A A A

On Pišťanek, Death, and Literature that Affirms Life

By Blog Admin, on 30 March 2015

Tim Beasley-Murray reflects on the recent death of one of Slovakia’s leading contemporary writers.

There is an old commonplace – one that goes back to Seneca and reemerges throughout Western culture, say, in Montaigne or Heidegger – that says that it is death that gives meaning to life. More specifically, as one version of this commonplace would have it: one can only understand the life of an individual in the light of the manner of his or her death.

To my mind, these sorts of ideas and the thanatocentrism that they represent are completely misplaced. How can life gain its meaning from the often banal, often painful, often violent means by which life comes or is put to an end? Here, I am with Nietzsche and his insistence that the meaning of life can only be sought within life itself. Conceptualizing life in terms of death, thanatocentrism does little more than justify the claims of death over life. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori…. Well, we know where such ideas lead us: to societies that are willing – as on the killing fields of the First World War – to sacrifice the living by their thousands and hundreds of thousands.

Read the rest of this entry »

Estonia’s 2015 election result ensures the Reform Party will continue to dominate the country’s politics

By Blog Admin, on 12 March 2015

Estonia held a parliamentary election on 1 March. Allan Sikk writes that while the nature of the coalition which emerges from the election remains to be seen, the result was another success for the Reform Party, which has been in government continuously for the last sixteen years.

The most significant, although predictable, result of the 1 March general election in Estonia was another electoral triumph by the Reform Party (RE). RE has been part of governing coalitions continuously for sixteen years, and has held the position of Prime Minister for the last ten years. It is fairly likely to continue at the helm of government until 2019, cementing its dominance in Estonian politics. The chart below shows the results of the 2015 election and the previous general election in 2011.

Chart: Results of the 2015 and 2011 Riigikogu elections (click to enlarge).

Estonian elections

 

Note: Figures from National Electoral Commission. For more information on the parties see: Reform Party (RE), Centre Party (KE), Social Democratic Party (SDE), Pro Patria & Res Publica Union (IRL), Free Party (EVA), Conservative People’s Party (EKRE).

Even though two new parties entered the parliament (more on them below), the election was also characterised by stability. The vote shares of three out of the four erstwhile parliamentary parties changed little, as did electoral turnout (64 per cent). Only the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) suffered a notable loss of votes (6.8 per cent), mostly to the two new parties.

The continued success of RE can be explained by three factors: national security concerns, a successful leadership change, and a shrewd political strategy. As the incumbent, RE benefitted from voters seeking stability confronted with an increasingly aggressive Russia. In its campaign, RE emphasised the need for stability and boosting national defence. RE used NATO fighter jets as a backdrop for one of their campaign clips, for which it was criticised in the media, but this nevertheless helped cultivate among the voters an image of a party that prioritises defence.

Read the rest of this entry »

Poland’s Jewishness: the Polin Museum of Polish Jews and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida.

By Blog Admin, on 3 February 2015

Poland’s new museum of Polish-Jewish history and Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida are signs of a shift in Poland’s understanding of its Jewish past, writes Uilleam Blacker.

ida_still_02

Still from Ida, source: http://www.ida-movie.com/gallery

The opening, in October 2014, of the permanent exhibition of Warsaw’s new ‘Polin’ Museum of the history of Polish Jews marked a shift in Poland’s memory of the loss of its Jewish population. Until now, the key memorial sites in this regard have been sites of Jewish death, such as the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and the former Warsaw ghetto in Muranów, Warsaw. The new museum has been located in the centre of Muranów, next to the famous ghetto uprising monument, precisely in order to rebalance the commemorative discourse away from the image of Poland as a ‘vast Jewish cemetery’ and towards recognition of it as a place of flourishing Jewish life, which, of course, it was for hundreds of years. As programme director Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has noted, “We have a moral obligation to remember not only how Jews died but also how they lived.”

