Eastern European young leaders: “We all relate to the Czech experience”

Ani Khachatryan (Armenia), Timur Vilic (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and  Grigol Gegelia (Georgia)

A group of nine young people from mainly Eastern European states – including Georgia, Albania, Ukraine and Serbia – are currently in Czechia at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under a scheme to establish ties with high-flyers in the region. And some of the participants in the Duke Wenceslas Future Leaders Programme – Ani Khachatryan from Armenia, Timur Vilic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Georgia’s Grigol Gegelia – came into our studios during a visit to Czech Radio.

Armenian flag | Photo: jorono,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Khachatryan: “I’m trained as a diplomat. I work currently for the European Union and in strategic communication and public diplomacy for the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood. For seven years I have also worked for the public broadcaster of Armenia, serving first as a senior international officer for the public TV company and then as PR and communications manager of the council of the public broadcaster.”

How about you Timur? What’s your background?

Vilic: “I am currently the president of a local youth forum of Naša stranka, which is a social-liberal party from Bosnia and Herzegovina. We are rather small, not more than 10 percent of the vote, but we believe that we are bringing a new vision to our country, for Euro-Atlantic integration. I myself work as a translator currently. I studied Italian and Persian; I’m interested in languages, beside politics. But politics is something that I believe more young people should get involved in in Bosnia, because the situation is quite complicated and we need fresher views, fresher ideas.”

And Grigol, where are you from and what do you do?

Gegelia: “I’m from Georgia. I’m an opposition politician. I work on foreign relations and I’m the foreign secretary of a liberal centrist party called Lelo for Georgia. I’m one of the people engaged in trying to revitalise Georgian democracy, because we are currently run by an oligarch and his government. He is officially and formally pro-EU, but in terms of values, in terms of the set of ideals that they have, they are very far from the European ideal to which 90 percent of Georgians aspire. So as a citizen and as a politician I find it my mission to deliver my country from this political turmoil and to bring as much prosperity and safety to my people as possible. I’m really happy to be doing international relations, because that always brings me into the company of very nice and interesting people, like my colleagues here, like all our colleagues from Czechia. I’m very happy to be here and, again, to be thinking of how better to deliver my country away from these existential problems and security threats that we have, coming from Russia – which you, the people of Czechia, understand so well – and to ensure safety.”

What was your motivation in taking part in this Future Leaders programme here in Prague?

Bosnia and Herzegovina flag | Photo: jorono,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Vilic: “First of all I was studying Czech for three years. It was an optional subject during my studies, so that’s how my relationship with Czechia started – not planned, really. But I got the opportunity, I was nominated in front of my party, and it just seemed like a fun thing to do, honestly [laughs]. Just like Grigol said, you always have the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. And I believe that networking, especially in today’s world, is crucial. You exchange experiences, ideas, views on situations and you grow as a person. So being an, as they say, aspiring politician I believe that this is something that we should all invest more of our energy in, these programmes, and just spending time with people who are motivated like us.”

What are you actually doing here in Czechia? What does this programme involve practically?

“I think that at the end of the programme we will all end up finding out a lot more about Czechia.”

Khachatryan: “This programme is very well designed in the sense of public diplomacy, because it encompasses different dimensions of the foreign policy of the Czech Republic, also not forgetting about domestic policies and showing Czechia to the participants. I think that’s very important: to find out about the country’s economy, to find out more about other cities than the capital city. Apart from the visit to the Ministry which we had already today, and we had the chance to have a Q&A session with MFA colleagues and also to meet the minister himself, we even managed to attend an OSCE forum on economic and environmental issues. I think that’s an exceptional opportunity for all the participants, because it’s quite a high-level forum which gathers all the participating states at the highest level possible. I think that at the end of the programme we will all end up finding out a lot more about Czechia than we knew before coming here, even though most of us had an initial interest in the country and dug a little bit about the country ourselves before coming here.”

