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Photo: European Western Balkans

Report from the Day 1 of the Trieste Civil Society Forum on 11 July.

Opening of the Civil Society Forum

Day 1 of the Civil Society Forum Trieste began with a welcome speech by Hedvig Morvai, Executive Director at European Fund for the Balkans, and Giovanni Caracciolo di Vietri, Secretary General Ambassador at the Central European Initiative.

Hedvig Morvai thanked the organizing team and partners – European Fund for the Balkans, European Western Balkans (EWB), Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), Central European Initiative (CEI), government of Venezia Giulia and Michelle Giacomelli, Italian special envoy for the Berlin Process for making the Civil Society Forum possible.

According to Morvai, the Berlin Process is the only high-level forum involving Western Balkans 6 states, and there has to be a social consensus for the process to be successful. Morvai said that the conclusions from the Civil Society Forum will be communicated at the Western Balkans Summit to regional and EU officials, including Commissioner Johannes Hahn. She also claimed that the Berlin Process is a very good and timely initiative to reinvigorate the EU accession process of the Western Balkans.

Giovanni Caracciolo di Vietri said that the standpoint of the civil society is a pivotal factor for speeding and feeding the reforms in the Western Balkan countries and this Trieste Forum is expected to contribute further with concrete proposals and recommendations to the governments involved in the Process.

Intro panel of CSF partners

The next panel of the Civil Society Forum Trieste was dedicated to CSF partner organizations. Speakers on this panel were Eleonora Poli, Research Fellow at Instituto Affari Internazionali, Marzia Bona, Research Assistant at Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, Raffaella Coletti, Senior Researcher at Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale, Franz Karl Prüller, Chairman of the Board at ERSTE Foundation, Max Brändle, Director at Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Zagreb office, Walter Kaufmann, Director at South Caucasus Regional Office at Heinrich Boell Stiftung. The panel was moderated by Hedvig Morvai.

According to Franz Karl Prüller, when the Civil Society Forums started in Vienna, what was wanted was a dialogue between the civil society and government representatives. What happened between Vienna and Paris and Paris in Trieste with consultation meetings gathered and mobilized the civil society. As Prüller pointed out, the European Fund for the Balkans has proven to be one of the major agents in the region.

Walter Kaufmann expressed his opinion that even though Heinrich Boell Stiftung is a newcomer to the process, the Civil Society Forum is a nice place to be, and the best forum for gathering civil society actors. Kaufmann also warned about minor concerns, such as that governments sometimes manage these events to simulate civil society representation without taking into account their recommendations.

AGORA Debate: Democracy in the Balkans: now and never?

The next panel on the Civil Society Forum was the AGORA Debate: Democracy in the Balkans: now and never, which was moderated by Vedran Džihić, Senior Researcher at BiEPAG, and Dona Kosturanova, Executive Director at Youth Educational Forum, while the panellists were Hannes Swoboda, member of the board of directors at Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe and a former leader of the S&D Group in the European Parliament, Alida Vračić, founder and Executive Director at Populari think tank, Vuk Velebit, a student activist from Serbia and Milan Živković, Local Head of Office at Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Skopje.

The debate concerned the state of democracy in the Western Balkans and the role of the European Union in its recent erosion. The participants in the debate also touched upon the topics of the Srebrenica genocide and reconciliation in the region, as well as on the necessity to combat extreme nationalism.

According to Vedran Džihić, we should not remain silent about the past, since remaining silent about the past serves politics of the present. Alida Vračić pointed that that on this important date Bosnia and Herzegovina is more divided than ever, but that after a few days people will forget about it again. Hannes Swoboda pointed out that in every Western Balkan country there are both victims and perpetrators, and that forgetting the past is the worst basis for the future. According to him, remembering is a much better solution, as long as it is not misused. Vuk Velebit added that being born in 1994, he considers the duty of his generation to be the fight against nationalism and the Western Balkans.

