CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY AND RECONCILIATION IN SOUTHEAST EUROPE

Few words

A few words from CDRSEE Executive Director Zvezdana Kovac

Unity in diversity

October 2017

Increasingly in Europe at the moment, we are witnessing regions and countries attempting to break away from nations and larger groupings in an effort to determine or reclaim perceived identities or political independence. While the issues are varied and not necessarily based in ethnocentricity or a desire for isolation, the EU notion of unity through diversity is currently under strain more than ever. The idea that a group or individual has to hold one singular identity-an identity that views belonging to a broader group as something incompatible with maintaining one’s own culture- is at risk in Europe and beyond. It is therefore essential that despite the difficulties involved in the new round of enlargement-scheduled for 2025-we view the desire on the part of the Balkan countries to join a union of diverse states, and the willingness, on the part of the EU, to widen the sphere of cooperation and solidarity, as a positive trend.

We must, however, not be naïve. While recognising and welcoming this basis for optimism, we cannot ignore the fact that the motivations for enlargement on both sides may not be entirely in the intended spirit of the principles of unity, trust and inclusion. Nonetheless, the focus of the EU is currently back on the Western Balkans, following years of neglect, and the opportunities for progress and development must be seized.

The wish for greater unity or at least greater cooperation seems to be reflected to some degree in recent elections in Europe, which have offered cause for both hope and caution.  Local elections in the FYR of Macedonia mark a hopeful and positive milepost in the democratic development of the country, while in Austria, the results of October’s national elections give rise to the moderate, but not unfounded, worry of the creeping rise of the far right and it’s ‘normalisation’ through its possible re-entry  into mainstream politics. Elsewhere in the EU, optimism about elections this year may prove to have been premature. Demonstrations against Macron’s proposed changes to labour laws reveal that the ‘honeymoon’ period following his rapid and photogenic rise to power is over and that possibly ‘change’ is not as easy to implement and not as readily acceptable in practice as it seems during an election campaign, when it is offered as an ideal to hope for and makes a catchy motto. However, in Germany, despite the lack of clarity about the eventual form of the government, there is a palpable sense of relief, following a somewhat dull election process, that a stable, experienced and well-known figure is at the helm and that unlike the dramatically changing environment around it, Germany has a strong sense of continuity, which includes an inclusive, EU-wide focus. 

We, at the CDRSEE are committed to a democratic Europe; one that is secure in its identity as a diverse union, and we are convinced that enlargement cannot and does not threaten this, but rather makes it stronger. Our work therefore focuses on the Western Balkans as a part of Europe and part of the EU. There is a lot of work to be done, in particular in the fields of education and the media. We need to foster independent thinking and enable citizens to consume information from both textbooks and the media with a critical eye, in order to participate fully in civil society. Development in both of these fields cannot be taken for granted. Both are under pressure, despite a recent loosening of the reins of local government, and the freedom of both the media and access to critical-thinking education must be constantly defended, maintained and fought for. A free media is central to the democratic functioning of a country and the EU, but control over it by governments and big businesses, combined with the rapidly decreasing capacity for the public to discern facts from fake news, present real and immediate dangers that we must confront, address and overcome. 

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Not just empty words: Putting words into action

Getting people to talk and listen to each other is often no easy task. Putting that talk into action is even more of a challenge; and, when the people in question are Southeast European and EU leaders, the added weights of both history and expectations enter the equation.  This year at the Western Balkans’ Summit in July, leaders made a commitment to not only discuss, but to make efforts to move forward on issues of regional cooperation- meeting after the summit in both Podgorica and Tirana to further their work and keep the momentum moving towards progress in practice.  The CDRSEE, dedicated as always to open public discussion about issues affecting citizens of both SEE and the EU, played a role in raising public awareness about SEE regional cooperation and accession through a special episode of ‘Vicinities’ on the sidelines of the Summit in July. Once again making history, the episode brought together 2 Prime Ministers, 1 Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs from the region to share a panel and interact with a live studio audience.  

