Democracy and civic activism have gained new features and quality within the supranational EU. What has not changed, however, is an obligation to have a unique space where citizens can articulate their interests and invite institutions to protect it. A strong civil society means a more responsible government, greater openness, and a basis for broad acceptance of its decisions. Hence, civil society takes an important place in both the EU and national debates on democracy.
Support, including the donor support first and foremost of the US and the European Union, to civil society organizations (CSOs), in order to strengthen their role in the policy-making, has influenced the transformation of the Western Balkan countries since the 1990s.
In Montenegro, there are three stages of such civil society positioning: the first one typifies the development of civic awareness. CSO has directed most of the activities towards decision-makers while explaining the basic postulates on which democratic society rests. Cooperation between the governmental and non-governmental sectors has been “measured”, according to official reports, by participation of authorities at NGO’s events.
The second stage starts from 2010 by formal CSO inclusion in the public policy cycle, under the pressure of the integration process, when the enhancement of cooperation with the civil sector was marked by the European Union as one of the seven prerequisites in order to open the EU-Montenegro accession talks. Improvement of the procedures for the civil society participation, primarily in public consultations, has been achieved during this period. Nevertheless, in spite of the guaranteed participation in the legal drafting process, institutions continue to accept extremely low number of suggestions coming from the CSOs, and these are generally accepted in technical terms.
The third stage begins due to the longevity of the negotiation process where advanced procedures become only a cover for the ignorant approach towards the role of civil society. In short, the government’s rhetorical commitment has been tested since the fingered openness does not yield results (in integration), the country does not progress in democratization, and therefore such a “play” towards external actors has become uninteresting to authorities. At this stage, we have witnessed the dismissal of NGO representatives from the Public Broadcaster’s and the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption’s Councils. Although in all of these stages civil society was often an easy target for attacks and labelling, the current one is particularly dangerous since it takes place in a period when the level of democratization should exclude brutal ignorance and attacks.
Montenegro has made several pioneering steps in involving the civil society in the public sphere, such as the prescription of compulsory public debate and the direct participation in negotiating working groups. However, the Government remains consistent with its policy of involving the civil sector when and how it wants.
Without the vision of a society with the developed public sphere where the human rights are guaranteed and constructive proposals respected, progress in democratization cannot be achieved. Civil society fights easy categorization, conclusions and generalizations, but remains an essential component of democracy.
The text has been prepared for the Bulletin of the Center for the Development of Non-Governmental Organizations (CRNVO), which can be downloaded here.