Taping of Vicinities commences. Photo: Okruzenje

Reconciliation – an educational mission, and a possible one

What do teacher training and a hit talk show have in common? Both are effective practives to achieve reconciliation and stability in the Balkans.


Europe’s hot spot?

People love round figures and even more love turning them into anniversaries, centenary ones if possible. And the year 2014 didn’t disappoint, bringing with it hundreds of conferences, seminars, workshops and books, books, books. All focusing, of course, on the beginning of World War I even though the end of the world’s greatest slaughterhouse – to date – might make more sense and certainly gives more reason to contemplate and even celebrate. Many of the plethora of books published, among them the controversial “Sleepwalkers” by Christopher Clark, kick off by analysing the political situation in the Balkans, a region that seems to be having a hard time maintaining stability.

And while one might argue that the instability and war a hundred years ago were imported, what tore apart the former Yugoslavia after the fall of Communism, was primarily of a local making. The great powers might have wanted this or that, might have sided with one or the other, but the wars were both fomented and fought locally even though 1995 and 1999 saw NATO airstrikes against the Serbian side.

For the peoples of the former Yugoslav countries, the post-Communist and post-war transition brought much more disillusion than hope. The physical damage of the wars to the infrastructure; the dead, wounded and disappeared were topped off by dubious practices in the privatisation process, a lack of transparency, strong arm leaderships, a painful restructuring from a command economy to – not a genuine free market – but rather an era described locally as “bandit capitalism”. All of this ensured that the GDP per capita is now somewhere between 50-60% of what it was in 1989 (apart from Slovenia and partly Croatia). Add to that the global economic crisis of the past half a decade and it is not surprising that we see yet again a resurgence of a potentially perilous ethnocentrism and populism. It is also a situation where promoting reconciliation and democratic principles deserves renewed attention and relevance. The Balkans region is no powder keg in the year 2014, but it is far from stable.

Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations not only make sense, they are the essential requirements of the EU accession process, the proclaimed goal of all the Southeast European countries. And yet, the relationships between them seem still heavily burdened by past conflicts and differing accounts of the roots of the wars and the war crimes committed. Respect, equal treatment of minorities and equal rights for all citizens are far from being a reality in the Western Balkans. The financial inequality is gargantuan with a tiny class of the super rich and a huge percentage below the poverty line. Unemployment is above the 25% mark and in some places over 50% when it comes to the young. All of the social unrest indicators that the Economist, for example, uses for its predictions — wide income inequality, poor government, low levels of social provision, ethnic tensions, a history of unrest and particularly low trust in governments and institutions, the so-called crisis of democracy – all of these are in place and have resulted in some social upheavals this spring in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The floods in the Balkans in May are not only a human, but also a financial catastrophe with an unpredictable outcome. Falling income coupled with a rising cost of living are fertile ground for radical movements.

Assembling building blocks of reconciliation

A range of factors needs to come together to have an impact on the quality and stability of reconciliation and democratisation in a post-conflict situation. One is in place, the prospect for an EU future once the troubles of the past are left where they should be – in the past. This “carrot” is in the hands of the EU and the respective governments. But, a crucial tool is a strong, vibrant and active civil society sector.

The founders of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CDRSEE), already in 1998 believed that any genuine reconciliation had to try and reach the education sector as well, primarily, history teaching. History has, namely, been shamelessly abused in the process of creating favourable myths to facilitate the nation-building process. In the Balkans, it has paved the way for unrest and the wars of the 1990s. The diverse perceptions of history and the abuse of those perceptions in forging national identities were especially bad in those 1990s. In the formation of nation-states in the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia, national histories were deliberately created in a way to best assist the desired national identities, to give them legitimacy. And, at the same time, to vilify the “other”, whoever the other happened to be.

