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NGOs, or civil society in general, usually have an important role to play in changing society. Compared to other post-communist countries however, civil society organization in the Balkan region did not feature prominently in the first years of the post-Yugoslav transition. The prospect of EU accession might finally define their role as a driver of change.
By Jelena Dzankic
and Daliborka Uljarevic
In most of the post-communist countries, the civil sector has been a societal panacea in the course of transition by providing the indispensable push towards democracy. At the time of the collapse of the communist system, marked by the fall of multinational federations, the rise of civil society through what Michnik called ‘a unifying moment’ implied a distinct worldview. It offered a remedy both for the ‘socialist virus’, and the ‘transition fever’. Representing a detachment from the state-dominated worldview, civil society became the key ingredient for the emergence of a participatory culture based on political pluralism. It is precisely the drive to be independent of state power that could counterbalance the domination of the state in the day-to-day life of the people. The significance of such a role of civil society for the transitional countries lies precisely in the five-decade long rule of the communist party, marked by a virtual nonexistence of a public sphere, a political monolith, and the ‘powerlessness’ of ordinary citizens. Established either as umbrella compacts, or individual interest associations, the first transitional civil society organizations quickly mushroomed with the aim to foster democratic values both by organizing the public sphere and by providing contacts with external organizations.
Balkan civil society
In the Western Balkans, which have undergone a much more turbulent two decades of transition than their eastern neighbors, civil society organizations play yet another role. In addition to being drivers of political and societal change, civil society is also a mechanism of reconciliation in the region that was torn by the bloodiest conflict that took part on European soil after the Second World War. More than two decades after introducing the multiparty system, the weak Western Balkan states are still facing series of democratic challenges. In this context, civil society in Western Balkans is still in the process of defining its position and role within each of the states. It is struggling with the lack of participatory tradition that would help civil society to flourish and support the process of overall transformation in the region. Civil society has strong emancipatory, transformative potential in post-communist political and social realms, especially in regard to the key pillars of power and the introduction of European values. Of course, strategies and tactics are different. Yet, they result in effective forms of organizing, informing and engaging citizens and the general public of what social processes entail and how they could contribute to them. With the public interest in mind, civil society is pivotal in helping the Western Balkan states not to lose themselves in the murky waters of democratic transition/translation. Montenegrin organizations, similar to their counterparts in the other countries in the region, are a good example of the efforts, challenges and potential that civil society has in the transitional countries today.
Civil society in Montenegro
As a consequence of the small country’s political trajectory after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the dominance of the political issues related to statehood and nationhood, there has been a lot of prejudice about the civil society in Montenegro. Simultaneously, the overall development was burdened by great expectations both domestic and international, not the least because of the internal societal schism, but also because of the prominent role that civil society had in Central and East European transitions. Yet, the reality of civil society in Montenegro, similar to other countries in the Western Balkans, has been challenged by low political responsiveness, financial constraints, and the public’s occasional failure to understand that societal change requires not activities of non-governmental organizations, but also collective participation. Even in this context, civil society is investing tremendous effort in bringing about democratic change and regional reconciliation, which are prerequisites for accession into the European Union (EU).
The major challenge that the Montenegrin civil society organizations are faced with is their limited impact in the law-making and policy process. There are two key reasons for this challenge, not only for the Montenegrin context, but also to the rest of the region. First, governmental trust in civil society organizations is low, which manifests itself as a reluctance on behalf of the government to cooperate with these organizations on key issues that the society is faced with. In particular, various segments of Montenegrin public administration see civil society as an impediment, rather than a motor of positive societal change. Second, the platform for the participation of civil society in a structured policy dialogue is rather weak. Despite the attempts of the civil society organizations to clearly define the terms of their participation in the policy dialogue, these have found little resonance with the public administration that is often closed for constructive criticism and dialogue. In the context of Montenegro’s aspiration to become an EU Member State, this challenge has been slightly facilitated by the mediating effect of the international actors, which have resulted in the opening of some channels for institutional cooperation, particular with the office of the Premier of Montenegro, but it takes far too much time to mainstream this as working principle.
Another challenge that Montenegrin civil society organizations are faced with is related to scarce financial resources at their disposal. The majority of the civil organizations remains financially dependent on the state, while only a limited number of civil society organizations has benefitted from the EU’s pre-accession funds. Subsequently, through the lack of financial means, necessary for the operation of civil society, civic participation in political decision-making is marginalized.
Given the withdrawal of many donors that supported the non-profit sector during the crisis years in the post-Yugoslav space, nowadays the major source of funding for Montenegrin civil society organizations is a governmental commission, which supports projects in the fields of social protection and humanitarian activities, needs of disabled people, sport development, non-institutional education and education of children and youth, culture and technical culture, and combating drugs and other types of addiction. Yet, funding is scarce, and the number of non-profit organizations applying to the commission is three times higher than the number of those who actually receive funding or partial funding for their projects. A further issue that has been raised is the lack of transparency in allocating funding for projects. As noted in a number of international reports, the Centre for Civic Education observed the work of the commission and revealed a number of violations of grant allocation procedures.
The third major challenge that civil society organizations in Montenegro are faced with is their relation with the Montenegrin public. Much time was needed to raise public awareness of the fact that NGOs cannot fill up all the gaps in the functioning of the system and that civil society cannot be the exclusive foundation of a solid value framework, or erase social dissatisfaction. Yet, in recent years, the Montenegrin public has come to understand that civil society can work to improve the situation, contribute to the implementation of certain standards and principles, and empower citizens to take stock of their rights and understand the ways they can fight for them. Civil society can provide active, constructive response to the challenges Montenegrin society is facing, monitor the work of decision-makers, and cooperate with them on a constructive basis. Having emerged from a socialist system, as other countries in the region, Montenegro has no tradition of NGOs, which makes the situation even more difficult. However, the times are changing quickly, and the key asset of NGOs lies in its people: serious, young, highly educated, hardworking, energetic, creative, with advantages of advanced computer literacy, and knowledge of foreign languages. These young professionals with the courage to think independently are the main driver of change in Montenegro. Their capabilities and continuous work help to keep the Montenegrin reality colored by civil society, which remains vibrant despite all the challenges that it has been facing so far.
General conclusions and remarks
The development of civil society in the postcommunist world, and especially in the Western Balkans, has faced numerous problems. As a consequence of the particular post-Yugoslav experience, civil society organizations did not feature as prominently in the first years of transition. This is mostly due to the sapping of society’s energies through the conflict that was taking place in multiple republics of the former Yugoslavia. However, as a result of the attempt of many post-Yugoslav states to join the EU, some aspects of civil society in the region have evolved, contributing to overcoming the problems of the heritage of communism. Hence, the time for civil society organizations in the Western Balkans is now, as they need to invest all of their effort to bring closer the last of the fold into the EU nest.
is Jean Monnet Fellow EUI (Florence), Senior Research Fellow Institute Alternative (Podgorica).
is executive director of the Centre for Civic Education (Podgorica).
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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2011: The rule of law
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