civic Practices edition shares stories of CSOs actions in times of shrinking civic space in the Balkans and the wider Europe. From joint action by building national and transnational, thematic and cross-sector alliances, to creating synergies between traditional civil society organizations and non-formal social movements, the contributions of this edition give valuable practical examples of successful actions towards promoting civic space and preventing its further shrinking, while also discussing innovative organizational development approaches centered around resilience, accountability and powerful narratives to empower civil society in this struggle. The aim is to inspire and learn from each other, to reaffirm the collective voice in the joint struggles and to encourage coalition-building across regions.

For more information, please visit: http://bcp.balkancsd.net/our-stories-of-resilience/

Interview with Tobias Flessenkemper, Head of the Belgrade Office of the Council of Europe (COE)

Tobias Flessenkemper, Head of the Belgrade Office of the COE

Consultations with civil society in the process of drafting the Council of Europe conventions and reports is one of the formats of cooperation: for instance, many of the elements of the Istanbul Convention have been drawn from contributions of women and other human rights organisations. In this respect, the participation of civil society organisations, academia and think-tanks is really important both at the national level, where they engage with elected representatives, as well as at the European level.

This year marks 70 years of the Council of Europe. Congratulations! In your opinion, what have been the most significant accomplishments of CoE in the past 70 years – can you even number them?

Indeed there have been plenty achievements over 70 years. The first and foremost achievement and the basis for all of our work are the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) of 1950. Together with the European Court system founded on the Convention, it is for me a civilisational accomplishment that should evolve further, to better equip Europe for facing new threats for human rights and democracy. Citizens in all of the countries represented in your network benefit from the ECHR, including the abolition of the death penalty.

Few years after the ECHR, the Council of Europe members agreed on the European Cultural Convention. Much of what we perceive as being “European” today, from respect and protection of cultural heritage to mobility of students and-discriminatory education is due to the cultural cooperation in Europe.

A recent achievement that jumps to mind is, of course, the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the so-called Istanbul Convention which all the Western Balkans states ratified, and have been bound by its provisions over the past five years. The reflections on how best protect women from violence in the context of this Convention have stimulated a lot of debate throughout Europe. Just over a month ago, the first monitoring visit under the Istanbul Convention to Serbia took place, and the monitoring report is in the making.

Another key achievement is the advancement of participatory democracy in Europe. Let me recall the value of the European Charter of Local Self-Government as well as the work of our expert body, the European Commission for Democracy through Law, widely known as Venice Commission, that has been helping European countries to bring their legislation in line with European standards.

The general public often confuses the Council of Europe with the EU. Although CoE is not an EU body, to what extent has CoE influenced EU integration process? Can the membership in CoE help the candidate countries for EU membership in their EU accession endeavour?

The Council of Europe is the oldest organisation created in 1949 to achieve a greater unity between European states, and it is now composed of 47 member states. Its goal is to safeguard and turn into reality the common ideals and principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. All 28 member states of the European Union are also part of the Council of Europe. The EU is based on the same values that inspire and guide the work of the Council of Europe, hence there is a strong link. All states acceding to the EU were first members of the Council of Europe. The scope of the Council of Europe’s activities is very is broad: it works in virtually all spheres of public life, excluding national defence and security. It helps states devise more effective policies based on European standards in economic, social, cultural, scientific, legal and administrative fields, with the ultimate goal to advance the enjoyment by all Europeans of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Council of Europe has set the foundation for what we consider today’s European way of life.

The key conventions guiding our work are the European Convention of Human Rights, the European Cultural Convention, the European Social Charter, the European Charter of Local Self-Government, the Framework Convention on National Minorities, to name just a few. Ratification of these Conventions and implementation of the standards they set is fully in line with the objective of the Western Balkans countries to join the EU.

On your remark about the frequent confusion between the Council of Europe and the EU, let me just add that it was the Council of Europe that has created the European flag – twelve golden stars on the blue background – in 1955, and has also declared in 1972 the Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony as the European anthem. It was only in 1985 that the European Community (and since 1993, the EU) also introduced these symbols of European unity.

You have experience with working and living in several Western Balkan countries. In your opinion, what are the main challenges for the Western Balkan region in the EU integration process?

The Western Balkans as a region and its individual countries have -participated for some 20 years in the work of the Council of Europe, and is at the same time part of the Stabilisation and Association process (SAp) of the European Union.