Everywhere and always, history plays an important role in defining national identity. In the former Yugoslavia and the neighbouring Communist states, it was distorted to fit a communist perception imposed from ‘above’. Historians offering different approaches were often silenced. Dialogue in this area is politically laden; there appears to be very little to gain but a lot to lose. These traditional methods of history education and research have had many harmful effects. They provided whole societies with selective information and ready-made conclusions with no attention to the source or validity of the information. This also has a negative consequence on democratic competences. Critical thinking, for example, which is essential to the age of information (where one of the most important skills is the ability to compare sources and evaluate the credibility of information), was de facto discouraged.

And thus, desired and by and large fake historical legacies impinge on the present, create ethnic tension and have a habit of easily condemning whoever or whatever does not fit into the idealised mainstream picture of a constructed national identity. Repeatedly, educators have told the CDRSEE that they lack adequate materials and the mandate from education authorities to address the abuse of history during the communist and nationalist phases. Not being sure what approach to take and where to find appropriate resources, teachers in the best case tend to avoid the recent past in their lessons.

This educational gap has been filled by the media (themselves at a probably historical low when it comes to quality and integrity) which have often turned the most recent history into yet a fresh battlefield, in some cases spinning myth and hate speech and creating one’s own nationalistic historical truth. Those same media, could, on the other hand, also be a powerful educational and reconciliation tool, and the CDRSEE in its work has been using both History Teaching and the Media to spread its own message of reconciliation and democracy building.

Reconciliation needs to involve all generations

Reconciliation is a process that requires the inclusion of all generations. Future generations are a top priority. Those who have lived through the conflict naturally have the greatest need for reconciliation, especially those people who have witnessed and suffered violence and loss. Moreover, they are the generation that will help form the minds of the next generation. A false history created in the family, coupled by a fake one created by the media, is an especially dangerous concoction. And some results of this we can see already with a very strong nationalist perception among today’s 15-year-olds. This young generation lacks the experience of the times of peaceful coexistence that are somehow still alive in the minds of the older generations. Learning about genuine and multiperspective history offers many opportunities for constructively exchanging views of the past.

Discussions about the past and our neighbours do take place in the Western Balkans. Unfortunately, as a rule, within one country only and in specific circles, such as expert groups, civil society and occasional student-exchange programmes. Wide segments of the population are excluded from a moderated regional exchange over controversial issues.

What role for formal education in reconciliation?

The formal education system can play a crucial role in the democratisation and reconciliation process. Its effectiveness depends not only on what is taught in schools but even more on how it is taught and how competent the educators are. Depending on the parameters of education, the material that teachers have at hand, and their competence in using it for creating learning spaces, education forms individual and social capacities that can contribute largely to confidence- and trust-building, or that can cement prejudices and populist views of the past and therefore delay reconciliation and lose a generation. An education system that has operated for decades in an authoritarian culture cannot change overnight, especially since education in the Western Balkans was not and is not considered to be an immediate priority and is chronically underfunded.

Reconciliation, first and foremost, requires the ability to recognise one’s own biases and to distinguish between perception and fact. Through comparative study and educational debate, these skills are fostered, while the prevailing method of rote learning has a contrary effect since it cements the belief that there is only one true answer to all problems. In history classes, for example, if teachers and students have access to a wide spectrum of historical sources coherently presented around key topics and in a language understandable to them, an analysis is likely to take place and different conclusions might appear.

This requires, of course, teachers who have the competences to guide the students through this kind of a learning process and who themselves believe in reconciliation and democratic values. A teaching methodology that includes various perspectives to a problem or historical event, to which then there might be more than one right answer or interpretation, requires a radical new educational attitude. (see also Jonathan Even-Zohar’s interview on the same topic in this issue) It is a massive change in schooling culture; teachers and students alike need to find their role in this new situation. To be partners in this process, the academia and educational administrators need to have access to corresponding capacity-building measures and first of all need to be convinced about the necessity for this change. All actors have to co-operate to make a shift to a modern democratic educational model happen. And this is what the CDRSEE has been trying to achieve over its past 15 years through a number of projects and programmes.