Grigol, is this your first time here in Czechia? What are you impressions?

“This wonderful country knows from its own experience what it means to fight for liberty, to fight against Russia and to fight not just Russia but against autocracy.”

Gegelia: “This is actually my third time in Czechia. I’ve been to Prague before, but I haven’t been to the other locations which our programme actually involves. I must also thank the foreign minister and the Foreign Ministry team for this wonderful opportunity. I think it’s very important to bring people from different country to this wonderful country which knows from its own experience what it means to fight for liberty, to fight against Russia and to fight not just Russia but against autocracy. Many of our countries certainly share those struggles with anti-democratic forces, some of us in the past and some of us in the present. So we all relate to the Czech experience. I think it’s wonderful to be here, to exchange that experience, to meet with Mr. Minister and other wonderful colleagues from the Foreign Ministry. But also to experience Czech culture and society and to meet representatives of the armed forces and of the corporate sector. So it’s a really wonderful opportunity to get a good feel of what this country stands for and how we could be better friends with this country – and with each other’s countries.”

Timur Vilic  (Bosnia and Herzegovina),  Ani Khachatryan  (Armenia) and Grigol Gegelia  (Georgia) | Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

One thing I’m very curious about is how Czechia is perceived generally in the places where you live?

Vilic: “For me at least, because I was occupied with music for some time – I went to a music high school – it’s the music, it’s the classical composers like Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana. That’s for me. But mostly Czechia is famous of course for the beer. Everyone wants to visit for the beer and the architecture and culture of Prague. I also have a big wish to visit Karlovy Vary, because I’ve heard all the best things about it. You also have Brno, which is known among the youth in Bosnia as a university city, as a place where you can really go and study and enjoy life. And it’s just a peaceful country known for nice humble people – that’s how we see it. But also decisive – they are people who decided that they want freedom, as my colleague said, and they fought for it. They fought for it when no-one else did, in 1968, and after that they finally achieved it. Now Czechia is a part of the European family of free nations. We are all more and more aware, by the day, how fragile that is and how much we have to constantly fight – not just in the physical sense of fighting but also in how much we have to invest in keeping this system that we have fought for and developed. Because it can crumble very quickly.”

Ani, how would say Czechia is perceived in Armenia?

Khachatryan: “I should say positively. And all the things that were mentioned by my colleague are true in the case of Armenia as well. But in addition I could say we also have our Armenia diaspora living in Czechia, which is itself kind of a bridge between the two countries as well. There is also the post-Soviet memory of having ties of Czechia, which was closer during Soviet times; not all Soviet citizens could travel freely to other, further countries, so Eastern and Central Europe were kind of closer.”

What are the things that you feel connect your countries to Czechia?

Goerigian flag | Photo: InstagramFOTOGRAFIN,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Gegelia: “I think Havel, as a symbol of the quest for liberty, the love of beer for sure – and recently also [President] Pavel. These are the sorts of things that Georgians love about Czechia. Again because of democratic renewal, the quest for liberty and a sense of mission, which these people have always had. That’s something that unites us very much and holds us together, even though we’re not geographically, so to speak, in the same region. We’re not that close or next to Czechia, in the case of Georgia and Armenia in particular. But we have this sense of spiritual affinity, which does hold us together.”

“Czechia is one of the few Slav nations that have really succeeded.”

Vilic: “We kind of look up to Czechia, because it’s one of the few Slav nations that have really succeeded, not only fighting for freedom, which is something we talk about all the time –especially me because I’m a liberal. But they have also succeeded culturally. For us in Sarajevo one of the main architects during the rule of Austria-Hungary in Bosnia, which is a time when we were part of the same country with Czechia, Karel Pařík is actually Czech. He came to Sarajevo and maybe, I would say, one-third of all the most buildings in our city were designed by him. So for us Czechia is a goal, an ideal maybe, and also a friendly country, a fraternal country that we really appreciate and that we would like to grow our relations with.”