The Rebirth of Civil Society

Civic activism versus autocracy: In Serbia, the struggle continues.

Sonja Licht, president of the Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society, Belgrade. 
Sonja Licht, president of the Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society, Belgrade. Milan Nikolić

It is an almost impossible task to mark the very beginning of civic activism, ergo the birth of civil society in Serbia and beyond. As an active participant in the 1968 student movement, I could state that this was the birthplace of civic dissent and thus the beginning of civil society. Or was it the workers’ strikes in the 1970s, the first feminist meeting in South Eastern Europe in October 1978 in Belgrade, the debate about nuclear power plants and the anti-nuclear movement at the beginning of the 1980s, or perhaps the first human rights groups from the mid-1980s? Probably all of them together. To describe all civic breakthroughs, one would need to write a book, however. So I’ll start with a movement in history that describes the accelerated times we lived in after the “Big Bang” of the post-communist world at the end of the 1980s.

„Counteracting powers were rushing to fill the ... space: nationalism and liberal democracy.“

Sonja Licht

On a December morning in 1989, Veran Matić, the editor-in-chief of Radio B92, asked me to prepare a story about the people’s uprising in neighboring Timişoara. At that time, B92 was the most prominent independent electronic medium in Yugoslavia although its reach was still limited. I wanted to grasp the broader context of this event just five weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall from the outset. For days, I tried to call people representing the new wave of democratic revolutions. It was an almost impossible task with the still extremely bad phone lines in Eastern Europe. Finally, I managed to talk to three important dissidents: Petr Uhl, a prominent left-leaning Czechoslovak activist and a member of Civic Forum, János Kis, the founder and editor-in-chief of Beszélő, Hungary’s first underground journal, and the first president of the Alliance of Free Democrats, and Lev Timofeev, chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. I talked to Timofeev after his return from the burial of Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Prize laureate in physics, and inspirer of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union and beyond.

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