In April 1995 — to the week­end exact­ly 22 years ago — I went to the first event by the young anten­na AEGEE-Skop­je, a con­fer­ence about pri­vati­sa­tion. It was my first vis­it to this mag­nif­i­cent coun­try with great peo­ple, but not my last one. I came back for a mar­vel­lous Trav­el­ling Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ty the next year plus the two Ago­ras organ­ised by the anten­na. But the mem­o­ries of this first event were very spe­cial. This is the sto­ry.

Refet Saban

The Ser­bian bor­der guard was flip­ping through the pass­port. My pass­port. “Where is your visa?”, he asked in a not too friend­ly way. “Visa? Can’t I get it here?” I smiled. He didn’t. “Come with me”, he said, put my pass­port in the pock­et and showed me the way to the exit of the train. He led me to the pas­sen­gers’ wait­ing room of the old train sta­tion of Sub­ot­i­ca, the Ser­bian city at the bor­der to Hun­gary. “Tomor­row morn­ing you will take the first train to Budapest. Then you’ll get the pass­port back. Until then: don’t leave the sta­tion.”

My trip to Skop­je couldn’t have start­ed worse. And I was so enthu­si­as­tic about going to the cap­i­tal of Mace­do­nia, where AEGEE-Skop­je was about to orga­nize it’s very first event, the con­gress with the too long title “Pri­va­ti­za­tion in Cen­tral and East­ern Eu­rope with a spe­cial view on For­mer Yugosla­vian Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia”.

Kali­na, the minister’s daugh­ter

How did I end up there? For that, we have to go a few days back. The week­end before, I was at the Ago­ra in Ams­ter­dam. It was April 1995 and I was AEGEE mem­ber for pre­cise­ly two months. I felt total­ly lost in the big crowd, when at one par­ty one of the few peo­ple that I knew told me that she was going to Skop­je the fol­low­ing week­end. “Why don’t you go too?” she asked. I replied: “Why not”, while at the same moment I won­dered where Skop­je actu­al­ly is…

After the Ago­ra I went to Eind­hoven. I knew some mem­bers there, because AEGEE-Eind­hoven was the twin anten­na of AEGEE-Szeged, when the con­cept of twin anten­nae did not exist yet. When I told one big bald guy that I want­ed to go to Skop­je, he enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly said: “Yes, you must go there!” It turned out that he helped the young con­tact anten­na a lot to come into exis­tence and organ­ise its first event, because his for­mer girl­friend was one of the founders.

Can­dles in a church in Ohrid

Three days lat­er, I was on the train from Budapest to Skop­je. I stud­ied in Szeged in South­ern Hun­gary at that time and my Hun­gar­i­an friends told me that visa were not nec­es­sary to go to Ser­bia. Well, not for them, but for me being Ger­man, yes. So I wait­ed in the train sta­tion of Sub­ot­i­ca, slept on the wood­en bench­es, where some Cana­di­ans with the same fate were strand­ed, and took the train back to Budapest the next morn­ing.

A very large tree

There was still time to go to Skop­je, because it was only Thurs­day and the con­fer­ence pro­gramme start­ed only on Fri­day, 14th of April 1995. How­ev­er, the train was late and I arrived to the Ser­bian con­sulate at Heroes’ Square just five min­utes before clos­ing time. All employ­ees of the con­sulate were com­ing right out of the build­ing already and did not even both­er to look at me when I asked them about a visa. So I took the next train to Szeged and came back the next morn­ing. This time I got the visa, hopped on the after­noon train, changed in Nis in the mid­dle of the night and arrived to the Ser­bian-Mace­don­ian bor­der at 5 a.m. The train was actu­al­ly sup­posed to go to Skop­je, but it didn’t. All pas­sen­gers went to a bus sta­tion where a Ser­bian guy, who spoke Ger­man, told me which bus to take, where to change to anoth­er bus and how much to pay.

Sight­see­ing around Ohrid

The bus dri­vers were dri­ving their bus­es like For­mu­la 1 cars over the curvy roads, but I didn’t mind, because at 10 a.m. I reached Skop­je. The time, when the con­fer­ence pro­gramme of the sec­ond day was about to start. At the bus sta­tion I called one of the organ­is­ers from a pub­lic phone – at that time no one had mobile phones. He picked me up and took me to the Fac­ul­ty of Law, where the event took place.

Par­ty in Ohrid: no, this is not the Tunak dance

Final­ly I could enjoy the con­fer­ence.

The top­ic of the event was quite fash­ion­able at that time. In most coun­tries in Cen­tral and East­ern Europe the pri­vati­sa­tion of state-owned enter­pris­es was in full swing. There were dif­fer­ent mod­els. While most gov­ern­ments sold the com­pa­nies to for­eign investors, who had the finan­cial resources and knowl­edge to make the old com­pa­nies more suc­cess­ful and get their prod­ucts suc­cess­ful­ly on the mar­ket, oth­er coun­tries sold the com­pa­nies to their cit­i­zens with the help of vouch­ers. In some coun­tries the gov­ern­ments sold the com­pa­nies to friends or them­selves.

Par­ty time!