Let me focus on some aspects that are important both the Council of Europe and the European Union.

The process of transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy based on fundamental rights and freedoms as well as the rule of law has turned out to take more time than many expected initially. We are also observing that the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is being negated by high officials. This is a setback with regard to the ambition of the SAp and with regard to the commitments undertaken by countries of the Western Balkans upon joining the Council of Europe. Furthermore, it questions the very fundamentals of the rule of law that cannot be upheld without respecting the European public law order, which obviously includes international justice.

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is also concerned about the insufficient follow-up to and implementation of judgements of the European Court of Human Rights This cannot but reflect on the broader system of rule of law and accountability in the region.

Hence, the Council of Europe’s bodies tasked with monitoring countries’ progress in various fields, such as GRECO, the Group of European States against Corruption, often finds that not enough has been done to bring the countries closer to the Council of Europe’s standards.

Another concern has been the functioning of democratic institutions, with independent bodies all too often being subject to political interference. This contributes to low levels of trust in politics and institutions, as illustrated on a regular basis by the Balkan Barometer of the Regional Coordination Council surveys. This lack of public confidence in the authorities is a negative trend that we seek to reverse, but so far it remains a challenge for all of us that we seek to help.

You also have rich experience working with civil society. Why are non-governmental organisations and, particularly, think tank organisations, important for enhancing democratic societies and standards?

The Council of Europe can be compared to a triangle. On one side, we have European states and governments which aim to establish genuine democracy. On the second side, there is the European legal order with common standards, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which are legally binding on the governments committing to them. On the third side, there are people of Europe themselves – including, of course, the civil society. As a logical extension of the work of its intergovernmental bodies, the Council of Europe cooperates with a range of non-state organisations, including think-tanks that bring many valuable ideas and insights into the work of our expert bodies. A conference of international non-governmental organisations taking place twice a year is one of the formats of such cooperation. Consultations with civil society in the process of drafting the Council of Europe conventions and reports is another format: for instance, many of the elements of the Istanbul Convention that I have mentioned earlier have been drawn from contributions of women and other human rights organisations. In this respect, the participation of civil society organisations, academia and think-tanks is really important both at the national level, where they engage with elected representatives, as well as at the European level. The Council of Europe offices in the region, including our Office in Belgrade, work to make sure that all actors can participate in our work in order to shape the future of our continent for the next 70 years.

TEN one of the best think tank networks in the world

31th January 2019 – We are proud to inform you that the Think for Europe Network (TEN) has been selected as one of the best think tank networks in the world, according to the ranking of prestigious US program of the University of Pennsylvania, which has been ranking world’s best think tanks and think tank networks for 12 years.

On the occasion of the publication of this Report, in 80 countries in the world and in more than 330 institutions and organisations, the events on which the Report is presented were simultaneously held. For the second time, Serbia is among countries that participated in this huge initiative, at the event organised by the European Policy Centre (CEP), the Think for Europe Network Coordinator.

You can find the 2018 Go To Think Tank Report Index here.

Europeanisation Beyond Process

In January 2019, Think for Europe Network started implementing two-year long project “Europeanisation Beyond Process” in the framework of the Network, supported by the Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE). The Project Coordinator will be the European Policy Centre – CEP Belgrade.

Under this project, TEN will strengthen cooperation with renowned think tanks from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Finland, in order to improve the quality of communication on the EU enlargement in the broader framework of the forthcoming re-definition of the EU and its future. Our approach in this project is to advocate not for the plain EU accession but rather for the WB as an entirety that has been going through numerous improvements in the democratic governance and rule of law structures, improvement of the economic governance processes as well as ambitious reform agendas for public administration.

Apart from reaching out to the influential European capitals and engaging with the EU policy scene, TEN will, thanks to the support of this grant, conduct activities to improve our research, communication and advocacy skills. By further increasing our internal capacities, TEN ultimate goal is to make Western Balkan countries substantially involved in the debates and policy solutions pertinent to the future of Europe.


Period: January 2019 – January 2020
Donator: Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE)
Project Coordinator: European Policy Centre – CEP, Belgrade
Contact person: Sena Marić, CEP Programme Manager and Senior Resarcher (sena.maric@cep-org.rs)

Interview with Natasha Wunsch, WeBER Advisory Council Member

Natasha Wunsch, Postdoctoral Researcher, Center for Comparative and International Studies (ETH Zurich), WeBER Advisory Council Member

The WeBER project offers a valuable and objective bottom-up assessment on ongoing reforms in the public administration sector across the region. By complementing international evaluations, WeBER demonstrates both the interest and capacities of local civil society actors to monitor the implementation of key reform processes in their countries and their ability to come together in a regional forum to address common challenges jointly.

