by Marlene Prinz
This year I had the chance to participate in the 17th International Summer School, which took place from 24th-29th in Šipan. The weeklong Summer School revolved around the topic “The role of NATO in the process of stabilisation of Western Balkan countries” and was organised by the Atlantic Council of Croatia with the support of NATO PDD and the International Institute for Peace (IIP).
Not only young people from very distinct places around the world took part but also several experts and speakers working in the field of official political institutions, universities or NGOs.
Currently I am an intern at the IIP in Vienna and upcoming March I will have my bachelor degree in political science. Although security issues and the Western Balkans (topics that we tackle mostly on the Institute) were firstly not particularly in my field of interest, I am now very glad that these subjects have become more and more issues that I am not only interested but also continuously curious about. The situation in the Western Balkans is not only one particular set of circumstances it also raises several important questions about our world order and our perception that I want to draw out below.
Lectures and Presentations
The intense and educating lectures and presentations were located in Šipanska Luka with an excellent view from the harbour right out the sea. It was a very nice place to organise workshops like this, as the scenery is very idyllic and calm.
What I appreciated mostly about the Summer School was that we not only had the opportunity to listen to very eloquent an experienced experts but also that these opinions and points of view diverged a lot. We had a wide range of perspectives, which in my opinion, was very fruitful for a dialogue between people from different countries. Mutual understanding und respect for different orientations was omnipresent during this Summer School. Although dialogue doesn’t become easier with heaping different opinions, it is worth it. In my point of view, conflicts will not come to a solution by only talking to people who share your own position. Furthermore, it was very refreshing talking to experts in an atmosphere that was not so hierarchically framed.
Talking about the current situation in the Western Balkans implies talking about the relation of the countries within the region, but also about the important influencing powers like Russia, the U.S., the EU and of course the NATO. All these countries have contrasting relations to these “big players”. So the situations and behaviour also differs. Each and every case has it’s own historical background and has to be treated according to that.
Different perceptions for a worthwhile dialogue
I personally liked the presentations of the participants from Russia. Even if I don’t agree on some concerns or statements, it raised questions, which I think are very crucial to one nowadays. Russian approaches showed me that there is not one single truth that we all should pursue. It demonstrated that history is written by the powerful, that it can also be rewritten and that political concepts are often created with the purpose to support a certain image and that they might differ from the political reality.
Discussing the EUs position shed some light to the question “If the EU is really unified?”. One could see how diverse the perspectives within the European Union are, but one could also experience the constant spirit for an undivided and allied Europe. The EU has to tackle several internal problems like migration, right wing populism or security issues, but it is clear that these challenges can only be solved together beyond national borders. One approach would be to reach an agreement on common foreign policies of the states of the European Union.
It was also very interesting to hear about the changing perception of the role of NATO since Trumps presidency. Not only the EU, but also the U.S. are having internal difficulties and challenges to face.
In general, I can state that during this Summer School I learned a lot about the situation in the Western Balkans. Emigration, corruption, former wars or national traumas as well as economic stagnation but also the geopolitical location right in the middle between Russia and “The West” (U.S. and EU) is influencing everyday life of the ordinary people in this region. Due to their geopolitical position the Western Balkans are “trapped”, as somehow the image exists that they either have to choose between relations with the East or the West.
This fact puts everything I learned during this Summer School into a bigger context. Not only the Western Balkans are finding themselves in a world order marked by dichotomy and former East/West competition, but also every single one of us, when it comes to the international system, “our values” and who we are giving the power to become a “big player”. Admitting that the opinions and approaches between East and West are currently incompatible, working together and starting dialogues was a main point that could be agreed upon.
Understanding as a crucial tool
Also the simulation in the end of the Summer School proved that. This kind of role-play created a scene of real negotiations between Macedonia, Greece, The NATO/EU and Russia in the context of a possible integration of Macedonia to the EU/NATO. It was fun to place oneself into the role of one country or institution and to explain its position - no regard if you would personally agree on the arguments.
It was fascinating to get to know the struggles of people in the Western Balkans and their perception to better understand how difficult multilateral dialogues can be. It is crucial to go for inclusion and consensus and to take everyone’s concerns seriously. This topic of NATO/EU enlargement will also be a prevailing topic in the upcoming year in Austria - especially since the Austrian presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2018 already started.
All in all I enjoyed connecting with young people from very distinct parts of the world. I could exchange my views and opinions and I could gain more understanding to the situation in the Western Balkans.
What I liked the most was that even if we were on the beach or having pizza and watching the FIFA World Cup, political topics and discussions never left our table and kept present. We continued to talk lively about issues tackled during the workshops. It is very quickening to see that young people do care about what is happening in the world. I appreciated this fact so much because there is this continuously bad image of my generation or in general of young people being apolitical and not being engaged with politics at all. This world is experiencing a lot of grave changes and conflicts are, due to social media and the rapid flow of information, more accessible than in former times – what sometimes - to be honest - can be a little bit frightening. That’s why this week in Šipan encouraged me to see how optimistic and enthusiastic my generation can be towards serious and political topics and being engaged to make an impact in their region.