Interview with Đuro Blanuša, Secretary General, Western Balkans Regional Youth Cooperation Office
The Regional Youth Cooperation Office - RYCO- promotes the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation between youth in the Western Balkan region through exchange programs. It was founded by the Western Balkans 6 participants (WB 6): Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia and established as part of the ‘Berlin process’ framework for regional cooperation. Improving the perspective for young generations is one of the key components to ensure stability, sustainable development, and progress in the region.
Đuro Blanuša has just started the final year of his four year mandate as the Secretary General of RYCO and he took the time to share with us his views on RYCO’s work, the challenges during the COVID-19 period, and some personal anecdotes which led him to this role.
What is RYCO?
RYCO is an intergovernmental organization in the Western Balkans focused on youth mobility. Our purpose is to give opportunities to young people through mobility to learn about each other and gain transversal skills to enhance and further develop their intercultural competences and skills. It is so important for young people to have opportunities to travel and meet friends all over the Western Balkans and in Europe. We must remember that just two decades have passed since the trauma of war and divisions in our region.
Why is mobility so important for young people?
We want to transcend the narrative of our past so that we can create a common future together, also as future members of the European Union. We learnt a lot from Erasmus plus, which was available fully for some countries in our region, and supported by other donors and partners, in allowing young people to go beyond borders and histories to make connections with their peers. One of our biggest inspirations is the Franco-German Youth Office, established in 1963, to bring together young people from France and Germany who were still divided after the the second world war.
Mobility can open peoples' worlds. Often, those with the most negative and conservative attitudes are those who don’t have the chance to participate in mobility programmes. RYCO is trying to reach out to them.
How does RYCO complement the educational system’s support to young people?
The educational system is important for preparing young people for life and work, allowing them to develop critical thinking, social awareness, and other skills needed for the labour market. We need to avoid brain drain, which is one of the most burning issues in the region at the moment. We need education which is up to date and matching the needs of the labour market, but also economies that are able to absorb all these “new arrivals”.
But it is not just about creating manpower. Civil society has an important complementary role working at various levels, helping young people to become active citizens of their respective countries. We connect with other stakeholders to inform government policies and at the same time seek to ensure that these policies reach grass roots' level.
Some youth groups are very active, but others are yet to be engaged and we work to enable these young people from rural areas and minority or marginalised groups to participate and to be heard, for example, youth organisations representing the Roma community.
How did RYCO get started?
RYCO was established within the Berlin Process, which brought together governments and civil society from the Western Balkans to work together for this region. The European Commission was one of the main supporters of RYCO from the original idea, together with the German and French Governments. Pragmatic support provided through the Erasmus plus programme from the European Commission's Directorate of Education and Culture and follow up from the Directorate for Enlargement and Accession were essential to give us a solid grounding to launch our own programmes.
How has the COVID-19 emergency changed priorities and needs?
RYCO works to enable, promote and enhance youth mobility, so the outbreak had a huge impact on our work and the daily lives of young people. There has been a lot of fear in the air, borders were immediately closed, some restrictions are still existing. We had to put on hold all our projects and grants, particularly youth exchange programs and projects but they will be relaunched.
Even so, there has been an impact on the overall culture of mobility, a general insecurity which needs to be faced. The European Commission and Erasmus plus are looking now to virtual mobility and other methods, but it is so important that young people are physically mobile. We are now launching a new call responding to the new needs caused by the Coronavirus outbreak and trying to find the best compromise in given circumstances.
What did you learn at school that inspires you in your current role?
I had the privilege to have good teachers who inspired me to think for myself or “not to ask others for my own opinion”. They nurtured critical thinking on myself, my world, and my place in it.
Critical thinking is necessary for the diplomacy needed to foster and contribute to regional reconciliation and its sustainability. But I am afraid that there is a lack of proper civic education in the region at the moment.
What is ETF doing to help?
The ETF supports our role as an important contributor to stakeholder engagement and partnership. It supports a multi-stakeholder approach in our region to human development. Young people must develop skills for the labour market but first they need to feel positive about themselves and their environment and that also requires developing their self-esteem and belief in their ability to change their world and where they come from. They need to feel there are opportunities for them in the Western Balkans.