Serbia

AREA 1

Recommendation 1

Consistent implementation laws and by-laws in the area of freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression is needed at all state levels in order to defend achieved standards in the legal framework, as well as strengthening the accountability of all relevant institutions responsible for the protection of fundamental rights. Urgent reaction of the competent authorities is also needed in cases of threats and attacks against activists and journalists, their personality, property and lives. A strong message must come from the highest political representatives as well as from the relevant EU institutions. Constant monitoring of the European Union with the pressure on political representatives. Clear messages and political punishments in this regard (“Pribe mechanism” or similar instruments).

Violation of fundamental freedoms is one of the strongest findings of this report. Numerous recorded cases of violations of freedom of association, expression and assembly are recorded. Cases include smear campaigns, intimidation and security threats in online and offline spheres, interference gatherings and public events. In some cases, high government officials initiate or participate in campaigns. This particularly affects CSOs with critical attitude toward the authorities at the national and local levels, who are intimidated and abandon their attitudes in the public space and media support the narrative of foreign mercenaries and traitors. It weakens citizens’ confidence in the sector. CSOs and activists are committed to defending attacks that interfere with their daily work.

Recommendation 2

Stop using GONGO and PONGO organizations for the purpose of legitimizing decisions and proposals of institutions of government, faking public debates as well as misuse of state funds for all associations established and operating in areas of public interest. Recognizing the GONGOs in a relevant EU documents and reports (PAR, Progress reports, EU Guidelines for civil society etc.) and sending clear messages to the highest political representatives in Serbia.

Establishing GONGOs and PONGOs is one of the main trends in Serbia during 2019 in the public space and the media. Their role is visible in decision-making processes, distribution of state money, and the initiation and campaigning of critically oriented actors. CSOs and activists are committed to defending attacks that interfere their daily work while a parallel civil society is being created that makes a false image in society. In the decision-making processes GONGOS and PONGOs uncritically support all proposals of the authorities.  They also use state funds contrary to the principle of public interest set out in the Law on Associations

Recommendation 3

Prevent legal interventions that would ban organizations from establishing social enterprises or impose new administrative and financial obligations on them. Introducing adequate incentives, financial and non-financial is also needed as well as recognizing social entrepreneurship as social value in the different sectorial policies

Potential of social entrepreneurship has not been recognized and it is still rare among CSOs. Current legal framework is liberal and allows it, although there are no adequate incentives by the state. There is an intention on the part of the state to regulate the legal framework in this area, but not in a direction favorable to CSOs. As the state of financial diversification of sector is not at the satisfied level, this is a good way to secure funds that are not dependent on the state or donors. Additionally, social entrepreneurship is a solid basis for the strengthening constituency relations of those CSOs and could contribute to the better public image of CSOS. 

AREA 2

Recommendation 4

Providing stronger political label for the philanthropy with stronger incentives for corporative giving, introducing incentives for individual giving, and harmonization of public interest between different laws as well as establishing system for collecting data.

Different domestic and international reports assess non-favorable framework for individual and corporate giving. There are no proper tax benefits underlying the further growth of giving. Implementation of existing incentives is not unique and different practices of the competent authorities in this regard are present. The definition of public interest is inconsistent in Law on Associations law and tax laws. There is no system for collecting data on donations from citizens and businesses. Diversification of the financial sources is weak and needs to be strengthened with funds raised through individual and corporate giving. Poor tax incentives directly reflect the number of those who wish to donate. Analyses of existing donations are not available and do not allow organizations to be adequately informed about those who donate, which also affects their approaches to individual and corporative donors.

Recommendation 5

Developing additional qualitative criteria for participating in distribution of state funds on a basis of expertise and public interest contribution as well as establishing a system for effective regular collecting data on all types of state finding. Providing a political label for the EUG is also needed as it could be used as a regular mechanism for monitoring and pressure on the state (such as PAR). Stronger focus on qualitative indicators in EUG in relevant area. Providing full implementation of recommendations based on EUG criteria by the Government as well.

Although there is a general framework for transparent state funding, it still contains certain gaps, which allow for the prescribed procedures, and in particular the political influence on the final decisions. The state funding for CSOs in Serbia is one of the initial reasons for increasing GONGO activities and a number of such cases have been reported. Existing practices threatens access to the funds of those organizations that have expertise and act in the line with public interest, but criticizes certain actions of the authorities. Even those organizations that are not critical, give up, because it is known in advance who will receive the funding, especially at the local level.

Recommendation 6

Adoption a new Volunteering Act to treat volunteering as an activity of public interest, not as unpaid work as well as by-laws that will make it possible monitoring the effects of its application.

The legal framework still does not stimulate volunteering, no acknowledges the value of volunteer engagement and does not enables the collection and analysis of data on volunteers and volunteer hours. The law is overnormed treating volunteering as free labor, rather than social value. For this reason, most organizations organize volunteering without law enforcement, while official statistics do not include the actual number of volunteers and volunteer organizers.

AREA 3

Recommendation 7

Adoption of the National Strategy for Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development in the Republic of Serbia.

Although, there were some GOCCS activities aimed to establishing of the Council of Cooperation with Civil Society, in order to respond a strong message from the Progress Report in May 2019, the most of liberal/pro EU CSOs thought that forming such body at the moment would only be a check of boxes and another mechanism for maintaining parallel reality due to strong GONGO activities. It is necessary to adapt the existing draft Strategy to the current state of affairs, to define adequate and effective measures and to assess whether certain mechanisms for cooperation are necessary and appropriate.

