An interview with AEBR Balkan Coordinator Ana Nikolov

If you’ve ever wondered how firefighting, cross-border cooperation and dancing go together, Ana Nikolov is here to explain it all. She’s all that, and passionately dedicated to peace-building and reconciliation. She was the creator of the Association of European Border Regions (AEBR) network of Young Leaders for cross-border cooperation, and serves as the AEBR Coordinator for the Balkan region. For many years, she’s been active in supporting youth through several projects across the Balkan region as well as all over Europe, and tirelessly dedicates herself to help make this world a little better.

Hey, thank you so much for the opportunity to do this interview. I’d like to ask you if we could start off by you talking a little bit about yourself – who is Ana?

Well, yes, that’s a really complicated question. If you look at my C.V. it’s going to go from one direction to the other, with things that don’t have anything to do with each other – from tourism to fire fighting and stuff like that, I have variety of interests, but I’m the person who really loves cross-border cooperation, this is what I adore and am passionate about, and what I wish to see so much more.

It’s really challenging and really hard, especially in the Balkan area, because this is where cooperation is always tricky and you have to be super optimistic and never give up, and push things a little bit in order to make it one step further. It’s hard, but it’s very nice. When you see the results, then it brings you joy, because you did something good for the region or for the countries where you cooperated in a project.

Besides AEBR, I am also working as director of planning at CESCI Balkans for two years now. This is a very valuable and rich experience for me. CESCI is doing such an amazing job with cross-border strategic and spatial planning, as well as establishing EGTCs. As I am spatial planner by education, it’s extraordinarily interesting for me.

So, I’m also a fire officer at the Volunteering Fire Department “Zvezdara” (Belgrade, Serbia). In the last year or two, I haven’t been so active, but before that I was working on fire prevention and fire evacuation plans. You know, anything I do is always connected with people. I adore these people working at this department, and the young ones aspiring to become fire officers, as well as retired firefighters who are still very much active in the education process.

It’s really inspiring to be surrounded by people who work so hard, are so positive, and want to add something of value to our society. They risk their own lives to help others. This is what I admire.

When did you start getting involved in the fire department?

In 2010 or 2011, somewhere around that time.

And in cross-border cooperation? How long have you worked with the AEBR?

I started with cross-border cooperation early in my childhood when the first border that I wanted to cross was the fence towards my first love that was forbidden. Later, during my primary and high school, it was the border between the Balkan countries to reconnect with my relatives. And during my faculty, I found the tool and my calling – CBC.

On the third year of my faculty education, I was officially introduced to cross-border cooperation. My professor and future mentor Prof. Dr. Stojkov took us to the study tour and we were visiting the cross-border regions with Austria. We had some lectures about cross-border cooperation, what they do, and I was like, “Oh, this is for me, I love this!”

I find this to be so interesting, because I really like the idea of helping reconciliation happen in the Balkan area. I come from a mixed family, so you could say that I’m doing some kind of cross-border cooperation inside of me, and so this is what I can also do as my job. You know, to connect the disconnected parts of the Balkans, I really started to like it more and more, and began to do some research on it, and ended up doing my Bachelor thesis about it.

In that time, it was in 2004, I think, when I started my research, it was in a period where it wasn’t so scary to talk about the Euroregion and cross-border cooperation comparing to the 90s. Still, people didn’t quite understand what the Euroregion was, especially in Serbia. When you mentioned the Euroregion or some cross-border project here, the first thing people would think of was that someone would come and take a part of your country. You know, if you look back to the 1990s, it makes sense that they are scared of this.

In the beginning, it was all a little bit bumpy road. I had some conflicts even with certain professors in regards to the Euroregion. But that didn’t stop me. I continued to do my research for my Master thesis, it was on how to plan cross-border cooperation within the Euroregion and nowadays I am doing my PhD thesis on cross-border cooperation of course.

How did it all start? What was it that drove you to get into the field of cross-border cooperation in the first place? Was there a passion?

Now, this is very fun, you know how things seem to just happen naturally when you love something? Well, so I went to Canada, and then to Cuba for vacation, visiting my friends in Canada and then naturally also Cuba, because why not. In Cuba, I met a guy. We fell in love, and then I went to him to a city near Dusseldorf. There, I was writing my Master thesis, staying for a month. I happened to come across AEBR, with headquarters located really close to where I stayed.

