The Role of Non-governmental Organizations in Democratic Society

Datum: 15.10.2002
Period:  Premijer 2001–2003.

The speech of Zoran Djindjic at the round table “The Role of Non-governmental Organizations in Democratic Society”, Belgrade

The non-governmental organizations brought a big part of its activities, risks and innovation in common project which is being implemented in Serbia today, as part of reform and transition process, and this fact should be appreciated. It should be noted also that what we are doing today wasn’t the concern of politicians and parties from the start, but it was the matter of very wide social movement which was organized outside the parties to a large extent. The movement had its own aims and projects which were brought into this new common project and it should be accomplished in the way its holders envisioned it two years ago. The quality of what happened in Serbia mainly depends on the preservation of the original potential that was brought into it. This is also one of the reasons.

The Second reason is systematic in character. The role of non-governmental organizations is very important and in the further realization of those changes which should bring about a modern, successful Serbia. I think that in our public life there is no awareness about that importance and that there is a confusion about what belongs to the government or the state, and what is non-governmental. It follows from it that the role which is realistic does not correspond to the awareness of the role, and there is no particular reason for that, except that on some level of education enough was not done to help people to realize which are the possibilities of organization and accomplishment of interests. All possibilities are mutually compatible, they do not exclude each other and there is so much space for action, and those who want to can react.

A coordination and clarification on what are whose possibilities and jurisdiction, would by all means contribute that no energy is wasted on duplication of some projects, while on the other side some things are not dealt with. I think in our case we could single out a few elements in this whole story. The first element relates to the fact that before democratic changes the role of non- governmental organization was untypical for traditional non-governmental organizations and typical for non-governmental organizations in undemocratic societies.

This meant considerable politicization and focusing on some political issues. After October 5th starts other turn - although it is not known to what extent consciously made – which means returning to some classic definition of non-governmental organizations as the civil society sector which is in modern societies is quite clearly defined.

The second element or problem resulting from it is that we are not modern society with this type of non-governmental sector.. When this is pointed out, it refers to the civilian sector where some structures and organizations would naturally evolve, and where it is necessary only to unite all democratic forces for a specific political project, and once it is completed, all parties return to their regular activities.

When someone asks a question about the nature of the work of NGOs is and where is a civil society, then it’s obvious that it is actually in its forming phase and we cannot talk about civil society in Serbia as a definite project something, known and that now it functionally requires some aspects of self-organization which – such as the unions, non-governmental organizations or some other aspects of association

If we analyze how civil society formed during the enlightenment and the repression of absolutist state, primary in France and then in other European countries, we would realize that that phase in our history is missed and that our country does not have a democratic public like in other civic societies. The separation of private and public sector, personal and public is not established, rather in our country public sphere is a stage for personal egoisms, and in the private sphere there are still large parts of public discourse which disturbs personal life and personal values. Having this in mind, if we wanted to convey a definition of NGOs from modern societies to Serbia, it certainly would be a considerable mistake. It is necessary to at first establish some basic rough relations and then in the modernization process of our society we should look for the place for NGOs which would be appropriate to these new relations which are forming. In any event, the organizations that would be appropriate to a civil society which according to some indications certainly exists, although not in the true sense that is characteristic for modern states.

We all know that modern democracy and modern democratic state are growing from separation private and public sector, state and society and they exist through the synergy and symbiosis. It is clear that there is no strong and stable political democracy without vital civil society which is sort of a fertile ground from which democratic institutions are renewing but it is not identical with those institutions. In so far, there exists a natural tension because civil society is sa force and because it is not under government control or more exactly – in certain areas it is under state’s control, but presents more than the state could ever do. Here lie its advantages, and risks as well because if there is no sense of responsibility and measure, then it might become a wild subjectivity, as Hegel would say when he was speaking about the similar issue in his time, or a wild egoism. It is not just about the laws and about the importance of legislative order in that field, but also about social morality which has to occur so people could have, with rights and autonomy, their own internal limit and self-discipline. It shouldn’t be based just on punishable sanctions by state or on regulation of relations, but on certain ability of self-regulation. And that is the huge task facing our society. It is certain that we have historical problems with civil society in Serbia, and these problems could be categorized. It would be good to divide them so we could know how to solve these problems on the one side, and to know how to rank them, to make priorities and see the historical problems that led to the fact that civil society in our country is so weak.

