Browsing the archives for the European culture(s) category.

Ukraine: Did the protest movement transcend historical borders?

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, International Politics, Politics

“Even in the president’s heartlands, in Eastern Ukraine, protesters have come out in strong support of ‘Euromaidan’,” two British academics argued last week on the Washington Post’s political science blog The Monkey Cage, and they drew a far-reaching conclusion: “In effect, Russophones and Ukrainophones, the East and West of the country, young and old, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians [have] united against – what they increasingly regard as – the illegitimate rule of the president and his party”.

A similar note was struck in a slideshare that’s circulating on Facebook, called What is really happening in Ukraine, which has been viewed over 650.000 times. Citing “massive protests” arising in the East and the South on January 26, the creators chide the Western press for a tendency to continue portraying the protests “in cold war terms,” as “fundamentally based on ‘ethnic/language’ splitting in Ukraine”.

Ukraine, 26 January 2014: occupations, seizures and protests

Map of the situation in Ukraine, 26 January 2014, Sergii Gorbachov

Both arguments came with maps. The Monkey Cage contributors,  Kataryna Wolczuk and Roman Wolczuk,  presented a map from the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, which colours most of the country orange (“occupied state administration buildings”) or brown (“mass protests”). The slideshare used three of Sergii Gorbachov’s detailed maps, presenting the situation on January 25-27. On his map from January 26, 21:00, just two of the country’s provinces remained Yanukovych-blue: Donetsk and the Crimea. The rest of the country was in the grip of the revolution: local state administrations were “occupied by [the] people” or the object of “attempted seizures” or “mass protests”.

Ukraine, 29 January 2014: occupations and protests

Map of the situation in Ukraine, 29 January 2014, Centre for Eastern Studies

Those maps look very different from the one posted by Max Fischer in the Washington Post just a couple of days earlier, under the title “This is the one map you need to understand Ukraine’s crisis”. Fischer’s map of the regional divide running down the centre of Ukraine between the protesting North and West of the country and the non-protesting South and East neatly overlapped with those of various post-independence election results — and moreover, as I wrote and mapped out last week, with ancient and more recent historical borders as well. So did something fundamentally change, in the last two weeks?

Kataryna Wolczuk and Roman Wolczuk seem to believe so, when they go beyond describing the protests in the South and East as “unprecedented and until recently inconceivable” to describe “the East and West of the country” uniting against Yanukovych. The slideshare authors obviously also believe that analyses that still focus on ethnic/language divides are out of touch with the changing environment.

There are two questions about this argument: To what extent were they right, concerning the developments as they unfolded in the last days of January? And to what extent do any such changes last today?

Protesters in the East: How much of a force?

Poland’s Centre for Eastern Studies, which created the map used in the Monkey Cage blog post, summarized the state of the Ukrainian protests on January 29 in a detailed briefing, covering events across the country. When it came to developments in the South and East, it reported that “demonstrations numbering several thousand and blockades of offices also took place in Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye, Odessa, Cherkassy and Lugansk.”

Map of Ukraine with main cities

Cities of Ukraine (Wikimedia)

By then the Centre had already published more detailed write-ups of ongoing events in the previous few days. Its briefing of the 27th cited “massive numbers of participants” in “protests in the largest cities of southern and eastern Ukraine”, which “reached unprecedented proportions”. Detailing the specifics, however, the briefing reported that “several thousand people” took part in an anti-government demonstration in Dnipropetrovsk, a “four-thousand-strong rally” was held in Sumy, a “demonstration of several hundred people” was dispersed in Zaporizhia, “2–3 thousand people” took to the streets in Odessa, “more than one thousand” people demonstrated in Kirovohrad, and so on. Reuters reported “up to 5,000 anti-government protesters” picketing the regional government  headquarters in Zaporizhia. The Centre for Eastern Studies’ briefing from a day later added a few details: “a one-thousand strong demonstration” was held in Luhansk, “which may be viewed as another sign of a civil ‘awakening’ of people in eastern Ukraine”; but meanwhile, in Kharkiv, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia “attempts at occupying administration buildings have been effectively and brutally countered by the police and groups of “titushky”‘.

Even if only a few thousand people took part in those various protests, that may indeed have been unprecedented; after all, in Luhansk for example, Yanukovych received over 80% of the vote in the last presidential elections. The local, Yanukovych-friendly administrations and oligarchs usually keep these cities on a tight reign. But does “several thousand” really equate with “massive,” let alone indicating that the East and the West are finally uniting against the current government? Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa have a million inhabitants each; Zaporizhia has over 800,000. The same Reuters story reporting on the protest in Zaporizhia also interviewed an opposition journalist admitting that the local protests only attracted the educated middle class: “Unfortunately, Euromaidan’s appeal is very limited here”.