I wrote to them, and got the chance to visit. I did. We talked. I showed the Secretary General Mr. Guillermo-Ramírez some of my work, and he was really happy about it. We agreed on me coming over for a six month internship, so I went back to Serbia to get along with the process. In the meantime, my relationship ended. So, back then Serbian citizens needed to get a visa to travel to Germany, which I was declined and so couldn’t go through with the internship, it’s a little tricky to do cross-border cooperation without crossing the border.

We stayed in touch. I continued to do my work here in Serbia, with cross-border always guiding my career choices.

Then, I was working for the European Center for Peace and Development (ECPD), for five years until 2014. The ECPD is doing a lot of good things for the reconciliation, uniting the Balkan region, so I was really happy to be there I had opportunity to learn from the best.

There, I met Hannah Kekäle, and she had an idea on starting up an ECPD Youth Forum, so we did. It’s been going on for four years now, connecting young people who are interested in European questions. The best part is that it’s connected to the annual ECPD conference with professors and distinguished members, and so there’s this interaction with an even greater exchange of ideas.

So, Hannah and I are good friends and as things always happen to turn out well, as I visited her in Finland, some circumstances led me to the AEBR once again – and presenting some plans I had for creating a AEBR Center for Balkans . At first, it was on a voluntary basis, but I was so optimistic about it so I didn’t mind. It’s now an amazing work for me, coordinating the AEBR Balkan office and making sure that we are involved in a lot of interesting projects.

How are your ideas met at AEBR?

I’m very thankful for having such supportive colleagues all over Europe, at AEBR, especially Mr. Guillermo-Ramírez, Mr. Johannes, and Ms. Backgren. If I come up with some idea, which many people would see as crazy, these people would just get exactly as excited as I and say, “oh maybe we could do that”. So we’ve created a network called “Young Leaders for CBC” and it’s still going strong, and expanding.

In general, what is your view on how Europe is doing, and how the EU is doing?

What I do is mostly related to the EU, because my opinion is that if you want to make some changes you have to start with educating youth. When they get involved in cross-border cooperation, that’s the time when they really see the value of the European Union. Suddenly, they are taking part in spreading a positive change across European borders. The EU is built as a Cooperation for Peace project, economy was just used as tool for invite people to cooperate.

Although, I think it should be much more flexible with the topics Erasmus plus program is so valuable for EU because it enables young people from many countries to meet and create friendship. You’ve got a lot of mixed marriages now thanks to Erasmus. It’s really good, but they need to include cross-border cooperation in the Erasmus frame. I’ll fight for it.

If you know and cooperate with your neighbors, then you’ll be more pro Europe.

Teaching young people to cooperate across the borders is essential for sustainability of Europe.

Looking at those projects, what is the biggest difference you can see as a result of them, not only the official goals in particular, but your personal observations?

Well, we need to work on the relation between young people here – take the Exit festival, for example. It’s created by young people who wanted to bring some kind of reconciliation in the area, I can say, in my personal opinion, they did quite a good job for reconciliation in the Balkan area. A lot of people coming from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, and everywhere, and they become friends.

When you have friends across the border, you will start to look at them in a different way, changing your perspective from prejudice about ethnicity to initiating in a way, a new, young reconciliation process.

So, this international festival creating a fun atmosphere for young people actually ended up influencing the reconciliation process in a deeper way. Sometimes, this kind of interaction that isn’t so serious, as are political meetings, and can actually be much more effective for mutual understanding. It’s much easier to connect this way.

Do you see any difference in this discussion of borders and cross-border cooperation elsewhere?

We had a workshop in Germany, and we asked people what “border” means to them. They spoke of social borders between the people. They mentioned economy and the borders in terms of how different backgrounds and nationalities may have privileges over others. Things like that. They never mentioned the administrative border.

When we asked youth from Serbia, they only spoke of the administrative, physical borders, visas, and passports.

So the perception of borders in the EU is totally different – young EU citizens grew up in a place without borders and therefore it’s not natural for them to pay much attention to them. Now, with this Brexit thing, they’re a bit shocked.

