Archive for the ‘CEE Politics’ Category

I am a foreigner. A migrant. I live and work in Prague, the city that has become my adopted home. No one forced me to come here, nor even invited me – I decided to come here myself. I have been warmly welcomed by Czech people and love being a part of Czech society. As a foreigner and a migrant with such a positive experience here I now watch in disbelief at the stance the country is taking to the ongoing refugee crisis.

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“Sit Down! Watch this, its important. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life.”

My Mum probably didn’t know it then, but she had sparked a chain of events that would have great importance for how – and where – I live my life and for how and why I am writing this article. Although I was born and grew up in the UK, I live and work in Prague and have lived most of my adult life in Central and Eastern Europe. Time and again when people have asked me – often somewhat incredulously – why I am so interested in this part of the world, I come back to these words and to the impact of the reportage that I was about to watch. Now I come back to them again as a migrant living in the Czech Republic and contemplating the country’s response to the migration crisis.

Originally published in Czech in Reporter Magazine on 12/10/2015
Read the full text in English at: http://reportermagazin.cz/a-migrants-story/

and in Czech at http://reportermagazin.cz/migrantuv-pribeh/ 

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The EU’s inadequate response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean threaten the Schengen zone and the Union’s identity. Prevailing opinion among Czech elites is based on substantive errors, questionable political analysis and morally indefensible positions. Czech Republic and the rest of the V4 need an alternative approach if we are to prevent migrant deaths and prevent the idea of Europe from getting lost at sea.

by Benjamin Tallis, Michal Šimečka and Jan Daniel,
Centre for European Security, Institute of International Relations, Prague  

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European governments are struggling to find an adequate response to tragedies in the Mediterranean and the rise in irregular immigration from and through the conflict-torn Southern Neighbourhood. As members of the Schengen zone, the Czech Republic and other post-communist EU members can no longer pretend it is someone else’s problem. A serious debate on migration is long overdue at the European level and in the EU’s member states.

In this context, last week’s commentary by Radko Hokovský and Jakub Janda is significant, not least because it reflects the prevailing consensus among Czech political elites. While welcome in that it could kick-start the necessary debate, the position they outline contradicts the European values they purport to defend.

The authors loosely align themselves with the meagre package of measures adopted by the Council (inter alia additional money for Triton operation, police/military action against smuggling networks, addressing root-causes etc.). However, they warn against any moves toward a more cohesive and Communitarian migration/asylum policy, lest this would trigger an even greater influx of refugees/migrants and invite an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populist backlash that could threaten the EU’s very existence.

Acknowledging that it may sound “cynical and too pragmatic”, they argue against EU-wide burden-sharing of asylum claimants, resettlement of migrants, externalized offshore asylum processing of asylum application etc., insisting that decision-making on granting of residency and asylum must remain in the hands of national governments. Hokovský and Janda write that, in the absence of popularly endorsed political Union, transferring more competences to European Commission would be grist to the mill of anti-immigration populist forces. “Creation of a common asylum and migration policy would be the last decision of the EU before it disintegrated.”

This is a position espoused by the current government and PM Sobotka, which is unfortunate because it is wrong on substance, unconvincing in its political analysis, and morally more disturbing than its authors care to admit. 


Substantial Errors: Simplification, Conflation & Obfuscation

First, in substantive terms, the position advanced by Hokovský and Janda makes a series of untenable simplifications and straw man arguments: it reduces the present challenge to a choice between a Brussels power-grab and maintaining national sovereignty; it ignores the distinction between regular and irregular migration, as well as between refugees and economic migrants; and, crucially, it buys into the fiction that migration is exclusively negative – a threat to be guarded against rather than an opportunity to be embraced.

The migration situation that the EU and its member states face is much complex than that and, in fact, borders, asylum and migration are already semi-Europeanized policies – a patchy framework that, as the latest spate of tragedies show, simply doesn’t work: for migrants, border guards or Europeans. This means that while Schengen states share the benefits of common borders they do not share the burdens equally, leaving states such as Italy and Greece unable to cope. This puts migrants in unnecessary danger and threatens the continued existence of the Schengen zone, which relies on the integrity of its frontiers to facilitate regular, rather than irregular mobility.

However, an effective response would not require full Europeanisation of migration policy. Coalitions of willing states could establish offshore migration processing facilities and launch a naval operation to conduct SAR and prevent migrant boats reaching the high seas. These steps would reduce migrant deaths while meeting legal commitments to asylum seekers, while the Frontex Triton mission would provide border protection and guard against irregular migration. While Hokovský and Janda concede that member states could do this, they argue, in effect, that they should not as it would provoke a Eurosceptic backlash that would threaten the EU itself.

