Activism with never-ending enthusiasm
Vukosava Crnjanski on promoting fact-checking in Serbia and being resistant to the country’s complicated politics
Serbia is a country which has been through a lot and so have this country’s tireless activists. Against all odds, the years of slowly building a healthier dialogue about politics, independent journalism, and human rights have not left a mark on Vukosava Crnjanski’s motivation.
She has been an important figure in Serbia’s activist scene for more than 20 years and is the founder and the director of CRTA (Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability), an independent NGO committed to developing democratic culture and civic activism. Vukosava’s work has been commended at an international level: she received the
W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award in recognition of her innovation, commitment, and contributions. In 2018, Vukosava and her CRTA team received the Democracy Defender Award from the OSCE. For nearly two decades, Vukosava has worked as a trainer, helping members of other organisations, the media, and political parties develop their political skills, strategies, and organisations.
It all started in the late 90s, when she was an active participant in the Civic Alliance of Serbia party’s youth group. Founded in 1992, the Civic Alliance later that decade became the only political organisation in the country led by a woman – Vesna Pešić.
“We were in love with promoting civil rights and pushing democracy values forward”, reminisces Vukosava. She describes the Civic Alliance of Serbia as an “NGO among the parties” – they were engaged in anti-war rhetoric, promoting democracy, and fighting against the authoritarian politics of Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006, President of Yugoslavia between 1992-2000).
In the early 2000s, she realized that she could be more effective operating outside of traditional politics. “At a certain point, I realised I didn’t have the stomach for compromises. There’s this thing embedded in the political culture of our country “if you’re not fully with me, you’re against me.” We still don’t know how to discuss the decision-making process. If I critique a process, that doesn’t mean I’m against it but usually that’s how the other side takes it. This is, so to say, the “male way” of dealing with it.”
This led to the creation of the Liberal Network (Linet), an NGO focused on media freedom, preventing hate speech, highlighting cases of conflict of interest, introducing the idea of limiting obligatory army service, and engaging students at faculties and universities, which she describes as “islands of freedom” during the Milošević era. She remembers the early 2000s as a period of hope whose window of opportunity quickly closed. She points to the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Ðinđić in 2003 as a sad turning point for local politics. “He was a person with a vision.”
In 2008, inspired by the fact-checking models used during the John McCain / Barack Obama presidential campaign, the team introduced their own platform, “Istinomer” (“Truth-o-meter”) and in turn, started to fact-check elections in Serbia. “What can I say, we’re passionate about facts!” she exclaims.
The challenges in front of Vukosava and the discussions she wants to create are also reflected in the way she talks about certain words and meanings – how the Serbian word “odgovornost” can be translated as “responsibility” but that it’s hard to find the right local word for “accountability”.
In 2010 she was also helped found the Open Parliament, a new initiative on transparent politics, focused on building a bridge between citizens and their representatives. “We have a system where we don’t vote directly for our representatives – it’s the leading political parties that select the MPs. As you can guess, monitoring of what was promised versus what has been done is needed.”
The culmination of her work and these ideas was transformation of Linet into the Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (CRTA) in 2010. Its abbreviation CRTA is pronounced almost like the word “cherta” – a Serbian idiom meaning to “take a challenge” or to “sum up”. Currently, more than 50 people work for or collaborate with this organisation and a lot of them are women. Vukosava says that although they’re not exclusively focused on women’s rights, she likes to think of CRTA as a “women’s organisation”. With this platform, she continues to introduce tools and initiatives in fact-checking, as well as what Vukosava cites as the most inspiring part of her work – leading training sessions with youth organisations and aspiring activists, empowering those with a vision for a better future. “It’s those a-ha! moments in the eyes of the younger ones which are so crucial for me.”
Vukosava doesn’t sugar-coat anything and is direct about the political climate of Serbia. “We’re experiencing setbacks. We don’t have the experience living in a functioning democracy”, she says. “We have a lot of unresolved issues – facing our role in the Bosnian War, our treatment of Kosovo, the thinking that stability just means we don’t kill each other. These are always behind our backs. We’re essentially a non-reformed country, as we never developed parties that could create a functioning democracy.”
Crnjanski also criticizes the lack of condemnation of war crimes and of any significant steps towards eradicating criminal structures – issues far too familiar, in different variations, for many countries in the region.
“If you had asked me about the state of political transparency in Serbia in the early 2010s, I’d say we passed the exam for creating a basic platform for free and fair elections. Today, we have some serious issues.” After the last parliamentary elections in June 2020, which saw President Aleksandar Vučić and his SNS coalition winning with 60,65%, Vukosava feels this is another major setback as Serbia is now led by an almost one-party system. “And in this state of an absolute majority held by the ruling coalition, institutions simply succumb.”
One year later, this system clashed with CRTA’s activity in an expected way. In March-April 2021, CRTA, along with the investigative reporting outlet KRIK, which runs the anti-disinformation site Raskrikavanje, were a target of what they describe as a slander campaign. It all started when several members of parliament verbally attacked CRTA, accusing it of supposed involvement in an attempted coup d’état and an assassination of President Vučić – a reaction against the organisation previously filing a complaint against several MPs for violating the Parliament’s code of conduct.
“It’s usual for NGO’s and activism collectives to be labelled as “foreign agents”, and usually this is cranked up by the media across the country, especially around elections – it’s a mechanism that works. But this slander campaign came as a surprise”, Vukosava says. “We faced a similar narrative in the 90s and this type of hate speech is coming back.”
As a woman in Serbia, standing against the regressive rhetoric of the politicians, Vukosava says she sees more of a structural problem. “In the current political climate, a woman in power is not addressing women’s issues and an LGBT politician is not addressing LGBT topics”, she says, referencing to openly gay but ambivalently received Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, part of the political status quo. “There are welcoming steps in all of this, but from the outside there’s a perspective that it’s all okay, when from the inside, it’s like window dressing. At the end of the day, it's a system from which men benefit.”
The MeToo era has affected Serbia but according to Vukosava: “We don’t have strong institutions to back up these stories and bring big results.”
At the end of the day, what keeps her motivated? “I don’t have the right to give up, I’ve invested so much in empowering the citizens.”
Would it be a right guess if we say she has much more work now in comparison to when she started? “Yes”, she says with an ironic smile, “Unfortunately.”
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