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.


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%).


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/


Breaking from Bosnia: Ethnicity in critical condition due to self-inflicted wounds

By Slovo , on 11 February 2014

0,,17418743_303,00 In the past few days, Bosnia-Herzegovina has experienced the most extensive unrest since the end of the war in 1995. The demonstrations were markedly violent in the first days, but on Sunday acquired a more peaceful nature. Milorad Dodik tried to argue that the protests were limited to the Muslim-Croat Federation and thus were the product of problems specific to the Federation, very subtly hinting at the superiority of Republika Srpska’s political achievements. Unfortunately for him, this argument does not stand up to scrutiny, as the main frustrations the protestors have been giving voice to are related to the overall impotence and inherent corruption of the country’s political system as it came into being after the Dayton Accords of 1995. The various lists of demands released by protest groups from Tuzla, Bihać and Sarajevo all specifically state that the protests are opposing the self-enriching policies of the political elites, the reality of which is just as true for Republika Srpska as it is for the Federation.

Indeed, protests got underway on Friday in Banja Luka and in Bijeljina on Sunday – the capital of Republika Srpska and its second city, respectively – indicating that the inhabitants of that part of the country identify with the struggle of their neighbours in the Federation. Although these early signs of solidarity between the people of the two entities are encouraging, it is not a decided matter at all if things will continue to develop in this direction. The demonstration in Bijeljina was met by a counter-demonstration of Serbian nationalist youth chanting “No protests in [Republika] Srpska” and “No spreading fire from the Federation of BiH to Republika Srpska” (atvbl.com, 9 February), a sign of tensions within Republika Srpska and a possible hint at future confrontation. Still, the unprecedented cross-country protests may just galvanize the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina and be the start of the development toward a more inclusive social, political and economic system.

The international community has an important role to play in channelling the protests into positive, rather than destructive, directions, and the attitude of ever more populist EU/NATO governments will be based to a significant extent on the opinion of their electorates. It is for that reason that I want to give a short overview of the reactions to the demonstrations by some of the largest media, both populist/tabloid and independent/broadsheet, from several different EU countries, as well as the United States and Norway. All translations into English, wherever relevant, are mine. The countries represented are: the USA, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria and, finally, the UK.

In the United States, CNN blames the rampant unemployment most of all, while the New York Times identifies the incompetence of the federal and local governments to overcome petty inter-ethnic struggles as the cause of people’s disenchantment. Surprisingly enough, even Fox News puts the focus on protesters anger over politicians’ inter-ethnic quarrelling.

In France, Le Monde writes that “the origins of the dispute are not ethnic, not religious, but political and social.” (lemonde.fr, 8 February) Le Figaro puts the blame on the disillusionment of people caused by corruption and political in-fighting.

In Germany, the tabloid Bild does not report on the protests at all; Süddeutsche Zeitung focuses on people’s mistrust of the government and anger over widespread unemployment and poverty; Die Welt mentions political stagnation and the inefficiency of the system with a manifoldness of government agencies; while the subtitle of the Frankfurter Allgemeine article from 10 February is: “The social unrest in Bosnia is the largest since the war. For the first time these protests are shared over ethnic borders.”

In the Netherlands, the broadsheet NRC explicitly states that the protests are not caused by ethnic antagonisms, while tabloid De Telegraaf names unemployment and political impotence as prime causes of the protests, without mentioning ethnicity. De Volkskrant and Trouw echo this analysis.

In Norway, Aftenposten focuses on socio-economic dissatisfaction and both semi-tabloids VG and Dagbladet blame corruption and unemployment.

In Austria, populist Krone sees the failure of Dayton and unemployment as the sources of the demonstrations, Kleine Zeitung zooms in on corruption and Kurier finds fault in the en-masse privatization of companies, poverty and the self-enrichment of politicians.

Finally, in the UK, the Daily Mail does not report on the protests, while the Daily Express starts out unpromisingly with the title of the article: “Hundreds of police hurt protecting government buildings as Bosnia’s civil war rages on” (9 February). It then pulls a personal emotional quote relating to the 1992-1995 siege from a Sarajevo resident and gets somewhat constricted in its terminology by talking about the “Croat-Muslim Bosniak half of the country” (either Muslim or Bosniak, but not both). All the same, it goes on to mention that there are some protests in Republika Srpska as well and that the demonstrations seem to be caused by disillusionment with the political system. How they are a continuation of the Bosnian civil war, we are all left to wonder, but this is besides the current point. The BBC gives an in-depth report of older Bosnians joining the young protesters to fight for the latter’s future, disproving the possible assumption that it’s just young hooligans out there. The Guardian specifically ascribes the origin of people’s disaffection with the system to the ethnically divided construction of the state and notes the protest in Banja Luka.

