More than 150 students from South-Eastern Europe and beyond came to Belgrade at the end of February to demonstrate their skills in a battle of knowledge, wits and logic at the 9th Belgrade Open Debating Tournament.
The tournament encouraged public discussion on a range of social issues in Serbia, with a specific focus on minority rights. The Open Communication Network NGO hosted the event, with the support of the OSCE Mission in Serbia.
Jelena Mitic of Open Communication, the tournament's organiser, explains the value of the contest: "The event brings students from all over Europe, and especially the ex-Yugoslav republics, to debate the challenges of European integration and democratization. Moreover, it provides a platform for the exchange of ideas and it incentivizes critical thinking and structured discourse."
The final of the two-day contest was held in the Serbian National Assembly, where teams from Croatia and the United Kingdom debated the question "Should Roma have seats in the European Parliament?". After a lively debate, the UK team were judged the winners.
Debating, peacemaking, fighting against prejudice
Nevena Skocic, a participant from Serbia, sees the debating tournament as a way for people to overcome their prejudices: "We not only change our personal convictions but the lessons learned here help us change the attitudes of people around us," she says. "You learn that is not only about what you think, you also get acquainted with alternative points of view."
The participant that travelled from the furthest afield was Monica Tisminesky, from Venezuela. She feels that debating has resonances with conflict prevention: "The more people you can include in the debate that have in one way or another been affected by a conflict, the more likely you are to help them deal with it. However, the hardest part of peacemaking is getting opposing sides in the same room."
Daniel Fazlic and Gregor Janzek from Slovenia also came to put their debating skills to the test. They explain that debating tricks of trade are just as important as the knowledge one must have. "Both things are equally important" says Gregor. "A quality debater can be totally uncomfortable with the assigned topic, but still manage to wiggle his way out of an awkward situation". But such rhetorical skills are not the only things to be gained from debating: "We listen to people better and hear their side of a story."
The contest judges, Will Jones and Steven Nolan from the UK and Ireland respectively, have been judging debates for years. They noticed some interesting differences in the nature of debates in the Balkans and debates in their own countries: "In the Balkans, people are more sceptical about what their government can do. In any debate, participants will always question the government. People in our countries simply assume that governments will deliver."
"Protecting the rights of national minorities is one of the priorities of the OSCE's work in Serbia," says Daiana Falloni, Head of the Democratization Department at the OSCE Mission to Serbia. "This debating competition is a good way to raise awareness of these important issues among young people from Serbia and beyond."
Written by Milos Bulj