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Vol. LXIV, No. 3
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
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Local Group Sees Success in Dealing With Ethnic Conflict in Eastern Europe

Dilshanie Perera

The unassuming sign on Chambers Street indicating the offices of the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) can’t adequately capture the tremendous work that is being done within.

The Princeton-headquartered organization has worked on resolving ethnic conflicts in central and eastern Europe for the past 19 years, making strides through careful negotiations and dialogue with governments, leaders of minority groups, and key stakeholders.

“The first requirement is to be truly neutral,” said Co-founder and PER President Livia Plaks, referring to what it takes to mediate high-level political conflicts where lives and livelihoods are at stake. “You have to be willing and able to see all sides.”

The organization has worked in and continues to work in Romania, Slovakia, the Balkans, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, as well as the states of the former Soviet Union. “We are hoping to start working within the Caucasus and eventually in Central Asia,” Ms. Plaks noted, admitting that PER has been invited to get involved in the Middle East. “We have our hands full with the work that we are doing, but we are considering other geographical areas,” she said.

Great strides have been made vis-à-vis particular issues, like the status of Roma people (also known as Gypsies) throughout Europe. “We organized the first dialogue between Roma leaders and governments. I will always remember the meeting organized under the auspices of President Vaclav Havel in 1992 in Czechoslovakia,” Ms. Plaks said.

From there, the issues facing the Roma community have been brought to the attention of the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and other bodies, as well as individual state governments.

Other triumphs include achieving an understanding between Romanians and Hungarians in the Transylvania region. Having grown up in that area, and being able to speak both languages, in addition to having a deep understanding of the history of the region and the conflicts, Ms. Plaks and her colleagues were effective in building trust among the various communities involved.

“What we usually do is work with each side separately...and by the time they sit face to face at the table, they are willing to negotiate and to compromise,” Ms. Plaks said, admitting that there are often challenges and setbacks along the way. Part of the organizational mission of PER is to make long-term commitments to the countries in which they work, establishing a presence and maintaining relationships over many years, even after immediate tensions have dissipated.

“Our work is very political and we operate at a high level,” Ms. Plaks acknowledged, saying that they work closely with presidents, prime ministers, and cabinet officials, though some grassroots efforts are also part of their purview. “We have had the good fortune of having very strong support in the United States, from the U.S. Government and the State Department, and from funders. That has allowed us to function. Various governments in Europe also support our activities.”

Though impediments slowing mediation are rife, Ms. Plaks said that breakthroughs happen most often when politicians can see political incentives in dealing with the other side. Negotiations with minorities within countries, as well as good relations with neighboring states are positive factors in gaining membership into the European Union or NATO, for instance.

“We have been in dangerous situations quite often,” Ms. Plaks acknowledged, “Luckily, I no longer have to go in with bodyguards, but there was a time when we had to.” She emphasized that even in the midst of a live ethnic conflict, “people have been incredibly accepting of us, our presence, and our way of working. We have been very fortunate in that respect.”

There has been at least one occasion where Ms. Plaks and her colleagues were confronted by an angry mob, but “we managed to talk our way out of it,” she said.

Ms. Plaks was conscious of wanting to work in conflict mediation and peace making activities from a young age. “My parents are Holocaust survivors. I had heard from a very young age what it means to suffer from intolerance and from bigotry, and I was absolutely determined to do everything possible not to allow that to happen and to make sure my children would grow up in a different world,” she said. “If there is something small I can do, I will continue to do it for as long as I can.”

With her current schedule involving alternating between Princeton and Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo, Ms. Plaks is certainly continuing her efforts. She hopes to start a public lecture series in town for residents to find out more about the Project on Ethnic Relations and the areas in which they work.

Past collaborations have included work with the Woodrow Wilson School and the Whig-Clio Society at Princeton University, as well as a media program in which area journalists taught media workshops to increase tolerance in countries like Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

Ms. Plaks’s colleagues include PER Co-founder and President Emeritus Allen Kassof, Executive Director Alex Grigoriev, Senior Program Officer Shpetim Gashi, and Administrative and Development Officer Angelique Olmo.

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