As long as the main focus of your activities is direct citizen participation in decision-making and your Association is a member of the Forum’s Working Group "Social Issues and Civic Participation", you mostly deal with local communities and direct democracy tools. Looking back at more than 20 years since the crash of the Communist regime in the country, which changes can you observe in Bulgaria on municipal and regional level?
Changes I see have to do firstly with the state of civil society – 20 years ago there were no NGOs, especially not on the local and regional levels, institutions on all levels (local, regional, and national) were closed for citizens and thought citizens should be the ones to adapt to them and not the other way around. Citizens themselves expected nothing from institutions and did not allow themselves to criticise them or hold them accountable, dialogue between citizens and institutions was unconceivable. Now there are many NGOs and groups, institutions have the obligation to inform citizens of their intentions and actions, and discuss with them any significant decisions, bills, strategies, and programmes. People openly express their opinion and take part in public meetings, discussions, demonstrations, and protests. They demand things of those in power and expect to be heard and their opinion taken into consideration. Of course, there is much to be desired in this respect – discontent and distrust among citizens is still very high. They are disappointed with politicians, nearly 80 per cent of them feel they are represented neither at the local nor at the national or the European level.
This year "Balkan Assist" has been celebrating the 15th anniversary since its establishment. Which projects of your Association are special reasons for you to be proud of?
In the past 15 years, Balkan Assist has worked on many projects and initiatives. I think, the following ones are among the most significant ones for the society:
- The Public Forum programme, which allowed us to introduce the FORUM (open public discussions on important issues based on the principle of equality between those in power and citizens) approach in Bulgaria in more than 50 municipalities with the participation of 100 NGOs
- The Referendum and Citizens’ Initiative project that led to the adoption of a new Law on the Direct Participation of Citizens in State Power and Local Self-governance in 2009
- The Citizens’ Debate for Change we are working on right now – its main goal is to start a broad public debate about what needs to be changed in the way the country is governed. We conducted a national sociological survey last year in order to identify, which questions people consider as the most important ones. Then we organised six regional and one national panel with more than 300 representatives of civil society. Based on that, we drafted recommendations to those in power and proposals for changes in legislation. These panels elected representatives from all the regions of the country, and we have been currently arranging meetings between them and members of parliament, government officials, parliamentary groups, commissions, political leaders to present the proposals and recommendations of citizens. We hope that at least a part of these proposals will be adopted.
In recent years, countries in the Eastern and Central Europe, eg, Russia or Hungary, experienced negative trends in the terms of providing conditions for the development of the NGO sector. In Bulgaria, such voices like labeling particular NGOs as "sorosoids" take ground as well. What is your attitude towards these tendencies? And what do you undertake to cope with them?
Yes, in 2013 and 2014 Bulgaria had a government and a parliament that had taken the country several years back in time. They tried to attract organisations like ours on their side, but we refused to take part in any negotiations and meetings, we continued to protest and published an open declaration, an address to those in power. This is why we were called ‘sorosoids’, ‘American agents’, etc. This motivated us even more to continue with the initiative we started in 2011 for uniting in a common platform – the Citizens’ Participation Forum. Currently, more than 100 NGOs from the whole country are part of it, and together we draft and send common statements to institutions on important issues. Our network is on better terms with the current government, and we have been working and discussing with them a new law on NGOs, under which a Council for the Support of NGOs would be established as a part of the Council of Ministers and a special fund as part of the state budget for financing citizens’ projects and initiatives.
Which challenges do you see for the work of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum?
I think the greatest challenge is identifying a common cause – a shared understanding about things that are important to all the members of the Forum and to all the participating countries, to establish similar criteria for the achievements and the benefits of our shared work, and to apply efficient approaches and instruments for the achievement of results.
What is the Forum’s value for your organisation?
For “Balkan Assist”, participation in the Forum is an opportunity for new contacts and partnerships, for broadening the network of international partners and people, who think like us, and for enhancing the organisation’s influence on a European level.
What would you like to wish to the Forum’s members?
I wish to all the members in the Forum constant inspiration from their work, infinite energy, and motivation for new causes and initiatives. I also wish them to be a factor in the development of their own countries and of Europe as a whole – a factor for politicians to reckon with.
The interview was shot on 27 April 2015 via Skype by Sergei Tereshenkov, PR Coordinator at the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum