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Archive for April, 2013

Serbia-Kosovo agreement: political breakthrough or jobs for the boys?

By Blog Admin, on 25 April 2013

Kosovo Police

Photo:Valdete Hasani CC BY-SA 3.0

The widely hailed agreement reached betweeen Serbia and Kosovo entrenches the power of clentelistic elites and is no real cause for celebration argues Eric Gordy .

 The agreement signed last Friday between Serbia and Kosovo has been widely interpreted as a major breakthrough. In some respects it is, as it paves the way for resolution of a dispute over the status of the northern municipalities in Kosovo and for both countries to forge their paths to eventual membership in the European Union. In other ways it does not, as it comes too late and does too little to fundamentally alter the situation.

The agreement responds to a gesture made by outgoing prime minister Vojislav Koštunica when Kosovo declared independence in 2008, when he established parallel institutions of government and law enforcement in four municipalities along Kosovo’s northern border where about 40% of the ethnic Serb population is concentrated.

The move had two purposes: 1) to create an electoral base for his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), which was otherwise marginal and Belgrade-centred, and 2) to place a long-term obstacle in the way of any eventual agreements about Kosovo’s status.

The government that followed him, nominally opponents of Koštunica, left his parallel structures untouched in the vain hope of expanding its own base to encompass parts of the scattered “patriotic bloc”. It was only with the return of right-wing parties to power in 2012, paradoxically, that some movement occurred: they saw in an eventual agreement with Kosovo a chance both to satisfy powerful international political actors and to marginalise their potential competitors in the Church and on the far right.

So after fourteen years of waiting and five years of negotiation, what does the agreement involve? According to the unofficial text (no official one has been released, so everyone has been using the version published by the Kosovo paper Gazeta Express, it is mostly an agreement about the establishment of lobbies and the employment of personnel. (more…)

Danilo Kiš and the soda siphon

By Blog Admin, on 23 April 2013

Danilo Kis Serbian Literature Great Men Stamps

Marina Kalezić/Srbijamarka CC BY-SA 3.0

Guest contributor Mark Thompson explains why he wrote Birth Certificate. The Story of Danilo Kiš.

In Belgrade in October 1993 to research a a book about the media in the Yugoslav wars, I stayed with a friend who shared my enthusiasm for the fiction of Danilo Kiš (1935-89). This friend suggested I should take a break from lies and propaganda to meet Kiš’s former wife, Mirjana Miočinović, who was a public figure in her own right, thanks to her fierce denunciations of the Milošević regime and its supportive crew of nationalist intellectuals.

Mirjana kindly invited me to the flat she had shared with Kiš before their divorce in 1981. As I sipped rakija and struggled with my Serbo-Croatian, an object on a chest or sideboard caught my eye; it was an old-fashioned soda siphon painted decoratively with names in Cyrillic. Then the object itself altered imperceptibly, when I recognised it as the original of the siphon in Kiš’s great and plangent story, “The Encyclopaedia of the Dead”, about a woman’s discovery of a miraculously complete biography of her father, whose recent death she is mourning.

Near the end of his life, the old man—a retired land surveyor—had taken up painting:

…he painted all day, unflaggingly, a cigarette dangling from his lips. (And in the silence we could hear the wheezing of his lungs, like bellows.) On the aquamarine background of a large soda-water siphon he painted the names of Belgrade cafés in the lettering he had once used for maps: The Brioni, The Bay of Kotor, The Seagull, The Sailor, The Daybreak…

The story had resonated deeply, no doubt in part because I had chanced to read it for the first time only a few weeks after the death of my own father. The sight of the ur-siphon, several years later, rippled around my nervous system like energy.

It took a decade longer to understand that frisson for what it was: the essential thrill of mimesis. For the representation of a remembered item, imbued by Kiš’s craft with emotion, surpassed the original in vividness and significance. (Kiš wrote the story in Paris; I read it in London; the syphon itself never left Belgrade, presumably.) The thrill was intensified by the circumstance, in Kiš’s story, that the siphon was an element in an impossible imaginary biography: it belonged in a fiction within a fiction. And yet the fictional item—so deftly conjured in the story—seemed more real than its three-dimensional analogue. Which was, after all, just a hand-painted soda syphon. (more…)

Is culture the new politics in Russia?

