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On May 21, 2008, the Center for the Study of Democracy and the United States Agency for International Development mission in Bulgaria organized an international conference that discussed the role of international assistance in democratic transition and how lessons learned can help guide future efforts towards developing effective democracies.

The event facilitated a continued dialogue about the unfinished reform agenda in the Western Balkans region, the opportunities that are available to continue to push reform efforts and how Bulgaria’s experience could be used by other countries that are still struggling with similar development and transitional issues

In his welcoming address CSD Chairman Dr. Ognian Shentov outlined the linkages between political reforms, economic freedom and civic initiative. He noted that the mainstreaming of anti-corruption in the Bulgarian public agenda – achieved by Bulgarian NGOs with the support of USAID – has made a significant contribution towards the sustainability of democratic institutions. According to Dr. Shentov, it was the combined demand from our partners and the EU on the one hand, and Bulgarian civil society on the other, that politicians started treating anti-corruption as more than just a rhetorical device by tackling issues such as conflict of interest and rooting out unacceptable practices. He described a partnership triangle - bringing together policy makers, NGOs and foreign support - as possibly the shortest way to describe the formula for success of support for reforms. Dr. Shentov outlined two main reasons why the collaboration between NGOs and foreign partners is significant: it immediately places NGOs in an international context among the healthy competition for good ideas and practices which makes them active participants in a globalized civil society; and that this approach ensures that still weak civil society organizations would not be captured by the clientelistic circles of unreformed and often corrupt public administrations.

Commenting on the background to the conference US Ambassador to Bulgaria John Beyrle pointed out that the Bulgarian experience provided a unique backdrop for discussion. Bulgaria is a country that has undergone a dramatic transition since 1990, is now experiencing a new phase in its transition as a member of the European Union and as an emerging donor country. Still, in his contacts with citizens he sees further need for government institutions to become relevant to the needs of individuals by delivering effective public services. A democratic government is distinguished by its responsiveness to public needs and demands. On the other hand, Ambassador Beyrle highlighted the significance of civic engagement and participation since no amount of assistance or international support could supplant grass root demand for better government.

Following Ambassador Beyrle’s remarks Boyko Todorov, CSD Program Director, read out a greeting letter from the Chairman of the Bulgarian National Assembly Georgi Pirinski.

In his keynote address Andrew Natsios, former USAID Administrator and Distinguished Professor at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, sketched the significance of the existence of complementary incentive structures for politicians and reformers, particularly those by the international community. These structures should reinforce each other. He also discussed the linkage between conflict and democracy pointing out that the likelihood of conflict diminishes significantly in the presence of democratic institutions.

Mr. Natsios went on to mention the need to complement the support for service delivery with support for institution building. He also stressed that erratic funding undermines the overall assistance effort which should prioritize sustainability. The most significant factor for this sustainability, according to Mr. Natsios, is local ownership of reforms. At the same time, the capture of both institutions and agenda by shady interests renders international support useless. He also highlighted the importance of support for reforming political parties, local government reform and the role that media plays in pressuring policy makers to deliver. He made a strong point about the need for international assistance to identify key reformist individuals in the countries and support them in the long term.

Mr. Quentin Peel, International Affairs Editor of the Financial Times, moved the discussion to the international level by looking into the democratic credentials of the European Union. Although the founding considerations of the Union – the post World War II strive to bring peace through common trade – are still very valid the EU has developed its democratic institutions more than other international institutions. It manages to also have the capacity to evolve while remaining true to its principles.

Although, continued Mr. Peel, in the wake of the withdrawal of USAID’s support from the new member states and Croatia, the EU remains the primary factor for democratic reforms and brings both prosperity and democracy to the East, it does not posses the adequate tools and procedures to be a democracy-promoting body. It is, nevertheless, moving in that direction which is evident in the expansion of the Union’s common law into areas, traditionally seen as exclusively domestic– e.g. justice and home affairs.

