Increasing openness of institutions in the Western Balkans

On 16 November, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) launched a Regional Road Map on Good Governance for the Western Balkans to support democratic institutions in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia become more transparent and accountable.

Since 2015, according to polling by the Policy Association for an Open Society, public trust in national institutions in the Western Balkans has declined. Improving the accountability of institutions, including the executive, legislative, judiciary and local branches of government through better access to information can help reverse this trend. This is fundamental for democracy to succeed in the region.

Operating as part of a consortium in partnership with ActionSEE (Accountability, Technology and Institutional Openness Network in South-eastern Europe), WFD shares parliamentary best practice on transparency and openness to support the development of tools that will help legislators implement the roadmap.

The Regional Openness Index – Towards national roadmaps for greater transparency

Between July and December 2016, the ActionSEE consortium developed a Regional Openness Index to measure how transparent governments in the Western Balkans are and how easy it is for citizens to access information. Assessments, based on international standards, were conducted to identify systematic problems related to transparency in the six partner countries. Criteria included:

  • How easy it is to access information through official websites
  • The quality of legal frameworks related to transparency initiatives
  • Existing procedures for the routine publication of information of public interest

Following assessment, individual country road maps with recommendations actions were produced. These are addressed to the executive, legislative, judiciary and local branches of government in each country.

Implementing the Regional Roadmap

 The Regional Road Map brings together each individual country action plan and provides high-level recommendations. These include adopting a national policy of openness at the executive level, the routine publication of parliamentary voting records, updated court websites and more timely release of local authority information. Taken together, these steps have the potential to transform the perception of how transparent and efficient Western Balkans institutions are.

Working at regional level, the Foundation aims at accelerating the transition to greater accountability. Over the next three years, the Regional Openness Index will be updated on annually to help citizens and institutions track progress towards transparency in the region. Updated country and regional road maps with action plans for institutions will be developed based on the revised scoring.

The Foundation has been working at regional level in the Western Balkans since 2012, primarily by supporting the Network of Parliamentary Committees on Economy, Finance and European Integration of Western Balkans (NPC). Through the NPC, WFD helped establish the region’s first ever Parliamentary Budget Office in Serbia in 2015, which was quickly followed by a counterpart in Montenegro the following year.

 

(Photo: Action SEE network presents country road maps to parliamentarians of the Western Balkan region.)
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WFD and UK Government support reform of Macedonia’s parliament

On 15 September, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) and the UK Embassy to Macedonia launched an enhanced partnership with the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia.

The partnership will support an agenda of reforms to ensure parliament fulfills its role of representing the people and holding the executive to account following a time when public confidence in democratic institutions was low.

The Freedom House overall democracy score in Macedonia has been steadily deteriorating since 2011. In spring 2017 only 5% of Macedonian’s felt that the political situation was peaceful and stable in response to prolonged  crisis and violence in the parliamentary building. However, according to a new International  Republican Institute survey in August the percentage increased to 44%, following the formation of a new government.

While recognising this increase in optimism, the Assembly has decided to undertake internal reforms to regain and retain public confidence.

WFD has been present in Macedonia continuously since 2008, working with the parliament and civil society organisations. The Foundation currently works to strengthen engagement between civil society, state agencies and decision-makers to improve public policy and enhance transparency.

The new programme, funded by the UK Government, and implemented by WFD will support reform initiatives led by the offices of the Speaker and Secretary-General, including:

1. Assisting in developing budget, strategic planning and human resources capacity.
2. Enhancing financial oversight through detailed assessments and implementation of recommendations.
3. Improving the culture of openness and transparency through improved internal and external communications.

Working closely with parliamentary groups, staff and the media, the programme will produce recommendations, strategies and plans to improve the performance of the Macedonian parliament as the central institution of democracy in the country.

Better planning, monitoring and communications will help  build citizens’ trust and, in the long term, improve the quality of democratic governance.

