By Genc Mlloja
Senior Diplomatic Editor
Despite the handicap due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) has continued its performance, and Secretary General Djuro Blanusa had a conversation with Albanian Daily News on the results achieved by now and the expectations for 2021. “As I already outlined in my previous interview for your newspaper, we consider the friendships created among the young people through RYCO supported youth exchanges the most significant result of RYCO. I really cannot wait to see how our region will look like when we manage to bring together hundreds of thousands of them together,” said Mr. Blanusa whose mandate will mark the end in 2021. “As our Statue does not allow extensions of the mandates, we are already looking for new leadership.”
He commended the results of the Sofia Summit of the Berlin Process held in November this year where RYCO was a significant contributor and announced that they have started communication with their partners from the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs on coordination and consultation for the upcoming summit which will be held in Berlin next year. “Next year, RYCO will celebrate its fifth birthday and we consider the upcoming summit a great opportunity to showcase our work as the establishment of RYCO is usually presented as the most concrete achievement of the Berlin Process,” said RYCO’S Secretary General Djuro Blanusa in the following interview:
Albanian Daily News: Mr. Secretary General it is a pleasure to have this conversation with you which is a good opportunity to learn from you on the performance of Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) during 2020, a hard time for everyone because of the Covid pandemic, but as the year is going to its closure it comes to my mind the Fourth of July 2016, the date of the establishment of RYCO and an overview of the almost 5-year would be appreciated…
RYCO’S Secretary General Djuro Blanusa: Indeed, this year was and still is full of uncertainties but it does not mean we should not do our best to use the most of it. That is why RYCO is closely following the developments across the region, especially due to the fact that the core of our work implies physical youth exchanges. Unfortunately, this year and COVID-19 pandemic that started already in March forced us and our partners and friends to switch to online work, programs and youth exchanges. This, of course, cannot substitute the physical contact between young people but it is the reality we are currently living in. Once this emergency situation and pandemic is over, we will immediately switch back to our regular way of conducting the youth exchanges. Anyhow, the current situation should not be an excuse to slow down regional cooperation. Quite contrary, we should enhance it even more since the solutions for the current crisis can be found only through cooperation and exchange.
– Mr. Secretary General it is a pleasure to have this conversation with you which is a good opportunity to learn from you on the performance of Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) during 2020, a hard time for everyone because of the Covid pandemic, but as the year is going to its closure it comes to my mind the Fourth of July 2016, the date of the establishment of RYCO and an overview of the almost 5-year would be appreciated…
– When it comes to the results achieved by now, I am happy to share with you some inspiring facts about our work. Even this year, despite all difficult circumstances already mentioned above, we are in the process of selecting our new grantees to be supported within our fourth Open Call for project proposals which is co-financed by the European Union. So far, together with our partners, we invested over 2,500,000 euros in youth exchanges by supporting more than 100 projects implemented by almost 350 high schools and organizations from the region. These projects directly brought together more than 5,000 young people, and we believe that this number will go up to 8,500 by the end of this year.
We should not forget that in total we received over almost 1000 applications during the four open calls we launched by now, which created over 2,800 partnerships across the region. We had around 1000 people attending 33 capacity building training sessions for youth and those working with youth. We also conducted over 1,000 meetings at local, regional and international level. RYCO was also actively implementing four regional projects to bring new opportunities for young people, youth workers but also to the organization itself. These are covering fields of regional youth cooperation and exchange, social entrepreneurship, volunteering, organizational development, etc.
Last but not the least, when we started with our work back in 2017, our team was composed of 10 individuals from across the region. Today, RYCO employs 50 hard-working people, ready to bring the Western Balkans closer together.
Anyhow, as I already outlined in my previous interview for your newspaper, we consider the friendships created among the young people through RYCO supported youth exchanges the most significant result of RYCO. I really cannot wait to see how our region will look like when we manage to bring hundreds of thousands of them together.
– As top official of an independently functioning institutional mechanism, Mr. Blanusa, are you satisfied with RYCO’s ambitious goal of promoting the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation between the youth in the region through youth exchange programs? How much has that spirit contributed to the general atmosphere in the troubled the Western Balkans where, unfortunately, there is no ‘tranquility’ with new conflicts popping up?
