CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY AND RECONCILIATION IN SOUTHEAST EUROPE

Reflecting on the past 15 years

 

 
Everything started for me with Richard Schifter. Who was he? A Vienna-born man who had to leave my city in 1938, because he was Jewish. I met him later on, because he was aware that I am Viennese, and he asked me to become involved in Southeast Europe affairs. My involvement began with the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI), which I coordinated under his leadership. As a victim of horrible historical changes, he always focused heavily on reconciliation, but also on knowledge of history. He recounted a lot of his personal experiences to me. I am happy to be his successor as the chair of the CDRSEE.

Another memory I have from early on is that of Costa Carras, who was always very much engaged, not only on Europe in general, but especially in history and the arts. At the beginning of the difficulties in the Balkans, he was the only one unceasingly focused on the importance of history. He organized a meeting, as far as I remember, in Thessaloniki, which initiated the whole exercise of the JHP. I think he can also be given credit for focusing on the relationships between religions, not only to blame them if they created hatred, but also to use them for solidarity and better mutual understanding.

It is always said that entrepreneurs -- or “capitalists” when they are being blamed for something -- have no feeling for culture, history or memory. But, I experienced Nikos Efthymiadis, an outstanding grand seigneur, being involved in these important fields and compelling everything to come to life. Without him, the CDRSEE would not be in Thessaloniki and would not be in existence. With warm and inspiring dinners in his home, he created an atmosphere where we were able to achieve much more than in official sessions and conferences.

To all of them, many thanks.
 
Dr. Erhard Busek, Chairman of the CDRSEE Board of Directors
 
The White Tower, Ano Poli and myself

The White Tower of Thessaloniki symbolizes for me, among other things, a confluence of the histories and cultures of the two Balkan nations:  A Byzantine building that was restored and used as a fort and a prison by the Turks and finally became a museum following its re-Hellenisation.  

As a person with dual heritage, born of a Greek Orthodox mother and an Ottoman Turk father, I identify with this building constructed by both the Greeks and the Turks. My each visit to Thessaloniki is not complete without a solitary walk to this monument.

Thessaloniki was the birthplace of my mother: She was born one year before the town was annexed from the Ottoman Empire to the Hellenic State in 1912 when the tower was whitewashed and acquired its present name. Thessaloniki is the place where the Turkish uprising against the monarchy, which had resulted in the dethroning of Sultan Abdulhamid, had started (he was subsequently banished to Thessaloniki and was kept in the White Tower).

As a Constantinopolitan child, I witnessed harsh evidence of lack of democracy, and as a young person, I joined the demonstrators against the regime and occasionally was punished for demanding justice and respect for human rights.  I have been writing against tyranny ever since I was asked to write regularly for Cumhuriyet, a left of center daily national newspaper in Turkey.  

Now in my 70s, as my colleagues retire and start taking long vacations in pleasant places, I can be found attending the meetings of the Medical Association, joining them at anti-government oppression demonstrations and protest activities because the absence of democracy hurts us in Turkey as it never did before.

Ours is a popular movement. Alawites, for example, belong to a progressive brand of Islam which is gender egalitarian, and they march in the protests with us. Alawites make up 17 percent of the close to 80 million-person population of Turkey and are one of the main pillars of our struggle for democracy.  They are disgruntled because they are considered heretics and are despised by the pro-Islamic government.

Back in 1826, Janissary soldiers were imprisoned within the Tower of Thessaloniki. Almost all of them were members of the Bektashi Order and were Alewites. Most of them were eventually killed according the Sultan's decree.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a major Alawite Tekke and worshiping place with Pieter Stek and Madame Stek.  This tekke was in Istanbul and we witnessed that a rather different “genre” of Islam exists out there. Peter had then offered rather ingenious suggestions for upholding this minority.

Hence, because of all these memories it brings to me, I confess that the White Tower of Thessaloniki is one of the main reasons that made me very happy when Costa Carras, a long time ago, suggested that I join the CDRSEE .

There are certainly other reasons for my joining:

Costa Carras was (and still is) a very eloquent supporter of historical monuments; he is a very creative interlocutor for peace among the Turks, the Greeks and the Cypriots as well as an active supporter of democracy. I had the experience of collaborating with Costa in comparable matters and tremendously enjoyed his strategies and even learned new approaches to problems from Costa.

