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Al-Jazeera: How Western Balkans cities deal with security challenges

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— 5 minutes reading time

In March 2023, Al Jazeera Balkans published an article by Sanadin Voloder on the Strong Cities Network engagement with the cities of Kumanovo and Elbasan, and our new Regional Hub. This is an unofficial translation of the article, which was posted in Bosnian, available here.

With the external support and coordination of the global Strong Cities Network, local communities have the opportunity to improve security, infrastructure and human resources where they usually have no competence. The world’s geopolitical scene has never been more complex, and citizens have never been more exposed to various forms of hostile action and threats to security. Maintaining security in the world has become increasingly challenging in recent years, especially after the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the shift of focus to hybrid forms of warfare.

The Western Balkans have common challenges and limitations, which is why mutual cooperation is the best way towards a solution. With external support and coordination of the global Strong Cities Network, local communities have the opportunity to improve security, structures, and capacities where they usually do not have jurisdiction, but in the event of a security threat, they are the first to be hit as well as respond because they are closest to the citizens.

It was Sarajevo that recently hosted the meeting of the Strong Cities Network of the Western Balkans. This association is an independent global network, which consists of 165 cities and is dedicated to supporting the efforts carried out at the level of cities/municipalities in order to prevent extremism, hatred, polarisation and to strengthen human rights protection mechanisms.

Exchange of experiences

“Few cities or countries have remained untouched by the growing hatred, extremism and polarisation. This phenomenon affects the trust, relationships and social infrastructure that provide stability and build bridges between different communities,” says Eric Rosand, Executive Director of the Strong Cities Network.

“Most international policies in this field are focused either at the central level (through security measures or broad frameworks/strategies designed to trickle down to the local level) or on short-term and narrowly focused civil society interventions at the local level. But this approach ignores the unique role that mayors and sub-national governments (e.g., cantons, provinces, cities, municipalities or towns) can and must play in preventing and responding to these threats in a sustainable way that builds resilience and strengthens social cohesion. This is where the Strong Cities Network comes in”.

The Network believes that cities and local governments are in a unique position to play an active role in preventing and responding to hatred, polarisation and extremism.

“They not only witness first-hand how tensions and conflicts manifest at the local level, but also bear the brunt of extremist and hate-motivated violence that disproportionately targets communities and infrastructure in urban areas,” says Rosand.

“Equally important when it comes to residents in communities, their main points of contact with institutions are likely to be when they access services and communicate locally. Even for cities that do not have a specific mandate or dedicated public safety function, their proximity and interaction with communities offers great potential for strengthening inclusiveness and social cohesion. Supporting mayors and other local authorities in exploiting this potential, catalysing greater involvement of cities in preventing and responding to social stress is key to restoring and maintaining social cohesion.”

Given that the Network of Strong Cities operates on several continents and in several crisis regions, their experience can contribute to a better understanding of the challenges faced by the countries of the Western Balkans.

“Launched at the United Nations in 2015, the Strong Cities Network is an independent global network of more than 165 cities and other local governments dedicated to addressing all forms of extremism, hatred and polarisation at the local level. In 2022, the Network launched four regional hubs – in East and Southern Africa, the Middle East and North Africa (BISA), South Asia and the Western Balkans. Composed of small teams of local experts, these hubs convey the Network’s mission at the regional level,” explains Rosand.

With specific knowledge of the regional context and additional capacity to support more consistent engagement with a regional focus, Rosand continues, “Regional Hubs advise cities, organise events, connect cities with others facing similar challenges, provide assistance to mayors and administrations, and identify opportunities for grant implementation for technical support”.

“City-led experiences, good practices and identified challenges are not only shared across the region, but also across the global Strong Cities Network, whose members share their innovative ideas and approaches. This access to regional and global expertise and learning from peers around the world contributes to making mayors, local leaders and practitioners more informed and equipped with approaches and ideas to address growing hatred and polarisation in their communities”.

The example of Kumanovo and the experience of Albania

Kumanovo was the scene of the conflict in May 2015, which shook the political situation in North Macedonia.

“Cities are often on the margins of discussions about security or prevention, but first on the line of response when threats are realised. Kumanovo knows this best because in 2015 our municipality was the target of groups that intended to undermine the coexistence and stability of our municipality and the country as a whole. With the help of the Strong Cities Network, we managed to bridge the gap between capacities and needs on the ground, and to engage more actively in preventing violent extremism, hatred and polarisation in our community”, emphasises Maksim Dimitrievski, Mayor of Kumanovo.

Cooperation between cities through building bridges of trust is the best way to prevent security challenges and monitor changes in global processes that can be reflected at the local level.

“Challenges are becoming more and more sophisticated, and that’s why it’s important to keep up with all events at the local level in order to be able to adequately respond and prevent threats. It is equally important that we build communication and connections with cities in the region, our challenges are similar, and many of us find ways that give results that could be replicated. We must build better bridges of cooperation throughout the region on this topic, because security and the fight against hatred, polarisation and all kinds of extremism is a common interest of all of us,” says Dimitrievski.

Albania is a country in transition that faces a high rate of corruption and crime, which especially affects young people who find it difficult to find work.

“The Strong Cities Network is a mechanism that allowed the municipality of Elbasan to establish important partnerships in the context of identifying and solving security issues,” believes Ervin Muco, Director of Social Services and Coordinator for the Local Public Safety Council and former Deputy Mayor of Elbasan.

Since he was appointed coordinator of the mechanism, he has had the opportunity to see up close how projects with a focus on supporting young people and preventing their criminal behaviour are implemented. “At the same time, we are working on developing a risk assessment strategy, which aims to prioritise security-related issues. Encouraging the participation of citizens, and especially the participation of young people in decision-making, remains a challenge that must be addressed as a priority”, concludes Muco.