As the summer draws to a close, we have a number of exciting new regional projects underway and are continuing to work on our long-term projects, based, as always, on principles of cooperation between groups, countries and communities.  The signs from the Western Balkans Summit so far, indicate that the leaders of the region are thinking along similar lines – understanding that cooperation brings mutual benefits-and that the leaders of the EU have accession issues high on their agendas.

Despite unsettling current events on the international stage, the CDRSEE continues to believe that Southeast Europe and the EU can kick the trends of populism, antagonism and division that have characterised international politics in recent months, and will move closer together  towards an inclusive and prosperous future.

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A time for cautious optimism

June 2017

Recent momentous changes, shifts and events in Europe over the past few months have given rise to not only concern, but also fear, anger and reactionary responses. However, small signs of hopeful progress in politics, social advancements and civil society must be celebrated and seized on as the first steps for real change, while not being naïve about the challenges that still lie ahead.  The CDRSEE has always striven to maintain a manner of cautious optimism;  working hard to build on every cause for hope and advancement while being practical and planning for the possibility that sometimes ‘two steps forward’ can be followed by ‘one step back’.

Overcoming seemingly intractable obstacles, the FYR of Macedonia has nonetheless established a democratic, diverse government, based on the ideals of inclusion and representation for all and is making distinct, positive strides towards compromises and conciliation on the way towards potential NATO membership and an EU future.  Likewise, the Greek government, noting  the willingness of the new government of their neighbours in the north to concede some ground on certain issues, are starting to re-examine their approaches.  One gesture, however small, invites a similarly positive response, or at least, an opening of minds towards possibilities. This potential domino effect should be seen as a source of inspiration.  The recent induction of Montenegro into the NATO family is also a clear sign of progress of the region towards not only greater cooperation, but also a widening of attitudes and worldviews.  Serbia, meanwhile, has nominated its first woman and first openly gay prime minister.  While this position is one that is determined by the president (not the public) and has yet to be confirmed by parliament, we should, in fact, we MUST, recognise the significance of is event as one that is a huge leap towards open-mindedness in Europe as a whole. At a time when it is deemed newsworthy that the new Prime Minister of a Western EU country is openly gay and at a point when LGBT rights are being eroded in many countries of the wider Europe, that this could happen in a country in which the gay pride parades are routinely disrupted and LGBT rights are repressed, is nothing short of a moment to celebrate.

There is cause for hope. There is always a need for optimism, but we must not be swept up in hyperbole  or assume that there is no more work to be done. We must continue on our path, dedicate ourselves to the defence of diversity and the promotion of an open, tolerant civil society. 

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Continuity instead of taking turns

A strong Europe means a strong Western Balkans and vice versa. Even though they are geographically indivisible, they seem distant from each other when it comes to the values they cherish, their economic status and living standards, and most of all, when it comes to their vision of a common future.  These so-called ‘two ends’ will meet this July in Trieste at the fourth Western Balkans’ Summit - part of the Berlin initiative. It is important to remember that the initial aim of the initiative was to help boost the enlargement process – to bring the Balkan states closer to each other and to the EU.The initial optimism was as high as the current expectations (before this year‘s summit), despite the fact that there have never been more uncertainties in the old continent than there are now, and despite the doubts surrounding the EU’s acceptance of new members.

The situation in the Western Balkans is heating up and the EU, despite its seemingly renewed interest, is turning its back on the Western Balkans. There are so many “I don’t know” answers that it has become evident that there is no plan and belief regarding the future. There are numerous intriguing ideas on how to strengthen both the EU and the Western Balkans. The Slovak Prime Minister recently suggested that the EU should accept one of the Western Balkans countries into its ‘family’, just as an example and as proof that the EU wants the Balkans in the Union.This would of course provoke dissatisfaction amongst those who were not chosen. They do not need to be accepted in turn (even though the Balkans have previously shown that they are not adverse to this option, and even though it happened to several countries). Actually, what they need to see is an honest willingness, interest and a continuous support from the EU on their path to EU accession.The Balkans are not unstable due to geographical, cultural or other reasons, but due to the lack of democratic traditions and institutions, and this is exactly why they need Europe and its help. We provide that sort of assistance at the CDRSEE and will continue to do so no matter how long it takes. Speaking of duration, it is important to understand that this is a process which takes time and let us not waste any more of it.