The participants on the panel extensively debated the state of democracy and the region and the emergence of “stabilitocracy” – the preference of stability over democracy by the European Union. According to Vuk Velebit, the first condition is to have democratic and free elections, which is a criterion Serbia and other Western Balkan states mostly fulfil. But, there is a question of what are the conditions before the elections, including media bias and pressure on employees in public companies, such was the case in recent Serbian presidential elections.

Alida Vračić pointed out that the crisis of democracy has always been there in the region, and that it is hardly a new phenomenon. This view was supported by Milan Živković, who also added that democracy needs democrats, but that it also needs active, well informed and responsible citizens. According to Hannes Swoboda, the civil society should sit by the table when EU officials discuss about the Western Balkans, due to its important role in democratization of these states.

Creative industries & Youth tourism – The next big thing for development and integration of the Western Balkans

The next session, Creative industries & Youth tourism – The next big thing for development and integration of the Western Balkans, brought together Ivan Petrović, President of the Managing Board at the EXIT Foundation, and Nemanja Petrović, also from the EXIT Foundation. They have presented the successes of the EXIT Foundation, both regarding the world-famous EXIT Festival in Novi Sad, but also affiliated events in countries such as Croatia, Montenegro, and Romania. According to the speakers, there is a huge potential in creative industries and youth tourism in the Western Balkans, which is still not adequately exploited. It already brings much revenues to the region through music festivals and games, but with significant rebranding of the region this potential can be further explored.

The five parallel CSF workshops

The participants at the Civil Society Forum were involved in five separate workshops, which were working on recommendations for each of the five general topics. The workshops were the following: 1) Environment, energy and climate change2) Communicating the Berlin Process in the time of rising populism – possible roles for the civil society, 3) Migrations – Strengthening the role of civil society in humanitarian aid and social economic resilience4) What is next? The British presidency of the Berlin Process at the time of Brexit, and 5) Media and journalism in the WB6: A very European issue.

CSF Talks powered by EFB

The final session of the first day of the Civil Society Forum Trieste were the CSF Talks powered by the European Fund for the Balkans.

Speakers at the session were Kilian Kleinschmidt, Founder and Chairman at Innovation and Planning Agency, Marko Rakar, CEO at Mrak services, Nathalie Tocci, Director at Instituto Affari Internazionali, Niccolo Milanese, Chair at European Alternatives, Jehona Gjurgjeala, Executive Director at TOKA, Peter Fuchs, Market educator and media researcher at Marketspace.hu, and Vuk Ćosić, Director of Communications at Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture. The host of the session was Nenad Šebek, Director at the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Belgrade office.

Kilian Kleinschmidt had a speech about migrations, in which he claimed that migrations have been a regular occurrence throughout history and that refugees have founded many cities and states, such as the city of Venice. According to him, contemporary Europe needs refugees, and we should get out from the doom and gloom and change the idea that migrants are a threat to Europe.

Vuk Ćosić spoke about the Rijeka European Capital of Culture 2020 and the collaboration with other cities in the region, some of which have also been awarded with this opportunity. Through the project, Ćosić claims that they will try pushing through the Berlin Process through culture.

Natalie Tocci talked about the effects of the victory of Donald Trump on Europe. According to her, the emergence of Donald Trump is a good thing for Europe. It enabled us Europeans to rediscover our identity and unity.

Niccolo Milanese reminded us about the collapse of the world order in 1914 and the possibility for the catastrophe to happen again if we are not careful. According to him, It is the task of the civil society to find a way to avoid catastrophe, especially when European elites think that catastrophe have been averted, which may very easily turn into a triumphalist narrative.

Finally, Jehona Gjurgjeala gave the final speech of the evening, talking about the ways how to foster creativity and innovation in contemporary societies, which is a prerequisite for social development. According to her, reaching out around 15% of the population can make the shift necessary for changes in the entire society in terms of innovation.

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