The museum is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather the culmination of a long process of the recovery of Jewish heritage and culture in Poland that has its roots in the efforts of activists and intellectuals in the late communist period. Today, there are many small museums in Poland celebrating Polish-Jewish culture and history alongside the many Holocaust memorial sites, as well as countless Jewish-themed cultural events. One of the important achievements of this tendency is to move towards an understanding of Poland’s Jewish heritage not as something alien that needs to be looked after on behalf of someone else, but as part of the Polish story. As Kirshnblatt-Gimblett told the FT last year: “We’re trying to show the history of Polish Jews as an integral part of the history of Poland.” Thus, the museum tells stories such as that of Michał Landy, a Jewish student who was killed during an anti-tsarist protest in Warsaw in 1861 as he lifted a cross that had been dropped by an injured fellow protester.

For decades, memory of Poland’s Jews has, of course, been dominated by the Holocaust. This powerful, transnational discourse inscribed the memory of Polish Jews into a wider Jewish story, in which the different cultural backgrounds and experiences of the victims – among them the Polish-Jewish experience – faded into the background. This situation was compounded by the reluctance of the Polish communist authorities to allow discussion either of the anti-Semitic nature of the Nazi occupation or of Poland’s Jewish heritage, meaning that for decades the traces of that heritage crumbled, and the Polish-Jewish story remained untold.

Read the rest of this entry »

All tomorrow’s parties? The future (and past) of politics in Eastern Europe

By Blog Admin, on 19 January 2015

By ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

In this post we present a discussion between  Kevin Deegan-Krause, Tim Haughton, Stephen Whitefield and Jan Rovný on the current state of knowledge on political parties in Eastern Europe, what we still needs to learned and how researchers can get there.  The discussion had its origins in the Whither Eastern Europe conference held at the University of Florida in January 2014 and accompanies a special section on parties in the forthcoming issue of East European Politics and Societies.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s start with a simple question: Is there anything we know we can agree about?

Whitefield: I found it highly instructive to ponder the lessons from three intertwined perspectives. First, what do citizens want from parties? Second, what do parties have to offer to citizens? Third, how does the communication between parties and voters help deliver good democratic governance?

In terms of the citizen-party relationship, I believe that Robert Rohrschneider and I have already established that the underlying cleavage structure at the party-level differs between East and West: largely one-dimensional in the East but – importantly – no sign as yet of a shift in the axis of the dimension to resemble the West: in the East, party competition is still based on pro-West/Europe, pro-market, pro-democratic parties versus their opposite.

Rovný: Depending on country circumstances and legacies, you should find different combinations of the left-right versus gal-tan and different degrees of salience. The key is ethnicity (and state-building).

Whitefield: Of course, there is local variation. In some countries – historical national boundaries in Hungary for example or ethnic divisions in Ukraine or Latvia – specific issues are present that give national distinctiveness to party competition. But nonetheless, there exists powerful evidence of the importance of a Communist legacy on the nature of cleavages in the region as a whole and even of the freezing of the party systems there.

Deegan-Krause: To the extent we do see programmatic patterns (or other patterns), where do they come from? Do you see them anchored in the experiences of the region and if so, which ones?

Rovný: One of the most interesting debates has been the one on structure versus volatility of politics in eastern Europe. This debate has by now found a set of generally accepted conclusions. First, the literature on party systems and voting behaviour clearly and continuously finds increased levels of organizational volatility — parties get born, merged and dissolved more frequently than in the west — as well as increased levels of voting volatility — voters switch between parties at a higher rate than in the west, while fewer people turn out to vote.

At the same time, the literature on ideological structure continuously concludes that parties in the region offer reasonably framed ideological choices, and voters select parties on the basis of their political preferences. These two conclusions are seemingly contradictory: organizational and electoral volatility contrasts ideological structure. I believe that we should aim at the theoretical reconciliation of these findings by accepting that structured stability and volatility can coexist.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s talk about stability first. Given the kinds of electoral results we see in the region, it is interesting that there is any talk about stability at all.