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The word on the street

February 2017

Today most of the Western Balkan countries wait at the EU’s door in an almost endless queue. As they inch their way towards it, the further away it appears. The comparison with the disintegration of Yugoslavia seems to be the word on the street; we can now read and hear of the fear of a similar denouement once again. The ominous lyrics of a famous Yugoslav song from the eve of the nineties "Just let there be no war" are being referred to today. As individuals or a group of individuals, we need to react to what appears to be a return to the situation in the 90s. We must show that the solidarity which the EU lacked from its inception, is indispensable for the well-being and prosperity in Europe. Honesty, despite the widespread opinion that it contradicts politics, is the building block of this Europe in peril. Had these two values somehow been embedded in EU the day the Maastricht Treaty was signed, not only would we have been able to avoid war in the heart of Europe, we would not be discussing the deep crisis in Europe today, fearful of a war that may drag it into the flames of war.

It is therefore high time that both honesty and solidarity be brought to the forefront in defence of Europe! The CDRSEE cherishes these values and brings Western Balkan countries together around an honest approach to history education by discussing the issues which led the Balkan people to war. This is the only approach to avoiding a repetition of events and the ultimate aim of our Joint History books. Our deepest appreciation goes out to the ministries of education who adopted the books shedding a light on events or parts of events that were either avoided or embellished in regular school textbooks. Their efforts need to be recognized and rewarded by allowing them to step closer to the EU’s door. As our new history books covering the period from the WWII to 2008 are published only in English, and need to be used in schools as soon as possible, in the name of SOLIDARITY we invite all of you who are aware of the importance of the change in the way history is taught and the importance of HONESTY in the educational system, to help us translate them into local languages and train teachers to use them in the classroom.

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Stepping forward into 2017

December 2016

We are close to the end of 2016 – a year which will be remembered as one of the toughest in the last decades. Instead of raising a glass to toast their hard and meaningful work, many will mull over what has yet to be done... We, at the CDRSEE, have many reasons to be proud, as we have worked tirelessly on keeping democracy alive, during a time when it is once more threatened and carelessly discarded by many.

Europe is in deep crisis – a crisis which may be resolved if we all, regardless of whether we are a EU member or not, regardless of our religion, education, age and gender, perceive it as our own home. Hundreds of thousands of people are suffering as I write these words, photos and videos testify to their pain and it seems that greed, individualism and selfishness have become the openly accepted norm challenged by only a few. There seems to be a general lack of interest of those in power to change things for the better, and we are now slowly regressing into apathy - allowing those who do not understand and appreciate life enough to follow in our wake, slowly tearing down the fabric of Europe and the societies we live in.

Europe has always been an inspiring place to live in. Even in times of battles and intrigues, it emerged stronger – looking towards improvement – to a better future and determined not re-create dangerous elements of the past. It looked towards building democracy, community, unity and enlargement.  Europe was about going forwards - always - never backwards. We are now living in precarious times – and any step backwards would be irresponsible and dangerous. We could easily, and very soon, miss this Europe we have built. Let’s not allow it to become a thing of the past like so many communities and past unions which are nowadays like broken mirrors which we look into darkly and not entirely without nostalgia.

In the spirit of stepping forwards into the future, the CDRSEE therefore raises a glass and wishes you happy holiday season and a spectacular new year.

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A heartfelt thank you

The CDRSEE would like to extend its sincere gratitude to a number of individuals for their brilliant and truly outstanding efforts - to those who had the wisdom and insight to create the Centre and the JHP and others who led, authored, contributed and edited the books:

Founding Director and Honorary Board Member, Dr. John Brademas - for his ideas, vision and values that gave rise to the concept of the CDRSEE and the JHP and his effective action that helped found it.

First Chairman of the Board of Directors, Mathew  Nimetz - for his groundbreaking work and most generous support spanning almost two decades.

Former Chairman of the Board of Directors, Dr Erhard Busek – for his insight, tireless efforts and leadership of the CDRSEE for the past 10 years.

