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So Far, So Good, So SLOVO

Borimir STotev17 April 2017

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Today the Royal Academy of Arts ends its exhibition on Russian art in the period of 1917-1932. The much celebrated works of Malevich, Petrov-Vodkin, Kandinsky, and Chagall, amongst many others, remained open to visitors of the Main Galleries for more than two months. Back in February, SLOVO Journal was invited to the Press Viewing of the exhibition supplemented by a tour with the curators Ann Dumas, Dr Natalia Murray, and Professor John Milner.

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The Press Viewing of ‘Revolution: Russian art 1917-1932’ at the RA

It was made obvious to me then, that a season of appreciating Russian art was slowly about to unravel in our country’s capital, and with its cultural calendar London fully embraced the task of marking one of the most profound and consequential moments in world history. However, much in contrary to what some critiques suggest about the centenary of the Russian Revolution, I contend that its acknowledgment here was done elegantly, with an accurate awareness of history and its plights.


We are now almost half way through the year. So far, so good. Fear not, there is still plenty out there to see, explore, and read on the topic of all things Russian.

For starters, if you haven’t done so already, make sure to read through the latest issue of SLOVO Journal available online, or rummage through our collection of electronic archives. For nearly three decades we have provided a platform for the publication of promising academic work covering the Russian, Post-Soviet, Central & East European regions. In VOL 29.1 published in January this year, our authors covered intellectually stimulating explorations of human testaments to past events and cultural relations, as well as the more contemporary topics of online activism in Russia and the revival of populism in Europe.

There is still some time left before our 1st May deadline to submit your own papers and reviews for consideration. The publication of VOL 29.2 will complete our annual run marking the centenary year of the Russian Revolution and will be published around the autumn season of 2017.

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SLOVO Journal’s Call for Papers


Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the events that are constantly taking place at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Back in March, SLOVO Journal screened the feature documentary ‘Revolution: New Art for a New World’ as part of SSEES’s events calendar, hosting BAFTA Award wining filmmaker Mary Kinmonth.

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SLOVO Journal organised screening of ‘Revolution: New Art for a New World’

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Executive Editor Borimir Totev (left) in conversation with Director Margy Kinmonth (right)


What else is left? Plenty. The Design Museum is in the middle of its ‘Imagine Moscow’ exhibition exploring Moscow as it was imagined by a new generation of bold and creative architects and designers. The launch of the new book ‘The Sixth Sense of the Avant-Garde: Dance, Kinaesthesia and the arts in Revolutionary Russia’ by Irina Sirotkina and Roger Smith will take place on the 18th May at the Calvert 22 Bookshop. Film fans can look forward to the screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 cinematic masterpiece, ‘October: Ten Days that Shook the World’ with a live orchestral accompaniment at the Barbican on the 26th October. Tate Modern is still only getting ready to join the wave of exhibitions with its own ‘Red Star Over Russia’ covering artworks from five decades, between 1905 and Stalin’s death in 1953, opening on the 8th November. In the meantime, you can always head to Pushkin House or the Gallery for Russian Art and Design (GRAD) and discover what’s on schedule there.

 


By Borimir Totev, Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal

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A Hope that Died with Boris Nemtsov

Borimir STotev9 March 2015

By Natia Seskuria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destination in Doubt: Ukrainian Football in Time of Conflict

Borimir STotev1 March 2015

Manuel Veth

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

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

Ultras: from protesters to soldiers

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

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

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

Ukrainian Premier League: the show must go on?

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

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

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

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

Shakhtar Donetsk: the fall of a giant?

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

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

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

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

Conjoined twins: football and politics in Ukraine

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

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

A Better Future for Europe

Slovo29 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

Waving ‘Democracy’ From Ukraine to the Balkans

Slovo14 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/

 

Sochi 2014: In Anticipation of Disasters?

Slovo7 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

Slovo31 January 2014

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

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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.

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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

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

Slovo15 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?

Slovo2 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.