Can Ukraine Learn from the Balkans?
23 April, 2018

With an ongoing war and fight against corruption, the current situation in Ukraine draws some comparisons to the Balkan experience in the 1990s and 2000s. But with the growth of populism in parts of the European Union, the role of civil society in countering threats to democracy is also being called into question.

“We call all of these societies young democracies,” explains Ivan Vejvoda, Director of Europe’s Future Project at the Institute for Human Science. In post-communist countries, he says, “there had to be a learning process.”

As the former Senior Vice President of Programs at the German Marshall Fund in the United States (GMF) – one of the co-founders of the Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD) initiative – Vejvoda has witnessed this first hand. And while he acknowledges that the benefits of EU and NATO integration, he also emphasizes that democracy takes work.

“There's no other work than getting up every day and continuing to pressure governments to change in the direction of having more democracy, of having greater media freedom, of having more independent judiciary, more independent prosecution,” he explains.

To find out more about how Ukraine can learn from the Balkans, Hromadske talks to Ivan Vejvoda  – Director of Europe’s Future Project at the Institute for Human Science.

There are a lot of talks about the turbulence taking place in Europe, but we speak a lot about civil society in Ukraine, we speak about liberal democracy, so my question would be can civil society be illiberal and what is the role of civil society in this turbulence which is taking place now: with growing populism, with distrust [of] government and institutions?  

First of all, thanks very much for the invitation it’s great to be in Kyiv and in Ukraine. The question is very relevant today maybe more so than earlier because we have seen the rise of nationalism, populism that has led to illiberal tendencies in our societies – both in Europe and the United States – and I would say that’s the victory of Donald Trump. Civil society is a very broad term, and it encompasses, we very often think of non-governmental organizations that are doing good work in various segments of society, but there’s also a negative side to civil society – some people have talked about ISIS as civil society, as “non-state actors” – is another term. It’s crucial that the people – and that’s another word for civil society – speak out when they see things are not going well.

After 1989, there seemed to be a linear development towards more democracy, more rule of law, more rights being implemented, more checks and balances, and making officials more accountable. We’ve seen with developments in Hungary in particular, and Poland also, [and] authoritarian tendencies in other societies: the fact that there have been elements of state capture, as we say, where politicians have colluded with not so savory parts of society. So it is crucial that civil society organizes itself as the pressure from below because a democracy that respects itself is a balance between state and society. A democracy cannot be where only the state has a voice and those who are part of what we call the ordinary people are not respected and not taken into account. That is why we have populism. In part, also because politicians have not listened to the rightful grievances, which are not living well. Let's face it: average salaries in our part of the world here – the post-communist world to speak simply – are anywhere between 200 and whatever it may be 500-600 euros at best. And that is not [enough] for a decent, dignified life. That is why people are speaking up again.

With your experience in the Balkans and in Serbia, you know, civil society played a huge, constructive role in overcoming the Milosevic regime. But still, always the emotions are on the rise, there are a legitimate grievance and legitimate emotions because of the war and conflict. So, how, [did] it happen and what effort [did it take] to come back to the more moderate mode after the conflict? That's very relevant for Ukraine I think.

First of all, it must be said that overcoming the Milosevic regime took a combined effort of oppositional politicians, of civil society and I would say of progressive media who were the voice of those progressive tendencies. The fact that we then came into a model of democracy and every beginning is difficult – we call all of these societies young democracies – where institutions began to be consolidated, where the habits of using the rule of law, and rights, and freedom of information acts – there had to be a learning process. And that took time, for the voice of the people to really be heard. And it also required politicians to be sensitive to what people needed and like in what we're seeing in Western societies, in these societies politicians realized that it was not enough just to be elected and then to rule for four years and not to listen to the people. There's more sensitivity, and civil society has learned to push and pressure more than they did. It is not always easy because of the general socio-economic situation where people are not living so well. But then we also have the remains, or the strong emotions of nationalist groups, of civil society that we do not always agree with and those are the people who believe that maybe this European direction is not the right one. They sometimes turn towards Russia and look at [the] return of more social conservative ideas and do not appreciate some of these more progressive. So, in short, it's a daily struggle. Democracy is a daily issue. Democracy is a very fragile plant, and we need to nurture that plant every day and not to just because we have elections that are free, that it's taken for granted.

