Perspectives | Balkans

Who democratizes the democratizers?

By - 23.09.2020

It’s time to introduce real democracy to the EU.

Just a few days ago, I discovered there is something called the International Day of Democracy

Even though as a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina I have been living in a country that has been going through the “democratization process” led by various international actors for over 20 years, I had never previously heard about this day. And even now, I do not really understand what it is about.

I learned about it on the same day that I was marching with a couple of thousand people in Vienna, Austria, after the latest catastrophe in Lesvos, Greece, where the Moria camp had just burned down. People around me were chanting “Brick by brick, wall by wall, make the fortress Europe fall,” and “We have space.” They were referring to the fact that the EU, and the rest of Europe, has enough space to accept all those who are migrating for whatever reason and that these people should not have to live in overcrowded and humiliating camps like the one at Lesvos.

Similar protests were taking place simultaneously in other EU cities, and marches continued over the following days with the same demands and chants. If they could be summarized into a single sentence, it would be: We want a different EU, one that is open for everyone. And that sentence is coming from the people — the demos — of the EU. 

The day after the march in Vienna, an email arrived in my inbox. It was a statement sent to many journalists around the world, and it contained a message from EU leaders. 

In the email, High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell and Vice-President Dubravka Šuica state that around the world people are demonstrating, “often at great personal risk,” for democracy. 

“From Hong Kong to Lebanon, Belarus to Sudan, behind the headlines and numbers are brave and courageous people from all backgrounds. We pay tribute to them and share their commitment to democracy,” they wrote.

The sentiment, of course, is a commendable one, but the wording is notable for what it leaves out.  

Not one country in the EU is mentioned in the statement, even though protests of different natures and by different groups are happening within the states that make up the union almost daily. Does it mean these leaders do not hear the voices of the very same people who are paying them and who, democratically, elected them? Many are demanding more democracy, rule of law and human rights, just like those on the streets of Hong Kong, Lebanon, Belarus and Sudan. 

And, like in Hong Kong or Belarus, police violence is not unusual, even in the EU. 

Paris is just one EU capital where police violence during protests has become almost the norm. In Brussels, the very heart of the European Union, people are victims of police brutality and racism. And in the streets of Athens, the “birthplace of democracy,” Amnesty International has warned of “systemic problems in the Greek police with regards to violence and endemic impunity”; people there have been defending their very right to protest after the Greek government recently introduced a new law attempting to restrict it. 

Then on the island of Lesvos, people are trapped with no possibility of leaving or living a normal life, having for years demanded nothing less than freedom. Yes, they are not EU citizens, but they are the same people who were told over and over again that the West means democracy and human rights.

Having all that in mind, I have a feeling that Šuica and Borrell rightly noted that “polarisation is rising, as people’s trust in democratic institutions and practices falters.” I’m just not sure if they are aware how serious this is inside the EU itself. 

Maybe it is time for them to start doing exactly what they say.

But, around me on that day, in the capital city of an EU member state, I could see and hear that there are many people there too who do not trust their leaders and who are asking for change. 

It also struck me how nobody seems to be listening to them.

After eight months in Sarajevo, locked in Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the fact that I have the wrong passport that does not demonstrate my resistance against COVID-19 (people with EU passports can still travel more easily than those with passports from the rest of Europe), I had finally found a way to make a short trip. In Vienna, after 10 days of obligatory quarantine, I had the chance to meet with people from different member states, academics, lawyers, activists and others from different branches of civil society. 

For three days, we spoke about the closed borders and the lack of democracy in Europe and around the world. Some of them were angry, some were very tired of constant battles against unjust decisions made by different institutions, some were sad, some dreamless. For many, these frustrations come from the fact that their leaders are not listening to what they are saying. 

It’s the same kind of disappointment I have witnessed for years now in the Balkans, or that I hear about from people I meet who are heading toward the EU after leaving Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Eritrea, or any other country.

And it is that fact that people are not currently being listened to that cannot be found in the statement by EU leaders, despite their assertion that: “We must listen and we must build trust.”

