by Eric Chenoweth,
IDEE, Washington, DC

The following remarks were made at a conference, called “Defenders of Democracy,”
attended by representatives of over 150 NGOs in Serbia. The conference, the third in a series of national assemblies organized by Civic Initiatives, was held on November 19-21, 2000.

On behalf of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, its president Irena Lasota, and also the network of Centers for Pluralism in twenty countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – to which Civic Initiatives belongs – I congratulate all of you and the civil society organizations you represent on your role in finally overthrowing the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. This was your victory, first and foremost, one achieved not through a sudden revolt of the people but through the patient, persistent struggle that slowly but surely strengthened citizens’ capacity for democratic action against the evil of Milosevic’s nationalist regime.

IDEE has been around for quite some time – we began first in December 1981 to try to support the embattled Solidarity movement, and slowly expanded activities beyond Poland to Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is a special job we all do helping others to realize their collective power and to fulfill the ideals of democracy. IDEE is proud to have worked here in Serbia since 1993 with such good friends and partners. We were glad to be able to provide or facilitate assistance to many of the groups here, and especially to Izlaz 2000, your own NGO coalition formed to effectively carry out voter education and get out the vote campaigns.

What you did was crucial, first in bringing about a decisive victory for now-President Vojislav Kostunica, and then afterwards in organizing protests to protect the outcome of the vote against Milosevic’s attempts at thievery. Look around this hall, to all of you who were active in opposing the regime, to Zoran Lukic of CeSID (Center for Democracy and Free Elections), to deputy prime minister Miroljub Labus, the head of G17+, to Jelica Minic of the European Movement of Serbia, to Protecta in Nis, and Forca Pozega, and dozens of other organizations, and ask yourself, “could the Serbian “revolution” had happened without you?” I don’t think so.

Let us imagine, for example, that there were not the same level of effort by civil society to reach out to the minority vote, a constituency rightly unenthusiastic about the choice of an avowed nationalist as the DOS coalition’s presidential candidate. Leaders here spearheaded the first Assembly of Minority-related NGOs that gave greater legitimacy to the civic election campaign of Izlaz 2000 and others. Izlaz 2000 was the only group to give support to the coalition of ethnic Albanian mayors in southern Serbia bringing many thousands of voters to register their voices for democratic change. On election day, due in large measure to the work of Izlaz 2000, minorities voted at a higher rate of participation than anytime in the past ten years. This increase in the minority vote alone, in fact, can account for the margin above 50 percent Kostunica needed to declare outright victory in the first round and avoid a second round.

This spirit of inclusion is the very fabric of the Serbian NGO community; the work you have done in the whole society to promote democratic and liberal values was central to the ten-year struggle against nationalist dictatorship. Every activity in this struggle, however small, was a thread in this democratic cloth.
IDEE began its cooperation with Serbia not when victory was in sight but in the darkest days of 1993–94, when elections reinforced Milosevic’s seeming strength and demonstrated the weakness of a fractured political opposition. The dire situation made the idea of democratic change seem hopeless, both here and in the West. It was at that time that we first met Dubravka Velat and her husband, Miljenko Dereta, in March 1994 at the Third Meeting of Centers for Pluralism outside of Budapest. The Centers for Pluralism, which was just beginning, is a transregional network of NGOs and democratic activists in postcommunist countries that crosses regions, national borders, ethnicities, and religions. Its aim is to strengthen the community of NGOs on a regional level through cross-border sharing of experiences and common programs. I know that at that meeting everyone was struck by the unbridled optimism, openness, and democratic spirit of our new Serbian friends. In that meeting, one of Dubrovka’s themes, to be repeated many times since, was voiced: the need for training NGO leaders in basic skills. And it was adopted by one of the CfPs, the Democracy After Communism Foundation in Hungary, which organized a cross-border training workshop on NGO management skills with the U.K.-based Charities Evaluation Services. Of course, Dubravka attended, as did I, and among the trainers was someone who would soon play a greater role in NGO training and development in Serbia, Jenny Hyatt. Dubravka’s energy and excitement drew us directly to Belgrade.

Dubravka had a specific vision: to provide tools for citizens to be active in their communities and to lay the foundation for democratic change at the local level. This vision was reinforced, not weakened, with the protests of 1996-97. Civic Initiatives was created and we together began work on an idea of civic activity called “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges.” This was later renamed Civic Bridges for obvious reasons, but the name encapsulated the basic idea of breaking through all the barriers created by nationalism and building bridges of tolerance and civic life. Tim TRI was born from the training of Jenny Hyatt. And many thousands of people benefitted from training, education, and other activities organized by CI and the network of local NGOs that emerged from this work. They can be seen in municipal governments, new NGOs, and generally in civic life.

Political parties could not have achieved this victory on their own without the role played by civil society – indeed, their leaders say as much. Civic leaders have assumed high positions in the federal government. While this inclusion of civic leaders promotes the idea of civil society among Serbian citizens, now the NGO community faces new challenges. It must replenish its ranks, train new leadership, recruit a new generation of activists, and broaden its base of social and financial support now that the struggle against Milosevic, a struggle that unified everyone, is achieved. This is not so easy. In fact, liberty does not free people to become more active; instead, they concentrate their lives anew first on taking care of immediate needs and second on planning for the future. Still, you will have a great responsibility for addressing the consequences of the past, reviving Serbian society, and in general promoting democratic values. This new responsibility requires equal dedication and you are    a special group that is called to this new struggle. And as these turbulent events continue, our experience is that the longer you wait to achieve certain goals, the more likely it is you will not achieve them. We would advocate that you unify, agree on priorities, and push strategically for them.

There is one more responsibility of Serbian civil society: its responsibility to others in the region. There is a special responsibility to the countries and regions of former Yugoslavia which you know. But there is another responsibility to others who face dictatorship in the region. Serbia received a great deal of support from neighboring countries of the region, from Europe, and from the U.S. Democratic activists in many of the countries that had received help previously – Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia – contributed to this effort to help Serbian society overthrow Milosevic out of their own sense of democratic responsibility. Your experiences are ones that must and should be shared with others, in Azerbaijan, for example, whose dictator is modeling himself more and more on Milosevic and indeed took even more drastic measures to steal elections from the pro-democratic, pro-Western opposition party Musavat. In Belarus, the Democratic Congress is facing a similar challenge to Serbia of maintaining unity against a vicious despot. Other challenges will emerge. What is essential is that Serbia, in trying to gain entry to Europe, not turn its back on the countries of the region, not just out of obligation but because it will aid in Serbia’s own democratic growth.