“Our biggest challenge is silent segregation.” Interview with CID co-founder Boshko Stankovski

Boshko Stankovski is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, and a co-founder of the Macedonian NGO Center for Intercultural Dialogue (CID). Ahead of our upcoming conference in Ohrid, Macedonia, where he is scheduled to present and lead a workshop, UNITED caught up with him to talk about his engagement with the topic, and the current challenges for intercultural work in Macedonia.

UNITED: How did you come to be a co-founder of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue?

Boshko Stankovski: I grew up in Kumanovo, in the north of the country close to the capital Skopje. Kumanovo is the largest municipality in the country and one of the largest cities, and it is very diverse. The crisis in 2001, [when the Albanian National Liberation Army military group attempted to seize control of parts of the country from the Macedonian security forces] made it clear that maintaining peace between different ethnic groups is important for security. As many events have shown, the stability of Kumanovo affects the whole country.

I first got involved in civil society work through workshops I participated in when I was finishing high school, first becoming a volunteer and then working as a project officer for an NGO in Kumanovo. By this time I was already at university. After a while, a group developed around me and a few other active young people who had a different vision for how an organisation should be run – and we decided to do it ourselves. So I became a co-founder and was the first president of CID. At the time we were one of very few organisations that were youth-run NGOs, and we had a fantastic development as an organisation. We developed projects quickly, and we got a lot of international donors to support us, which is still the case. The organisation is still very well established, and famous in the country for its openness. Young people are constantly coming, new people are joining, and people go on to take up posts in the organisation. It is a truly youth-run, multi-ethnic NGO.


What were your aims when you started the organisation?

When we were discussing what we would focus our activities on, there was no doubt we wanted to make a contribution to the intercultural dialogue in Kumanovo and Macedonia. But we decided that the organisation should not just say: “we are going to discuss this topic from a theoretical perspective and do workshops”, but should promote intercultural dialogue and understanding through youth leadership, showing people that they have something in common by working together. We decided to involve this component in every activity we do, whether it is about improving the situation in a particular community or promoting youth leadership in general. Kumanovo is a fairly segregated municipality and we wanted to tackle that problem.


What can you tell us about the incidents that took place in Kumanovo last year, when armed violence broke out in parts of the city? What effect has this had on community cohesion?

The events last year were a huge surprise and shock – not only for people in Kumanovo but for every citizen in Macedonia and for all members of the international community who follow the situation in the country and the region. It was a very dangerous event and could have very easily opened a new spiral of violence, heating interethnic tensions and destabilising the situation further. So for that reason it was a serious concern to everyone.

I am not in the best position to go into great detail about it, as I was in the USA at the time, but as far as I’ve gathered from speaking to friends and family, and the situation I saw on my return, I think the positive we can see is that this was a huge test for the community – and it turned out that the interethnic connections are more resilient than we thought. These events took place close to the city centre, but it seems that people living there did not fall into the trap of further hatred and tensions. During the event, when the clashes started, people were helping each other regardless of their ethnic backgrounds – Macedonians and Albanians were helping each other – which is a very good sign. The community healed and life returned to normal fairly quickly. The official investigation is about to show what happened and for what reasons. But the encouraging thing is that people were able to put this behind them relatively quickly.

There are plenty of things to be done, and the situation is far from perfect. But this was a big test for the community, and the community passed the test. This is something that really encourages me. And I hope the faster that we put this event behind us and focus on cooperation and daily life, the better it will be for developing the cohesion between different groups in Kumanovo and Macedonia.


What is the main challenge for interethnic cooperation in Macedonia today?

If you ask me what is our number one challenge, it is to overcome the silent segregation that exists in Macedonia and Kumanovo. It’s nothing new: this situation has lasted for decades, not years. These communities are living one by one – not with each other – which is why I call it silent segregation. If you go to the main square in Kumanovo you will see Macedonians and Albanians – but they will be hanging out with other people from their community – and not necessarily establishing contact with people from other ethnic groups. Even when the situation is fine and there is no tension, people are able to grow up and not have any friends from another ethnic group. That is worrying, and it’s something that will create new tensions and stereotypes.

