"It makes no sense for civil society to spend time helping the state devise a strategy that will never be applied. In a country where the rule of law does not exist, there is no point in adopting new laws and strategies". A meeting with Maja Stojanovic, director of Građanske inicijative
Maja Stojanović directs Građanske inicijative (Civic Initiatives), a non-governmental organisation that has been working tenaciously for twenty-five years to strengthen democratic values in Serbia. One of the most renowned activists in the country, Stojanovic has been committed for years to strengthening civil society through education, the promotion of democracy, and support for active citizenship. In this interview, she talks about the authoritarian character of the current political leadership in Belgrade, the attacks and smear campaigns against non-governmental organisations, and the hitherto unproductive dialogue between the government and civil society.
How would you describe the relationship between the political leadership and Serbian civil society?
According to all relevant national and international non-governmental organisations, the Serbian leadership has been progressively moving away from democratic principles for ten years now. Civil society is the first pillar of democracy and its main objective is to preserve and strengthen the democratic values of a society. With these premises, it is not difficult to imagine what the relationship between the government and the Serbian civil society is.
If a country's government and civil society do not share the same objectives — the rule of law, respect for human rights, the strengthening of democratic institutions, the separation of powers — they cannot be expected to establish a constructive relationship of collaboration that can contribute to the achievement of the aforementioned objectives. And if the government has an authoritarian character, it is inevitable that the situation will deteriorate further. The authoritarian character of a government is reflected in the tendency to interpret any criticism as an attack on the state and to systematically trample on freedom of expression and association, trying to silence the professional media that inform citizens of the real state of affairs in the country.
Recently, some independent media and non-governmental organisations, including Civic Initiatives, sent an open letter to Gordana Comic, Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue. Can you tell us more about this initiative?
This is the umpteenth letter that civil society and independent media have sent to various government representatives in recent years. After the latest change of power — so to speak, because Serbia has been governed by the same political parties since 2012, winning a series of early elections with the sole purpose of keeping citizens in a state of perpetual tension — a new ministry for Human and Minority Rights and for Social Dialogue was established, led by a person who until then had been part of the opposition.
This move by the government could be interpreted as an attempt to finally resolve some of the country's most pressing problems, and the international community apparently tends to interpret it in this light. However, many seem to miss the fact that Minister Comic has publicly declared that none of the issues of great importance for democracy — including the defense of freedom of association and expression and the protection of the most vulnerable groups — is her domain, thus pushing these issues under the rug. We sent the aforementioned letter to Minister Comic with two objectives: to highlight the dire situation of the media and civil society in Serbia and to express our opposition to the Minister's decision to declare herself incompetent on issues of fundamental importance for the protection of human rights and minorities.
Did Minister Comic react to your letter?
The president of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) read the letter to Minister Comic during a meeting, but she did not react in any way. Some conclusions can be drawn from the minister's decision to remain silent, including the fact that the ministry she leads is apparently reluctant to abandon a policy, which has lasted for decades, aimed at undermining democracy and is not ready to take responsibility for the current situation.
Last year, a few dozen individuals, media outlets, and Serbian civil society organisations were subjected to checks by the Directorate for the Prevention of Money Laundering of money and terrorist financing from the Ministry of the Interior. Why this operation?
The state has simply abused the current legislation and the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) regarding the prevention of money laundering to lash out against organisations that highlight various corrupt practices, violations of human rights, but also the importance of confrontation with the past, and against journalists who do their jobs professionally and refuse to bow to political and financial pressures from the ruling leadership.
The management had sent a letter to all banks in Serbia, stating that they suspected that certain individuals and organisations were involved in money laundering and terrorist financing operations, and therefore the banks could only comply with the law and forward to the management all information regarding accounts and transactions carried out by suspects. After receiving the requested data, the Management Director stated that the subjects in question never aroused any suspicion from the Management, but that this was the only way to obtain the data from the banks. In other words, the Management lied about the existence of a well-founded suspicion against certain people and organisations, in order to force the banks to provide them with data that they otherwise could not have obtained, since these are data that banks are obliged to protect.
How did this story end?
The only epilogue is the smear campaigns constantly conducted by pro-government tabloids who use that data to discredit civil society and independent media, accusing them of being mercenaries in the pay of foreigners. The Direction for the Prevention of Money Laundering has never been called to take responsibility for what happened.
On the other hand, many international institutions and organisations have criticised the management's behavior. For example, Moneyval, the body of the Council of Europe that oversees the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing, issued a statement stating that the Directorate can request such data only if there is a well-founded suspicion, also adding that the member states of the Council of Europe cannot abuse the FATF recommendations for the purpose of discrediting civil society.
Why have non-governmental organisations decided not to participate in the consultations organised by the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights for the elaboration of a strategy for the creation of a favourable environment for the development of civil society in Serbia?
A few years ago, the process of adopting a new media strategy was halted due to pressure from independent media and civil society, which judged the government's proposed strategy to be inadequate, also believing that the whole procedure was not very inclusive. Then the government started a new process, much more inclusive, according to all international standards, and a year later the new media strategy was finally adopted. Although this was a fairly adequate strategy, the media situation in the country has deteriorated since its adoption. This example shows better than anything else why it makes no sense for civil society to spend its resources and time to help the state come up with a strategy that will never be applied. In a country where the rule of law does not exist, there is no point in adopting new laws and strategies. The situation of Serbian civil society and media would improve a lot if only the existing laws were applied.
What are the prerequisites for starting a real dialogue between the leadership in power and civil society? In your opinion, is such a dialogue possible in Serbia?
I believe that the government only wants a purely formal dialogue. Its goal is to make the international community believe that the government is willing to listen to the views of citizens. However, when the time comes to accept such views, the government backs off. It should also be stressed that civil society has always participated in the consultative processes organised by the government. Civil society organisations participate in public debates, are part of various working groups in charge of drafting new laws and strategies, organise meetings with government representatives, in accordance with the laws in force. However, this collaboration — as repeatedly stressed by civil society — is not bearing fruit. So, we don't need to open another dialogue, we need real communication with the government and to see the results of the processes already underway. Why the state claims that it is only now willing to initiate a dialogue with civil society, outside of its current regulatory framework – we should ask the government.
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