Few words

A few words from CDRSEE Executive Director Zvezdana Kovac

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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July 2016

After the UK referendum and the initial reaction and analysis, two words began surfacing in the media coverage: youth and populism. And, like the old idiom on divorce goes, which applies to this situation as well, a good divorce is always better than a bad marriage, especially if children are involved. Yet, more than 60% of young people in UK voted to stay in the EU, and they are children of this obviously bad marriage. I am especially touched by their pain and tears. For their good, no one should celebrate and exult, as like we said, a good divorce is more than desired. The EU and the UK should help each other to survive and develop; there should be no blackmail, no bitterness, no revenge.

Young people are certain that disintegration is not better than integration. They know how much they benefit(ed) from the open borders, exchanges, comparisons, differences … While a union is not a necessity for cherishing these values, it does create an inspiring environment of mutual respect and acceptance, and these are a necessity. My hope lies in the young people-- smart, pure and fresh, those who will fight for the right values and who will oppose the expansion of populism,, the “winner” of the referendum and a serious threat to a liberal democratic system.

Populism is spreading all over Europe; it is not confined to Southeast European countries, and it seriously endangers Western democracy.  Today the UK, tomorrow somewhere else, and the superb idea of the EU may collapse? Certainly yes, if we do not find an answer to the question, “Why do around 80 percent of people agree that democracy is the best form of government, but only 30% believe that the voice of people is heard?”  We are witnessing the clash between the elite class and the “ordinary” people, but we should be aware that all those considered elite are not corrupt just as all ordinary people are not pure. A challenging time lies ahead, but I believe we are up to the challenge. For our youth, we must be.

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We celebrate multiple perspectives

June 2016

For the fifth time, on June 2 we kicked off filming the new Okruzenje season. The number of national TV stations that broadcast this unique political talk show grows every year, and we can’t resist sharing with you our happiness and pride. With no intention of sounding pretentious, we celebrate this small anniversary knowing that we are on 10 TV stations across the Western Balkans because we earned it with credibility. We earned your trust. For the fifth year now, we have no hidden agenda, we work by following a professional code (which sadly has been forgotten on a large scale), and we are contributing to the institution of journalism that will not be a tool for flaming hatred, but rather a means to serve citizens by keeping them well informed and providing them with the opportunity to listen to a decent, civilized dialogue despite often diametrically opposing opinions.  

With this show, we undoubtedly made history when for the first time ever we managed to bring together two Prime Ministers in one TV studio, last August in Vienna during the WB Summit. The significance of that show was even more, as the two Prime Ministers were from Albania and Serbia, two countries whose relations have been frozen for the past 60 years, the impact of which extends to the whole region. 
This show was an example of many CDRSEE projects, first and foremost the Joint History Project, with which we prove that despite animosity, unresolved issues, prejudices and stereotypes, cooperation between two countries is possible. This requires effort and commitment, as both societies must change. It is a change that must reach deeply, with the same persistence that the negative was built upon, with the same on-going attention that allowed the negative feelings to thrive.

But it is a change that we know is possible, and we will not forget that, as we move ahead. Just last month, the Serbian European Movement organized a media opportunity to report on Albanian-Serbian relations. While at the conference the JHP garnered the most attention, yet it was covered only by popular news portal B92 -- and the coverage received 500 comments. Most of the comments were proof themselves of the need to promote our multi-perspective approach, as a society that is dependent on egotistical and ethnocentric ways is not able to put forth the requirements of modern society and prosperity. For that reason, we push ahead. 

But today -- today we celebrate the small but significant milestones that make up the CDRSEE's path of change. We celebrate comments on a news stories, and we celebrate multiple perspectives. And we celebrate that for the fifth time we have earned your unique trust and we enter the Okruzenje studio to tape a fresh, new season.

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Towards real reconciliation

May 2016

This is an exciting year for the CDRSEE, a year which will prove that 18 years of diligent work of our respected Board of Directors, CDRSEE staff and numerous experts who have collaborated with us from the very beginning, was worth all the effort. The crown of our work, along with the anniversary of the 5th Okruzenje/Vicinities season, is the completion of our two new history workbooks. Two volumes on the most recent history (from 1945-2008) are being reviewed by eminent historians and experts, and we are happy to announce that the first critics prove that we did well when we dared to tackle the closest and the most painful period in modern times. We accepted the challenge and we confidently push ahead with it.

