We spoke with the Director of the Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies at the University of Vienna Rainer Gries who is leading a team of researchers conducting a study on young people in the Western Balkans and their participation or non-participation in regional youth exchange programmes. This interview focused on the history, politics and psychology in the region and approaches to conducting research on these topics but most importantly on the project that the University of Vienna and RYCO have been implementing since 2018.
RYCO: Professor Gries, you are the Director of the Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies at the University of Vienna (FVC). During the last few years, you and your team have investigated the history, politics and psychology of young people in Southeast Europe through several research projects. Please tell us more about your experiences.
Professor Gries: Indeed, the Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies devotes its attention to the youth and young adults in Western Balkan societies. In our previous research, we focused on the Children of the Balkan Wars – a generation marked by violence and crises. When the FVC became a scientific advisor to the Regional Youth Cooperation Office two years ago, we expanded this focus and applied our expertise to the context of RYCO funded youth exchanges and we included the young people of today.
RYCO: You are a historian and communication scientist and your team of researchers is composed of experts from various fields like contemporary history, international development and communication science. Why is this transdisciplinary approach important?
Professor Gries: I am convinced that research projects like these can only be tackled by multiple disciplines working together. Take reconciliation, for example. Reconciliation is not a single political event it is a complex historical process. Part of this process is a comprehensive approach to dealing with divisive notions of a distant past and the mass violence that happened in Southeast Europe in the 20th Century. When young people from the region meet at a youth exchange they bring along their own perceptions of these painful pasts. A profound knowledge of the history of the Balkans was thus key to understanding young peoples’ self-images, their notions of the past and their ideas of a common region.
At the youth exchange projects young people start talking to each other about their everyday lives and interests, but also about their shared yet divided past, present and future. This is where communication science comes into play.
RYCO: Please tell us more about your research on RYCO youth exchanges.
Professor Gries: The aim of our research was to reach an in-depth understanding of what is happening at RYCO youth exchange projects. Why do young people attend? What do they gain? What is the role of organisers and trainers? What happens after participation? Moreover, we wanted to develop an extensive insight into youth in the Balkans, their cultures of communication and non-communication and their notions of reconciliation.
RYCO: What did you do and with whom did you speak?
Professor Gries: Our team interviewed participants and organisers of RYCO youth exchange projects directly on the spot and visited them in their hometowns after their programme had ended. We also spoke with young people who had not attended a RYCO youth exchange yet. Talking to all of these young people was very inspiring because they were so open and enjoyed telling us about their lives and their experiences. In addition, we conducted a comprehensive online survey covering all youth exchanges of RYCO’s Second Open Call for Project Proposals that took place in 2019 and 2020.
RYCO: Let us talk about your research findings. What happens at the youth exchanges you studied?
Professor Gries: Youth exchange projects can offer something very rare to post-conflict societies: an open forum and a safe space for young people from (former) adversary communities to meet. Just two to three decades ago, their grandparents and parents might have been at war with each other. Now, young people from the region get to meet, to exchange thoughts, to become friends and to build bridges between their societies again. This can be a very powerful even life changing experience for them.
RYCO: A life changing experience?
Professor Gries: Yes, on an individual level these experiences allow young people to grow. They become more independent, confident, aware, outspoken and engaged. Yet we also saw the effects on a social level and by enabling them to interact with each other in a safe setting young people could develop empathy and trust for members of the other group. Empathy and trust are central to the reconciliation process.
RYCO: You also interviewed young people who have not yet participated in such an exchange. What was their perspective?
Professor Gries: Unfortunately, young people from the Western Balkans face administrative and structural impediments when they want to travel in the region. We also found that there are emotional barriers. We spoke with a secondary school student from Mitrovica, for example. When we asked her where in the Western Balkans she would like to go on a youth exchange, she immediately pointed to Serbia on the map. Later in the interview, we asked what her parents would say if she went on an exchange there. She said they would never allow her to go. We heard similar sentences from youth in Serbia and other parts of the region. It is not just the parents though. Young people themselves also expressed that they were worried about how they and their cultural identity would be accepted by other participants. Still, many of them showed great interest and would like to attend a youth exchange in the future. RYCO’s cooperation with schools can play a significant role here in reaching first time participants and allaying the fears and worries of both parents and youths.
RYCO: As you previously stated, the past always plays a role when young people from the Western Balkans meet. How do participants deal with this ‘elephant in the room’?
