The coronavirus crisis has brought about significant challenges for democracy and civil society in the Western Balkans. The pandemic has tested governments’ capacities to manage weak institutions while winning parliamentary elections that were scheduled to happen in most countries in the region in summer 2020. At the start of the pandemic, all countries in the Western Balkans declared a state of emergency with severe restrictions on movement aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. Most countries’ governments have conveniently used these restrictions as an excuse for shortcomings in good governance, transparency, and accountability as well as to limit civil society’s involvement in crisis response mechanisms.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) across the Western Balkans have struggled to adjust their operations and priorities to respond adequately to the emergency and meet the immediate needs of their constituencies while striving to reach their goals and address a lack of funding and support from states and donors. Nevertheless, CSOs have been filling the gaps left by governments by responding to citizens’ needs during the pandemic. CSOs’ actions have varied from direct support through humanitarian and social services to advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable groups in society to calls for more government transparency and accountability. As governments in the Western Balkans have disappointed in their efforts to protect citizens, the role of CSOs as watchdogs has been reinforced by a need to monitor how governments respond to the coronavirus crisis.
The Effects of the Crisis on Democracy
Government responses to the coronavirus pandemic in the Western Balkans have included wide-ranging, necessary, and temporary restrictions on people’s fundamental human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly. All countries in the region introduced partial or full bans on movement, closures of border crossings, and absolute bans on public assemblies. Gatherings of more than five people—in some countries, more than two—were forbidden. The scope of the restrictions on free movement has gradually increased in each country as the numbers of coronavirus infections have risen. Yet, the restrictions imposed, and the ways in which they have been implemented, have remained largely proportionate as the pandemic has evolved, and they have been lifted as soon as possible.
While most countries have ended their strict lockdown measures and states of emergency, democracy is still in peril as coronavirus cases increase and societies endure slow and inefficient recoveries. States of emergency have not only imposed temporary restrictions on movement but also posed long-term challenges for the region’s unstable democracies and the principles of good governance and accountability. The effects of the pandemic have caused devastating economic consequences and opened up the prospect of social unrest and turmoil. Cases of opaque procurement, especially for purchases of medical supplies, have emerged in almost all countries in the region.
The unfortunate timing of scheduled elections in Croatia, North Macedonia, and Serbia, as well as proceedings for a vote of no confidence in the government in Kosovo, has also spread suspicions about governments’ transparency and accountability in their responses to the crisis. In Serbia, just a day after the June 21, 2020, parliamentary election, a news story by investigative journalists revealed that the government had been underreporting the numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths.1 Serbian CSOs and media have demanded access to official coronavirus information.2
Before that, a Serbian journalist was arrested for reporting on the difficult working conditions of medical staff during the pandemic and accused of spreading panic.3 A similar attempt to put political and institutional pressure on the media happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where there were reports of irregularities in the procurement of ventilators for medical facilities. In another case, the police detained television journalists and deleted coronavirus interviews that had been recorded.4 National and regional CSOs condemned both actions.
In Serbia, the government’s handling of the crisis has created broad dissent and threatened democracy. Thousands took to the streets on July 7, 2020, after the president announced a decision to reimpose a weekend curfew amid a surge in the number of coronavirus infections. The protesters demonstrated against the move and criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic. They argued that the Serbian authorities had self-servingly lifted restrictions before the election, which was won overwhelmingly by the president’s Serbian Progressive Party, tightening its grip on power.
The protests, which started in Belgrade, spread to other cities, including Niš, Kragujevac, and Novi Sad. During two consecutive nights of demonstrations, there were reports of violent attacks on journalists and activists, causing concern among the European and International Federations of Journalists, which condemned the assaults.5 The Human Rights House Foundation condemned police brutality during the protests in Belgrade, stating that the police’s reaction to the demonstrations contained elements that severely violated the freedom of assembly and the freedom from torture.6
Civic Groups Gaining Legitimacy?
Although the circumstances have been difficult, CSOs throughout the Western Balkans have channeled their activities toward helping the most vulnerable groups in the communities they serve. Civic groups have also conducted actions to monitor and advocate governmental transparency and accountability during the states of emergency.