Launching the new partnership, President of the Assembly, Mr. Talat Xhaferi, said:

“With this Memorandum of Understanding, we renew and continue the cooperation with the UK and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The signing of this Memorandum demonstrates commitment to democracy and the rule of law, and above everything, strengthening of the function, the role and the responsibility of the Assembly as a legislative body which is directly elected by the citizens.”

Charles Edmund Garrett, UK Ambassador to Macedonia, said:

“The UK will continue to support Macedonia in its reforms for democracy and rule of law. As long as you see NATO and EU accession as strategic goals for enhancement of your stability, security and progress, we will support you in this regard. Our countries share the same interest in theses aspects.”

The Ambassador also noted that the timing of the programme launch could not be better as it coincided with the International Day for Democracy.

Attending the launch, Anthony Smith, WFD Chief Executive, added:

“In every country, democracy needs to be built every day, that democracy needs to be refreshed every day, and that democracy needs to be re-energised every day.  For that, we need strong, inclusive and open institutions of democracy – parliaments, judiciary, audit authorities. We also need active and engaged civil society, and an open and free media. Democracy is everyone’s responsibility”.

 (Photo: Charles Edmund Garrett, UK Ambassador to Macedonia, Talat Xhaferi, President of the Assembly of Macedonia and Anthony Smith, WFD Chief Executive sign memorandum of understanding.)
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The question of modernising democracy

(Above: George Kunnath, WFD’s Regional Director – Europe and Central Asia, signs agreement with the Verkhovna Rada in Ukraine to mark beginning of partnership with WFD in November 2015 )

George Kunnath, Regional Director – Europe and Central Asia

Having a democratic constitution does not mean you have a democracy. Having all the expected laws and rules does not mean you have a democracy.

More than ever we agree that a true democracy is about the culture and values that each of us as individuals live by. And this is why the advancement of democracy is progressive – it takes a long period of time for culture to become embedded.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early nineties gave a great expectation that Eastern Europe would see democracy flourish. However, the Economist Democracy Index 2016, highlighted Eastern Europe as the worst performer in a world where democracy is regressing. Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) now have more nondemocratic countries than democratic ones, being home to 15 ‘hybrid’ or ‘authoritarian’ regimes and 13 ‘flawed democracies’.

While this assessment could be discouraging, it is worth noting that most Eastern European citizens, especially young people, want more democracy. They understand that what they have experienced was not democracy at its best, but in some cases a flawed democracy at its worst.

The rise of elites who have used influence, wealth and corruption to capture emerging democratic states has led to the feeling that democracy doesn’t belong to all, nor does it benefit all. When the elite or powerful ruling parties disregard the rule of law and undermine independent institutions this further erodes the foundations of a democratic society.

It should, however, be noted that a democratic system is individual to each country. The challenge has been less about having a democratic constitution and more about how we should work out the democratic principles enshrined on the paper. This gets even more complicated due to the hybrid nature of most political systems. Most countries in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans run on semi-presidential systems which tend to produce strong leaders who exert considerable influence over parliament, to the detriment of effective oversight and accountability.

Much can be achieved if political parties, parliaments, civil society and citizens uphold the rule of law, the independence of democratic institutions and hold government to account. In so doing we can overcome the ethnic and economic divisions that populist politicians exploit.

Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) was established in 1992 to support emerging democracies in Eastern Europe. That mandate grew to a global mandate, but is still very relevant to Eastern Europe today. WFD’s field presence in the Europe and Central Asia Region, has grown to nine countries. As we continue our work in a region that has seen setbacks and regression, we intend to focus on four key approaches:

Moving from personality to policy

Developing political parties that are policy-driven, not personality-driven. This is an important shift needed to create sustainable and long lasting membership based political parties. In Kosovo, we are offering a unique demand led approach to political party support.