The con­fer­ence organ­is­ers got some very promi­nent speak­ers, which was no sur­prise, since one of the mem­bers was the daugh­ter of the finance min­is­ter. Among the speak­ers were (sur­prise!) the min­is­ter of finance, Jane Miljovs­ki, and the direc­tor of the Agency for Trans­formation of the Enter­pris­es, Ver­i­ca Hadzi-Vasile­va Markovs­ka. Dur­ing the after­noon of day two there was a pan­el dis­cus­sion on “The pri­va­ti­za­tion process and the flow of peo­ple, ideas and cap­i­tal”. When I arrived, I had no clue that I would be among the pan­elists! After I entered the room, one of the organ­is­ers came to me and said: “You are from Ger­many, right? So you know about the pri­vati­sa­tion in East­ern Ger­many, right?” “Ehm, well, yes, some­thing, why?” “Two of our pan­el­lists can­celled and we need a replace­ment so that we have at least three peo­ple. Just tell me what you know and I’ll ask you ques­tions about that.” And so, I became speak­er at the event. It was going fine, but I was so glad when the pan­el was over… The whole con­gress was fol­lowed by nation­al TV every day, and there were reports of the results in all major news­pa­pers – which showed again what great con­tacts the organ­is­ers had.

Dis­cussing organ­is­ers

This sec­ond day was also the end of the seri­ous pro­gramme of the event and the whole group left next morn­ing for Ohrid, the mag­ni­fi­cient old town at Lake Ohrid in the west of the coun­try. The group of about 25 for­eign plus 20 local par­tic­i­pants plus more local organ­is­ers went to this great city of lit­er­a­ture, cul­ture and his­to­ry togeth­er by bus. After check­ing in at our hotel, we vis­it­ed all kind of great cul­tur­al places, of which the famous monastery was the most impres­sive one by far. Just one year before the con­fer­ence, the Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed anti-war film “Before the rain” was shot there, which we watched togeth­er with the whole group on video. Lat­er on, we also vis­it­ed the already pri­va­tized brew­ery of Skop­je, where we had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see how the pri­va­ti­za­tion worked in prac­tice.

Local organ­is­ers with their award-win­ning AEGEE mag­a­zine

It was the beau­ti­ful place and even more the amaz­ing and friend­ly spir­it of the organ­is­ers from AEGEE-Skop­je that caught our hearts. So it was no sur­prise that near­ly all par­tic­i­pants spon­ta­neous­ly decid­ed to stay one day longer. No one was in a hur­ry any­way. Eight of the par­tic­i­pants came from Turkey, anoth­er eight from Bul­gar­ia; they were extreme­ly relaxed about their timetable, and we, the oth­ers, were main­ly from Slo­va­kia, Ger­many and France and want­ed to find out as much as pos­si­ble about this great place in the com­pa­ny of the great organ­is­ers. For us time didn’t mat­ter any­way, since it was East­er that week­end. Among the Turk­ish par­tic­i­pants was Refet Saban, one of the founders of AEGEE-Ankara and lat­er CD mem­ber. An amaz­ing per­son like every­one from the Turk­ish group. It was a shock for us to hear that one Turk­ish girl died a few months lat­er in a car acci­dent, with also oth­er mem­ber from AEGEE-Ankara being in the same car.

Zuzana Molent, par­tic­i­pant

Com­ing back from Ohrid to Skop­je, we stayed at the places of the local organ­is­ers. The host, where two oth­er par­tic­i­pants and I stayed, was awe­some. And like some oth­er mem­bers, he did not only study, but also had a job. When we woke up next morn­ing, he said: “If you want, you can switch on TV lat­er. You will see me there as pre­sen­ter.”

He also gave us a great sight­see­ing tour, where he told us a lot about local pol­i­tics and cul­ture. I remem­ber clear­ly when we went to some view­ing point over the city and he point­ed at the minarets of the eth­nic Alba­ni­ans in Skop­je. “You see the minarets? Their num­ber dou­bled in the past ten years”, he said. “Now Alba­ni­ans are 40 per­cent of our pop­u­la­tion.” He looked very con­cerned of becom­ing a minor­i­ty in his coun­try. He was also con­cerned for the unsta­ble polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion and the hos­tile rela­tion­ships with their neigh­bours Yugoslavia (Ser­bia-Mon­tene­gro) and Greece. And of course the rela­tion­ship with Alba­nia was also very bad. So it was no sur­prise that UN peace­keep­ing troops were sta­tioned in Mace­do­nia, which helped sta­bil­is­ing the sit­u­a­tion.

It was not an easy sit­u­a­tion for the coun­try — nei­ther polit­i­cal­ly nor eco­nom­i­cal­ly. It def­i­nite­ly weren’t easy times for many of the AEGEE-Skop­je mem­bers either. But nev­er­the­less, this didn’t keep them from treat­ing every par­tic­i­pant with so much friend­li­ness and warm spir­it. With lots of great mem­o­ries in my mind I went home to Hun­gary, where the next event was already wait­ing next week­end: a con­fer­ence by AEGEE-Budapest. But that’s anoth­er sto­ry…

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