Image courtesy of Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Image courtesy of Reuters/Dado Ruvic

It is clear that all of the surveyed media locate the origins of the demonstrations in people’s disillusionment with the system as a whole, even though the depth of analysis varies. I am thus cautiously positive about the reporting of the international media so far, seeing as not a single one of them represents the causes of the protests as illegitimate. But most importantly, none of them see the protests in terms of ethnic hatred. Most of them explicitly reject this possibility, while some even discern signs that these protests might just overcome inter-ethnic suspicions and bind the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina together in a struggle for a better life, as many seem to realize that the ethnic division of the country is one of the main reasons that got them into this mess in the first place.

If the people are swayed by the media and the governments are swayed by the people, it seems that Bosnians might just get some actual support in the right direction this time around.

By Joris Zantvoort

Sochi 2014: in anticipation of disasters?

By Slovo , on 7 February 2014

Winter Olympic Games

There is this rather worrying trend with news: media loves disasters, global or personal. Failures, catastrophes, accidents, public embarrassment or someone’s dramatic tabloid undoing following a chain of scandalous events… The astute modern thinker Alain de Botton brings this media fascination with disasters to a decent analysis in his latest book The News. An equally curious phenomenon, he says, is how often we find disaster stories incredibly uplifting and exciting. So it is of no surprise that media garlands of socio-economic disaster stories, i.e. the embarrassing infrastructure of Sochi, its ignorant mayor and LGBT discrimination in Russia, overshadow the Sochi Winter Olympic Games this year.

The Olympic rings are seen in front of the airport of Sochi, the host city for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

Some 2014 Winter Olympic Games slogans, which satellite the event:

“Sochi mayor tells BBC: no gay people in our town” (bbc.co.uk)

“More Olympic-Linked Furor Over Russia Anti-Gay Law” (abcnews.go.com)

“And the gold medal for the most vile thing at Sochi goes to . . .? (Clue: it’s not Putin) Olympic visitors’ horror at hotels awash with stray dogs, brown water, bugs and no light bulbs” (dailymail.co.uk)

“Baffled Olympic journalists tweet surprising, gross finds” (euronews.com)

“Sochi: Hotel Horros Haunt Olympic Journalists” (hollywoodreporter.com)


The Games, commencing on February 7th and running until February 23rd, are hosted by Russia’s biggest resort-city – Sochi. Gracing the lush Black Sea coast, this longest city in both Europe and Russia has come to be known colloquially as the summer capital of Russia. Its famously overcrowded beaches of infinite human bodies, without a penny to be dropped, definitely support the expectations one would have of such a place. That is to say, it isn’t your average provincial Russian town. But as with many “peripheral” places in Russia, anything which isn’t Moscow pretty much, they remain a very different world – a phenomenon that some find as shocking as fascinating. In Russia, one doesn’t need to go on a gap year abroad to experience “the exotic Other”. One doesn’t need to wait for the Olympic Games in Sochi to realise that infrastructure is not a Russian forte. But then, of course, an ambitious project in a country as rightfully known for its space pioneering is just asking for trouble if things go wrong.

What about the problem of gay rights in Russia – big news, anyone? It’s been like this for a good number of centuries, bar Lenin’s de-criminalisation of gay rights. It’s understandable that a glamorous national event seems a good place to start… crashing the classical satellites of Olympics: national pride, ambition and success. Yet, the event is also inter-national, in fact – a leading global international event.  The anti-gay propaganda law against promotion of homosexuality to minors has been passed on in the run-up to Olympics, causing a global resonance, boycotting and petitions to cancel the Games in a country, which is clearly too barbaric and intolerant. Yet, it’s fascinating to see things in perspective, with the World Wars being the only times when Olympic Games have been suspended; the Cold War period limiting the participation of the athletes. Let’s sincerely hope, that none of these are happening at the moment (at least not yet, or at least only subtly…).

