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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. (more…)

Danube-on-Thames: The New East Enders

By Blog Admin, on 30 May 2014

This year, 2-13 June, SSEES is running the second UCL Global Citizenship ‘Danube’ Summer School on Intercultural Interaction. This is one of the four summer schools that make up the first year of UCL’s Global Citizenship Programme. The Danube Summer School brings together nearly one hundred students from across the University to learn about the Danube and the people that live along its banks. Coordinated by Tim Beasley-Murray and Eszter Tarsoly, the Summer School draws on the expertise of a wide range of SSEES academic staff, language teachers, and PhD students.

Below is a text from the Danube Summer School’s blog that explains the rationale for the Danube-on-Thames project, one of the Summer School’s outputs.

danube-on-thames1

Historically, the region through which the Danube flows has been a region of extraordinary cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity. The realm of Empires (the Ottoman and Habsburg) that were multi-, rather than mono- ethnic, this was a region that did not care much for neat borders that separated one group of people from another. Here, you used to be able to find Serbian villages dotted in what was otherwise Slovak countryside, German- and Yiddish-speaking towns wedged between Romanian and Hungarian villages, pockets of Turks and other Muslims, Christians of all denominations (Orthodox, Catholic and varieties of Protestants) living across the region, and everywhere settlements of Germans (the so-called Danube Swabians or Saxons) as well those Danubian cosmopolitans, Jews, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and different groups of Roma.

A good, even clichéd image, of this cultural and ethnic plurality, as drawn, for example, by the Austrian writer, Joseph Roth, could be found in the classic Danubian café with its hubbub and chatter in many languages, its newspapers on sticks in German, Hungarian and Romanian, its Romany band playing music that draww on a complex fusion of musical traditions, its Jewish doctor playing chess with a Christian lawyer.

Today, much of this diversity has gone. The collapse of the multi-ethnic empires and the endeavour to create single-nation states, particularly following the First World War, started to tidy up the region and sorted people into national boxes. This process was continued in a much more violent way with the murder of most of the Danube’s Jews and a significant part of its Romany communities in the horrors of the Second World War. After the Second World War, this violence continued with the expulsion of the bulk of Germans from ‘non-German’ national territory – and also, to an extent, the removal of Hungarians from the more-spread out territories that they had previously occupied.

The raising of the Iron Curtain along the banks of the Danube, between Communist (Czecho)Slovakia and Hungary and capitalist Austria and between Communist Romania and non-aligned Yugoslavia, dealt another serious blow to the Danube as a site of intercultural flow. Most recently, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that accompanied the Balkan Wars of the 1990s was a further step in the homogenization of the Danubian region.

The result is that the Danubian interculturality that this Summer School seeks to explore is not necessarily best explored on the banks of the Danube itself. Where then to look for it? (more…)

What will the Euro elections tell us about Eastern Europe?

By Blog Admin, on 11 May 2014

Plakat do Parlamentu Europejskiego 2014 Platforma Obywatelska

Photo: Lukasz2 via Wikicommons

Seán Hanley looks ahead to the upcoming European elections and assesses what they may tell us about the enduring differences between voters and parties in Western and Eastern Europe.

The elections to the European Parliament which take place across the EU’s 28 member states between 22 and 25 May are widely seen a series of national contests, which voters use to vent their frustration and give incumbent and established parties a good kicking. Newspaper leader writers and think-tankers got this story and have been working overtime to tell us about a rising tide of populism driven by a range of non-standard protest parties.

The conventional wisdom is that the ‘populist threat’ is all eurosceptic (and usually of a right-wing persuasion) although in some cases the ‘eurosceptic surge’ is clearly a matter of whipping together  familiar narrative than careful analysis.

But, as a simultaneous EU-wide poll using similar (PR-based) electoral systems, the EP elections also provide a rough and ready yardstick of Europe-wide political trends, ably tracked by the LSE-based Pollwatch 2014 and others.

And, for those interested in comparison and convergence of the two halves of a once divided continent, they a window into the political differences and similarities between the ‘old’ pre-2004 of Western and Southern Europe and the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe (now including Croatia which joined in 2013). (more…)

What drives the rise of Europe’s new anti-establishment parties?

