What makes a German – almost European Studies’ graduate – participate in a youth conference about challenges in the Balkan region? In European Studies in Germany, at least that was my experience, the priority is set on the European Union. Same goes for the general European discourse. Europe and the European Union are used as synonyms. This is wrong and nothing shows the misconstruction and the imbalance within Europe and the European Union better than the exclusion of the Balkan from “Europe”. For me this is reflected in the topic of the Krusevo International Youth Conference, going this year into the 14th edition: “European Values for the Future of Southeast European Countries”. But I’ll come back to that later. First – what is that conference about? And what am I, the German almost-graduate, doing here?
The Krusevo International Youth Conference is being organized annually in Macedonia’s highest located town known for an uprising against the Ottoman occupation in 1903: Krusevo. Initiated in 2002 after the disastrous 90th and the (violent) upheavals of the early 2000th young people from the town founded the Youth Alliance and have since then organized the nowadays well-known prestigious youth conference of the future of Southeast Europe and European integration. Funded by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, the German Stability Pact and the NGO Civica Mobilitas this conference is organized by a young team which, frankly, did a great job for this year’s edition. I applied because a friend recommended the conference to me and I was hooked once I had checked out the homepage. As said before, I see one of Europe’s biggest challenge and the EU’s insufficiency in the inequality and hierarchy between states and regions. I believe that, in order to make any progress in Europe, we must rethink how we perceive Europe. And one of the first steps must be to naturally include the Balkan in the “club”. There are a lot of ongoing discussions about what we can count to Europe and what not: Turkey, Russia? With the Balkan it should be easy. Trapped between a bunch of EU member states and obviously a geographic part of Europe there is no rational reason to exclude the Balkan from Europe. I apologize, apparently there is a reason: the money. There is the always rational Homo Oeconomicus who just can’t accept the worn out economics and instable systems of the Western Balkan to the prestigious Union, or to say it with the words of former Croatian president Stjepan Mesic: “the most eminent political and economic club in the world”. But, just for the record – again – I am 100% sure that we do need a more inclusive approach to European integration and development. And this starts with a European discourse which does not expect the Balkan to slowly accept and adopt Western European traditions, culture and values, but to understand the process as a two way street. So, to promote these ideas among people with different geographic backgrounds, but similar mind sets, I applied for the conference and, luckily, I got accepted
The conference has, unlike many other youth conferences, a very professional approach. This can be seen in the amazing set of speakers invited to, in total, 6 panels on different topics relevant to the conference. My peers who participated in the conference met some of their heroes on stage: the well-known Macedonian prosecutor Ms. Lence Ristoska, the very energetic and straight-forward investigative journalist and TV moderator Ms. Jeta Xharra from Kosovo, politicians and Microsoft architects from the region sharing the panels with representatives from innovative projects and programmes in the region such as Marija Bulat from the Regional Youth Cooperation Office for the Western Balkans, Ms. Julia Ivanova representing the Bulgarian urban planning project POdLEZNO designing safe public underpath or Mr. Nathan Koeshall from “Catalyst Balkans” offering his support for young entrepreneurs in the region. For me it was an exciting experience to meet people I had not heard about before. Still, the professionalism does not lead to a stiff and formal event – and this might be maybe the greatest achievement of the organisers: everyone is mingling and mixing throughout the event, laughing, dancing, having fun.
But just as great as the diverse speakers are the participants. In three days I have not met a person in this conference who was not extremely inspiring. Who did not leave a lasting memory in my mind. Instead, the people I met take away every doubt that the region and Europe as a whole are moving towards a better, more inclusive and open-minded place.
When it comes to the Balkans, I – as an outsider – observe a lot of scepticism, a lot of anger and a lot of mistrust. That is nothing I found out by myself, it is common knowledge. Still, even in an event like this where you find maybe the most open-minded young professionals from the region – called “elite” in some context – those feelings are omnipresent. This was seen best during the key note of former Croation (and Yugoslavian) president Mr. Stjepan Mesic who talked about parallels between Yugoslavia and the European Union in his speech under the headline “from Yugosphere to Eurosphere”. During his speech which was for me most of all an interesting insight, I observed my peers visibly petrifying, forcing themselves not to get up in protest. So you have both in a conference like this: you have fruitful exchange and you have deep frustrations which just cannot be hidden at all times. They should not be. Just as Mr. Ben Jones, long time observer to the EU, opened the morning: in the end it all comes down to being critical thinkers. And, in the end of the day, you also have groups of young Serbs, Kosovars and Albanians shaking their hips in the same rhythm downing shots of Rakija (local schnapps), following the common wisdom that Rakija united communities.
When it comes to me, I not only (again) take away the security that not all is lost in Europe, and also that we (in Western Europe) have to make up our minds. See the Balkan countries not only as a war-ridden conflict pool, but as an integral part of our community.
At the moment I’m writing this short introduction to the conference during two sessions, hoping to build up on that tomorrow in the end, wrapping up the conclusions I can take for me out of the conference, take back to Germany and take back to my European projects.