Even during the lockdowns, CSOs continued their work online by using different platforms to communicate and cooperate with their partners and beneficiaries and keep fulfilling their objectives and obligations. In response to the coronavirus crisis, most CSOs have extended their regular activities to provide assistance, services, and products to the constituencies they serve: young people; the elderly; women and children, especially those prone to domestic violence; the Romani community; the homeless; disabled people; LGBTQ people; migrants; and other underrepresented groups. CSOs that support the development of civil society capacity have extended their services to help civic groups and citizens cope with new challenges and have launched emergency grants.7
Civil society groups that provide social services for specific groups have quickly adjusted their activities to distribute food and protective equipment to vulnerable communities, establish help lines, offer psychological assistance, and protect victims of domestic violence. Many organizations have also provided online educational tools and resources for the groups they work with. CSOs that conduct research and monitoring have prepared valuable analyses of the impact of the crisis on specific areas. Many organizations have taken action to advocate for the interests and rights of their constituencies by submitting requests or proposals to governments and public institutions.
There have been numerous positive examples of successful advocacy actions by CSOs across the region. In Serbia, a group of eighty-nine CSOs filed a complaint with the country’s information commissioner over an incomplete response by the Serbian Institute of Public Health to an inquiry about the manipulation of citizens’ health data before the parliamentary election.8 In Kosovo, a child protection coalition led a successful advocacy campaign to include several socially vulnerable groups in the government’s emergency packages. A Kosovar women’s network proposed measures to address the coronavirus from a gender perspective; the government is considering these measures as of this writing.9
In Montenegro, a local nongovernmental organization filed a complaint with the constitutional court against the government’s decision to publish the names of people who were self-isolating, claiming that the decision violated the constitutional right to privacy.10 In North Macedonia, requests from a national network that seeks to end violence against women and domestic violence led the government to amend restrictions on free movement.11 In Bosnia and Herzegovina, some of the larger watchdog organizations restructured their resources to establish services aimed at monitoring the government’s crisis management. The watchdogs also publicly reacted to substantial violations of democracy and human rights as well as cases of disinformation.12 Across the region, professional organizations that represent the sectors most hit by the crisis have voiced their constituencies’ concerns and demanded adequate action from governments.
Challenges and Civil Society Responses
While CSOs have greatly contributed to filling the gaps left by governments and responding to citizens’ increased needs during the pandemic, their efforts have rarely been recognized by governments or public institutions.
One of the biggest challenges for civil society in the Western Balkans is the dismissive attitude of governments and public institutions toward CSOs. Despite states’ lack of experience and capacities to manage such unprecedented social and economic crises, governments and public institutions have not been keen to involve civil society in their responses. For example, in North Macedonia at the beginning of the crisis, the health minister stated that the assistance of CSOs should be limited to humanitarian support and that the authorities should be left to do their job without interference.13
The problem of weak civil society participation is not new to the region, but it has been aggravated by the coronavirus crisis, as this has increased mistrust between civil society and governments. CSOs that provide services for marginalized and vulnerable groups have had to overcome serious challenges to respond to the needs of those they assist. Because almost all Western Balkan countries introduced strict curfews and long lockdowns lasting several days, CSOs required special permits to work during curfew hours. In most countries, the procedure for obtaining such permits was simple, but in Serbia, the procedure was not introduced until much later, while in Montenegro, permits were granted only to the Red Cross, restricting the abilities of other CSOs to continue their activities.14
Civil society participation has suffered even in countries with positive trends before the crisis, such as North Macedonia. Because of the states of emergency, all countries in the region made decisions on coronavirus response measures without discussions in parliaments or the involvement of different stakeholders. In Albania and North Macedonia, the prime minister centralized all such measures and introduced them without seeking the approval of the parliament or including CSOs in any consultations or crisis bodies.15 In North Macedonia, the Council for Cooperation With and Development of Civil Society, a consultative body of the government whose members include CSOs and government officials, demanded that civic groups be involved in crisis bodies at the central level. However, the government has not responded positively to this demand.16
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the state of emergency did not significantly change the relations between the government and civil society, and the management structures adopted to deal with the pandemic have been highly decentralized and complex. The relations between national and local crisis management structures have been purely formal and irrelevant to the actual challenges of the pandemic.
In Montenegro, CSOs report that there has been no coordination between the government and civil society and that civic groups have not been represented in any crisis bodies—but the National Coordination Body for Communicable Diseases has rejected these suggestions. Before the crisis, the Montenegrin prime minister started a dialogue process with prominent CSOs to jointly identify critical issues and provide solutions. Yet, there have been no consultations with civic groups during the crisis.17
So far, only Albania’s action plan for the coronavirus has envisaged the involvement of CSOs. The plan included civic groups among the actors responsible for implementing coronavirus measures. However, although one of the measures is the “preparation of CSOs to help in the process of social services provided for the population,” the plan did not allocate any financial support to CSOs.18 On a local level across the region, though, there has been a higher level of cooperation. One positive example occurred in the municipality of Gostivar in North Macedonia, where the president of the local crisis management body was a CSO representative.
Civil society’s contribution to fighting the pandemic has been overlooked in other ways, too. In all Western Balkan countries except Kosovo and Serbia, CSOs have been excluded from economic support provided by governments. In some countries, even existing public funding for CSOs has been decreased and redirected for other purposes. More broadly, the region has lacked a systematic or consistent approach to supporting CSOs’ work. For example, the government of North Macedonia has been sending mixed signals: after previously cutting CSO funding, the government launched a public call for civil society projects aimed at coping with the coronavirus crisis, with financing totaling $570,000. Donors have also redirected funding for CSO actions, leaving organizations that already faced challenges of sustainability and donor dependency in a survival mode rather than able to invest in long-term strategies to tackle citizens’ problems.19
Despite a lack of support from governments, CSOs in the Western Balkans have proven that they can be relevant and irreplaceable partners to their respective states, even in such unprecedented times, by providing necessary services to the most vulnerable and voicing the concerns of those in need. CSOs have also showcased their resilience and ability to act as advocates and thus affect some of the measures taken by governments. Positive outcomes of civil society activism in this period include the withdrawal of government actions that breach privacy or other human rights and moves to defend women’s and children’s rights in violent households.
While CSOs in the region have raised their profiles through concrete initiatives to address citizens’ needs, it is not clear whether this shift has improved public perceptions of civic groups in the Western Balkans. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index, which has followed the state of civil society for several years, shows that growing attacks on civil society are more visible than CSOs’ achievements. Negative rhetoric toward civic groups that are critical of governments has been affecting the public image of civil society in some countries in the region for years.20 The scope and scale of smear campaigns can vary from country to country, but negative coverage and disinformation have become more prevalent in the media in recent years, led mostly by political parties. It would be a significant gain if CSOs’ responses to the pandemic helped reverse this trend.
The coronavirus crisis and states of emergency imposed as a result have also flagged the need for CSOs to be more actively involved as pro-democracy actors in their respective countries. Opaque governance in Western Balkan countries has provoked protests, unrest, and, in some situations, abuse of power—or, at least, the suspicion of it. While the role of CSOs and the need for their action have been clear, the situation has affected the sustainability of civic groups, many of which face financial difficulties in terms of covering salaries and administrative costs, endangering the organizations’ continued existence and work.
Early analysis of the effects of the crisis on CSOs and their impact during the pandemic reaffirms the essential role of donors as partners and supporters of civil society both to ensure CSOs’ sustainability and to support their efforts and shifted priorities. Domestic and international donors need to recognize and address the discrepancy between the needs of citizens on the ground, on the one hand, and financial and political support for CSOs’ work, on the other.
In the global coronavirus crisis, there is, more than ever, a need for the governments of the Western Balkans to recognize and support CSOs as effective service providers, employers, and partners that contribute to countries’ sustainable democratic, social, and economic development. The crisis has revealed that states alone cannot adequately respond to the severe social, health, and economic challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic; as such, it is clear that all societal actors, including civil society, must be involved in managing the crisis. As the numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths continue to rise, it seems that the post-crisis recovery may be even more difficult than the current crisis management. However, the recovery can also be an opportunity to reinvent societies and rebuild them on the principles of inclusion, trust, and cooperation between governments and civil society.
