Young Political Leaders of Serbia Project
In 2000, the Bulldozer Revolution and subsequent overthrow of President Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia created a window of opportunity for the reconstruction of Serbia’s government. After years of election fraud, tight media censorship and mistreatment of civilians, activists demanded a more democratic system and movement toward European integration. However, at the time, democratic political parties were too weak to gain the necessary votes to win office and form a stable government. Tension between democratically oriented political parties diminished the possibility of mutual party cooperation to form a joint government despite ideological similarities. The Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE), a non-profit, non-partisan organization, emerged in Serbia in 2003 to reduce this tension between democratic parties. In 2004, BFPE jumpstarted the Five Hundred Young Political Leaders of Serbia project which ran from 2004-2008. However, for the sake of this case study the focus will be from 2006-2007, a duration of twelve months. During this period, BFPE hosted a series of seminars which included participants from two or more democratically oriented parties with the aim of building relationships as well as identifying useful areas of mutual cooperation. BFPE also chose to focus their efforts on young emerging leaders with the hopes that they could lead a new democratic political culture through educational seminars. BFPE’s final goal was to create a critical mass of young politicians willing to seek political compromise through a culture of dialogue and to gain the ability to create constructive political coalitions in the future.
Key Lessons Learned
- President of BFPE, Sonja Licht, claimed that one of the major reasons the project was such a success was due to the legitimacy of BFPE itself. BFPE gained considerable credibility throughout the international community due to its high degree of organization and widespread perception as a fair organization. It was seen as an impartial group and was recognized for its high-level professionalism. Moreover, the Five Hundred Young Political Leaders Project would not have been as successful if not for BFPE’s unbelievable networking opportunities.
- The timing of the project was also a major factor that led to the project’s success. The revolution served as a window of opportunity to inspire young leaders to lead a new political culture through education. Licht noted that the timing of the project determined how the project was “tailor-made” to the specific climate in the region. Therefore, the project’s success was largely dependent on understanding the locals and their specific wants and needs during this crucial period of political change.
- One of the most important takeaways from the Five Hundred Young Political Leaders Project was that education served as a platform for political dialogue. Licht claimed that we often forget that there is a lack of communication between different levels and sectors of society. Education for leaders in every sector of society—business, political, social, etc.—helped develop a foundation of trust and understanding between individuals. An increase in trust and understanding helped build relationships that allow for better channels of communication so people can express their differences comfortably and freely. By creating a culture of dialogue across every sector of society, the whole culture was less prone to corruption and pursuing individual interests and more likely to act for the common good.
Actors and Stakeholders
The Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence is a non-profit, non-partisan organization founded in Serbia by Ms. Sonja Licht in November 2003 under sponsorship of the Council of Europe. BFPE is committed to training young men and women who are engaged in public affairs so they are able to support the building process of new democratic leadership. The organization’s main goal is to provide young leaders with the knowledge and skills necessary to facilitate a democratic transformation of Serbia-Montenegro’s society. BFPE aims to create a new political culture based on knowledge of and respect for pluralist democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The organization puts particular emphasis on the development of regional co-operation in South-East Europe in order to strengthen and maintain regional stability, security, and create democratic roots in the region.
President of BFPE Sonja Licht claimed that a majority of donors were international because domestic corporate philanthropy had not developed in the country. She went on to explain that finding donors was somewhat tricky because some donors believed that BFPE and this project in particular interfered too closely with politics.
Relevant donors included The Balkan Trust for Democracy, the European Agency for Reconstruction, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Open Society Institute. BFPE has also engaged and developed relationships with multiple significant political parties in the region, including G17+, Otpor (which still existed at the time), the Democratic Party (DS), the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), the New Serbia Party (NS), and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS).
Lecturers for seminars included professors from Belgrade University, University of Westminster, and Singidunum University. The National Democratic Institute also provided training for all general seminars while the Belgrade Open School assisted in training for specialized seminars. Other relevant international actors included the European Commission, the European Union Integration Office of the Republic of Serbia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, diplomats from various Embassies, and various leaders of NGOs.
In terms of geography, the project included participants from the City of Belgrade as well as eighteen other prominent towns in Serbia. These nineteen areas make-up more than 50% of the total population and include almost all relevant industrial capacities in Serbia. BFPE favored participants from two ethnically heterogeneous territories: the Province of Voivodina and South-East and South-West Serbia. Therefore, particular emphasis was put on selecting multiethnic participants from towns like Novi Sad, Subotica, Vrsac, Zrenjanin, Bujanovac, and Novi Pazar. These towns were specifically chosen due to the presence of influential national minorities in Serbia.
