This story was first published in Balkan Transitional Justice.
By Carolyne Paletta
Djordje Bojovic was 19 years old and fearful the first time he visited Kosovo. Although there are four buses running between Belgrade and Pristina each day, the young Serb did not want to take the six-hour trip.
“Kosovo is something really untouchable to my generation,” Bojovic said.
“There are more Serbs walking around New York than in Pristina.”
Kosovo is a former province of Serbia that broke away in war in 1999 and claimed independence in 2008. Years of conflict, both political and physical, have caused intense strains between the Serbian and Kosovar people.
When an academic exchange programme sent Bojovic to study in Pristina, he crossed the border warily, even telling his taxi driver he was Austrian in an attempt to conceal his Serbian nationality.
But by the time the programme ended four weeks later, Kosovo felt like a second home.
“I spent the most fabulous time of my life, I fell in love with the city and the people, I broke all of my prejudices and stereotypes,” Bojovic said.
“Even the password on my phone is 2013, the summer when that happened.”
Student exchange programmes, like the one Bojovic participated in, have proven to be a powerful tool in repairing long-standing regional divisions in the Western Balkans.
Many young people in the region were raised on narratives that depicted their neighboring states as enemies. Children who were born during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia are now in their late teens and early twenties.
Though they were too young to experience the wars of the 1990s firsthand, the stories from their parents, history books and television screens have instilled a distinct sense of otherness and fear towards those living just across the border.
“I was full of hatred from the very first history book lesson until the last news I saw on TV before I went to Kosovo,” Bojovic reflected.
“The exchange programmes give you another perspective by allowing you the possibility to meet ‘the others’, the ones who you have been taught are your enemies.”
Governments sign up
A new government-sponsored initiative is now looking to create an institutionalised system of student exchange programmes in order to reconnect the youth of the Western Balkans.
On Monday, the prime ministers of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia on Monday signed up to approve the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) – an idea based on a reconciliation project to bring French and German youth closer together after World War II.
The RYCO will fund and facilitate exchange programmes between the participating states. Schools, organisations and individuals will be able to apply for a variety of grants and programmes infields such as education and research, activism, culture and sport.
Up until now, such cross-border exchange programmes have been provided solely by non-governmental organisations, and have faced considerable limitations in scope and capacity.
“We see the establishment of RYCO as an opportunity to have a real game changer in the region,” said Anita Mitic, the director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) in Serbia, an NGO that has been facilitating cross-regional exchange programmes in the Balkans for the past 13 years.
“The majority of our participants [at the YIHR] were already open-minded and interested to find out about the other side. Now that this process is going to the governmental level, it means that schools and universities will be able to apply for money to organise youth exchanges, and that is the space where people who are really closed-minded can be changed,” Mitic added.
Mitic said that tensions can still flare upinstantaneously in the Balkans because not enough moves towards reconciliation have been made. She cited the on-field brawl at a Serbia-Albania football match in 2014 after a flag depicting ‘Greater Albania’ was flown over the pitch – an incident that sparked angry reactions across the region such as the burning of Albanian bakeries in Serbia, the stoning of the Albanian embassy in Montenegro and nationalist rallies in Albania.
“You need one thing to happen for things to fall apart this quickly,” Mitic said, snapping her fingers.
“But when the nation has a name, and a surname, and a face, and possibly some happy memory joined to it then you change how you see it.”
The Franco-German Youth Office was established in 1963 as part of the Élysée Treaty of friendship between France and Germany. Student exchanges played a vital role in dissolving hostility between these former enemy states and the office is still operating today. More than eight million people have participated in around 300,000 of its exchange programmes.
Now it will bring the knowledge and experience it has gained to the Balkans, serving as the official moderator of the RYCO, providing technical assistance, funding and overall monitoring of its implementation and performance.
While there is a lot of momentum and positive support for the new office, those involved are staying realistic about the current social and political situations in the Balkans. Two of the six participating countries, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state.
The written agreement to establish RYCO is carefully worded as a joint declaration between “the Prime Ministers of the Western Balkans participants”, avoiding any word that would affirm or deny Kosovo’s claim to statehood.
The most immediate issue this presents concerns travel in the region.
“Bosnia and Herzegovina does not recognise Kosovo as a state, and visa procedures are very complicated and expensive,” explained Rasim Ibrahimagic, a civil society activist from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Two noticeable absences in the RYCO are Slovenia and Croatia.
Though both ex-Yugoslav states are already in the European Union, there is still a considerable amount of reconciliation left unfinished, especially in Croatia.
Morana Starcevic, the executive director of the YIHR in Croatia, said it was important that Croatia becomes part of the RYCO.
“Research from the Institute for Social Research in Croatia had shown that the youth has a huge social distance towards particular ethnic groups such as Serbs, Roma and Albanians, which is very problematic,” Starcevic said.
A group of 20 Croatian civil society organisations have formed the Coalition for Croatia’s Participation in RYCO in order to lobby the Zagreb government.
“By supporting this initiative, Croatia would follow the best European examples of dealing with the bitterness of the past and looking forward to a better future that is built on regional cooperation,” Starcevic said.
At its heart, the RYCO is about establishing friendships and restoring the freedoms that war took away.
“It’s really cool when you can go to each of the capitals and still feel at home,” Bojovic said.
“We do listen to the same music, we eat the same food, we drink the same beer. We are basically the same and, even more importantly, we do understand each other without any translation.”
Mitic agreed: “I believe that everyone should be able to live the lives that we are living; having friends everywhere, being able to go for a weekend, have fun, come back,” she said.
“All young people in the region deserve that kind of life. Because it’s a good life.”