By Blog Admin, on 17 April 2013

How far has culture become a frontline in Russian politics? And how does it compare to earlier periods in the country’s history? Artemy Troitsky,  Peter Pomeranstev and Oliver Carroll discuss the nature of art, protest and the absurd in contemporary Russia.

Pussy Riot - Denis Bochkarev 6

Photo: Denis Bochkarev via Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Carroll:  From Voina to Bykov, Pussy Riot to Moscow hipsterism, culture seems to be playing a very political game in Russia. How can we explain this? Is this something that Russia has seen before? Are we witnessing this Russia’s ‘1968’ moment? And if so, is accompanied by the same kind of generational and political splits that we saw in Europe’s rebellion? Or is it something completely different?

Artemy: If this really is a cultural revolution, then I’m afraid it happening on a very small scale. Compared to the first decade of the 21st century, which was absolutely lethargic and comatose, Russia’s cultural life and political community has started to show some life. But compared to the kind of cultural euphoria Russia experienced in other times — during the so-called shestidesiatniki movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, or in late 80s during Perestroika and Glasnost — it’s on a much smaller scale.

The saddest thing of all is that today’s cultural developments are much more elitist, touching a much finer layer of Russian people than either of the earlier cultural thaws (ottepel). The cultural movement back then was simply massive, supported and followed by millions of so-called ordinary Russians. What is happening right now is more a minority movement, largely ignored by the majority of the Russian population. And there is also a strong counter-reaction too. Sure, Glasnost had some some reactionary things like Nina Andreeva writing her letter in Sovetskaia Rossiia, or the Stalinist writers who urged people not to give up on their principals. But they were the tiny minority. Right now it’s us that feel as if we are pushed in the corner.

OC: Peter, you lived in Russia throughout the 2000s, the least political moment of modern Russian history. You were also in Moscow at the end of that decade, which was when the political returned with some vengeance. Do you agree with Artemy that such change is pretty much insignificant, at least when compared to the 1960s and 1980s?

Peter: Everything in Russia is insignificant compared to the 60s and 80s. Everything in Russia seems to have shrunk and become an echo of when it was truly important. I think Artemy is completely right here, but it’s very interesting to look at the detail of what’s happening, because it’s a slightly different type of battle.

 In Soviet times there was a Soviet culture and a dissident culture. Today, things are less distinct. Over the last few days I’ve been meeting some people from Nashi, for example. I was quite surprised to find out their aesthetic is hipster. They love manga movies, they like modern arts, they have actually co-opted a sort of Western style into their language and then completely twisted it and married it to patriotism and quasi-fascism. In the past, the Kremlin was also sponsoring the most radical art projects, like Kirill Serebrennikov’s Territoriya festival. They went out of their way to make sure that there could be no cultural rebellion by co-opting that language and making it part of the system. Making it pointless as well in the process.

What I’ve been seeing the last eighteen months in terms of culture and in terms of language is an attempt by the opposition to create a mini world for itself, a place where it is not contaminated by the meddling of the Kremlin. And I think that’s incredible and quite inspiring. It’s not a battle of us against them, it’s a battle between manipulation and integrity, and a search for a new language. So it is a much more subtle war then it was in the 1960s and 1980s, when it was almost a Napoleonic war. This is more like the Cold War, with some skirmishes around the edges, spies meeting each other in the culture wars. It doesn’t mean it’s not important, just much more subtle and playful.

A: I think some of the things Peter is saying refer to the previous decade, not necessarily today. During the 2000s there was an obvious and quite successful pact with the regime: ‘We guarantee you a certain degree of stability and prosperity; you can buy your Korean car and go on holiday to Egypt’. In the business community it was, as Mr Putin himself put it, ‘pizdit’, no ne pizdet’’ (‘steal as much as you want, but keep your mouth shut‘). And a similar kind of pact was signed with the cultural elite: do whatever you want, any kind of artistic experiment, sex, drugs, violence… You want to make movies that make Quentin Tarantino look like the Muppet Show? Go for it… And again the cultural elite said ‘Yeah that’s fine, that’s fantastic’. (more…)

Russia for the Russians – a putative policy

By Blog Admin, on 11 April 2013

RM12-112

Photo: RiMarkin via Flikr. License CC BY-SA 3.0

There have been tensions between native Russians and ethnic minorities since the Tartar Yoke of the 13th century. Successive rulers either tried to keep an uneasy peace or fanned the flames of division. Frederica Prina discusses the Russian government’s latest strategies for creating an identity that embraces all of Russia’s citizens. 

