Tomicah S. Tillemann
Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies
Tirana, Albania
November 10, 2011

It’s a privilege to be here today with Prime Minister Berisha, the Foreign Ministers of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and many other distinguished guests.

Before coming to the State Department with Secretary Clinton, I spent four years working with then-Senator Joseph Biden on the staff of Senate Foreign Relations Committee as his advisor on European and Eurasian affairs. During my time in that job, there was no region of the world that I visited more often than Southeastern Europe. There was no basket of issues that I focused on more intensely. And there was no set of countries that, for me, so clearly defined both the challenges and opportunities inherent in the work of building democracy.

The Western Balkans is also a neighborhood where I was fortunate to make a number of good friends. I’m glad to see so many in this audience – and impressed, but not surprised, that all of you have received significant promotions since the last time we met.

I want to applaud both the subject and timing of this conference, and hope that it can serve as the initial exchange in a broader conversation. In my remarks today, I’d like to focus on three interlocking themes:

  • First, as I hope everyone in this room knows, the United States cares deeply about – and has invested heavily in – the future of the region.
  • Second, the Western Balkans, like the rest of the world, is facing a period of extraordinary change. Due to advances in technology and shifts in culture, we are witnessing an important redefinition in the relationship between governments and the citizens they serve. As individuals gain access to new sources of information and new tools for activism, expectations for governments, governance, and democracy are shifting. Over the last year, the geopolitical earthquake that’s shaken North Africa and the Middle East has provided strong evidence of this phenomenon.
  • My third point is that how we respond to these new dynamics will, in large measure, determine the success of our societies. As leaders in government, civil society, and the private sector, we can embrace these forces of transformation and reap their benefits. Or we can ignore them and risk the consequences. But we cannot avoid them.

Because of the United States’ commitment to this region, we have an immense stake in how these forces will shape Southeastern Europe. It is in that spirit that I hope we can explore these new developments together; discuss some of the strategies we are deploying in response; and, hopefully, generate new ideas for how we can harness these dynamics for the common good of our nations.

1. U.S. Commitment to the Region

This audience knows enough history that there is no need to belabor the point, but I want to start by acknowledging Americans’ extraordinary, generational commitment to advancing peace, security, justice, and democracy in the Balkans. We’ve spent billions of dollars bolstering the region’s institutions. We’ve deployed tens of thousands of servicemen and women to help advance the cause of peace. We’ve worked to foster economic progress and development. And we have tried to amplify the efforts of the civic and cultural organizations in civil society that weave together the region’s social fabric.

For the United States, our commitment to Albania and all of your countries is an integral component of our long-standing pledge to work for a Europe that is whole, free, democratic, and at peace. We believe that all of Europe, including the Western Balkans, must have an opportunity to be a part of the architecture that supports the Euro-Atlantic community. That’s why we do – and always will – support the principle that countries in the region should have an open door to membership in the European Union and NATO. And that’s why we stand ready to help nations meet the high standards for membership in these institutions. We are working every single day with the governments and people of your countries to advance these goals.

Now, of course, this work is accompanied by an appreciation for the extent of the efforts required in order for the region to realize the promise of Euro-Atlantic integration. We know that the road ahead will be long and tough. We recognize and celebrate the progress that has occurred over the last twenty years.

As an aside, my late grandfather, Tom Lantos, who served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was always proud of the fact that he was the first American elected official to visit Albania after the nation gained independence. If he could visit again today, he would find what, in many respects, is an entirely new country. But he would also recognize that over the last two decades, Albanians, like others in the region, have encountered incredible – and often enduring – challenges. In order to move forward on the journey that is democracy, governments and citizens must find new mechanisms to address those issues.

2. Forces of Change

This brings us to my second point: the forces of change that are transforming the world’s political landscape. The spread of new communication and networking technologies is rapidly remaking the relationships that define the social compact in our countries. There was a time, not long ago, when government accountability was measured by the metrics of multi-year election cycles and the annual reports of international organizations and civil society groups.

