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Migrants and the media

By Slovo, on 13 April 2015

image credit: Hope Not HateWith the persistent misrepresentation of Romanians and Bulgarians in the British press, Rebecca McKeown asks: is it time for an end to unfettered free speech?

Britain’s press freedom must end.

Even as I type the sentence I flinch and want to hammer repentantly on the backspace key. The words read like democracy gone wrong: an attack on a fundamental human right. They bring to mind the heated debates of the post-Charlie Hebdo moral melee. They seem to typify everything that a truly liberal society might hope to denounce.

And yet … I stand by them. The callous portrayal of East European immigrants by the red-top right and the racist generalisations and lies peddled to petulant and ill-informed swathes of the British population have become intolerable. Who gave the British media a free pass to provoke societal division and institutional racism?

Those liberal Britons who have grown up accustomed to the tabloid circus joke at its expense and shake their weary heads at every new, bigoted headline. It seems to me, a newcomer to these green and pleasant lands, that Britain’s populist press is all too often brushed off like an embarrassing drunk uncle—a little bit puckish, a little bit provocative and opinionated, but all in all, harmless.

If you had been a fly on the wall in conversations I have had with UK-based Romanians of late, you would be as certain as I am that such coverage is anything but harmless. Any medium which allows the publication of material that, for example, calls Romanian workers “a huge army of parasites” is in no way innocuous.

It has now been over a year since labour market restrictions were lifted in the UK, allowing Romanians and Bulgarians to work here legally. Certainly, some came. Many went home again too. This is the nature of today’s mobile workforce, and the reality of EU membership. Many Brits count themselves lucky that they can hop across to the continent to live or work in Paris, Munich, Seville, or Budapest. Romanians now have that same right, and, bravo them, many are exercising it.

The great majority of those Romanians who come to the UK prove themselves to be hard-working, honest, contributing members of society, as immigrant communities so often are. But still, still, in this enlightened, largely-liberal, globalised society—still there are a great many Britons who believe the generalisations printed on a daily basis about a people who are no less intelligent, creative, and proud than they are.

Researching this post, I embarked on a Google search for “UK Romanians”. I should not have troubled my fingers with the exercise. So predictable were the headlines, so copy-and-paste clichéd, I could have written them myself given a burst of creative malice. The stories read like bad jokes:

‘Romanian planned to smuggle 3ft 2in burglar known only as ‘The Midget’ out of the UK by hiding him in his luggage and flying to their home country’

‘Romanian thief caught shoplifting twice within three days of arriving in the UK including just hours after stepping off a plane’

‘Romanian children 130 miles from home demand taxi and McDonald’s at London police station’

And these were only the first three headlines I encountered in a search of the past few days alone. Eighteen months ago, I investigated the media’s depiction of Romanian workers somewhat more extensively. In a study of four tabloids and 315 articles, I categorised each piece by the type of language used and whether a positive or negative depiction of Romanian and Bulgarian migrant workers was given.

The results of the study found that the three right-leaning tabloids (The Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Express) were far more likely to report hyperbolic, negative pieces about Romanians and Bulgarians than the left-leaning Daily Mirror. In other words, the tabloid nature of the paper appeared to have less effect on the anti-Romanian rhetoric published than did its partisan leanings. Some of the headlines recorded during the study included:

Bogus Bulgar Benefits Rackets Exposed’

‘Time Bomb: Special Investigation in Romania – Migrants to Bring Drug-Resistant Superbug to UK’

And my personal favourite, demonstrating the innate talent of tabloid journalists at disguising ingrained racism in crude quips: “BULGAR OFF”.

The inanity of tabloid immigration puns aside, the issue of racism towards Romanians (or insert the Central/East European nationality of your choice here) is ongoing and unrelenting. Very often when I meet a Romanian in London, I am shocked by their stories of discrimination. Frequently they are apologetic about their ethnicity. A personal experience of this just two weeks ago almost brought me to tears.

In a small café just north of UCL, a waitress came over to deliver my food. Her accent and appearance led me to believe that she was Romanian, and so I asked her: “Where are you from?”

The look of trepidation and distress that flashed across her face, just for that split second that her eyes met my own, was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my time in this city. “I’m from Romania”, she replied, every syllable apologetic, bracing herself for what she seemed sure would follow.

My answer, in imperfect Romanian, felt—appallingly—like giving a gift. “Romania!”, I exclaimed, “You have the most beautiful country in the world! I wish I was Romanian!”

How wonderful would it be if such a simple gesture was not so rare as to elicit an overjoyed response? The young woman beamed, sat opposite me for a minute, and poured out her troubles.

“Everyone is horrible to me when they hear I’m Romanian.”

“I miss my family, but this is the best chance I have to support them”

“I want to study, so I am working hard to fund my education”

“The management here treat me very badly. They take the tips I earn and I never see them again”

How I wish this was a one-off conversation. Similar ones are, however, to be had with a great many of the Romanians working hard to earn and contribute here. A young man I met recently came to London to study, but finding himself out of pocket, quit school to work instead. The persistent suggestions that he was in the UK to scrounge off the system had left him determined to prove his worth in a way that other Europeans are rarely forced to:

“I am going to work hard for a few years. Then, when I have enough money, I’m going to walk up to the admissions desk at the university with bundles of cash and pay in advance for my degree, right there on the spot”.

These Romanians, the Romanians that I know and often meet, in no way resemble the violent and dishonest characters that the British press so often choose to splash across their pages and that certain sections of British society choose to see as representative of an entire nationality.

Luckily, I am not the only person who thinks that depictions of Romanians in the UK have spiralled out of control. A group of good people, Brits and Romanians alike, are seeking to remedy the misrepresentations of Romanians in this country. Their documentary is titled 13 Shades of Romanian—but let us not hold this against them. They are producing thirteen stories of thirteen Romanians living in the UK, with the aim of showing a side of Romanians few Brits are exposed to. The project has just achieved its funding goal through a crowdsourced Indiegogo campaign, though they are still welcoming support.

How sad that such a campaign is necessary, and that it is very much an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff remedy. Can Britain’s media not be held more accountable for damning the reputations of every Eastern European who walks through the arrivals gate at Heathrow? As far as I am concerned, the rhetoric that continues to abound about Romanians and other East European expats is a human rights abuse of the first order—more so, I believe, than restricting the unfettered, unfiltered, and unacceptable racism so often printed and consumed in this country.

Rebecca McKeown is a Romaniaphile and Hungarian language learner from New Zealand, currently studying at SSEES. A former radio journalist with interests in diplomacy and development, her current research explores the performance of national cultures in Romania. Twitter: @rebiccamck

Behind Putin’s self-imposed food ban

By Slovo, on 7 April 2015

11104049_10204044939548413_1422435781_nBy Enrico Cattabiani

On August 4 last year, Vladimir Putin responded to the latest round of sanctions levied against his regime by imposing a ban on the import of food products from the EU, the US, and their supporters. The disruption of commerce was worth approximately $12 billion to the Russian economy, with secondary effects in the targeted countries, particularly the EU, causing unemployment within the agricultural sector, a slump in the price of the banned foods in domestic markets, and great losses for producers.

At the same time, Russia saw a dramatic rise in food prices, empty shelves in shops, restaurants obliged to change their menus and a revival of the old-fashioned black market, all as a consequence of the ban. Western media has been harshly critical of Putin’s policy, calling it a desperate and useless retaliation done simply for the hell of it. The ban, they argue, is a boomerang that will come back to hit Russia hardest.

There are two very good reasons why this might be true. First, sanctions are a political tool used to force a rival to alter its behavior. In this case, although affected parties in the West are pressing their governments to lift sanctions, damage to the wider European economies has been limited, and the voices of agricultural producers are not strong enough to force a change in policy.

Second, restrictions on trade are usually harmful for any economy, and Russia is no exception. Although it could eventually be beneficial for some sectors, scarcity of products and rising inflation have predictable and undesirable effects on a large segment of the population. Therefore, the ban on food appears to be ineffective in the first instance and counterproductive in the second one.