The Olympic Games, set to celebrate the possibilities and splendour of human bodies internationally, have become exceedingly politicised, an excuse for media’s spilling of all held-back opinions over the years. It has long stopped being the peaceful ancient ritual of human achievement, uniting the five inhabited continents in the intertwined bewilderment of the Olympic rings. Dare I say, it seems somewhat out of place to mingle the Olympic Games with LGBT rights, essentially sport and sex. Not to say, that LGBT policy is unproblematic in Russia. But as a topic about relationships (no matter what kind), essentially sexual in nature, should it define the games and by default the sportsmen involved? It is a known amongst professional sportsmen that psychologically and physiologically sex is a disarming expenditure of energy, detrimental to success in sports. Many coaches prohibit intercourse, as well as expression of sexuality, for some time prior to competitions. Sex is about love, relaxation and leisure. Sport is about competitive anger, tension and hard work. The clue, from an American athlete Marty Liquori, seems rather simple: “Sex makes you happy, and happy people don’t run a 3:47 mile”. I guess my point is that it is rather unfair (and ironic) to sexualise the Games, as it is unfair to pose next to collapsed curtains in your hotel room in Sochi. Come on, you’ve been waiting for it! But then again, it seems, it’s not the first time media has been anticipating disasters and problems with such glee. Citius, Altius, Fortius!

By Eugenia Ellanskaya

The innocence and violence of EuroMaidan: notes from Kyiv

By Slovo , on 31 January 2014

Slovo’s editor Ed Johnson visits Kyiv to see beyond the media bias and discover EuroMaidan for himself


The Maidan was packed with people, tents, and flags. The national anthem rang in my ears. The mood was electric and tense. It was Euro 2012—the last time I was in Kyiv—when, for a month and a half, the city was consumed with football, summer, and celebration. I found myself reflecting on the times I spend on Maidan that summer, whiling away the hours watching football on the giant screens erected on Khreschatyk. As I entered the barricades of EuroMaidan the expanse of the protest village became evident. Nestled below a thick layer of wood smoke belched into the air by hundreds of tents and braziers, humming with the sound of bustling demonstrators, it appeared mythical.

Having only read about the protests from afar, I had developed an image of Maidan, but nothing prepared me for the reality of it. My first trip to the EuroMaidan was a blur: my mind lost in the hive of activity, acrid pine smoke, clanking metal, and the drone of the loudspeakers. Entering the square, we passed through security, organised and run by the protestors. Each guard had “official” Maidan Security accreditation, complete with an individual I.D. number. The guards check mainly for drunks or provocateurs, but give the impression of entering an autonomous zone with anti-government and Yanukovych graffiti adorning the entrance. The place was alive with people at nine o’clock on a Thursday evening. Everywhere I looked someone was doing something: serving tea, chopping wood, clearing snow or filling bags for the barricades. The streets of the Maidan, devoid of snow and cleaner than many of those in the rest of the city, led us into the maze of tents. Piping hot ‘euro-borsch’ was being dished out of steaming pots to frigid protestors while volunteers presented trays of donated sandwiches. The sense of self-sufficiency was striking, exuding an air of an unshakeable community set on achieving its goals. Clearly such a romanticised view ignores the very real political machine behind the demonstrations.

From the calm of the Maidan we walked east, down to the bottom of Hrushevskoho Street, the flashpoint for violence between police and protestors. My friend who had witnessed the violence earlier in the week was reticent about returning. However, the situation was calmer than the previous days. The air was still clogged with the smell of burnt rubber, but the wall of flames of Wednesday had subsided, and, in its place, a new barricade was constructed, complete with ramparts. Protestors stood atop this wall of snow, metal, and second hand tires, surveying a scene of burnt out buses frozen into place by water cannons and further onto the stationary, homogenous mass of the police lines. Certainly the atmosphere here was different to that within the confines of the Maidan itself. Men wrapped in foam cladding practised fighting with wooden sticks. A man with a microphone and an enormous flag led the crowd in chants of ‘glory to Ukraine’, eliciting the deep roar of ‘glory to the heroes’. On this street, two demonstrators were shot dead only days before. The man screamed on, ‘glory to the nation,’ ‘death to the enemies’, ‘Ukraine above all’. These controversial chants, strongly associated with Ukraine’s fascist wartime movement give light to the fact that right wing groups, anathema to the European values they are fighting for, are represented amongst the crowd. The extent to which the protests have been co-opted by these extremist groups is a challenging topic. Certainly these protests are national in nature, in the face of domestic and international challenges to a Ukrainian nation. The difficulty I found was to reconcile the presence of violent nationalists alongside the majority of peaceful, pro-European, anti-Yanukovych protestors.  Reports in the media paint juxtaposing pictures: on the one hand, peaceful civil protests, where young and old alike come together against oppression and unite behind a European ideal. On the other, the new narrative of the violent conflict driven by roving gangs of extremist right wing thugs and provocateurs.


