bosnia report
New Series No: 47-48 September - November 2005
Nation versus individual - II
by Sonja Biserko

Campaign against the NGOs

The NGOs, and especially those concerned with human rights, remain under attack by the political elite, which views them as a liberal and cosmopolitan option seeking ‘to re-educate the Serb people’. This campaign is led by academicians and university professors and is paid much attention in the local media. According to Academician Ljuba Tadić, ‘there are naive and stupid ones who believe in all that, but certainly also ones who are well paid and who act on behalf of that aggressive policy against their own people’s interests.’ (24) Mirjana Vasović, a professor at the faculty of political science, believes that the NGOs are ‘informal centres of power, especially those engaged with human rights. They are the dominant political elite in the para-political sense, and represent a threat to the healthy core of the political elite. They prevent the articulation of political activity, i.e. the creation of a political consensus. Our state is subjected to terrible attacks coming from these informal centres of power. They do not form a natural elite, but derive from circles which used to be privileged and now no longer are. This usually means that to them their personal interest comes first. They denigrate the nation, turn it into a problem. They stereotypes imposed by them have a great effect on international public opinion. [Their] legitimacy rests on their identification with the values and interests of foreign power centres. They wish to re-educate us, and behave like our governors. They have retreated into political illegality and conduct subversive activities against their own state. They are committed admirers of Tito. Attached to informal centres of power, they fulfill their "mission" by advocating "monitoring bodies" and extra-parliamentary democracy.’ (25)

Criticism (and envy) relate mainly to the donations extended to the NGOs by foreign donors, especially from the West. There is a feeling that they should be placed under control, especially because of their reports on the situation in Serbia. Most believe that they are recruited from ‘marginal characters and intellectual bastards’. Academician Dejan Medaković insists that ‘the so-called NGOs are very active; they are paid for their services from unknown sources’. (26) Another academician, Dragan Nedeljković, argues that ‘Smilja Avramov has counted 26,000 NGOs, mostly foreign mercenaries, which poison us, telling us that we are the worst in the world, and we begin to accept that instead of resisting it.’ (27) Milorad Ekmečić, likewise an academician, states that ‘a friend tells me that the money spent by the various NGOs active in Serbia is greater than the total state budget.’(28)

The current Serbian government too lacks any understanding of the role of NGOs, particularly those engaged with human rights. We are faced here with a concept of the state and the ruling structures as ideological regulators of the freedom of association. What is really involved is a kind of censorship of free association and limitation of freedom of thought: in short, a kind of ‘new ideological platform’ vis-B-vis the NGOs. Svetozar Stojanović has defined it as follows: ‘There is a long-standing need for a research agency that would systematically follow, examine and assess the competence and objectivity of public spokesmen and regularly issue reports. Indeed, since the public will henceforth have the right to know how parties are financed, the same should also be applied to non-governmental organisations and institutions, so that we can finally learn which of them are truly independent and from whom, and on whom they depend.’

Law professor Kosta Čavoški argues that: ‘the NGOs were non-governmental only in relation to the Milošević government; they were the extended arm of foreign governments, above all the American, but also of the EU and of individual European states. These NGOs continue to be financed from foreign sources. They either belonged to foreign governments, or to our own at the time when Zoran Đinđić was alive. In other words, they are not non-governmental at all from the point of view of typical West-European legal terminology.’(29)

Growing attacks, including physical assaults, on NGO representatives are a result also of the virulent media campaign against them, which has become more intense during the past few months and does not differ in character from that waged under Milošević, when NGOs and their activists were treated as ‘foreign mercenaries working against the Serb people’.


Thus, for example, the report on the media prepared by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights caused Nacional on 5 January 2005 to appear with a huge headline Ban NGOs! This related to an interview with Srđa Trifković, described by the paper as director of the Centre for International Relations of the Rockford Institute in the United States, about the state of the media in Serbia and RS. Trifković stated that Nataša Kandić, Sonja Biserko and Biljana Kovačević Vučo were in Soros’s pay, and that ‘supporters of the Helsinki Committee accuse journals not under Soros’s control - such as Kurir, Balkan, Nacional and Večernje novosti - of being Nazi-like and anti-European, and their editors of being under the influence of the diaspora.’ Trifković argued that NGOs concerned with human rights on the territory of Serbia/Montenegro and RS ‘should cease to exist. They should be banned.. The Serbian, Montenegrin and RS state organs should investigate the sources of their financing. They should speedily close down all organizations considered to be financed by politically motivated institutions.’