What are the main challenges for the Western Balkan countries in the implementation of comprehensive reforms? Why does it take so long?

The Western Balkans have a long road ahead when it comes to fulfilling EU membership conditions. Not only have accession requirements become increasingly detailed and comprehensive over the course of the past enlargement rounds, but the Western Balkans region, due to its recent experience of violence conflict, also faces particular challenges when it comes to demonstrating full preparedness for EU accession. Besides complying with the already extensive conditions set out in the EU acquis, the Western Balkan countries need to resolve persistent and often highly politically sensitive bilateral disputes while implementing comprehensive reforms across multiple sectors. The main challenge is therefore the combination of limited political support for further enlargement on the part of the EU and limited capacities to undertake the steps necessary to complete accession negotiations on the part of the Western Balkans. In light of this dual challenge, the perspective of an EU accession for Serbia and Montenegro by 2025, as mentioned in the Commission’s recent strategy, appears very ambitious.

Regional cooperation appears to still be an issue among Western Balkan countries. In your opinion, how can civil society support strengthening of the regional cooperation, particularly in the context of EU accession process?

 Civil society can play an important role when it comes to promoting cross-border dialogue and engaging in trust-building measures between populations involved in outstanding bilateral disputes. Such activities would prepare the ground for a successful implementation of any political agreement reached between governments and serve to communicate the benefits of regional cooperation to the wider population.

The EU as well is facing important challenges at the moment. What is the role of the civil society in today’s EU and can it contribute to resolving those challenges?

Civil society plays an important rule in connecting political elites to citizens, and can facilitate open dialogue on ongoing political debates. Moreover, civil society can act as a vector for transnational cooperation and build a foundation for initiatives grounded in a European, rather than a narrow nationalist perspective. Still, it is important to recognize that mobilisation occurs not only among reform-minded actors, but on the contrary often involves populist factions from different countries supporting each other in their contestation of the EU’s legitimacy. Those actors in civil society that are seeking to promote a European understanding and a common approach to the manifold challenges European integration faces today therefore find themselves up against considerable opposition.

What is the impact of the WeBER project in the Western Balkan countries and do you think it is sustainable?

The WeBER project offers a valuable and objective bottom-up assessment on ongoing reforms in the public administration sector across the region. By complementing international evaluations, WeBER demonstrates both the interest and capacities of local civil society actors to monitor the implementation of key reform processes in their countries, and their ability to come together in a regional forum to address common challenges jointly. The sustainability of this project will depend on the commitment of the partner organisations and the willingness of external actors to support the ongoing operation of the project. For the region, it would be very valuable to maintain the close ties and invest in the expertise built by the project partners over the past three years.

 

Interview with Gregor Virant, Former Minister of Public Administration of Slovenia, WeBER Advisory Council Member

Gregor Virant, Former Minister of Public Administration of Slovenia, WeBER Advisory Council Member

During the accession process, WeBER can effectively complement the EU and particularly SIGMA work with a unique insight into the developments and improve public awareness of the importance of PAR. Also, it should to knock on the doors of the ministers and draw their attention to shortcomings. After the WB countries obtain membership in the EU and the external pressure and scrutiny over PAR will weaken, WeBER could become even more relevant as regards assessment of national public administrations.

Western Balkan countries appear to advance slowly towards the EU membership. What do you think are the main reasons for this? Do you believe this slow pace is a shared responsibility of the EU and the Western Balkans?

Yes, it is a shared responsibility. On one hand, there is still a lot of work for the WB countries to meet the standards for membership. On the other hand, the EU is overwhelmed with internal problems (illegal migration, the rise of populism, threats of trade wars) which has a demotivating effect to candidate countries and shifts the EU’s focus from enlargement to troublesome internal issues.

What are the biggest challenges for the Western Balkan countries in the public administration reform process and what are the common issues among the countries of the region?