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Why, then, has Putin opted for such an irrational policy? Didn’t he have any alternatives to imposing sanctions – and why food, rather than something else? Before asserting that the ban has been a total failure, however, we must analyze the situation from the Russian president’s perspective.

Why Putin needed to act

Two main political calculations pushed Putin to adopt sanctions. First, to be considered a superpower a country must act like a superpower, and that is certainly the status that Putin seeks for Russia. When the sanctions hit, Russia had to show its muscles and hit back. This is even more the case considering sanctions were imposed in response to Russia’s undeniable involvement in Crimea – which Putin has always denied.

The second reason is purely domestic and concerns the fact that many Russians, thanks to state-led propaganda, perceive the escalation of the Ukraine conflict as the result of Western interference in support of a fascist, anti-Russian coup. Putin’s approval rating rocketed up at the beginning of the turmoil in Crimea, and he has had to keep playing the part of the strongman to maintain credibility at home.

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The logic of sanctions: trade-offs, elites, and money

The decision of whether to adopt a particular programme of sanctions is generally made with an eye on the damage, both economic and political, and consequent backlash that they are likely to provoke. In other words, political leaders choose sanctions regimes that maximize damage to its targets and minimize repercussions for their own state or power base.

If we accept that the most important goal of every leader is to remain in power, it follows that, in democratic countries, reducing the impact of sanctions on one’s own economy is essential. Indeed, popular support is necessary to be re-elected, and damaging consumers and businesses for political reasons would likely lead to electoral defeat. This logic has been called the ‘enforcement dilemma’ and expresses the trade-off for the political elite of imposing sanctions.

However, such logic works in a different way in non-democratic countries. Here, to remain in power an authoritarian leader must guarantee a constant flow of money to his inner circle, upon whom he relies for support. In this case, the trade-off is dictated by the need to avoid losses for the elites, disregarding the fallout for the population at large, unless widespread unrest or civil disobedience makes them impossible to ignore.

Such considerations partially explain why Western sanctions have targeted individuals and sectors related to Russian’s elites while Russia has targeted ground-level economic activities in the West.

As such, the repercussions on Western governments of their own sanctions have been manageable, since only a very small fraction of their economies, mostly oil and gas multinationals, have been prevented from trading with Russia. Likewise, Russia’s sanctions haven’t damaged crucial sectors related to the elites’ businesses, nor have they triggered protests or revolts. This may indicate that Putin opted for the solution that caused the least suffering from his own perspective, implying that he acted with absolute (authoritarian) pragmatism.

Behind the choice of banning food

Food is a replaceable good. Russia imports most of it from Western countries. Food is not linked to Putin’s friends’ interests. By bearing in mind these three considerations and by understanding the starting conditions of Russian’s economy, we can put ourselves in Putin’s shoes and understand why he chose to target food imports.

The fall in value of the ruble has led to more expensive imports for Russian firms and to a consequent worsening of the balance of payments. Cutting $12 billion of imports of a replaceable good could help curb Russian dependence on Western countries and slightly alleviate the ruble’s decline. This is not properly orthodox from an economic point of view, for the obvious reasons of rising inflation and widespread shortages, but in Putin’s logic, that $12 billion could also be reinvested and spent elsewhere, which is his declared goal. Where?

The first candidate is obviously the internal market, which can provide goods on the cheap. Second, and more important, are the other BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) and the countries of Central Asia, with whom a great number of new supply contracts have been signed in recent months. This has contributed to a diversification of Russia’s international trade patterns, which will have further consequences in the long run.

Yet, both the slow pace of transitioning to new suppliers and the inadequacy of local industry in meeting internal demand, as evidenced by the current shortages, demonstrates that not all that money has been spent. Part has been invested in industry, while some may simply have been diverted to other goods.

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Losers and winners

Looking at the ban from a broader perspective, consumers, obviously, have been the main losers. Not only do they have access to a much lower quality of food, but they also face the daily uncertainty of sudden price increases. More dramatically, it could also be argued that Putin, conscious of his approval rating and of ordinary Russians’ paranoia about inflation, has played on their fears to trigger a ‘run on food’, letting consumption accelerate in a problematic macroeconomic environment.

This is plainly unsustainable in the long run, but a crucial point, which many critics seem to have forgotten, is that the food ban will – or at least, should – end in August this year. Food prices may gradually return to normal once trade patterns with Western economies are reestablished.

Yet, nothing will be as it was before. Russia’s internal market will have developed, maybe not enough to compete with the EU and the US, but certainly considerably. Many new supply relationships will have been established with countries in the rest of the world. Restaurants may not necessarily revert to their pre-ban menus: people’s tastes are impossible to predict, but who is to say that Russian consumers might not have acquired a taste for cheaper foreign cuisine (Chinese?). All these factors might keep the demand for Western products low.

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From a broader geopolitical perspective, Russia’s dependency on Western countries will be further reduced, which is line with Putin’s goals. Moreover, the events in Crimea have accelerated a process that has seen emerging powers try to carve out a bigger role on the international stage by banding together, both in political and economic terms. The disruption of the food trade undoubtedly represents another front in this battle.

August is coming. Conclusions may then be drawn. We will see whether one year of the food ban will have been enough to signal a further step away from Western dependence. More importantly, we will be able to determine whether the suffering of Russia’s population in the short term will result in long-term gains for President Putin. If not, we will be free to criticize his decision to ban Parmesan cheese and other delicacies from Russians’ tables and to reflect on the consequences of a failed policy of economic brinkmanship.

Enrico Cattabiani is on the first year of the IMESS double-degree Masters programme at SSEES, studying Economics and International Relations. From next September, he will study at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where he is planning to write a thesis addressing some of the questions left unanswered in this article.

SSEES Lecture: The Politics of Memory and Rememoration in Bulgaria after 1945

By Slovo, on 12 March 2015

11034231_10155245893240416_6540703998103750429_nThe legacy of totalitarian monuments in Bulgaria is extremely interesting. In Sofia, they continue to visually dominate the cityscape and somehow remain unnoticed by people, especially those born after the fall of the Communist regime.

Their ideology and politics remains hidden in the banality of everyday life. Over the last years, however, their place and space in post-socialism has been completely transformed: these totalitarian monuments have become canvases for the expression of political protests, of reseeing the past and ridiculing it.

On March 5, Professor Evelina Kelbecheva of the American University in Bulgaria spoke at SSEES about street art as an empowering form of expression, and about reassessing history in the context of post-socialist Bulgaria. For anyone unable to attend, a video of the event is now available here:

With thanks to Professor Evelina Kelbecheva and Nikolay Nikolov.

A hope that died with Boris Nemtsov

By Slovo, on 9 March 2015

By Natia Seskuria

He understood how Vladimir Putin’s regime worked and still was brave enough to oppose it. He was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, and never hesitated to make sharp statements against the direction Russia was going. He publicly denounced Russia’s war in Ukraine, and went to the European Parliament to call for the imposition of ‘Magnitsky sanctions’ against regime officials. A former Deputy Prime Minister, who Boris Yeltsin almost named as his successor, a man committed to liberal values, freedom of expression and human rights, Boris Nemtsov has paid the ultimate price for his bravery.

Nemtsov’s murder is the highest profile killing during Putin’s fifteen years of rule. That the leading voice of opposition could be gunned down in public, two hundred metres from the Kremlin, under CCTV cameras that happened not to be working, can hardly be perceived as a coincidence. Like all opposition leaders, Nemtsov was under constant surveillance by the Russian security services. It is hard not to conclude that no matter who pulled the trigger, they were allowed to do so.

During Putin’s rule, several symbolic figures have been sacrificed to intimidate other potential dissidents. In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the outspoken owner of the Yukos oil company and the bank Menatep, was arrested and jailed for ten years. His imprisonment brought the oligarchic class to heel and consolidated Putin’s ‘vertical’ of power. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent reporter of the Russian Army’s abuses in Chechnya, was shot dead, apparently as a warning to other journalists.