Vice Chairman of the Centre, Mr Nikos Efthymiadis – for displaying an extraordinary understanding of the need to promote democratic principles in Southeast Europe.

Mr Costa Carras, Historian, Rapporteur to the CDRSEE Board for the JHP – for his gifted qualities as a historian and mentor, his insightful leadership and vision of the JHP

Board Member and former Executive Director, Mr Nenad Sebek – for helping make the CDRSEE and JHP the brand names, his knowledge of the region, experience and fundraising efforts.

The History Education Committee: with its tremendous group of diverse, cultivated and intelligent historians who were instrumental in examining hundreds of historical sources and writing the books, in particular, Prof. Dr. Christina Koulouri, History Professor, Chair of the History Education Committee and Series Editor of the JHP workbooks, for her support, brilliant advice and endless patience in overseeing the entire project.

Last but far from least, to each and every one of the current and former Board members who have generously given their time and minds to both the CDRSEE and the JHP: Hannes Swoboda, Richard Schifter, Rigas Tzelepoglou, Selcuk Erez, Guus Heim ,Piro Misha, Saso Ordanoski, Elene Bruggisser, Ioannis Tsormpatzoglou, Elsa Ballauri, Pekin Baran, George David, Smaranda Enache, Zdravko Grebo, Vlasta Jalusic, Aleksandra Joksimovic, Maritta von Bieberstein Koch-Weser, Osman Kavala, Albert Koenders, Ivan Krastev, Fatos Lubonja, Antoinette Primatarova, Zarko Puhovski, Gazmend Pula, Dusan Reljic, Veton Surroi, Pieter Stek, Neslihan Tombul, Spiros Voyadzis.

We commend their dedication to this very important and essential cause in the region.

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It is a new day for the Joint History Project

November 2016

Only 12 years ago, we published our first four books: the Joint History Workbooks for all the SEE countries. They were received warmly by many, but were strongly rejected by others. We were even accused by some of attempting to recreate history, and were judged in a manner usually reserved for enemies of state.

It was to be expected though - we knew that an unbiased, multi-perspective History workbook would be perceived as a serious obstacle and so we remained calm and steadfast in our determination to continue. Even though it was unpleasant, we were open to criticism and to what was considered to be inaccurate. In the end, however, we didn’t hear any arguments of this sort, but rather just remarks such as: “our country does not have enough primary sources, this or that cartoon presents our country in a bad light” and so on. We quickly understood that the people behind these critiques had not actually read our books, so with great patience, enthusiasm and dedication we managed to lower, and in some cases, silence the voices of those who rejected them. How did we do this? We encouraged them to read the books, we exchanged opinions, we initiated a debate with people responsible for the educational system, and here we are today: with the support of almost all the ministries of education in the Western Balkans, we are presenting two new volumes which deal with a much more controversial and sensitive period than those of the first volumes. I am proud to say that we have succeeded: our history education committee and hundreds of historians across Southeast Europe, have compiled the books which consist of 700 historical sources on the events from 1944 to 2008. Here, I would like to point out that these books do not replace the adopted textbook of national curricula in the region — but serve as additional teaching material for teaching history.

The first supporters of this project almost 20 years ago came from far away, from the USA: USAID, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Institute for Peace; from Great Britain: Foreign Commonwealth Office; and from Ireland: Irishaid. Currently, the project, and the two new books which I present to you today, are generously supported by the European Commission, and I would like to express my gratitude and deep respect for those who understood how important these books could be. We are an NGO, one of thousands in Europe struggling for the opportunity to implement tremendous ideas. Our historians are among those thanks to whom history can be called a science. They are not the only ones of course. Our Board consists of people who have been dedicated to democracy and progress their whole lives, and they are not only ones either. Our staff members are tireless and passionate about their work. What all of us as a team have in common is dedication, enthusiasm and the unwavering belief that things can and will improve. We have worked together for the past 18 years and the success of this project is based on the winning combination of three elements: experts, financial and political support and unreserved dedication.

