Youths urged to support co-operation, Euro-Atlantic accession
Western Balkan countries are making significant efforts to become EU members, but as post-conflict and transitional societies, they face challenges that could be overcome by regional co-operation, experts said.
Joint work on these issues is the most important part of the integration process, said regional experts, who recently gathered 110 students, ages 20 to 33, from across the Balkans at the Regional Euro-Atlantic Camp (REACT), in Plav, Montenegro.
Participants attended lectures and workshops that focused on promoting policies to encourage citizens to support regional safety, co-operation and joining NATO and the EU. Speakers included Nebojsa Kaludjerovic, foreign affairs adviser to Montenegro's prime minister; Agim Ceku, minister for the Kosovo Security Force; and Dusica Tomovic, deputy director of the Centre for Euro Atlantic Politics in Montenegro.
"REACT is a unique chance for Balkan youth to meet people from other countries and to hear, at the same place and at the same time, what EU and NATO integration means for our countries and to realise the meaning of co-operation for faster integration. Unlike our grandfathers who followed the trace of conflict, we have a chance to join EU and NATO," Maja Baletic, a 32-year-old participant from Niskic, Montenegro, told SETimes.
Sava Milic, 18, a student and volunteer at the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade, took part in REACT 2013, along with students from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Slovenia.
"We gathered to learn more about the benefits of EU and NATO membership, and we got some important messages," Milic told SETimes. "In order to achieve accession to the Euro-Atlantic organisations, we should spread information about their benefits."
Participation in events like REACT gives young people motivation to advocate the integration processes, said Aleksandar Dedovic, executive director at the Alfa Centar in Niksic, the NGO that organised the camp.
"Citizens' awareness, which is growing, as well as increased involvement of young people in policymaking have made these processes unstoppable. Simply, countries in the region are ready to face the positive and negative implication of European and Euro-Atlantic integration, and to improve co-operation and the capacities of democratic societies," Dedovic told SETimes.
He said regional communication and co-operation between the Western Balkan countries are a necessity.
"If we, as neighbouring countries with a turbulent past, learn how to co-operate and build peace and stability in the region, then we will be taken seriously by our international partners. The special focus of their attention is on our concrete co-operation in the fight against crime, especially against organised crime groups that deal through the entire region and beyond," Dedovic told SETimes.
Nadica Stosic, director of the Initiative for Integrations NGO in Vranje, Serbia, and one of REACT's speakers, agreed that regional co-operation is one of key factors of integration processes.
"We cannot talk about EU or NATO if we can't fix some essential issues like state borders and relations with neighbours. Serbia can't talk about EU accession if we are still having differences with Macedonia over imports," Nadica told SETimes.
Stosic said the co-operation between NATO countries is a good example.
"If we take a look at the relations between NATO member countries since the economic crisis has started, we'll notice that more attention has been paid to bilateral military co-operation. The Western Balkans could follow this model and affirm co-operation between neighbouring countries," Stosic added.
Stosic and Dedovic agree that support for EU and Euro-Atlantic integration is not on the same level, but that it could be changed if political leaders start talking about it and citizens start obtaining proper information on NATO membership, as well.
"If we have reached consensus on the EU, we should reach it on NATO, as well," Stosic said.