Not all these places are the same either. Sumy and Kirovohrad went for Tymoshenko over Yanukovych in the last elections, so it isn’t all that surprising that opposition protests would break out there. In fact, for two cities with 250,000-300,000 inhabitants which voted for Tymoshenko, a few thousand protesters doesn’t immediately impress, although Sumy protesters did occupy the city’s council building. The size of protests is also sometimes overstated – by both sides, for different reasons. A reporter from the Putin-critical Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta observed a peaceful protest rally in Kharkiv where no attempts were made to storm the regional government building: “Most of the participants were students,” she said, “just half a thousand very young and unprepared kids who did not prepare for an assault at all”. Yet afterwards she saw on TV that an opposition politician was telling a Kyiv rally that “at this very moment protestors are blocking regional state administrations” in Kharkiv – and that the mayor of Kharkiv, from Yanukovych’s party, was threatening protesters that they shouldn’t involve themselves in a “war,” as they would be assured to lose it.

Violence and loathing on the streets

No doubt, the threat of violence and intimidation will have kept many away. Police used tear gas and smoke grenades, and “young men armed with baseball bats” attacked anti-government protesters in Kharkiv. In Zaporizhia,  men “with white ribbons on their shoulders were walking around the city and beating people”, a local journalist reported. The BBC linked to videos showing vigilante titushki, armed with seemingly identical batons, gathering inside a Dnipropetrovsk government building and then rushing out to viciously beat up demonstrators. The local Governor later called these men “representatives of the region’s public organisations”, calling “everything … perfectly legal.”

Vice versa, eighteen policemen were injured in Dnipropetrovsk alone, according to regional authorities. A blogger in Donetsk described “hired thugs” being transported in on buses to stage mock street riots and “imitate assaults at official buildings,” presumably “to frighten people here and … mobilize their voters,” but it’s not as if actual attacks on administrative buildings by anti-Yanukovych protesters have been lacking in graphical violence of their own, as this disturbing footage from a Central-Ukrainian city illustrated.

Anti-government protesters in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk talked to France24 about their motivations on January 27th. “[I]n Kharkiv we’ve been having protests every day since November 22,” said Natalka Zubar – but it’s tough going. “Here in eastern Ukraine, [..] Russian TV is even more popular than Ukrainian TV, and every day its anchors talk about LGBT people controlling all of Europe, spreading sodomy, things like this. They claim all protesters are hooligans. But I think that more and more people have stopped listening.”

Protesters from Donetsk at Euromaidan

Protesters from Donetsk at Euromaidan in Kyiv (Photo by spoilt.exile, creative commons)

Protests in Dnipropetrovsk started two months ago, added Pavlo Khazan, and “there had been no major incidents [..] until Sunday”. That day, however, “some protesters decided that we should go to the regional administration building. [..] When we arrived, we were shocked to see that, behind a line of police officers guarding the building stood hooligans armed with sticks and baseball bats. The police let them attack us, and then dispersed the crowd [..] and began making arrests.”

The slideshare touting the protests’ strength makes mention of football fans several times. There’s a long history of politics and football mixing, and Ukraine offers a new episode. Local fans of Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk protected demonstrators from attacks by aggressive pro-government groups, AFP reported on the 31st, along with even fans of Shakhtar Donetsk, in Yanukovych’s own hometown. “We came to support our people in fighting for their rights,” explained some of a group of about 60 Shakhtar fans in central Donetsk.

Already back in mid-January, professor Alexander J. Motyl wrote a piece extolling the bravery of anti-government protesters in Donetsk: “at first, it was only a small group of about 20 to 30 demonstrators who repeatedly assembled at the Shevchenko monument [..]. Then, a few weeks ago, several hundred brave protesters [..] carried pro-democracy, pro-Europe, and anti-Yanukovych banners in a march through downtown”. Motyl argued that even these small numbers had the local establishment spooked, and compared the demonstrations with Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches through Alabama: “For 500 marchers to assemble in Donetsk is the equivalent of 50,000 in Lviv or 500,000 in Kyiv.”

Is it? In symbolic terms, maybe. But not necessarily in terms of measuring the balance of public opinion across the regions.

Fathoming public opinion

The Ukrainian Center for Social and Marketing Research SOCIS last week released the results of a poll it conducted between 17 and 26 January. They don’t include any regional breakdown, but the overall results are instructive. The opposition is definitely on an upswing: Klitschko ‘s UDAR, the pro-Tymoshenko Fatherland party, Solidarity, and the far-right Freedom party are pooling some 58-60% of the vote among them in both parliamentary and presidential match-ups. That’s about 10% more than these parties received in the 2012 parliamentary elections. (The parties now rallying in the streets already actually received a narrow majority of the vote back then, but lost out big in seats because of their divisions.)

Support for Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, however, has barely lessened. The party would get 29% of the vote in parliamentary elections, and he himself is polling at 29-30% in presidential match-ups. In 2012, the Party of the Regions received almost exactly the same share of the vote: 30%. Instead, it’s the Communist Party which lost some of its vote, polling at 8% when it received 13% in 2012, and the largest shifts are actually taking place within the opposition camp, with Fatherland (down to 20%) and Freedom (down to 7%) losing out to UDAR (up to 24%) and Solidarity (9%). In addition, some 30% of the full, initial sample answered that they wouldn’t know who to vote for.