By Blog Admin, on 2 September 2013

A new breed of protest party is being propolled to success in Central and Eastern Europe by a mix of economic hardship, rising corruption and ossified party establishments find Seán Hanley and Allan Sikk.

The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.

 But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.

  Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012).

 In a new paper we explore what these parties, which we term anti-establishment reform parties, have in common and what drives their success. (more…)

In step with the time? Bulgaria’s protest wave in transnational perspective

By Blog Admin, on 16 July 2013

Protests in Sofia, Bulgaria - 16.06.2013

Photo: Bmw Spirit via Flikr CC-BY-2.0

Since 2011, few countries have been exempt from protests against traditional ways of doing politics. Guest contributor Ivalyo Iaydjiev examines how similar Bulgaria’s experience is to those countries that have recently seen mass protests and how it will cope.

The chances are, you are not aware that Bulgarians have spent over three weeks on the streets in what are the the biggest anti-government rallies since 1989. That’s hardly surprising, given that worldwide media attention has been fixated on the violent repression at Taksim square in Turkey, the mass protests in Brazil, or, most recently, anti-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Yet as this hardly exhaustive list demonstrates, the sheer number of protest movements since 2011 makes it hard to believe that all is just coincidence.

One way to generalise meaningfully about this recent wave of protests is to follow Moises Naim’s idea that traditional power is actually ‘evaporating’, leaving many situations quasi-ungovernable.  Alternatively, we can look into what the World Economic Forum presciently named the key geopolitical risk of 2013, the ‘vulnerability of elites’. However, it is probably too early to draw large-scale conclusions about this period; instead, it is interesting to see how events in Eastern Europe resonate with other similar developments around the world. Indeed, Bulgaria is neither, as a famous graffiti put it, ‘in step with time’ as many protesters seem to think, but nor is it completely divorced from our times. (more…)

Eastern Europe: Parties and the mirage of technocracy

By Blog Admin, on 16 May 2013

Non-party technocratic governments of experts have stepped in to fill a political gap in several European countries. But in East and Central Europe they are not always what they seem, writes Seán Hanley

Many commentators saw the governments of non-party technocrats formed in Greece and Italy in 2011 as an ill omen for development of party-based democracy in Europe. Established parties, it is suggested, are turning to technocratic caretaker administrations as a device to manage economic and political crisis, which allows them both to duck (or least share) responsibility for painful austerity measures. Such non-partisan governments of experts, it is argued, can only widen the yawning the legitimacy gap between governors and governed.

 Technocratically-imposed austerity backed by big established parties can further undermine party democracy by provoking anti-elite electoral backlashes:  the rise of new populist parties or breakthroughs by previously marginal radical groups. This in turn, makes coalition formation difficult and further rounds of caretaker government or awkward left-right co-operation more likely. The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its difficult political aftermath, which has finally resulted in an implausible Grand Coalition, seems to illustrate this scenario perfectly. Sometimes, caretaker technocrats themselves even add to the uncertainty, revolting against their erstwhile masters and founding their own new parties.

 How has the drift towards technocratic crisis management impacted Central and Eastern Europe?  The region is sometimes grouped with debt- and crisis-afflicted Southern Europe states as an economically weak periphery of flawed and potentially unstable democracies, where technocratic crisis governments are the order of the day.

And not without reason. In March this year the President of Bulgaria Rosen Plevneliev appointed a technocratic caretaker government to lead the country to early elections on 12 May following the resignation of prime minister Boyko Borisov in the face of street protests against poverty, high utility prices and corruption. Hungary had a year-long technocrat-led government in 2009-11, as did the Czech Republic in 2009-10 following the fall the centre-right minority government of Miroslav Topolánek. Meanwhile, Slovenia – one of three CEE states in the Eurozone – is set for a Southern European-style bailout following the downgrading of its bonds to junk status with undoubted domestic ramifications. (more…)

Protests that toppled Bulgaria’s government are part of Europe’s wider crisis

By Blog Admin, on 24 February 2013

Simeon Dyankov Satanah

Photo: Иван via WikiMedia Commons

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov submitted his government’s resignation last Wednesday following a week of angry demonstrations over high electricity prices, corruption and declining living standards.  The  protests and their aftermath form part of a bigger European crisis, says Eric Gordy.