However, this worst-case scenario again ignores the complexity of border and migration policy. Member states would remain in control of decisions over asylum-seekers who arrive directly on their territory (as opposed to being re-settled) and they would also remain in charge of the entry and stay of economic migrants to whom, unlike to refugees, they have no obligation. It is unfortunately indicative of the prevailing climate that the focus is on the threats and burdens, rather than the opportunities and contributions, of migration – a distortion that the conflation of refugees with economic migrants compounds.

Shutting the door on such migrants is not only morally questionable, but also risks missing out on an economic windfall. Research has repeatedly shown that migrants bring benefit rather than cost, many are ‘exceptional people’ willing to risk everything for a better life and the majority are young, driven and willing to work. Managing such migration through regular channels, allied to political engagement with – rather than pandering to – discontented groups, also holds out the possibility of exactly the people-to-people contacts that mitigate the xenophobia that Hokovský and Janda lament – as it has within the EU.


Political Consequences: Falling Out or Falling Together?

Second, Hokovský and Janda’s article presents a flawed analysis of the potential political fallout of a more progressive response. The threat of populist backlash is wildly inflated and there are far more states that would be willing to partake in the type of common action to solve this common problem (as outlined above) than the authors allow for.

Those states that face the greatest burden in dealing with the high and ongoing migratory pressure driven by the need of those facing war and other catastrophes and the desires of those who seek a better life have expressed their desire for such common action. From Italy on the front line to Germany and Sweden who take the highest number of asylum seekers, have seen no surge in populist anti-European forces. Indeed, the attitude of those at the sharp end of migrant capsizes has been a welcome silver lining in this humanitarian crisis. In Germany, Pegida is in disarray and effective burden sharing would help blunt the attacks of parties such as Alternative fuer Deutschland. Both Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer (neither known for being soft-touch, liberal idealists) support common action. Hakovsky and Janda claim that Europeanising asylum policy would be a ‘rash’ move that would threaten the EU. Merkel in particular is noted for avoiding such hasty or politically inconsidered moves.

In countries with the highest migrant intake (Italy, Greece, Malta, but also France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden), increased EU solidarity and burden sharing would actually lend ammunition to pro-EU centrist governments against anti-immigrant anti-EU parties (insofar as “Europe” would be seen as a helping alleviate voters’ concerns over immigration). This leaves the Visegrad countries – who rightly revel in the benefits of Schengen for practical purposes as well as for reasons of belonging[1] – along with Denmark and Finland as potential objectors. In the case of the Visegrad group, such hostility is particularly problematic. 


European Values: Moral and Legal Responsibilities

In Czech Republic, the argument against common action on the migration crisis seems to be because it could actually work, leading to increased immigration and creating a new ‘pull factor’. It should be noted that similarly faulty logic was behind the decision to cancel and fail to replace the Mare Nostrum SAR operation. Disguised as a defence of Europe, this position effectively argues that letting people drown is warranted because it provides a powerful deterrent, although given the push factors driving the migration surge this is questionable.

Underlying this premise, which has thus far been illusory, is a worrying assumption about the innate xenophobia of the public. Tellingly, in many cases it is those communities least exposed to migrant populations who tend to be more hostile to them. If such xenophobia exists then, in accordance with European values and the history of the EU, should be challenged rather than simply accepted or, worse, instrumentalised to ignoble purpose. The Visegrad countries, which have themselves been on the receiving end of such prejudice and have been able to challenge it through the mobility that EU membership allows, know this all too well.

Hokovský and Janda’s analysis fails to account for EU member states’ legal commitments to allow potential refugees to claim asylum. More depressingly, it betrays willingness to free-ride in Schengen and to pander to the nastier sides of domestic populism. This is a morally indefensible and hypocritical position that contradicts the Union’s fundamental values and legal commitments. Should more EU Member States pursue this cynical strategy, it would indeed be the end of the EU as we know it.

[1] Like much of the analysis in this piece, this claim is based on the findings of the ESRC-funded research project conducted by Benjamin Tallis from 2011-2015 – publication of findings is forthcoming.

Commentary on Timothy Snyder’s talk ‘Russia, Ukraine and the Central Significance of Civil Society’, Charles University, Prague, 27/01/2015.

 

By Benjamin Tallis

On 27th January, the renowned historian Professor Timothy Snyder spoke to a packed hall at Charles University on the central role of civil society in understanding the Ukraine conflict and what is at stake in wider tensions between Russia and the West. Snyder compellingly made the case for critically re-examining received wisdoms about what civil society is, what it does and why it matters. He situated his analysis of the need to re-invigorate and actively enact civil society in relation to the complacency of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis. Snyder claimed that following the great upsurge in civil society activity of 1989 we have allowed ourselves to become complacently post-historical in expecting both a vibrant civil society and ‘progress’ (towards liberal market democracy) to occur “automatically”.