Recommendation 8

Developing additional qualitative criteria for participating in decision making processes on a basis of expertise and public interest contribution as well establishing a system for effective regular collecting data. Providing a political label for the EUG is also needed as it could be used as a regular mechanism for monitoring and pressure on the state (such as PAR). Stronger focus on qualitative indicators in EUG in relevant area. Providing full implementation of recommendations based on EUG criteria by the Government as well.

Although certain changes in the legal framework have been observed, they are not qualitative and do not address the problem of limited influence in the decision-making process. Due to the focus of the EU on quantitative criteria, a trend of faking public participation and debates was observed, with strong GONGOs activities. The absence of a feedback mechanism, a lack of political will for qualitative contribution of CSOs to the decision-making process are leading to a self-excluding by an increasing number of CSOs, especially those that are critically positioned. Their place is filled by GONGOs that create a parallel reality this way, as well as discredit organizations with strong expertise and that act in the line of the public interest.

Recommendation 9

Ensure the status of social service providers to civil society organizations in all relevant fields including equalizing their status with other actors in the field. Improvement of the legal is also needed in the parts related to the criteria for awarding the service contracts and clear monitoring and evaluation procedures.

Currently the most regulated area is the provision of social protection services and consumer rights. CSOs are generally recognized and equated with other providers, but the same needs to be done in other areas (free legal aid, health care, education, culture). In all areas, there is lack of clear procedures to ensure the quality of customer service, so the quality of services in different areas is different according to the beneficiaries. It is not always clear how much money and from which budget lines are allocated in practice for service delivery.

This National Monitoring Report was developed by Civic Initiatives (CI), member of Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN). The Research team consisted of several senior and young researches: Bojana Selaković, Dejana Stevkovski, Ivana Teofilović and Pavle Grbović. CI would like to thank BCSDN for the support provided.

Civic Initiatives are immensely grateful to the Office for Cooperation with Civil Society of the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the Business Registers Agency who shared relevant data on registered CSOs in 2019. Also, we would like to thank all other representatives and experts from numerous civil society organizations (Trag foundation, Catalyst foundation, Center for Social Policy, Narodni Parlament, Smart Kolektiv, European Policy Center, Young Researches of Serbia, AIESEC Serba, NCEU, Association Duga, Center for Education Policy) and state bodies (Ministry of State Government and Local Self-Government, the Office for Information Technologies and eGovernment, the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, State Secretariat for Public Policies) who have contributed to the development of this report through sharing their data, experiences and knowledge about the way that certain regulations are being implemented in practice. We would like to give special acknowledgment to Ms. Dubravka Velat, recognized expert for civil society development in Serbia and WB countries, who contributed to more objective assessment and enabling environment scoring.

Socio-political environment in 2019 in Serbia was significantly unfavorable for the operations and development of civil society organizations. The European integration process has been slow, resulting in the opening of only two negotiation chapters, which is the worst result since 2015. Also, no visible progress was made in the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina and the dialogue did not continue during this year, except for certain technical discussions in an insufficiently transparent procedure without any public insight into the content and results. The international community’s attention has largely been directed towards solving this problem while shifting focus to this segment has helped in consolidation of absolute and unfettered power of the ruling party.

Internal political life has been marked by a serious crisis of democracy due to further media control and widespread pressure on voters, activists and opposition representatives. The crisis has resulted in a boycott of Parliament by opposition lawmakers, as well as an announced boycott of the elections by most of the opposition parties. Civil society organizations have played a significant role in trying to overcome the crisis by establishing a formal dialogue between the authorities and the opposition in order to reach an agreement on fair electoral conditions, but with a lack of results.

CSOs efforts have not been recognized as corrective activities in this case. Moreover, they have been characterized as a political opponent to the ruling regime and enemies of the state of Serbia in most of media close to Government or ruling party. Such narrative has been deeply rooted in the Serbian public for decades, but has additionally increased in importance and intensity by the frequent formation of GONGO organizations that, on one hand, receive financial assistance from the state and, on the other, use the space given to them in pro-government media to discredit CSOs with a long tradition and strong expertise. Also, one of the main roles of GONGO organizations is to take the role of “constructive partner” in decision making processes as it is evident that there is no adequate dialogue even in the case of key legal decisions.  Although public hearings were formally held, CSOs proposals were not only taken seriously, but they almost never received feedback on why their proposals did not become part of the adopted documents.

Similar to other European countries, Serbia faces a more severe migrant crisis than in previous years. Inadequate public awareness and the absence of reactions from responsible institutions have resulted in the exuberance of nationalist and extremist groups who have initiated violence and threats as legitimate behaviors, with wide space for presenting such views in the mainstream media.

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 have been performing these activities for almost 20 years are now prevented from doing so. There has also been no announced amendment to the Law on Volunteering or further recognition of social entrepreneurship as a social value.

Finally, the best account of the state’s disinterest 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. At the same time, there were some activities aimed to establishing Council for Cooperation with Civil Society, as response to a strong message from the Progress Report in May 2019. However, the most of liberal and pro-EU CSOs thought that forming such a body at this time would only be a check of boxes and another mechanism for maintaining parallel reality.

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