As I wandered the Maidan I struggled to process it as a whole. It became clear to me as I walked through the protests and then out of the centre of Kyiv, into the frozen side streets and eerie calm of the rest of the city that the Maidan is not one thing. The movement is fluid and frustratingly difficult to characterize in the context of such a volatile political situation. Civic leaders from the leader of the Crimean tartars to the Orthodox church choir appear on stage only meters away from a prominent portrait of Stepan Bandera, the symbolic leader of Ukraine’s  violent wartime nationalist movement.  The contradictions are evident within EuroMaidan, it is not exclusively peaceful; it is not totally violent. Maidan is not innocent nor is it an unacceptable expression of 20th century fascism.

The ‘front-lines’ of Hrushevskoho Street exudes the juvenile machismo of young men dressed up in the uniform of war, wielding sticks. Yet many protestors are deeply professional, effective and sincere in their conflict with the police. I witnessed the absurd side of this when late on Friday night in -18 C weather, amidst exploding fireworks and the furnace of burning tires, a protestor on the frontlines stood astride on a burnt out bus, took off his coat and shirt, turned to the crowd, and held a revving chain saw aloft, knowing full well that the billowing smoke behind him illuminated his stance to the lenses of the photographers below. This seems absurd, overly violent and representative of the juvenile element. As I turned to leave the barricades, my perceptions were again challenged. In a bid to disperse the water from the police cannons protestors were carving channels through the ice, forcing the torrent down the street. Further down countless protestors where arranging bags of ice to direct the flow into a drain and prevent the barricades turning into an ice rink.

Nationalists, pro-Europeans, violent thugs, frustrated revolutionaries, and numerous other sub-categories and groups mean that these protests are too diverse to be simply described as one or the other. They have emerged together as part of a large social movement, which, whilst empowering and impressive in many aspects, has darker aspects. I saw symbols of the far-right and, as my stay went on, increasing numbers of paramilitary training exercises.  This worrying trend threatens to overshadow the side of the protests which has some people, who previously were indifferent about politics in Ukraine motivated to camp out on a freezing square and participate in a grass-roots protest against their government.

I went to Ukraine to learn more about EuroMaidan as much as to experience this moment in Ukraine’s history. I returned with a better understanding of the make-up of the coalition of protestors but also a strong sense of the anger and disillusionment of the demonstrators. I wanted to see what EuroMaidan had become two months on from the original occupation of the square. In contrast to the euphoria of Euro 2012 I witnessed a deep disillusionment and anger amongst people who had hoped that tournament to become the beginning of Ukraine’s European journey. The EuroMaidan is an impressive feat, yet poses as many questions as it does solutions. Certainly Ukraine’s European journey hinges on its success.

Images courtesy of Ilya Varlamov http://zyalt.livejournal.com/982589.html

Embrace the abyss: Favourites of the Moon (1984)

By Slovo , on 27 January 2014

This review of Otar Iosseliani’s Favourites of the Moon by our Executive Editor Eugenia Ellanskaya recently appeared in the Soviet cinema journal Obskura:

It is 1984 and it’s almost the dusk of the USSR. In other words: high time to submerge into the full cacophony of life’s true diversity and casual perverseness. Favourites of the Moon  (Les favoris de la lune) is possibly one of the greatest delicatessens in the alternative Soviet cinema scene. The film’s pretension to an aristocratic and elegant flow is as intricate and disguising as the superficial lifestyles of its characters. Its illusion of beauty and aesthetics seems to hide nothing other than a careless abyss. And guess what? There seems absolutely nothing wrong with that! Embrace the abyss! The movie’s walking-pace speed literally pulls you into a stroll across what seems as random and parallel lives of people, unburdened by thoughts of their long-term ‘destination’ – a suggested happiness recipe in a close-to-apocalypse Soviet society?