Young EU citizens lived all their lives in peaceful environment, not affected by the war – they we’re preoccupied with other stuff and I think didn’t quite realize what the value of the EU actually is.

These radical tendencies that are now showing up within the EU, I think it’s a result of an actual, nice life. It is absurd, but they didn’t have the troubles that people who lived through the WW2 had, resulting in a whole other kind of appreciation of EU and what was brought with it – peace.

People who were born afterwards didn’t experience that, so their view of what is actually a bad, bad experience is very different, inspiring all of this radicalization. They aren’t tolerant to people who have been through a conflict, so they can’t really understand what they are going through.

I think Brexit is a good opportunity to wake up the youth, to show them what the EU actually means. These turbulent times are good, I think, because it will invite for communication between politicians and the youth. We already have some nice European rhetoric coming from politicians and citizens, which was not the case in previous years. With the dialog between politicians and citizens especially youth it is an opportunity to shape together a new European identity that will be understandable for new generations.

This is very interesting. Young people, I know from Sweden, they don’t interact with other EU countries as much as they should. So they don’t necessarily feel as though they’re part of it, in a sense. Now with Brexit happening, in Sweden there’s talks on Swexit. It seems to be quite related to the migrant wave, because it’s believed by some that a disproportionate amount of migrants end up in Sweden. We had a terrorist attack recently, followed by closed borders.

Do you think that the Balkan region with its experience of recent conflict could be of use for Sweden? Because the generation having experienced this war are fairly young people, and they are working on reconciling.

Well, it’s very different from what is happening now in Europe for sure. Maybe it’s valuable.

Speaking of Sweden, I think that regional cooperation may solve these issues. It may be slow, but everything crucial is slow. Quick fixes are never good. With the migrants, in some way this has to be solved where the problem arouse. Otherwise, people won’t stop fleeing from these places.

Europe should get more involved in helping to solve this problem. Also, you have to help some people. There are those actors who profit from this migration wave. Some people have money, so they could get to a Nordic country. Some people left with nothing because they were scared for their lives. Some migrants, especially women, are in a really bad position all throughout the journey. You need to have compassion.

In this very large group of people, of course there will be those who are bad, criminal, and dishonest. But the majority, they have no choice. Why would they risk their lives if that wasn’t the case?

Yes, but with young people who may not understand this whole alternative facts thing going on

I think that the duty of NGOs is to teach young people what are real values and what propaganda looks like. The more society is involved in this process, the better. You always have two sides in every conflict or situation, so judging is not a great idea. Always, they are both right in some things, and then not in other aspects. I’ve never in my life seen a conflict where one part is fully right and the other fully wrong, even in a fight with my mother.

They just need to be taught how to deal with conflicts, issues and situations like that. Turbulent things like this happen sometimes, but I have confidence in the youth in Europe, they will figure this out and be just fine.

I have to ask this – how do you do it? I see a strong, beautiful, confident, ambitious woman in front of me. How do you do it all? How do you get through every challenge, with every problem you’ve encountered with cross-border projects?

Well, that’s me. I started to fight for cross-border questions when I was a kid and I always knew what I wanted. For me, it’s so important to have a vision and  I need to be in love with my job, be passionate about it – that’s when I’ll do my best, so CBC is perfect for me. I don’t know, maybe it was the turbulent time here, the war, that shaped me. I was ten when the war started, and lasted until I enrolled at the faculty. So my whole childhood was in all of that. I think you could fall into the negative aspects of this experience or focus on what’s constructive, it’s fully up to you. You have to become strong, otherwise you won’t survive.

Same thing goes for Europe, right?

Yes, exactly. EU can choose to grow strong or there is no such, but Europe will survive!

Lastly, when you’re not a fire officer, or a cross-border professional, what is it that you do? I heard something about dancing….

I love to dance salsa! Everything I do, I do it by heart. I really love to dance whatever I can dance. I find it very positive, it cheers you up a lot. And, I love horses, being around horses, they calm me down. They’re so clever, and the interaction with such an animal is what I enjoy so much. And ice-skating!

Thank you so much for this interview and for speaking with us! 🙂

Thank you! It was my pleasure!

I write about all things Security Studies. Often passionately.

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