According to the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, “It is also very important for us to secure representation of minority groups. Even when the programs are mostly for national-level activities, we put a special emphasis on including local actors as well because Serbia is still a very centralized country and regular communication between national and other levels of governance is still not developed enough. When we work with municipalities we group them by region in order to enhance horizontal cooperation among them.”
The main goal of the Five Hundred Political Leaders of Serbia Project was to educate and prepare a new generation of young leaders from democratically oriented political parties as well as national minority parties to lead constructive political engagement and cross-party cooperation in Euro-Atlantic Serbia.
BFPE’s three main objectives:
- To provide political training for five hundred young leaders, coming from all different regions in Serbia.
- To stimulate establishment and continuous functioning of a network of young leaders which will contribute to better understanding and cooperation across party lines.
- To create conditions for successful implementation of joint projects of the alumni network, aimed at raising standards of their political engagement at the local level.
The first series of seminars occurred in March and April of 2004, and included young leaders of the political party G17+ and Otpor. The second series of seminars occurred in November and December of 2004, and included young leaders from the Democratic Party (DS), Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). The projected time frame for the first series of seminars was approximately twelve months.
According to the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), general seminars focused on learning about fundamental ideological backgrounds and political parties in Serbia. Later, these seminars progressed to discussions and analysis of current political and economic reforms, issues of international cooperation, and the question of Serbia’s integration into the European Union. Professional seminars were more concentrated and included presentations on “Euro-Atlantic Integration”, “EU Negotiations in Practice” and “Representation to the EU.”
Monitoring/Evaluation of Results
At the end of each seminar participants were asked to fill-out evaluation forms. Participants were asked to evaluate each lecturer based on the five criteria listed below:
- Preparedness: Was the lecturer prepared for the lecture?
- Clarity: How clear was the presentation?
- Interactivity: Was the lecture interactive?
- Usefulness: How useful was the lecture?
- General Impression: What is your general impression of the lecturer?
At the end of each series of seminars, BFPE organized a round-table discussion in order to obtain additional oral evaluations from participants. Workshops were also evaluated according to two criteria: usefulness and general impression. Each participant gave every workshop an evaluation number ranging from 1-5—1.unsatisfactory, 2. Satisfactory, 3. Good, 4. Very good, 5. Excellent.
Both seminar series were highly successful, attracting forty participants per seminar cycle and a total of 120 participants during one year. President of BFPE, Sonja Licht, claimed that there was never a time when the quota for participants was not reached. In fact, an abundance of individuals were eager to participate in both seminars leading BFPE to pick participants based on diversity and expected participation. BFPE also noted that during the seminars, young leaders engaged together in various educational activities that helped identify similarities on both the individual and party level. In fact, a youth political network was created on both regional and national levels as well to promote cooperation and communication in the future. The training and seminars sponsored under BFPE raised individual and parties’ capacity as well as increased awareness about important issues in Serbian society.
Licht claimed, “We’ve expected things to change slowly, but I see a desire to move away from a conflictual society, a larger level of openness, and more of a willingness for debate than ever before” (Rockefeller Brothers Fund).
Success was also largely determined by participant evaluations, which provided positive and insightful feedback for BFPE. Licht claimed that the written evaluation process was highly successful. She recalled one situation in which a large number of participants expressed a desire for more information regarding the LGBT population. BFPE responded immediately and devoted a section of the curriculum to knowledge on the LGBT population. Moreover, BFPE was able to combine evaluation feedback and identify four trends. BFPE was able to establish that:
- An overwhelming number of participants were very satisfied with the seminars.
- Participants preferred workshops to lectures. Specifically, they tended to favor seminars organized in conjunction with the National Democratic Institute.
- Participants believed they were very knowledgeable about the functioning of their respective political parties and did not like lecturers who challenged their previous opinions or spoke about unfamiliar topics.
- Participants preferred lecturers who spoke about practical, real issues, rather than those who attempted to tackle problems theoretically.
According to one project donor, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Milos Aligrudic, Vice President of the Democratic Party of Serbia, participated in the first of BFPE’s annual seminars in 2004. When reflecting on the seminar he said, “I had many doubts. However, during the first session I became convinced that this NGO has the very serious and important intention to create something never before seen in Serbia—the first proper political school for all those considered the future of Serbian politics”. Licht went on to explain that to this day, participants from the seminars still approach her and thank her for the incredible opportunity to be a part of the Five Hundred Young Political Leaders initiative.
