Opening Remarks: Eric Chenoweth, Co-Director, Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe
Public Memorial Meeting on the Anniversary of Miljenko Dereta’s Death
Organized by Civic Initiatives / November 23, 2015

On November 23 in Belgrade, Maja Stojanovic, director of Civic Initiatives, organized a public roundtable of Serbian civil society organizations one year after the death of Miljenko Dereta to commemorate the organization’s founder and long-time director (1996 to 2011). Described in the invitation as “an idealist and fighter for democratic Serbia,” Miljenko Dereta had supported, educated, and mentored many of Serbia’s civil society activists, including “the next generation” of civil society leaders represented at the meeting from the Belgrade Human Rights Center, Group 484, the Policy Center, the Center for Security Policy, SMART, Yugoslav Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, and a filmmaker’s group. They were invited to discuss the last paper prepared by Miljenko Dereta, “ Surprising Turns: Civil Society in the Region and Serbia,” which he presented at a seminar organized last October by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, a close collaborator and partner of Civic Initiatives. IDEE recently published the edited papers and proceedings in a special issue of Uncaptive Minds (the full publication as well as individual seminar papers are available at IDEE’s new web site, http://idee-us.org). Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, was invited to give opening remarks at the meeting, which was held at the Center for Cultural Decontamination, which has provided “a free space for culture and discussion” since the early 1990s.

Thank you, Maja, for inviting me here and Borka Pavićević for hosting this event to commemorate Miljenko Dereta — and especially to discuss the ideas he wrote about towards the end of his life. He would have liked the event and the setting.

I miss Miljenko very much. I felt alone last year when I could not come to mourn with all of you. Though I don’t know Serbian I listened to the memorial service — which Maja put up on the internet —because I could sense what people were saying and the love and admiration they felt for Miljenko. I remember distinctly Borka’s words — I could understand her by her theatrical inflections: When we had a problem or an idea or a project, whom did we think to call? Miljenko. It was often the case with me, too — because we shared so much, including a social democratic political outlook. I am glad to be here now, one year later, in the Center for Cultural Decontamination — where we always felt free — to hear you discuss the challenges that Miljenko laid out to us.

I liked very much Maja’s description of Miljenko in her invitation: “idealist and fighter for democratic Serbia.” Miljenko was an idealist — he always knew that things could and should be better even in the worst of times. But more importantly he knew that in those worst of times it was even more necessary and urgent to be an idealist, to fight for humanity, for peace, for liberalism, and for better conditions of life, and to fight for a democratic Serbia. It was an idea he never gave up on and an idea that he tried to make sure others also did not give up on. It is the most important thing to discuss tonight.

I saw Miljenko just one month before he died in Warsaw at the event Maja described in her invitation to you.  She’s asked me to share some information on that event and how we began our collaboration. The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, or IDEE, organized a meeting of 22 veteran democratic fighters from fourteen countries of the region on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of 1989, the democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. We used that 25th anniversary not to again speak about the triumph of freedom over communist tyranny — but to bring people from throughout the post-communist region, including Serbia, to explore why, 25 years after 1989, including here now in Serbia 15 years after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, there is so much unfinished business in achieving real democracy. We asked Miljenko, along with Smaranda Enache of the Liga Pro Europa in Romania, to present a paper exploring “Civic Institutions and Citizens’ Participation” not just in Serbia but also in the region generally, since Miljenko had such broad knowledge of civil society development. We have published all the papers and the proceedings in a new special issue of Uncaptive Minds. His paper is available to you and also available on IDEE’s new web site.

Civil society leaders in Belgrade at a meeting commemorating Miljenko Dereta on the anniversary of his death. Eric Chenoweth is at far right.

Civil society leaders in Belgrade at a meeting com-memorating Miljenko Dereta on the anniversary of his death. They responded to his last paper, “Civil Society in Serbia and the Region: Surprising Turns,” recently published in IDEE’s special issue of Uncaptive Minds: Reflections on Unfinished Revolutions. Eric Chenoweth is at far right.

We brought many people from IDEE’s Centers for Pluralism Network, a group of civic and democratic activists from all the post-communist countries that we began in 1992 to help build a regional network dedicated to liberal democratic values. It is where our relationship started.

My colleague whom many of you know, Irena Lasota, met Miljenko and Dubravka Velat, his wife and partner in civic and political activism, here in 1993 while serving as an “international observer” to that year’s parliamentary “elections.” Those were not real elections — the opposition did not have any real chances. It was clear. But Irena immediately saw that as much as Yugoslavia and former Yugoslavia were different in the region, the basic struggle for civil society and democracy in overcoming an entrenched statist dictatorship based on an anti-democratic ideology was similar to all the other countries that were overcoming a communist model and structure of governance. Of course, the struggle against the Milošević dictatorship and his murderous nationalist wars made that struggle very urgent.  She quickly invited Miljenko and Dubravka to the second meeting of the Centers for Pluralism held in Budapest a few months later so that they could broaden their network — and we could broaden ours. It is where I met them for the first time.