The promotion of democracy through the EU, in particular in the new members and candidate countries, remains insufficiently effective because of its top-down, bureaucratic approach to assistance. This is evident in the priority given to funding of, for example, infrastructure over civil society. Wanting effectiveness is also due to the fact that the top-down approach is not balance by bottom-up local demand for good governance.

An important final point in Mr. Peel’s keynoted address was the ways in which Bulgaria – having faced challenges similar to those of its Western neighbors but having joined the EU – could serve as an example of both good and bad experiences to candidate members from the region.

Ms. Suzana Kunac, Coordinator of Be active Be emancipated, an advocacy NGO in Croatia, outlined some of the activities and policies of donor assistance to Croatian NGOs. She argued that assistance approaches make a significant difference on the long term democratic reforms. Diverging agendas and lack of overall policy vision compromise the effect of external funding. Internal democratic and accountability procedures by civil society organizations are crucial if they are going to be credible advocates of democracy.

As regards the role of NGOs in reforms, it is their advocacy work that is most important to democratic reforms. Donor support, however, should avoid focusing on a narrow segment of non-governmental institutions with little popular base which could become accountable only to their donors. Ms. Kunac also highlighted the need for more civic education in schools.

Mr. Ivan Vejvoda, Executive Director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, discussed the way in which the international community had become a factor of domestic politics in Serbia. He acknowledged the work of many multilateral, public but also of bilateral and private donors in the country. Giving the example of European donors filling the gap opened by USAID’s withdrawal, he emphasized the need for long term approaches in all types of assistance. Mr. Vejvoda highlighted the importance of support for political party reform, given the increasing demands for accountability of the campaign finances.

In the Balkans, the regional networks of reformist politicians and social actors is crucial to the success of reforms since the countries function as communicating vessels and problems tend to spill over borders. Efforts were needed, according to Mr. Vejvoda, for re-dignifying politics in the eyes of citizens who still carry leftover political skepticism from the times of communism. In a functioning democracy it is also important to strike – and maintain - a balance between public and private interests, a task in which NGOs have a crucial role to play.

Mr. Auron Pashaj, Executive Director, Institute for Development Research and Alternatives in Albania, pointed out that exchanges between Bulgarian and Albanian NGOs have changed since Bulgarian joined the EU which could be a indication of the impact of membership on regional cooperation. He discussed the approach of foreign donors whose documents and strategies are not always understandable to citizens. USAID’s strength was in supporting the demand for good governance by local civil society organizations. He outlined three important characteristics of a civic environment, beneficial of democracy – the availability of reliable information, the significance of negotiations and the possibility for individuals to have a voice. Mr. Pashaj also discussed the positive and downside effects of a turnover of reformist individuals between NGOs and politics.

Mr. Philip Dimitrov, former Bulgarian Prime Minister and member of Club de Madrid, an influential think tank whose mission statement is “Democracy that delivers”, highlighted that democracy – in particular the Western, liberal kind - should be a matter of conscious choice. He acknowledged the role of USAID for supporting NGOs in Bulgaria, saying that the Agency may has had a crucial role in the existence of the sector overall. Mr. Dimitrov discussed the effect that the new democracies of the former communist countries have on the democratic Atlantic community.

Over lunch, an address was given by Ms. Gergana Grancharova, Minister for European Affairs of Bulgaria. She first emphasized the great appreciation of all Bulgarian politicians of the work USAID had done during its presence in Bulgaria and the great personal, professional and diplomatic contribution it had in Bulgaria’s development.

The Minister continued her speech by elaborating upon the issue, discussed during the morning session – whether EU integration was a key factor in the transformation of the Western Balkans. She pointed out that Bulgaria had always been a strong advocate of the EU perspective for the region and since 2005 large steps had been taken on the road of the Western Balkans to the EU. For the period 2006-2008, Minister Grancharova underlined several important events, marking the progress of the Western Balkan countries towards the EU – their joining of CEFTA, the signing of the Energy Community Treaty and the new IPA regulation. According to her, one of the decisive steps was also the recent signing of Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAA) with the EU by Serbia and Montenegro.

