Cold shivers in hot Belgrade – EUDC 2012

This is not a review of the fantastic job the Belgrade EUDC 2012 OrgCom from Open Communication or its Adjudication team did, or about the challenging motions and thrilling debates. It neither is a treatise of the gratitude and sympathy I feel towards my team partner. It is a very personal account of what cold shivers I experienced in hot Belgrade when I realised what debating means to the people of Belgrade and Serbia and what this teaches me.

Arrival in Belgrade at memories of a grim past

My first formidable impression of Belgrade after leaving the airport upon arrival was a wall of heat. Yet my love neither for summer nor for cool drinks could prepare me for what cold sensations I would soon feel, but first things first. My next major two impressions woke memories from a bitter past. The road from the airport to the city centre passed a building that was hit by an air strike in 1999, still cutting it in half. The second was a protest march claiming its right of way on the streets. Belgraders obviously cared sufficiently to stand up against recent changes to the public transport system, claiming they were an unfairly heavy burden on poor commuters and a profit only for corrupt officials. The police discreetly escorted the march, protecting its citizens’ right to express their opinion and dissent with their government. Not long ago, that had been very different.

On March 24 1999, when I knew nothing yet about debating, I was sitting in an American fast food restaurant in Vienna when my father told me that NATO forces had just begun bombing targets in Serbia because of the war in Kosovo. He made no judgement whether this was justified or not, but expressed his sorrow that the people of Serbia would be cut off from peaceful communication with their neighbours and the rest of Europe for a painful second time in the 90s.

Not only were the links between Serbia and almost the whole of Europe reduced to the exchange of bombs, but within Serbia also free opinion and the right to express it was cracked down. In times of long political and economic struggles and now also war and international isolation the authoritarian government banned the right of dissent and open communication. The debating society of the same name was forbidden, its members risking persecution and jail for saying “We are proud to oppose”, what has become such an everyday-life sentence to me.

Some buildings in Belgrade still bear the deep scars of a war that ended no too long ago

The people taking back what is theirs

However, not for much longer this regime lasted. In October 2000, much more promising images flickered on TV screens around the world rather than those of NATO fighter jets attacking Serbia. Finally, the people of Serbia had decided they would no longer be oppressed and took back what was theirs, their power and the rule of democratic law. I remember seeing huge crowds protesting in front of the Federal Parliament in Belgrade. This time the government had to realise they could not longer pin down its sovereign by police oppression. The time of the old regime was over and Parliament Square became the spatial crystallisation for the revolution in which the people regained their voice.

12 years later and just before the EUDC semi finals, I found myself standing at the very same place where the people of Serbia had successfully demanded their freedoms. Temperatures in the city were still insanely hot with 36 degrees Celsius, but at that moment I felt a cold shiver running down my back. I realised this was not just another fancy debate venue. It was the very location where the Serbian people had fought successfully for their right to express themselves and to choose what was best for them; Where they stood up to demand fair parliamentary debates instead of rigged elections, and to choose which side to take in the debates that were far from being a pastime game, but a means of thinking and communicating independently of politics that claimed it could rule by oppression.

To a life less ordinary – forever

The cold shivers running down my back told me that this competition was taking Serbia and of course myself to a life less ordinary. I feel certain that much of these incredibly exceptional seven days passes on to not only my own, but also to Serbia’s everyday-life. I was taught that wherever free exchange of ideas can be taken for granted as in being not forbidden, this should only serve as a an encouragement to carry it further.

When writing this from my personal perspective, I could as well not miss the enormous impact these Euros in Serbia had on the organisers and their many guests. A stunning video shown at the competition’s final venue first once again aroused the ugly memories from the times when Serbia found itself pitted against the rest of the world and its government used the atmosphere to clamp down on dissident voices. However, in the second half of the video of course we could see the success of Open Communication to revive and bring EUDC to Belgrade. Probably even more important than the video itself, the simple fact of us sitting in Belgrade and bearing witness to how the social climate has changed and what debating has achieved made many watch the film with tears in their eyes, myself not excluded.

Now that Belgrade EUDC 2012 is over, what is left is to spread its message. The note saying that already more than 30 online and paper articles from major Serbian newspapers are covering it seems to be a very good start. Also, roughly 600 guests who all take good memories in their hearts back to their home countries should make a stable basis for multiplying the sentiment. I rest assured with the spirit of EUDC spreading widely beyond debating circles and I now feel committed to help it do so!

Berlin WUDC 2013’s message “Embracing dissent” very much reminds me of the only recently achieved freedom for dissent in Serbia. I am now certainly thirsty for more of it in Berlin. For now though, all that is left to say is a thousand “Thank you for Belgrade EUDC 2012”!

This August the Kalemegdan Fortress of Belgrade was the background of the glamorous EUDC break night party, where young people from all over Europe celebrated together.