We were constantly saying that the dictatorship in Serbia and the former Yugoslavia was actually based on weak civil society not on the power of the dictator. When we tried to define why and what is the weakness of civil society, one element was the specific historical poverty of citizens. With this said, what we mean is that without middle class with autonomy over its property and financial independence, not just in its standard depending on position in state administration – as it was at the time of the communist Yugoslavia – without the strong autonomous citizens, we can hardly have a vital civil society. The second element would be a lack of efficient communication within the society. The ethnic communities or local communities did communicate, because the society was not developed enough, it did not pass through before-mentioned phase of industrialization and enlightenment in 18th and 19th centuries and it had problems to communicate about common topics and ideas. The civil society develops as the society of free communication too, and therefore it was easy to manipulate the society, because the media was the only form of communication and the society did not have other communication mechanisms within itself. The third very important reason and the root were historical crises which have been permeating our region and leading to natural tendency of the people to find a solution in the state. If you had wars, big global and regional crises, it would be natural that what is outside the state – churches, syndicates, interest groups and civil initiatives – are very weak in relation to the main mechanism for resolving crisis such as military, police and state. Therefore, people in our region are more focused on the state and have higher confidence in the state. We had in past hundred years perhaps five big crises (Balkan wars, world wars, other different wars) unlike people in other countries who had long periods of peace in which the civil society under normal conditions showed some of its abilities and capacities of self-organization and problem solving. It is clear that the civil society cannot solve the institutions’ problems of war and peace, cannot solve global crises’ problem and if is exposed to these problems it shows inferiority in relation to big systems which only the state could have.

Let us hope that in the next period we will have less crises and war situations and that it will be the period which is going to be used for regeneration of the fine fabric of our society, such as the civil society and non-governmental institutions. The success of the whole project of society democratization depends on civil society’s strengthening. Every modernization project – and one of these we are implementing or we’re trying to implement in our country – has two or three parts, where the last part, the least operational and visible, is the most important because through it actually the entire project completes. It begins with a political project, the next step is industrialization, law-making and forming institutions, but the last one presents creating behavior patterns, habits and culture needed to respect institutions. This cannot be done by political elite or political institutions. It can be done by small networks of institutions through which millions of citizens participate who actually are participants in this great project. If that third part does not happen if democracy does not become a culture, then these institutions are worthless or don’t worth enough, because if they are based on fear of sanctions, whatever they may be, then don’t have to be the most severe ones,, if in the value system of a society there is no belief that democracy should be a form of everyday life, then democracy will depend just on the relations of political forces, not on the wish and consensus of the society itself.

In order to implement the third element what is needed is the activity of a large number of organizations and large number of people. I think we are reaching a phase where we pose a question: how many people in this country really affirm through their own values and daily behavior the model of democracy which theoretically we all accept? When of the public opinion survey is conducted, 95% of people say that they accept democracy, market economy, European integration. But how many of them in their everyday life have real preferences for that value system – the percent is certainly much lower

Since we are the people who need to solve a problem and not be moan about the fact that the situation is not great, for us the question is how to bring closer the percentage of those who generally support the modern system and European Serbia, and those who should implement that in everyday life so that a growing number of small organizations emerges, so that through daily activities t a growing number of people are actively involved in various projects that will raise the attractiveness of that value system we mean when we say democracy and market economy.

It seems quite impressive when you see the “Directory of non-governmental, non-profit organizations in Serbia and Montenegro” and existing number of NGOs, so we can just hope that when we meet some other time, there will be even more of them.