Today, access to tweets and blogs, mobile phones and search engines is allowing citizens to demand information and accountability in real time, often on a minute-by-minute basis. These tools are making it easier for people to come together and take action when they feel that public servants are sidestepping their responsibility to serve the public good. As a result of these new dynamics, we are witnessing a profound shift in the center of gravity in our societies. Voices outside of government – and particularly in civil society – are emerging as powerful catalysts for change.

Now, the idea of civic action prompting political reform is certainly not new, and it’s played a profound role in shaping the Western Balkans. Many of the demonstrators who filled the streets in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year took inspiration and instruction from the brave activists who preceded them in Belgrade and across the Balkans. But technology is making it dramatically easier and cheaper for citizens to come together around common goals and take common action to serve the common good. And that trend is accelerating. Citizens are demanding results from their governments. And they have more tools than ever to measure the performance of those in power.

3. How do we respond?

This brings us to the question of how all of us – but especially those who serve in government – should respond to these changes. Some would suggest that we perpetuate an unsustainable status quo or ignore the impact of these trends. Others have attempted – usually unsuccessfully – to suppress these tools or silence those in civil society who try to harness them on behalf of change. Perhaps predictably, many governments are uneasy about facing the increased criticism of those in civil society and the media who advocate on behalf of greater transparency and accountability. None of these responses should surprise us. But today, I’d like to suggest an alternative approach – an approach that many of you in this room are working to implement in your own countries.

The same tools that are empowering citizens and civil society to demand more of their governments are also making it easier and cheaper for governments to share information and deliver higher standards of performance.

Now, we all understand that for governments, accepting and responding to the criticism of civil society may not be pleasant. But it carries tremendous benefits.

When I was a young man, I played soccer – not terribly well. And I was often irritated when my coach pushed me to work harder, do another drill, or suffer through another set of exercise when I already felt exhausted. Now, the process wasn’t particularly joyous, but bit by bit, as a result of that coaching, I became a better player. Similarly, civil society and the media can play that same role when they encourage better performance from our governments. And just as excellent athletes will seek out tough, effective coaches, governments that want to perform to a higher standard can benefit by seeking the advice of actors in civil society. We’ve recognized this truth in our own policy making. And we’re supporting and developing initiatives in the region and around the world that are designed to strengthen the ability of civil society and the media to engage productively with governments.

Unfortunately, there is a risk that civil society and media organizations can come under political pressure, and reduce the public's confidence in their objectivity. This is a real challenge in the Western Balkans. But we still find examples of incredibly courageous work. This year, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCPR)—a network of investigative journalists—won the 2011 Daniel Pearl Global Investigative Journalism Award for its work to track the burgeoning network of offshore companies used to hide ownership and assets, launder money and create secret businesses, including some related to drug and weapons smuggling, that elude law enforcement agents worldwide.

It’s easy enough for a government to say it is committed to democracy. But the proof of that commitment lies in the day-to-day choices of its leaders. This is true whether they be in government or in the opposition, serving in parliament or working at a ministry, in law enforcement, education, or the judiciary. This commitment requires strong personal will and courage, and also the foresight to understand the direction in which the region is moving. Often, the painful challenge of self-examination is a prerequisite for positive change.

Last year at the State Department, we undertook a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of every bureau and every program we run. The result was a report called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (try saying that five times fast) or, more humanely, the QDDR. One of its key conclusions was that we need to do more to engage partners beyond the state and work with them to advance a common agenda.

So in February, Secretary Clinton launched an initiative called The Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. Prior to the launch, this architecture had been reserved for our most important bilateral partners. This was the first time we have launched such a dialogue with partners outside of government. Through regular meetings, strategic dialogues facilitate engagement between our most senior diplomats and senior diplomats for other nations across a whole range of issues. In our dialogue with civil society, five working groups, senior officials from the State Department and White House will work with civil society leaders from around the world on a continuing basis to develop a common agenda on issues such as labor, religion and foreign policy, women's empowerment, democracy and human rights, and governance and transparency.

One of the most important aspects of my work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was congressional oversight. Now, I’ll admit the idea of congressional oversight is considerably more satisfying when you’re working for the Congress than when you’re working for the State Department. But performing oversight afforded me an opportunity to see up close the magnitude of the United States’ commitment to Southeastern Europe. It’s a region where much of our work has focused on helping civil society actors improve oversight of government institutions and strengthen their ability to ensure transparent and accountable public services.

