CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY AND RECONCILIATION IN SOUTHEAST EUROPE

Few words

A few words from CDRSEE Executive Director Zvezdana Kovac

Reconciliation, Connectivity and Education

June 2018

When the EU’s ‘Big Bang’ happened in 2004 and 3 years later with the membership of Bulgaria and Romania, the focus was on how the accession countries were expected to adapt and integrate to join a prestigious ‘club’.  Little thought or column inches were devoted to the notion that perhaps, the EU ought to change as well.  With the accession of new member states come not only more voices, but also more diversity of opinion and practical differences of geography, history, economics and daily life. A law about fishing that may work well in Malta, might be entirely inconvenient for Poland…and with sensitive issues such as immigration and religious freedoms being subject to EU-wide legislation, it becomes ever more clear that the EU’s usual manner of working (that suited a small economic union of relatively similar countries decades ago) cannot function in the same manner now it is a group of 28. 

We at the CDRSEE cherish diversity and welcome the enlargement of a union that, despite its challenges, has been at the core of the peaceful progress of the continent for over 60 years.  However, we recognise that just as the current candidate countries seem to sometimes lack consistency in their efforts to meet the conditions for accession, in the same way, the EU has lacked in its support for these countries to do so. If the EU is to succeed as a force for democratic progress, we cannot expect that acceding countries alone make the effort to ‘fit in’.

At the EU-Western Balkans’ Summit in Sofia in May, the EU focused on the central issues of reconciliation, connectivity and education.  These are not 3 separate abstract notions; they can only work in cooperation with one another. In order for each to move forward, the other two need to be realised, and this is where the Joint History Project comes in.  We have seen clearly over the 2 decades of the JHP’s existence, that education is the key to reconciliation and that due to connectivity, this small miracle of the JHP exists.  The JHP is a feat of democratic cooperation and has been achieved together with the support of the EC, Ministries of Education in the Western Balkans and, of course, the dedication of the historians, contributors and teachers.  In light of the current good news that the Ministry of Education in Serbia has approved certification for teacher training sessions using the JHP II materials, we are optimistic that the workbooks will be used in schools in the near future.  However, we need the funds to train teachers and for this we need EC support.  The CDRSEE is the only organisation with the capacity to carry out regional projects of this scale and content, and while we have the support in word, of governments, EU officials and civil society, we need the region and the EU to make use of the current connectivity to support education towards reconciliation.  The JHP as a model of these three intertwined ideas in practice, is the way to do so.

 

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Sustained progress towards peace requires that courage becomes the ‘norm’.

April 2018

Fear can often cloud our mind or lead us to extremes, but it can also serve a purpose: to alert us to the fact that something is wrong and in doing so, sharpen our senses.  Having lived through the turbulence of the 1990s in the Western Balkans, I am not certain which of these two reactions to fear gained the upper hand in my emotions this week…:  when in addition to a dread of the 1990s rearing its ugly head again in this region, I also recognised the real threat of a new world war knocking on the door. I am talking about Syria, of course.  On that particular morning, there was no breaking news, and it seemed that I was interpreting this sudden silence as ‘peace’.  Is this what real peace is?  Silence?   Does ‘no news’ mean that we can be calm, safe and sound, even though we know that there is repression in some other corner of the world? 

Is the human nature inherently evil and the only thing preventing a brutal ‘law of the jungle’ social order , the laws we put in place to restrain ourselves?   Do we only obey the laws and social norms for as long as they suit our needs and then revert to self-centred behaviour? There have been debates about this since humans started to think and communicate.  If these are true, then the work of the CDRSEE and the work of civil society is essential.  Our mission is to connect, to share and to interact: to ensure that people feel like they belong to something – something valuable, worth sustaining and worth committing to.  If this view is too pessimistic, if people are essential good at heart, then our work is equally needed.  The forces that drive people apart seem to be on the rise and we need to find ways to allow people to express themselves, cooperate and create shared communities and futures.

Last week, we were proud to be involved in celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the European Fund for the Balkans- one of many achievements of civil society in the region over the past couple of decades, all of which need to be recongnised, applauded and celebrated, but also built on and developed.