Iosseliani is a master architect who builds and tosses around social stratums, giving us surprising combinations of their interaction, which even they aren’t always aware of. An all-penetrating image of a painting and a set of luxury china dinner plates recur throughout the film, taking us from the black and white world of stability to a colourful film of relationship chaos. The black and white images of courting and stern ascetics keep on appearing from time to time alongside the modern timeline, where everything is rushed, stressful and, in the end, truly purposeless. Each social strata has its own philosophy and convincing morals, which are never dwelt on too deeply, but are shown as if at a glimpse of a walker-by.

The picturesque black and white world of The Favourites of the Moon

The picturesque black and white world of The Favourites of the Moon

Iosseliani gives each character a chance to take over the objects (the painting and the china dishes) and reveal themselves through it. The ‘upper class’ is gripped in a superficial status-seeking consumption of aesthetics. The illusion the audience too appears involved in… The rich enter an involuntary nostalgia over the aristocratic and genuine 18th century, when the objects were made. They borrow these status props as shamelessly as they rehearse dinner quotes in order to impress their host, and remove socially inconvenient elements, like a disabled family member, from a dinner party. The stressful pace of the diverse colourful world shows people, who are too busy to catch up with the full moral package of the black and white world. But the world has long since been reversed and interrupted by the brief wallpaper still, which is actually full of information:


This wallpaper’s soundtrack of shooting and explosions might not necessarily imply a war per se, but a symbolic collapse of the old social order. It is followed by a random appearance of a white horse indoors, which somewhat awkwardly and clumsily stamps on the already familiar broken china plates:


From now on the objects are passed on, modified, broken or stolen…What the rich had broken or lost, forsaking faith in the objects’ repairability, regains its meaning back in the hand of the ‘mob’, the local prostitutes and bin men who try to mend it. This seems symbolic of the hypocrisy and social role play which is never what it seems. In the end, it is the thieves and the prostitutes who are truly loyal to their friends, all sharing a kin relation: the prostitute and thief argue over the “up-bringing” of their “child”, a young thief accomplice.

Although things said remain the same between past and the modern worlds, they surely mean very different things. As the film suggests, the silence the actors are so afraid of breaking in both worlds is at the expense of truth in one case and stupidity in the other. Be it a change of ideology or social paradigms that gives different meaning to silence, we will never know what was unsaid, as both worlds are muted and polluted by worldly chats, as if the director is avoiding direct confrontation… just yet. It is interesting that Iosseliani, a Soviet Georgian, moved to France at the time of the film’s making precisely to avoid Soviet censorship, but is he ready to speak the unspoken? Either way, for now we are expected to continue to admire the aesthetic illusion, which the film is so rich in.

Favourites of the Moon is a provocation. A convincing provocation which asks us to rethink our class conceptions and biases. It upturns our comfortable ideology. It forces us to accept the unexpected niche of nobility amongst the mob and sympathise with the unsympathisable. Like the quote from Shakespeare at the beginning of the film, Iosseliani wants to elevate the prostitutes, tramps and thieves into the new and possibly only domain of hope and nobility, which the rich are only superficially rehearsing. Long live the knights of the night, the favourites of the moon, the whores and the tramps!


As much as everything about this movie promotes excess, class and nonchalance, glorifying form over content, it seems that Iosseliani is also aware of the futility of everything he has glorified in the lifestyles of the characters. It is therefore a caricature, with comic casual explosions, but also seriously perverse social implications of cheating, stealing and so on. And yet Favourites of the Moon is not revolutionary. Neither is it a strong statement. Surprisingly, it is unlike some aggressive Soviet taboo breaking movies. Instead it comes across as a calm and even helpless meditation over the not so great Western reality of the superficial nouveau riche and the romanticised life of the mob. Confronted by the Western reality Iosseliani must have too learnt (or chose?) not to judge, but meditate over this liberal social reality and accept – an attempt to let go of the strong ideological claims and arguments at least for the time being.

Originally published on http://www.obskura.co.uk/favourites-of-the-moon/

From a Rollin’ Stone to Moving Mountains or the Process of Democratic Change in Bulgaria

By Slovo , on 15 January 2014

The wall around Parliament branded with caricatures of PM Oresharski          Photo: Vassil Garnizov

The wall around Parliament branded with caricatures of PM Oresharski Photo: Vassil Garnizov

Democracy has solidified into a brittle façade of the actual political system in Bulgaria; the future has become a laughing matter; access to truth is contested and politics has become the dirtiest word of all. Freedom of the press is the second lowest in Eastern Europe according to the 2013 annual report by Reporters Without Borders. The National Assembly is entirely barricaded by a metal wall, while police officers, in their thousands, have spent most of the Christmas holiday guarding the empty building. A few feet down the road, the St. Kliment Ohrdiski University of Sofia remained under occupation for over three months by ‘the Early Rising Students’, who demand their voice and their future back. Daily protests gather in the centre of Sofia and pass through Parliament and the University and block traffic around the evening rush hour.