The teachers need training in teaching and learning methodologies that would help them to guide their students to process data and content in an active and participative way. Only when students are empowered to use higher-order cognitive processes, when they analyse, evaluate and ultimately create or construct new knowledge, then they will leave school with not just knowledge, but also with important civic competencies. Academia first has to adopt this new educational philosophy in order to be able to produce adequate learning materials. Administrators and curriculum developers need to be able to provide the corresponding educational parameters –a huge process that is a problem even for highly developed countries.

While in all Balkan countries reforms have taken place to develop frameworks with multi-perspective history curricula oriented around “Learning Outcomes”, teachers were not provided with the tools nor knowledge needed to implement the reforms in their classes. There is broad confusion over the terminology, often used without an understanding of the concepts behind it. The fact is that the learning-outcomes approach has entered the curricula but not the education reality. As a reaction to this, some teachers are continuing with the traditional methodologies but simply giving them new names. The reforms are a work in progress, and much needs to be done to respond to the needs of teachers by building capacities for peer-training activities. Investing in the reform of the public education system at the primary and secondary level, however, is worthwhile, as it does not only have an impact on the young generation, but also on educators, parents and even grandparents.

Example: Joint History Project (JHP)

JHP session for teachers underway. Photo: CDRSEE

The JHP, a project started by CRSEE, provides the multi-perspective workbooks “Teaching Southeast European History – Alternative Educational Material” that teach more than history – they push students to consider the various sides of a story, encourage open-mindedness and prompt debate. Through teacher-training seminars, the JHP disseminates its supplementary history education materials in cooperation with the education ministries of the region and empowers teachers to be agents of change in encouraging free thought and compassion.

The Joint History Project so far has produced 10 language versions (and an 11th was translated into Japanese by Tokyo University for students there) of the workbooks. The materials have been widely accepted across Southeast European societies and have achieved visible impact on national education policies. By the end of 2014, the project will have reached an estimated 5,800 teachers in the Balkans in charge of some 900,000 students; 1,950 teachers participated in 65 seminars, while 3,850 received materials through their peers. The workbooks are meant to supplement rather than replace traditional sources of education, and to assist teachers in building their students’ critical-thinking and evaluation skills through a multi-perspective approach that helps them question the validity of common biases and stereotypes.

Original historical sources from all countries of Southeast Europe make these workbooks unique. Workbook 2, Nations and States in Southeast Europe, for example, is entirely designed to show the process of national self-definition, from the uprisings against the Ottoman Empire to the wars in the former Yugoslavia.  In the chapter National Ideologies, a range of sources from each of the countries is grouped around the questions: What is a nation? What are the self-definitions? What are national symbols and mythologies? In this chapter, students, through comparison of the various expressions of identity, are able to deconstruct myths of national exceptionality, or analyse what national symbols (flags, animals, heroes, traditional costumes, etc.) tell about the self-definition of a country.

These are just two of many more interesting learning opportunities that can be developed with the workbooks. The workbooks, for example, also offer sources that teachers can use for their students to understand how the education system in an authoritarian rule and during wartimes can indoctrinate rather than educate. Discussions can take place in the classrooms exploring the societal impact of such an era (based on chapter Ideological Consequences in Workbook 3 and Culture and Education in Workbook 4, for example) or teachers can guide their students to elaborate on information and propaganda using selected sources. The project aims to foster independent thinking and, on a grander scale, to use history education as a tool for guiding societies along peaceful and democratic paths.

The workbooks were designed and edited by a group of Southeast European historians, who form the CDRSEE’s History Education Committee and who were the pioneers of transnational historical research in the region. The workbooks, therefore, are a genuine Southeast European product and they cover a period of history from the 13th century until the end of the Second World War. The next two volumes that will cover the post-1945 and the post-1989 periods are already planned. Addressing these very sensitive periods in a multi-perspective manner is an urgent need that was voiced by teachers of the region and also by the ministries of education, who act as partners in the project. It was unthinkable to produce these books a decade ago, but the JHP over 15 years has nurtured the trust within its History Education Committee, the teachers’ communities, the ministries and its donors and now possesses the courage and confidence needed for embarking on the sensitive past 60 years of history in the Western Balkans. Almost 30 donors have contributed to the project!