What we need to do is to create the kind of space where the communities can interact. The education system in Macedonia is in native language from first grade in primary school right up to university. So you have young people completely growing up in parallel but separate tracks. There are no other possibilities for interaction. At the moment, events of the type created by NGOs are the only ones that create a safe space where young people can interact with people from different ethnic backgrounds, and they can see they have so many things in common. They can see they have the same interests, similar views of the future, they want to improve similar things in their municipality. So these kinds of events are important. And in the country we need some kind of approach, either through the educational system or extracurricular, where young people from different backgrounds can interact. After conflict you have a period of pacification, but then this establishment of mutual communication is a more difficult challenge. Once you have true dialogue, true cooperation, everything else is a matter of agreement.


Does the experience of peace-building in countries like Macedonia have some relevance to countries in Europe that are currently facing the challenge of integrating large numbers of refugees? Are there methodologies that can be transferred for this situation?

Definitely there are some issues that can be used as a comparison, some lessons that can be learned and some approaches that can be implemented. If you look at the issue with refugees, a big influx of new people from a different cultural background, it’s something seen as a big unknown for the local population. People starting to settle in an area where they don’t know the language and act differently from locals. People react differently to the new situation: some people are more open minded, while some people are very cautious because of their personal experience, and are wary when experiencing this newly emerging situation. It’s very easy to label someone as xenophobic, but this isn’t always the case.

There are lessons that can be learned from establishing this post-conflict dialogue: the tools you use to integrate and establish interaction between particular communities or ethnic groups. And then there is a practice that can be implemented that establishes a parallel approach between government institutions and the civil society sector. Institutions are there to provide a framework, but NGOs tend to be much more active in the field. As long as a particular country sets a framework, then you can have local organisations assessing the needs and seeing what approach is applicable. We can use this kind of approach when we talk about integration when there is large influx of refugees. But it seems to me that the current situation in Europe is also about information. There is a need to give people information on why this is happening, what is happening, who these people are, why we should help them.


What is your motivation for taking part in the UNITED “Living Together” conference, and what do you hope the conference will achieve?

Firstly, the conference topic is really relevant to the research I have been doing until now. My doctoral thesis deals with the approach of the international community to peace deals, especially looking at conditionality and the setting of different standards that need to be met before different entity status can be discussed. I spent last year as a fellow at Harvard Law School on the Program on Negotiation, where I was looking at the status negotiations and third party and international community involvement in various secessionist disputes – especially looking at Kosovo, South Sudan and Bougainville in Papua New Guinea – but there are also cases like Scotland and Cataluña that are becoming more and more relevant in the European context.

The conference comes at a very interesting time for me. Reconciliation is a very broad topic, which can be analysed from many angles. So I’m happy to have been invited and really looking forward to the discussions we will have there. Having all these young people working in this field, I am sure the input will be fantastic. It’s wonderful that this type of prestigious event is happening in my country. From a local point of view, it is interesting for the country to share its experience, which we have our fair share of when it comes to reconciliation. And it’s a positive example. There have been setbacks, but things in Macedonia have been achieved where we can say “this worked!” So it’s interesting to compare the Macedonian experiences and see more of an international perspective and to hear experience of other participants and learn from each other.

I’m really excited by the prospect of different organisations sharing their experiences, learning new tools – but also discussing general aspects and seeing the bigger picture about the reconciliation and peace building process; seeing how they fit in and being further motivated in seeing how it is important for their communities. Together we can find new ways for improving the dialogue, cooperation and stability in Europe.

cid-p-crop-c0-5__0-5-300x200Center for Intercultural Dialogue (CID) is a civil society organisation working to promote intercultural acceptance and active citizenship through capacity-building processes, education and youth work. The organisation’s activity focuses on many aspects which are of interest for young people: from provision of services and information, to research and support for policy-making and networking. CID is working to create diverse responsible and cooperative communities where citizens are actively contributing to the social development and integration.

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The UNITED conference “Living Together: Transform a divided past into our common future” will take place near Ohrid, MK from 26-31 October 2016. You can read updates and reports from the conference on the UNITED conference Facebook page, the UNITED Twitter account, and the UNITED website.

This event has been made possible with support of the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe, the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
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