In Kosovo, for example, the U.S. Government has supported the efforts of Ferizaj-based Initiative for Progress (INPO), which has successfully worked to promote the efficiency, transparency and accountability of local authorities. Through its televised debates and dialogue with municipal assemblies, INPO helped to inform the public about pressing issues and offered a means for citizens to become involved in the political process. Because of public pressure, one municipality had to suspend the Council for Community Safety for not allowing representatives of all political parties and civil society to take part in decision-making. And the mayor of another town was disciplined municipality officials after INPO brought to light a number of violations of government authority.

In Montenegro, the U.S. National Democratic Institute helped found and supported the development of the Center for Democratic Transition, which has provided citizens with nonpartisan information on the democratic performance of government bodies and political parties. CDT’s monitoring of the 2006 independence referendum was particularly important in ensuring citizens that the close outcome favoring independence reflected their will.

This work is not just a matter of providing financial support to non-governmental groups. A professional, responsible civil society that practices transparency in its own operations is the bedrock of a democratic state.

The Bosnia and Herzegovina chapter of Transparency International has been at the forefront of efforts to combat the high level of corruption in Bosnian government institutions, particularly conflicts of interest. TI’s analysis of proposed changes to the Law on Conflict of Interest revealed that the amendments would be worse than the existing legislation, and that certain provisions of the amendments actually contravened international treaties to which BiH is a party. TI’s media and advocacy campaign to raise awareness about these issues, launched with U.S. support, led to the withdrawal of the proposed flawed changes, and has helped educated the public on what it should expect in such a law.

For this reason, the United States is a founding member, along with seven other countries, of the Open Government Partnership. This is a new, multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. I’m happy to report that almost all the countries in the western Balkans have come forward to participate in the Open Government Partnership.

As we pursue the goal of greater openness, we must also ensure that government officials are held to the same standards of behavior as other citizens – this means eliminating immunity privileges that have ensured that those who abuse power never face the consequences. Without these consequences – these checks and balances – societies cannot build the trust they need to succeed in the long run.

Promoting strong leaders is another crucial area of support, both in civil society but throughout government as well. Our support is aimed at providing emerging leaders with the skills to build self-sustaining organizations, demand greater transparency and accountability, and generate public participation to redress grievances – or push for mechanisms to ensure protection for those who would press for change from within.

For example, in Macedonia, the Youth Cultural Center (MKC) in Bitola has provided young people the chance to gain professional skills and become more active in their communities by introducing volunteers to local government institutions.

We are also working multilaterally, through the Community of Democracies, to support leaders in countries in the midst of democratic transition. During the last two years, the Community has undergone a transformation from a forum where democracies could get together into a platform where democracies can get things done. At a time when there is an urgent need for international support for civil society and new emerging democracies, the newly operational Community inaugurated the Democracy Partnership Challenge – a new global race to the top for emerging democracies – that will channel experience and expertise from countries that have come through democratic transitions to nations in the earliest stages of democratization.

We approached a handful of countries in the midst of promising transitions and asked them to demonstrate a serious commitment to democracy, outline the steps they had taken to consolidate democracy, and identify areas that, with a little assistance, would move them to the next phase in their transitions. Tunisia and Moldova submitted the most compelling applications and were selected to participate. Together, the United States and Poland will chair the Task Force for Moldova. And I am headed to Chisinau with the Polish Deputy Foreign Minister in a few days to lay the groundwork for our task force. Slovakia and the Dutch will chair the Task Force on Tunisia and took a joint mission to Tunis last month.

Let me conclude where I began: we are witnessing extraordinary changes that are redefining the way that citizens within a community relate to their governments and the way that democracies respond to the challenges of the 21st century. Because the United States has such a strong interest in the success and the future of the Balkans, we care deeply about how these forces will play out here. Ultimately, we believe that engaging civil society, strengthening an independent media, and promoting accountability and transparency are the best avenues for responding to the broader forces of change that are already at work in our countries.