 The main challenge is the lack of political will and commitment. If the prime minister and ministers are interested in a particular area of public administration reform, things advance very fast. Look at the administrative services and e-government in Macedonia 5-10 years ago, or at the same area currently in Serbia. On the other hand, ministers in some countries are still not interested in having highly competent senior civil servants, they value loyalty higher. There is a serious lack of government strategic planning and evidence-based policymaking. The political commitment would help to set up the basics, all the rest is easier. If there is no political commitment, copy-pasting perfect legislative solutions or sophisticated methodologies is to no avail.

How can civil society efficiently “fight” for more participation in the policymaking and EU accession processes?

By exercising positive pressure, showing the governments the mirror image, reaching out to the media with critical observations and above all by raising awareness of the general public that the fate of their countries is in their hands and that they have the right to demand good governance.

Could you share with us your experiences with the public administration reform process in Slovenia? What were the biggest obstacles during the process of reforms and what can Western Balkan countries learn from Slovenia’s experience?

There’s a good practice in the recruitment of top-managerial civil servants where we have found a good combination of neutral assessment of competences on one hand and political discretion to enable “chemistry” between the ministers and their top-level team in the ministry. We have also established a good and sustainable system of filtering administrative burden as a part of impact assessment in the process of government decision making.  We are also an example of how fast bureaucracy can rust if there is a lack of political commitment. In recent years things have deteriorated and people have noticed it.

In your view, what would be the greatest benefit of the WeBER project?

During the accession process, WeBER can effectively complement the EU and particularly SIGMA work with a unique insight into the developments and improve public awareness of the importance of PAR. Also, it should to knock on the doors of the ministers and draw their attention to shortcomings. After the WB countries obtain membership in the EU and the external pressure and scrutiny over PAR will weaken, WeBER could become even more relevant as regards assessment of national public administrations.

*This interview has been made as a part of the ninth issue of TEN Newsletter.

Citizens First: CEP Belgrade hosts the 1st WeBER Regional Conference

25-26 September 2018 – The conference “Citizens First: Civil Society Demands for Better Administration in the Western Balkans” brought together more than 60 speakers and over 130 participants from the Western Balkan region and the EU. The Conference was the first in what intends to become a series of biennial regional conferences focusing on civil society’s role in monitoring and supporting PAR in the context of the region’s EU path. Its purpose was to enhance and broaden the dialogue on creating and implementing inclusive and transparent policies that take into account citizens’ needs. On this occasion, Milena Lazarević, CEP Programme Director and WeBER Project Manager, and Miloš Đinđić, CEP Programme Manager and WeBER Lead Researcher, presented the draft Regional PAR Monitor Report, based on the results of PAR monitoring performed in each WB country within WeBER.

The key panellists at the conference included Myriam Ferran, Director for Strategy and Turkey in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), Dicky Methorst, the First Secretary in the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Gregor Virant, former Minister of Public Administration in the Republic of Slovenia, Heiki Loot, Secretary of State in the Government Office of Estonia,  Majlinda Bregu, prominent Albanian politician and the next Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), and many others. They highlighted the importance of regional cooperation and constructive PAR dialogue between civil society and the state, in light of the ongoing EU accession process of the Western Balkan countries.

Highlights from the conference

As one of the most notable achievements, WeBER has shown that civil society does not need to be perceived by the government as an external threat, but rather as a constructive partner in PAR policy. “WeBER builds bridges and trust between civil society organisations that represent the citizens of the Western Balkan countries, and the governments, in order to provide better services for citizens, better use of taxpayers’ money and a better quality of everyday life,” Myriam Ferran said at the conference.

The EU has included PAR among the fundamental reform areas that enable a progressive transformation of the state and society. To that end, Virant emphasised that the EU is becoming more demanding in the accession process when it comes to public administration reform. Since the outcomes of PAR influence the daily lives of citizens, it is important that citizens are in the focus of reform activities. Milena Lazarević stated: “We think that it is necessary for governments to hear these messages, because we can have serious problems if those problems we point out are not solved. We will not only have problems in functioning as EU member states, but citizens will also punish those same politicians, if they fail to act responsibly and implement the needed administrative reforms.”. She added that the main focus of the EU was no longer the mere adoption of laws and strategies, but increasingly their application in practice, quality of service delivery, actual openness and transparency of the administration and involvement of public in policy-making.” EU membership does not per se ensure that the state will function perfectly and therefore civil society should be the driving force for continuing reforms even after we enter the EU,” Lazarević emphasised.