I would ask you as somebody with this life when you've been to the opposition of this regime in Serbia, and later you joined the government, and you've been advising the democratic prime minister Zoran Đinđić. But also, we had some kind of people with that kind of story in Ukraine and in this part of the world – but later, why are [these] kind of the former opposition leaders coming to the government. What are the things you would warn, what are mistakes you've [made]? And also how would assess to what extent there was a backlash, some kind of revenge in Serbia when the democratic ideas have become not popular, and other parties have won? What do you think you've done differently and what would be your warning? 

Well, first of all, I think it's important that there is this movement of people from civil society to politics in our society, back from politics to civil society or other walks of life. We are societies that have come out of a very long period of communism which means an authoritarian society where politics was the monopoly of one ideology and where people were atomized. The Communist Party kept people not working with each other so to learn to have the freedom of assembly, to have the freedom of speech, to have rights takes time. And that is what we all worked [on] in these societies. I think the warning is that when you come into politics you then really realize how difficult it is to be juggling twenty balls at one time and some balls will fall to the floor and you will not be able to implement all the valid ideas that one had when one was in civil society seeing the difficulties. So realism, I think, is an important thing. Which doesn't mean to abandon neither the values, nor the ideals that we have, but realize that it takes time. And that is always difficult when people are not living well. That times for reform are difficult and that they require perseverance and commitment without faltering. 

To what extent would you be aware of that kind of thing? Today some of the anti-corruption activists in Ukraine [are] actually criticized for being too critical [of] the reforms, and in particular complaining to Washington, complaining to Brussels' institutions that the government doesn't do enough in terms of their promises. In particular that it's undemocratic, it's corrupt – but in a way that the politics, the advocacy line we or they take (I would also say that would be part of our responsibility) it's more like waiting that the Western allies who are a bit of examples [for] this democratic commitment Ukraine or the country has taken, that they would push the government. But at the same time, it feels like you're losing ground and you're starting to be perceived by the population as just those who are talking somewhere in Brussels about some kind of very far away issues – of anti-corruption as a general term – or some other things. 

Your question is extremely relevant, and I would simply say that the most important part of the work is within our societies and within our states. 95% of the effort to make our societies better, less corrupt, more democratic is on our part as citizens of civil society and as state.

Would you give some examples? Maybe in the Balkans as well, because you worked both through the Western institutions and think tanks, but as well you probably know the region and talked to a lot of these kinds of things happening all over – it's a relevant experience for the Balkan countries. 

Indeed, we all – meaning both societies and governments we have elected – have committed themselves and want to join the European Union in this case. But what does that mean? That simply means we want to become good, better, juster and more democratic societies and then the membership in the Union is simply a confirmation that we have become countries where the rule of law and justice prevails. There's no other work than getting up every day and continuing to pressure governments to change in the direction of having more democracy, of having greater media freedom, of having more independent judiciary, more independent prosecution. There's no way around; there's no magic wand which will change this. There's no voice from Brussels or Washington or wherever it comes from that can change this. We do need the help. In my society which is much smaller than yours, there's no real economic wealth, so we need investment, we need people who do development aid from European Union in particular, to come and help build that substructure on which we would have a democracy. So this cannot be done alone, even though I say most of the work is on our part. We need a little help from our friends, as the word goes, to be able to move forward. And it's only in that perseverance, in that persistence to make our elected officials do what they promised us in elections, that this will happen. It's not enough to vote a government that we believe will change and then go home and do our thing. It needs to be an insistent and persistent activity.

Coming back to Serbia. Today there is a general idea that there is some kind of bigger distrust to the European Union and bigger distrust and less hope. Therefore, it gives space for, let's say the "Russian narrative" coming back to the Balkans. And the more we read the different analytical papers we're hearing more and more about Russian interference in the Montenegrin or Macedonian elections. To what extent – and as well, still in this part of the world, Serbia, probably being an Orthodox country compared for instance to Croatia or Slovenia, is considered to be more pro-Russian. Somebody who has this historical, sympathy and relations. To what extent is this the case?