-RYCO and its youth exchanges work. That is a fact and there should be no discussion about it. The latest research proves this. It was conducted by the University of Vienna and the Sigmund Freud University Vienna, supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaftfür Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, ORF Promotion of EU-Integration, on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The research explored RYCO youth exchanges and the influence they have on young people, youth workers and the region. Its results are featured in our recently produced publication “A Better Region Starts with YOUth”, and one of the key findings is that our exchanges give young people experiences that lead to stronger connections, understanding and better relations among young people from the entire region.
Anyhow, we should not forget that reconciliation is a process and it takes time. You cannot change the current situation overnight. The change requires lots of efforts not only from RYCO but from a number of stakeholders, e.g. governments, educational institutions, civil society, media, etc. These efforts should be jointly coordinated and implemented with a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. We are convinced that, as our experience shows, only through cooperation the situation you outlined in your question can be changed.
RYCO’s contribution to this change has just begun and we are quite happy with the results achieved so far. As our results encourage us, we remain committed to our mission and vision despite the fragile political environment we are working in which oftentimes is not supportive. At the end of the day, that is why RYCO was created – to contribute to changing the Western Balkans and making it more open and prosperous.
– You mentioned the latest publication ‘A Better Region Starts with Youth’ produced by RYCO in cooperation with the University of Vienna, the Sigmund Freud University Vienna and the Deutsche Gesellschaftfür Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). Please can you unveil to ADN’s readers, which are the aim of this publication and the message of its content?
– The central part of the publication is the research I mentioned in my previous answer. Additionally, with this publication, we aim to present the key milestones of our work since the very beginning of RYCO, the influence that RYCO youth exchanges have on young people in the Western Balkans and the youth workers that support them through these exchange programs. Moreover, readers will find inspiring stories by members of our Governing Board, both those who represent young people and those representing the governments of the region, the impressions of members of our Advisory Board and stories of those working on RYCO’s mission everyday – our team members and numerous partners. Finally, the readers will find interesting testimonials of young people, participants of our youth exchanges.
To sum up, the key message is that a better region has already started with youth.
– Mr. Secretary given the expertise of RYCO on youth issues, what do you think on the youth perceptions on peace and security in the Western Balkans, and how much weight has it in the general perception of people of different countries of the region? Do you think that their spirit of cooperation has any impact on pacifying the persistent animosity between some countries?
– RYCO is currently conducting research on this matter, too. We are doing it within our project supported by the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund and in cooperation with the UN agencies here in Albania, but also from across the region. The research and advocacy initiative “From Divisive Narratives to Shared Futures” aims to create opportunities for young women and men from diverse backgrounds in the Western Balkans to identify common priorities for peace, reconciliation and security and enter in constructive dialogue with their peers across divides, enhance their confidence in and dialogue with decision-makers and strengthen their capacity to become actors for change.
This research will be the first of its kind in the Western Balkans. I am convinced that it will be a solid evidence-base for discussing the issue you are interested in. Anyhow, while we are waiting for the results, our experience shows that the spirit of cooperation has an immense impact on young people, especially when they go through our programs. As one of the young participants outlined after experiencing the youth exchange this opportunity made him and his peers ready and motivated to make the Western Balkans a better place for all.
These concrete and positive experiences they are getting while taking part in our youth exchange programs, and the multiplying effect which last a long after the program is over, make us believe that RYCO is doing exactly what this region needs in order to combat animosity and negative perceptions of each other – we provide opportunities to young citizens of the Western Balkans to meet each other, to learn more about each other, which is the main precondition to fight and overcome existing prejudice and stereotypes. We bring them closer together and we believe that if this approach has brought a change and progress in other parts of Europe, it will eventually bring the much needed change and progress here as well.
– The ‘Berlin Process’ had its key event- the 2020 Summit- under the joint presidency of Bulgaria, an EU member country, and North Macedonia, an aspirant to join the Union. Its next ‘stop’ will be Berlin, a return where it was ‘born’. What can you say on its results and as a follow up can it be considered unfortunate that right after the Summit Bulgaria vetoed the opening of the first intergovernmental talks of the EU with North Macedonia?
