International Tension: Europe Starts in Our Small Towns

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In the first of a two-part piece, Erik Redli looks at the state of Eastern Europe and how learning lessons from the past have helped people move forward today. 

We might live in Europe but first of all we live on our own country, city or village. Therefore all European activity should start at local level. Last week I took part in the Charlemagne Prize ceremony in Aachen, Germany and this week I decided to attend a roundtable discussion in the town where I used to live as a child - Šahy in south-west Slovakia.

Šahy is a small town of about 9,000 inhabitants, two churches and a few bars where the people live at night. Because of its location on the borders, it has always been a gate to Hungary and a multicultural town with many foreigners and lorry drivers passing through and leaving rubbish. That's how we were introduced to empty Coca Cola bottles and McDonald's packaging.

The round table was part of an annual cultural meeting between different nationalities. Four participants focused on the background of genocide and deportation of Jews from Šahy during the WWII. My grandfather, who was a book binding apprentice at that time, remembered how his Jewish manager had to leave the shop and join the transports. We still have three synagogues in Šahy and one of them hosted the debate. But recently, the locus moved to the Slovak-Hungarian relationship.

Political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov listed three factors behind the genocide: group generalization of certain stereotypes, dehumanization of particular nations and groups of people, and political propaganda that helped to spread the bias. The same can be applied to the situation in Yugoslavia in the 90's and today's Ukraine. The speakers argued that one rotten apple can infect the whole basket, and therefore we should watch out for overtly charismatic leaders who can manipulate the people's opinions by strict regime and propaganda.

About 80% of Russian's consider Ukraine to be an enemy and in anarchy. From his own experience of Ukraine, Mr. Mesežnikov contended that isolated societies or states always seek reasons to keep the people in tension, and therefore seek contestation and bias. One of the solutions is communication and European integration.

At the end of May, I took part in the European Charlemagne Youth Prize 2014 ceremony in Aachen. Several of the 28 national projects were aimed towards international cooperation and tolerance. I interviewed Slovak winner, one of the masterminds behind the Danube Bridges project

Initially, they organized a panel discussion between Slovak and Hungarian students and young people, in the aftermath of an attack on a Hungarian student by Slovaks. Her case was used as a scapegoat for overblowing the issue in the media and public. The idea of the dialogue succeeded and the Danube Bridges developed into a longer project. Miki - the Slovak representative - said that they went back to the experiences of the conflict in former Yugoslavia. It proves the necessity of connecting the younger generations of nations that found themselves in conflict. Now they want to extend the dialogue to Ukraine and other disputed regions.

You'll be able to read part two of Erik's piece tomorrow. Erik Redli is a university graduate from Slovakia who lived in London for much of his graduate life. Follow him on Twitter @erikredli and read more of his posts here.

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