MLADEN JOVANOVIĆ, Head of the National Decentralization Coalition: Centralization Kills, Doesn’t it?

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Many unsuccessful countries suffer from centralization. Some of them are „remnants of larger states“ with capital cities that are former regional centres which have metastasized into “the head of an octopus“, like Budapest, Yerevan, Belgrade, Sofia and Skopje. Some have a dual centralization like Athens-Thessaloniki. We are talking about decentralization with an anti-centralization activist, Mladen Jovanović.

How can we stop Serbian citizens from massively migrating to Belgrade, Novi Sad and possibly Niš?

— Centralization is a weird animal. It feeds on concentration of power – primarily political and economic. Centralization of decision-making and public administration is just the fuel for the engine that brings people and businesses to move to capital and larger cities. The State of Serbia needs to act. And act quickly, because for some smaller communities it is maybe even too late. Serbia is now fighting for the life of mid-size communities, towns and cities outside the big three (Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš). What has to be done? Local self-governments need to have a
direct access to larger percentage of public revenues and principle of subsidiarity needs to be fully implemented. Local government budgets combined, including the budget of Vojvodina, make only 10-12% of total public revenues in Serbia (Ministry of Finance data from 2018). This means that out of 10 dinars that citizens give to the state, maximum 1.2 dinars stay at the local level, while outside Vojvodina it is even less than 1 dinar. This is significantly lower than the EU average of 32%, and considerably less than more developed EU democracies where the percentage goes up to over 40%. With such a dire financial framework, local governments in Serbia are powerless when faced with problems of local population. On the other hand, political and election system in Serbia disturbs local political processes, with a high level of clientelism between local and central government that is incapable of being reactive to needs of people in communities. Fiscal decentralization and enforcement of subsidiarity principle have to be coordinated with national policies dedicated to balanced regional development, that are currently completely missing in Serbia. We need to give a stronger push to communities that are currently less successful and don’t have resources of their own to grow and develop. To be very clear, balanced regional development policies should not be based only on increased public spending on this topic. For example, the state can simply change its requirements toward foreign investors that receive state subsidies and demand for the employee salaries to level up to the municipal average. In this way, investors will be financially encouraged to go to poorer communities. We can also consider the option of decentralizing revenues and management of natural resources which can also assure higher level of income for local level and definitely more efficient management system. Currently, towns and villages around Kopaonik are some of the poorest in Serbia and don’t have any access or influence on what is happening in our biggest ski center, which one of the most significant income generators in Serbia. At the same time, Kopaonik’s nature is being ruined with consequences that will have a major impact only on local population. As one of our activists said – the state is cutting down our forest, but the local community will lose its river, or face the coming
landslide. Highly centralized education system management is one of the key reasons for the deteriorating situation in schools outside the big 3 cities, limiting access to good education all over Serbia and making young people from smaller communities disadvantaged in terms of getting higher education or finding a job. What should a young person in Serbia do in such situation than to pack their things and move to Belgrade, Novi Sad, and to a lesser degree, to Niš?

Highly regionalized countries like Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, Australia, Canada, the US and others are best regulated, while some countries, that would otherwise be highly-centralized, have somewhat mitigated this process through federalization, like Austria. Do you think that some of these formats or combinations could be copied and implemented in Serbia?

— Regionalism has not been on Serbia’s political agenda for the last 30 years, with some exceptions. Political stakeholders also show superficial knowledge of this concept. There is a variety of models that should be taken in consideration. Regionalization based on natural resources is an interesting option, allowing better and more sustainable management in favour of local communities. This model could facilitate creation of regions around Stara Planina, Kopaonik, the green belt of Negotinska Krajina, etc. Other model could be creation of regions with 3-4 stronger cities in each region, making sure that these cities provide access to good education, health, transportation and work to people in the region – i.e. Ćuprija, Paraćin and Jagodina. In this case it isn’t necessary to create huge infrastructures in each of these 3-4 cities. Many more formats are possible. When it comes to those aforementioned,
the question of political administration of the region is not in the focus. A type of political administration should be a consequence of intent and purpose of regionalization. Unfortunately, the issue of political power is always imposing
itself as the issue above all issues in the Balkans, frequently more important than life itself. This is why Serbia is heading toward a demographic disaster with villages, cities and even entire regions losing people at incredibly high rates.