Yanukovych’s party won the 2012 elections by racking up 65% of the vote in the Donetsk region, over 50% of the vote in Lugansk and the Crimea, and some 40% of the vote in the regions of Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Odessa and Mykolaiv. And the Communists hauled in 18-25% of the vote in those same regions. If the Party of the Regions remains at strength and the Communists hold on to at least half of their vote, as this new poll suggests, then a majority of those who have an opinion in these regions are likely still in their camp. In the Dnipropetrovsk region, the Party of the Regions and the Communist Party pooled 55% of the vote in 2012 while Fatherland, UDAR and Freedom added up to 38%, so if shifts are taking place roughly proportionally around the country, that region too would at best be evenly divided now.

In the same poll, respondents were given a straight choice between entry into the EU and entry into a Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. A plurality of 43% chose for the EU, but 32% preferred the Customs Union (with the rest offering no answer), and that latter number will be proportionally higher in the East and South. These numbers suggest that little has actually changed. In openDemocracy, Valery Kalnysh recapped polling data from late December, when the Euromaidan protests were already ongoing but hadn’t yet escalated, and they showed that 50% of Ukrainians then supported Euromaidan while 42% did not, and that opponents were far in the majority in the East, by 65% to 30%. Tellingly, that poll had also shown support for not just the opposition leaders, but also Yanukovych going up since October, from 19% to 29% – suggesting that far from Yanukovych’s south-eastern base suffering erosion, the increasing polarization of the country was shoring it up. A whole series of polls by different pollsters between May and November 2013 had showed a similar balance of opinion, with support for EU access consistently at 41-47% and, with the one exception of a November poll, support for the Customs Union at 31-40%.

Rallying the counterforces: local authorities and the “titushki”

A view of Donetsk

A view of Donetsk (Photo by Vladimir Yaitskiy, creative commons)

In some regions, the mere prospect of increasing protest did seem to change some of the political dynamics. In Odessa, the Kyiv Post reported, the local administration and opposition struck a truce of sorts, a “non-aggression, mutual supportiveness deal”. But elsewhere  in the South and East, any challenge to the grip of Yanukovych loyalists seems to have been beaten back. On February 1, the Kyiv Post reported that local authorities in Dnipropetrovsk had detained two opposition party members for allegedly “plotting a terrorist attack at a national energy system facility”. In the Crimea, the regional parliament banned the Freedom party, though it was forced to reverse its decision on February 7. As January ended, one reporter found no more protests in Donetsk, just a middle-aged local scoffing: “Euromaidan? To hell with that!”. Organizers of a protest picket had cancelled it out of fear of further violence. Two local activists of the nationalist Freedom party had left Donetsk on the 27th, explaining that “we feared that emergency rule would be imposed so that nobody can leave the region”.

The regional deputy head of UDAR said that party activists throughout Donbass have been receiving threatening text messages on their mobile phones, and dismissed local pro-Yanukovych protesters as titushki, “hired thugs” and “former inmates”. An in-depth portrait of the “titushki” phenomenon for Foreign Policy describes these roaming groups of violent youths as an actually well-organized, 20,000-strong national force, complete with internal hierarchies, materially supported by riot police, and motivated by daily government pay-offs, Soviet and military-inspired loyalties to the state, ties to powerful organized crime groups with a vested interest in corrupt ruling politicians, and plain old criminal tempers.

Anton Davydchenko, the leader of a group called National Unity in Odessa which claims to have rallied over 1,000 volunteers, all ready to take up arms against anti-government protesters if necessary, would presumably recognize some of these descriptions and take issue with others. “We will never give them our cheek to be slapped. If they come to us with weapons, we will meet them with weapons,” he told RFE/RL. Like local authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk did with similar groups (described as including “Cossacks and Afghanistan war veterans”), local authorities are supporting the group.

Night over Kharkiv

Night over Kharkiv (Photo by Aleksandr Osipov, creative commons)

In Kharkiv, a conference of provincial Party of the Regions officials called for establishing a new organization called the “Ukrainian Front” – after the Soviet Army campaign that drove Nazi Germany out of Ukraine in WWII – at the suggestion of an Afghanistan veterans group. “‘The Front will purge and cleanse the Ukrainian land from anyone who has come here as an occupier,” orated the governor of Kharkiv: its participants “will follow their fathers’ and grandfathers’ example in freeing our lands, like in the 1940s”. (If that sounds alarming, it doesn’t help that many protesters in Kyiv have actually embraced the imagery of Stepan Bandera, who declared an independent Ukrainian State during WWII, and the  Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which committed war crimes and at times collaborated with Nazi Germany during its battle for independence.) Kharkiv’s eccentric mayor, Hennady Kernes, riffed on the same theme when approving of the local pro-Yankovych martial arts club Oplot, which has been accused of ties with the kidnapping and torture of Auto-Maidan leader Dmytro Bulatov: “I know these sportsmen,” he has said: “they are against allowing ‘Banderovtsy’ to come to Kharkiv and I support this”.

