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Saturday, 07 December 2013 00:00

"Krusevo, Macedonia is a kissing-free zone"

Written by Petya Yankova

Krusevo_3

Fifteen countries, around 50 young people and a fairytale town high up in the mountains – what do young people from Southeastern Europe gossip, worry and dream about?

The small town of Krusevo, the highest town in Macedonia and on the Balkans, hosts the 11th edition of the annual International Youth Conference "European values for the future of the South Eastern European countries". Curious and enthusiastic, the young participants enjoyed the crisp mountain air while sharing opinions and good practices on youth activism and European integration for five days this September. 

Day One: Establishing the "After 9pm" policy

Organised by Youth Alliance Krusevo with support from Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the German Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, the International Youth Conference takes place in the small Macedonian town every autumn. For its 2013 edition, the conference team had to sort through nearly 350 applications in order to pick 55. The participants’ profiles were diverse, but they all had to comply with some clear requirements: only young people aged between 18 and 32 from South East Europe who are active in the youth field and have interest and knowledge on the conference topic were invited to participate.

Once in Krusevo, the participants were surrounded by the beautiful scenery of the place where the Krusevo Republic existed for ten days some 110 years ago. This historically significant town set the context of the conference, as debating the future of the region necessarily involves keeping in mind its rich history.

In the very first ice-breaking session, most of participants revealed their awareness that prejudices still exist about the Balkans. They unanimously agreed to bear that in mind and make every effort to treat everyone equally and with respect. This truly European spirit of mutual respect reigned over the subsequent days while young people from various NGOs, student associations, national and international organisations were discovering they had more than just similar languages in common.

Like any other youth event, the conference began with an introductory session in which the participants shared their expectations for the following days. Networking, practical experience, and intercultural knowledge emerged as potential benefits. In addition, the organisers put a couple of rules in place, such as no public displays of affection during the sessions. As could be expected this was greeted with laughter. Well-known by the end of the conference, this line was a topic of heated discussions through the whole event, and was successfully summed up as the "no kissing before 9pm" policy. As regional stereotypes would have it, this rule should have been broken many times just for the sake of showing defiant independence. 

What followed instead was a peaceful introductory session on structured dialogue as a tool for bringing young people and decision-makers closer together. Participants from Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina discovered they had similar bureaucratic obstacles when approaching local authorities, while the Romanian participants recommended informal social activities as a way of establishing stronger relations between young people and government officials.

This opening discussion on structured dialogue continued with a lively session on cross-border relations. The guest speaker, Frank Morawietz from the French-German Youth Office, offered an engaging talk on cooperation between neighbouring countries.  Taking the complex French-German relations from the last couple of centuries as a starting point, he drew attention to the somewhat similar situation in the Balkans, where the contentious shared past, prejudice and lack of knowledge about each other’s countries could create an atmosphere of mistrust even today. Mr Morawietz reminded the participants that learning to recognise and respect the viewpoint of the other is the way to avoid mistrust and tension. Further, the resulting trust and cooperation would benefit not only the countries involved, but the region and even Europe as a whole. Mr Morawietz advised young people to face difficult topics and to create strong cross-border networks. He shared his firm belief that both actions, as difficult as they seem and as much courage and resources they require, would greatly influence the individuals and the communities involved.

Mr. Morawietz didn’t miss the chance to comment on the by now famous "after 9pm policy", stating that Europe stands for freedom and respect and restricting kissing is a violation of those essential human rights. Before ending his talk, Mr Morawietz urged young people to think about Europe in the long-term and from a global perspective, taking into consideration factors such as demographic processes, migration and economic development. Two of the questions he placed in front of the participants in the youth conference touched on the Europe of our dreams: how it looks, and what can we do to make it happen. On this thought-provoking note, the talk by the representative of the French-German Youth Office came to an end.