Real reconciliation after the wars of 1990s has never happened in the Western Balkans — and by this I refer to the reconciliation that can be brought to life if and only if we face what we have committed and what really happened. By producing the two new volumes, we are happy to contribute to such a mission.

The books are almost ready for printing, as the corrections that have to be made after reviews are meaningful but minor. Here is the first impression of one of four expert readers, Maria Todorova, a reputable historian and Gutgsell Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: “Let me first say, how much I am in favor of the Joint History Project initiative and how much I admire the efforts to put it in practice. After the success  of the 4 existing volumes  -- the Ottoman Empire, States and Nations, the Balkan Wars, and the Second World War --  comes the period after the Second World War, usually defined as the Cold War, as well as the contemporary period, what the Germans call Zeitgeschichte. As a whole, I think that it achieves much of what is behind the ethos of the whole project, namely to present to students different sides of the same problem, to make them think and weigh different approaches and viewpoints.  In many ways, these are the more difficult volumes because of the enormity of material that has to be sifted and because of the closeness of the period and the strong memories or opinions bolstered by lived experience. I have been particularly impressed by the pedagogical side: the aptness of the QUESTIONS and TASKS which beautifully integrate the sources offered for interpretation.” 

By carefully designing the steps for reconciliation in the Western Balkans, we are optimistic that an understanding of the past will be useful to avoid repetition and will be a guide for a better future between the nations of the Balkan region.

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Action as an alternative to fear

April 2016

In 2015, 389 terrorist attacks were recorded around the world, and in the first three months alone of 2016, the number of attacks reached 242! The situation took center stage, of course, after about 10 terrorist attacks rocked the heart of Europe in both years. I can't help but wonder whether this is supposed to mean the lives of Europeans and their well-being are more valuable than the lives of others. Why are we all Paris and Brussels and never Ankara, Bacha Khan, Burkina Faso…? We certainly cannot protect ourselves if we all do not care about others regardless of all the differences. 

Promoting European values, an expression that, lately, is popping up in many circles, sounds quite egocentric, I would dare to say. It may be carelessly used though, as its essence is deeply universal and human, so let’s rename the idea and give it the respect it needs.

We who live in Europe, and who do care about our neighborhood and the EU as a worthwhile political-economic union, are worried about both the efficiency and future of the union. As someone who used to live in a country that split into many independent pieces, I am very much in favour of a carefully and fairly composed bigger union.

But that Union -- unprepared to support the integration of immigrants, rigid when it comes to enlargement, tied up in a complicated administration -- must be ready for change, based on a wise, honest and open dialogue with everyone. It is the only alternative to fear, a whispered word that seeps into our lives and causes more damage than we initially realize. Action is only way to overcome it, and that can be taken when we stop contemplating and regretting what has not been done, and apply the essence of our European values -- let's say our neighbourhood values -- to the world.

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"Isn't that confusing?”

February 2016

Two new volumes of our Joint History Project are shaping up. Teachers from across Southeast Europe, as well as representatives from six Ministries of Education, have briefly reviewed the first drafts, and the first reactions are promising—they give us hope that the books will become an indispensable part, even a milestone, in history education. Not that everyone is happy with the content, as there is no perfect history text, but everyone recognises the quality in the methodology and the impact the books can have on the education of our young generation.

It is not enough for us to produce the books, if they only remain on our shelves as good examples of how history could be taught in the classrooms. That’s why the support we have from the Ministries of Education, their recommendation for using the books, is of crucial importance -- this is what makes the books come alive, and this is what they should be. If our books make even a small impact toward better understanding, so-called critical thinking and awareness that everything is not only about us, then the effort of the team of historians and the CDRSEE has paid off.

None of us is happy with current education systems. We would all like to improve them. It requires not only the knowledge, but the courage -- a step out of the comfort zone where we are all happy with ourselves, and unhappy with others, where it is always someone’s else’s fault and never ours. In our books, you can find different sources for the same event—you can find another point of view. I see no better way to motivate students to think, to motivate them to explore and think.

Just recently, a journalist asked me, "Isn’t that confusing?" Yes, it is, if the students are not used to anything but one-sided approaches, if they are not interested in anything that is outside of their “backyards”. I think we owe it to our kids to “confuse” them, to wake them up, to motivate them to think, to get them out of the comfort zone and the daily routine. We do not offer them conclusions; we offer them the possibility to make their own conclusions.