The Russian activity and influence in the countries of the Western Balkans, as we see in other countries, is not to be neglected, not to be underestimated either. But I think it's exaggerated what we're hearing in the media throughout these past months and several years. Why do I say that? Because I think, for example in Moscow, policy makers know better than anyone else, just by looking at the map that this part what I call "core geographic Europe," that is not yet integrated into the European Union or NATO for that matter, they know where it belongs. In fact, Russia is not against the EU integration of the region, they're against the NATO integration. That's why I think we saw what happened in Montenegro and that's why they're saying things about Macedonia. Even though I believe it's important that Macedonia join NATO only Serbia is sustaining a policy of neutrality given what happened during the NATO bombing. Where NATO does have leverage, it's on the energy policy because most of our countries are dependent on Russian gas. But I think the main purpose of this Russian activity is to show the weakness of the West, the weakness of the European Union and they will do everything to complicate this Western, pro-European movement, thus showing their strength. And they're finding some grounds in the social conservative attitudes of parts of our population. But let me allow you a real story.

The other day in Belgrade I was told by a friend who lives in an apartment building and was talking to an elder neighbor who was asking about whether his son should go and study and do a master's degree in the West, and his friend lives in the West and said I can give you some advice. But then this older neighbor said that he liked Russia and pro-Russia and my friend asked him: "so why don't you send your son to study at Moscow University?" And this elder neighbor said: "you must be crazy." So that's the kind of attitude. People feel a liking and a closeness to Russia because of its stance vis-a-vis the West, but every other question: where would you like to live? Where would you like your children to study? – is in the West, is in the U.S. So I think there's an exaggeration about the level of influence of Russia and yet, we must not neglect it.

The program you're working on now is also on the future of Europe, is connected also to considering enlargement of the European Union. What we know from the Balkans is that part of accepting Croatia and Slovenia to the European Union was also part of the whole solution of the conflict, the war which was so much to the core of Europe in the nineties. Ukraine has war, and it will have its own wounds, but it doesn't look [like] the E.U. is in a totally different shade, it doesn't have this ambition to grow vice versa, it has this idea of kind of being more isolated. There is a notion of the "fortress of Europe" so really, in this regard – and honestly, we know it won't happen very fast, accepting Ukraine or any other post-Soviet countries into the European Union. But where are you looking? 

Europe is very inward looking these days. It is confronting a number of internal but external challenges as well, particularly what's happening in Ukraine, with the migration crisis, with the whole issue of refugees. But at the same time you may have seen that the European Commission put out this new strategy for the Western Balkans where it's given a date, actually, of 2025 for the possible entry of Serbia and Montenegro and other countries, is they comply and fulfill the criteria of democracy and rule of law. And I think that's a realistic outlook, but it all depends on our countries whether they are able to do it. At the same time, when it's hearing from big member states that it's not the time for enlargement. In fact, Emmanuel Macron, the French President in his speech just the other day at the European Parliament in Strasbourg said something to that effect. It is not yet the time, Europe must deepen its institutional togetherness, as he said. But he said of course that the enlargement is still a policy. My personal belief is that Ukraine should definitely join the European Union when it is ready, like the rest of us are. Because it's enough to look around you in your capital city to see that it's a completely European city and to speak to people, not only because of what happened at EuroMaidan. You were mentioning the sort sagging numbers in opinion polls with regard to the European Union: I firmly believe that if we had to have referenda in our countries this Sunday, tomorrow, that there would be overwhelming majorities of people to join the European Union. Why? Not because people are naive, they know what's happening in the European Union, what kind of troubles there are. But they know that there's more certainty, a little more security, and a little more prosperity than staying outside of this family of European nations. 

And as well, the question is, you have to fulfill criteria, everybody understands. But somehow it's still a bit of the way that a lot of countries who joined the European Union recently, they met criteria but as well, not everything. In the case of enlargement, Greece wasn't fully ready, Bulgaria wasn't fully ready, but the idea was that they would move faster while being inside of the community.

