Shrinking spaces in the Western Balkans

Introduction – An appeal to (re)open space
Marion Kraske,
Office Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Albania, Sarajevo

The masked thugs came at night, demolished and destroyed, in order to create space for stylish apartment buildings and expensive restaurants. This night-time attack in Belgrade brought back memories of dark times. Precisely there, where at the end of April 2016 the instruments of power of times past were once again brought back to life, should Belgrade’s socalled project of the future emerge: The
Waterfront Project, a costly gigantic architectural endeavor on the Sava, planned and developed from the very top, entirely without civic participation.
Critics complaining about the lack of transparency of this investment have been a thorn in the side to the investors and beneficiaries of this gargantuan project: those who openly demanded that the incident be investigated were threatened. The calls for help the police station received during the night of the attack went unanswered. As the Serbian Ombudsman later determined, the police had a deal with the attackers. Welcome to Serbia, year 2016, a land which, according to the statements of its Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, is striving
to make its way into the European Union as soon as possible. The attack surrounding the controversial Waterfront Project is admittedly merely one of many in the region of South-East Europe, which demonstrate clearly how drastically state officials misuse their positions to quash or curtail civic participation. They often concern ostensibly meaningful largescale projects, whose backgrounds and finances are quite murky and their positive effects on the common good highly questionable.
Such scenarios were also present in other Western Balkan countries; in Macedonia, critics of the Skopje 2014 project were discredited. This is another lavish construction project aiming at the complete transformation of the city center, devised and implemented by the VMRO government, which has been in power for years. Thousands of citizens, who in the early summer of 2016, spent weeks in the
streets under the motto Protestiram (I protest) to demonstrate against corruption and criminal machinations of the politicians in power, were branded enemies of the state.
In the youngest EU member state, Croatia, the November 2015 elections led to a shift to the right. Since then, old enemy images have been used to silence the opponents. Journalists who did not support the party line of the newly strengthened national-conservative HDZ, were pushed out of their positions in order to destroy, to quote the Croatian Journalist Association, "any trace of support by the government for a multicultural and cosmopolitan stance in the media sector".
The new revisionist tones have had a detrimental effect on public discourse in the country: those who opposed the crude  reinterpretations have been targeted by governmental agencies, marginalized, and intimidated. At the recent elections in September 2016, the new HDZ leader Andrej Plenković won the elections promoting "a new culture of dialogue". It remains to be seen whether this will also reflect on the relationship with civil society. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the ruling powers in the Republika Srpska (RS) have
been trying to nip in the bud the evergrowing criticism of nepotism and mismanagement. Citizens who practice their right to freedom of expression, are penalized draconically. Those who think differently than the political power cliques, are delivered the proverbial bill.
All these scenarios follow a worldwide trend: be it Thailand, Turkey or Egypt – democracy has been on the decrease.
A study published by the Bertelsmann Foundation, examining developments in 129 developing countries and countries in transition, has come to this conclusion. The study yielded a sobering result: in one fifth of the examined countries – out of which 74 are ruled democratically, and 55 by an authoritarian regime – there has been a significant drop in the quality of democracy and an increase in repression. Political participation, an important indicator of the state of any democracy, is either decreasing progressively, or is
intentionally targeted. In 2015, CIVICUS, an organization which supports the rights of civil society worldwide, found restrictions
of fundamental rights, such as the right to freedom of opinion and assembly, in 109 countries worldwide. Europe and its periphery are also affected by these tendencies to a concerning degree. Whereas in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end
of the 80s/beginning of the 90s, libertarian and democratic trends emerged and the principles of freedom and self-determination
saw a historical triumph, a quarter of a century later, a return to anti-liberal and autocratic tendencies is taking place. The Heinrich Boell Foundation, which operates in around 60 countries in the thematic fields of human rights and democracy, is alarmed in view of these
developments and the resulting shrinking spaces for civil society actors. The degree of the repression, according to the Board
of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, has never been so high in the past 25 years. The mentioned tendencies often manifest themselves particularly on the periphery of Europe, in the fragile structures of the Western Balkans, where the instruments of state repression are utterly complex: journalists are threatened, and scholars who do not follow the party line are discredited and marginalized. For
instance, activists struggling against the destruction of the few park areas in the Albanian capital Tirana were bullied and
beaten by the police. In other places, as the example of Macedonia demonstrates, engaged citizens are labeled as criminals
by a power-hungry political clique, allegedly representing a national interest. This narrative keeps emerging in the propaganda
those in power resort to: people demanding more democracy and participation, protesting against corruption and nepotism, are labeled enemies of the state, precisely by those who systematically trample upon the common good. Such measures are regularly followed by
special NGO laws which aim at hindering the cash flow for NGOs. When it comes to repression, the governments have proved
to be utterly resourceful. Social media plays a particularly important role here: civil society actors are often discredited online, their personal data and addresses are published – in the digital age these measures are used by state agencies and their backers as a tested tool to outlaw their critics. Others, as in the RS in Bosnia and Herzegovina, end up on a black list. Citizens are hindered from protesting
publically, while public space is intentionally occupied. These are also the ways in which harmless civic activism is nipped in the bud.
The phenomenon of the captured state lies behind these tendencies: corrupt networks use their power in all areas of the state, not to do politics in the proper meaning of the word, or to devise solutions for social and economic problems, but to be able to utilize the state as an eco-system for enriching themselves. The issue at hand is about power, about access to state resources – Big Business at the
expense of the common good. In order to keep Big Business up and running, civic actors’ field of operation is rigorously limited or – in the worst cases – entirely closed. Democratic achievements are thus perforated and transformation processes frozen. The countries of the Western Balkans right now have the opportunity to join the rest of Europe: Bosnia and Herzegovina, which after ten years of political agony submitted an application for candidacy status in February 2016, Macedonia, which has been a candidate since 2014, Serbia, whose EU path the Prime Minister recently confirmed through the elections, and finally Albania, which for decades had been sealed off by a paranoid dictator, is now opening gradually. Narcissistic power cliques have been thwarting historical chances for successful sustainable transformations, or have thoughtlessly jeopardized – as has been the case in Croatia – democratic achievements. As diverse as the approaches may be in individual countries, there is a common pattern: actors, who attempt to exercise their civic rights, are perceived
by the political elites as obstacles to be overcome. This clearly contradicts internationally binding declarations of various organizations. At the beginning of July 2016, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution addressing the value of a strong civil society and appealing for fundamental rights, such as the right to free speech and assembly, be respected. In this context, another pertinent issue
emerges: when the EU, despite statements to the contrary, is not perceived as a strategic partner by civil society in the Balkans, when representatives of the international community fail to answer requests for meetings by well-intentioned citizens, when the EU and other stakeholders do nothing to support these citizens in their struggle against power-hungry politicians, this leads to serious limitations of
civil society’s field of operation and to the entrenchment, precisely of the political caste, which has consistently been hindering
successful democratization in the region.

With this publication, the HBF Office in Sarajevo would like to contribute to shedding light on the complex mechanisms of shrinking spaces, provide analyses, and develop adequate countermeasures. The goal of the Foundation is to expand the field of operation for civil
society actors since, without civic engagement and participation, democratization cannot succeed.