Measuring the impact of JHP

The CDRSEE team conducts regular evaluations to provide qualitative and quantitative data to estimate to what extent the JHP empowered and enabled history teachers in Southeast Europe. From 2012-2013, 593 teachers were questioned in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo under UNSCR 1244 (UN Security Council Resolution on international civil and military presence in Kosovo) and Serbia. The results show that there are many common obstacles to effective history teaching in the region; teachers from all participating countries mentioned that they suffer from a serious lack of teaching materials and tools, such as textbooks, audio-visual equipment and historical maps. Furthermore they have to deal with a lack of time and bad working conditions. Asked about their motives for attending the CDRSEE teacher-training workshops, an overall majority of the teachers stated that they wanted to learn new methods of history teaching and that they were interested in using CDRSEE materials in their classes.

In all countries, teachers after the workshops felt very confident about having adopted the skills for using the workbooks in classes, while in the subsequent online survey about their experiences in their classrooms, they reported difficulties in choosing and adopting the materials for the various age groups. Teachers also still claim that there is a great deal of emphasis on rote learning, though it was not clearly specified if this is induced by the curricula, students, superiors or if it is just a learned pattern that is difficult to break.  While a large majority of teachers believe that the JHP workbooks will help students to develop key competencies based on critical thinking, creativity, initiative, problem solving and decision-making, they claim that their time is limited, and many teachers obviously are still not very confident in reconciling the new methodologies with the curricula. However, an important change in attitude has already taken place, there is an overall positive belief that this kind of history teaching can be a powerful tool for reconciliation among the people in Southeast Europe and there is a great desire for further workshops to take place.

What role for informal education in reconciliation?

Another range of possibilities opens up through informal education, and as reconciliation is a matter that concerns society as a whole, it also needs a mass medium. Every public TV station as such has an educational mission; its original purpose is to inform the public and this includes – ideally – a presentation of a range of perspectives that allows viewers to move away from traditional simplistic interpretations and learn about bias and validity of information.

However, the media in the Balkans are not fulfilling this educational mission but rather following a political or a commercial agenda. A lot has been written already about the deficiencies of the Southeast European media and wide-reaching programmes of EU-funded media training have taken place — to a less than modest result. There are certainly some good educational programmes, but they are an exception and are not the ones that attract many viewers.

While documentaries are a well-established educational tool, a less obvious resource is educational talk shows, which have the advantage of being interactive. Just as classroom education benefits from debate, so does informal education. The region has many common problems which offer fertile ground for debate; the shared past has created similar challenges in the new democracies that have the potential to find common ground across borders.

Example: Vicinities – Regional TV talk shows as informal education

With the “Vicinities” programme, the CDRSEE together with the European Fund for the Balkans and with assistance of the German Federal Foreign Office has established the first regional talk show, an educational debate, which applies multi-perspectivity to current affairs.  Specifically, the aim of this series is to establish an open dialogue on important, oftentimes controversial, regional issues and foster meaningful discussion within the societies of the region. The idea of discussion and debate is not new, but it is something that only a few years ago would have been impossible across borders in this region. The issues discussed are often still sensitive, if not raw, for the guests and audience, and yet the discussions have all been positive, if not optimistic.

The region is unique in that individual languages are mutually understood. Therefore, the idea was for guests, moderators and audience members to speak in their native languages from their points of view about shared problems, reaching out to society members at large who are watching from the comfort of their own living rooms. The discussions started personal, social and cultural discourses that go way beyond the typical talk show – and the typical impact. Vicinities (or locally known as “Okruzenje”) has people talking in the streets, on the job and in schools, creating a mutual awareness and understanding.

And this talk is leading to reconciliation at the grassroots. Currently, Vicinities is broadcast weekly during the season in seven countries of the Western Balkans. The reach is wide. For the taping of the talk shows, active citizens and experts, of different countries, from fields such as the arts, social sciences or education, among others, are invited as guests, engaging in open, soul-searching dialogue about topics as difficult as War Crimes and Youth Unemployment. The debate in any given town, country or the region as a whole is immediately given multiple perspectives, and just as important, discussed openly, without fear. This is paramount to reconciliation aided by informal education.

