THU, 26 OCT 2000 21:07:23 GMT
AIM Athens, October 26, 2000
Although 2000 has not drawn to its end yet, one would be justified in calling it "the year democracy returned to the Balkans". The recent elections in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and the earlier presidential elections in Croatia resulted to a more or less smooth transition from the last oppressive regimes to democratic ones. In both cases, civil society and NGO activism were instrumental in stimulating citizens' political awareness. Nevertheless, it would appear that the latter's role is still viewed with suspicion by most Balkan states and especially Turkey, where human rights defenders and NGOs continue to face harassment. An ominous counter development to the ascendancy of democracy in the region was the increased support shown by Serbs and Croats for their respective nationalist parties in the Bosnia/Herzegovina local elections, with the non-nationalist Social Democratic Party appealing mostly to Bosnian Muslim voters. These are some of the highlights of this year's International Helsinki Federation's two reports to the OSCE Implementation Meeting, held between 17-27 October: one covered the OSCE area (available in the Internet at: http://www.greekhelsinki.gr/english/reports/IHF-OSCE-2000-b.html) and another just Greece (http://www.greekhelsinki.gr/pdf/IHF-OSCE-2000-Report-Greece.PDF).
In the field of rule of law, Romania has improved its legislation on penal procedure and execution of sentences but the crucial right to confidentiality between the detainee and his/her lawyer is not widely respected, while in Albania and Macedonia, detainees are often not informed of their rights or have access to legal counsel. The country that faces the most serious challenges in this field is probably the FRY, since during the Milosevic era the whole judicial system and police apparatus were 'reformed' so as to carry out the wishes of the regime. This is nowhere more evident than in Montenegro, which since 1992 has been a Federal state in all but name. Continuous interventions from Belgrade aimed at silencing any dissident voices either by enacting draconian laws or by moving in 'special' police and army units have effectively turned the nominally autonomous republic into a Serbian region. The situation is much more aggravated in Kosovo, where the judicial system has literally collapsed, with local judges being increasingly subjected to intimidation, coupled with widespread lawlessness due to the lack of an effective law enforcement agency. Efforts of the International community to draft new penal procedure and criminal codes, dispatch international judges in the area, reinforce the understaffed CIVPOL as well as set up a locally recruited Kosovo Police Force are definitely steps in the right direction.
In the area of freedom of expression, the Bulgarian law and the Bosnian draft law on defamation provide for heavy fines that could have a 'chilling effect' on public debate. In Croatia, charges brought against journalists for articles critical of the previous regime were dropped and the public officials offence provisions (under which a person could be persecuted for insulting the honor and dignity of top public officials) were repealed following the 2000 Presidential Elections The government of Romania has promised to repeal similar provisions but it appears that this is not one of the highest priority items in its agenda. The Macedonian Draft Law on Public Information is generally progressive but certain of its provisions give rise to apprehension as they could be invoked by the state in order to impose restrictions on journalists. In Greece, libel and defamation are still classified as criminal offences, while in Turkey no free debate can take place on sensitive issues such as the role of the military or religion. Of interest is the fact that in both countries, there is a disquieting degree of self-censorship, as the media tend to uncritically reproduce the opinions of their respective governments, especially in relation to foreign policy and national minority's issues. The previous regime in FRY used all the means in its disposal to prevent and silence any criticism of its actions by closing down TV and radio stations, with many journalists being branded as 'traitors' or 'mercenaries of the Western powers'. It even tried to extend its authority to Republika Srpska, asking for the extradition of two journalists who had written articles critical of Milosevic. In Kosovo, the main problem is the mounting number of 'hate speech' articles, directed against the remaining ethnic Serbs, presumably with a view to intimidating them in order to flee Kosovo. Comparable incidents, directed this time against the returning ethnic Serbs, take place in Croatia, with the Serbs being collectively accused of committing atrocities during the Civil war, something which makes their integration difficult if not impossible.
The religious homogeneity of the Christian Orthodox countries of the area is rather detrimental to the promotion of religious tolerance. The Bulgarian draft law on denominations makes it very difficult for any non Bulgarian Orthodox religious association to operate legally and freely, while the Greek Orthodox Church and the majority of the population continue to react over the non-inscription of religious affiliation on the I.D. cards. This is clearly of concern to those who belong to minority religions, as they come to understand that even a change of policy by the Greek state (which has been found by the European Court of Human Rights to have violated the right to freedom of religion in relation to every major religious and ethno-national minority) cannot guarantee their acceptance by the Greek society in general. The Macedonian Orthodox Church, presumably jealous of the power that Orthodox Churches wield in neighboring states, aspires to become the national/prevailing church of the state and calls for the conferment of privileges such as tax exemptions. Under the previous regime in FRY, the (illegal but tolerated) Montenegrin Orthodox Church was coming under increasing pressure from the stronger (and state controlled) Serbian Orthodox Church. Additionally, other religious minorities and especially Jehovah's Witnesses faced increasing harassment, while many Montenegrins rejected the Kosovo War draft.
The lack of a culture of tolerance can also be seen in the question of national/ethnic minorities. Greece still refuses to recognize its Macedonian and Turkish minorities (the latter is considered as a religious and not a national or ethnic one) and it is only recently that the practice of revoking the Greek citizenship of members of these two minorities has stopped. Unfortunately however, this measure does not have retroactive effect and many individuals have still not been granted their citizenship back and are currently living in a legal 'no man's land'. In a similar note, the names of 130,000 citizens of non Slovene ethnic origin (including many Roma) were erased from the registers of permanent residents in Slovenia in 1992, thus depriving them of the right to vote, find employment and receive social benefits. The Roma of Macedonia are also discriminated against and, lacking a kin-state to support them, are especially vulnerable to racist attacks in Kosovo, where they are widely thought to have collaborated with the Serbs. In Bulgaria, the ethnic Macedonian party was declared unconstitutional while in Turkey, despite the ending of hostilities between the army and the PKK, the state of emergency in the southern eastern regions of the country has not been lifted and journalists dealing with Kurdish issues continue to face harassment.
Torture and/or inhuman or degrading treatment are yet another area of concern. Although some positive developments have taken place, the condition of the detention facilities and prisons in Albania can at best be described as inadequate, with Greece and Romania facing similar problems. In Turkey, plans to reform the whole prison system are underway, as the bad conditions, the severe shortage of medical staff and the practise of small cell isolation have given rise to a number of riots. In addition, torture and ill treatment remain widespread in Turkey, without this implying that the other countries have managed to eradicate such occurrences. In Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece numerous incidents involving excessive use of force and illegal use of firearms have taken place, with the vast majority of victims being Roma and (in the case of Greece) Albanian migrants. The ethnicity of the victims, the frequency of the incidents and the fact that rarely, if ever have any officials been held responsible, make the claims of the governments that such incidents are merely 'unfortunate accidents' look rather suspicious.
Reference should be made to the particular problems that devastated Kosovo faces. Ethnically motivated violence continues to exact a heavy toll of lives while the investigation of mass burial sites has not yet been concluded. Additionally, it will be many years before the thousands of landmines laid down by the Serbian Army in anticipation of a NATO land invasion are found and de-activated.
Summarising, it can be said that although democracy has at last arrived in the Balkans, the lack of a democratic culture as well as the indifference (and at times, the open hostility) of governments in promoting such a culture might make democracy a hollow word.