BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — A Serb from Kosovo, breakaway province of Yugoslavia, muses about joint summer camps and soccer matches between young Serbs and ethnic Albanians - the parties now facing off in a conflict many worry could yet spark the next Balkans war.
Even voiced at a distance of 500 miles away, at a conference in tranquil Budapest, the notion could smack of optimism in overdrive.
But a seminar here found common ground rather than conflict between these two peoples. A dozen experts in education and conflict resolution, representing countries from Russia to the US - and both sides from Kosovo - focused on teaching tolerance in a region whose combatants share neither language nor goals.
An exercise in admittedly long-range thinking, the seminar centered on integrating "civic education" into Kosovo-Albanian "shadow" schools, which operate outside the Serbian system.
Ethnic Albanians, a 9-to-1 mostly Muslim majority, seek independence from Yugoslav Serbs, who consider Kosovo the cradle of their Christian Orthodox civilization.
Meanwhile, in a big step for diplomacy yesterday, the US arranged a Friday meeting between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Ibrahim Rugova, leader of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.
"We could just sit and wait for a political solution, or we could do something in small steps that may help indirectly," says Agon Demjaha, a Kosovo-Albanian representative of one seminar cosponsor, the New York-based Open Society Foundation. "This is how I excuse all of this, otherwise it might seem silly."
Yet the seminar illuminated the magnitude of difficulties for those who hope to transform authoritarian cultures into kinder, gentler societies by teaching civic values like pluralism, rule of law, and respect for human rights.
At least today, governmental and nongovernmental organizations worldwide appear more realistic in their approaches. Strategies for resolving differences are often presented as a painstaking, generations-long process.
Take Tajikistan, the former Soviet republic just now emerging from five years of destructive civil war. At the Tajik Center for Citizenship Participation, based in the capital, Dushanbe, workers have managed to "educate" only about 200 Tajiks in the past three years, admits Parviz Mullojanov, the center's deputy director.
"People prefer violence to negotiation," says Mullojanov, who attended the Budapest seminar. "But we're working for the future."
A two-pronged approach is often taken to civic education in volatile regions. The first is to ferret out moderates and progressives from both sides, then promote dialogue as a means of easing ethnic tension. The second, often more effective tactic targets the youth, before behavior and attitude are set in stone, laying the groundwork for a future democratic infrastructure.
For Kosovo children, this may mean compulsory "civic education," though none of their teachers knows exactly what it is or how to teach it.
"Kosovo has such a large young population, we have to worry about how they're going to view their future and express themselves," says Joseph Julian, chairman of Syracuse University's Joint Eastern Europe Center for Democratic Education and Governance, another cosponsor of the recent seminar. "Let the politicians do their work, but the people themselves need to learn to work together as citizens."
Even as these children learn about human rights, however, some of their fathers and uncles are taking up arms against the Serbs. Kosovars (as the province's 2 million or so Albanians are known) live under the thumb of Serbs. In the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo was granted autonomy, elevating Kosovars to the rank of equals for the first time in their history.
But autonomy was abolished in 1989, after Serbian strongman Mr. Milosevic sparked a wave of pro-Serb nationalism that ultimately led to Yugoslavia's violent disintegration.
Surprisingly, though, as war raged in Bosnia among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, Kosovars bided their time. They led peaceful protests and established parallel institutions for government, schools, and health care.
Yet pacifism neither yielded concessions from Serbia - which joins Montenegro in the new Yugoslavia - nor attracted Western support. It only put off war. Fed up, a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) turned to sporadic terrorism. Serb police eventually cracked down in early March, killing some 80 civilians. Among Kosovars, hotter heads are prevailing today.
"The people arguing for peace are losing their arguments," says Shkelzen Maliqi, who attended the seminar and is both director of the Kosovo Education Enrichment Program and a member of the Kosovar team negotiating with the Serbs.
INDEED, clashes are reported daily between Serb police and the KLA. Mr. Milosevic, now the Yugoslav president, seems as intransigent as ever, despite tough sanctions and glimmer of hope that the new planned talks provide.
He also enjoys the support of belligerent Serbs in Kosovo. Serbian faculty and students at Pristina University, in the Kosovo capital, are resisting a new government directive that orders the readmission of Albanian students by May 15. On April 30, Serbian students threatened a hunger strike in protest. A week earlier, they had reportedly thrown stones at their would-be Albanian classmates attempting to return.
At the Budapest seminar, the dozen or so participants floated ideas for closing the cultural divide, including the soccer-and-summer-camp approach. But participants seemed to understand that they have a steep hill to climb. They conceded that most Serbs are suspicious of foreign-financed projects, while many Kosovars fear reprisals from the KLA for appearing to "collaborate" with Serbs.
Community activists have their work cut out for them. Though war could wipe out even the smallest of their gains, they look no farther than next-door Bosnia for motivation. Laid bare there is the difficulty of trying to encourage co-existence in the aftermath of four years of war.
The point, say Kosovo's would-be reformers, is to act. "Sure, you can wait five years. But then you've lost five years," says Ellie Keen, project officer for the London-based Citizenship Foundation. "Education is a long process anyway."