Engagement and inclusion

Increasing the participation of women and youth only strengthens the democratic culture and enriches democracy. We intend to build on our successful ‘promoting women in politics’ programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to help parliaments and parties become more inclusive by sharing lessons across the region.

Oversight, accountability and respect for the rule of law

The volume of legislation being passed by parliaments in the region is amazing. Much of the legislation has to do with harmonisation with EU regulations. However, very little effort is given to oversight. A growing number of requests from parliaments relates to how they can conduct effective post-legislative scrutiny. 50% of our programmes in Europe and Central Asia now focus on financial oversight.

Modernising democracy

We have come to realise that certain practices within parliaments hamper the effectiveness of the institutions to deliver and to become inclusive and representative. We intend to support parliaments modernise by exposing them to simple transformative practices from other parliaments in the UK and Europe.

Democratic change is too large a programme for one organisation to deliver on. WFD will continue to value collaboration and partnerships as we move forward.

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Supporting CSOs to engage with parliament in Macedonia

(Above: Blagica Dimitrovska answers questions about Inkluziva’s policy paper at a press conference presenting the work of the 12 CSOs recieving WFD support)

“I know very well the problems that people with disabilities and their families face” Blagica Dimitrovska from CSO “Inkluziva” explained: “as I am one of them.”

Ms Dimitrovska is President at the Association for promotion and development of inclusive society – Inkluziva from Kumanovo, Macedonia, one of the 12 CSOs that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is currently supporting through an EU funded project. By providing the CSOs with the skills they need to effectively lobby parliament for change we hope to bring real benefits to citizens lives in Macedonia.

“Many times, I’ve been trying to initiate a meeting with state institutions, and I’ve raised this issue at many public events. However, there was no progress” Ms Dimitrovska explained her previous experience trying to support disabled people, before Inkluzia were involved in the project. –. “But now, when I have this public policy paper in my hands, I will advocate for the rights of this target group much more strongly, and I strongly believe that there will be legislative changes soon” she said.

Inkluzia’s mission is to create conditions for an inclusive society through activities and projects that will improve the lives of people with disabilities and the families who support them.

Since May 2016, WFD organised training, panel discussions and mentoring on the best methods to engage with parliament. The most recent session tackled the skills needed to plan, research and write a policy paper and present the findings to the parliament. The “learning by doing” approach was applied with the organisations having a mentor to support with conducting research and writing their policy paper.

(Above: Representatives from CSOs participating in the programme present their policy papers)

“What helped us the most was the direct work on the document with mentor support” says Biljana Dukovska, President at the Macedonian Anti-Poverty Platform, a national platform of CSOs that work to reduce poverty and foster social inclusion. “The trainings provided great theoretical basis, but we could never imagine how big this process actually is, until we started to implement research and translate the findings into a policy paper on our own” she continued.

Having direct support and someone to answer your questions Ms Dukovska found very helpful. “It is good to know that there is someone to ask when you face a difficulty, and for that we had the hand-outs and the mentor at any given moment” she said. Through the collection of life stories about people living in poverty, the Macedonian Anti-Poverty Platform’s policy paper points out inadequacies with the current social financial assistance in Macedonia that keeps people poor and excluded. They propose changes to the system that would influence poverty prevention and reduction.

This project supports CSOs covering a range of pressing human rights issues from social policy and health care issues, to discrimination in higher education and sanctions against hate speech. All 12 CSOs have improved the presentation of their research findings to a manner that an MP would find the most useful to initiate a debate in the Parliament. The ability of CSOs to conduct research and influence the debate in the Parliament will help improve citizen’s human rights in Macedonia, with legislative change being the ultimate goal of WFD’s support. “Prior to our participation in this project, we had a lot of topics and data that were promoted only through the media. Now we can translate that data into policy. Now we know how to plan a research and structure a policy” explains Ms Dukovska.