Vicinities was first broadcasted during prime time in the spring and summer of 2012, on a weekly basis, in five countries throughout the region. The reviews were unanimously positive, and TV stations began asking for more episodes. The following year, in 2013, the project was expanded with a more ambitious series: 12 new debates. This second season was more refined, the set was improved, new TV stations joined the team and the hosts were more experienced and trusted in the region. The topics were expanded to include The Other Side of Identity; European Union: Between Lament and Rhapsody; Political Cartoons; Violence Among and Against Young People; Our History and Your History; Athletes on Sport; LGBT Population; Civic Sector in the Region; War Crimes; The Church and Its Separation from the State; State Administration; and on a more upbeat note, Ethnic Music.

Finally, the project was presented in December 2013 to the European Parliament, sparking such enthusiasm that several MEPs said that such a programme is needed for Europe as well.

To be sure, this type of regional discussion directly impacts the transition process of the region and contributes to building the attitudes that advance Euro Atlantic integration in Southeast Europe. The project step by step contributes to broadening views and helps the reconciliation process to advance. A better understanding of the challenges faced by the region, of how the “other” thinks, through a participative and transparent initiative, promotes awareness. Clearly, this endeavour takes time; therefore, Vicinities has been conceived in a manner to create a cycle, which we hope can be repeated every year, tackling priority issues each time and helping the Balkans to rediscover the real value of regional cooperation. In the long term, Vicinities nurtures the understanding that the neighbour in fact is a valuable ally for development and that regional cooperation should not primarily be regarded as the unavoidable side effect of EU integration.

Reconciliation “between the lines”

Topics for the third series of Vicinities include Organized Crime and Corruption, Secret Dossiers, Language (are Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian four different languages?), The Rising of Nationalism, Solidarity, Social Networks, Ecological Awareness, Unemployment, Education, How Old People Live and War. Neither “reconciliation” nor “democratisation” has been a topic as such in any of the three cycles – the topics that are discussed, however, will achieve just that. They are painful issues, which create a common interest, and that is a very strong motivation for more regional dialogue and ultimately reconciliation.

Debating, listening. Photo: Okruzenje

The influence of the “Vicinities” project is multiplied through social media, on the project’s and the partners’ pages on Facebook as well as on YouTube, but it is not a classic social media initiative. Social Media, however, would be another valuable channel, an idea that must be considered for the future.


Education, both formal and informal, can be a strong building brick in the reconciliation process. Finding and using shared and joint interests on a regional level is another such brick. Only a regional network can act in a holistic manner, working both bottom up and top down and addressing reconciliation in general and many controversial topics along the way. Multi-perspectivity and plurality with a regional aspect allows for involving large population groups, passing on the knowledge that contributes to dealing with conflicting interests in daily life, but also works on the macro level as well. The wars of the 1990s were facilitated and flamed by a radicalisation of the masses with distorted information, downright lies and a hefty dose of mythology. To stop history from repeating itself, we need to use the tools available, build cross-border networks and be aware of our biases and wrongdoings of the past. It is a process. It will take time, it will be expensive and it will not be pleasant for all. The current rise of populism and radicalism outside our region (just think of the right-wing victories in the European Parliamentary elections in May 2014) has shown us that despite all the education and information available in these “i-times”, simple one-sided solutions have a strong persuasive power.


European Commission. (2013). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council: Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2013-2014. Brussels.

Koulouri, C. (Ed.): (2009). Teaching Modern Southeast European History – Alternative Educational Materials 2nd edition. Thessaloniki. 2009.

Anderson, L., Noack-Aetopoulos, C. (2013). Teaching for Learning. A Reference Guide for Results-oriented Teachers. Thessaloniki.

Kovac, Z. (Ed.) (2013). Vicinities – First Regional News Talk Show – 2nd Season. Thessaloniki.

The Economist. The World in 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/blogs/theworldin2014/2013/12/social-unrest-2014

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