– RYCO participated in and contributed to the Sofia Summit of the Berlin Process as it was the case in all the previous summits since our establishment. Together with other stakeholders interested in regional connectivity and cooperation, we focused on advocating for more cooperation in the youth field, more mobility and exchange, but we also promoted and asked for a better and more enabling environment for such cooperation in the Western Balkans.
We commended the progress made in developing regional infrastructure but at the same time underlined the need for further efforts in fostering people-to-people connectivity, or as we like to say – investment in the human infrastructure, too. On the other hand, the leaders reemphasized the critical role of young people for the prosperity of the whole region, and we appreciate this very much, but now the time has come for them also to “walk the talk”.
RYCO is really glad that the next summit will take place in Berlin. RYCO has already started communication with our partners from the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs on coordination and consultation for the upcoming summit. Next year, RYCO will celebrate its fifth birthday and we consider the upcoming summit a great opportunity to showcase our work as the establishment of RYCO is usually presented as the most concrete achievement of the Berlin Process.
Regarding the decision to not proceed further with the EU integration process of North Macedonia, we are repeatedly saying that the Western Balkans should do its homework but also that the EU must take concrete actions to regain trust and credibility among the people of the Western Balkans. The EU integration process is two-way street and all the stakeholders should be aware of this. North Macedonia has done an incredible progress to unblock the process and this should be well acknowledged and awarded. The latest decisions of the EU and some of the member states are certainly not helpful in regaining their credibility in the Western Balkans.
I would like to use this opportunity to express our full support to other regional initiatives such as the so-called Mini-Schengen, green agenda for the Western Balkans as well as the Regional Economic Area.
– How much have you been capable of raising the awareness of youth that they can play an important role in the prevention of the spread of Covid pandemic because, after all, it is a civil and human responsibility towards the older generation, vulnerable people and society in general?
– When the first cases started appearing across the Western Balkans, RYCO immediately suspended all of its youth exchanges being aware of the risks that the current situation brings. Moreover, our team did not stop operating but we started to work remotely. Furthermore, we provided training to our beneficiaries on digital tools they could use to keep connecting young people across the region.
All of this is with one aim – to promote individual responsibility and lower the risk of transmitting the virus across communities. We are always repeating and taking care of respecting all the measures imposed by our governments and health institutions. Moreover, we are convinced that young people can be heroes of this crisis by using it to learn more about themselves and their peers from across the region through our activities by simply staying at their homes. We also encourage them to take an active role in helping vulnerable people of our societies.
Finally, we supported the five Youth Representatives in the RYCO Governing Board in issuing a statement on the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on the youth in the Western Balkans. They made really important points and recommendations for their peers in the region but also for governments, educational institutions, civil society and media.
-In conclusion, Mr. Secretary, which are your expectations for 2021 and in this frame could you share with us some of the main guidelines of your future work platform?
– Firstly, we hope that 2021 will bring us the end of the pandemic so that we can promptly go back to our ”regular” ways of supporting and organizing youth exchanges and other programs which are all about bringing the youth of the region together. Without being able to do so, our impact will be limited.
Being said, we are already preparing and developing programs with our friends and partners. In partnership with the EU and GIZ, we are preparing a new Western Balkans school exchange program, first of the kind in this part of Europe. With the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs we are going to launch our first regional volunteering platform and program. Moreover, with the support of the French Development Agency, we are already working on developing social entrepreneurship business ideas of young people from the region, and we will present them soon. We will also continue strengthening our organization with the support of numerous partners such as the United Nations family, OSCE, SIDA, Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the EU, the Franco-German Youth Office, and other partners and donors.
Finally, 2021 will mark the end of the mandates of mine and of the RYCO Deputy Secretary General Mr. Fatos Mustafa. As our Statue does not allow extensions of the mandates, we are already looking for new leadership. I am convinced that the leadership of RYCO will make sure that RYCO’s influence will be even stronger across the region in the next four years.
A better region already started with youth and we know that the time when our people will start making the best out of it is so close. Until then, we are not giving up and are going to fully dedicate ourselves in supporting them to become the change they want so see and live