Among numerous roundtables and inspiring talks about the region and European perspectives on it, the CDRSEE reflected on our ‘Vicinities’ project.  This joint initiative of the EFB and CDRSEE, the only regional TV talk show, now in its 7th season,  was  presented at a roundtable on the role of culture in reconciliation. The panelists were all very successful contributors to culture in the region – and are some of the bravest people I have ever met -who use their talents, hard work and ethics to tirelessly contribute to reconciliation, peace and a developed society.  Their fear sharpens their senses and focuses their intelligence into practical, creative and humanitarian action; they find only inspiration and stimulus in the fearful reality, without even considering themselves to be brave.  “ I am afraid of others perceiving me as a brave person. What I do is normal”, remarked one panelist with truth and modesty.

I wish that we could all do what is ‘normal’. I wish that we could all have the ‘normality’ to not let fear  cloud our minds. The more I talk with people of the Western Balkans and the more the clamour of divisions, extremism and unpleasant personal attacks masquerading as ‘dialogue’, the more I am convinced that this ‘normality’ IS the voice of a ‘quiet, invincible majority in our region’ and we, the CDRSEE is doing its best to provide opportunities for this voice to be heard.  

The ‘normal’ people of this region have been brave, can continue to be and, I feel sure, will continue to be.  Part of this requires that we regain our self-esteem, dignity and self-worth, but without tipping over into arrogance. This week, the EC published its Progress Report on the Western Balkans and Turkey, and in light of the progress made in Albania and the FYR of Macedonia, recommended that accession negotiations are opened with both of these countries.  

The FYR of Macedonia has had the determination to overcome the problems of a deeply divisive regime and immediately embark on painful processes of reforms to emerge with an open-minded conciliatory approach and a government that is trying to build bridges within its country and with the surrounding ones.  Equally, the EC has had the foresightedness and commitment to support these countries in this process.  In commenting on the report, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikola Dimitrov addressed Ms Mogherini (High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the EC) saying “We delivered…you delivered”.  In doing so, he recognised that these achievements have required sustained ‘normal’  acts of  bravery by both parties: from the countries of the region to try and overcome the problems of the past and from the EC in supporting them to find their feet in doing so, despite misgivings and pessimism from many quarters.   This is what the region needs: a courage that is ‘normal’ combined with a definition of ‘peace’ that is not the ‘silence’ of ‘no news’ but rather the sound of people standing up for their rights, debating, engaging and interacting. 

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Path to EU accession ‘under construction’

Although fraught with negative connotations, the geographical region defined as the ‘Balkans’ is one of unique and lively history.  Unequivocally, a history of ethnic divisiveness and political turmoil, yet, in a space abound in cultural richness, shared heritages, entangled and connected national histories.  History bears particular significance for Balkan peoples, who, nevertheless, tend to abuse the word ‘historic’.  The popularity of the term could be attributed to its melodic sound and profound meaning – whatever is important or likely to be important in history, according to Cambridge Dictionary.  The heroic echo of the favourite word in the Balkan world resounds through every aspect of the countries’ political processes, from elections and political agreements to the longed-for EU membership.  The latter offers a new momentum to use the word.  But this time, ‘historic’ is not an understatement of the opportunity that lies ahead.  The European Union’s new enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans is expected to revive the long-stalled membership prospects. However, it’s not a time to get carried away with excitement.

The wishes for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans should not be mistaken for a ’blank cheque’, as Commissioner Hahn and other EU officials have noted. The EU integration path of the Western Balkans is still under construction, built on fundamental reforms, good neighbourly relations and substantial transformation on political, economic and social levels.  The new enlargement strategy brings, once again, hope to the whole region. What is left for the leaders and the citizens of the Western Balkans is to seize this unique opportunity by doubling their efforts towards strengthening the democratic institutions and working harder to align with the EU acquis. Only then will they succeed in breaking those common stereotypes predicated on the assumption that they are laggard and ineffective.  This historic opportunity requires commitment, hard work, but above all, strong will.

In this revived enlargement discourse, the questions of whether the EU is ready to accept the Western Balkans, or whether the Western Balkans are ready to prove they deserve a place in the EU are raised once again.  The questions remain to be answered, as the ray of hope shining for the Western Balkans in light of this new circumstance becomes the key driver of transformation.

 

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New Year, New Opportunities

2017 has been another year of groundbreaking, creative and practical work by the CDRSEE, and at the same time, a year of challenges. Our projects have gone from strength to strength- developing not only in their content and methods, but also in broadening their reach, engaging in more cooperation with a variety of groups and in delivering results that allow for societies to really bring about change. Europe in general, including our region of Southeast Europe, has found itself sailing into uncharted waters in 2017. Responses to the uncertainties have been worrying - a rise in populism, trends towards divisions within countries and regions and a growing lack of capacity or patience to listen to the opinions or perspectives of others.