And finally, “reconciliation” and “democracy” are among the most sacred words in my vocabulary:  Joining a group of such caliber trying to promote mutual understanding and democracy in Southeast Europe is exhilarating.

Today, when I look back at the extraordinary performance of this group, its Executive Director Nenad Sebek and his wonderful team, I feel that throughout these years, gradually Ano Poli has climbed up and joined the White Tower in my personal Pantheon.
 
Selçuk Erez, Board Member
 
As treasurer of the CDRSEE, the only thing I can "remember" is the endless effort to find resources to fund the very meaningful operations of the Center!

But the fact that the CDRSEE has pressed ahead with our mission for 15 years is a sign that we have done well!
 
Rigas D. Tzelepoglou, Treasurer, Board Member
 
Congratulations to all on this important anniversary, especially our excellent staff under Nenad Sebek’s direction, for all that has been accomplished during the past 15 years.  I certainly believe we have made a contribution. 

As one of the founders, and the founding chairman of the CDRSEE, I recall vividly our origins and original conception and am very proud that we have remained true to it.  A group of us attended a conference at Ditchley House, near Oxford, I believe in 1996, which focused on the issues relating to the Balkans in the post-Soviet, post-Yugoslav period. John Bradamas was there, as were Costa Carras, Nikos Efthymiadis and of course quite a few other international experts.  There was a similar meeting in Thessaloniki in 1996, chaired by John and sponsored by the Association for Democracy in the Balkans, which was chaired by Costa.

At these two conferences it became clear that the southeast European region was undergoing major changes and that democratic institutions as well as better understanding among the various peoples of the region were of high importance if the Balkan area was to make progress and avoid further conflict.  A small group of us gathered in Nikos Efthymiadis’s small apartment in London and talked about the need to establish an organization that would promote these goals, and we were a bit audacious.  We didn’t have significant funding (barely any at all), an office or a staff when we started.  But we did have a conception, and through the leadership of our Greek participants, Nikos and Costas, we put together a terrific board and staff and, with small small funding and lots of high expectation, started right up. 

We decided early on not to have government participation on our board; we decided to have board representation from civil society and academic and business communities from the entire region if possible, and to stand firm on developing programs that were based on firm democratic principals. 

As I recall we had a long discussion about the name of the organization, and what we decided upon was probably a name that is too long and a bit cumbersome -- but we very much wanted our two themes, reconciliation as well as democracy, to be enshrined in our name (as I recall Costa was most insistent on this). And so we constituted ourselves as the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe, and set to work.   

In thinking back on our early days, I want to make special note of the inspirational leadership provided by my longtime friend and mentor, U.S. Congressman John Bradamas, who provided to us vision and guidance, as well as practical help with policy makers in Washington and Europe, and also the important roles of Nikos Efthymiadis as a trusted business leader and forward-looking thinker in Thessaloniki, and Costas Carras as a person of principle, a deep thinker and an active doer.

Let’s all work to make an impact over the next 15 years!
 
Matthew Nimetz, founding chair and board member
 
I congratulate with all my heart yourself, the CDRSEE team and the board members for the 15th anniversary of the foundation.

The pioneering work of the CDRSEE has indeed been a very significant example for the civil society organizations working for peace and reconciliation.

I wish CDRSEE many more productive years.
 
Osman Kavala, Former Board Member
 
Greetings. Wonderful achievements! Congrats!
 
Spiros Voyadzis, Former Board Member
 
Once upon a time, in a country we shall not name, there was a young project coordinator, embarking on her very first field visit which entailed a press conference announcing a project launch.

 

Tensions were very high, to put it mildly - as one of the goals of the press conference was to show the beautifully printed history workbooks, which it turns out were not yet printed in their entirety. The poor project coordinator was informed of this only upon arrival!

Different crisis management strategies were put into action - and ladies and gentlemen, the show began!

However, in the middle of this chaos, a much less anticipated challenge emerged -- and that was the challenge of dealing with the press, with one "reporter" directly calling the inexperienced youngling on her mobile phone. Well, she struggled left and right, with her less than perfect B/H/S -'Yes sir, the launch is today, at this time, at this location... it will be a brief presentation of a regional project...' and so on, and so forth.

