09 Oct The operating environment for civil society in Serbia is still far from EU standards

Belgrade, October 9, 2020-

Press release

The operating environment for civil society in Serbia is still far from EU standards

This year’s Progress Report, which was presented in Brussels on Tuesday, once again confirmed that there is no positive environment for civil society to operate in Serbia. It was noted that, although certain steps have been initiated, such as the adoption of guidelines and the planning of consultations, further efforts are still needed to ensure systematic cooperation between the government and civil society. The Report clearly indicates that an enabling environment for the development and financing of civil society organizations (CSOs) has not yet been established, as indicated by Civic Initiatives in the following regular annual reports – “Monitoring Matrix on Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development” from March and “Associations of Citizens: Shrinking Civic Space Serbia 2019” from February of this year.

In the Report, the European Commission recognized the continued commitment of CSOs and human rights defenders to raising awareness about civil and political rights, and drew attention to the political pressures they face in their work, which was especially evident in the period immediately preceding the parliamentary and local elections. This was also confirmed in the “Three Freedoms Under the Magnifying Glass” reports, through which Civic Initiatives monitor violations of basic human rights in Serbia on a biweekly basis. Since March 2019, these reports have documented a large number of attacks on activists, threats and pressure directed at members of citizens’ associations, as well as campaigns against civil society actors, humanitarian foundations and grassroots movements in the media, which poses a serious threat to freedom of association.

The Commission’s Report especially highlighted a case from July of this year, when a list of 57 organizations and individuals from the media and civil society, who had been subject to a risk assessment by the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (APML), was leaked to the public. In the Report, the Commission warned that it is necessary to establish the legal basis for this assessment, and whether the actions of the APML in this case are in compliance with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). This case, as well as the need to review the actions of the APML, have been repeatedly pointed out in the Report, both in relation to Chapter 24 – Justice, Freedom and Security, and in the part concerning Chapter 4 – Free Movement of Capital. Civic Initiatives, together with other individuals and organizations named on the list, have requested the Administration for Prevention of Money Laundering to clarify the criteria used in this inspection, but the legal basis for the assessment and the specific criteria used by the Administration in its implementation have yet to be published.

As a positive step, the Report cited the new guidelines on the inclusion of CSOs in working groups for drafting regulations and public policies, which were adopted in January of this year. However, CSOs continue to report that the time given for public consultations is too short, and that their comments on draft laws are not given sufficient consideration and follow-up. Civic Initiatives have already pointed this out in their monitoring of the enabling environment for the development of civil society, in addition to other problems related to the participation of citizens and CSOs in decision-making processes, including the practice of simulated public debates, and the abuse of GONGO and PONGO organizations for the purpose of legitimizing government decisions.

It was also noted that a national strategy and action plan to help create a positive environment for CSOs have still not been adopted. Furthermore, a council for civil society cooperation has yet to be set up, which are all problems listed as such in last year’s report. Also, the Report draws attention to the need to better define and implement the criteria for public financial support for CSOs, in order to ensure overall transparency, especially at the local level. Civic Initiatives believe that, in addition to these findings, it should be emphasized that the position of CSOs has also not been improved in terms of financial sustainability or service delivery. On the contrary, with the adoption of the new law on free legal aid, certain CSOs who had been performing these activities for almost 20 years are now prevented from doing so. Additionally, the announced amendments to the Law on Volunteering have yet to take place, and there has been no further recognition of social entrepreneurship as a social value.

A problem that has not been recognized as such in this, nor in the previous annual Progress Reports, is the emergence of an increasing number of so-called governmental non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), and political non-governmental organizations (PONGOs). The role of these artificial CSOs is reflected in the fact that, on the one hand, they receive financial assistance from the state, and on the other, they use the space given to them by the pro-government media to discredit organizations with a long tradition and credible expertise, as well as take up the role of “constructive partners” in decision-making processes, for the purpose of faking public debates, and giving legitimacy to government decisions and proposals. Their establishment was one of the main trends in Serbian public space and media during 2019.

Civic Initiatives will continue to monitor the state of the operating environment for CSOs in Serbia through its regular reports, including the “Monitoring Matrix on Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development”, the biweekly “Three Freedoms Under the Magnifying Glass” reports, as well as the annual Report on shrinking civic space in Serbia.