In this essay I will elaborate on my acquaintance with the concept of peace on three interesting events: the `Youth Reconciliation Ambassadors` (YRA) programme organized by the Youth Education Committee in Belgrade (Serbia) aiming to encourage multi-perspective discussions on topics relevant to the future of the former Yugoslavia area between young people; the Summer School `Religion, Ethnicity and Nationalism` (REN) organized in Skopje (Macedonia) by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Euro-Balkan University, and the five religious communities in Macedonia, having as main objective to shift the status quo concerning the civic perception of religious, national and cultural differences among the Macedonian youth; and the European `Peace Revolution Fellowship` (PRF), a retreat in Lede (Belgium) that aims to promote a culture of peace, peace education, conflict prevention and youth empowerment through the primary means of meditation and self-development. Thus, it is an approach to the concept of peace-building from different standpoints: nationalistic, ethnical, cultural, religious, and individual. I will not follow the classical form of scientific essays, and will employ a more journalistic style, since the purpose of the essay is to raise awareness of the multidisciplinary approaches that exist in the public discourse on understanding and achieving peace in the Western Balkans and to introduce the reader to different ways for achieving peace coming from these experiences. It will end with my personal understanding of peace.
It is interesting to highlight that I have met 100 young people at these events, more than two-thirds were from the Western Balkans, and I noticed that they introduce in layers: besides the country of origin, they highlight their ethnicity, religion, profession, even gender. As a result, I have met a young diplomat who introduced herself as an Albanian from Skopje, a vegan from Mostar, a Buddhist from Prishtina, and a transgender from Novi Pazar. Fifteen years ago these people would have been `just` Macedonian, Bosnian or Serbian, and many would have tried to remain in the national matrix. But now, the freedom for self-expression helps these young people not to feel that they have lost a part of their identity when they conclude that we are very similar and we share a lot of cultural tradition and heritage. By building new, multiple identities based on self-perception, self-development, modern and liberal trends, universal values and rights, they are becoming more inclusive and respectful of others.
Now let us get back to peace. What can be done in the name of peace? I have never heard so many different and sometimes contradictory approaches for the same goal. The YRA programme has its focus on EU integration, history education and the reconciliation process of former Yugoslavian countries. The last two topics could be a Pandora`s Box or Dante`s Purgatorio. For education in history, Prof. Stojanovic recommended multi-perspective education in history in the region, because Balkan historians have changed the past in order to change the present and future. The fact that a different history exists in every textbook for the same events made her state that history is not scientific, but a nation building instrument for identity. As a result of that approach, she highlights the victimization of each country, and consideration of history as a destiny in repetition. Regarding the reconciliation process, one of the loudest advocates, Ms. Toma, recognized the interest for a regional truth commission as a mature step forward, since war crimes have a nationalistic background and a joint reconciliation should establish a platform for peace building based on same instruments and expected results. Furthermore, one of the main messages was that the European integration is a secure path towards peaceful and sustainable future of all Balkan countries. The Head of EU Delegation in Serbia, H.E. Ambassador Davenport highlighted that economic development is a crucial benefit from an EU perspective, and it is valuable for sustaining peace. The Croatian Ambassador in Serbia H.E. Mr. Markotich made a very firm statement that EU membership will establish security in the region, and that enlargement is still a priority, but we need to be aware that the EU is facing the challenge of strengthening its internal cohesion as well, and if the candidate countries do not show direct and full devotion in all aspects of the integration process, then the delay in integration can be expected and justified. Conflict management and transitional justice processes of the Western Balkans are new experiences for the EU also, therefore integration is a joint project where each actor learns about and from each other, and creates a platform for unified Europe.
Although most of the speakers at both events agreed on the advantages of EU integration for reconciliation, at the REN School I heard more cultural and historical reasoning behind the peace building process. The importance of religious and cultural preconditions for peace, recognized as part of tradition and identity, are emphasized in Macedonia. There are scholars who recommend symbolic primacy of certain religious institutions in state building documents, such as the constitution, as a sign of recognition for their role in maintaining the peace and social cohesion in history and today. The main message was that on the road towards EU, we should not lose our cultural heritage that helped us live peacefully for such a long time. Even when the Macedonian President Ivanov delivered a lecture entitled “The Macedonian Model of Coexistence” at Yale University, he traced the history back to the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, remarking that Macedonia developed a model of coexistence as “integration without assimilation” in which identity does not depend on religion, and tolerance, as balance between belonging and distancing, exists as long there is `other`.1 Hence, from the many discussions and workshops, I have concluded that we are all striving towards a European future, and with regional cooperation and support that road can be much smoother and more beneficial for all countries. The novelty and advantage of EU integration process is the offer of policies and counsel for achieving a set of visions and goals in fundamental state documents and in agreements of our leadership representatives. It advises us on the implementation of the principles of excellence in governance, and reminds us of the importance of peace and cooperation. It opens the door for us and lends a hand, but it is a road that we need to walk, lessons we need to learn, and changes that we need to accept. Our willingness is not reflected in the statements we make, as much as it is in the actions we take. The reconciliation and integration processes is not a sprint for benchmarks and one-time solutions, but a marathon that hardly ends because the EU, in these troubling times of social and economic crisis, is undergoing a process of evolution and adaptation that needs to be followed by each (candidate) Member State. Sounds like despite all the fights and crimes and nationalistic propaganda, we need to be together for peace to prosper, huh?
After all the meetings and highlights of our efforts and achievements for peace building, I went to a mediation retreat where I was asked the most important question: Can we organize a meditation fellowship in the Western Balkans? That means that people should wake up at 5am, meditate for four hours per day, and eat twice a day for a week. It is the art of being silent, search for the peace in you, and spreading love and kindness, highlighted by many researchers as one of the principles of the greatest peace makers and leaders of all time, such as Buddha, Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and many others. Unsurprisingly, most of my Balkan fellows reacted that it is going to be impossible and many things will need to be adapted to the Balkan culture. We would rather change a 3,000 years old technique, but will not change our own habits to pursue a higher goal. That leads me to the question: How much we are truly ready to change and accept otherness as a pre-condition for peace?
Yes, we need to tolerate and we need to respect. But my opinion is that we should respect others and tolerate ourselves. The verb `tolerate` is defined as ‘allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference”.2 We all have been raised in a social environment where many constructs have been seen as negative, unnatural or unacceptable, and in our case that behavior is the thing that we should not necessarily like or agree with, and not the construct itself. Thanks to the many stereotypes and prejudices that were raised and supported in order to define our nations as different, we have developed a discriminating mindset and it is impossible to turn back time or completely change. Therefore, we need to be kind to ourselves and tolerate our own boundaries, not by publicly celebrating our capacity to tolerate others, but internally, by questioning our own words and being aware of our own reactions. With time we will become aware of the uniqueness and qualities of `others`, empathize with them, and show respect without making any exceptional effort. As a final thought, I firmly believe that we can build a solid platform for peace building if we stop using any social construct to divide people, stop asking them to frame their behavior in accordance with discriminatory expectations like `to man up` or `to woman up`, and just let them all `human up`. And the young generations within the region have the capacity to be the catalyst of integration. We have seen the terror of war and felt the pain of loss on one hand, and studied and practiced democracy, governmental development and social inclusion on the other, introducing us to the alternative that must be promoted by all, regardless of nationality, gender or age.
1 Online news publication of Yale Divinity School: http://notesfromthequad.yale.edu/notes/2014-09-27-021500/macedonian-president-gjorge-ivanov-there-no-tolerance-if-there-no-other [accessed 10.10.14]
2 Online encyclopedia: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O999-tolerate.html [accessed 10.10.14]