TIRANA – RYCO Secretary General Mr Đuro Blanuša gave an interview for the Albanian Daily News where he spoke about the key achievements of RYCO in 2019, challenges for regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and announced future RYCO plans for youth cooperation in the region. You can read the interview in its entirety below.
The interview was conducted by Senior Diplomatic Editor of the Albanian Daily News Mr Genc Mlloja.
Albanian Daily News: Mr. Secretary we are having this talk at the end of the first month of 2020, and at the outset please allow me to learn some details on the achievements of RYCO during 2019.
Đuro Blanuša: The year behind us was an inspirational one for the RYCO team. Our organization significantly grew in terms of staff. Back in 2017 when we started our operations, there were only eight people working at RYCO while now there are almost forty individuals in the team committed to change this region for a better, especially for its youth.
On the other hand, we granted over sixty projects around the region in order to amplify youth exchange programs. We are expecting thousands of young people to take part in these exchanges and learn about their peers across the region.
Moreover, we organized a number of individual activities on the local level in each of our Contracting Parties, but also dedicated a lot of our time to raise capacities of people working for and with youth by organizing a number of capacity building trainings in the fields of regional youth cooperation and exchange.
Finally, we were committed to scaling up our partnerships with a number of organizations and institutions. We strongly believe that in order to achieve results we have to join our forces and make a true impact on the ground.
ADN: Operating under the motto of reconciliation in Western Balkans, where there are still ongoing conflicts, cannot be considered an easy task. So could you please tell ADN’s readers which might have been some of the challenges being faced in carrying out your mission during the last year?
ĐB: The first and foremost challenge is the fragile and complex political situation in the region. It was not present only during the last year. Contrary, we are facing it since the very beginning of our operations.
Such a political situation is not serving reconciliation and cooperation efforts in the region. That is why we are always repeating that our governments should work harder on building trust among each other, but also actively involve a range of stakeholders in these processes – educational institutions, media, and civil society. We are convinced that only through shared experience, cooperation and ongoing exchange new pathways can be built to reconcile people who would otherwise remain trapped in the past.
Maintaining such situation as the status quo will not serve for anything better. It will only cause further divisions between our societies, it will slow down the economic development of the whole region, and finally, it will hinder all the efforts for making the region a better place for our youth where they would like to stay.
ADN: In the meantime, Sir, it would be interesting to know from you some of the main objectives set by RYCO to be carried out during 2020? Which are the main fields of organization’s focus?
ĐB: Our short-term goals are clearly defined in our Strategic Plan for a three-year period (2019-2021). They remain the same – we want to deliver high quality, high impact programs, to build demand and a viable environment for youth for such programs, and finally, to invest in RYCO’s competences to ensure it delivers on its mandate and to the highest international standards.
Concretely, this means that we will launch our fourth open call for project proposals in the course of the next couple of months. We hope that this call will be the most successful one since our establishment – with the biggest number of applications but also with the biggest budget – we plan to invest over 1.000.000€ in high-quality youth exchanges this year.
Moreover, we will be present in the high-level meetings in the course of the whole year where we will be strongly advocating for young people’s interests but also for a political paradigm change in the region. We want our young people to restore their trust in public institutions but this is not possible without public institutions recognizing the young people’s needs.
Finally, we will be building up our internal capacities to properly respond to the above-mentioned. We want to create an organization that is an example of regional cooperation excellence, and I am convinced that we are on the right track.
ADN: Everything means funds in the implementation of the projects, and in this respect which will be some of the main contributors to your budget during 2020? Has the ‘success story’ of RYCO increased the interest of your partners to be more supportive and are there new contributors?
ĐB: You are absolutely right. RYCO as a “success story” attracts a number of supporters since the very first day of its existence. But this would not be possible without a clear commitment of our staff to deliver on what is needed. Logically, this creates more cooperation opportunities with a range of stakeholders.