The Minister expressed her strong belief that the Western Balkan countries could be successfully integrated into the EU with the active participation of the citizens and paid special attention to the hopes of the Western Balkan people for the Western countries and the US to liberalize their visa regimes. In conclusion, the Minister highlighted that 2008 had so far been an “intermediate” year in the process of Western Balkans’ EU accession, but stressed the crucial importance for the situation on the Western Balkans of building a sustainable Kosovo state.

Ambassador A. Elizabeth Jones, former Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, currently Executive Vice President, APCO Worldwide first discussed the sense in which the various terms, discussed at the conference, were understood. The Ambassador mentioned that democracy was a very loaded term and, while in some places it meant chaos and instability, its true meaning related to the voice of the people and the political choices they made. As for the civil society, the Ambassador supported a broad understanding of the term, including not only NGO’s but also media, charities, trade unions, public safety officials and all the other structures, formed to take collective action and have a say in how a society was governed.

Elaborating upon the concept of transition, the Ambassador mentioned that transition in principle meant gradual change, but it could be scary for society, because it brought the unknown and might come in all varieties – dramatic or less dramatic – but was nevertheless inevitable.

Continuing her thoughts on the role of civil society as an agent of demand-driven social change, the Ambassador underlined that civil society provided citizens with a vehicle to get into the social debate, improve public dialogue and work on controversial issues. Ambassador Jones was express in pointing out that democracy was too often only related to rights, but it always brought responsibilities as well. In conclusion, the Ambassador commended Bulgaria’s emergence into the family of states, that take responsibility for themselves and once again outlined the need for an active and engaged civil society.

In her intervention, Ambassador Tove Skarstein first pointed out that after USAID left Bulgaria, Norway and Switzerland would remain among the basic donors of the country. The topic of her speech was the Norwegian Cooperation Programme in Bulgaria and the EEA Financial Mechanism.

With Bulgaria’s accession to the EU Bulgaria became eligible for taking part in those two financial instruments, which cover the period of 2007 – 2009 and aim at fighting economic disparities and helping Bulgaria reach the standards of Western countries. According to the Ambassador, the programs have several priority areas, among them being environmental issues, sustainable production, health and childcare and implementation of the Schengen acquis.

The Ambassador announced that a new NGO fund with 2 mln. of funds would be set up together with the Bulgarian Ministry of Finance around 1 July 2008 especially for smaller or regional organizations, which were not able to take part in the complicated application procedures under the two larger programs. There will also be a scholarship fund for studies in Norway. The two funds, together with the two larger financial mechanisms, support Norway’s becoming more visible in Bulgaria and contribute to the good mutual relations between Norway and Bulgaria.

After Ambassador Skarstein, there was a short intervention by Ms. Lidia Shuleva, Member of Parliament, who expressed once again the gratitude of all Bulgarian institutions for the work of USAID. She pointed out that she had been able to work with USAID for 4 years as the Minister of Social Affairs and Minister of Economy of Bulgaria on various initiatives, related to the reforms in the pension system, civil society, market economy, procurement law and its implementation, etc. According to Ms. Shuleva, the initiatives of USAID will stay as good practices and models for the future work of Bulgarian institutions.

In the panel discussion on Civil Society that Delivers: Ideas and Policy, the first panelist, Ms. Ginka Chavdarova, Executive Director of the Association of Municipalities in Bulgaria, pointed out at local democracy as the cause, for which the Association of Municipalities was created 15 years ago, when decentralization was still unthinkable. However, according to the speaker, when one is committed to his/her work, one can always find partners – the Association first started with 1/3 of the municipalities in Bulgaria and gradually included all of them to become the strong voice of local governance and a pressure tool for necessary change.