The project also proved very successful in terms of empowering women and integrating them into more political processes. BFPE believed a good balance between female and male participation was essential to moving towards a more democratic system. According to Licht, women bring a fresh, new energy to the political sphere. By leaving women out of the political process, the country was neglecting a major resource it had to offer. Licht also claimed that data has proven that women are much less corrupt than men and therefore are essential leaders in the changing political climate in Serbia. Thus, BFPE was very proud to announce that less than one year after the Five Hundred Political Leaders Project began, the first women caucus was established in Serbia. Although the caucus was an informal grouping, it produced outstanding results in public policy, including changing and modifying some major gender discrimination laws. Since 2012, new election laws require each party to contain at least 30% women representation. Furthermore, every third member of the Serbian parliament is a women. According to Licht, Serbia has more women in parliament than America has in Congress. Notably, women serve on local parliaments throughout the country as well. Clearly, the project played a role in educating and empowering women to some degree.
Following the first series of seminars in 2004, BFPE supported the creation of an alumni network called the Organization of Young Leaders in Serbia (OMLIS). Immediately, young leaders from the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), the Democratic Party (DS), the G17+, and the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) joined the alumni network and appointed two members to the Coordination Committee of OMLIS. The most important feature of OMLIS was the promotion of mutual cooperation of young leaders following BFPE’s seminars. In oral evaluations, many participants expressed high interest and value in widening political horizons by meeting youth representatives from different parties. Thus, OMLIS created a degree of project sustainability by establishing a community for political leaders to stay connected after the Five Hundred Young Political Leaders Project was complete.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States claimed that as a result of the program, over 450 participants were active in local advocacy campaigns to increase youth involvement in local politics and to clarify the importance of the European Union in civil society. GMF states, “By attending the sessions, participants improved inner-city dialogue among young members of different political parties and created an informal youth network called the Organization of Young Leaders of Serbia (OMLIS)…this organization has succeeded in facilitating cooperation and exchange in three regions of the country.” The Development Director of BFPE, Biljana Dakić-Đorđević, concluded, “As former participants further their political careers, they continue to rely on this network to encourage communication between political parties that were previously unlikely to cooperate.”
Reflecting on the project from 2006-2007, it was clear that some structural and managerial issues inhibited the project from reaching its full potential. Although BFPE already had a vast network, such as their alumni network—Organization of Young Leaders of Serbia (OMLIS)—Licht believed the Five Hundred Leaders project could have benefited from more extensive networking. This project also exemplified the common problem of limited funding, which was largely out of BFPE’s control. The President of BFPE also claimed that the organization wasn’t able to directly manage the program as much as they would have liked due to donor influence/opinion.
When asked what surprised her during the implementation process, Licht explained that the organization initially underestimated participants’ ideological misunderstanding of party differences and divisions. Parties’ political profiles and policy platforms were so weak that there was serious confusion over ideological and philosophical party differences, even within participant’s own parties. There was also a misunderstanding of the meaning and implications of social democracy. Therefore, BFBE tried to emphasize the differences between liberalism and social democracy as part of the curriculum. This unanticipated misunderstanding shed light on the importance of truly understanding the climate and people the organization was working with, something that BFPE would like to improve upon in the future.
Based on feedback from evaluations, the organization would also like to incorporate more interactivity into their seminars. Specifically, BFPE would have liked to have had more workshops, more homework for the participants, and made more time for open discussions following seminars so that participants would have been able to deliberate more on ideological differences and views. However, time and money constraints played a large role in expanding the program and BFPE may need to seek other means of funding in order to keep the program running.
Following the series of seminars in 2006-2007, BFPE addressed future sustainability problems with the project. Once leaders participated in a series of seminars, BFPE noticed that many of the most educated participants retreated from the political light to pursue education. BFPE would like to find a way to encourage participants to continue further education while still remaining active in the political sphere. BFPE believed continuing the education process beyond seminars and workshops was crucial to advancing their goals.
The Balkan Trust for Democracy. (2006). Final Report: Five Hundred Young Political Leaders of Serbia. Serbia, Belgrade: The Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence.
The Balkan Trust for Democracy. (2006). Grant Application: Five Hundred Young Political Leaders of Serbia. Serbia, Belgrade: The Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence.
The German Marshall Fund. (30 January 2013). Serbian Fund Educates Youth on the Importance of Political Participation. Retrieved from http://www.gmfus.org/archives/serbian-fund-educates-youth-on-the-importance-of-political-participation/.
Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence. Retrieved from http://www.rbf.org/close-up/belgrade-fund-political-excellence.