Few words

A few words from CDRSEE Executive Director Zvezdana Kovac

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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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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