Enabling Environment in the Western Balkans and Turkey: Growing Pressure on Civil Society and Future Challenges

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On 10 December, the world celebrated the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Through public gatherings, press statements and social media campaigns, media and CSO activists in our region celebrated the 71st anniversary of the Human Rights Day. Despite the fact that the Universal Declaration with its broad range of political, civil, social, cultural and economic rights stands for “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, unfortunately the Western Balkans and Turkey (WBT) cannot testify for a comprehensive level of enabling environment for civil society.

On the contrary, Turkish activists report that 30,000 individuals are being held in pre-trial detention or have been convicted, most of them charged with propagandizing terrorism. Other 70,000 are on trial and 155,000 are being investigated by the police, but have not yet been prosecuted. Even the Chairperson of Amnesty International in Turkey, Taner Kılıç, is on trial alongside nine other activists, representing a blatant criminalization of human rights activism. Serbian CSOs’ activists also pointed on the fragility of the human rights in Serbia, urging that there is a discrepancy between the actual situation and the promises, adding that citizens in Serbia live in constant fear. Recognizing the drastic deterioration of the human rights situation in Serbia, CIVICUS Monitor downgraded Serbia’s rating, depicting the state of civic freedoms in the country as Obstructed. This coincides with the creation of a culture of impunity and an atmosphere of fear created by public officials themselves. Throughout the region, as the latest BCSDN report shows, CSOs, activists and independent journalists have been exposed to government smear campaigns, media pressures and public discrediting translated into attacks against the critical voices.

The most serious violations against freedom of expression were noted in Turkey and Serbia. The press freedom environment in Turkey has not improved even since the lifting of the state of emergency in July 2018. A number of journalists remained behind bars or under travel bans as a result of an extended, politically motivated crackdown against the media and independent journalists. Turkey also noted severe restrictions on the freedom of assembly, particularly when exercised by anti-government groups, either through long-term bans on public gatherings or excessive use of force by the police. In the rest of the countries, public gatherings were generally unimpeded, although in Serbia, on several occasions the Serbian police prevented peaceful assemblies, not only in the capital, but also in other cities, particularly during the #1od5miliona protests. While the police in Bosnia and Herzegovina banned all gatherings of the Justice for David group, the chain of student and anti-government protests in Albania and Montenegro, and the grassroots initiatives on environmental and community issues perfectly compliment the regional image – the rise of citizens’ activism and their determination to be the change in their societies. Positively, Albania and North Macedonia enhanced legal measures in this area, with the introduction of police procedures and standard notification templates for organizing public assemblies in Albania, and the removal of rubber bullets and electric paralyzers from the police equipment for crowd dispersion in North Macedonia.

Instead of a villain, civil society needs to see a partner in the government. But to do this, governments in need to provide appropriate and innovative mechanisms for cooperation with the CSOs and citizens, and civil society needs to be dully consulted and properly represented in cross-sector bodies, in order to endorse their relevance and legitimacy. North Macedonia can serve as a good example about cooperation between CSOs and governments, noting the greatest success in the past year with the establishment of the Government-CSO Council and the adopted Strategy for Cooperation of the Government with the Civil Society Sector 2018-2020. Moreover, the positive atmosphere led to a stronger involvement of CSOs in policy and decision-making. The Government of North Macedonia proactively and substantially included CSOs in policy-making processes at all stages by using various methods. Although we have noted an improvement in North Macedonia, involvement of CSOs in the decision making processes is still done in a non-systematic way and is highly dependent on personal will of the people in office same as in the other countries in the region. On the other hand, civil society representation in cross-sector bodies has been a problematic issue in Serbia and particularly in Montenegro, where the critical civil society representatives have been purposefully removed from key advisory and regulatory bodies.

At the end, however, laws are easily misinterpreted and misused in practice. While the legal framework in almost all WBT countries guarantees the legal freedoms of citizens and CSOs, and corresponds to international and European legislation, in practice there is a need for stronger focus on protecting and promoting civic space. The adopted laws need precise definitions, because the wrong interpretation can additionally overburden the work of CSOs, which can easily be the case with the anti-money-laundering and financing of terrorism regulation initiated in Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia, done in an effort to harmonize internal laws with EU regulations. Increased monitoring, oversight, and affirmative actions are required in promoting and protecting civic space in all countries. Advocacy, awareness-raising campaigns are necessary to educate and inform all relevant actors on the specific nature of the functioning and the needs of CSOs. But most important of all, CSOs need to make sure citizens trust and understand the importance of a strong civil society, and support CSOs in the fight for unconditional respect of every citizens’ basic human rights.

In the New Year, we will keep on following the trends in civil society development and loudly alarming about issues that can hinder the future of a democratic, prosperous Western Balkans. In the New Year, we hope for a more stable, thriving and enabling environments in the region, where the respect of basic freedoms will make significant progress, instead of the backsliding we have been witnessing. In the New Year, we want to see the start of a positive chapter in the decade that comes!

Marija Vishinova

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