NGO Atina at the Sixth Western Balkans Civil Society Forum

The Sixth Western Balkans Civil Society Forum was held on July 10 and 11 in Sarajevo, under the auspices of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). This gathering represents a continuation of dialogue between various civil society organizations, as well as previously started discussions on various issues societies in the Western Balkans are facing. At this, sixth, gathering, cooperation between various governmental and nongovernmental actors in the Western Balkans has been discussed, primarily between the state and civil society, including trade unions, with detailed discussions on several specific topics at the introductory and five thematic panels. At the end of this two-day event, over 100 participants from the Western Balkans, but also from the EU, agreed on the text of the final Declaration, which in fact once again highlighted the topics and conclusions that were discussed.

The Forum was opened by the Mayor of Sarajevo, Abdulah Skaka, and Andrej Zorko,  President of the Western Balkans Follow-up Committee of the EESC, who led the introductory panel. Speakers at the introductory panel were Georges Dassis, EECS President, Goran Svilanovic, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council, Srdja Kekovic, Secretary General of the Union of Free Trade Unions of Montenegro, as well as Morten Jung, Senior Adviser for the Western Balkans, European Commission. In addition to other, general, observations mentioned at the introductory panel, it was also stated that one of the initial goals of creating European Communities was economic and social cohesion, and that today more work should be done on mutual solidarity within the EU, especially when it comes to the accommodation of thousands of refugees and migrants who have arrived to Europe. The issue of “delaying” the enlargement of the EU was also discussed, and it was cited that a third of citizens in Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina do not believe that the region will ever enter the EU. Furthermore, it was pointed out that it is necessary to strengthen civil society in the countries of the region, as it encourages the strengthening of the institutions of the system. The need for stronger work with trade unions was also stressed, i.e. the need for their greater involvement in advocacy activities and activities aimed at changing and creating policies. In this regard, it is necessary to connect trade unions and social movements that are arising in the region, so that they can represent a new political force.

The second panel was devoted to the assessment and perspective of relations between the EU and the Western Balkans, and the speakers were Ionut Sibian, Member of the EECS, Jan Snaidauf, Head of Political and Economic Section at the EU Delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Aida Daguda, Director at the Civil Society Promotion Center (Bosnia and Herzegovina), as well as Bojana Selakovic, Executive Director at Civic Initiatives (Serbia). At this panel, the significance of civil society as a corrective mechanism for government institutions was once again highlighted, as well as the inability of wider and deeper social engagement, given the project operation of most organizations. In the next panel, there was a discussion about the role of social partners and other civil society organizations in promoting sustainable growth and employment. Speakers at this panel were Aleksandar Krzalovski, Executive Director of Macedonian Center for International Cooperation, Nebojsa Atanackovic, President of Serbian Association of Employers, Ismet Bajramovic, President of Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Antonio Graziosi, Director of International Labor Organization’s Decent Work Technical Support Team. This panel was led by Samira Nuhanovic Ribic, Director of Social Business Incubator at the Mozaik Foundation (Bosnia and Herzegovina). At this panel, there was a discussion regarding the need for better cooperation and more diverse connections between trade unions and other civil society organizations. It was also said that the EU accession process imposed a greater professionalization of civil society organizations in the region. A significant part was dedicated to the notion of “dignified work” (there is none!), the fact that economic and monetary, as well as employment, policies are largely created by foreign factors, that is, international financial institutions, narrowing the space for operations of various actors within states, as well as for real and lasting social dialogue within the countries of the region.

The final panel discussion of the first day of the Forum was dedicated to the issue of migration in the Western Balkans and the role of civil society. This panel was led by Dilyana Slavova, a member of the EESC, and was attended by Vladimir Petronijevic, Executive Director of Group 484 (Serbia), Delfina Elshani, Representative of Group for Legal and Political Studies from Prishtina, and Peter Van der Auweraert, IOM Sub-regional Coordinator for the Western Balkans. Participants of the panel discussed the role of civil society during the refugee crisis and commended its actions in providing direct support to refugees and migrants, but also the efforts undertaken to urge the governments of the countries of the region to more actively address the issues of relevance to this population, including the development of integration programs after refugees began staying longer in these countries. It was also talked about the need to encourage the so-called circular migrations, unlike the previous one-way migrations, which resulted in a pronounced depopulation of certain, especially rural, areas in the countries of the region. The next panel, first one in the second day of the Forum, was dedicated to freedom of expression and media in the Western Balkans, and was led by Radka Betcheva, Senior Project Manager in the Director General's Office of the European Broadcasting Union. Speakers at this panel were Momcilo Radulovic, President of the European Movement in Montenegro, Naser Selmani, President of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, Dinko Gruhonjic, Programme Editor at the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, and Ilina Nesic, Executive Director at Balkan Civil Society Development Network (Macedonia). During this interesting and dynamic panel, there was a discussion about the dramatic state of freedom of the media in Western Balkans, especially in Serbia, and warnings were made that this situation will only worsen. In this regard, EU institutions are called upon to pay more attention to the state of media freedom, and the respect of democratic principles and the rule of law in countries in the region. The final panel was dedicated to the rights and strengthening the position of women in the EU and the Western Balkans. Among the participants were Nora Latifi Jashari, Executive Director at GAP Institute in Prishtina, Aleksandra Petric, Executive Director at Foundation United Women (Bosnia and Herzegovina), and Madi Sharma, EESC member. During this panel, particular attention was paid to family and partner violence, limited opportunities for women in the labor market, and the need for greater participation of women in different social flows. It was pointed out that there are more women in political life, for example, in Pakistan and Rwanda, than in some European countries, and countries in the Western Balkans. Ms. Madi Sharma shared particularly strong messages, reminding the participants of the importance of women immigrants in Europe for the development of economic activities and raising postwar economy. She reminded that if women are not provided economic independence and social security, it will result in the situation where one out of three women will become a victim of domestic violence. She began and ended her speech with two meaningful sentences, “A woman is like a bag of tea, she is not aware of her strength until she finds herself in the boiling water”, and, “Women, know that if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” Representative of NGO Atina called for such topics not to be left for the end of the panel, but to be at the beginning if possible, as gender equality, that is, the equal position of women is a prerequisite to discuss all other topics on equal basis.

At the end of the work of this Forum, a Final Declaration was adopted which summarized main conclusions of all the panels. Representatives of some organizations had announced beforehand that they would not support a text of any declaration, primarily representatives of trade union associations, believing that they did not receive enough space, and that they represent only a decoration in such gatherings. In any event, the Declaration does not impose any obligations on any actor, but only summarizes the conclusions and invites relevant actors to step up their efforts in fulfilling the reached conclusions.

The main conclusion of this Forum is that it was a good opportunity to become acquainted with other civil society organizations, media and trade unionists from the Western Balkans region, as well as with their activities, since it has gathered a large number of participants, and represents a good framework for the exchange of ideas, and initiation of partnerships for possible future joint activities, especially with those actors to which the organizations are not referred in their daily work (for example, with trade union organizations).

Author: M. Aleksic, NGO “Atina“