The following are key common recommendations based on the indicators of the Monitoring Matrix. While these recommendations aim to define actions for regional interventions, the specific country context has to be always taken into consideration when analyzing the environment for CSOs. Therefore, as we have noted in past reports, the issues below cannot be addressed in isolation and other measures have to be taken into account in order to develop an enabling environment for civil society development
Recommendation 1: Legal guarantees for freedom of association, freedom of assembly and other related freedoms should be enforced and the current framework should be properly implemented in practice
Even though basic freedoms are legally guaranteed across the region, deterioration and shrinking of civic space have been reported in each of the countries. Proper implementation of the existing legal standards and guarantees of freedom of association, assembly and other related freedoms needs to be secured in practice. Collection of basic data on CSO registration needs to improve to guarantee appropriate policies related to civil society development. Finally, with regard to financial reporting, adaption and implementation of the recommendations from the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (MONEYVAL) and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) should be monitored closely as they open the door to possible misuse and state harassment of CSOs.
Recommendation 2: Fiscal regulations on CSO income and tax incentives for donors need to be revised to provide more supportive tax treatment for CSOs; Public funding mechanisms need to be reformed and their rules properly implemented to ensure relevant, transparent and accountable redistribution procedures
Fiscal legislation should be improved by increasing (or introducing) tax incentives for corporate and individual giving and introducing new financial benefits for CSOs. In countries where distinct public benefit status exists, tax laws should be harmonized with the CSO framework laws to ensure applicable benefits for organizations with a public benefit status and provide incentives for organizations. The system of government support for CSOs should be reformed so that support is provided in a transparent, accountable, fair and non-discriminatory manner.
Recommendation 3: Stimulating legislation and programmes to promote volunteering and employment should be adopted and implemented
Volunteering is considered a viable practice for CSOs with generally supportive regulation in most of the countries, although some countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, should enact specific laws. The practice of volunteering and employment in CSOs needs more supportive measures by governments and stronger promotion in the region.
Recommendation 4: Mechanisms for CSO-public institution cooperation with clearly outlined responsibilities should be put in place and made functional through efficient allocation of funds and skilled human resources
Implementation of legal and/or policy documents should be more efficient and clearly reflect the political commitment to CSO-government relations, as well as include the allocation of sufficient resources and use of good implementation skills.
Recommendation 5: CSOs need to be regularly involved in the decision and policy-making processes at all levels, including unrestricted access to information and inclusion in the early stages of consultation
Governments should implement the legislation and policies in practice, particularly those relating to CSO involvement in the decision-making processes. Investing in the capacity building of public officials assigned to these areas is of great significance;
Recommendation 6: The state should improve CSO involvement in the provision of services
The legal frameworks for service provision should be revised to become more supportive of CSOs as service providers. CSOs are mainly regarded as social service providers despite having the capacity for service provision in other areas.
BCSDN opinion and recommendations for the EU
BCSDN has been following the EU’s approach to supporting civil society in the enlargement countries, advocating for recognizing and supporting of civil society as a competent and democratic partner in the EU accession process. Based on the findings and conclusions from the 2019 monitoring and on our extensive experience as a network, as well as on the individual experience and knowledge of our member organizations which are the leading CSOs supporting civil society development in their respective countries, we have outlined priority recommendations for EU intervention to guide further joint actions at the regional level:
Recommendation 1: The EU needs to reinforce and demonstrate a common understanding of the enabling environment for CSOs through the adoption of an official EC document which will have the political weight and leverage to ensure that governments in the enlargement countries take appropriate action
The monitoring results from 2014 onwards indicate the need for stronger political support, especially with regard to the defence of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, but also in other areas such as reforms in the public funding systems and involvement of civil society in decision-making processes.
Even after six years of implementation, the current EU Guidelines seem to lack a strategic coherence, a clear monitoring framework, ownership, as well as a political commitment on behalf of EU Delegations and the EU itself. They have neither been consistently reflected in EU’s monitoring of the reform progress of enlargement countries, nor have they been adequately used in the programming of EU’s financial assistance to civil society. It is therefore necessary to introduce and strengthen a new mechanism for monitoring and pressuring governments to implement the recommendations made based on the monitoring results;
Such a document should be incorporated in the existing EU policy frameworks and tied to the provision of financial assistance, outlining clear priorities of what the EU assistance aims to achieve, a clear result-oriented framework focused on the quality of practice, followed by well-thought-out and consistent monitoring processes, as well as a well-defined structure for monitoring and a requirement for regular reports on implementation. The focus of this approach should be on establishing long-term partnerships and support, as well as recognizing civil society as a legitimate actor and partner in the democratic processes in the enlargement countries.
Recommendation 2: The EU needs to demonstrate clear political commitment to effective involvement of civil society in the European Integration process, translated into adequate mechanisms and dialogue processes.
Civil society participation in policy-making and its contribution to strengthening democracy have been widely recognized by the EU. The monitoring carried out in 2019 revealed weaknesses in the practice of CSO involvement in the decision-making processes in all of the enlargement countries. For this purpose, it is crucial to identify and implement effective communication and engagement mechanisms that would help CSOs become the relevant stakeholders in the EU integration process, which is the essential policy design process in all of the countries.