Whitefield: We agree with what Jan [Rovný] is saying. Work that I did with Geoff Evans in the 1990s and 2000s did indeed point to the importance (contra some expectations) of most of the usual demographic suspects. Social class, measured using the Goldthorpe-Eriksson class schema—which is really based on characteristics of occupations, particularly manual/non-manual and the supervised/supervisory distinctions—was surprisingly useful in the post-Communist context.

Given what might have happened to the nature of occupational structures, this class scheme appears both internally valid but it also has good predictive value to both attitudes and political behaviour, as much as in the West.

As in the West, it doesn’t work as well in all countries—the cleavage structure and what parties offer helps explain variance—but it works. Age and education also work in wholly expected ways. Gender differentiates little. But where some of the most interesting results come are from the comparative study of the impact of religion and religiosity in the region.

At the extremes, Catholicism – and in Catholic countries church attendance – matter significantly for public political values and behaviour; in Orthodox countries, religion appears to matter little. I am intrigued to know whether this is a dog that continues not to bark in Russia and Ukraine. Read the rest of this entry »

‘The Death of Others': the myth and reality of suicide in the German Democratic Republic

By Blog Admin, on 27 November 2014

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison, by Denis Apel (cc-by)

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison,
by Denis Apel (cc-by)

An award-winning film reinforces the gap between perceptions of the GDR and its more complex reality, finds Udo Grashoff.

I was about to leave my flat as the phone rang… I picked up; a woman, who introduced herself as the assistant of a West German filmmaker, required my urgent assistance. It was about a funeral oration in a film set in the GDR in the 1980s. In the film, a Stasi officer was assigned to spy on a playwright, Georg Dreyman.  At the funeral oration for a colleague who has committed suicide, Dreyman accuses the GDR authorities of coldheartedly ignoring people who commit suicide. He claims that the state stopped compiling suicide statistics in 1977.

I was consulted on the dates and facts, which made sense as I wrote my doctoral thesis on suicide in the GDR. What I had to explain to the filmmaker’s assistant was rather complicated. Except for the period between 1956 and 1962 suicide statistics were not published in the statistical yearbooks. However, the ‘State Central Bureau for Statistics’ recorded suicides with Prussian accuracy, but kept them a state secret. Besides, in 1968 the GDR Ministry of Health launched a strategy for the prevention of suicide. Two suicide prevention centres were founded. Although there was no public discussion of suicide, there was a limited, if diminishing, coverage of the issue in professional journals. From 1977, even specialists could not access data.

This is not the same as to suggest, as Dreyman does in the film, that statistics on suicide were no longer being kept, but given the context – in 1986, a GDR citizen simply could not know what could only be researched after the Wall came down – I advised leaving the eulogy as it was.

This was in around 2005, and only much later did I realise that I had taken part in the making of ‘The Lives of Others’. To my surprise, the film became a worldwide hit. ‘The Lives of Others’ has shaped the image of the East German dictatorship much more than any scholarly book on the GDR history. The film was praised as highly authentic and historically accurate. Locations like the Stasi prison in Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen were used; details of everyday life in the GDR and especially in the art scene were meticulously reconstructed.

Of course, not everyone bought the story. Slavoj Žižek said that the film failed to show the ‘true horror’ of the dictatorial system. Mary Fulbrook complained that the story did not ‘present the GDR in all its complexities’. Anna Funder doubted that a Stasi officer would have been able to log in false information into Stasi files in order to protect a victim. Read the rest of this entry »

Bulgaria’s new coalition: A rainbow without colours

By Blog Admin, on 16 November 2014

Bulgaria’s newly formed coalition government seems to span left and right. However, in practice it offers a familiar mix of nationalism and neo-liberalism, argues James Dawson.

