SCN Interview with Pajtim Saiti, Search for Common Ground (SFCG)

Pajtim Saiti is a Project Manager at Search for Common Ground (SFCG) in Macedonia. Prior to joining SFCG, Pajtim led the Department for local economy, development and international cooperation at the municipality of Gostivar (Macedonia). Pajtim became familiar with the SCN when the Mayor nominated him as point of contact for his municipality. This short interview follows his story since then, helping us understand the wider impact engagement with the network can have on fostering partnerships and innovation in P/CVE.

During the city consultations held in Kosovo and Macedonia in September 2018, the SCN team met with a range of local stakeholders, including Pajtim Saiti, Project Manager at Search for Common Ground (SFCG). Across the region, there are critical challenges around coordination of projects for implementers, donors and practitioners engaging in P/CVE work. As the SCN’s engagement in the Western Balkans is set to deepen over the coming two years, we met with Pajtim to discuss his current projects and his views on what the SCN can achieve in key municipalities. His perspective as a former local lead on SCN for the Municipality of Gostivar was critical in understanding how regional and international engagement through the network can serve to inspire and galvanise far-reaching action, through exemplar prevention models, exposure and training.

Gostivar is a city of 81,000 inhabitants in the Western part of Macedonia. The country has had a difficult history of ethnic tensions between the country-wide Macedonian majority its various minority communities. With a majority of ethnic Albanians, Gostivar has also had its share of ethnic violence in the past. The well-known 9 July incident in  in 1997 saw police forces clash with Albanian demonstrators, leaving three civilians dead and at least 200 people injured. More recently, in February 2012, an off-duty Macedonian policeman killed two ethnic Albanians following an altercation over a parking space that sparked communal violence all over the country.

Once an economically vibrant city, Gostivar’s fortunes changed following Macedonia’s independence. The city became dependent on foreign remittances and small businesses. Nowadays, unemployment is widespread and youth emigration represents a threat to Gostivar’s future. In this context, and particularly because of the lack of opportunities for a frustrated local youth population, the city has become even more vulnerable to divisive and extremist narratives. Locals like Pajtim consider the city as being at high risk of radicalisation. Not only has Gostivar been historically vulnerable to ethno-nationalist movements, there have also been signs of changing social attitudes and a greater foreign influence on a hardening of conservative Islamic movements.

While most Macedonian foreign fighters that joined Daesh ranks in Syria and Iraq originated from Skopje, Aracinovo and Saraj, some also came from Gostivar. This led to the municipality being included in the Macedonian police’s Operation Cell in August 2015 that led to a total of nine arrests, as well as searches and seizing of electronic material.

As leader of the Department for local economy, development and international cooperation at the municipality of Gostivar, Pajtim developed projects to create opportunities for the local youth. His projects included the establishment of a youth council (the first of its kind in Macedonia) and the renovation of sports facilities. Though neither Pajtim nor his municipality engaged in P/CVE programming at the time, the Mayor asked Pajtim to act as the point of contact for the SCN when the municipality joined the network in March 2017. In this new role, Pajtim took part in the SCN Global Summit 2017 in Aarhus.

“The Aarhus conference was the inspiration for me to start actively thinking and working on ideas and activities related to preventing and countering violent extremism. It made me aware of the threats and risks in our neighbourhoods and communities. We were seeing the risks but we were not realising the threat that comes out of them. The Aarhus conference woke me up.”

In Aarhus, Pajtim learned about the Aarhus Model and took part in various workshops, including the SCN discussion on “Local Prevention Networks in Jordan and Lebanon: What Can Local Actors in Europe and MENA Learn From Each Other?”. The session looked at the SCN’s capacity-building work to establish unprecedented bottom-up prevention infrastructure and activities in six municipalities. It discussed the ways in which the project had empowered mayors and municipalities to bring together key local stakeholders from religious leaders and educators to community police and psychosocial support workers. By connecting the key stakeholders working in the P/CVE area in a city, meaningful coordination could take place, enabling a greater impact and avoiding duplication and repetition. Once those networks are well established, coordination can be scaled up to the national level, ensuring that P/CVE actors are connected at all levels.

Back in Gostivar, Pajtim presented the concept to the Mayor and initiated a process to create his own local prevention network. With a change in the Mayoral administration following later that year, Pajtim took his learnings with him to his new role at SFCG. A project proposal was prepared drawing on his learnings in Aarhus and using the SCN Online Hub for more information about the SCN Local Prevention Networks in Jordan and Lebanon.

“I believe that with the direct involvement of local authorities and support of the police, religious groups, CSOs and youth, we can create a hub of stakeholders who could impact PVE in any local community in the world. After all, local issues should be tackled at the grassroots level.”

 Convinced by the effectiveness of this approach, the British and Dutch Embassy in Skopje agreed to fund SFCG for two years to pilot their own version of the Local Prevention Networks, called Community Actions Teams (CATs), in three municipalities: Čair, Gostivar and Kičevo. The CATs are even embedded in the National Strategy of the Republic of Macedonia for Countering Violent Extremism (2018-2022) as well as in the National Counter Terrorism Strategy of the Republic of Macedonia (2018-2022) as a way of improving cooperation between state, local authorities and local communities.

With the CATs operating in three SCN member cities, members will have the opportunity to follow their development and draw important lessons for project implementation not only in the Western Balkans region but around the world.

Pajtim’s story demonstrates the direct impact the network can have on its member cities. It serves as an inspiration for all of us to continue exchanging and learning from each other in the way we have been for the past three years. SCN takes much pride in such stories, but this wouldn’t have been possible without the extraordinary commitment of its members. Pajtim is an inspiration for us as much as the network has been for him.

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