Goran Svilanovic took office as secretary general of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) on January 1, 2013. A Serbian diplomat and politician, he had previously served as coordinator of economic and environmental activities for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (2008–2012). In November 2004, he was appointed chair of Working Table I (democratisation and human rights) of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, where he served until the end of 2007. He was a member of the Senior Review Group of the Stability Pact, which proposed the transformation of the Stability Pact into the Regional Cooperation Council.
He has worked with a number of organisations and committees, including the Centre for Antiwar Action (1995–1999), the International Commission on the Balkans (2004–2006) and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (2007–2008).
As secretary general of the RCC, what opportunities for cooperation do you see between your organisation and the REC over the next five to 10 years?
The RCC is the hub for regional cooperation in South Eastern Europe (SEE). This cooperation is important because it can enhance the potential of every individual economy in the region and enable them to perform better on major international markets. I see the REC as a regional leader in bringing SEE countries closer in order to address common challenges: improved environmental governance; combating climate change; the effective management of shared natural resources such as international rivers and lakes; promoting the food-water-energy nexus; enhancing forestation; increasing the volume of irrigated arable land; removing roadblocks for the enhanced participation of the private sector in financing water and other infrastructure projects; enhancing competitiveness; issues related to the energy and transport sectors — all these are and will remain the main areas of RCC–REC cooperation.
The REC is one of the regional dimension coordinators for the Environment dimension under the SEE 2020 Strategy, and it has been instrumental in drafting the regional action plan for the environmental sector. Under the auspices of the RCC, the REC assisted the SEE governments in establishing the Regional Working Group on Environment — a much-needed political mechanism to pave the way for future multi-country actions in this region.
What role did the REC play in the Aarhus Convention deliberations? And what is the convention’s importance today?
In the first instance our aim was to establish guidelines on Principle 10, but at the Sofia Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe” in 1995 the ambition was upgraded to strive for a full-fledged convention, which later became the Aarhus Convention. The initial success of such a thing would of course depend on the number of countries willing to sign at Aarhus, and a few months before the meeting it didn’t seem to be heading for a landslide victory. National languages appeared to be the major obstacle. The text of the convention needed to be available in each country’s national language — or languages — well in advance of May 1998 for most ministers to obtain the mandate to sign. It was here that the REC proved invaluable: before we knew it, the organisation had translated the text and made it available to various administrations in Central and Eastern Europe for correction and approval. More than 40 European countries eventually signed the convention at Aarhus!
Now, has the Aarhus Convention made a difference? In my view it was an expression of changes already in the air. It was sown in fruitful earth, so to say, at that particular period in time. The UNECE was successful in bringing the convention to life by adding a protocol on pollution registers, amending the convention to include genetically modified organisms, and setting up an effective compliance regime. In the course of time the REC built up expertise and authority on the subject: it organised workshops, roundtables and conferences, and involved local governments and citizens groups in the region. Not being a legal expert I gradually lost sight of all the ins and outs of the Aarhus Convention. My feeling is that the convention is nowadays well established and recognised in most countries, but in less turbulent waters. It certainly helped focus debate on issues of transparency and citizens’ right to access environmental information in times of change.
What notable challenges do the recently adopted SDGs pose for the SEE/CEE region? What avenues of cooperation are available in tackling these challenges?
I believe that the potential for regional cooperation in SEE is much greater than what we can currently see. We have to admit that the process of reconciliation, a process that is crucial for genuine and effective regional cooperation, has reached its halfway point. On the economic front the SEE region has lost over 800,000 jobs since 2008, dragging over 2 million people dangerously close to the poverty line. Building strong and sustainable economies, addressing inequality, finding solutions to the impacts of climate change and building peaceful societies and strong institutions are, in my opinion, some of the main priorities for cooperation in SEE when it comes to the post-2015 agenda.
With the emergence of new environmental issues and proposed solutions — SDGs, Paris COP etc. — what special role do you see the SEE region playing in a Europe-wide or global context?
On the long and winding road towards the European Union, the countries of SEE have promised their citizens an improved standard of living, economic reforms and infrastructural development. These are objectives in their own right, but they are also meant to ensure that EU citizens one day see people from SEE countries as equal partners and not as a threat to their way of life or values in general. This boils down to signing up to the core European values: principles of the rule of law, human rights, fighting against corruption, freedom of expression and, most importantly, the freedom to make democratic choices. And, just as importantly, the implementation of all of this. I hope that in the future we will all see this region as a place that exports stability to other regions and countries, providing valuable lessons learned from the process of EU accession and playing an important role in supporting the principles of the EU’s neighbourhood policy.
What first pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
Hmmm… maybe “REC” is close to the word “re-creation” which one can translate as “to form, build, conjure…yet again and anew”. A constant of the REC’s existence and its defining trait over its 25-year history is the capacity to use experiences and strengths and turn them into innovative and far-reaching processes. These processes have had a huge impact on environmental performance and the development of governance systems. A great example is the Regional Environmental Reconstruction Programme (ReREP), established under the Stability Pact in the 1990s. Another bold example of what the REC is capable of “re-creating” are its new initiatives in the Eastern Partnership and Middle East and North Africa regions.