From that meeting, IDEE and the Centers for Pluralism — and I and Irena — became very much active in the support of civil society and the struggle for democracy in former Yugoslavia. Miljenko was the leader in all of it, always coming up with ideas for what could and should be done. We started with a project to support independent media, and then the program “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges” working in all three parts of then Yugoslavia, which was continued under the name Civic Bridges. The most important part of our work was supporting Civic Initiatives, not just the organization that Miljenko and Bube started, but the idea — civic initiatives of all types, among all ethnic, religious, and national groups, in all parts of society, among men and women, and in all parts of Serbia representing the entire mosaic of the country, from Subotica to Novi Pazar, from Nis to Novi Sad, from Bor to Belgrade. The main idea in all of it was to help people become citizens, to become active and equal participants in the society, knowledgeable of and demanding the human rights and freedoms that all individuals need and deserve. From that grew the idea that civil society could and should work together to mobilize ALL citizens, equal in their citizenship, to demand fundamental change — real democracy — and it happened in the year 2000. There were many civic and political groups that made this happen — many represented in this room. I am sorry that today we also miss Biljana Kovačavić-Vuko, founder and director of the Yugoslav Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. I’m proud of the role IDEE played in supporting many different projects of groups represented here.

From the Centers for Pluralism, what Miljenko knew also was the importance of working across borders — here and across the region. We brought people from the Centers for Pluralism from Belarus and Romania and Bulgaria and Azerbaijan to Serbia and we sent many people from here to those countries to gain experience and to learn what Irena Lasota had seen — how the struggle for civil society and democracy were similar even in dissimilar countries.

Yet, 25 years after 1989 and 15 years after the overthrow of Milošević, we needed to go to Warsaw to discuss how things did not turn out the way we had hoped. In the independent countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union, dictatorship is the norm. The Russian Federation under Putin has re-asserted imperialist and nationalist aggression against its neighbors. But also in many countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the political and social and economic deficits remain quite large and the commitment to democracy and liberal freedoms is often very weak. And, as Miljenko pointed out, in particular there were “victories that turned into defeats,” as in Serbia and Hungary, where anti-democratic parties won free elections and in each country civil liberties and democratic rights are going in the wrong direction. What makes things worse, in this situation, is, as Miljenko wrote, “the last thing on the European Union’s agenda is human rights and democracy.” And in fact, both Smaranda Enache and Miljenko wrote similarly that  foreign donors from the EU and US have often been making things worse by pretending that nothing is wrong, adopting the wrong priorities, not protecting fundamental liberal values, and imposing bureaucratic and technical requirements for funding projects that are inappropriate for poor post-communist countries in transition and often have a counterproductive impact because they result in funding the wrong initiatives and institutions tied to the old order.

The challenges today are many — and Putin has made it very difficult on all of us because we must meet those challenges again in the face of a nationalist-inspired and imperialist aggression that threatens other countries in the region. All of this on top of an external threat of terrorism and state breakdown. We know that liberal democratic values are often lost in the face of such threats.

What were the common conclusions? IDEE produced a special report to bring the common threads of the discussion together, “25 Years After 1989: Reflections on Unfinished Revolutions.” It is available from Civic Initiatives (and IDEE) in print and is on IDEE’s new web site, http://idee-us.org. So I won’t repeat everything. But there were some common points that Miljenko identified and presented:

(1) that in Serbia, and in most of the countries, there was never any “decommunization” or “decontamination” so to speak — the security networks and the economic and political infrastructure was allowed to remain and reestablish its power — despite free elections. He pointed out that there was an illusion that by “changing the leadership at the top, you changed the system.” But in authoritarian regimes, he continued, there is dictatorship at every level of power. So when you cut the head, the dictatorship remains below in all the institutions at every level of society.”

(2) second, human rights and democratic freedoms, including independent media, were not institutionalized, and were not placed at the top of what was needed to bring about real change, either within the countries or in the priorities of the European Union,

(3) third, it was difficult to sustain the energy and activity of civil society in the non-urgent conditions after dictatorship was overthrown, and especially in conditions where civil society saw itself no longer as an opponent of the state but rather as a partner in bringing about changes. We need new ways of thinking about civil society as a separate foundation to mobilize citizens for real change, and

(4) fourth, something Miljenko particularly was stressing, that we cannot divorce political change and civil society from the poor economic conditions of the post-communist countries and civil society must try to address the economic problems as well as political problems.

The main conclusion, however, was that we should not change our priorities or the original strategies of citizens mobilization and citizens’ participation to bring about change. We should keep fighting for what we set out to achieve originally. Miljenko concluded his presentation this way:

I will dare to propose that we should concentrate in each of our countries on creating a state of rule of law, equality, and human rights where freedom of speech and association is guaranteed. We should educate citizens so that they can rationally evaluate political options and so not elect those who limit citizens’ freedoms or promote inequality. We should no longer presume that free and fair elections are the only institution in a democracy, since they can serve also to legitimize non-democratic systems.

Thank you again for inviting me here and for organizing this event to discuss Miljenko’s ideas and the challenges for civil society in today’s setting. It is exactly what Civic Initiatives should be doing.