They have definitely moved faster than they would have would they not have been in the European Union in economic numbers and in standards of living. They've moved more slowly than we wanted to and their citizens wanted on the issues of democracy, freedom of the media, etc. That's where the privatization as we have called it has not been as smooth as we would have wanted. And of course enterprises and media came into private hands that have not always been the most liking of these freedoms. But I would say that for example if we take Romania and Bulgaria and Greece, frankly, that it was much more important to make this geopolitical decision to make them members of the European Union and NATO than to have left them out. Just imagine these countries being outside with the kind of activities that Russia has engaged in since what happened in Georgia in 2008 and then with your country, Ukraine. Again, if you are the last in line conditions become more difficult, so that's why it was wise for those countries to join earlier. But I would say it's in our interest that the conditions are stringent because we as citizens want more democratic and juster societies. 

Coming back to the particular Balkan experience. How deep are the wounds of the war of the 1990s and 2000s still, in the society? To what extent does it matter to the communications between the countries and inside the country?

Well, if you take 1999 the bombing of NATO against my country, which was still then called the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was Serbia and Montenegro. That is now nearly eighteen years, and that's a long time. People have moved on. We see the wounds in these countries; we definitely understand that it's better to join the European Union and most countries want to join NATO, as I said, except Serbia, and people have moved on. Leaders understand that regional cooperation is extremely important and that's one of the conditions of joining the European Union. There is very much regional life that is not seen – because that doesn't make the news – of young people, exchanges of theaters, of cultural groups, of business people mutually investing. We had a delegation of Serbia, of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo, of the Croatian Chamber of Commerce now in Belgrade. People are doing business with each other, it's the political leaders that I would say need to do more. Even though there are intense meetings, there is the South East European Cooperation Group (SEECP). There's a regional cooperation council based in Sarajevo that has a lot of meetings. The military intelligence chiefs of the region meet on a regular basis. All of that speaks to the fact that we have moved on from the war, but more needs to be done definitely and that's where the European Union as a bigger political family of shared sovereignty is most helpful, and that is why it is helping move the dynamic more quickly.

And my final [question] you lived in the U.S. recently, you kind of experienced the whole Trump election as a member of a big analytical center, meaning the German Marshall Fund. I saw all this concern about the problems with maybe that Trump's election would cause harm [to] Transatlantic relations and that was 2016-2017. Now we see that kind of very anti-Russian politics, sanctions towards Russia by the Trump administration. It's still fuzzy with the Mueller investigation. Still, this collusion story is not sorted out. But really, are you still that concerned? With Trump being more like a Russian ally, or rather that the idea that this kind of common fight regarding Syria will still unite the U.S. and European Union. We have Macron traveling to the U.S. and these particular events. There was for instance unanimity within the U.K., France, and Washington on the Syrian case.

Well, it's a very mixed picture and the relations between the West and Russia generally have been very very tense given the Skripal affair, given everything else that has happened over Syria and the way that Asaad has made this chemical attack. But at the same time, I think all countries realize that, you know, Russia is a neighbor of Europe, an important neighbor and that there need to be relations. I think we will be coming to that. Russia, of course, has to show that it is a reliable partner. Just look at the energy, that relationship is ongoing. Europe is dependent in large part on Russian gas, at the same time Russia depends on the money that is paid for that gas. So it's a question also of bread and butter in the end. On Trump, the jury is out. There are these hot and cold tweets praising Putin, congratulating him on the election and at the same time putting in new sanctions. I don't predict any major confrontation between Russia and the West but we will see a lot of these things that we just saw in the case of Skripal and the way that Syria, which is really one of the crucial problems, where I think everybody is trying to put their mind about how to end this really disastrous conflict, principally for the people of Syria. We're into the eighth year of this conflict with so many thousands of people who have suffered, and it is at the doorstep of Europe, it's the immediate neighborhood, it's what caused the migration crisis which nearly brought Europe into a very complicated situation. So I think re-engaging the solution on Syria in that big group of – I can't remember – 17 nations and groups with the most desirable rather than trying to seek out a military solution, which as everyone says will not lead it to a solution.