Bulgaria’s newly-formed coalition, comprised of the pro-European rightists of GERB and the Reformist Bloc, ex-President Parvanov’s ‘leftist’ ABV and the ultranationalist Patriotic Front might look like an unlikely alliance of ideologically incompatible parties – an apparent case of what the political scientist Thomas Carothers once termed ‘feckless pluralism’.

Certainly, this has been the angle taken by many commentators inside the country who puzzle at the ability of political actors routinely labelled ‘pro-European’, ‘right-wing’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘nationalist’ to work together. Yet such analyses rest on the flawed assumption that these labels reflect clearly articulated, meaningfully differentiated policy platforms helping citizens to identify with specific ideas.

In practice, this is a perfectly dull coalition consisting only of parties that are functionally both neo-liberal and nationalist, along with the now customary support of some shouting-at-the-TV-type xenophobes (though the role played by Ataka in the previous two governments will now be filled by the Patriotic Front).

If it is now difficult to discern one political platform from another, then it follows that many, probably most, votes are cast on the basis of non-programmatic appeals. Charismatic and clientelistic dynamics almost certainly explain why voter turnout remains quasi-respectable (over 50%) in a context of mass protest and disillusionment. Yet though ideas and policies may not decide the outcome of Bulgarian elections, they still matter: politicians must do something when given control of the state. The path of least resistance in Bulgaria has usually been to combine neo-liberalism and nationalism. It is unlikely that this government will buck the trend.

Neo-liberal ideas have never become a popular narrative across the country – most Bulgarians remain preoccupied with getting by and are not identifiable in terms of economic policy orientations. However, the arguments of the right have gradually assumed the position of a shared ‘common sense’ among influential urban demographics. In part, this can be explained by the preferences of the oligarchic networks that dominate media ownership.

However, the victory of neo-liberalism owes just as much to the actions of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has for over two decades used leftist rhetoric to mask its collusion in the enrichment of these same oligarchs, both through business-friendly policies (such as the famous 10% flat corporation tax) and old-style corruption. Read the rest of this entry »

Ukraine: Why Russian perspectives should be heard

By Blog Admin, on 14 November 2014

Throughout the Ukraine crisis there has been persistent criticism from the West that the Russian media have intentionally presented misleading information on the conflict.

However, Joanna Szostek argues while there are legitimate concerns about the reporting of organisations such as the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT, banning or excluding Russian perspectives from the Western media would be counter-productive.

On 31 October a conference took place at the University of Cambridge to discuss ‘Ukraine and the Global Information War’. The event brought journalists, activists and academics together to reflect on media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, with the problem of propaganda a particular concern. Several speakers represented organisations that have been working to expose disinformation in the Russian media and counter the Russian narrative of events in Ukraine more generally.

Russia’s international propaganda machine is so powerful, insidious and dangerous, argued some of these speakers, that much tougher measures are needed to block its effects. Calls were voiced for RT, Russia’s state-funded broadcaster aimed at international audiences, to be outlawed. Other participants suggested that Western news outlets should be freed from the usual requirement to ‘report both sides’ on the basis that the Russian ‘side’ is largely derived from falsehoods, so repeating it merely serves the Kremlin’s aim of muddying the waters. One eminent historian complained that the BBC’s Ukraine coverage had been ‘particularly irritating’ with its rigid commitment to ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism.

Some of the untrue stories disseminated by Russian television during the conflict in Ukraine have certainly been outrageous and the activists who volunteer their time and energy debunking fabrications deserve respect and support. Incessant Russian talk of the ‘fascist coup’ in Kyiv must infuriate the millions who joined Euromaidan out of a genuine desire to make their country less corrupt and more democratic.

Nevertheless, to ban RT or exclude the ‘Russian perspective’ from news reports would be counterproductive: it would serve only to reinforce impressions of Western hostility and ‘double standards’ in the eyes of the Russian public. Read the rest of this entry »

Ukraine’s ambivalent future

By Blog Admin, on 4 November 2014

Events in Ukraine have polarised opinion, but the country’s present and future are best understood as  permeated by ambivalence, argues Alena Ledeneva.