When it comes to direct contributors to our budget, the situation remains quite clear since it is defined by the founding documents of our organizations which were ratified in the six parliaments of the Western Balkans. The Western Balkans 6 governments remain the key contributors to our budget. Moreover, we have been fundraising actively, so we secured additional funding and partnerships with the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund, the European Union, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French Development Agency and many others.
As our story continues to grow and develop, we will be actively working on securing additional support for our efforts to change the region.
ADN: It still echoes in my ears, Mr. Blanusa, your maxim: “A better region starts with youth”. In this spirit which are some of the significant deliveries of RYCO’s projects to bring youth closer and see the region as their common ‘house’?
ĐB: So far, we have successfully brought together directly and indirectly almost 5000 young people through a number of youth exchanges we supported and organized in the region. But I believe that the numbers are not the only indicators. What we consider important are also experiences that these young people got while meeting their peers from the region. Some of them met “the others” for the first time in their lives. Once you hear the reactions after they spend a couple of days together, one can really feel the hope for the region.
Our young people are indeed ready to meet and discuss the past, present and future. We consider the friendships they create this way 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 youngsters together.
ADN: In Poznan Summit last year RYCO was an active player. What can you unveil on your expected participation in the WB- EU Summit to be held in Zagreb in early May this year? Secondly, do you consider an opportunity the fact that Croatia, a regional country, is at the helm of the EU Presidency during the first half of 2020?
ĐB: We hope to take a serious role in all the regional high-level meetings tackling regional cooperation. Having said that, we expect that the Zagreb Summit will be an excellent opportunity to reiterate the need for further scaling up of cooperation between governments, but also societies and individuals.
As correctly set out in the priorities of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Croatia has a special responsibility to its south-eastern neighborhood. We are convinced that a truly fruitful regional cooperation cannot be achieved without Croatia being included in these processes. That is why we see the Croatian Presidency as an opportunity to bring regional cooperation to another level.
ADN: Mr. Secretary, besides the ‘Berlin Process’ there are other ongoing initiatives in the Western Balkans some of which are carried out by individual countries. Given the earned experience, according to you, do they compete or are complementary to each other being helpful for the region?
ĐB: Each kind of regional cooperation that is directed towards achieving a better region for all of its citizens should always be welcomed. These initiatives are usually in their nature complementary to each other for one simple reason – once you start connecting the societies, there will always be room for further collaboration. Thus, we always welcome these initiatives if they are bringing a new perspective for the region’s people, especially the youth.
ADN: As a follow up, a so-called mini Schengen initiative has been launched by Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia with Montenegro as an observer while Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina do not participate in it. Which is your assessment on that project?
ĐB: When the Prime Ministers of Albania and North Macedonia and the President of Serbia announced the joint initiative, RYCO welcomed it. The initiative is tacking the freedom of movement of people, goods, capital and services in the Western Balkans which we consider highly important for further development of the entire region.
As reconciliation, mobility and exchange are at the core of RYCO’s work, we commended the efforts to change the political and legislative environment for young people to engage in mobility and exchange with each other across the Western Balkans region.
Finally, we also invited other Western Balkan governments to take part in this initiative, especially the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo among which a visa regime is not serving the interest of young people to meet and cooperate thus preventing them from creating a better region.
ADN: Mr. Secretary in conclusion, as RYCO is based in Albania what can you say on the availability of its authorities to cooperate with your organization for you to implement your tasks in the best way possible?
ĐB: I am constantly repeating that we highly appreciate the efforts not only of the Albanian Government but of all the six governments of the region to actively engage in bringing their young people closer together. This is of paramount importance not only for our organization but more importantly for young people in the region.
When it comes to the concrete cooperation with the Albanian Government, I have to admit that the cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Sports and Youth is on a high level. Our local staff is regularly meeting with the Ministry’s representatives, discussing our plans and ideas, but also the challenges RYCO is facing in its work.