Krusevo_2The next big topic that emerged from the international relations discussion was Turkey’s candidature to join the EU. The participants raised questions over matters such as what Turkey would gain from joining the EU and why the negotiations had taken nearly half a century. The young people also asked their Turkish colleagues how Turkish citizens see the European Union. In the ensuing discussion, some of the participants took the geographical division of Europe as a point of departure; others adopted the line of economic benefits that new member states could bring to the EU. The Turkish government and civil society were both examined through the lens of democracy and the question sparked such interest among the participants that many continued coming back to it in the coffee break and in the subsequent sessions.

Interactive workshops, short discussions and an unexpected "Space for Dreams" exploratory session followed. It turned out that most of the participants wished to study abroad or find a full-time job. Starting a company, buying a yacht, and landing on the sun (but at night, of course) were also highly desirable goals. The moderator of the session, Omer Kaya "from Izmit, that is not Izmir", encouraged the audience to look for and make use of all the possibilities the European youth programmes offer. This inspirational message marked the end of day one.

Day two: How is Southern Europe doing?

Ilias Antoniou from the University of Athens greeted the participants of the youth conference on the morning of Day Two. He shared his observations and thoughts on the question of youth political activism. Young people in the audience greeted him with an array of questions. The participants were curious to learn the cost of running a political campaign, as well as the reasons why a political party might want to attract young people to join its lines.

Mr Antoniou proceeded to discuss the link between individualism and emigration, the sharp division between social standards in the Northern and Southern European countries, and corruption and apathy, since all these problems affect the social, political and economic climate in the Balkans. The importance of participation in political life, whether on a local, national or international scale, was underlined as a vital tool for young people who want to express their views. That young people are already doing this could be seen from the Eurobarometer surveys from 2012. The data given there reveals that young people are just as engaged in political activities as older generations, although the channels and methods of engagement might be different.

During the debates, the participants identified several trends on the Balkan political and social scene. In Kosovo, Greece and Macedonia, to name just a few countries, money appears to be a pre-requisite for entering politics, place of birth still influences political preference and the state continues to be seen as the enemy against which the citizens should protect themselves. Disappointment with politicians and a regret that social security is missing in many of the Southeastern European countries were other topics the audience felt strongly about. This criticism was a running trend in the debates throughout the whole conference. The participants were quick to summarise and find similarities in the social and political situations in their respective countries, which proved a fruitful channeling of constructive criticism. Mr Antoniou and the conference participants agreed that such social and political problems could be addressed by encouraging young people to exercise their right of participation.

A practical example of young people making a difference was offered by Tomislav Korman, head of the online communication department of the Croatian government, who showed the power of online media in changing society. He revealed the secret behind the Croatian government’s successful online strategy in a few simple words of advice: engage, listen, build trust, and respect. Mr Korman pointed out that the election campaign and the current governmental communication strategy are both founded on these simple rules, and the level of visibility both have received is impressive. To support his claim, he cited statistics, which showed that the government is attracting a great deal of public attention online, especially attention by young people. For instance, the most active users following, re-tweeting or commenting on the government twitter page are in the 24-26 age group. Fast two-way communication, mutual respect, personal approach and innovation all contribute to the powerful online campaign.  Mr Korman reiterated that young people have a powerful voice on the European political scene. His positive example of how one young person’s innovative ideas could make a big difference to society was of special interest for many people in the audience involved in NGOs or student associations.

Shifting from online presence to diplomacy and the European integration of the Western Balkans, the international youth conference continued with a talk by Her Excellency Gudrun Steinacker, the German ambassador in Skopje. Ms Steinacker began by identifying peace and tolerance as the foremost values of the EU. This placed in perspective the relations between the Western Balkans and the union, in the discussion of which mutual distrust, pretence on both sides, and the paradox of multiculturalism were repeatedly mentioned. "Compromise is a word which is not very popular on the Balkans," a statement that Ms Steinacker made during her talk on European integration, excited a heated discussion. At the end of the debate both Ms Steinacker and the audience agreed that although the South Eastern European countries have problems with maintaining democracy, young people could play a huge role in overcoming these problems.

