The Arts

In southeastern Europe, an innovative approach to public dialogue

Under the framework of an international diplomatic initiative known as the Royaumont Process, a series of workshops in southeastern Europe is seeking to promote “a new public mechanism” for social healing and interethnic communication.

ZAGREB, Croatia — As a work of drama, the short play performed here at Europe House Zagreb one Saturday night in November might not have won much praise from theater critics. About five minutes in length, the sketch had been written in less than a week and rehearsed the day before. None of the four actors was a professional.

But that did not prevent the performance from touching many hearts and, by all accounts, fulfilling its mission. Called simply "Cold Coffee," the play struck a theme of huge importance in this region: the need for better interethnic relations.

Set in a local coffeehouse, the piece features three Croatians, two men and a woman. Sitting around a table, they talk in derogatory terms about their waiter, who is reputedly a Serb. At the drama's climax, the waiter accidentally spills coffee on one of the Croatians, and the two men rise to attack him.

At this point in the performance, a curious thing happened. A voice called out "freeze" and the audience was asked to enter into a discussion about the play's central conflict — a highly sensitive one in this region, where ethnic violence and civil conflict have claimed thousands of lives since the breakup of the former Communist state of Yugoslavia a decade ago.

The ensuing exchange was lively. Audience members offered up many points of view, from simple pleas for tolerance to the suggestion that ethnic differences are a reality that cannot be ignored or easily covered up. Yet in the end, most of the approximately 75 people who attended seemed to feel that some old barriers had been breached and there were new possibilities in the air.

"I thought it was excellent in that it was actually trying to solve the issue, and people were speaking openly," said Igor Zagrecki, a 23-year-old student of economics at Zagreb University. "Sometimes in your family, you are not allowed to speak, but if you can come here, to events like this, you can be heard."

Laying the groundwork for such events, which seek to explore difficult social problems in a way that is both entertaining and conducive to creating positive solutions, is the goal of a series of workshops organized last fall in southeastern Europe by the Bahá'í International Community in collaboration with its national and local affiliates. The performance here was the product of one such workshop, held 16-21 November 1998. Other workshops have been held so far in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Albania, and another series is scheduled for Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Bosnia in spring 1999.

Operating within a framework established as a parallel process to the Dayton Peace Accords and under the direct financial sponsorship of the Government of Luxembourg, the workshops are conducted by Russian television journalist Shamil Fattakhov. They are designed to train broadcast and press journalists, educators, and representatives of non-governmental organizations in the creation and production of an innovative type of show that combines techniques drawn from drama, journalism and the "talk-show" format to promote "good-neighborliness" and social stability.

The reaction to the workshops so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Not only have participants throughout the region indicated that they hope to start their own versions of the show and/or apply its methods in their own communications efforts, but government officials who have observed the project in action say that its techniques have the potential for a wide application in helping to promote social healing and interethnic communication.

"It is a very interesting way of approaching this question of `good neighborliness' — or how to make good relations between people," said Per Vinther, the special envoy of the European Commission to Croatia, who attended the public performance of "Cold Coffee" here. "In every family and every nation, there are these type of problems that you could find better ways to solve. And this is one way to solve them."

Part of the Royaumont Process

The phrase "good neighborliness" is a key term of the so-called Royaumont Process, a diplomatic supplement to the Dayton Peace Accords. The 1995 Dayton Accords established a cease-fire in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which then involved that state, Yugoslavia and Croatia, and did much to promote regional stabilization.

The Royaumont Process takes its name from the French town of Royaumont, where Dayton Accords member states met in 1995 to consider how to promote, as Ambassador Vinther indicated, "stability and good neighborliness in southeastern Europe." A collaborative effort of member states of the European Union, the United States, Russia, Turkey, and the nations of southeastern Europe, as well as most of the major regional intergovernmental organizations such as the European Commission and the European Parliament, the Royaumont Process is a "soft" diplomatic effort that seeks to mobilize civil society in an effort to overcome the cultural and social prejudices that have caused tensions for so long in the region.

Some 70 projects have been proposed by NGOs and at least eight projects have so far been launched, according to Panagiotis Roumeliotis, coordinator of the Royaumont Process. The Bahá'í International Community project was the first to be funded and launched, he said, in part because "it was so well prepared and comprehensive."

Entitled "Promoting Positive Messages Through the Media," the project was developed by the Paris branch of the Community's Office of Public Information. It is based on a creation of Mr. Fattakhov: The Happy Hippo Show, a television program that aired in Kazan, Russia, from 1994 to 1996, where it was hugely popular. Oriented towards youth, the show dealt principally with the dynamic new kinds of moral and ethical situations that had arisen in the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Fattakhov collaborated with the Office of Public Information to create a workshop designed to train participants in the art of producing a similar show for television, radio or the stage that can be used to promote positive moral values in a wide variety of venues, from a national broadcast to a local cultural festival.

In this regard the project, which has a budget of about US$80,000, is a fairly straightforward effort in "development communication" — the use of music, drama or other artistic forms to promote a social message. Yet its implementation brings a number of noteworthy innovations.

These include the use of a live audience in a "TV talk show" format in combination with the production of short dramas based on moral dilemmas. These skits focus on the essence of a particular social or moral issue without presenting it in terms of violators and/or victims. The project also introduces elements of "consultation," a distinctive spiritually based non-adversarial decision-making process used by Bahá'í communities worldwide as a tool for building unity and consensus.