This is how Bulgarians welcomed the New Year. At midnight on the 31st December in the city square, where thousands of people had gathered to welcome the New Year, the mood was far from festive. Chants of ‘resign’ were outweighing the fireworks as well as the organized concert. This was no time for celebration within a country utterly divided. On 1st January, after more than 200 days of protests, the government approval rate had fallen below 10%, while more than 80% supported the protesters, according to a poll by Alpha Research Agency.

From the RectoratePhoto: Yanne Golev

From the Rectorate Photo: Yanne Golev

On the eve of 2014, I moved from the square, passed the barricaded Parliament (a barricade that was built a day after the twenty-fourth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall) and joined the students, who had decided to stay in the occupied lecture hall. If there is a message that I can pass along after spending almost a month in Bulgaria, it is a message of unity. Despite the predictable ripples and difficulties noticeable in the structure of the students and the protest movement, unofficially represented by the Protest Network group, things are changing. From the ground up, reshaping one discourse at a time: rethinking the past, the 1989 revolution, the advent of democracy, the meaning of freedom.

A short retrospect: twenty-four years ago, Bulgaria did not experience that revolutionary change visible in Central Europe. It did not participate in the ground-breaking and seemingly universal process of a ‘rectifying revolution’, of a ‘return to history’, which Jürgen Habermas foresaw in 1990. It was said that countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia revolted against a foreign regime and civilization that hundreds of thousands of people went out in the streets demanding a return to the path of modernity, to progress, to their destiny as part of Europe. It was a process of unfreezing of history, a liberation par excellence.

In Bulgaria, the end of the totalitarian regime resembled a palace coup, in which the old regimes liquidated a highly dysfunctional Soviet-style repressive regime and laid the groundwork for a gradual transition towards a democracy. It laid the groundwork for a very specific kind of façade democracy, where a silent continuity of the past was achieved. Democracy and freedom were granted to the people, who one day were simply told that they had certain new rights and responsibilities. But the meaning of the universal principles of democracy and freedom were significantly altered by the elites in charge of facilitating the transition period.

The biggest and most lasting success of the protest movement, which began as a spontaneous mass public outrage at government unaccountability and corruption, was unearthing exactly how deeply those notions have been altered and who, in fact, is in control of the dominant discourses about the truth regarding the past, present, and the future. It showed how a significant portion of the Bulgarian population, citizens assuming the existence of basic rights and freedoms, have become completely excluded from the political processes and have had their public voice all but silenced. It turned out that their demands for a functioning democracy were not only met by the government but that they were seen as a threat leading to the mobilization of thousands of police officers and the permanent barricading of Parliament. It turned out that Politics was in fact directly dislocated from the people. An effective façade democracy.

“From all parts of the world, we ask for your resignation”

Bulgaria, a country known for its troubled path towards democratization, its uneasy energy and geopolitical relationship with Russia, and its highly atomized and isolated society, is changing. On December 26th, in the largest protests of recent months, more than 4000 people gathered in Sofia, from all parts of the world, to join in the struggle for democracy and for a return to Europe. The unofficial organization representing Bulgarians abroad #ДАНСwithmeGlobal co-organized the protest with the Early Rising Students and the Protest Network. It was the first time that a united protest front was solidified and the first time that they all walked, side by side, down the streets of Sofia. And their message is clear: reorienting the country towards democratic consolidation and European integration.

The most vivid symbol of this highly anticipated democratic revival in Bulgaria are the students. They are the ‘children of the transition’, the personification of the political, social, existencial crisis that has marked their nation and their individual biographies. They occupied the University because they saw no options of professional and personal realization in their futures. They refused to remain passive, while an increasingly isolated political elite continued to shape their reality. They wanted to have a say about who they are and who they ought to be.

The students have made one very important step forward – fascilitating public debate. They are organizing round tables, where professors, experts, and politicians will be invited to sit down in the University and discuss the functioning of all the democratic institutions in Bulgaria and how to reorient politics in the right path. It is an important step forward in a highly stifled public sphere, where people often feel their voice, vote, or vision is irrelevant to the actual goings on out there in the State. It is the vital process of (re)consolidating the foundations of a polis. And it is affecting the right of passage to the truth because they represent an increasingly powerful alternative to the official discourse funelled through the mass print and broadcast media in support of those in power.