Ms Steinacker proceeded to criticise the lack of tolerance toward minorities in most of the countries in the region, which combined with the trend of emigration creates a very volatile social atmosphere. The difficult questions of internal reforms, rule of law and poverty migration were also not spared attention. The German ambassador firmly stated that "migration is not a solution" and advised stimulating more public debate on these questions in order to establish firm structures for protection of human rights on the Balkans.

This is precisely what ensued. Several interactive workshops on topics such as tackling corruption, creating youth policies, respecting gender and generational differences, discussing nationalism and discrimination against young people in the decision-making process, allowed the participants to exchange views and look for possible solutions. Each topic was developed along two main points: the current situation in the SEE countries and the hoped-for, ideal situation. The objective of the exercise was to find out differences between the two descriptions and propose methods to eliminate them.

During the workshops the participants had a chance to compare young people’s involvement in politics and society in the Balkans. Recent social unrest in Macedonia, Turkey, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina were all elaborated on and analysed. The Macedonian representatives informed the conference attendants about the protests from 2011 against police brutalities in Skopje, which sparked a discussion since similar events have taken place in Turkey and Bulgaria this year. Whether discussing protests over ID numbers (or as they were more popularly known online, #JMBG protests, the acronym standing for Unique Master Citizen Number in English) in Sarajevo or civil unrest against the Slovenian political elite, the participants united in the opinion that the countries shared similar problems and the population in the South Eastern European countries was expressing its discontent in fairly comparable ways. Further, this adoption of a cross-border perspective was particularly useful in the ensuing action-planning sessions.

 

Day three: Take a stand

 

This broad topic of young people’s participation in politics and society and the points Ms Steinacker made on the European integration of the Western Balkans were discussed for the whole of the next day. Individual presentations gave the participants a chance to express their personal views. Young people from Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina shared observations and analyses on regional trade and economic cooperation. Another major theme the participants felt the need to discuss was youth unemployment examined from a social, economic and moral perspective.

Krusevo_3The presentations quickly turned into an action planning session in which the participants devised strategies, mechanisms and tools for addressing the problems. Although a number of themes were brought up, overcoming prevailing stereotypes and discrimination emerged as the most pressing one for young people in the Western Balkans. It was agreed that this would be best addressed by giving a practical example of how young people from different countries could devise and implement projects in their local communities.  

One group, which was composed of 12 young people from Kosovo, Bulgaria, Albania, Germany, Croatia and Greece, chose to tackle the question of discrimination against young people. Some of the solutions the team members proposed included facilitating access to information about job opportunities and study options. Students from Kosovo and Albania admitted that their universities do not provide enough information about scholarships, internships and career options. Starting an information campaign in conjunction with the universities’ careers services was proposed as a key to overcoming this problem and was greeted with enthusiasm from the whole group. Each member would take on responsibility for ensuring that students in their university have access information about opportunities for professional development. In addition, those participants who were already aware of online resources on the topic promised to share their knowledge.

Another problem identified by one of the working groups was the difficult process of changing the school and university curricula to suit the educational needs of the students. As it had become obvious from the "Space for Dreams" session at the end of day 1, many of the participants expressed their desire to study abroad. The language barrier for young people who wish to study abroad in Germany, for example, was identified as a major hindrance to achieving the shared dream.  By comparing the situation in Kosovo and Albania with that in other countries, such as Bulgaria, where students are offered discounted or free language courses at university, the working group agreed that lobbying and pressuring educational institutions to follow suit and exchange good practices are suitable tools to change the status quo. The session continued with personal action planning, that is, focusing on the practical side of putting in practice the proposed measures. The desired result of this project would be an increase of affordable language courses for university students in Kosovo and Albania.

The last day of the conference was a time of reflection and reviewing, recommendations and proposals, teary-eyed hugs and final group pictures. Although short and intense, the conference provided an opportunity for young people from the Balkans to share observations and draw conclusions from them. This was bound to enhance cooperation and the results didn’t take long. A few days after the end of the conference two youth projects appeared: an information campaign on educational opportunities and a lobby group for increasing the number and level of language courses in universities in the South Eastern European countries. 

For a discussion of the impact of these projects, see you in Krusevo next autumn!

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 August 2014 16:12

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