Protests in Ukraine - situation by region, February 4

Map of the situation in Ukraine, 4 February 2014, Sergii Gorbachov

All in all, the authorities in the South and East seem to have succeeded in beating back any challenge which local protesters posed to their position in late January. The last time Sergii Gorbachov posted an updated map was on February 4, and all the South and East had reverted back to Yanukovych-blue, with added icons indicating the appearance of pro-Yanukovych demonstrators, Party of Regions brigades and violent “titushki” as well as local protesters.

Change: up to moguls or mobs?

In the end, if the protest movement is to crack the South and East in a meaningful way, it may not be up to the protesters themselves. It will have to be up to elements in the political class itself — “and no one within that class is more powerful than Ukraine’s oligarchs, the billionaire business tycoons who together own a vastly disproportionate share of the country’s wealth,” as Sergii Leshchenko wrote in Foreign Policy. They won’t be motivated by political idealism, but by self-interest, needing the doors to the EU to stay open, stability to return to the country, and themselves not to be targeted by financial and visa sanctions to protect their wealth. Leshchenko recounts how a second oligarch, Viktor Pinchuk, switched to supporting the opposition in December – and he’s from Dnipropetrovsk.

The others, however, are still hedging their bets, at best – and it would have to be someone like Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and still powerful in his native Donetsk, to really overturn the dynamics. Lesser moguls will not do, as two of the richest businessmen in Dnipropetrovsk found out after January 25. That day, Hennadiy Korban and Borys Filatov decided to air live broadcasts of the antigovernment protests in Kyiv on a large outdoor screen at a shopping mall they owned, and hoist the flags of the EU and Ukraine at their local properties. Hours later, the New York Times recounted, the electricity was suddenly cut to all their three shopping malls. Four days later, a local judge ordered “that Mr. Korban be detained and interrogated as a witness in connection with a previously dormant investigation of a 2012 murder”. Then, state security officers raided the premises of the businessmen’s accountant for “bombs or other evidence of terrorism”. The two men have now relocated to Israel.

Enduring divisions

With the iron grip of local authorities from Yanukovych’s camp in the South and East seemingly barely letting up, for now, and indications that a majority of the population there is still on the opposite side from Euromaidan’s activists (who themselves are hardly unified), the question arises how much future there is for a unitary state so bitterly divided. The dividing lines today are, after all, not very different from the borders of previous eras – could they become real borders of one kind of another again? The Ukrainian Communist Party has floated a trial balloon: Ukraine as federal state. Dividing Ukraine up into seven large states, each with its own parliament, would pull the country back from the brink of civil war and prevent the country from falling apart, the communists argue. But the opposition, not altogether without reason, is likely to see this as a mere Russian strategy to break up the state and seize the South and East.

Despite the initial enthusiasm about unprecedented demonstrations in the East illustrated by the Monkey Cage blog post, it seems in fact unlikely that “Russophones and Ukrainophones, the East and West of the country, [..] ethnic Russians and Ukrainians” will really unite against the political forces represented by Yanukovych any time soon. On February 4, a week after the small protests in the South and East crested, an AP report concluded that “two months into Ukraine’s anti-government protests, the two sides are only moving further apart. [The protesters] appear unable to significantly broaden their movement into parts of the country where the opposition is weak, as some of the protesters use nationalist rhetoric that alienates even liberal eastern Ukrainians.” As David Stern wrote in The Atlantic, even if Yanukovych does steps down, peacefully, and the opposition assumes power, “it too would not resolve Ukraine’s crisis. Political divisions, both within the country and the protest camp itself, will remain, and possibly become more pronounced” over time.

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The shooting party

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, Politics

The Tagesspiegel reports that Hell’s Angels and militant neo-Nazis are fighting out a bloody feud in the northernmost German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

It all apparently started in 2007, when a Nazi stabbed a Hell’s Angel in a fight over debts, and the Hell’s Angel barely survived. The trial about that case was supposed to take place last August, but had to be suspended when dozens of neo-Nazis and Hell’s Angels battled it out in front of the court house. During that fight, Peter Borchert stabbed a leading Hell’s Angel. Borchert is the former chair of the National Democratic Party, which received 2% of the vote in the last elections in the state. He’s already done a stint in jail for illegal arms trade.

Now two unknown, masked men have shot the brother of the Nazi who started it all back in 2007 – and who was supposed to testify in the court case. He was shot on the parking place of a swimming pool.

The Tagesspiegel dryly notes that the Angels are “involved in activities related to tattoo studios, gastronomy, bouncer services, fight sports and online mail ordering” as well as connections with the prostitution sector and, it is suspected, illegal anabolics trade … “to some extent there are overlaps in the above-mentioned commercial sectors with members of the extreme right.”