Moreover, countries in the Western Balkan region are all reforming their administrations within the accession process and there is strong potential for mutual learning and experience exchange: “Regional cooperation is not a substitute for EU membership, but if the region does not work together in all fields, the road to the EU will be harder and longer”, Bregu warned.

Heiki Loot shared a good example of Estonia’s public administration reform case. “The key to the sucessful PAR is: good-quality people in key places with autonomy to lead the reform, plus new technologies.”

Methorst pointed out that although EU officials know the benefits from EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, it is a challenge to convince EU citizens. “That is why WeBER is very important”, said Methorst, “measuring PAR progress in the Western Balkans through individually developed indicators, allowing for detailed monitoring of how far countries have advanced on their paths to the EU membership.”

A special part of the Conference was dedicated to PAR monitoring projects of local civil society organisations, grantees of the WeBER Small Grant Facility. The Small Grant Facility was launched with the goal to enable local watchdog and grassroots organisations and media to work on local PAR issues.

The final remarks were delivered by Miloš Đinđić and Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute (EPI). Kacarska warned that countries of the region are still facing a challenge when it comes to including additional institutional actors in the PAR process, beyond Ministries for public administration. “Political will matters, but systematic solutions are needed”, Kacarska highlighted. They both concluded that WeBER does not end with this conference, and that civil society in the Western Balkans will continue to demand a better and more efficient public administration, tailored to the citizens’ needs.

The first WeBER regional conference is the final conference of the three-year WeBER project implemented by the Think for Europe Network (TEN), financed by the EU and co-financed by the Kingdom of the Netherlands. More information about WeBER is available at: www.par-monitor.org.

Interview with Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Director of Studies of the European Policy Centre (EPC), Brussels

The biggest contribution and impact of the WeBER project relates to the fact that it has intensified the cooperation among a group of think tanks and civil society organisations in the Western Balkans. This cooperation has allowed the participating organisations to exchange experiences, especially through the WeBER Platform established during the project. The Platform has increased their role in the public administration reform area, both in their respective countries and in the region.

What are your impressions of the speed of the EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans, particularly after the EU Strategy for the WB and the Sofia and London Summits, as the WB governments still often feel a bit discouraged by the overall progress of the process?

The speed of the EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans has clearly slowed down in the last decade. Following the last rounds of EU widening and many years of internal crises since 2008, most national governments and public opinions have become more critical towards increasing the number of member states. However, in the course of the past year one can witness a new momentum. Whether this will actually lead to an acceleration of the accession process will depend on two key developments. First, on the willingness and ability of the accession countries to further advance political and economic reforms to meet the accession criteria. Second, on the political will and ability of the EU27 to reform the Union in key areas in order to sustainably overcome the so-called poly-crisis the EU and its members have witnessed. In other words, the Union’s internal attractiveness and effectiveness will to a large extent determine the readiness of governments and citizens to further expand towards the countries of the Western Balkans.

What are the biggest challenges that civil society in the EU faces today and what obstacles has the EPC been forced to overcome?

The biggest challenge that today’s civil societies are facing relate to the surge in authoritarian populism that is testing the basic foundations of our liberal democracies. The influence of political forces and movements advocating simplistic solutions to complex problems is expanding, with their political rhetoric and ideology framing or even dominating public discourse. Europe is at the risk of becoming more introverted, backward-looking, protectionist, intolerant, xenophobic, and discriminatory as well as more inclined to oppose globalisation, open trade, migration, heterogeneity, cultural diversity, and the principles of an open society. Albeit not confined to Europe, this threat is more fundamental for the European Union given that the EU is still much more vulnerable than its constituent parts. The EPC has early on acknowledged this worrisome development and has over the past years tried its best to raise awareness in Brussels and in the member states for this fundamental challenge. It has also worked on ideas how to move Europe forward through a set of concrete proposals reflecting the different interests and concerns of different member states and citizens.

Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Director of Studies of the European Policy Centre (EPC), Brussels

 

Your organisation closely cooperates with the Think for Europe Network (TEN), mostly by giving mentor support of a think tank with great experience. How do you see the future of the TEN network and how can the Network be further enhanced?

