I am an IDP (internally displaced person) from the Russian-occupied region of Abkhazia, and in my youth I was involved in US-supported youth leadership programmes for Georgian and Abkhaz youth. Together with a couple of Tbilisi friends, we set up an NGO called Academy for Peace and Development, and which is still going strong and celebrated its 18th anniversary in October 2020.
We received a lot of US support and felt that we were actually quite close to the ‘other’ Georgia across the Atlantic. In the early 2000s, Georgia had just joined the Council of Europe, and Europe seemed far away for Georgian youth. We had not heard much about European youth co-operation, and my first trips abroad were mainly to Turkey and Armenia.
During a seminar in Armenia, I heard that there were other, wider European opportunities for youth organisations, and so I googled (not sure if Google existed back then…) for more information, and came across SALTO EECA’s Go East, which as it turns out, was their first international event.
I remember the application form asking applicants on their knowledge of Actions 1, 2 and 5 (of the Youth in Action Programme) and realised that I hadn’t a clue, but that if I wanted to attend such an important event, I would need to show some level of expertise. As I claimed in my application form to know a lot, I became too anxious to sleep in the weeks leading up to the event in case someone asked me questions on my supposedly existent knowledge. It never happened, and this event in Poland became the beginning of many beautiful friendships.
I became a SALTO Multiplier and decided to involve as many Georgian people as possible in European work. The things we learnt from SALTO: networking, intercultural learning, and cross-border co-operation were very much needed in Georgia at the time. The collaborative approach to youth sector work resulted in the creation of the Youth Organisations Forum of Georgia; a sort of national ‘SALTO network’ of youth organisations supporting each other, and which also helped Georgian youth organisations become more involved in regional co-operation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Russia and other countries.
There are still very few opportunities for South Caucasus and other Eastern European countries to meet their neighbours in an international context, and for countries that are not on good speaking terms, so to say, like Georgia and Russia, to engage in people-to-people dialogue. SALTO is an excellent platform for this, as crowding the room with European colleagues allows all of us to get out of our own local and regional context and see ourselves as equals.