Right.

So … how wrong is it if, as a normally passionate proponent of the rule of law, you’re not all too bothered when neo-Nazis and Hells Angels start taking each other out?

Bernd the Bread, with friends

Bernd the Bread, with friends

In other news from Germany today, a two-metre high statue of Bernd the Bread, a local children’s show character, was found back in abandoned barracks after protesting squatters kidnapped it from the town square of Erfurt two weeks ago.

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Russia’s gradual embrace of Stalinism

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Politics

When it comes to Russia’s creeping rehabilitation of Stalin, a good follow-up read was published last month in openDemocracy: The Embrace of Stalinism. It was written by Memorial’s founder Arseny Roginsky, apparently on the eve of the police raid. It starts off slow, but ends up sketching an instructive panorama of the current junction in Russia’s development.

The urgency of the moment when it comes to determining historical memory reflects the same tragedy as Spain’s; any opening is about to be too late. The terror is “a passing memory. There are still witnesses, but they are the last of their kind, and they are dying, taking with them the personal memories and experiences.”

The difference, of course, is that Spain is witnessing a last-minute rush to uncover stories and records from the totalitarian past, while the last opportunities to do so in Russia are rapidly being clamped down on. All the signs point the other way – as was poignantly underlined by the raid on Memorial and the further assassinations of dissidents this month.

So why is today’s Russia romanticising the memory of Stalinism, Roginsky asks – and proceeds to walk the reader through the ingredients:

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Updates: Follow the links

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Media / journalism, Politics, US Politics

Re Spain’s orphaned children of the revolution: I found the photo of the Women’s prison Les Corts in Barcelona on Flickr, but the original source must be this site: Memòria de les Corts, prisión de mujeres, a site of the Catalan government. There’s many more.

Re: the raid by armed Russian police on “Memorial”: only after writing that post did I find two openDemocracy articles about it. Russia: raid on Memorial HQ has the official statement from “Memorial” from 4 December, outlining that “the confiscated discs contain databases with biographical details of tens of thousands of victims of the Stalinist repressions [which] has taken “Memorial” 20 years to collect”. In Eleven hard disks, “Tatyana Kosinova itemises the material, which includes Memorial’s massive project for a Virtual Gulag Museum” and the whole of its electronic archive of oral history.

Re: Speech wars and past inaugural addresses: for a comparison of the words used by GWB and Obama in their speeches, check out this mysterious webpage. It lists the “words which appear in one speech, but not the other, in decreasing order of number of times mentioned”, with words of less than 4 letters and themost frequently used words excluded for clarity.

Re: reasons to hate Chris Matthews, read this hilarious account of watching Mathews present the inauguration: Chris Matthews’ Inaugural Jib-Jabbery. Money quote is right at the beginning:

Nobody in TV news stir-fries his ideas and serves them to the audience faster than MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Drawing from a larder filled with old anecdotes, unreliable metaphors, wacky intuition, and superficial observations, the always-animated Matthews steers whatever’s handy into the hot wok that is his brain. The sizzling free-associations skitter through his limbic system, leap out his mouth, and look for a resting spot in the national conversation, where they steam like fresh lava in untouchable heaps.

When I ranted about Matthews, I mentioned his mindblowingly shallow stupidity, but mostly I focused on the way he “turns with the wind with the self-evidence of someone who is so obliviously vain and unreflective, he wouldn’t even be able to recognize that he’s doing it.” But what strikes me in Shafer’s account is the man’s enduring love for authority, or maybe it’s celebrity. His knees go weak in the presence of celebrity – not the best trait in one of the country’s premier pundits.

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Reenacting their parents’ revolutions as farce?

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Politics
May Day march of the Greek communists (KKE and allies) in 2008. Image used under CC license by xamogelo.

May Day march of the Greek communists in 2008. (Image shared under CC license by Flickr user xamogelo.)

“You can only imagine the bitterness this must have left in families [with] Republican, anarchist or socialist traditions,” I wrapped up my previous post about the lost children of Franco’s Spain. This might be something to keep in mind when eyeing the still vibrant leftist countercultures in the Mediterranean.

In Germany and Holland, countercultural hotbeds in the eighties, even the parties furthest to the left have long embraced classic social-democratic programmes that are more redolent of Willy Brandt than Karl Liebknecht. But in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal there are still significant constituencies waving the red or black flags of revolutionary communism or anarchism. Maybe stories like those of Spain’s lost children are part of the explanation: the political emotions go deeper, are rooted in more personal stories.

This is what an IPS report on the Greek riots last month posited. Explaining the sheer intensity of anti-police violence, Apostolis Fotiadis reported:

Many [of the young people who joined the demonstrations] were joined by their parents, who experienced military dictatorship between 1967 and 1973. “I came because I felt responsible for the stalemate we left to these children to deal with [..],” said Tania Liberopoulos, a middle-aged accountant.

