CIVICUS speaks about deteriorating civic space in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) with Aida Daguda and Dajana Cvjetkovic, director and programme manager at the Centre for Civil Society Promotion (CPCD).
Founded in 1996, CPCD is a civil society organisation (CSO) working to strengthen civil society and citizen participation in BiH and the Western Balkans through capacity development, advocacy and campaigning.
What are civic space conditions like in BiH?
In our nearly three decades working in civil society in BiH and the Western Balkans, we have never witnessed such a rapid deterioration of civic space. Our organisation, along with other CSOs, is deeply concerned about two new pieces of legislation introduced in Republika Srpska (RS), one of the two entities that make up BiH.
The first bill, already adopted, reintroduced criminal defamation into the legal system. The second, currently under parliamentary debate, is a ‘foreign agents’ bill that would criminalise CSOs that receive foreign funding or assistance for ‘political activities’ and give state institutions the power to shut them down. This would be just another tool to further restrict civil society in the hands of government authorities, who already use the mechanisms in place to oversee the work of CSOs and exert pressure and threaten us. Over the past year there have been more inspections of CSOs than ever before, specifically targeting smaller and more vocal organisations.
By silencing independent media and civil society, RS President Milorad Dodik seeks to eliminate public scrutiny and criticism in an entity marred by criminal activities and corruption and undergoing a difficult economic situation. The government is resisting democratic oversight and trying to eliminate all forms of critical thought among the public.
Moreover, in April 2023 the Sarajevo local government proposed amendments to local public order laws that would penalise the spread of ‘fake news’ and criticism of state authorities. Although the draft bill was withdrawn in June due to the public outcry it caused, the authorities have expressed their commitment to reintroducing a modified version of the bill.
These are all signals that the situation for civil society is rapidly worsening in RS and in BiH as a whole, with severe limitations being introduced on freedoms of association and expression.
How has Bosnian civil society organised against the restrictive bills?
A part of RS’s civil society is well organised and experienced in advocacy and campaigning. But overall, there are fewer than 10 CSOs that are strongly committed to their human rights mission and vision, while the rest maintain links with the government that make them less vocal against repressive laws. We provide support with expertise and funding to independent CSOs in RS, but we must be discreet because we are based in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other entity that composes BiH, and our help tends to be misunderstood by both politicians and the public in the RS.
Unfortunately, many Bosnian CSOs remain silent due to fear. In RS in particular, people are afraid for their safety and that of their families. Unlike in Georgia, where people took to the streets to defend freedom of association, people in Bosnia aren’t motivated, partly due to media narratives portraying civil society as being paid by the international community to act against the government.
We are using all available tools to raise awareness about repressive legislation within the country, at the European Union (EU) level and through communication with various civil society networks, including CIVICUS. The government argues that these laws are necessary to prevent the financing of terrorism and money laundering, but we view these as excuses.
We have informed opposition members of parliament about the potential negative consequences of the ‘foreign agents’ law but have made no impact. Our outreach to the public has been hindered by lack of media support.
However, we remain hopeful that this crisis may turn into an opportunity for Bosnian civil society to revive the sense of solidarity that we’ve lost over the past decade. These days, we constantly think in terms of projects and donors and tend to see each other as competitors when we most desperately need to be united.
How would you describe the current political climate in BiH?
Our region has historically bordered with empires, and this location has come at a price. The threat of RS’s secession has risen in recent years, posing a security problem for the entire region. Due to BiH’s location and rich natural resources and potential for energy production, many fear that its fate depends on the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the interests of major powers such as China, the EU, Russia, Turkey and the USA. The people of BiH are the ones with the least influence on the decisions that will affect them.
While secession may not be imminent, the threat of it significantly impacts on people’s wellbeing. We experience a pervasive feeling of insecurity that contributes to an anxious atmosphere. This makes people easier to manipulate. Many people are considering leaving, mostly because of their sense of insecurity and the widespread corruption.
Fear is our main currency. Past experiences of police surveillance leading to arrests of protesters have deterred people from participating in demonstrations. People are losing hope that things will improve. During the war we experienced between 1992 and 1995, we had a very strong feeling of hope that when the war ended we would recover a normal life and rebuild our country. Now we have peace but we don’t have hope anymore.
How do you work to strengthen civil society in BiH, and what obstacles do you face?
Our organisation was established right after the war, so it has existed for 27 years. We were the first ones to connect CSOs from different parts of the country and our network currently includes over 350 organisations.
In 2004, we launched the first initiative of institutional cooperation between government and civil society. At that time, civil society was thriving. But over the past decade or so, the situation has steadily worsened. Civil society faces a shortage of human resources, and people hold rather negative views about civil society. We seek to change such perceptions by consistently communicating the purpose and results of our work to the public and beneficiaries of our services and activities.
We also lack strong connections with the media, which should serve as a channel between us, the government, the international community and, most importantly, our society. To show what we’re doing and what we are trying to achieve, instead of just following donors’ visibility guidelines we have established our own portal in which we collect inspiring stories of civil society’s impact in improving people’s lives.
But our biggest problem is lack of local ownership. For many years the international community did things for us, so we aren’t used to solving problems by ourselves. People aren’t used to activism; they complain and wait for others to resolve their problems. That’s one of the failures of civil society: we have implemented many projects, but never managed to spark people’s activist side.
What challenges do you face in cooperating with international partners?
International agencies implement large projects in BiH and many funds come from the international community, but we don’t see results. One of the reasons is that local civil society is pushed aside. When we inquire with donors about supporting local organisations or networks, they argue that small organisations lack the capacity to successfully implement large grants. It has become their mantra.
This hampers the development of civil society as the true democratic force our country urgently needs. We must engage in dialogue with the government to devise solutions for the numerous problems we face. We need to move past the ‘projectisation’ of civil society and focus on the long term.
This also applies to the government, which is also forced to work within the project framework, executing short-term tasks requested by the EU or other international institutions. For instance, the government, jointly with the European Commission, invested around €1 million (approx. US$1.06 million) to fulfil a request to establish a register for CSOs, but once international partners left the country, the register ceased to function. There was a failure to recognise that civil society could have created, managed and overseen the register, which could have been instrumental in developing a common civil society strategy.
This year we established an informal group of donors who support local civil society in Bosnia. We hope the international community will consistently convey the message that they must prioritise local ownership and sustainability. We don’t want to see civil society becoming a mere service provider for larger international agencies. We need to organise around genuine shared interests rather than form networks to satisfy the criteria of calls for proposals. It is time for us to think strategically about who we are and what our role is.
Civic space in Bosnia and Herzegovina is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist, which draws attention to countries where there is a serious and rapid decline in respect for civic space.