The CDRSEE continues to believe fervently in the ability and potential of societies to overcome divisions and work towards unity; a unity that is not monolithic and exclusive, but rather one that celebrates diversity, welcomes dialogue and looks towards the future together.

Our projects are not just the reflections of our beliefs, but also pragmatic initiatives to bring people together to solve problems and move forward together. In 2017 we proved that we CAN do this and have the will and enthusiasm to DO so. As we move towards a new year, the CDRSEE continues to be a leader in the field, an inspiration and a consistent producer of relevant, collaborative and participative initiatives. Stay tuned to see what we will achieve, together, in the New Year.

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A year in review

After 2016-a year full of shocks on the European and global stage- we had started to think that we couldn’t be surprised by anything. In 2017 we were proven wrong. With ever more extreme developments in politics and social change, the need for steady, clear leadership and inclusivity in civil society is more urgent than ever.  Building on our experience, strengths and always learning from each success and failure, the CDRSEE developed and continued its work in education, media, and social integration, emphasising that in a world of fake news, rising xenophobia and ever more divisions, our projects- that hold critical thinking, media freedom and inclusion at their core- are never more needed.

The CDRSEE, in 2017, made substantial progress with its flagship education and media programmes, while also undertaking numerous short-term projects and contributing to a wide range of EU initiatives and ideas by other NGOs and international organisations, thus offering our expertise to civil society in a broad range of ways.

In 2018, we aim to develop and continue our current projects, widen our network of cooperation, participate in a wide range of events and create and implement new projects. 

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Balkan media: fighting for truth

‘Fake news’ – the fact that this phrase will enter the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017, less than a year after it was first uttered is testament to the power of this phenomenon. Globally, false news and media manipulation in order to bring about social change are on the rise as never before. Not only do the public have to contend with biased, opinionated reports of misinformation- with an increasing lack of the journalistic ethics that used to be standard- but they now have to be aware of active, deliberate disinformation, designed specifically to divide societies.  What is underway is little more than a revolution.

Within the Western Balkans, the situation is exacerbated by the situation in which the rapid rise of digital media (and the ability to not only consume a wide range of media 24 hours a day, but also to create it) arrived at a point at which the region had not yet established its own democratic processes, a functioning civil society and a rigorous means of critically discussing the information produced and the related social and political issues.

Revolutions carry with them opportunities and also danger. The inherent danger in this particular revolution is that the people being affected by it are overwhelmingly unaware of it; with a lack of tools to effectively discern opinion from fact, bias from truth, disinformation from belief, the young population of the Western Balkans are both the victims of the upheaval and also perpetuators of its problems and risks.

In today’s world, just as we teach children literacy in their native languages, we also need to teach our young people media literacy, both as consumers and as producers of content. Each comment on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc takes young people out of the role of passive receiver of information and places them onto the stage and into the role of ‘media producer’, without knowing at the time of posting a comment, how influential their comment may be, how far it will be shared, what the consequences to themselves might be, or to what extent one comment can have a far-reaching effect.  Journalists need to be trained in the basic ethics of reporting and the social responsibility that their work carries – to distinguish between ‘what the public wants’ and ‘in the public interest’, to check facts, to offer educated argument and to not be seduced by being the first to ‘break’ the story, regardless of the truth and to engage in thorough investigative reporting with accountability and transparency.

Governments and rulers have engaged in media manipulation for decades. The diffuse media of 2017 continues to do so in ever more subtle ways, and also, in many cases, by individuals without even being aware of it. We therefore need to act now to educate the next generation of media producers and consumers.  Teachers, civil society organisations, governments and journalists need to cooperate on this in order to approach the issues from all of the relevant angles and to create a synergy of skills, values and drive which can address the dangers effectively.  We need to share knowledge and methodologies and put these into practice now. There is no point in simply having conferences, legislation or academic research on the issue: the ground is shifting under our feet as we talk and we need to act now. We need bring young people into the conversation about how to approach it, now, and find ways to include critical thinking into curricula and to support efforts to challenge the powerful interests behind fake news campaigns.  It is not an easy task, but in order to truly foster a strong civil society, capable of creating a democracy of critical thinking citizens, it is not only desirable as a principle of free expression and access to information, but essential to guarding against deep divisions and hate in society.    

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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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