One month later, Alexander Litvinenko’s death proved that no one is beyond the reach of the regime. The former FSB officer, who became an outspoken critic of Putin, was poisoned by radioactive polonium in London. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused Russian officials of large-scale theft and tax fraud, died in prison after being denied medical care. Thus the most vocal critics of the Kremlin have often ended up silenced.

Semi-official theories about Nemtsov’s murder have pinned the blame on everyone from Islamist militants, to Ukrainians, to CIA agents, to liberal provocateurs, to Nemtsov’s lover, the 23-year old Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dimitry Peskov, implied that the state had no reason to want Nemtsov dead when he commented that “Boris Nemtsov was only slightly more than an average citizen”.

It is true that Nemtsov was not immensely popular as a politician. His role in Yeltsin’s governments in the 1990s led many Russians to regard him unfavourably. He lost his seat in the Duma in 2003, and came a distant second in the Sochi mayoral elections in 2009. He certainly did not have the profile of the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, released from jail last Friday after serving a fifteen-day sentence for distributing leaflets.

However, with the rouble crisis, a shrinking economy, oil prices down 50% and rising unemployment, a leader like Nemtsov could have become a real threat for Putin’s regime. He had been a longstanding irritant for the Kremlin, producing reports for several years detailing government corruption and incompetence, but it was the Ukrainian crisis that returned him to national prominence.

A supporter of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and a former adviser to president Viktor Yushchenko, Nemtsov had been among the first to criticise Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. Last year he produced two films which highlighted Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine and suggested Russian rebels may have been responsible for downing Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

At the time of his death, he was preparing to publish a report based on interviews with relatives of Russian soldiers who had been killed fighting in Ukraine, which would have further undermined Putin’s assertions that no army units were on Ukrainian soil. Not for nothing did Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko describe him as “the bridge between Ukraine and Russia”.

Just weeks ago, Nemtsov said in an interview: “I am afraid Putin will kill me”. Even though he knew he was in danger, he continued to condemn the Russian president’s aggressive domestic and foreign policies, and the principle of ‘managed democracy’ by which the state exercises control over television channels and the press. It is Putin’s media that is behind the intolerant and paranoid public mood in Russia today, which portrays opposition leaders as evil forces, foreign agents and traitors. The responsibility for the atmosphere of murderous hatred in which Boris Nemtsov was killed lies squarely with Vladimir Putin.

Five men are now in police custody, suspected of Nemtsov’s murder. But this will not bring about an end to speculation over who pulled the trigger, and who gave the order. Few of his supporters expect the full truth to come to light. With Boris Nemtsov died another piece of hope that Russia might become a liberal country without totalitarian features, a democratic country without adjectives, and a place where individuals will be able to express their thoughts without being afraid that they will be the next victims of the regime.

Natia Seskuria is completing her Master’s degree in Politics, Security and Integration at SSEES. Her thesis focuses on the Russian-Georgian War of 2008. Follow her on Twitter @natia_seskuria.

Destination in Doubt: Ukrainian football in time of conflict

By Slovo, on 1 March 2015

Manuel Veth

The veto was immediate: European football’s governing body UEFA will not allow Dinamo Kiev to wear the slogan ‘Geroiam Slava’ (Glory to Our Heroes) in place of their usual sponsor’s logo for matches in the Europa League. UEFA, they explained, does not allow political slogans of any kind in its competitions. Dinamo’s gesture was intended to commemorate the victims of the Maidan protests, and the Ukrainian soldiers who have died fighting in the Donbass. They also wanted to return international attention to Russia’s involvement in the conflict. But despite UEFA’s attempts to keep the game apolitical, football and politics are deeply intertwined in the events that have taken place in Ukraine since Euromaidan in the winter of 2013/14.

This connection predates the revolution. Oligarchs, who own the majority of the clubs, have used football in connection with large media empires in order to create strong political profiles, a process that was copied from the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and has fittingly been termed the Berlusconization of Ukrainian football.

Ultras: from protesters to soldiers

While the clubs, and their ownership structures, represent the upper echelons of Ukrainian society, fans have also had a major impact on recent political events in Ukraine. Organized fan groups called ultras were influential in the events that took place on the Maidan in Kiev. Ultras from across all major clubs formed defence units to protect protestors from thugs hired by President Viktor Yanukovych, and were therefore instrumental in removing Yanukovych and his cronies from government. In addition, as the Twitter account by the Ukrainian blogger Oleksandr Sereda indicates, many of the ultra groups have now taken an active role in the conflict that is taking place in the Donbass by forming irregular units to fight the Russian-backed separatists.

The Ukrainian ultras are not alone in their fight. Across the Black Sea, in Georgia, Torpedo Kutaisi fans held up a banner last weekend to honour the deaths of Georgian irregulars who have fought and died in the Donbass. A war for Ukraine’s independence, in the eyes of Torpedo fans, is also as a war for Georgia’s independence.

This all serves to underline the complexity of the military situation in the Donbass. While Russian mercenaries, and regular military units, are supporting the rebels, the Ukrainian army has itself made use of foreign mercenaries and irregular units. While the separatists have rightly been accused of ceasefire violations, the composition of the government’s forces makes it difficult for Petro Poroshenko’s administration to guarantee the ceasefire on their own side. Any peace process could indeed be complicated, as it will not be easy to force the various groups involved on both sides, many of which have become extremely radicalized since the conflict began, to lay down their weapons.

Ukrainian Premier League: the show must go on?

Despite the continued fighting in the Donbass, football is supposed to return for the second half of the Ukrainian Premier League. While it is hard to imagine how sport can continue in a war-stricken country, officials have argued that only a small part of the country is truly affected by the fighting. At the same time, however, Donbass is home to five of the 14 clubs in the Ukrainian Premier League. These clubs—Shakhtar Donetsk, Olimpik Donetsk, Metalurh Donetsk, Zorya Luhansk, and Illichevets Mariupol—have now been forced to play their games in exile.

A sixth club, Stal Alchevsk, has also been badly affected by the fighting. Alchevsk is one of many bleak mining towns located in the Donbass, and the club’s name Stal (Steel) reveals the close connection between the club and its sponsor, the Alchevsk steel and iron works. Due to the fighting, Stal Alchevsk has been playing in exile in the Poltava region, yet the club has maintained its training base in Alchevsk under unstable conditions. As head coach Anatoliy Volobuyev explained: “Alchevsk is only 40 kilometers from Debaltsevo and we can hear the fighting from here. Recently, we’ve had a rocket hit the town too. To play football in these conditions simply isn’t right.”

Under these difficult financial and psychological circumstances, the club has now decided to withdraw from the Ukrainian Pervaia Liga (second division), as the Alchevsk steel works has been taken offline due to the war. Arsenal Kiev stand ready to purchase Stal Alchevsk’s licence, and with it their place in the league, which may effectively mean Stal Alchevsk ceases to exist as a club. The episode has brought renewed uncertainty to the future of Ukrainian football, as more clubs from the region may be forced to discontinue their participation in professional football.

The Ukrainian Premier League had struggled to field a full list of teams even prior to this troubled season, and as a result the league had been downsized from 16 to 14 teams. Last week legendary ex-striker Andriy Shevchenko appealed to the authorities not to suspend the league altogether. But the very fact that he had to speak out suggests that this option is now very much on the table.

Shakhtar Donetsk: the fall of a giant?

While the future of the Ukrainian Premier Liga remains in question, Ukraine’s most successful team in recent years, Shakhtar Donetsk, is preparing to play Germany’s biggest club, Bayern Munich, for a place in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. The first leg on February 17 was held over a thousand kilometres from Shakhtar’s home, in Lviv (closer to Munich than to Donetsk). Against expectations, Shakhtar held Bayern to a 0-0 draw, giving themselves a fighting chance of progressing to the next round. But the second leg in Munich is still to come, and Bayern, having won thirteen and drawn one of their fourteen home fixtures so far this season, are overwhelming favourites.