Dr. Roumeliotis said governments in the region were initially skeptical about how a workshop on the production of a youth-oriented television show could help their situation. "But after seeing what the organizers have done in these countries so far, they are now very enthusiastic about the implementation of this project," said Dr. Roumeliotis. "The implementation of the project is a success and the reports we have been receiving demonstrate a profound interest by the target countries on the work proposed by the Bahá'í International Community."

According to Ronald Mayer, who oversees the Royaumont Process for the Luxembourg Foreign Ministry, the extensive network of national and local Bahá'í communities in southeastern Europe has been another key reason for the project's success. "This was a decisive factor in our decision to support the project," said Ambassador Mayer. "Because it was obvious that only an NGO with a local entity in each of the countries could have done the project. You need people who know the people on the spot."

"Freeze"

What makes the program so effective in eliciting public discussion of difficult moral issues is the manner in which drama is used to engage the live audience. Every workshop ends with a "demonstration" show, and the centerpiece of these shows is a short skit or drama which takes its characters to the threshold of an important moral decision, such as how to respond when someone makes an ethnic insult.

At this point, the show's host suddenly yells "freeze" and the action is halted. "This is the magical thing, stopping just before the main dilemma," said Mr. Fattakhov. The host then engages the audience in a discussion of what step the actors should take next, with an emphasis on achieving a positive moral outcome.

"Most of the talk shows people are familiar with pick up a social problem and start investigating it as if it is an itchy place on your body and the best thing to do is to start scratching until blood comes out," said Mr. Fattakhov. "Then that's it. The show is over. What we are trying to do with The Happy Hippo Show concept is to search for a positive solution through consultation."

According to Mr. Fattakhov, the process of consultation used in The Happy Hippo Show is based on the following principles: 1) understanding that positive solutions are indeed possible; 2) defining the highest moral principle involved; 3) focusing on practical ways to solve problems; and 4) leading the audience through a shared experience of different cultures and points of view. The result, Mr. Fattakhov said, "is a spiritual methodology" that offers "a new public mechanism for the collective investigation of truth."

Addressing critical issues

As adapted for the Royaumont project, the workshops led by Mr. Fattakhov cover everything from the need for and processes of moral education to the practicalities of writing and staging a five-minute drama. Around the region, the workshops inspired participants with the possibility for opening a new public dialogue on critical social and moral issues.

The first training seminar was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, from 12-17 October 1998. The final demonstration show was on the topic of "good neighborliness." Among seminar participants were a representative from the Ministry of Education, a representative of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, two program directors from Bulgarian National Broadcast radio, a program director from Vitosha radio, a country-level coordinator from UNICEF, several teachers, and representatives of a youth movement program and a children's theater group.

Many of the participants said they hoped to adapt the program's format to meet their own objectives. "The program can be applied in the projects of UNESCO for civil education in orphanages, youth groups and schools, where a great percentage of the children come from minorities," said Margarita Dimitrova, a teacher who participated in the Bulgaria workshop. "And maybe later business clubs can be invited to discuss morality and ethics in business."

Other sessions in Romania, Hungary, and Slovenia all featured demonstration shows that focused on interethnic tensions and new approaches to solving them. The final show in Romania, for example, was held 25 October 1998 at the World Trade Center in Bucharest before an audience of more than 120, including representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Education, the media, UNICEF, UNESCO, other NGOs and foundations, and many youth. A wide range of follow-up ideas emerged, including requests to institute The Happy Hippo Show in schools and a plan by a local youth magazine to start a regular column based on the show's message.

"The aim is that the participants will be trained in techniques of the show, and that they will then implement it in their own organizations," said Christine Samandari-Hakim, director of the Community's Office of Public Information in Paris. "The long -term objective of the program, of course, is to contribute to peace and we believe the process for public dialogue offered by this project opens a new way to help create the conditions for understanding, cooperation and, finally, for a lasting peace."

The Croatian reaction

In Croatia, participants in the workshop likewise agreed that the format promised to be valuable in promoting communication on difficult social issues. "One thing I had never thought about before was the possibility of resolving the problem [on the air]," said Robert Zuber, a talk show host and radio journalist on Radio 101, the most popular independent radio station in Zagreb. "The idea of thinking about solutions, this is quite a new thing for Croatian journalists."

Representatives of local NGOs also said they would try to apply what they learned in communication efforts within their own organizations or aimed at their target audiences. "I will integrate what I have learned here into what I am already doing," said Elizabeta Rudic, who attended the workshop as a representative of Open Circle, a Rijeka-based NGO that deals with the addiction problems of young people. She said she hoped to do performances at an annual festival in Rijeka. "This show is unique."

For some participants, the workshop was deeply affecting. "I know that television and media can influence people," said Helena Vidosavljevic, a 31-year-old artist who participated in the training. "Because they did influence people in 1991, during the war."

Of mixed parentage — her father is Serbian and her mother is half Croatian and half ethnic Italian — Ms. Vidosavljevic felt intensely the divisions that underpinned the Croatian war of independence and were magnified by its outcome. "While I lived in a region that was not directly affected by the war, that was not touched by actual destruction, we were economically affected. There was a breakup in people's heads. The system was changing and it was a very tough period, with aggression on both sides."

She hopes to participate in any efforts that might be undertaken to actually launch something like The Happy Hippo Show here. "It has the potential to change one mind, two minds, and slowly, slowly, 100 minds," she said. "It is not the only thing that will bring peace, but it is part of the process. Because what we see on the television right now is garbage, mostly, and something like this I would like to watch, like to have my children watch."

(For a November 1999 update on the progress of the project, click here.)

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