How to turn symbols of division into symbols of dialogue? “It is the power of the European Union to create dialogue, peace, understanding where we had confrontation or difficulties”, said EU High Representative Federica Mogherini at the Mitrovica bridge in Kosovo in March 2017. And it is exactly in Kosovo, where the European Union, working together with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), showed that cultural heritage protection can be a powerful bridge to overcome ethnic and religious differences. The EU and UNDP took a threefold approach engaging all communities and combining confidence-building measures, restoration of cultural sites and capacity development at community and institutional levels.
In practice, the approach showed that cultural interactions can encourage respect and dialogue among formerly divided communities and can foster a shared sense of ownership of cultural heritage. In Kosovo, the change was possible thanks to community and youth centered events which offered the possibility for continued interaction while religious leaders and municipalities discussed joint solution. “It is, at the end of the day, the people that have the power of dialogue in their hands and in their lives. Their work is representing the pulse of the citizens and it is crucial in developing a progressive society”, Mogherini said. “Dialogue and peace is never an easy exercise, but it is always a worthwhile exercise.”
From February 2016 to April 2017, more than 150 young people of multi-ethnic background were engaged in designing their own solutions for the protection and promotion of cultural heritage. Through six innovation workshops called “Re-imagining Cultural Heritage”, using design thinking technique, they developed ideas for activities promoting cultural heritage. Each workshop also included a visit to cultural and religious sites and interactive debates between the youth and the religious leaders. In addition, over 190 secondary school pupils with 15 teachers from 18 schools engaged in educational sessions aiming at incorporating cultural heritage and cultural diversity into the school curriculum.
Through participatory planning, municipal officials, religious communities and the Kosovo Police participated in a dialogue which resulted in the rehabilitation, reconstruction and protection of 18 cultural and religious sites, in five multi-ethnic municipalities, including mosques, churches, cemeteries, museums, a bell tower and a chapel, seven of which are listed cultural heritage sites. This contributed to an improved interaction among almost 20,000 local citizens.
The project has successfully increased the capacity to promote and monitor religious cultural heritage in five multi-ethnic municipalities. Moreover, the capacity of the Kosovo Police Unit for the protection of religious and cultural heritage was strengthened through training, study visits and the provision of equipment. Over 50 police officers received training on how to develop best practices in the protection of cultural heritage by ensuring safety and security, and taking into consideration needs based on ethnicity, religion, language and gender.
This week the European Union recommitted its support to helping reconciliation in Kosovo, announcing additional 2 million Euro to implement the second phase of the project, funded under the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace. The second phase will expand the activities to include a wider geographical scope and an increased engagement of the local civil society. The development of cultural and rural tourism is also envisaged, to render the protection of cultural heritage economically viable and attractive to communities. Local restoration workshops will be established to bring together artisans and specialists in cultural heritage restoration to share experiences and pass skills on to younger generations. This second phase will not only focus on tangible cultural heritage sites but will also bring the communities together to work on intangible cultural heritage (such as traditions, performing arts, cuisine, crafts). Particular focus will be placed on engaging youth and women.
The European Union has played a leading role in the international effort to build a new future for Kosovo since 1999. Kosovo has a clear European perspective as part of the wider Western Balkans region, and the European Union – both its member states and its institutions, notably the European Commission – play a prominent role in its reconstruction and development. The EU is by far the single largest donor providing assistance to Kosovo and the Western Balkan region, and is at the forefront of the reconstruction effort.