Defeat would be another major blow for Shakhtar’s owner Rinat Akhmetov. Before the conflict in the Donbass, Akhmetov was the richest man in the former Soviet Union. Often considered the pivot of the so-called ‘Donetsk clan’, a loose political alliance of Donbass oligarchs, Akhmetov was also regarded as the financial backbone of the Partiia Regionov, the political party of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

The events at Euromaidan and the war, however, would mean that a tie against the Germans could be the last match for a while on the international stage for both Shakhtar and Akhmetov. Being based in Lviv has taken a toll on the team’s performances. Shakhtar are currently second in the table, five points behind their arch-rival Dinamo Kiev and only three points ahead of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. With only the top two teams qualifying for Champions League football, Shakhtar’s participation in next year’s competition is very much in doubt.

It is not only in football that Akhmetov is feeling the pressure. The conflict in the Donbass has seen many of his assets destroyed in the fighting. He is also facing an investigation over his alleged financing of separatist forces. There is political pressure too: Ihor Kolomoyskyi, another oligarch long regarded as a counterweight to Akhmetov, has emerged as one of Ukraine’s most powerful men and now seems able to dictate the country’s political and economic direction. Kolomoyskyi is the owner of Dnipro and, since March 2014, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk oblast. He has also announced his intention to run for the presidency of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU), replacing Anatoliy Konkov, widely seen as Akhmetov’s man. The reshuffling at the top of the FFU reflects the political reorganizations elsewhere in the country.

Conjoined twins: football and politics in Ukraine

With all these examples in mind, it is hard to believe that UEFA’s attempt to keep football apolitical will truly amount to much. While political slogans should indeed have no place in football, realistically fans and clubs have always found ways to introduce them into the game. Dinamo Kiev have already announced plans to wear their ‘Geroiam Slava’ shirts for matches in the Ukrainian Premier Liga. With fans fighting in the Donbass, clubs being forced into exile due to the conflict, and oligarchs using football as a vehicle to assert political control, football and politics in Ukraine, as elsewhere in the post-Soviet space, have long been conjoined twins.

Manuel Veth is a final-year PhD candidate at King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow his research and writing at Futbolgrad.com.

The Creep of Nationalism in the First Russian State

By Slovo, on 30 January 2015

Stephen Hall

On December 15 last year, a blog appeared in Russia claiming that the Belarusian regime is comatose and sleepwalking to a revolution as it allows the West to undermine it. It was followed five days later by a short documentary film, Military Secrets, which furthered the claim that Belarusians in western Belarus were in the pay of Europe. Both spelled out Russian displeasure with Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime and spoke of the need for Russia to counteract this threat either by replacing Lukashenka with a more pliant pro-Russian leader, or by increasing the Russian presence in Belarus.

Why would a pro-Kremlin blogger, albeit a relatively minor one, and a TV channel have reverted to castigating Lukashenka? Not since the 2010 film The Godfather has Lukashenka faced such Russian ire. This is partly due to Minsk’s unwillingness to rally behind the Kremlin and give support to the escapade in Ukraine and partially because the Belarusian regime appears to be finding some long-forgotten Belarusian identity.

The rise of Belarusian identity?

Belarus has been alarmed by Russia’s adventure in Ukraine, especially its annexation of Crimea under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians. Having experimented at length with different ideologies, Lukashenka has had to reverse years of telling Belarusians they are the first Russian nation. After all, if Belarusians are Russian, as Lukashenka has claimed, then it makes it easier for Russian nationalists to claim that Belarus does not exist.

One such group marched through the Belarusian city of Vitsebsk in early November, calling for the reuniting of all Russian lands. At the same time, other Russian nationalist groups like the Orthodox Brotherhood and the wonderfully-titled Russian Public Movement for the Spiritual Development of the People for the State and Spiritual Revival of Holy Rus’ have become active in Belarus.

There has been political friction too. In November, Russia banned Belarusian meat and dairy products, to chastise Lukashenka for his support of Ukraine and for attempting to undermine Russian sanctions on EU food. The loss of $160 million in five days drastically affected the Belarusian economy and emphasised to Minsk that overreliance on Russia was dangerous. At the same time, events in Ukraine and the impressive mobilisation of Belarusian youth into Russian organisations have alarmed the authorities to such an extent that Minsk is now promoting a distinct Belarusian culture.

Lukashenka would not call this nationalism, which he recently and publicly condemned. However, like so much else in the Shangri-La that is Belarus, rhetoric and reality do not match. Nationalism is a dirty word after the failure of the Belarusian National Front (BNF) in the 1990s. Instead, what is occurring is a conscious promotion of Belarusian culture without explicitly nationalist rhetoric, and a concomitant marginalisation of Russia and Russianness.

As early as November 2013, Lukashenka had begun to look past Russia to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, to offer Belarus a different national-historical narrative. This culminated in the unveiling of a monument to a Lithuanian Grand Duke in July 2014, which Russia had long opposed. Then, in December, Lukashenka moved his ‘grey cardinal’, Andrei Kabyakou, to the position of Prime Minister. Despite his Russian origins, the Kremlin appears to consider Kabyakou less accommodating then his predecessor Mikhail Mayasnikovich.

The Belarusian government has also debated increasing the number of hours of Belarusian language training at schools, at the expense of Russian and English. The language issue is particularly stark, given that Vladimir Putin justified intervention in Ukraine by citing the need to protect ethnic Russians, which for him meant Russian speakers. In a country like Belarus where nearly 95% of the population speaks Russian, and most use it as their first, or only language, this is a worrying turn of events.

Pidgin nationalism

This beginning of the creation of a Belarusian identity is so far limited. It also smacks of something else. Lukashenka has been adept at creating ideologies for himself that are empty caskets to which he adds different items depending on his needs. He began with visions of neo-Sovietism and of Belarus as a part of an Eastern Eurasian civilisation, remarking that “Belarusians are just Russians but with the sign of quality”.

This concept of Belarus as a part of a Russian world evolved into a claim that Belarus was on a higher level of civilisation than Moscow and represented the fourth Rome. This in turn evolved into the ‘For Belarus’ ideology, the emptiest casket of all, into which Lukashenka poured a mixture of state centralism and nationalism-lite. It is highly probable that we are now coming full circle as Lukashenka reverts to promoting to a domestic and international audience the concept that Belarus is different from Russia.

It is a cynical and pessimistic view, but Lukashenka has promoted such a notion before when he felt that he could make political capital from it. Since 2013, Belarus’s foreign minister Uladimir Makei has practically been living in Europe, flying between Brussels, Warsaw and Belgrade. Indeed, his deputy Alena Kupchyna appeared to have set up a permanent residency in Brussels for a long time to try and improve the relationship between Belarus and the EU.

Belarus’s relationship with Lithuania has warmed, and the ‘teddy bear incident’ of 2012, when a private Swedish plane dropped soft toys carrying anti-regime messages over the country, was relegated to history as Belarusian envoys even went to Stockholm. The Ukraine crisis has provided Lukashenka with the perfect opportunity to show that he is not the worst bastard in the former Soviet Union. As Russia becomes pariah number one, it is highly likely that Lukashenka is trying to placate European states and distance himself from the erstwhile motherland.

The juggling exhibition continues

The analogy of Lukashenka as a juggler remains apt. He is brilliant at playing off Russia and Europe while doing just enough to keep the stuttering Belarusian economy afloat, to keep ordinary Belarusians relatively appeased, and to maintain his grip on power. With a presidential election coming up this year, he may have guessed that simply by not being cosy with Putin, Europe will turn a blind eye to his electoral fraud and quashing of protest. The release of political activist Ales Byalyatski may have been the first step in this strategy.

It has been suggested that Lukashenka wants to push Russia into backing him more closely for fear that he may slip Moscow’s leash for good. However, I do not buy this idea. Belarus is now nearly totally reliant on Russia not only for oil and gas, but also as an export market, and the a Belarus entirely detached from Russia’s orbit does not seem a realistic prospect inside the Kremlin or anywhere else. Belarus may well look to diversify, but for a state that has been a part of all Russian regional institutions, isolationism looks an idle threat.