I would also like to express my gratitude to all the ministries of education in the region who are with us today and who showed understanding and believed that such a project can help their governments and states to progress. Education can set you free, and history education in particular can set entire nations and regions free from a heavy past through the simple power of knowledge and critical thought. I am delighted and proud that, at present, six ministries of education support our books. I would like to add that we are geographically situated in Europe, but European values are still lacking. As a side note of a more personal nature, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that I am from the Balkans, I was born and grew up in the Balkans. I won’t turn my speech into my personal story, but I do want to convey the message that there is not a single person who went through the traumatic war of the nineties who did not partly (let me express myself metaphorically) ‘die’ in some way. We are all aware of the fact that history should not repeat itself, but this most not become a sound-bite. These books are a reflection of this. Its methodology will help young people develop critical thought which in turn will help them grow into European citizens…

…So far, with the generous help of the European Commission, these two new workbooks have just been published - but only in English. This is what we have been able to accomplish so far. As the JHP is already very welcome in most of the Southeast European countries (the respective ministries of education will talk later of the reforms, aims and plans of their educational system, into which these books fit perfectly) – we have to do more, we haven’t finished our job yet! These books need to be read. They need to be translated into local languages, we need to train teachers to use these books, we need to bring them together in regional workshops and conferences. Based on the existing material, we would like to improve and produce documentaries, cartoons… We would like connect history teachers together both virtually through a webplatform and physically like when we brought together teachers from Serbia and other countries in Vukovar, in Mostar and Presevo… The gathering of teachers most not remain as isolated cases of cooperation but needs to become a tradition. We want to make a real impact, and we have only just started. We need to continue, our countries need to progress and we know they are capable of doing so, but we all have to be patient and persistent. Persistent, as it is not easy to connect and reconcile people who were at war against each other not so long ago, and patient-as it takes time for things to change… This is a process which requires time. I am certain we can show students how to broaden their views, how to examine contexts, to explore and develop compassion and empathy. We need to get them out of the comfort zone in order to help provide them with a more comfortable life.

Thank you very much for your attention, thank you for expressing support by being present here today. And thank you for your future support. We from the Balkans have succeeded in showing that we can also, for a change, export certain values and examples of good practice. This is our task and we are proud of it and not ashamed to ask for help to continue what we consider to be a noble, just and indispensable quest for reconciliation in the region. May the process we have begun be relentless, unfaltering and unstoppable.

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History of the future

October 2016

The most exciting moment for us at the CDRSEE has arrived  -  the printing of the two new JHP workbooks is underway! Moreover, on November 15th , the workbooks – a rare example of a history book that deals with such a recent past - will be presented to the European Parliament at an event hosted by Ms Ulrike Lunacek, European Parliament Vice-President, and four other MEPs: Ms. Tanja Fajon, Mr. Eduard Kukan, Mr. Knut Fleckenstein and Mr. Ivan Jakovcic.

The event is entitled ‘History of the Future’, referring to the way in which  history should be taught in the future, and which reflects our belief that education, and history education, in particular, affects and shapes our future.

Covering the period from 1944 to 2008, we are offering teachers and students an opportunity to research and decide for themselves what happened during this period (which includes the sensitive years of the 1990s) using the relevant sources which provide them with the whole picture surrounding any event, without asking or even suggesting what the truth may be.  As with our first four books, we are not offering an interpretation, but rather a methodology for reading the history of any given time period.

Similar to a journey which will bring you to a desired destination, we believe that our team of 100 historians from across Southeast Europe under the leadership of Professor Christina Koulouri, will help you travel with an open mind – devoid of prejudice and guided by facts - to a destination where a better understanding of others can be found. It is only by observing others that we ‘see’ ourselves, and in doing so, we understand ourselves better – both our good qualities and our shortcomings.  This is a precondition for harmony, and only harmonious individuals, citizens and neighbours can help us to prosper and grow as human beings, emotionally and mentally. 

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Dialogue and re-examination versus dissent and division

September 2016

Transcript of speech given upon reception of the jury award in the ‘Media Initiative of the Year’ category at the European Citizenship Awards 2016 ceremony in London on 12 September 2016

Okruzenje is a joint initiative of the CDRSEE and European Fund for the Balkans (EFB), financially supported by the German Foreign Ministry. We are grateful for their support as it enables us to implement the idea of gathering TV channels from the entire Western Balkans (the countries of ex-Yugoslavia and Albania) around a political TV show. Eight countries from the region exchange a news programme, for the first time ever after the wars of the 90s!