It’s not just the 12 participating CSOs that will benefit from the project, either. WFD will make all policy papers available to all MPs, thus support the CSOs’ access to the Parliament where they will be able to advocate for the proposed changes in the documents on their own. MPs will also benefit from this process, since they will be provided with relevant and in-depth information and analysis on the existing legislative and evidence-based suggestions for law changes.

WFD’s ambition is for these CSOs to be standard-bearers for a new way of engaging with parliament; successful results for these initiatives will encourage others to adopt the same practices. That can only make Macedonia’s democracy stronger. Doing so will help the effectiveness of the parliament in its efforts to achieve better policy on human rights issues. It will also improve representation of the marginalised groups of citizens set to benefit – both important ingredients in making Macedonia’s governance more inclusive and effective

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Lobbying for change: WFD’s support to human rights CSOs in Macedonia

(Above: WFD’s opening public event held in Skopje, Macedonia)

“By deconstructing the myth that marriages under 18 years old are part of the Roma tradition, we want to ensure the realisation of children’s rights and encourage institutions to follow the trend, as well as provide legal protection to the families in risk,” says Nesime Salioska, the Executive Director at ROMA S.O.S, one of the 12 civil society organisations Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) is working with in Macedonia.

From patients with rare diseases to the issue of child marriage amongst the Roma community, WFD’s programme in Macedonia is set to support a wide range of civil society organisations tackling different human rights issues. WFD will support the CSOs by building their capacity to engage with decision-makers in Macedonia, encouraging a dialogue on human rights based on research and evidence.

Conducting research – how to engage decision-makers

The programme, which brings together 12 civil society organisations in Macedonia, delivered its first training explaining the best way for the CSOs to conduct effective research and present it to parliament through a policy paper.

“We now have the knowledge, skills and support provided by the mentors to conduct this research, discover the challenges and best practices, and prioritise accordingly,” says Anja Bosilkova, Vice President from Wilson Macedonia, a support group for patients suffering from the rare disease. Her organisation is advocating for the government to introduce changes to existing legislation on health care, insurance, medicines and medical devices.

“Then we will be able to propose adequate solutions to the most pressing issues first, such as having proper diagnostic procedures available for early diagnosis.” Anja says that WFD’s first training in May 2016 helped her approach the challenge in an effective way. She explains: “As patients, we know our problems, but in order to find out the major issues for most of the patients, and translate it into policy paper, we need support to go through this process.”

Nesime Salioska believes her CSO has benefited because the training’s focus on evidence and research “could change negative perceptions and attitudes toward this issue in Roma communities”. She adds: “We gained capacity and knowledge which will enable us to bring evidence and raise the interest of different stakeholders to join our efforts.” This enables her and her colleagues to explain, using evidence, why Roma communities should be protected through legislation.

(Above: Anja Bosilkova-Antovska, representing Wilson Macedonia at the WFD opening public event)

Elena Nakova is a lawyer who volunteers at Free Software Macedonia, another CSO benefiting from WFD’s support. Its campaign aims to improve the privacy of citizens’ personal data following the abuses of voter list information during the political crisis. She said she felt the training was helpful in outlining the stages a CSO should work through when presenting information to parliament. “The training held at the School of Journalism and Public Relations helped us define certain aspects, such as the stakeholders and the need to make interviews with them in addition to the desk research in order to obtain valid information,” she said.

Legislative change – protecting citizens’ human rights

But, how does improving the ability of CSOs to conduct research help improve citizens’ human rights in Macedonia? Legislative change is the ultimate goal of WFD’s support.

For Elena Nakova of Free Software Macedonia that means they “want to see real change and work hard so that Macedonian citizens obtain better protection of their personal data.” She continues: “The problems that occurred during the political crisis and the handling of the voter list drew our attention and we knew that an urgent reform to the Law on personal identification numbers is needed. We were already familiar with the Croatian model and we made draft provisions that should be included in the new Law.” This is a significant change which, if achieved, would protect Macedonian’s citizen’s privacy and personal data.