At the end of the 20th century, Serbia experienced also a civilisational devastation. The expansionist concept declared myth history, and made a suitable selection of past events, falsifying tradition and attacking cosmopolitanism as an ‘anti-national’ value, a form of globalist or European decadence. The blood-based collective was proclaimed as a value far higher than the individual. A good part of the Serbian cultural elite, concentrated in the Academy, the Writers’ Association and other similar institutions, made a decisive contribution to the birth and consolidation of Milošević’s regime and often guided its conduct. The same elite subsequently distanced itself from Milošević, mainly because it was disappointed by his military failures and his retreat from the initial nationalist project. Only a small number of artists and other cultural activists had the courage to be critical of the regime. Displaying solidarity with their colleagues living in towns affected by the war, they protested publicly against the destruction of Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, Vukovar and other places attacked by the JNA and Serbian paramilitaries. They were as a rule excommunicated, some even driven from Serbia, while others again remain even today under a kind of quarantine.

The post-October government did not show any determination to break with the system of values established under Milošević, nor did it create a social climate that would permit a serious public debate about the responsibility of the cultural elite for past events. It had neither the energy nor the will to make a fundamental cultural change its priority.

The above considerations show that civil society in Serbia is very weak and demoralised. A large number of organisations which appeared before or after 2000 have disappeared. The pressure of the international community on Serbian prime minister Koštunica to cooperate with The Hague has turned him into a partner similar in this regard to Milošević after the signing of the Dayton Agreement. The neglect of the civil sector on the part of the international community, caused to some extent by that sector’s evident weakness, has been used by the current government to apply additional pressure on it, and especially on those people who take a clear position on the recent past and the need for reform. The political elite is trying to marginalise civil society, with the aid of a well orchestrated media campaign. It is unfortunate that part of the civil sector itself has joined the regime’s attempt to discredit its critics. To take one example, Sonja Liht, the long-standing president of Soros’s foundation in Belgrade and now president of the Fund for Political Exception, has on several occasions declared that some NGOs are behaving like political parties. According to Liht, ‘NGOs do not have democratic legitimacy’, and she recommends anyone ‘wishing to play an important role on the political scene to stand in elections’. In her view, they ‘do not have the right to dominate political life, since the citizens have not given them any mandate to create our political life.’ (30)

Despite the success of the nationalist bloc in imposing itself as the only option, the problem of modernisation keeps coming up. At this moment modernity lacks internal strength. The space it needs can be created only with the help of the international community. Serbia’s European future depends above all on its own ability to create a modern alternative, but also on the international community understanding the true nature of its problem. The EU and the USA can play a crucial role here, since due to their engagement in the recent past they have become active participants in all that happens in the Balkans. Any attempt to solve this problem at the political level alone - without taking into account society itself, and understanding the true forces of change (including the civil sector) - is bound to fail.

Building democracy and civil society is the work of many generations. The problem for Serbia, and perhaps for much of the region, is that tens of thousands of young and educated people have emigrated in order to escape from a corrupt, criminal and repressive regime, which has destroyed the earlier social harmony. The society they have left behind has become poor, criminal and brutalised; it has become cynical and apathetic or helpless. Without an internal need for the people to form associations and seek their interests in various spheres - education, culture, human rights, ecology, gender equality, and so on - by putting pressure on the government, it will be impossible to achieve true reforms in Serbia. Serbia needs an effective state, but also and even more a developed civil society.


1. Danas, Belgrade, 5-7 January 2002. The Serb Orthodox Church is under the influence of the so-called New Serbian Right, which harbours an organic concept of state and society. See Mirko Đorđević, Srpska konzervativna misao [Serb conservative thought], Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Belgrade 2003, pp. 5-33.