Ms. Chavdarova stressed upon the importance of civil society being a proactive partner for change instead of just criticizing the moves of the government. She gave an example with the difficult process of financial decentralization and highlighted the importance of NGO’s being able to organize all kinds of actions – from network building to organizing protests, if needed to provoke social change. Ms. Chavdarova declared that civil society organizations could not strive for democratic change, if they are not driven by democratic principles themselves.

In his speech, Vladimir Milcin, Executive Director of the Foundation Open Society Institute Macedonia (FOSIM), compared the European Commission to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, tormented by the issue to do or not to do things and whom to do them with – just with governments or also with civil society. He recalled the history of his country, where transition had been a chain of crises – from military action, to embargoes and influx of refugees, and mentioned that Macedonian society was still divided between “patriotic” and “pro-European” positions and would have a referendum in July on the issue of the name of the country.

Mr. Milcin then pointed out the importance of the various projects USAID had undertaken in Macedonia, including the translation of the Ohrid agreement in 2001-2002 and a big project to include Roma in the education system. In conclusion, he emphasized that civil society organizations should diversify their funding in order to avoid being too bound with domestic governments or being accused of acting against the interests of their country, if using foreign money.

Dr. Muhamet Mustafa, President of the Board of the Riinvest Institute in Kosovo pointed to Bulgaria as a success story, just like Hungary and the other countries that joined the EU in 2004 and highlighted the importance of the increase of the absorptive capacity of civil society, especially when it is in a process of development. He defined sustainable development as development, driven by society itself and stressed that economic growth should be transformed into benefits to society and initiatives should have local ownership, because it led to accountability and responsibility of governments, which they usually tried to avoid.

In conclusion, Dr. Mustafa pointed to the fragility of governments and the marginalization of Parliaments in the process of reforms and declared how important the ex-post evaluation and transparency of the evaluation was for any reform initiative.

Ambassador Ilian Vassilev opened the ensuing discussion by pointing out that USAID was helping Balkan countries to become better neighbours in order to be better partners, when they joined the EU. Several issues were lively discussed among the participants. One was the sustainability of civil society organizations, where Michael Fritz, USAID Bulgaria Mission Director, pointed to the Association of Municipalities as one of the few civil society organizations which were entirely membership-driven, while Dr. Muhamet Mustafa gave the example of his country’s Chamber of Commerce, which was nostalgic about the mandatory membership of all companies in the past and lobbied for amendments in the law to restore it. Mr. Todor Yalamov from the Center for the Study of Democracy outlined the raising demand for a new role of NGO’s in international relations and expressed a hope for the NGO’s being able to advocate for a new international democracy. Prompted by Mr. Yalamov’s statement, Ms. Ginka Chavdarova and Ms. Dusica Perisic from the Macedonian Association of Municipalities described to the audience the networks they were creating between their two organizations and the difficulties they experienced in building sustainable joint structures. Michael Fritz introduced the new model, which USAID was currently discussing, of phasing out country missions, which included the transition from an assistance programme to a sustainable partnership and the appointment of a development attaché, which would co-ordinate with local institutions, like Bulgarian Ministry of Finance, the development of projects on a co-sharing of costs basis.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Fritz elaborated on the usually negative connotation of the term “balkanization”, which might also have a much more positive meaning, related to the sustenance and interdependence of communities. According to Mr. Fritz, the future of the Balkans does not need to be synonymous with conflict, but with cooperation. He pointed out that “angel capital” – wealthy businessmen, wanting to have social impact through financial support of different initiatives – was starting to form on the Balkans as well, since entrepreneurs saw balkanization as an opportunity for business and social change. Mr. Fritz emphasized that this conference, as the last major event of USAID in Bulgaria, was not the end of the partnership with Bulgaria and the Western Balkans and expressed his pride to work towards democracy that delivered.

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