(Above: Elena Nakova, representing Free Software Macedonia)

Anja from Wilson Macedonia is also focused on changing the law because she believes “long-term solutions are a necessity for a proper, institutionalised approach to the treatment of rare diseases in Macedonia. Recognising rare disease patients as a separate group with specific health needs and introducing the necessary legislative changes in health protection will make a real difference to the lives of this marginalized group. This is what we aim to do,” she said.

The importance of legislative change also applies to ROMA S.O.S. “The issue is related to children who are not mature enough to make decisions independently, so the state is the one that through legal regulations and acts of the institutions should protect them within the frames of established norms for the rights of the children and their best interests,” Nesime Salioska says.

ROMA SOS hope to overcome this issue “by undertaking mainstream activities that contribute to the improvement of Roma’s comprehensive integration in the context of human rights and to the concept of equality for citizens, no matter the status or belonging to which group”.

By providing training around the key principles of evidence, advocacy and access, WFD is set to support Macedonian CSOs to deliver change to citizens’ lives through their improved lobbying of parliament. It’s not just these three CSOs which will benefit, either: this programme supports 12 CSOs covering a range of issues from discrimination in higher education to sanctions against hate speech.

WFD’s ambition is for these CSOs to be standard-bearers for a new way of engaging with parliament; successful results for these initiatives will encourage others to adopt the same practices. That can only make Macedonia’s democracy stronger. Doing so will help the effectiveness of the parliament in its efforts to achieve better policy on human rights issues. It will also improve representation of the marginalised groups of citizens set to benefit – both important ingredients in making Macedonia’s governance more inclusive and effective.

(Below: Daniela Cvetanoska , representing ROMA S.O.S, also participated in the WFD training)
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Human rights in Macedonia: Linking up CSOs with Parliament

WFD is launching a new partnership in Macedonia – connecting civil society with parliament to improve human rights in the country.

By Ivana Petkukjeska

We’ll link up with the School of Journalism and Public Relations in the 12 months to December 2017 to facilitate a dialogue on human rights policy. The project will build on the experience of our work in Georgia, as well as our previous cooperation with the Parliament of Macedonia, to bring together civil society organisations (CSOs) with decision-makers in Skopje.

The problem CSOs in Macedonia face is that their work doesn’t usually result in significant legislative changes. While there are organisations in the country that are really focused and sincere when it comes to improving the laws concerning the target group they support, they often lack capacity to conduct research- and evidence-based advocacy. Those who do conduct their own research often find they lack the ability to make their case publicly because their findings are just data on paper. This lack of both research and advocacy skills reduces their impact on the legislative process, undermining their chances of achieving a positive change.

On the other side is the Government. It has a Strategy and Action Plan for cooperation with civil society, but the extent of implementation remains limited. There is a need for improvement. CSOs find it almost impossible to reach the MPs they need to communicate with to advocate for specific legislative changes.

Photo: Andres Musta

WFD has been supporting the development of the Macedonian Parliament since 2008 through various programmes. Since then we’ve established solid relations and cooperation with the Parliamentary Committees and members of different political parties. Now, our aim is to use our access to the Parliament to help CSOs. We’ll connect them with the MPs and relevant Parliamentary Committees to try to achieve legislative changes which will contribute to the improvement of the human rights situation in Macedonia.

The initiatives for changes to the law will be completely demand-led. We’ll open a call for policy initiatives dealing with human rights and democratization issues. CSOs will be invited to identify issues which will directly benefit certain communities or groups of citizens. By offering research and advocacy trainings, as well as access to decision-makers, the action will strengthen CSOs by capacity building and increasing their integrity with the local communities.

It’s an approach we’ve been pursuing in Georgia for some time. After two years, our initiatives are showing great signs of progress. Just take a look at the event which took place on Monday December 7, the latest in a series of opportunities for local CSOs to highlight pressing issues about torture, property law and children’s rights, and you’ll see the difference WFD’s work can make.

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