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Fatigue vs Self-sacrifice

January 2016

In my daily "watching the news" routine, two headlines recently caught my attention. One was "Hospitality Fatigue", and the other, "Empathy and self-sacrifice for Nobel Peace Prize", both referring to the refugee crisis in Europe. Where there is fatigue, there is no true hospitality, one might think at first glance. The headline, which was a bit disturbing to me, is, however, a red flag that something has to be done, as after receiving first aid, the million people who lost or left their homes need another type of help. Hospitality must be provided.  

Among the refugees, there are hundreds of thousands who will never return home. We must help with their integration; we must help them learn European values, as we also must learn about theirs. We can understand  hospitality fatigue, but we will, with all our heart, vote for those who promote empathy. We learn from each other, and that is a treasure we must make an effort to find.

There is nothing more powerful than education for changing the world for the better and raising awareness of humanity, which is above race and nations. The CDRSEE, using all its experience and knowledge gathered over the past 17 years, wants to contribute by reducing hospitality fatigue and increasing the chances that those who self-sacrifice will be recognised and awarded—because they are not doing that for a prize, but rather because they are human in the best sense of the word.

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December 2015

Another tumultuous year is almost behind us, and while we at the CDRSEE can be proud of our own achievements, we share concerns for those who were forced to leave their homeland – who were left with no choice. Unfortunately, we live in a world where choice is sometimes not an option, where we can't even push for an alternative. The largest migration of people since World War II or maybe in the entire history of Europe, counting nearly a million people who are still risking their lives in order to have a better life!

We worry that war and terror can take over again, and this time with unforeseeable consequences. We will not sit idly by, though—we will, with all our knowledge and heart, support peace and promote tolerance and coexistence. There is always a day after. Let us make it happen soon!

May the joy of this holiday season be filled with everything that makes you smile, regardless of religious or any other differences. Because that difference is what makes this world a nice place.

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November 2015

It is not by accident that the second Western Balkans Summit of the Berlin Process (this year held in Vienna) highlighted the importance of Civil Society. With the exception of Slovenia and Croatia, which are both EU members, all other countries are queuing up in EU’s courtyard. Democratic processes, unemployment, regional cooperation, freedom of speech and media freedom are only a few of umpteen areas that have to be improved and brought to the level that can guarantee genuine peace and the coveted EU membership. On their journey to the desired destination, Western Balkans countries have been passing through some very discouraging, and yet others quite encouraging, paths.

The August summit was clearly one that brought back hope, despite the fact that there will be no new EU member states at least until 2020. Hope, however, should not be the only ally on the accession journey. The Summit, bringing the Western Balkans into the focus of EU attention, may not have been enough, since there is still no concrete framework as to how the enlargement process will continue.  Let me recall a famous poet’s verse and question his claim that it is “the journey, not the destination that counts”. It would appear to me that the Western Balkans countries lack the allure in their journey, and even doubt whether their destination will ever be reachable. Or do they doubt their own capability to get “that far”? Can Civil Society be the key that opens the door? Not only and not necessarily to EU membership sooner rather than later, but to stable democracy and true reconciliation?

What is sure is that the CDRSEE’s projects and all the efforts of its team are aimed directly at the destination of genuine peace.

We strongly believe that Civil Society is able to approach local governments, gain their support and encourage them to do what they don’t dare to do on their own.  With the support of most of the Western Balkans countries' governments, we are about to complete the first draft of the second set of Joint History Project (JHP) books, which address the Cold War and Wars of the 1990s. As the memories of the devastating wars in the geographical heart of Europe are still fresh, and peace in the Western Balkans still fragile, these two new volumes will attract significant attention, and we are certain that our team, consisting of the most respected historians from the region, will not fall short of the high expectations. The books will firstly serve the science of history and thus will help as a genuine reconciliation tool. Facing the truth and admitting the crimes committed are prerequisites for every reconciliation process, and still missing in the region.

While the JHP is our flagship project, right next to it is our TV project "Okruzenje" ("Vicinities" in English), which after its third season inspired our team to embark on a pan-European version called “Vicinities Europe”.  In the following newsletter, you can find more about the development and progress of our projects. As the head of the wonderful CDRSEE team, I am proud to say that our organisation is playing a most important role in, I dare to say, the fields that are crucial to genuine democracy and reconciliation: education and media. Case in point, bringing together in Okruzenje’s studio the Prime Ministers of two countries with no record of collaboration for more than half a century-- which as far as we know, happened for the first time in TV history -- makes us believe that the power of Civil Society, which for some reason has been neglected, must be “set free”.

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