Now, she expected the reply to range from anything from "Lady, you should learn our language better" to "Can I please speak to your boss?" What she did not expect, however, was, "Biljana, this is your boss on the phone. I'm pulling your leg!"

Ah! How gullible we can all be! But it turns out, a small joke, from the person you expected to be nothing but strict and demanding, is all you need to put even the worst crisis in a very manageable light (that's not to say that particular boss is not strict and demanding!).

Dear CDRSEE, thank you for teaching me so many things, in the most fun, positive and productive way possible!

Miss you all!
 
Biljana Meskovska, former CDRSEE staff member
 
I'm proud to be able to say that I was a part of the CDRSEE. I have never worked with a group of such simultaneously hard working and fun people whose dedication to democracy, reconciliation, human rights and peace-building is matched only by a commitment to humour and making life interestingly amusing! The fact that an organisation with 7 employees could be regarded as such a threat to anti-democrats that we were accused of trying to overthrow governments and undermine millenia-old religions (with reference to the JHP), bears testament to the strength of the CDRSEE and to the truth that small dedicated groups of people can, and do, change the world (to paraphrase Margaret Mead).
 
Ruth Sutton, former project manager for the CDRSEE
 
Should I write about my CDRSEE job interview? Or about lunch time at the office? Or about working on my first project at the CDRSEE? I am lucky, I believe, since in only two and a half years I have made and I am still making so many memories that I can write about.

I was 40+ years old with 20 years of experience as a journalist, but I found myself going on my first job interview ever! I so desperately wanted to get this job that my brain wasn’t working properly. So, at 10 am, instead of coming to the Center (for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe), I came to the (city) center. When it was one minute before 10, and no one was there, I finally realized that the center, might be the Center, and thus the center of my world -- which at that moment was getting THAT job -- was falling apart!

“No reason for worries,” replied Corinna from the other end of the telephone line. “And don’t rush!” The feeling of relief was almost as big as my embarrassment!

From the very beginning, I was keenly aware that the people at the CDRSEE are top-notch professionals, but at the same time they are not robots but rather humans who can understand human mistakes and who know to value one’s efforts and results.
 
Zvezdana Kovac, Editor in Chief, Vicinities
 
I have known and been familiar with the activities of the CDRSEE team over the last seven years. It was to my great pleasure to witness their continued and escalating success in bringing about reconciliation in the region and contributing to progress and development in our communities. I have admired their passion for bettering the lives of ordinary people in a region that is very dear to me. Now, as member of this team, I’m incredibly honored and humbled to share my ideas, collaborate with passionate individuals, and work together to continue to make lasting changes. Working with my colleagues and on a vast array of initiatives is particularly rewarding, not least because the team here above all values integrity and truly making an impact with every aspect of their work. Happy birthday, CDRSEE! Your success and lasting accomplishments are well deserved.
 
Dane Koruga, Development Officer
 
When I left Thessaloniki, Greece, at 2 in the morning in a taxi together with my colleague at the time, Ms. Biljana Meskovska, in order to get to Skopje, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and board a flight to Zagreb, Croatia, and then rent a car and drive to Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, it hadn't crossed my mind that this was not the most straightforward way of traveling. As our trip unfolded It seems that was not the only thing I overlooked. For a strange reason (sic) my EU driving license was valid neither in Croatia nor in BiH, and I was supposed to have an international driving permit with me. Nevertheless we convinced the employee at the car rental to provide us with a car. But the surprises did not stop there. When we told her that we were going to Jajce, she informed us that the car insurance was not valid inside Republika Srpska but only in the Federation. Hmm did all this deter us? No way. Next stop, the borders:

If anyone had seen the puzzled look on the face of the police officer at the Croatian – BiH border control, s/he probably would have burst into laughter. However, the officer couldn't be blamed, as he had in his hands a Greek passport, a Macedonian passport and car registration papers for a Croatian rental car.

The police officer looked back and forth at the documents and the passengers in the car. In the end, it seemed it was too much for him to handle; he didn’t want to know more. He gave us back our passports and let us pass without any questions.

This is just one of the many “weird” stories CDRSEE staff members have come across in their pursuit to implement various projects in Southeast Europe. Work in the field it is not always easy, but for sure it is very rewarding. At CDRSEE, for the past 15 years we are trying hard to interact with local populations and encourage them to participate and engage as much as possible in our projects. This way we learn from them invaluable information about the problems they are facing and the situation on the ground, and slowly but surely they take ownership of the project in their hands.