The protests were fed by the political memory of a history of social and political struggle. Almost by instinctive conscience, many people in Greece distrust the state. The latent Greek dislike of the police, which erupted so volcanically, has its roots in the old dictatorship when the police functioned as the colonels’ enforcers against the citizens.

Constant misuse of the police for anti-social purposes has led to its dehumanisation; officers are met with hate and contempt, and they hate back.

I’m not sure I buy into this – or at least, I’m not sure whether it works as much of a defense.

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Spain’s orphaned children of the revolution

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Politics

A heartbreaking story in The Times this month underlines the sheer, unprecedentedly ideological cruelty of the 20th century – and the lasting traumas it left behind, like so many time bombs:

Find General Francisco Franco’s stolen children of the Spanish Civil War, says court

She was 54 when she first got to know her mother, but Antonia Radas was one of the luckier ones. Taken away when her mother, Carmen, was imprisoned after the Spanish Civil War for her father’s Republican links, Mrs Radas’s adoptive parents lied to her, telling her that she had been abandoned, and changed her name to stop relatives tracing her. Mother and child were finally reunited in 1993, 18 months before Carmen died.

Now 71, Mrs Radas is among an estimated 30,000 children who were separated from their parents on the orders of General Francisco Franco. Many of them never knew who their real parents were.

Their cause was taken up by Judge Baltasar Garzón, the man who went after Pinochet and officers from the Argentinian junta:

Garzón [..] has claimed that Franco and 34 henchmen were guilty of the systematic killing or disappearance of at least 114,000 people during and after the civil war.

Among the victims were children of Republicans who were adopted by Franco sympathisers to prevent them coming under the influence of Marxism. Others, whose families fled abroad, were lured back to Spain under false pretences. “Child refugees were also kidnapped in France by the repatriation service of the regime and put in state institutions,” Judge Garzón wrote. [..]

Julián Casanova, a historian, claims that the aim was to “reCatholicise” the children of “Reds”. He said: “The Church was responsible for the theft of these children, from Red families. It wanted to purify them.”

The stories are all the more tragic because it’s too late now, for all but a few victims. The children who were robbed from (and of) their parents are in their old age. Their parents will almost certainly be dead, so there is no prospect of a cathartic reunion.

Womens prison Les Corts in Barcelona, 1952 (Image shared under CC license by Jaume dUrgell). Google Books allows for a peek in Prison of Women, by Tomasa Cuevas and Mary E. Giles, which has testimonies from this prison.

Women's prison Les Corts, Barcelona, 1952 (shared under CC license by Jaume d'Urgell). Google Books provides a peek in "Prison of Women" by Tomasa Cuevas e.a., which has testimonies from this prison.

Moreover, Garzón last November had to relinquish “what had promised to be the first criminal investigation of wrongs committed by Franco and his allies”. He was forced by state prosecutors to concede jurisdiction to regional courts, “who now have the authority to decide whether or not to take up these controversial cases”. He also had pass the responsibility “for opening 19 mass graves believed to hold the remains of hundreds of victims” to regional courts.

Xenu Ablana, 80, holds little faith in the proceedings. “The courts are still run by Francoists. These people have a lot of influence,” he said. His story is one of the heartbreaking ones:

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Entropa: Derailing Europe

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, Funny, Politics
Entropa, a controversial exhibition

Entropa, a controversial exhibition

Eternal Remont flagged this story a few days ago already – before it hit all the news stands. I laughed out loud but didn’t think of bringing it here until I came across more detail at openDemocracy and elsewhere. If the story missed you by so far, read the account of a credulity straining clusterfuck at the highest European levels – which manages to tie in some urgent developments in individual countries as well.

Chronicle of a wreck foretold

As of the beginning of this month, the Czech Republic took over the presidency of the European Union for the next six months.

To celebrate the occasion and underline the presidency’s commitment to art and Europe’s cultural variety, the Czech EU Presidency embraced the idea of an exhibition on the premises of the European Council, one of the EU’s three main institutions. The commission was won by David Černý, a Czech artist. In his proposal, one artist from each of the twenty-seven member states would contribute a symbolic representation of their country. In a postmodern, playful kind of way, of course. The Czechs boasted, recounts the BBC’s Mark Mardell, that the artwork would speak where words fail.

Černý may be best known for the stunt he pulled back in the heady years after the velvet revolution. He and his friends took to a Soviet tank that was still being preserved as monument to WW2 Soviet tank crews, and painted it pink. After he was promptly arrested and the tank was repainted green, 15 members of parliament took advantage of their official immunity and re-painted the tank pink again. In short, the artist had the kind of fame that would allow him to land a job like this, but might also have alerted the Czechs to what was going to happen…

Entropa: Bulgaria portrayed as a series of Turkish squat toilets

Entropa: Bulgaria portrayed as a series of squat toilets

The resulting Entropa exhibition is shaped as a giant, 256 m² (2,760 sq ft), “Airfix” sprue frame, which is affixed to the European Council seat, the Justus Lipsius Building in Brussels. Each country, adorned in various, um, colourful and controversial ways to reflect national specificities, is shaped as a snap-out plastic part inside a frame of tubes, like one of those old-fashioned modelling kits.