Maybe, just maybe, the clown is becoming a nationalist

Gauging the juggler is a difficult task, but I think that the Ukraine conflict has spooked the Lukashenka regime. If you are not with Putin, you are against him, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the former ‘grey cardinals’ of the Kremlin, and the Russian president will not forgive Lukashenka for siding with Ukraine. With the continuing squeeze on the Russian economy under Western sanctions and the falling price of oil and gas, it is possible that an isolated country, considered by many Russians to be six western oblasts of Russia, will become too much of an attractive target, as the Kremlin looks to bolster its public support.

Whether Lukashenka’s newfound (or rather re-established) nationalism remains a pidgin or limited nationalism remains to be seen. I feel that this current incarnation of ‘nationalist Lukashenka’ may actually be relatively real. He has been very protective over his personal fief and has been loath to cede power to Russia before. He has often enticed Russia to support him with promises of privatisation only to renege on the behind-doors deals. Now fearing the hand that feeds him he is likely to protect his cave from this more dangerous friend.

This does not mean however that Minsk will look west. Lukashenka has tried this before, and every time European governments have spoken of human rights he has gone back to Russia. Besides, the Kremlin would not accept a Western-oriented Belarusian regime. Moscow knows that Belarus is beholden to it and will eventually return to its embrace. But, for the first time, it must confront a more assertive Belarus determined to create its own identity.

Having spent the early part of his tenure eradicating any nationalism that was not controlled, Lukashenka has ample avenues to build a Belarusian nationalism he can control. Talk of him undermining his own regime is overblown, as the juggler is adept at maintaining support from diverse societal factions. The clown may, just may, have clothed himself in nationalist garb. It is not yet clear whether these vestments are more than just for show, to be changed when needed, or whether a more nationalist Belarus is here to stay. Without political competitors and fearful of a resurgent Russia, Lukashenka the clown may just become a Belarusian nationalist.

Democracy in Poland has a masculine gender? Gender and Catholicism in Polish identity today

By Slovo , on 1 August 2014

Hannah Phillips explores the toxic interplay between Gender and Catholicism in Poland today

‘In times of oppression the struggle for independence is considered a serious matter, and the fight for women’s rights is not… It took some time before I realized that democracy in Poland has a masculine gender’

Marion Janion (Conference of Polish Women, 2009)

Photo Courtesy of New Ways Ministry

Photo Courtesy of New Ways Ministry

  

   As though to prove the relevancy of Janion’s pessimistic view of contemporary Poland, an emotionally charged and intoxicating debate has been unfolding in the Polish media. Similar to the 1990s popular, anti-feminist backlash in the West (mainly the USA and Britain), two ontologically opposing camps are at loggerheads in Poland: the conservative right alongside the Church versus the feminists. With fear-mongering banners and statements such as ‘Gender=666’ and ‘Gender- the devastation of man and the family’ strung across buildings and scattering the news, it is clear that a war has been declared against “Gender ideology”. 

   Like most meaningful political and social concepts, Gender theory has been notoriously difficult to define and is largely in the process of transformation and revision. Having been sculpted by post-structuralist thought, it has criticised putative concepts we deem rigid and “natural”, such as sexual identity, illustrating the oppressive capabilities of socially constructed “norms”. The rather abstract nature of Gender construction has led, unfortunately, to an easy manipulation of meaning by Catholic conservatives and right-wing politicians in Poland. In the 29December 2013 annual ‘Feast of the Holy Family’ for Roman Catholics, the Polish Episcopate publically declared in its Pastoral letter that Gender was the official enemy of the Church. The Episcopate paints a conspiratorial picture of a parasitic ideology that infiltrates various social structures, such as education and health systems, without the consent or knowledge of Poles. Perceived as an accumulation of foreign concepts, including radical feminism, Communism and eugenics, Gender is seen as destroying Polish families and over-sexualising children. The final version of the letter, currently available online, is milder than the original, previously entitled ‘Gender ideology risks the family’. It was revised aftera moderate Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny, published the draft showing the original inflammatory edits. 

   The more extreme and exotic claims from the Polish Catholic church entail the vilification of various international institutions, blamed for leading the Gender conspiracy. There is a widely held belief that the Council of Europe’s ‘Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence’ is the vehicle through which Gender ideology penetrates the Polish society. According to the Episcopate this Convention is allegedly breaking down the education system in Poland in order to force homosexuality and transgender education on children. More audacious claims insist that the WHO is even promoting masturbation in Primary schools. This was further echoed in a lecture held in the Sejm earlier this year by the theology Professor and Priest Dariusz Oko, ubiquitously present in the media for his extreme, anti-Gender views.  

   These views are not however uniquely held and promulgated within religious circles. In the political sphere, Conservative politicians have also voiced their contestation, forming a new parliamentary group in January this year named ‘Stop Gender Ideology’. Open to any MP regardless of political party affiliations, the aim of this group is to defend human sexual identity and work towards legislative changes to defend the rights of traditional families and support family-friendly policies. Beata Kempa, in the past a member of the right-wing Law and Justice Party before forming a new right-wing party United Poland, is a current President of an almost entirely male-membered group, with plans to promote the anti-Gender campaign during sixteen conferences across Poland this year.

   As stated by Małgorzata Fuszara, a sociologist and head of Gender Studies at Warsaw University, there is a deliberate intellectual laziness in comprehending Gender to further the Church’s self-interests. Luckily, in the majority of reputable Polish media outlets the weaknesses in the Church’s arguments have been ardently pointed out. Polish Feminists, university Professors, philosophers and politicians have strongly opposed the Church’s conflation of the ills of society into this fictive “Gender ideology”. Magdalena Środa, a philosophy Professor, feminist and columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, has vehemently discredited the Church, outlining how it is using scare tactic propaganda against Gender as a distraction from the contentious issue of paedophilia. By alluding to foreign supranational entities, for instance, the responsibility for “society’s evils” is by virtue of exogenous factors out of the Church’s control. It is no coincidence that the anti-Gender debate comes at a time of moral crisis for the Church as scandals of child molestation and ill-treatment of children by religious officials effectively dent its former image as the nation’s moral compass.

    It is important, however, to highlight that this debate is not unique to Poland, or Eastern Europe, for that matter; a similar debate led by religious and political right groups is also currently unfolding in France. Alongside the current economic crisis and uncertainty regarding the future developments of the European Union, there is a pull amongst populations towards a form of stability. For many this means reinforcing the historically cemented roles of the family and the reassuringly fixed structures provided by Catholicism. The debate in Poland is thus illustrative of the stronghold of staunch Catholic religiosity playing a crucial role in the self-identification of Poles. For many Polish feminists it is also a reminder that Poland’s democracy is still male and proudly sporting a clergyman attire.

 

 

A better future for Europe

By Slovo , on 29 May 2014

High Noon or High Time? Exodus from the imperial gambling hall

 

How to make sure that the decade after Maidan will not be a lost one, like it has been after the Orange Revolution of 2004? This question currently preoccupies many activists engaged with Eastern Europe. The galloping events of the past months exposed them to extreme emotions fluctuating between euphoria and helplessness. Filled with both hope for Ukrainian national consolidation and fear of civil war, they are anticipating the rapidly approaching moment when the media attention will suddenly disappear, allowing the frustration of the ordinary Ukrainians – due to a lack of support or the enormous costs of change – to rise exponentially. In the year of European anniversaries – the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the civic, peaceful revolutions of 1989 – too many seem to have forgotten how dangerous political arm wrestling can be in a place like Europe, so rich in diversity and so tense due to its density.

In anticipation of a better future (photo courtesy of the Archives of the Polish Robert Schuman Foundation, Warsaw)

The images of millions of young Europeans “happily” greeting the war as a form of “liberation” from civic constraints should make us suspicious of populations too much in line with their governments, of people cheering “our” politicians against “theirs” as if this is all just another final of the Champions League. Peaceful coexistence is the prerequisite of survival and well-being in Europe: not in harmony, but based upon recognizing difference and deepening economic inter-dependence which finally turns cooperation into an end in itself. It is time to revive the idea of the Common European Home – evoked at the time by Mikhail Gorbachev and shared by many across political camps – an understanding that informed the well-conceived activities of the Central European dissidents like Jirzi Dienstbier and Václav Havel, Jacek Kuroń and György Konrad, who understood that in order to regain national self-determination the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians had to foster German reunification.