Okruzenje is in its fifth season now, and we are still the only programme broadcast at approximately the same time in all of these countries. I would like to underline this fact, as exchanging news between these countries is still unimaginable today -- unlike the entertainment programs which are still all “political-free” or “taboo-free”.

It all began when we managed to gather seven TV stations from five Western Balkan countries (Croatia, FYR of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia) together. Bluntly speaking, this was a result of our personal acquaintances — people from TV channels who knew who we were and who could trust us. They were also courageous enough to broadcast our programme despite the incredible animosity towards the idea of a joint news project. My praise goes to these people as well and I thank them for their extraordinary fearlessness!

In 2012 it was too early to start with something that perhaps recalled a ‘Yugo-nostalgic’ sentiment. We also feared that we would be accused of conspiracy - of having some “big names” or big power standing behind us and supporting us in creating a “horrible” plan of rebuilding Yugoslavia. 

To counter this, we were clear from the beginning: as our aim is not to put together broken pieces — but to provide opportunity with dialogue, to promote a civilized dialogue supported by facts and, in that manner, help recover and develop the broken pieces. We never wanted a new Yugoslavia.

We are now, as I’ve already mentioned, at the beginning of the fifth season. We completed the previous season with ten channels from eight countries of the Western Balkans on board! And we did what no one in TV history has ever done: we brought two prime ministers together in the same studio! In the past, we had the opportunity to obtain the statements of different prime ministers in one show, but never ever had them physically sitting together in the same studio. The success was even greater because they were not just any two ministers but those of Albania and Serbia - two countries with no record of collaboration for the past several decades; two countries whose relationship influences and even shapes the geopolitical map of the region. If you are aware of the history of the region and the animosities that exist today, what we did was inconceivable. We worked hard, very hard. We walked on tightropes constantly, but we believed in what we were doing and never gave up. Maybe we were lucky, but there is an expression in my language: “sreca prati hrabre” which means: fortune favors the brave.

Now, a word about the media in the Western Balkans: it is not free. There is a prime minister who says that journalists are scum! There are countries where people read the free press in secret … There is another prime minister who calls his political opponents in the parliament, in front of TV cameras – “idiots”. There is a country in the region whose journalists are forbidden to use the word ”region”, unless it refers to a region of western European countries … There are perfect laws in all the countries, but their implementation is almost zero! There is also poverty in the media: journalists are among the poorest citizens.

I am often asked how objective the media in the Balkans is …There is no absolute objectiveness, of course, as every media, everywhere, has its owner. The problem is not whether you are objective or subjective, the problem is the lack of decent, honest and dignified people in the media! Democracy is still practically non-existent in the region.

I am from the Balkans, I grew up in the Balkans and I can allow myself to say these things - I know my compatriots. They are hardworking and good people. However, the long-lasting autocratic regimes, as well as (consequently) lack of democratic tradition, and cultivation of true human values, metaphorically speaking, left a deep mark. People in the Balkans do not know how to debate; there is a lot of cacophony instead, where no one listens to anyone and, even if they could listen, they would not be able to hear one another.

We are trying to promote something which probably sounds very basic to you - the simple fact of speaking and listening to others. We are promoting the exchange of arguments supported by facts. Our guests from all over the region do not think the same — they often have quite different opinions. However, dissimilar views are always an occasion for re-examination and not hostility. There is no “sensitive topic” in Okruzenje — we talk openly about everything.

Perhaps you can now see why we earned the jury award in the ‘Media Initiative of the Year’ category at the European Citizenship Awards 2016 ceremony in London’s City Hall on 12 September 2016. We do hope that there will be Okruzenje/Vicinities in 2017,2018, 2019 … but it will depend upon those who fund us. We are willing to work hard on keeping neighbors gathered around the TV round table, as we deeply believe that the only way to solve problems is through discussion and dialogue and to this, there is no alternative.

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