2.Vladimir Goati (ed.), Partijski mozaik Srbije1990-1996 [Party mosaic of Serbia], Belgrade 1997, p. 139.

3. The secular principle separates the modern period from the pre-modern, and without it a democratic order is inconceivable today. This principle has never put down deep roots in Serbia, since Serbian society and the Serbian Church (as elsewhere in the Balkans) by and large remained outside the great movements that represent the corner-stones of modernity: Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. Unlike the Western churches, which underwent their own kind of ‘secularisation’, the Orthodox churches to this day have the greatest difficulty in adapting to this and other basic principles of the modern period.

4. The media and the Church, as parts of civil society, were also seized by nationalist passion, which reduced the possibility for the NGOs to impose themselves as an alternative system of values. In Poland, for example, the Catholic Church had a key role in resistance to the totalitarian system.

5. Marija Obradović, ‘Vladajuća stranka: ideologije i tehnologije dominacije’, translated as ‘The ruling party’ in Nebojša Popov (ed), The Road to War in Serbia, CEU Press, Budapest and New York 1996, p.425.

6. The reform programme of federal premier Ante Marković at that time precisely insisted on a radical reform of the economic system, in the hope of thus gradually arriving also at political changes.

7. Obradovic, op.cit.

8. Duga, Belgrade, 16-21 September 1989.

9. Thus Zoran Petrović Piročanac, writing in Intervju on 21 July 1995, described the fall of Srebrenica in this manner: ‘It took the Serbs only five days to complete the job of seizing the enclave. The world is still in a state of shock caused by Serb efficiency and ability to surprise. NATO as a rule underestimates them, only to be sorry afterwards. The surprise this time carries the name of General-Major Krstić, chief of staff of the Drina corps commanded by General Živanović. Six weeks earlier Krstić had been promoted to the rank of general-major, and he enjoys a reputation in military circles as a superb strategist. A few months ago he lost one of his legs and now uses an artificial one. This is all I have managed to learn about him, but - what irony! - I have been unable to include his photograph. The world should remember him, though. Not because of the refugees, of course, but because of the manner in which he realised the Srebrenica operation. In a war refugees are a minor problem, however cruel this may sound. As some of the fighters told me: ‘If we had not been successful in this job, our side would be fleeing now. That is what war is like.’

10. The Serbian parliament rejected the Rambouillet plan unanimously. Đinđić had to flee the country because Milošević saw him and no one else as a threat.

11. Thus, for example, some NGO members served also in the government, while many of their experts submitted draft laws on certain subjects. This encouraged the conservative bloc in the belief that the NGOs exercised a decisive influence on the government.

12. Zoran Đinđić, Srbija u Evropi [Serbia in Europe], Belgrade 2003, pp 299-300.

13. The DSS was a tiny party before 5 October. It subsequently grew as a result of the enrolment of former SPS members.

14. Srđa Trifković, 16-17 November 2002.

15. Amfilohije Radović, Crnogorski-primorski Metropolitan, reported by Tanjug, 1 July 2001. St Vitus’s Day is the day of the Serbian defeat on the field of Kosovo in 1389.

16. See website of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia,

17. As suggested by Stanley Cohen, ‘Stanje poricanje’ [State of Denial], Časopis za književnost, kulturu i društvena pitanja, Belgrade 2003, no 69.15, p. 1.

18. Forum, Belgrade, June 2004.

19. Ogledalo, Belgrade, 28 April 2004.

20. ibid.

21. Ogledalo, 2 February 2005.

22. ibid.

23. Ogledalo, 8 September 2004..

24. Vreme, Belgrade, 3 March 2005.

25. NIN, Belgrade, 20 May 2004.

26. Ekspres politika, Belgrade, 12 April 2004.

27. Svedok, Belgrade, 6 July 2005.

28. Večernje novosti, Belgrade, 1 September 2004.

29. Svedok, 15 March2005.

30. NIN, 31 March 2005.

This essay has been translated from Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), March-April 2005


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