The same holds true today for Ukrainians – their right to self-determination cannot be achieved in opposition to Russia, but only by creating a compromised situation that simultaneously allows Russians to fulfil their interests, but in a way compatible with the interests of their neighbours. Kremlin’s entrenched position in the energy market and relative military strength effectively back up the revival of imperialist policies. The assumed Russian cultural superiority and authenticity with regards to some of the neighbouring countries also allegedly justifies authoritarian influence outside its realm.  As a result the task of finding a compromise proves to be very difficult indeed. Nevertheless we need to face it.

Stop the imperial race – now! 

As citizens of Europe on both sides of the ideological wall dividing our continent we are all part of an imperial game whose rules are not in our favour. While condemning – and rightly so – the forceful annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s manipulations and interference into Ukrainian politics we should not  forget that the EU’s Eastern Policy, too, is a struggle about the character of Europe as a mind map. This rivalry produces conflicting imaginations of community, both stimulating civic actions abroad and creating reference points for political decisions inside the EU whose economic, social, and cultural implications are far from inclusive. Let us understand Maidan and the Crimean secession as a single event. With different, but interconnected layers, it simultaneously embodies another step in the bloody drama of creating the Ukrainian nation, taking the form of politically exploited media constructs of a crisis created in imperial “situation rooms”.

As European citizens we are faced with a giant task ahead of us: that of building a civic and social Europe that overcomes the barbaric character of the bourgeois empire we are living in – a common space of prosperity that no longer has to create its Eastern barbarians in order to legitimate itself and its modes of reproduction. The events in Maidan and Crimea are just a peak in what is at least a decade, if not more, of imperial competition about the future of Ukraine and other countries in the region. Following Jan Zielonka it makes sense to understand the European Union as an empire de facto and de jure: a geopolitical formation that is seeking to continuously extend the realm in which it can set the terms of production, serving to increase the share in material redistribution, formal representation and symbolic recognition of those groups which operate in its very centre.

Very much like other empires before it the European Union relies on force, but in this case on the force of law. Its acquis communautaire has strong regulatory and material impact that some desire as protection for their activities and others fear as a direct threat to it. In the case of what appears as the Eastern European oligarchic rule it seems to be obvious that many wished to keep it at bay at almost any cost. However, it is not that simple: tricky is the question of how to define an oligarch – as a person dangerous, yet too distant from the imperial centre to be fought with instruments of legitimate institutional force; or a force hideous and unseen, but already close to all of us every day, nestling or even fusing with the very source of power; or as something that cannot be destroyed or jailed, but only overcome by moral activities of good citizens, in analogy to Havel’s concepts of “trying to live in truth”, revoking his concept of the “power of the powerless”.

Cordons are insane, not sanitary

No doubt about it: the Russian annexation (Anschluss) of Crimea indicates a very worrying return of ethnic (völkisch) arguments to European foreign policy: a retreat from the Helsinki Final Act limiting border changes to peaceful and joint agreement between the states and societies involved. However, it is not only the Kremlin that follows dangerous strategies. Western politicians alike at least contributed to the dangerous course of events and are continuously filling us with false consciousness. It is national self-determination, not liberal democracy that is the normative bottom line of a civic, peaceful Europe. Putin and Junckers are both interfering into Ukrainian politics when publicly stating they don’t want to see the so-called “fascists” governing the country. That’s a matter for the Ukrainian citizens alone to decide.

It is not the current ineffectiveness of the European Neighbourhood Policy that is appalling, but the assumption of forming a sanitary cordon, a provincial sphere organized by our rather than by their rules that demarcates the two empires from each other and seeks to bilaterally bind countries like Ukraine, Belarus or Moldova to the EU which never intended to offer them full membership in the first place. In order to create a truly common space of security and prosperity in Europe and to overcome the Machiavellian logic of power competition based on the assumption of zero-sum games, the kind of cooperation needs to be fostered that would help define commonly accepted interests and internalized goals. Such an enterprise needs to include all players symmetrically, therefore taking into account all Ukraine’s neighbours, Russia included.

The responsibility for the Kremlin’s current geopolitical course naturally and solely lies with Vladimir Putin. This especially concerns the various forms of military intervention in Ukrainian soil interpreted by some scholars like Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn in the recent Foreign Affairs as Eurasian adaptations of the 20th century German blueprints for building imperial domination of Europe. Although the West cannot be directly attributed for coining this fatal development, we should be honest enough to admit that the EU has to some extent contributed to it, or at least it could have done more to prevent it in the first place. After 1989 the Community has failed to create a system of interconnected tracks of integration with Russia that would have allowed us to define common interests and create accepted rules from which it would have been extremely costly for the Kremlin to resign. Such a system would have allowed us to jointly guarantee or (on the basis of the unanimous Ukrainian call) even partially co-moderate the inner-Ukrainian debate on modernisation and reconciliation. Instead, now we are desperately searching for short-term measures of conflict resolution, crisis management and, alas, even peace-building.

In the current situation both imperial sides are ruled by fear. The European Union is pressed by Maidan’s assumption of a looming promise of Ukrainian membership for which there is no majority whatsoever conceivable east of the River Oder. The triumphant Kremlin – for the moment successfully blending Russian pan-Slavic chauvinism with Soviet imperial nostalgia and capitalist grandeur, notwithstanding Putin’s predictable short-term electoral successes – rather desperately tries to prevent a decline in its factual power to determine the fate of the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples, which too many Russians seem to see as little brothers to be patronized. Although Maidan might in fact become an irreversible hallmark in the process of national awakening in Ukraine, these events are not at all comparable to the Central European peaceful revolutions of 1989, which were accomplished by consolidated nations with relatively strong civic traditions.

Foster projects of civil repair

It is unpredictable what is going to happen when Ukrainians will soon be bathing in double frustration when faced with EU cutting their aspirations and Russia patronising its Slavic brothers. The feeling of being second class can trigger a whole variety of reactions. This is not at all about Ukraine alone. Unsettling is not only the current uncertainty concerning the Eastern regions of Ukraine and the nature of the struggle about potential adaptations in its statehood and constitution, but also the news of the Belarusian activists visiting their neighbouring country to train “how to make a Maidan” (to put it simply: what does it take to stage a forceful regime change).

Given its complicated history Valancin Akudovic has masterfully and carefully described Belarus as suited even less than Ukraine to base civility on the foundation of an ethnic nation. It is with regards to national aspirations that the revolutionary violence can be both justified and later reconciled in a common consciousness and memory, which ascribes unifying sense and meaning to personal suffering and losses of particular groups. It is high time to see the region through different glasses, before Europe turns into bloodlands again. We have to understand that figures like Putin or Lukashenko are not just one-dimensional dictators taken from history textbooks or Hollywood movies. Their behaviour, intended to update the ideological foundations of conservative rule, needs to be interpreted as nationally characteristic symptoms of deeper social problems of imagined communities: a craving for a matrix of belonging that guarantees a good life of moral integrity, social stability and economic prosperity under globalist conditions.

One of the reasons why Viktor Yanukovych crashed his country was that it is impossible to enforce such a majority solution on a fragmented Ukrainian society, which stands en miniature for the European condition at large. With the national awakening fuelled by both Maidan and the Crimean adventure this situation might change in the coming years; the question is, whether it will be for better or for worse. We should be conscious of the historical evidence that such a peripheral region, contested between the two “empires” can turn both into a linchpin of cooperation or a new battlefield that quickly gets out of control.

 

By Gert Röhrborn

Gert is a political scientist, project coordinator and a certified EU fundraiser. He studied politics, European Union studies and history in Leipzig, Newcastle upon Tyne and Berlin. He has previously worked as a research assistant at Dresden Technical University, an academic teacher at Protestant College Berlin and an executive officer of the network Citizens of Europe. He has been a member of the Polish Robert Schuman Foundation in Warsaw team since 2010. Gert is interested in civic engagement in social space and politics of memory and education. He regularly publishes articles in European and Eastern affairs.  