Professor Gries: We found that some young people avoid talking about the region’s historical heritage in order to evade conflict with their new peers. The wars of the 1990s are a particularly sensitive subject here. Nevertheless, there are also young people who choose to participate in a youth exchange precisely because they want to face potentially difficult conversations about history. Interestingly, we found this happens whether a programme directly addresses the past or not.
RYCO: How can RYCO youth exchange projects contribute to this important topic of dealing with the past?
Professor Gries: When trainers and organisers choose to focus on dealing with the past, young people learn and reflect extensively about the history of their region. They might visit museums or memorials, watch and discuss documentaries or meet contemporary witnesses of the wars linked to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the political oppression under socialism. However, young people also share personal experiences and stories of the past passed down in their families in projects with a completely different focus. We found that young people have great interest in hearing other perspectives. They want to share the ‘shared history’ of their region.
Even though addressing the past is an emotional and challenging process for them, young people feel a certain responsibility to remember the past and as a participant from Niš pointed out in one of our interviews “not to continue the hate and the wars but to make sure it never happens again.”
RYCO: There is a common heritage in the region but there are also particularities in the history of each society. Do RYCO youth exchanges help address both of these aspects?
Professor Gries: Yes, RYCO youth exchange projects allow for both. When young people from former Yugoslavia meet, they might hear different stories about the wars and conflicts between 1991 and 2001. But the history of the Western Balkans also includes Albania, which has its own difficult past. In projects that bring young people from Albania and their peers from former Yugoslavia together the participants learn about the history of the ‘other’ but also about their mutual histories and cultural commonalities. These exchange experiences lead to stronger connections and better relations among young people from the entire region.
RYCO: You also studied the role of project trainers and organisers who are in direct contact with the young people during an exchange. Why was this important to you?
Professor Gries: How young people experience a youth exchange is strongly shaped by the teams of trainer s and organisers implementing it. They act as mediators at different levels – between young people, between RYCO and project participants and between society and the participants. Since they are so influential to young people, we wanted to listen to their life stories as well. We found that trainers’ and organisers’ motivations and goals are very much aligned with RYCO’s mission, making them important partners on the ground.
RYCO: As an expert in European Studies, how do you see the role of the youth of the Western Balkans when it comes to Europe?
Professor Gries: Young people are essential for the future development of the ‘European’ in this region. They face crucial challenges to convey their post Yugoslavian and post socialist societies to Europe and to convey ‘Europe’ to their home region. This will not be an easy task in times like these, when the core values of the European Community – human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law – are tested and questioned both within and outside the EU.
RYCO: Finally, what are the obstacles young people in the Western Balkans face and what are their potentials?
Professor Gries: Young people in the region share a number of issues, among them high youth unemployment and weak political representation. They have to deal with inherited notions of the past that are often divisive and ongoing conflicts with their neighbours in the present. Yet we found that despite these difficulties many young people look into the future with hope and are motivated to improve their societies. A participant from Sarajevo told us, “Young people can change things. There is hate everywhere, but I think there’s more peace than hate.” This should leave us hopeful as well.
Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies
Named after the former Austrian Chancellor, the Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies (FVC) at the University of Vienna was first launched in 2008. This transdisciplinary professorship is anchored at the Faculty of Historical and Cultural Studies and the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Vienna and works in close cooperation with the Faculty of Psychology at the Sigmund Freud University in Vienna, Berlin and Paris. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Rainer Gries is the Director of the FVC, which integrates methodologies of historical studies and social sciences with psychological and psychoanalytical approaches. The FVC team cooperates with researchers all over Europe, in particular with those in Central and Southeast Europe, making their academic expertise available to political institutions and civil society organisations.
Recent research projects:
- Generation In-Between: The Children of the Balkan Wars
- ‘Gefühlserbschaften’ – Transgenerational Transmittance: From the Occupation Children to the Occupation Grandchildren
- Through ‘Autocracy’ to Democracy? The United Nations High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (Wolfgang Petritsch)
- Biographical Experience in Rural Territories in Austria, Germany and in Southeast Europe
- Youth in the Balkans and their Cultures of Communication, Non-Communication, and their Notions of Reconciliation
Their latest research project ‘Youth in the Balkans and their Cultures of Communication, Non-Communication, and their Notions of Reconciliation’ – presented in this publication – was conducted over the period from 2018 to 2020 at the University of Vienna and was supported by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
This interview is a part of the RYCO publication “A Better Region Starts with YOUth” which can be accessed here. The central part of this publication is a scientific research conducted by the team of researchers from the University of Vienna. The research focuses on young people in the Western Balkans and their participation or non-participation in regional youth exchange programs supported by RYCO.
Photo © Universität Wien & Barbara Mair