The Think for Europe Network (TEN) of think tanks and research centres in South East Europe is already a very successful initiative. It has managed to intensify regional cooperation in EU related policy research and intensified the links between think tanks and research centres in the Western Balkans with their counterparts in other parts of Europe. This has fostered the exchange of information between the members of the TEN network, enhanced their individual and collective expertise, allowed an exchange of best practices among themselves and with their peers in the EU, improved the quality and outreach of policy research, helped to develop and implement joint projects, and promoted national and transnational dialogues on different issues of common concern. These efforts are a strong basis to further intensify the capacity of civil society actors to have an impact on policy making at home as well as in Brussels and other EU capitals. The TEN network should use its combined strength to further enhance the presence of think tanks and research centres at the European level. This would not only enhance their individual and collective influence in the EU, it would also in return increase their ability to foster debates and improve policy-making processes at home, if actors on the ground are aware of their influence beyond national borders.

What would you single out to be the biggest contribution and impact of the WeBER project in the Western Balkan states? 

The biggest contribution and impact of the WeBER project relates to the fact that it has intensified the cooperation among a group of think tanks and civil society organisations (CSOs) in the Western Balkans. This cooperation has allowed the participating organisations to exchange experiences, especially through the WeBER Platform established during the project. The Platform has increased their role in the public administration reform (PAR)  area, both in their respective countries and in the region. WeBER Platform has allowed the participating partners to enhance their impact when it comes to PAR, as it gathers more than 180 CSOs from the region and serves as the venue for evidence-based dialogue between them, the government representatives, and international and regional organisations. Finally, the project has enabled think tanks from the TEN to collaborate and profit from the Brussels experience of the European Policy Centre. Likewise, the EPC also profited from the WeBER project given that it has allowed it to intensify its ties with peers in the Western Balkans and to further enhance its understanding of the situation in the applicant countries in South East Europe, which is important for the success of future rounds of EU enlargement.

 

Event announcement: Final WeBER Regional Conference

For the past three years, six Western Balkan think tanks have been exploring public administration reforms (PAR) across the region, providing a civil society perspective. How to demand better administration in the Western Balkans? Why is it important to involve civil society? Why regional approach to improving good governance matters?

We are proud to announce a two-day regional conference to be held on September 25-26, 2018 in Belgrade, where we will have an open discussion on these and many more topics, and present the Regional PAR Monitor Report – one of the key results of our comparative research on monitoring PAR within the WeBER project. A special session will be focused on PAR monitoring by local CSOs, featuring stories from cities and municipalities, where most successful local projects will be presented.

The conference will gather regional stakeholders in the PAR area, among whom the representatives of civil society, government, media, including members of international and regional organisations.

Here you can download the Draft Agenda.

Interview with Fisnik Korenica, Co-founder of Group for Legal and Political Studies (GLPS), Kosovo

What we and other organizations in Kosovo do is focusing on our common interests and how we can cooperate with others in the region to achieve common goals. At the end of the day, our societies are so similar that those are far more usual than most people realize, but they are there once you look at the facts and figures.

Kosovo signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU in 2015, which represented a major step in the EU accession process of Kosovo. How would you assess Kosovo’s progress since then?

Limited. The Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) was supposed to represent a turning point for Kosovo, the first binding, contractual agreement with the EU. It was expected to show the progress and matureness of the youngest state in Europe, but it showed it shortcomings instead.

To expedite implementation, the EU and the Kosovar government agreed on a European Reform Agenda (ERA), an exhaustive list of goals to achieve by the end of 2017. According to our latest report, the level of success in March 2018 was a notorious 38%. To some extent, since there is nowhere else to go, our politicians have accommodated to this situation, and they are in no hurry to move forward. At this pace it will take a decade to make the Agreement fully functional; while the economy remains stagnant and the opportunity slowly slips through our fingers.

An enhanced inter-institutional cooperation and a stronger commitment by all relevant stakeholders in order to improve the performance in achieving the objectives deriving from the SAA is crucial. The government should prioritize tasks undertaken by signing this agreement, in order to achieve proper progress and implement the necessary reforms.

One of the conditions for visa liberalisation for Kosovo was signing a demarcation agreement with Montenegro, which came into force this month. Do you expect some development of this process in the following period?

 At this point, I am a bit sceptical about the issue. The ball is totally in the EU’s court and has been for some time now, but the EU is not united regarding the Western Balkans. The decision regarding the visa has been stalled in the Parliament since September 2016. There is no date to send it to the plenary, and that with the recommendation of the Commission and the endorsement of LIBE!  At the end of the day, it is an internal matter in which our influence is only limited. Kosovo has done its part as, and now it is waiting for the EU to reciprocate.

