Foreign Agents Registration Acts (FARA) globally have been much criticized for their potential to stifle independent civil society organizations. This trend seems yet to be breaking ground in the Balkan region, going beyond the already familiar “foreign agents” narrative towards adopting restrictive legislation targeting CSOs. As a regional CSO network working on empowering civil society and protecting civic space, we stand firmly against the stigmatization of civil society and urge the authorities to refrain from introducing laws that undermine the ability of CSOs to operate freely and independently.
In March 2023, the government of Republika Srpska adopted a draft law that requires CSOs active in the Bosnian Serb entity that are funded from abroad to register and report additionally on their work, beyond the requirements for financial and performance reporting already existing in the law on associations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier in Bulgaria, initially in October 2022 and again in April 2023, a Bill on the registration of foreign agents was submitted to the Parliament, which would require registration of CSOs and individuals as foreign agents for any receipt of funds that goes beyond approximately EUR 500.
While the official communique in BiH suggests the draft law would enable “supervision of the legality of CSOs work and other provisions,” there is significant potential for misuse and free interpretation. On the other hand, the Bill in Bulgaria, aside of the additional administrative burdens on CSOs, would create a de facto blacklist of foreign agents and would directly violate basic civic freedoms. This trend of using legislative initiatives to stigmatize CSOs and attack fundamental notions of civil rights such as freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly of citizens is alarming.
Though in a different context, a similarly worrying initiative is currently being discussed in the EU, as the recently introduced EU Foreign Interference directive in the context of the Defense of Democracy Package foresees the creation of a register of foreign-funded organizations. Civil society from around Europe has called on the European Commission to refrain from adopting this directive, noting the unintended negative consequences it could have, effectively hindering CSOs’ ability to fulfill their role as defenders of democracy. In our region, concerns have been voiced by the international diplomatic presence in BiH, confirming that such initiatives are more likely to defeat instead of defend democracy, and have a chilling effect on civil society.
All these initiatives claim to focus on strengthening the transparency and accountability of the sector, but in fact greatly mirror the so called ‘foreign influence’ laws which have been deployed as tools to silence critical voices in many countries. In the region, adoption of such legislation would effectively put a target on the whole sector and could endanger activists and those professionally engaged with civil society. Given that most CSOs in the region are greatly relying on foreign funds, especially those dealing with issues related to democracy, human rights, and governance, the vast majority would likely be marked as “foreign agents” by these provisions. Our monitoring has shown that CSOs in the Western Balkans are still dependent on foreign donors to sustain their operations and achieve their missions, mainly due to the unsupportive fiscal and tax frameworks limiting the access to different sources of funding, and the non-transparent and largely unavailable state funding in the countries, particularly for organizations that engage in advocacy and monitoring of government policies.
CSOs are the main contributors to functional democracies in the Balkan region and all across Europe. Working, among other, on good governance, anti-corruption, freedom of expression, and human rights, through the years, civil society has proven that it is an ally in the safeguard of democracy and the public interest. As a network working on civil society development, we call for extreme caution when it comes to these matters and urge authorities to ensure that any proposed regulations are necessary and proportionate. Laws affecting civil society must be prepared in close dialogue with CSOs, ensuring they are supporting and not hindering CSOs’ legitimate operations. An enabling environment for civil society development and open spaces for civic participation must be protected, as these are critical to achieving sustainable and functioning democracies.