Civil society and other non-state actors should be systematically involved in all of the planning, programming, implementation and monitoring processes related to the accession reforms, and the EU should lead by example and stimulate inclusive civil society dialogue. To maximize the potential for contribution of civil society to the policy-making processes, participation mechanisms should be accessible and based on trust, transparency, and accountability, with clearly outlined procedures, predictability, long-term support, and dedicated resources.
The Regional Monitoring Report was developed by Kristina Naunova and Ilina Neshikj from the Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN) Executive Office. We are grateful for their dedication as they both continue their professional engagement outside of our network.
BCSDN would also like to thank its member organizations for the preparation of the national Monitoring Matrix reports and their support in the drafting of the document and regional recommendations. We would also like to thank the remaining BCSDN staff and experts who supported the implementation of the 2019 monitoring cycle, particularly Anja Bosilkova-Antovska, our Policy and Advocacy Officer, and BCSDN Board Chair Tina Divjak who has been instrumental in reviewing the reports. We are grateful for the support of Milka Ivanovska Hadzievka and Dubravka Velat who have provided valuable input into the methodology review, as well as Simona Ognenovska and Dren Puka who prepared the new data collection template and helped develop better indicators. The Monitoring Matrix efforts are an extraordinary teamwork and we are grateful for the commitment of all parties involved.
In 2019, the general situation in the Western Balkans faced lingering socio-economic and political challenges, affecting, eventually, the environment and operations of civil society. The EU integration process for Serbia and Montenegro moved slowly forward with the opening of only two negotiation chapters in Serbia (which marks the worst result since 2015), and no negotiation chapters in Montenegro. In Kosovo, the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union is still in force, as well as the European Reform Agenda launched in November 2016. Nevertheless, the implementation of activities that would accelerate the country’s EU Integration has been slow. Two major developments in the region echoed in the international area. At the beginning of the year, North Macedonia changed its name by enforcing the Prespa Agreement with Greece, paving the way towards NATO accession and opening the EU negotiations. In May 2019, the European Commission issued a positive unconditional recommendation to start the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. In October, however, the European Council decided to postpone the decision, giving rise to deep dissatisfaction in both countries. Still, citizen support for EU accession in the two countries has not fallen in the hope that accession talks will finally open in 2020.
The political environment in most countries remained unfavorable, especially towards civil society development. Albania faced a political crisis which saw clashes between the Parliament and the President and a boycott of the local elections on 30 June 2019, with the major opposition parties refusing participation in the process and voters being left with few meaningful political options. Deep divisions and lack of trust and communication between the most important political actors have also marked the political landscape in Montenegro. Most notably, the Parliamentary Committee that was in charge of creating and proposing a new electoral legislation completed its task with suspended participation of the opposition members, giving rise to strong suspicions among the pro-opposition public about the conditions in which the next parliamentary elections will be held. The state of political instability in Kosovo continued in 2019, while North Macedonia faced a rule of law crisis. More specifically, the Special Public Prosecutor was arrested and a ruling party politician accused of alleged extortion scandal, undermining citizen trust in the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
In terms of cooperation between CSOs and the state, however, CSOs in North Macedonia were involved in the law and policy creation processes with a positive outcome, such as the adoption of the Anti-Discrimination Law and the Law on Abortion, aimed at further promoting and protecting human rights. In Kosovo, the new Strategy for CSOs-central Government cooperation 2019-2023 has entered into force in February 2019. Its objectives include: (a) strengthening public servants’ capacities and the implementation mechanisms regarding the Regulation on Minimum Standards for Public Consultation and the Regulation on Public Funding for CSOs, (b) improving the system of public service provision by CSOs, and (c) increasing volunteering in public interest programs. Serbia continued to adopt a rather hostile attitude towards CSOs, with CSOs being portrayed as political opponents to the ruling party and enemies of the state in the majority of media favouring the Government or the ruling party. This situation is further exacerbated by the frequent founding of GONGO organizations which do not only receive state financial aid, but also use the space given to them in pro-government media to discredit CSOs and have been doing so with a long-standing tradition and great expertise. Furthermore, the state’s lack of interest in the work of the civil sector is reflected in the failure to adopt the National Strategy for an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development in the Republic of Serbia. In Montenegro, the state of civil society has remained largely the same as before. Despite the continuous rhetorical readiness for cooperation shown by government officials, a substantial civil society involvement has been lacking. The situation is similar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the political stalemate, as well as decentralization of the state structure, has had a negative impact on the ability of registered CSOs to carry out planned and budgeted activities and projects as the ministries are not operating at full capacity. Moreover, as the migrant crisis increases the pressure on society, CSOs have played an important role in providing better treatment for the immigrants seeking refuge in the country. Similarly, when Albania was hit by a severe earthquake in November 2019, CSOs took active part in the relief efforts, ensuring coordinated distribution not only of supplies, but also psychological support and recreational activities for children, women and the elderly.
Overall, not many changes were introduced in 2019 to improve the enabling environment for development of civil society in the Western Balkans region.