And those in power represent the highly structured and well financed Bulgarian Socialist Party – the brain-child and beneficiary of the pre-1989 Bulgarian Communist Party. A party infiltrated by ex-Secret Service members with large dossiers, powerful businessmen and politicians; all those who benefited directly both before and after the fall of totalitarianism. The Socialist Party is also the most successful political party and has been in power longer than any other contendor. It has also remained the only party since the very first elections that has avoided dissentigration – until today.

Party members, among which the influenced member of the European Parliament and former Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin, have one by one defected from the party amidst the growing pressure caused on it by the protests. They have joined former President Georgi Parvanov (still a member of the Socialists) in his new political party called the New Bulgarian Revival. This is the first time in recent history that we see a challenge to the left forming in Bulgaria. And it’s big news because, among all else, it is showing a changing political topography.

The protests started off calling for the resignation of the Socialist-led Cabinet amidst emense corruption and unaccountability charges. Over the months and due to continual silence by Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski in connection to those charges, the protests evolved into a powerful discursive alternative regarding both the past and the future – i.e. deconstructing the facades behind the political regime and its geopolitical orientation. Today, the protests have all but fully delegitimized the official discourse presented by the Socialist Party and present a hugely popular alternative about politics, democracy and even the totalitarian past. So successful I might add that it slowly silencing the powerful voice of the Socialist party and all its media backing.

Several weeks ago, broadcast journalists were asking their guests if they were not tired of protesting and the newspapers wrote of the ‘death of the protests’; today those questions seem to resonate of a very different world. Today, the narrative is about when the government will resign – in February or May, when the election for EU representatives will be held. It is a process that emulates the events of 1997, when once again the Socialist Party succumbed to mass outrage at hyperinflation and Bulgarians elected a government set on promoting economic reform and European integration. This time, because the protests have been solidifying for seven months, extending their network, polishing their message, this time change is looking for permanency: a permanent discontinuity of the past – of both its elites, structures and discourses – a vital step forward in the decentered, gradual and positive move towards post-communism (as a way of life) and democracy.

By Nikolay Nikolov

A General Assembly inside the occupied Lecture Hall

A General Assembly inside the occupied Lecture Hall

Pussy Riot amnesty: Event of the year?

By Slovo , on 2 January 2014

The icon caricature of Pussy Riot

The icon caricature of Pussy Riot

The chances are you have already heard/had enough of Pussy Riot and their ground-breaking punk prayer. Indeed, the scandalous art performance has pretty much dominated the ever so popular international media theme of human rights and ideological totalitarianism in Russia. With popularity of such recurrent themes, it was a great media catch when the punk prayer happened in 2012. Although aimed at the central religious locale – Christ the Saviour Cathedral – it seems the feminist girl band had little ambition or care to get where they are today. Their acceleration to celebrities and role models of democracy and anti-government oppression movement has been swift; the following two year prison sentence – a great achievement in validating the oppressiveness of the regime.

What was little expected is the event of the year: the Pussy Riot amnesty. Their early release in December 2013 as part of the Russian Constitution anniversary occurred just in time to gain positive media momentum before the Olympic Games.  Although approved martyrs of a postmodern epoch, PR performance itself has been disliked even by the most liberal supporters of their cause. Not to say, that popularity was ever on their agenda. As the members of the group said in their awkward first out-of-prison interview, they do not act to be liked, they act to make people think. And so it is. It is hard to think of someone left indifferent or without a say on the matter, as the irony shows. From being seen as hooligans, blasphemers and psychotic feminists, to becoming venerated as  ‘prisoners of consciousness’, human rights defenders and secular martyrs….they have even been compared to Jesus Christ himself, as their equally eccentric colleague Pyotr Pavlensky (yes, the one who nailed his private parts to the Red Square) suggests.

I too share ambiguous feelings towards the group. At the same time I cannot help realising that it has done a lot more than it has anticipated: it really did make people think and discuss. Not just about the nauseating cliché subjects in Russia-related news (human rights, Putin, totalitarianism), but the social experiment itself. That of the merging of the three foundations of human social life: politics, religion and art, and the bizarre outcomes it can lead to.