30 January 2020 – The European Policy Centre (CEP) organised a panel discussion today in Belgrade on the future of think tanks and their potential to influence public policy in the context of the crisis of democracy. This panel discussion was organised for the launch of 2019’s Global Go To Think Tank Index, published by the Lauder Institute’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania. CEP organised a presentation of this report for the third time, and more information on CEP’s ranking can be found here.
Introductory remarks were made by the President of CEP’s Governing Board, Srdjan Majstorovic, who said that 2019 was a “sobering experience” from the perspective of the European integration of Serbia and the Western Balkans. Majstorovic noted that credibility was undermined by the lack of an EU consensus on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, despite the two candidates showing a serious commitment towards progress and a desire to begin negotiations.
The first panel discussed the activities of think tanks in an atmosphere characterized by deteriorating democracy and liberties, the rise of anti-liberal narratives, the erosion of the rule of law and limited funding. Corina Stratulat, senior political analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels, Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, member of the Executive Board of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy and new CEP Council member, Martina Kayser, global health advisor at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) in Berlin, and Milena Lazarevic, programme director of CEP, participated in this discussion moderated by Matt Dann, former secretary-general of Bruegel in Brussels and member of the CEP Council. Dann stressed that he was pleased that Serbia and the region still had a desire to join the EU in a moment characterised by Brexit. He began the discussion by describing the current situation in the EU, noting that “trust is undermined”. Corina Stratulat agreed with him, and pointed out that while people in Europe have more rights, better education, better access to information and more opportunities to respond to government decisions than before, they still feel their votes do not matter and have less and less trust in authorities: there is, therefore, no doubt that there is a crisis of democracy in Europe. Stratulat pointed out that democracy in the future may not look like it does today, and that, despite all their apparent flaws, democratic societies are the only ones that are “self-correcting”, with the opportunity to constantly change and improve in accordance with needs and challenges. Sonja Stojanovic Gajic also pointed out that we are increasingly witnessing to the “captured state” phenomenon, especially in countries that do not have much democratic experience, such as Serbia. Gajic emphasised that there is often no point in correcting small details of institutional mechanisms and that instead of work should be done to “break the fear” and change things from the ground up.
Martina Kaiser said the answer to these complex problems is difficult to find, and that particular challenges come from new forms of communication (such as social media). She also said that the role of think tanks is to be mediators between governments and citizens, and in order to face challenges, organisations need to start by asking what is it that they do to stand out and what is their added value to society.
“People are interested in politics when it affects them, and they are often not aware of important developments and reforms unless they see their immediate consequences”, she said.
Milena Lazarevic spoke about the importance of connecting with other actors, including “partnerships of unlikely”. She also spoke about the importance of further involving citizens in the work of think tanks.
“In the Western Balkans, think tanks have always worked in the midst of a crisis of democracy. Since the introduction of democracy, we have been constantly struggling to build, monitor and sustain democratic institutions. There are still lots of problems and among the biggest ones is how sensitive the government is to even the slightest criticism”, she said.
The second panel was moderated by Srdjan Majstorovic, President of CEP’s Steering Board, with a discussion between CEP Council members Radmila Milivojevic, expert and former secretary-general of the Office for European Integration (now the Ministry of European Integration), Miroljub Labus, expert and former vice president in the SFRY government, and ambassador Dusko Lopandic. Emphasising the need for civil society to communicate better with citizens, Milivojevic said it was worrying that the average Serbian citizen would not be able to answer the question of what the accession process has brought to the citizens. Labus said Serbia appears to be moving towards the Chinese model of capitalism.
“Today, people are worried about their very existence, and when this happens, making a living is more important to people than justice. People who vote for the ruling party do not think about justice and equality, they care about the business,” Labus noted, adding “when liberal capitalism developed, so did liberal democracy. We used to think that democracy was necessary for growth, but we were wrong, as can be seen in China,” Labus said.
On the position of Serbia and the Western Balkans in geopolitical terms, Lopandic said that regional cooperation was not working well enough, despite the efforts of the Regional Cooperation Council. “Nations in the Western Balkans are fundamentally unstable, without external interference,” he said.
He also said that the second phase of Brexit will consume a lot of the Union’s attention. Lopandic pointed out that we cannot rely on international stability, as we are currently in a “mess” in the context of the weakening of the EU, the frozen conflict in Eastern Europe, and open conflict in the southern Mediterranean. Speaking about Serbia’s EU accession process, Lopandic stressed that it would require the efforts of both the EU and the aspiring countries and that he thinks the EU will reform between 2022 and 2024, but he is not sure about the pace of reforms in Serbia.