The Czech EU Presidency published (6MB, PDF) a suitably fancy brochure. It features an introduction by Černý:

The EU puzzle is both a metaphor and a celebration of this diversity. It comprises the building blocks of the political, economic and cultural relationships with which we ‘toy’ but which will be passed on to our children. The task of today is to create building blocks with the best possible characteristics.

The cost of the work has been variously put at €373,000 or $500,000 (EU Observer), 10 million Czech crowns or $606,000 (National Post) or 13.2 million crowns (Wikipedia). Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra spent lavish praise on the artists. “I am confident in Europe’s open mind and capacity to appreciate such a project,” he said, and, a tad defensively: “in today’s Europe there is no place for censorship”.

The EU Observer sketched the scene on the 13th:

Gaggles of EU officials, diplomats and journalists were to be found standing under the construction throughout the day trying to puzzle out where their country could be found. [..]

“We’re Ikea …of course,” said one grinning Swedish official, referring to the representation of his country as a giant flatpack [..]. “Who are you?” he asked. But his colleague was unsure. She thought she was the “one with meat on it.”

Not amused

Even before it was unveiled, the exhibition backfired, however. While some Germans expressed unease at how the pattern of highways that crisscrossed their country in the exhibit was somewhat redolent of a swastika, it was the Bulgarians in particular who were not pleased at what they saw.

“It is preposterous, a disgrace,” declared Betina Joteva, spokeswoman of the Bulgarian permanent representation to the EU. “It is a humiliation for the Bulgarian nation and an offence to our national dignity.” The government promptly demanded that the Bulgarian piece of the puzzle be removed before the official opening.

More photos and video below the fold.

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In which the great Vladimir Putin solves yet another nettlesome international issue

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, Funny, Politics

Pirates(and)Diplomats at Eternal Remont has a point about the dilemmas involved in Serbs burning Russian flags. (They’re doing so because they’re freezing, due to the gas shut-off). “If a Russian flag were to, say, accidentally flip during the messy burning process, wouldn’t the Serbs in fact, be burning their own flag?”

However, another article they’re linking to today suggests a simple answer. The ten men and women whom Kommersant Vlast Journal selected for its annual list of Russia’s biggest yes-men and -women (#10. Svetlana Semenova: “The people have become kinder – this is an attribute of Putin’s policies”) would certainly agree. Just put Putin’s face on the Russian flag, and no Serb need worry about tipping his burning flag the wrong way anymore.

Russian flag with Putin profile

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Take my country. No, really – take it.

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, Funny, Politics

Did Roman Abramovich, the world’s 15th richest man (and Russia’s second wealthiest), get an offer he can’t refuse?

An unknown Latvian called Andris posted a letter on petitonline.com which reads:

Dear Roman Abramovich. As you may already know our homeland Latvia went bankrupt and is currently holding talks with the International Monetary Fund on the sale of our country for 7.5 billion euros ($10.7 billion). [..]

I would like you to consider the possibility of purchasing Latvia: the population are hard working and pleasant, environmentally clean area and plenty of space to dock your yacht.

A prank, right? But one that got signed by 1,025 people (and counting).

It’s mostly Russian names – and since anyone can sign (I know; I tried), this is of course the perfect foil for a latest dig in the ongoing flamewar between Latvia and Russia. Then again, since the 40% or so Russian-speaking residents of Latvia have been largely and vocally dissatisfied ever since independence, there shouldn’t be a lack of signatories from Latvia either.

Not, moreover, that this is a first. As the bloggers at Eternal Remont point out:

Apparently this is not the first time Latvians have joined together to petition a foreign individual or state takeover. Also this year, over 2000 Latvians petitioned for Swedish occupation.

And this particular Baltic tradition goes back further than that, in one of my favourite bits of party political history. When the Estonians held their first national elections after independence in 1992, those were understandably won by conservative nationalists. But coming in sixth in a fragmented landscape was the Estonian Royalist Party.

The Royalists proposed establishing Estonia as an absolute monarchy. Of course there was the slight dilemma of Estonia never having had a royal family, so instead the party suggested the Swedish Crown Prince Carl Philip could become King of Estonia.*

The Royalists won no less than 7.1% of the vote, and 8 of the 101 seats in parliament.

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Burying Perestroika

Culture, European culture(s), History, International Politics, Media / journalism, Politics
Memorial

Memorial had its digital archives seized in a police raid last month. "This was 20 years' work. We'd been making a universally accessible database with hundreds of thousands of names."