Aaaa by the way, the workshop we had in Jajce was great!
 
Antonis Hadjiyannakis, Project Manager
 
Arriving at the CDRSEE about a year ago as an intern, I could feel the importance of being surrounded by people who are dedicated to their jobs and respect each and every staff member in the office. I could hear them talk, have lunch together as a family on Sundays, laugh, share experiences and ask for advice. It was obvious that I perceived the working environment as part of real life and not an isolated place where people work for 8 hours without a break.

Who knew that a few months later I would become a member of the staff and continue experiencing the joy of being synchronized with people from different parts of the world. This helps me to broaden my horizons and to try to understand the way other people think.

This Center has been in existence for 15 years and offers the privilege to feel from the first moment that you have always been a part of it. The office is a world, and its people are different countries who coexist, able to live and respect each other.
 
Michaela Zervidou, Project Manager
 
Even though I have worked for many companies so far in my career, this is the first time that I am an employee of a non-profit organisation. In that sense, I can only describe my CDRSEE experience as a unique one. Many words come to my mind when I think of the CDRSEE … multicultural interaction, exchange of ideas, challenge, flexibility, ongoing effort, anxiety, strict deadlines but also fellowship, mutual understanding, friendship, support, human orientation. CDRSEE consists of different people from different countries with different life experiences, who share with the same passion and commitment to the CDRSEE mission. And I feel really privileged to have the chance to participate in a “different story”. Happy birthday CDRSEE!!
 
Elena Farini, Financial Officer
 
The CDRSEE has become my second home ever since I started working for the center in 2004.

I still remember my very first expert meeting in our offices in Thessaloniki, on the issue of lustration. We had invited a group of legal experts and all was arranged for them, when Nenad suggested that we split up and pick people up from the airport personally. I thought that was a strange idea, and having been to so many conferences, it is indeed a gesture that is hardly ever seen. But to be honest, I learned that it does make the difference. The people I picked up that day at the airport very much appreciated the warm personal welcome and the respect that we showed them.

Sometimes it is the little things that turn a workplace into a home, that inspire each and every one of us to go the extra mile. And all these little things make up the big picture. What matters most to me is that I can learn something new at the Center every day if I want. It is up to me to open my eyes and engage myself in new areas that I consider important. That’s an intellectual freedom that not many places offer and that is what has kept me for almost a decade now at the CDRSEE.
 
Corinna Noack-Aetopulos, Programmes Director
 
I look back and can't believe that it has been almost 12 years since I switched professions, cities and countries and started working for the CDRSEE in January 2002. I do remember worrying that after working for six years as a Foreign Correspondent for the BBC in the Balkans and then Moscow, I might find my new job not interesting enough. Some mistake! There have not been two days in these 12 years that have been the same. Boredom was never on the list of problems. It has been an amazing journey blessed with extraordinary personalities (people?) that I have had the honour to work with.

From the many success stories that have marked this journey, I would like to remember a failure which has served as an inspiration. Some 10 years ago, I was trying to fundraise with a rather sceptical Swiss diplomat. It was the early days of our flagship project, the much acclaimed Joint History Project, and the Ambassador I spoke with had no faith in the idea. After my pitch, the Swiss diplomat asked: “And what if you fail?” I responded with - “We will try again”. “And what if you fail again?” “We will try again,” I answered. He was persistent – “and what if you fail even then?” I responded impulsively: “I come from the Balkans and I have two options – I can either succeed or emigrate to New Zealand and raise sheep there. I don’t know anything about raising sheep...”

That idea has blossomed into 10 language editions of our CDRSEE books (and a Japanese language version on top of that!), explicit support by the European Commission and the European Parliament as well as numerous national governments, foundations and institutions. And, as we recently promised in Berlin to the President of the European Parliament, Mr Martin Schulz, the CDRSEE has NO intention of learning how to raise sheep. The CDRSEE, 15 years old now, has every intention of continuing to do what it does best - helping to educate a generation of aware citizens who do not accept the conflict and intolerance which have caused so many tragedies in our region. Together with the European Union, institutions like the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and many local partners, the CDRSEE will continue to help turn conflict into dialogue, achieve impact beyond borders, and make democracy work.
 
Nenad Sebek, Executive Director