For more from Gert visit www.gert.roehrborn.info

History of a nation: Ukrainians under the Second Polish Republic

By Slovo , on 3 March 2014

The perturbations in Ukraine we see these past months are just an episode in its long history of finding its place in the region’s geopolitics, of fighting to be heard amidst the overwhelming national politics of its neighbors. Hannah Phillips looks at another historical juncture in Ukrainian history – Ukrainian minority under Poles in interwar Europe.

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Many Western observers have framed the ongoing protests in Kiev as a desperate call of the Ukrainian people to their government to focus its efforts on working towards membership in the European Union. While this narrative has been criticised by scholars for its attempt to oversimplify the motivations of the numerous groups constituting the ‘Euromaidan’, a desire to belong to a broader European community has undoubtedly been frequently voiced by Ukrainian opposition leaders.

Throughout history Ukrainians have been forced to live in less benign types of supranational formations than the EU. Tsarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Soviet Union all had a colossal impact on the shape and identity of the Ukrainian nation. In this article we would like to take a brief glimpse at another ‘forced union’ in which a large portion of the Ukrainian people lived for over two decades of the 20th century – the Second Polish Republic.

Poland regained its independence in 1918 after 123 years of being torn between three multi-national empires. Every aspect of unification presented a daunting task in the construction of a coherent state. Alongside such obstacles lay the question of nationhood.

During the Paris Peace Conference, newly drawn frontiers across Europe placed many inhabitants at odds with the majority population in race, language and religion, creating ‘minorities’. The Second Polish Republic was no exception. The 1921 National Census data revealed that minorities constituted approximately a third of all citizens; Ukrainians were the largest minority, making up 14.3%. The Ukrainian population mostly dominated one area of Poland, namely the Kresy (Eastern borderlands), which today lie outside of the Polish border, mostly within the modern states of Ukraine and Belarus. Taking language usage as an indicator for population distribution, the following map provides a visual overview of minority-concentrated areas in Poland in 1937. ‘Minority’ Ukrainians often constituted actual majorities in provinces such as Stanislawow (69.8% in 1928) and Volhynia (68.4%).

ukr-3

The long history of coexistence of Poles and Ukrainians was punctuated by episodes of violence and conflict. The most famous of these was the bloody Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648, during which Orthodox Ukrainian Cossacks rebelled against Polish Catholic magnates. The disputes persisted throughout the next centuries, with ownership of land a particular bone of contention. At the beginning the 20th century, under the Habsburg monarchy, about 4,000 Polish families owned as much lands as three million former Ukrainian serfs. Territorial claims thus inevitably fed into the bitter relations between Poles and Ukrainians in the interwar period.

After the First World War, Polish independence enflamed Polish-Ukrainian tensions centering on Eastern Galician territory. The 1918 Ukrainian coup in Lwów set a precedent for future clashes, especially when the Treaty of Riga ceded Galicia to Poland. Eastern Galicia became a hotbed of discontent as Polish authorities dismantled institutions, dismissed Ukrainian officials from the civil service and renamed the province to Małopolska Wschodnia (Eastern Little Poland). Furthermore, Ukrainians were in the majority in Eastern Galicia, and had developed a national consciousness, driven under Habsburg rule by a small but robust intelligentsia.

The Polish government did not, however, entirely oust its Ukrainian minority. Poland signed the Minority Treaty, albeit begrudgingly, guaranteeing certain civil, judicial and political rights to the Ukrainian minority. Concessions were initially granted so Ukrainians were able to manage their own religion, press and political parties. Ukrainian deputies and senators sat in the Parliament and a daily Ukrainian-language newspaper, the Dilo, was published.

Yet this did not settle Ukrainian nationalist resentment towards Poland. Polish coalition governments increasingly disputed the provisions of the Minority Treaty, and led a polonization of Ukrainian schools and local governments. In response, Ukrainians became increasingly militarised, creating groups like the Ukrainian Military Organisation (UVO) which instigated terrorist activities such as the 1921 attempted assassination of Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s Chief of State. Furthermore, attempts by Ukrainian parliamentarians to collaborate with the Polish state were undermined by underground nationalist movements. In the 1930s these movements launched a widespread terrorist campaign where terrorist acts, such as arson and disruption of transport, intensified precipitating the brutal “pacification” operation led by Piłsudski. Social stability was, therefore, inhibited by the self-propagating nationalist discourse between nations and the state. Polish-Ukrainian relations remained tense throughout the interwar period.

As outlined by Ernest Gellner, the concept of the nation serves to culturally homogenise a population and legitimise a state’s ability to govern. This need for unity comes to the fore in times of crisis, such as after a war. Poland’s patchwork of converging nationalities, made nation-building a political problem reflected in dealings with the Ukrainians. The lack of any real integration policy made this a permanent issue throughout the interwar period. Polonization, internal armed conflict, and populating Ukrainian lands with Polish settlers deepened the divide. This prompted a growth in minority support for nationalist groups opposed to the exclusionary Polish state. This in turn fed into further minority persecution from fear of a foreign threat to Polish independence. The minority problem was thus not ever resolved but merely perpetuated.

Poland was not alone in confronting ethnic clashes. Most Eastern European states were dealing with a highly nationalist discourse of interwar Europe, afflicted by economic downturn and social demoralization. The idea of a homogenised nation along racial lines became the focus for consolidating an independent Poland, and xenophobia thrived. One cannot, however, entirely blame Poland for failing to deal with the explosive nationalist discourse. Previously multi-national empires had failed to manage nationalist antagonism for hundreds of years. Poland, like many other Eastern European states with regards to its minorities, was undergoing the dress rehearsal for WWII; skilfully capturing human nature’s nefarious capabilities when nationalism and xenophobia are left to take root and flourish.

by Hannah Phillips

Article published with kind permission of crossingthebaltic.com

Waving ‘Democracy’ from Ukraine to the Balkans

By Slovo , on 14 February 2014

Anti-government demonstrations in Bulgaria, revolution in Ukraine and now the uprising in Bosnia – Nikolay Nikolov looks at the common trends across the Eastern European unrest and examines the critical juncture of these facade democracies.

Some time ago now (1991), Samuel Huntington published The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. The idea is that democracy spreads around the world from its core countries in Europe and the US, where developed over a long period of time, eventually extending to the peripheries, which experienced quick transitions from various forms of non-democratic regimes to ranging paths of democratization. Post-communist countries were the third-wave final push with their unseen before dual transitions to a market economy and initiation of democratic processes. The Arab Spring and the easing of the Myanmar dictatorship tickled some to consider the rise of a potential Fourth Wave.

But back in 2002, Michael McFaul sealed the term ‘Fourth Wave’ in a World Politics journal article called ‘The Fourth Wave of Democracy and Dictatorship’. And dictatorship. This is really important. In fact, scholars of democratization like Larry Diamond, Guillermo O’Donnell, Ivan Krastev, Andreas Schedler, to name but a few, have been arguing for a very long time that to speak of waves, of linear progress to democracy and consolidation is empirically and theoretically false. What we see in Eastern Europe, for example, are façade democracy, suspended political authority, lack of civic engagement, media manipulation, questionable (post)Cold-War geopolitical relations – in a word – hybrid regimes, to use Diamond’s term.

Bulgaria, Ukraine, and now Bosnia and Kosovo. A clear path from peaceful protests to chaos and bloodshed. In Europe. Twenty-four (or so) years after the end of the various forms of totalitarianism.

At certain moments, all these nations showed signs of ending their democratic standstill. In Bulgaria, it was the ‘region’s most hailed’ reform period from 1997-2001; in Ukraine, it was the Colored Revolution; for Kosovo and Bosnia – the situation is more complex. But one thing is for certain now, according to Anne Applebaum, the ‘colored revolution’ model is dead: i.e. “the belief that peaceful demonstrators, aided by a bit of Western media training, will eventually rise up and nonviolently overthrow the corrupt oligarchies that have run most of the post-Soviet orbit since 1991.”