The BBC last week took on the story Dagmaraka started telling here three months ago, picking up roughly where she left off. Rossiya TV, one of Russia’s biggest TV channels, last year launched a show that, over the course of the year, grew into much more than just another TV program: vote for the Greatest Russian in history!

In the first round, no less than fourtyfive million votes were cast for the initial fifty candidates. In the second round for the top 12 vote-getters, another four and a half million votes were phoned or texted in or cast online by the time the vote was concluded last weekend. But there was a problem. Throughout the year, those pesky viewers kept voting Stalin to the top of the list.

Anxious to avoid embarassment, the organisers tried to change the ranking by hook or by crook. The producers appealed to viewers to vote for someone else and, as Dagmaraka recounted, at one point claimed a massive hacking incident to remove one million votes for Stalin. But he kept bouncing right up again.

When the BBC reported the story on Saturday, Stalin was in fourth place. In the final tally, he still passed Pushkin and came in third. He missed the top spot only by a hairwidth: Alexander Nevsky and Pyotr Stolypin beat him by just six and five thousand votes respectively. Lenin didn’t do badly either: he came in sixth, squeezed in between Peter the Great and Dostoyevski.

Now the success of the show in itself is striking. It’s tempting to speculate that it must have something to do with how Russians don’t have many opportunities anymore to vote on a wide-ranging ballot of candidates, but earlier versions of the show in the UK and Holland saw a similar mass participation (and the Dutch version triggered a similar controversy). The BBC report, however, takes the story into a different direction, and places Stalin’s success in the poll in a context of progressive efforts by the Putin-era state to rehabilitate him.

It may be a little all too embarassing to have Stalin right at the top of a list of Russian heroes, but his showing is actually right in line with the state’s recent push to take him out of history’s doghouse:

The primary evidence comes in the form of a new manual for history teachers in the country’s schools, which says Stalin acted “entirely rationally”.

“[The initiative] came from the very top,” says the editor of the manual, historian Alexander Danilov. “I believe it was the idea of former president, now prime minister, Vladimir Putin.”

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Obama’s victory confronts France with its own troubled status quo

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, Politics

During the US presidential election campaign, Doug Saunders noted in the Canadian Globe & Mail last month, “the big question in Europe had been whether Mr. Obama’s liberalism connected to the values of the social democrats and socially moderate conservatives who tend to govern Europe. Was he good enough to be a European?” It was, in at least one major aspect, the wrong question. When it comes to race, Saunders pointed out, the question is rather the other way around. Would European voters have been able to do what American voters did? Would they measure up to the way Americans overcame racial prejudice in electing Obama?

There are some 5 million blacks in France and the UK alone; some 12 million across Europe. Arguably more marginalised still are the Muslims of Western Europe; the immigrants and children and grandchildren of immigrants from Northern Africa, Turkey and Pakistan. There are 7-10 million of those in France, Germany and the UK alone, with another 5 million spread elsewhere through Western Europe. So how about it? Could there be a European Obama?

Rama Yade (Image used under CC license from Flickr user philippe leroyer)

Rama Yade (Image used under CC license from Flickr user philippe leroyer)

No way, said France’s only black minister, Rama Yade in an interview with the Telegraph, at least not in France. Her country “will never elect its own Barack Obama under the current ageing, white political elite,” she said, calling the prospect a “pipe dream”. And this is not some cynical lefty talking; Yade is the secretary of state for human rights and foreign affairs in a conservative government, which she joined as something of a protege of President Sarkozy.

“I’m 51 and I’m sure I won’t see any Barack Obama in France in the next generation,” Saunders was told by Azouz Begag, who  served as Minister for Equal Opportunities under Jacques Chirac.

“Obama puts the political system in France on the hot seat,” Pap Ndiaye of the School for the Advanced Study of the Social Sciences in Paris told the Christian Science Monitor. His election “has a direct social effect in France, because the black youth think it is possible there but not here.”

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Not amused

Culture, European culture(s), International Politics, Politics
Sweatshirt I bought @ Target, writes Flickr user Eshm (photo used under CC license)

"Sweatshirt I bought @ Target," Flickr user Eshm (photo used under CC license)

Living in the Netherlands, ca. 1998, meant increasingly being confronted, not just with that ubiquitous icon of wannabe rebel teenager identity, the drearily mass produced Che tee, but training jackets and the like saying DDR, or CCCP. Not because there was any suddenly resurging affinity for the former Eastern Bloc regimes, but because those were the thing to have for any self-respecting ironic hipster.

It went with, say, nodding your head to the latest abstract beats, or dancing to the soundtrack of a soft lesbo porn movie from the seventies with a knowing smile. Aren’t we being cool!

I never got it. Stunned at the baffling lack of … awareness, I suppose. Even if I knew that no disrespect was intended toward, say, the victims of communism — all was tongue-in-cheek, after all! The postmodern game being played out transformed me, instantly, into an old crank. It did so right at the moment that I refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of that irony; the moment I failed to think, “oh that’s OK then”.

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