For CSOs, the crisis has further amplified existing challenges. But the pandemic has also given civic groups an opportunity to showcase their work, principles, and relevance to governments, societal actors, and, most importantly, citizens. CSOs have responded to the needs of citizens: they have helped those most in need and contributed to safeguarding democracy and human rights. Yet, citizens still know little about CSOs’ actions, and governments do not recognize their efforts. This underlines the need for civic groups to improve the ways they communicate and engage with society. Winning the hearts and minds of the people, leading by example by showcasing accountability, and involving different stakeholders in CSO actions should help regain governments’ support. Although the circumstances are tragic, some of the outcomes might prove positive for civil society.
This chapter draws on data that BCSDN’s fourteen members across the Balkans gathered through the online resource “Balkan Civic Practices: Civil Society in the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which is available at bcp.balkancsd.net.
1 Natalija Jovanovic, “Serbia Under-Reported COVID-19 Deaths and Infections, Data Shows,” Balkan Insight, June 22, 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2020/06/22/serbia-under-reported-covid-19-deaths-and-infections-data-shows/.
2 Sandra Maksimović, “Serbian CSOs and Media Demand Access to Official COVID-19 Information,” European Western Balkans, July 22, 2020, https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/07/22/serbian-csos-and-media-demand-access-to-official-covid-19-information/.
3 Vlagyiszlav Makszimov, “Serbian Journalist Detained for Coronavirus Reporting,” Euractiv, April 2, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement/news/serbian-journalist-detained-for-coronavirus-reporting/.
4 “COVID-19: Number of Media Freedom Violations by Region,” International Press Institute, accessed October 9, 2020, https://ipi.media/covid19-media-freedom-monitoring/.
5 “Serbia: Violent Attacks Against Journalists During Two Consecutive Nights of Protests,” European Federation of Journalists, July 9, 2020, https://europeanjournalists.org/blog/2020/07/09/serbia-violent-attacks-against-journalists-during-two-consecutive-nights-of-protests/.
6 “Serbia: CIVICUS Calls on Serbian Authorities to Stop Attacks Against Peaceful Protesters,” CIVICUS, July 13, 2020, https://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/news/4504-serbia-civicus-calls-on-serbian-authorities-to-stop-attacks-against-peaceful-protesters.
7 “BCSDN Published Its Thematic Newsletter: Solidarity in Times of Corona Crises!,” Balkan Civil Society Development Network, April 7, 2020, http://www.balkancsd.net/bcsdn-published-its-thematic-newsletter-solidarity-in-times-of-corona-crises/; “BCSDN Published the Second Edition of Its Thematic Newsletter: Solidarity in Times of Corona Crises!,” Balkan Civil Society Development Network, April 21, 2020, http://www.balkancsd.net/bcsdn-published-the-second-edition-of-its-thematic-newsletter-solidarity-in-times-of-corona-crises/.
8 Maksimović, “Serbian CSOs.”
9 “CSO Involvement in the Crisis Response,” Balkan Civil Society Development Network, accessed October 9, 2020, http://bcp.balkancsd.net/covid-19-regional-overview/cso-involvement-crisis-response/.
11 National Network to End Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, accessed October 9, 2020, https://www.glasprotivnasilstvo.org.mk/en/.
12 “CSO Involvement,” BCSDN.
14 “COVID-19: The Effects to and the Impact of Civil Society in the Balkan Region,” Civic Space Watch, May 14, 2020, http://civicspacewatch.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/78-6-Balkan-Civil-Society-in-the-COVID-19-Crisis-Part-II.pdf.
15 “FES: Pandemic Causes Further Centralisation of Power and Political Polarisation in the WB,” European Western Balkans, April 27, 2020, https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/04/27/fes-pandemic-causes-further-centralisation-of-power-and-political-polarisation-in-the-wb/.
16 “CSOs’ Response to COVID-19,” Civil Society Resource Center, May 14, 2020, https://rcgo.mk/en/news/csos-response-to-covid-19/.
17 “COVID-19,” Civic Space Watch.
18 “CSO Involvement,” BCSDN.
19 “Donors Responses,” Balkan Civil Society Development Network, accessed October 9, 2020, http://bcp.balkancsd.net/covid-19-regional-overview/donors-responses/.
20 “2019 Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index: North Macedonia,” U.S. Agency for International Development, June 2020, http://www.balkancsd.net/novo/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/North-Macedonia_CSOSI-Index-2019_ENG.pdf.