All three agreed very quickly to run NALED, which you would certainly not expect from people standing before an organisation that was brand new at the time, with no major projects or stable funding, and without the trust of the institutions of the state that it sought to change.They say it was not easy, but they are proud of that decision. They influenced NALED, but perhaps more importantly NALED had an influence on them, and achieved exactly what it wanted to in the whole of society – to raise awareness about the necessity of dialogue and consensus on the path to the reforms that will move this country forward.
Each of the three marked different epochs in the development of NALED, from its independence, through achieving its first great result, to the moment when NALED became a partner of the Serbian Government and the National Assembly in the implementation of reforms.
For Predrag Mihajlović, first President of the Board of Directors (2007 – 2008), one day was enough for him to accept the position. “A young man is always ready for new challenges, but what mattered was the fact that I had experience of working in certain organisations. We formed a Steering Committee and chose Violeta Jovanović as the first director. And NALED started with one person and no office. The first job was to convince USAID to enable us to stay with them for a few months until we found our feet. When I think of that period now, it’s nice to see that the Executive Office has more than 20 people and that NALED has grown into an organisation that is very well thought of by all,” says Mihajlović.
Later, together with Managing Board Vice President Toplica Spasojević, Mihajlović personally approached banker Vladimir Čupić to persuade him to take over the reins of NALED.
“At first I wondered what these people wanted from me; what I was supposed to do here. Since there was no similar organisation in Serbia or the entire region, the idea became extremely interesting and I accepted the engagement”, says Čupić, who served as president of NALED in the period from 2009 to 2013.
The third President, Vladan Atanasijević, already had experience with NALED as a member of the Board, so for him the transition to the presidency was easy.
“Our society is progressing as NALED progresses. The fact that people from NALED have become members of the government indicates that there is an understanding of the importance of dialogue at the highest level” – Predrag Mihajlović
“I saw NALED as an opportunity to have an influence on changes in Serbia without having to be politically active, because that always turned me off”, says Atanasijević, NALED’s president from 2013 to 2015.
For Mihajlović, the most beautiful part of the job was watching the organisation grow along with the number of NALED members and staff. Their commitment was responsible for all the good work that was done.
“I’ll never forget when we were starting. I was working at Komercijalna Banka and Violeta would come to see me once or twice a week. Whenever the phone rang I’d know something was needed again. But there was a great pleasure in seeing such excellent people joining NALED, people who have knowledge and a lot of positive energy”, says Mihajlović.
For Ćupić, the memories are ones of friendship and willingness to work together in solving problems. “There were no pre-ordained solutions and there were serious discussions about what was best, in which direction to go, how to act. There were different opinions and the discussions were sometimes harsh, but when you take a stand you hold your ground”, says Čupić.
The third president highlights positive energy in the Executive Office as the best part, the enthusiasm and quality of people who, from his perspective, are the promoters of a new culture and approach.
THE HARDEST THING WAS…
While their attitudes towards the importance of the organisation and its results are similar, the three former presidents have completely different experiences regarding the most difficult moments in conducting NALED. For Čupić, the hardest thing by far was making a decision on the Reformer of the Year.
“We needed to evaluate the performance of individuals in a way that included some and excluded others, while not being biased. Bearing in mind NALED’s impact, maintaining independence was perhaps the most complex job. It involved politics, the separation of competencies, expertise and clear results in a zone that is policy par excellence and has always been thankless”, says Čupić.
For Atanasijević, criticising the government was not hard or a problem, because he applied the principle that presenting the facts would lead to conclusions by itself. On the other hand, attacks against the association presented a problem. “What bothered me was that in these attacks one could see a fundamental misunderstanding and placing NALED in completely the wrong context”, says Atanasijević.
The hardest decision for the first president was to leave NALED. But he thinks this decision was a good one, because he believes in the importance of new people with new energy joining the organisation.
“NALED has the capacity to expand its activities beyond the borders of Serbia. It seems to me that it is the only organisation that can expand outside the country, and as such the future of the association is linked not only to Serbia, but also to the regional and wider European concept “ – Vladimir Čupić
THE BEST RESULTS
“NALED’s greatest accomplishment is its success in becoming a partner of the government in reforms. NALED has managed to position itself well, and its achievement is that it is engaged and accepted. The tasks entrusted by the State can be completed in a high quality manner”, says Atanasijević, adding that he believed that NALED would one day provide ministers to the Serbian government.
From Mihajlović’s perspective, understanding the importance of dialogue is the greatest success. “Our society is progressing as NALED progresses. The fact that people from NALED have become members of the government indicates that there is an understanding of the importance of dialogue at the highest level”, says Mihajlović.
For Čupić, the root of all results lies in NALED’s determination for every idea that is made public to be substantiated with analysis and facts. He names expanding the certification programme of municipalities with favourable business environments to the countries of the region and adopting the National Programme for Countering the Shadow Economy as two of the association’s best accomplishments. The most important thing overall for Čupić is that NALED has managed to reconcile the interests of different sections of society, because “when you set up the way NALED did, you see that there’s a lot more common interests than competing ones, even though they generally do not coincide”.
“In my opinion, NALED is like a blue chip company, which means it has the ability to operate well both in good and bad conditions. As a carrier of positive ideas, NALED has a future for the next 10 years or even longer, until we achieve a perfect business environment, and that will take time”, says the first president.
According to Atanasijević, the biggest challenge for NALED will be to remain unbiased and to defend itself against attacks on data integrity. His predecessor, on the other hand, does not expect serious challenges.
“NALED has the capacity to expand its activities beyond the borders of Serbia. It seems to me that it is the only organisation that can expand outside the country, and as such the future of the association is linked not only to Serbia, but also to the regional and wider European concept. I would not underestimate the possibility of further growth at all. This depends on the interest of the state itself ”, says Čupić.
“NALED’s greatest accomplishment is its success in becoming a partner of the government in reforms. NALED has managed to position itself well, and its achievement is that it is engaged and accepted. The tasks entrusted by the State can be completed in a high quality manner” – Vladan Atanasijević
Čupić outlines three ways in which he changed during his time at NALED. “The amount of effort and work invested in what we achieved together showed me that you can achieve much more if you have a serious approach. On the other hand, I became in a way much more aware of the fact that there are so many different interests in society and how they can harmonise. Thirdly, if you have good people with you, the sky is the limit”, says Čupić.
“Working in NALED changed me just with the fact that I entered into a completely different sphere of activities that were not related to my business. I now know much more about the need for private- public partnerships to create a better business environment. I gained breadth in my ideas of what is needed for the process to come to life”, says Mihajlović.
“I think that in the process of education we are all missing this important part on the importance of personal responsibility for the common good, and that’s something I came to see as necessary through my work at NALED. In order to make the whole environment change for the better, you must devote yourself without personal gain. The culture of working for a common goal is something that we all need and this is what NALED gave me the most”, concludes Atanasijević.