With the support of the European Commission, the newly created Western Balkans Alumni Association (WBAA) will be organizing its official kick-off event in Ohrid, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,...
When a group of 22 women members of parliament, journalists, university professors and leading civil society activists from Belgrade and Pristina met for the first time in Budva, Montenegro, to talk politics in an informal setting, the dialogue was stilted and the atmosphere uneasy. Observing their faces at the time, one would notice traces of skepticism and caution, but also curiosity and a readiness to meet “the other side”.
The first meeting back in 2012, launched a series of meetings aiming to enhance dialogue between prominent women from Belgrade and Pristina. This initiative, which has since become known under the moniker Follow Us, was launched by two OSCE sister field operations, the OSCE Mission to Serbia and the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.
Idea behind Follow Us
The idea behind the Follow Us initiative was modest: women participating would be seen as role models for members of their immediate communities, while acting as promoters of peace, reconciliation, tolerance and conflict resolution.
“The Follow Us Initiative has resonated much further from its original idea,” says Jan Lueneburg, Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia Democratization Department. “We are currently discussing with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and other OSCE Field Operations on whether this process could serve as a model in other geographic areas.”
”When we met for the first time we were suspicious towards each other, we did not know what to expect. We realized however that the process was an important one and that we needed to keep it focused on issues of our common concern, issues that really matter in our lives and that bring us together.”
Gordana Comic, a member of parliament and one of the first Belgrade members of the initiative says that when she attended a meeting in Kiev in September this year, women asked her if they could borrow this idea and create a similar initiative for women from Donietsk and Lugansk. “Just imagine if that succeeds,” says Comic. Comic proposed to broaden the initiative, including women from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro. “Twenty years ago I was too young and not powerful enough to protect peace. Well, this time, I’m not giving it away.”
Since the 2012 Budva meeting, some 17 meetings, both formal and informal took place in different places, such as Zurich, Pristina, Belgrade, Prizren, Skopje and the picturesque Austrian town of Stadtschlaining. “When we met for the first time we were suspicious towards each other, we did not know what to expect” said Blerta Deliu Kodra, Member of Parliament from Pristina. “We realized however that the process was an important one and that we needed to keep it focused on issues of our common concern, issues that really matter in our lives and that bring us together.”
Once the initial atmosphere of reticence was overcome and the ice was broken, a number of topics were raised, ranging from gender equality, diversity, the empowerment of women in politics and economics and the challenges women face in meeting the demands of both a professional and private life.
Initiative as a process
The dynamic political context and the occasional heated political debates, to which both societies are sometimes exposed to, have influenced the agenda of the initiative. Some meetings had to be rescheduled in order to allow for broader participation of the members.
“Despite the sensitivity of the political context, prominent women of the initiative have been leading the way to dialogue between the two societies for over four years now,” says Kathrin Gabriel, Senior Governance Adviser of the Mission to Serbia Democratization Department. “Through their perseverance and engagement in the process they have been involved in conveying a message of peace and reconciliation.This change of narrative made the initiative resilient to political turmoil, and empowered members to act beyond daily politics.”
Most recently, Follow Us participants were scheduled to discuss the role of women in promoting peace and security under the auspices of the Belgrade Security Forum, a high level regional foreign affairs and security policy event, which took place in Belgrade in October this year. Despite tensions between Belgrade and Pristina at this given time, participants travelled to Belgrade where four prominent women from both Belgrade and Pristina participated in a panel discussion. This small act of courage on their part made the holding of the panel possible. “We are here because we believe that we can make a change. Our presence shows that the future can be different, better and ours,” said Jeta Krasniqi from the Kosovo Democratic Institute.
”Dialogue is crucial. Only through dialogue can we achieve normalization of relations and stability. In our societies women are often the majority, but a silent majority. We started this initiative so that our voice is publicly heard, and also to pave the way for future generations.”
Women and dialogue make progress
Despite the obstacles they found in their way, the women of the initiative always returned to the table, valuing compromise and dialogue. “The initiative was not always linear, but they kept the dialogue going,” said Lueneburg. “What this initiative has reaffirmed to me personally is that women are strong and more ready to get involved with processes no matter how difficult.”
Ambassador Peter Burkhard, former Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia said that one of the key roles of the OSCE, and especially its Field Operations, is to facilitate dialogue between former conflicting parties, to mediate and to help them reconcile their positions. “Such dialogue can be slow and it may face setbacks; it may even end without bringing true reconciliation. But as long as dialogue continues, it is always worth supporting it as it paves the way for better understanding and hopefully, results.”
”The “Follow Us” initiative could both help advance reconciliation in the Western Balkans, and serve as a useful model for other regions in the OSCE neighbourhoodWe, as participating States, must do everything we can to support this ambition.”
Solidarity as a way forward
The Initiative itself is not part of the on-going Belgrade-Pristina talks held under the auspices of the European Union, but chances are that it may enhance the normalization process. The goal of the process was never to negotiate formal agreements, but to establish direct communication and confidence-building between prominent women from both societies, as well as to create personal and professional networks lacking in this region.
Some of the achievements of the initiative include the creation of a Dialogue Academy for young women, held in Austria. So far, some 40 young women have gone through the Academy, as representatives for the young generation of women drivers supporting the initiative.
This alone ensures that the principles of the initiative are being transferred to small active groups of women who can exchange views and visit each other. “We need to pay attention to the newer generations who are ready to think in a different way,” said Sonja Licht, president of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence and member of the initiative. Nevena Petrusic, University Professor from Nis, and former Commissioner for the Protection of Equality adds: “Another big success is the weakening of stereotypes present in the two societies for centuries. The most important is that we are all the same. You are either acting in a humane way or not.”
Unlike during their first meeting, when participants were reluctant to talk, the dialogue and conversations of the latest gathering in Belgrade were dynamic, open and warm. “Despite us having different views on the issue of status, we still can talk about issues affecting our everyday life,” said Emilija Redzepi, Parliament Member from Pristina. Jeta Krasniqi, Programme Manager at the Kosovo Democratic Institute adds: “We hope that the members of the initiative will remain on the same path, and invite others to join them. Our journey together continues.”