 

Fisnik Korenica, Co-founder of Group for Legal and Political Studies (GLPS), Kosovo

Fisnik Korenica, Co-founder of Group for Legal and Political Studies (GLPS), Kosovo

It has been confirmed that the EU will not allow accession of the countries that have bilateral disputes, hence greater cooperation between the Western Balkan states in resolving these disputes is expected. In what way can CSOs speed up this process and contribute to regional reconciliation?

Our role is that of a facilitator, we build bridges between our societies. There is still a substantial animosity towards each other in the region, and people tend to remain in a national, or even nationalistic mindset.

What we and other organizations in Kosovo do is focusing on our common interests and how we can cooperate with others in the region to achieve common goals. At the end of the day, our societies are so similar that those are far more usual than most people realize, but they are there once you look at the facts and figures. Admittedly, we can only push with so much strength, but every contribution counts.

What do you consider to be the biggest challenge civil society in Kosovo is facing? What is the impact of the GLPS?

Kosovo, fortunately, has one of the best environments in the region for the civil society to act. Unlike in some of our neighbours, public institutions in Kosovo have developed a high level of tolerance to criticism and discussion, even though sometimes they complain that is not as constructive as they would like. On the other hand, there is still a very primary culture of activism, and most people outside of the institutions and certain limited groups fail to see the benefits of an active civil society. That substantially complicates outreach and ensuring a sustainable source of funding, but we have learned to cope with it through the years.

In fact, our experience is our greatest asset. GLPS is one of the oldest active organisations in Pristina, with more than a decade of analysis and advocacy on our shoulders. That entails a substantial brand recognition and reputation that has allowed us to push for some substantial policies along the years. The current framework for political party financing originated from our recommendations and lobbying, and lately, we have been very active in the field of disciplinary responsibility for judges and prosecutors, among others.

The GLPS is a member of the regional Think for Europe Network (TEN). How would you assess the significance of TEN’s work for the improvement and promotion of regional research? Can the added value of regional CSO networking serve as a good example for cooperation to the Western Balkan states?

Think for Europe Network represents one of the most excellent examples of Civil Society cooperation in the region, in many ways. First, under this umbrella, our organizations have been able to produce comprehensive and independent regional research and comparative analysis for some of the most pressing issues and common challenges of the region. Second, we have been very successful in further advocating our findings and recommendations either in local or regional context. It must be noted that the impact through the network has been tremendous thus far and the success was recognized beyond the region, by European and other renowned institutions.

On another note, being part of a credible regional network, such as TEN, has supported our member organisations to further sustain our credible image in the region and beyond, by regularly producing joint evidence-based policy research and propose concrete solutions for numerous policies currently being implemented in the region. The scope of research that TEN employs contribute towards some of the main policy requirements set out in the EU perspective agenda of the Western Balkan countries including Public Administration Reform and Rule of Law, amongst many others. To conclude, TEN has also enabled an enhanced cooperation among some of the leading organizations of the region and as a result, helped boost the role of civil society beyond their respective countries.

The GLPS also participates in the regional WeBER Project, which provided funding to four organisations for implementation of their public reform projects. Could you tell us something more about the results of these projects? What would you single out to be the biggest contribution and impact of the WeBER project in Kosovo?

As we are entering the final phase of the WeBER project, we must conclude that the impact that WeBER reached is remarkable and we are proud to have served as a partner for Kosovo. Public Administration Reform remains one of the key priorities towards the EU integration process of the Western Balkans, and commitment towards progress in implementing PAR is being reiterated regularly by the EU representatives.

As for Kosovo, the impact of WeBER project is manifested in multiple ways. First and most important, WeBER has enabled an increased inclusion and impact of Civil Society in monitoring the PAR, which has been almost absent for many years with only a few organizations directly engaged on this matter. Second, through WeBER National Working Group, we have been able to significantly increase the capacities of CSOs – particularly those working at local level – to monitor and engage with responsible institutions in implementing the PAR and further advocating for a proactive approach on this issue.  Third, through WeBER we have been able to further enhance our cooperation with all relevant institutions dealing with PAR, provide concrete feedback deriving from an indicator-based PAR Monitoring Methodology as well as provide a regional perspective on the implementation of PAR, aiming to stimulate peer-pressure on the side of our government institutions.