The main difference between public disorder in Bulgaria and everywhere else in Europe is that in Bulgaria the government responded. Although the immediate catalyst for protests was the state’s failure to control growth in the price of electricity, the core causes are shared in every European state: dissatisfaction resulting from the forced dismantling of social support services brought on by the European debt crisis, and a sense that policymakers are orienting their activity not to the needs of the public but to the service of large European banks.

These forces are accompanied by the perception that national governments have neither the capacity nor the will to address the consequences of a fiscal and social policy that are widely seen as imbalanced against the public interest. In Greece, Hungary and Italy the contribution of public dissatisfaction to the rise of antidemocratic movements of the extreme right is already apparent.

While conservative political leaders in the EU, particularly from Germany and the UK (and until last year, France) have largely been successful in pushing for a shift of priorities to debt service and “austerity,” the consequences of this should concern everybody in Europe. In the period after the end of the First World War, there was a similar euphoric and triumphalist announcement that liberal democracy could declare its inevitable victory across the continent.

Inattention to the responsibilities of states to their publics on the part of that generation of liberal democratic elites led to a rapid and general decay of constitutional systems and an accelerating tendency of governments to neglect of social responsibilities.

If we take one lesson from the failures of democratic order in the 1920s and 1930s, it should be that governments that fail to address social needs will be challenged by forces, some of them extremist ones, that promise to do so.

Eric Gordy is Senior Lecturer in South East European Politics at UCL-SSEES.

This post was first published in the comment section of the  UCL European Institute and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

Fieldwork interviews: From phonebooks to fascists

By Blog Admin, on 8 November 2012

Fieldwork interviews in Eastern Europe can make big demands of young researchers. Careful preparation, creativity and persistence are the key to success, argue Erin Marie Saltman and Philipp Köker.

Ringbound notebook

Photo: Sikura via Wikicommons

Interviews are commonly used across a variety of disciplines – from anthropology to political science, from linguistics to economics.Sometimes, they are the only way to gain important information and, even when they are used alongside other research methods, can give researchers unique insights

However, despite the added value they can bring, conducting interviews is often a more or less a self-taught skill. While there are a few text books, these often remain general, sometimes leaving researchers with more questions than they started with. Courses offered by UCL cover interviewing more directly, but nothing quite prepares research students for using this method in the field.

Given the region’s history, people in Eastern Europe can also be suspicious of (foreign) researchers inquiring about their daily lives or political views. Structures like parties or civil society organisations are sometimes not yet well established enough or sufficiently attuned to help researchers find and contact potential interviewees. And even if you get an interview, the fact that even top politicians and experts often do not speak foreign languages makes interviewing more complicated (although admittedly, this can also be an issue in Western democracies). (more…)

Eastern Europe on a roll

By Blog Admin, on 24 October 2012

The humble toilet roll offers unsuspected insights into the East-West relationships in Europe finds Wendy Bracewell

Toaletni papir nekrepovany JIP

Czechoslovak toiilet paper c. 1980. Photo: Ludek via Wikicommons

Why is toilet paper such a commonplace in writing about Eastern Europe?  Anglo-American disgust at local toilet facilities – or their absence – certainly didn’t appear with the Cold War: this was an old cliché in Western depictions of East European and Mediterranean societies.  (Reactions to postwar Greek plumbing –especially the little basket for used paper – continued in this tradition, showing that while Greece was on the right side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, it was on the wrong side of the Paper one.)

 But Westerners also attached new, more ideological connotations to toilet paper.  As early as 1948 commentators saw blips in supply as the Party-State’s contempt for everyday human needs. (Concern for the ‘ordinary citizen’ seemed less important a decade later, with Americans questioning whether their success with consumer disposables, symbolized by toilet paper, measured up to the Soviet conquest of space with Sputnik.) Toilet paper was handy for dramatizing the humiliations visited on dissidents: interviewers with Milovan Djilas in the 1960s were less interested in what he had written during imprisonment than in the fact that his words had covered thousands of sheets of toilet paper (supply clearly wasn’t a problem). (more…)