Maybe it is time for them to start doing exactly what they say. 

But, it will not happen. At least not soon. 

The leaders informed their citizens that they are working on something called the “European Democracy Action Plan,” and the task is “to counter disinformation, adapt to evolving electoral threats and manipulations, as well as support free and independent media in the EU.” 

They also wrote to their citizens that “without democracy, peace and stability, long-term development and prosperity cannot exist. We must continue to be its trailblazers.” 

To me, it sounds like one of the many empty promises made in my country throughout two painful decades of the democratization process. The same empty words that are repeated year after year. Sometimes by the foreign officials in Bosnia — those who are democratizing us — sometimes by the politicians who are being democratized.

Democracy is also imposed when it does not truly come from the bottom up.

We see the results today in Bosnia, but also all over the Balkan region, where democracy, even the notion of it, barely survives. 

Maybe it has migrated like many of the citizens of our countries? Perhaps it has been pushed back from the EU’s borders and beaten, stripped naked and left in the forests around Velika Kladuša, or somewhere in Serbia, to beg for help. Treated in the same way as all those people left at the borders of “truly” democratic countries like Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. 

From my point of view, from the Balkans, something is seriously wrong in the EU. The loud and clear voices that echoed across Vienna on that day, warning of the democratic contradictions in EU border policy, are unheard. Or, better to say, ignored. 

At the moment, more than 16,000 people are officially registered as being on the move in the Balkans — the actual number is likely much higher. They are in different countries, dreaming about crossing the borders into the EU without being harmed. Many of them are coming from countries that are currently being democratized, places where different methods are being used to impose democracy — for as with any set of systems or beliefs, democracy is also imposed when it does not truly come from the bottom up.

In some countries even military force is used. Like in Bosnia or Kosovo, where military intervention was necessary to stop the atrocities being committed in the ’90s but where today, over 20 years after the wars were stopped, international military forces are still present to preserve democracy and peace. We have had to get used to the fact that our democracy means armed foreign soldiers in the streets. 

It’s enough to question whether democracy exists at all.

“Democracies” like the one I live in, that are created in this way, without the genuine engagement of the population to build a system that works for us, are often fake and do not even provide decent living conditions for citizens where they can work, love and live freely. And so, we run away. We migrate. 

We seek out “true” democracies, such as those promised by the EU.

But these democratic governments then make decisions about who is “good” and who is a “bad” migrant. The good ones will get access to asylum or to the labor market. Those who are not “good” get stuck at Moria on Lesvos, or on other Greek islands. 

If they are “lucky” enough, some will manage to reach the Balkans, where new Morias are being created, or are already here. Like at the Bosnian border with Croatia, where thousands are left with only basic, if any, care. Human rights are a notion with little meaning in this border area.

Moria was a camp with over 13,000 people crammed into a space meant for 3,000. A place where there was no future. And even when it burned down, the only answer from the democratic EU to all the suffering of people there is to build a new Moria, a new Lesvos camp where people are forced, again, to live in UNHCR shelters — 10 people to one tent. 

Not only was it an answer to the people who have been forced to live in squalid conditions in Moria, but also to all those who are marching and asking for a different EU and open borders. 

Witnessing hell after hell at the EU’s borders and within the fortress itself at places such as Moria, it’s enough to question whether democracy exists at all.

But then I’m reminded that the EU can be loud, colorful, free and open. 

The EU I was a part of for at least a couple of hours on that day (and with my Bosnian citizenship and passport, that is as far as I can get) certainly showed positive signs of hope. And it sent very different messages to those found in the International Day of Democracy statement from the bloc’s leaders. 

So, maybe the EU needs to go through the process of democratization? To go back to some fundamental roots and start building from the bottom up. 

This time, we, democratized people from all around the world, could contribute, if they let us in, together with the people who are marching and chanting that “we have space.” Maybe we could do a better job. 

Feature image: Nidžara Ahmetašević / K2.0.