The situation in Ukraine might grasped best by a specialist on geopolitics, a scholar of the (il)legitimacy of power, an ethnographer of insurgencies, an analyst of media propaganda wars, a trauma therapist, or by a psychologist of phobias and love-hate relationships. I have none of these specialisms, but I share their intellectual challenge: the theme of ambivalence.

As ‘East’ and ‘West’ embark on another cycle of ideological confrontation and political standoff, there is little room left for marginal positions or ambivalent attitudes. As the outside world lashes out at Putin over the Crimea and East Ukraine, Russians turn wartime patriotic. Yet paradoxically, exactly because it is impossible to achieve a consensus – and because the black-and-white positions over the Crimea and east Ukraine split families, friendships, and international clubs – it is the understanding of grey areas and backgrounds that may help define the way forward for Ukraine.

One legacy shared by most survivors of oppressive political regimes is what George Orwell called ‘‘doublethink’’ – which Yury Levada and Alexander Zinoviev branded as being the key feature of Homo sovieticus. Under late socialism, when present-day elites in Russia and Ukraine were growing up, it was irrelevant whether people believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to officialdom became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on ‘nonofficial’ practices.

Individual doublethink developed into collective double standards that implied the ability to hold contradictory views in private and in public and the capacity to switch between them smoothly, when applied to ‘us’ and ‘them,’ to ‘ordinary citizens’ and to the Party leaders, and to one’s personal circle and to society as a whole.

In its sociological sense, ambivalence, as defined by Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. The incompatibility is assigned to a status and the social structures that generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded. The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relation. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviours.

In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defined ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category. Bauman views it as a language-specific disorder, with its main symptom being the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions.

Those who have detailed knowledge of the geography and the economic history of Ukraine or have done exhaustive research on the conflicting accounts on the current situation end up developing symptoms of ambivalence Read the rest of this entry »

“This is clearly not just about Ukraine, but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole neighbourhood”

By Blog Admin, on 20 October 2014

Wilson UCWIMFTW coverAndrew Wilson  discusses his new book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for The West with SSEES Research Blog.

SRB: You made a trip to Ukraine when writing this book. Could you tell us about your experiences there?

AW: When I was there, it struck me as a good idea that there was a book in all this. The previous time I was in Ukraine was in November last year, just before the protests started. But by February, it was also pretty clear that things were getting exciting and heading to some kind of denouement. So what do you do? You just go.

I arrived in the middle of an old fashioned revolution. I remember a human chain collecting cobblestones. At the front you had young guys chucking them at the militia, but the human chain was made up of the entire citizenry of Kiev – well dressed women in high heels coming from the office, the grandmother at the front still holding her shopping in a blue plastic bag. It was like a nineteenth century revolution between the citizens and the evil rulers, a bit like Les Miserables.

The book went to press really quickly, but hopefully, I can put some pictures in the second edition.

SRB: You refer to the Orange Revolution as a precedent to the Ukraine crisis. To what extent do you see this crisis is a continuation of the 2004 Orange Revolution?

AW: Well, the protesters clearly had that in mind. Initially they were copying the tactics of the Orange Revolution and it started in the same way – a peaceful, carnival-like protest. But people were also thinking of how to do it better. It was clear very early on during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that the regime wasn’t capable of using violence, whereas this time the regime did use violence–but did so very early and not sufficiently to put an end to things. So had a very early set of calculations with how to deal with a very different regime.

Ultimately the tragedy is that immediately after the uprising there was a sense of optimism that Ukraine was doing better this time but it never got the chance to show that because people were still learning lessons from the disappointments that followed the Orange Revolution.

SRB: Do you think in the immediate future that the Russia’s hegemony will dictate the political paths of countries in Eastern Europe?