The sense of shock and disbelief at what happened in Kiev over the past months has spread to Bosnia and Kosovo last week.

Government Building ablaze in Tuzla

Government Building ablaze in Tuzla

Bosnia is ablaze since Tuesday, when violence erupted in the northern town of Tuzla, a former industrial town, after 10,000 workers were laid off. Their factory was privatized – its investors sold its assets and declared bankruptcy. This, as it seems, was the final straw to an arrogant oligarchic model visible in many post-communist countries. Since then, the protests have spread to more than 20 cities and at least 300 people have been injured. Yesterday, when the municipality building was set on fire, police-officers in Tuzla took their helmets off and joined the protests claiming they “could not hurt the kids”.

Today is a day of clearing the rubble. But it seems that a breaking point has been reached as the monument of the burnt architecture of all that which resembles the ‘corrupt and unaccountable State’ remains.

Photo: Lyla Bernstein

Photo: Lyla Bernstein

“We haven’t seen violent scenes like this since the war in the 1990s,” says Srecko Latal, an analyst at the Social Overview Service, for the New York Times. Why now? Why not 6 months ago; why not one year ago? These are question that were directed at the protests in Bulgaria, which reached their largest numbers in the summer. Clearly, the situation is so dire that either nothing or anything could trigger public outrage. In Bulgaria, it was the atrocious appointment of corruption-linked and manipulative- mass-media owner Delyan Peevski, that really did it. It seems that in Bosnia – it is the factory closure in Tuzla that has done it.

Over the past years, the country has suffered one crisis after another – political instability have reduced its chances of joining the EU, ethnic divisions are crippling the functioning of democratic institutions, economic hardship has been sustained by a powerful (un)official oligarchic model. Around 30% are unemployed. Many do not have the time or the energy to sustain a peaceful protest and endure a slow, cultural progres towards a functioning democracy and economy.

Of course violence cannot be the answer. It’s destructive. But desperation clearly takes precedence over dialogue in this case. As one student from Tuzla, Lyla Bernstein, told me today: violence is not the answer but ”just the product of collected rage” gathered over the past twenty years. It’s simple – for the people protesting, the assumption of patience is nonexistent. And it is understandable. There is a level of tolerance that is, as has been shown over and over again in the 20th century, very flexible and malleable among human beings. But it has its limits. And within the Balkan countries this year, the sense of tolerance has been exhausted by the outright public arrogance of the Untouchables – call them mafia men, ex-communist, business elites. It makes no difference. Their capacity to flaunt their economic dominance is one thing, but their increasing ability to enforce their political and legal immunity is apparently too much. It has been, for a long time, a fact that democracy is very dysfunctional. People know that and that has been reflected in enduring low-confidence in the public institutions and voting-rates. Bulgaria is the perfect example. But you can look to Bosnia or Albania as well: all countries where the discourse of corruption and ‘the mafia’ has become ubiquitous.

In Kosovo, it was another matter that reached the breaking point of this sense of tolerance. In Pristina, students occupied the University seven days ago. They have been protesting for weeks after reports showed the Head of the University, among other scholars, to have published articles in fake online journals looking for academic credentials. The Parliament subsequently failed to pass a vote on forcing the resignation of the Head of the University. Clashes became violent on Friday as students threw stones and splashed paint on police-officers in Pristina.

In line with Bosnia, Kosovo is hard-hit with soaring unemployment rates (around 40%) and is often reminded that it is one of the poorest countries in Europe since gaining independence six years ago.

And like in Bulgaria, where the ‘Early Rising’ students occupied the Sofia University (twice) in the past 3 months, the message is the same: ‘Enough. Enough with the circus that the government can claim legitimacy, that the judiciary system is free and fair; this cannot continue any longer.

Unlike Ukraine, a country divided into pro-European western Ukraine, and Russia-dominated eastern Ukraine, where #Euromaidan was a direct reaction to steps taken to further isolate the nations from the EU and where the fight is, literally, one of life and death, with clear sides and clear visions of the future, Bosnia and Kosovo and the current signs of violence are a case in point of something else. They have no normative ideal, like the EU for the protesters in Ukraine, which can be emulated; no vision for the future that looks hopeful. The transition period is widely regarded as a fiction only benefiting ‘the few’; and by extension democracy does not literally mean democracy, as it is construed as a mechanism for personal gain and independence.

In Ukraine, the fight is over destroying the foreign influence of a political system; getting rid of the post-totalitarian continuation of the old totalitarian practices.

In the Balkan nations, the fight is about changing the system from the inside. But how can that be done when the people who attempt to do it are marginalized, excluded, silenced, and finally, met with force. In Bulgaria, the biggest weapon against those wanting to rip of the façade of the pseudo-democracy, those who are forcing reform, is the manipulation of the media and the alteration of the truth. Truth is not objective and access is limited. I can see something similar present in Bosnia as the media today are suffocating the public discourse with reports of ‘drug-abuse’, ‘looting’, ‘theft of important archives’, ‘vandalism’.

Bulgaria is in the EU and change is slowly happening, mostly from above with increasingly pressure by the President and, more importantly, by the European institutions. The seven-months long daily protest movement has not as yet managed to force the government’s resignation but has been firstly ignored, then excluded, then ridiculed, and all through-out lied about in the media. Logically, the numbers since the summer have fallen and there is a growing sense of helplessness. But the protesting citizens are not alone; like the protesting citizens in Ukraine are not alone. That does not amount to much, as can be clearly seen today, but it is something that is not present, it seems, in either Bosnia or Kosovo. There, the feeling of desperation at the state of their societies and the feeling of being isolated and alone, is clearly overwhelming. It has lead to a violent escalation. It has brought the international community’s attention back to them. How successful it will be in forcing change is a difficult question, but there has to be a start somewhere. Progress has a point of initiation and that point usually comes with civic (re)engagement.

One thing is clear – democracy does not flow linearly forward. In fact, in many ways it has been altered by the given post-totalitarian regimes, in order to continue the practices of repression from the past. Under the loose notion of democracy, different elites seem able to continue to dominate – either economically, and/or politically, and/or culturally; the one thing they all do is perpetuate the existential crisis caused by the emptiness of the individual transition periods. From Ukraine to the Balkans, the last twenty-four years (give or take) have been an almost uninterrupted period of preaching that yellow is green. “Here, now you have a democracy;” you are free now!” is the visible stream, while the underwater current has been one of underwriting each and every single democratic institution, atomizing individuals through economic hardships and bad politics, and reducing freedom to pseudo-political independence.

So what is a potential step-forward? Realizing just how deep this underwater current runs in the given society; understanding just how much of a façade there is, how much of a hybrid regime one is facing, and after that really getting back to the basics of democracy, literally: ‘rule (kratos) of the people (dēmos).’ One such initiative that is gaining ground in Bulgaria is an initiative boycotting buying goods from the corporate ‘corner-shop’ Lafka, which is co-owned by Head of the National Security Agency to be Delyan Peevski. Another is the student occupation, which gained incredible public support (almost 80%) after its initiation last year. This seems to be working in Pristina as well but we should wait and see how that develops over the coming weeks.

When the government is unaccountable, when there is an oligarchic economic model, when the media are not independent, when you are a poor European nation, the only way to overcome the incredibly diverse forces of post-totalitarian repression is to actively, collectively, and in a decentralized manner, negate, oppose, ridicule the status quo. Alternative paths to reform need to be tried out and peaceful resolution, obviously, requires precedence. A counter-discourse against the alteration of truth in the public domain must pursue – Facebook seems to be a successful tool for that, for now. That has already happened in Bulgaria and Ukraine. The next step is national engagement – we can see that currently happening in Bosnia. Eventually, the forces will become too strong. The biggest obstacle of isolation from the political process and the reduction of democracy to pseudo-elections can be overcome. One thing that is certain is that when change is forced through, it will not presuppose progress immediately. It will, however, level the playing field, initiate a process of political healing and jumpstart the institutionalization of democracy. One step at a time.

By Nikolay Nikolov

For more from Nikolay visit http://banitza.net/