One would not normally, perhaps, describe the President of Russia as ‘anti-Russian,’ but this is how not a few people described him, waving their banners, on the annual ‘Russian March’ that took place on National Unity Day, 4 November 2012. Some 6,000 Russian nationalists, from Moderate to Far Right, gathered in central Moscow. Alexander Belov, the leader of the (banned) ‘Movement Against Illegal Immigration’, was cheered when he called President Putin an, ‘Enemy.’ In what way, an enemy, on National Unity Day?

Taken to extremes, Russian nationalists would like to keep Russia only for the Russians; they think that the Russian Government has not done enough to establish a Russian nation state. Given Russia’s turbulent history, as a multi-ethnic Romanov empire and a multi-ethnic Soviet Union, such caution is understandable. In the same way that creating a Russian citizen out of an ethnic imperial melting pot defeated many a Romanov, so the Soviets, while they aimed for the creation of a homo sovieticus (whose ethnic consciousness would be overridden by Communism), settled for managing the ethnic diversity they had inherited.

Ethnic diversity management

What we might call ‘ethnic diversity management’ was incorporated into Soviet policy. It included the establishment of titular republics (Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Armenia…) where ethnic minorities were temporarily ‘assigned’ until, that is, they became model Soviet citizens. The American sociologist Rogers Brubaker described it as an, ‘irony of history’ that what should have been a temporary arrangement, however, turned into the consolidation of ethnic differences. And what of the Russians in the USSR? How were they assigned? That was never determined, perhaps because it was not thought necessary, or could it have been that the Soviets thought that it was much too difficult to define ‘Russianness?’ One might say that there was a marginalisation even at the Russian centre of the USSR; and that marginalisation included Russian Orthodoxy, hitherto a bastion of Russian national identity.

Thus it was that, during the Soviet period, a citizen of the USSR was neither wholly ethnic, nor wholly Soviet. The national consciousness of the USSR’s many ethnic groups was never extinguished; and historic Russian identity – whatever had survived the Romanovs – was an ill-defined concept.  (more…)

Violence prevention: Is there a digital dimension?

By Blog Admin, on 4 April 2013

Legacy of rage - Flickr - Al Jazeera English (1)

Photo: Al-Jazeera English via WikiCommons

Protesters famously used social media to mobilise against authoritarian regimes during the Coloured Revolutions and the Arab Spring. But attempts to use technology to prevent deadly outbreaks of violence are less well known. A new book sheds important lights on these efforts, finds Kristen Perrin.

 Current discussions of the uses of social media are magnifying the implications of near-instantaneous human interaction. These discussions are often layered – we use social media to discuss both the issues and potential of social media. Therein lies a fascinating marker for our time. Where we recently marvelled at the speed at which information could reach us, we are now examining a more sophisticated set of problems.  What impact, for example, does the timing and spread of information have on communities teetering on the brink of violence?

In The Technology of Nonviolence: Social Media and Violence Prevention (MIT Press, 2012) Joseph G. Bock sets out to answer this question, drawing on his extensive experience in humanitarian aid, adding a digital dimension to some of the issues he has tackled in previous publications. I was initially interested but sceptical about how this topic would be addressed, but Bock sets about his analysis in a very organised and functional way.  His first two chapters give a straightforward investigation of the theory and application of violence prevention and early warning systems.

He also keeps to the heart of the matter throughout the book: in analysing the technological elements of tracking and preventing violence, we are, he says, really analysing people, leadership, politics and communication. Digital innovations are merely symptoms of larger processes and, Bock emphasises, it is ultimately these processes he is seeking to understand. Bock uses several case studies to examine the ways in which technology has brought change to early-warning systems to prevent violence. (more…)