AW: We can see Russia trying to influence all its neighbours, not just Ukraine. The bigger picture is a pretty scary one. If it is true that the countries that reformed fairly successfully in the 1990s in Central Europe were able to do so only because Russia was not really able prevent them, whereas Russia is now so able to do so here –that’s a pretty depressing conclusion.

It’s not just Ukraine but other countries that might be unable to reform or undertake the EU-friendly policies that Brussels wants; Moldova is a big test case with the election coming up, Georgia is a very interesting case too, because it has already reformed but under Russian pressure is now backsliding a bit. We can also see the reintroduction of a more Russian political culture – back to corruption, patronage, political prosecutions. The Baltic States are an important test case too because they’re in EU and NATO, but will that protect them from Russian pressure?

What’s more, this is clearly not just about Ukraine but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole  neighbourhood. Long- term I think Russia is over extended, so it would be able make trouble everywhere, but it can probably make trouble in two countries at once. Read the rest of this entry »

Latvia’s elections: Can there be harmony without Harmony?

By Blog Admin, on 8 October 2014

Latvia held parliamentary elections on 4 October. Licia Cianetti writes that while the elections saw Harmony – the centre-left party representing the country’s Russian-speaking minority – win the most seats, the results will most likely see the incumbent government led by the centre-right Unity party continue in power. The steady fall in turnout experienced in recent elections also suggests that despite backing the ruling parties, Latvian citizens are far from content with the status quo.

The parliamentary elections that took place in Latvia on 4 October did not hold many surprises and are likely to return the incumbent governing coalition to power. The results, announced by the electoral commission soon after the closing of the polls, saw the Russophone-friendly, centre-left party Harmony once again in first place, with 23 per cent of the vote and 24 of the 100 seats in the Saeima (the Latvian parliament).

This is a bitter first place, though, as the party lost 7 seats compared to the last elections in 2011. The governing, centre-right party Unity came a close second with a little less than 22 per cent of the vote and 23 seats. This is an increase from 20 seats in the last elections, but also shows that the merger with the disbanded Reform Party (which in 2011 got second place with 22 seats) did not bring significant electoral returns.

The nationalist National Alliance (NA), also in the incumbent government, had their best result yet with almost 17 per cent of the vote and 17 seats, up from 14. The other governing party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS) also had a strong showing with 19.5 per cent of the vote and 21 MPs (up from 13 in the previous election). Alongside these four parties, which were all represented in the outgoing Saeima, two new parties entered parliament: No Sirds Latvijai (From the heart of Latvia, NSL) and Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība (Latvian Association of Regions, LRA). NSL gained just under 6.9 per cent of the vote and 7 parliamentary seats. LRA gained just under 6.7 per cent of the vote and 8 seats (the distribution of the votes by constituency accounts for the less-than-proportional seat distribution). The Table below shows the full results.

Table: Results of the 2014 Latvian parliamentary election

Note: Vote shares have been rounded to one decimal place. There are 100 seats in the Latvian Parliament. For more information on the parties see: Harmony, Unity, Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), National Alliance (NA), From the Heart of Latvia (NSL), Latvian Association of Regions (LRA).Source: CVK

Six out of the 13 parties that contested the elections, therefore, entered parliament. Of those that remained out of the Saeima, the ethnic party Latvia’s Russian Union (LRU, formerly For Human Rights in a United Latvia) was the most successful with a little less than 1.6 per cent, but still far from the 5 per cent threshold. Another notable ‘loser’ of these elections was the (in)famous oligarch Ainārs Šlesers’s new formation Vienoti Latvijai (United for Latvia), which lined up a list of former ministers and prime ministers but garnered less than 1.2 per cent of the vote. Neither party was present in the outgoing parliament and neither was expected to make it into the new Saeima, according to pre-electoral polls. The results of the European Parliament elections in May (when LRU unexpectedly retained its MEP), however, indicated that surprises could not be completely ruled out. Read the rest of this entry »