In our region, the term regionalization is still a synonym for a division of a country. The naturally regionalized countries like Croatia or Serbia are stubbornly refusing to recognize their own regions and give rights and money to historical regions. Rather, they keep insisting on counties. Does this yield counter-productive results, like it did in Ukraine?

— People in Serbia are scared of separatism and advocates of centralism are seriously misusing this. But separatism is wrongly linked to regionalism. The world’s history clearly shows that people demand separation when they feel
powerless, when their rights and economic status are out of their control and dependent on political society that they cannot reach or hold accountable. Clearly, concentration of political power is the trigger for separatism since such
concentration excludes people from decision-making. If regions have decision-making powers and if they can shape their policies to fit their specific conditions, policies will be improving the lives of people exactly when, where and
how it is really needed. The very nature of centrist policies is fundamentally wrong since one generic solution at a national level cannot fit different specific needs of people living in dramatically different environments, even in a small country like Serbia. Relative success of Vojvodina compared to the rest of Serbia clearly shows that regionalism does have its advantages. The question is how to develop regionalism further with enough solidarity and mutual understanding, while not taking anything away from Vojvodina, but allowing everybody else to get more.

My favourite future option for Serbia is akin to the Spanish monarchy – counties in provinces that comprise federal monarchy. Money and culture are dealt with locally, everything else is up to the federal authorities. Nowadays, terrorism and secession is being pacified. This is surely not the way to go.

— Serbia is territorially too small for two-level regionalization, but we should start the process with an open mind. Local levels need to have bigger access to public funding without a doubt. There should be public funds and policies dedicated exclusively to the issues that are related to regions, even in case that Serbia doesn’t start forming some
sort of administrative regions. Local and regional levels should be in charge of urban transportation development, energy distribution, small and medium sized airports, culture and cultural heritage, environmental issues, natural resource management, provision of basic health services, elementary education etc. Some of these authorities
could be shared with central level, but key inputs, plans and inclusion of citizens in decision-making processes can happen only at the local and regional level. Political participation is the key to pacification and conflict management. Taking away the possibility for meaningful citizen political participation leaves people in position where they have
no other choice but to leave or fight. Consequences of both are destroying communities.

Who are your partners, both domestic and foreign?

— NCD has 14 association members from all over Serbia. Additionally, we cooperate with more than 50 different civil society organizations from Serbia and the region on regular basis. We are most proud of our accomplishments in building our relations with citizens, where more than 300 men and women in Serbia are supporting our activism. Wider support was also evident during the protest against centralization of Niš airport when over 5.000 people gathered in the main town square. Our researches are alsož recognized by the University of Pennsylvania that ranked us 48th of the best research organizations in the world in 2018 in topics of transparency and good governance. Our initiatives for changing the electoral system and decentralized development of civil society are supported by different donors, including USAID, European Union, National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Embassy of Sweden in cooperation with Belgrade Open School and others.

INFRASTRUCTURE CAN HELP?

Do you think that infrastructure could save Serbia from centralization? For example, if a tunnel, fast railroad and motorway were built between Šabac, Ruma and Novi Sad, someone could live in Ruma and take a 25-minute-commute to work in Novi Sad, or travel from Smederevo to Belgrade for work too, without the need to move to their place of work. Could this contribute to the revival of smaller towns that are devastated and suffer from population migration to bigger cities and abroad?

— Infrastructure is the key of development. Motorway, road and railroad infrastructure is the base of growth and progress of small communities in Western Europe. My personal experience is very much connected to France, where life in smaller towns has many advantages compared to big cities. Communities are thriving thanks to their own good local infrastructure, as well as good connections within their regions and other regions. France is considered a centralized country, but compared to Serbia, it is a decentralization heaven. It should also be noted that one of the requests of Gilets Jaunes protesters in Southern France is “preventing the delocalization of France”.

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