Snyder based his argument on discussion of the convergence and divergence of Russian and Ukrainian histories and national myths. He then presented insightful analyses of certain aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their links to civil society, history and collective memory, particularly with regard to the driving forces and goals of Euromaidan and the obstacles to achieving these. Snyder also provided an illuminating contextualization of the Ukrainian conflict with regard to the wider objectives and orientations of the Putin regime’s domestic governance and foreign relations. However, this led into a discussion on propaganda, which, I argue below, was became less credible the more it was pursued and actually showed the flaws in Snyder’s own arguments and methods. This was particularly the case when he linked the fight against Russian propaganda back to the importance of believing in history, which, he had earlier asserted, provided the platform for effective civil society. Snyder also repeatedly contradicted himself – something he accuses Russian propagandists of doing – and was also guilty in some instances of aping their dissembling tactics, while trying to slip through claims that do not stand up to further scrutiny.

 

Civil Society and the Malleable Communities of History and Memory

The presentation began with a very reasonable definition of civil society as occupying the space between the level of the individual and the level of the state and as providing a way to translate private concerns into meaningful collective action. The collective aspect of this necessitates the delineation of communities within and for which with such action can take place. As Snyder argued, an important example of such a community is a nation, although he dismissed related although different ideas of ethnicity and language as “silly.” For Snyder (and many others), the role of history and the nation’s collective memory is a key aspect of community cohesion, which can also help it bond with other communities or create distinctions from them. This led into a discussion of the contested legacy of the Kyivan Rus, which Snyder pointed out was populated by “Vikings and Jews” yet is nonetheless claimed as a part of both Russian and Ukrainian heritage. He identified the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in 1569, as significant because it meant that the sizable parts of Ukraine that were included in it experienced ‘normal’ European development – “the renaissance, reformation, counter-reformation” – while Russia did not. Despite Snyder’s ostensible rejection of Fukuyama, this analysis points to an acceptance of some aspects of the ‘historicism’ that were smuggled in with ‘the end of History’, specifically the notions of natural or correct paths of development.

 

Snyder then jumped to the divergent experiences of Ukraine in the early Soviet period, with particular reference to the industrialization and collectivisation of Stalin’s first 5-year plan, which led to the Holodomor, the starvation famine that affected Ukraine to a far greater extent than Russia. However, Snyder then noted that the experience of the Second World War served as a unifying force, with narratives of great patriotism obscuring the activities of Ukrainian nationalists to a significant extent. Echoing the arguments made by Andrew Wilson in a recent book on the Ukraine crisis, Snyder then claimed that the events of the last 18 months had “overwritten and overwhelmed” memories of WW2 as the intense experience of (Euro)Maidan and then the conflict with Russia had been such an intense experience that it had created a new socio-political national myth that left Russia and Ukraine “as different as any pair of European countries”.

Crucially, Snyder emphasized the role of civil society in this process and countered claims that EuroMaidan was led or dominated by Ukrainian-nationalists or Ukrainian-speakers by asserting that it’s driving force was Kyiv’s Russian-speaking middle class. Language, had thus gone from “silly” in other analyses to significant in Snyder’s and was about to become even more so. He plausibly identified a confluence of Ukrainians’ desire for ‘European’ governance and disgust at the “oligarchical pluralism” that had characterised governance in independent Ukraine. The failure to sign the Association agreement meant the continuation of the latter at the expense of the former and provoked a spontaneous surge in civic activism, culminating in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government. Snyder argued that this showed exactly why civil society was so threatening to Putin-type governance, at home and abroad, particularly because the protestors shared a common language (and much else) with Russian citizens, again seeming to contradict some of his previous claims. He then went on to talk about various dimensions of the conflict that ensued, focusing on its military, strategic and propagandistic elements.

 

Dimensions of Conflict: Military Tactics, Strategic Worldview and the Propaganda War

With regard to military tactics, Snyder termed the well-described ‘hybrid’ warfare of the Eastern Ukrainian separatists and their Russian allies as ‘reverse asymmetric warfare’. This label implies that the state (normally the ‘stronger’ party in asymmetric conflict) has in effect adopted the tactics of ‘the weak’, of guerrillas and irregular combatants. This analysis jarred with Snyder’s assertion, when trying to emphasise the magnitude of the conflict earlier in the talk, that Eastern Ukraine had witnessed the largest tank battles since the Second World War (between Russian and Ukrainian regular forces). However, the notion of reverse-asymmetric warfare fits Snyder’s overall analysis of Russian strategy, which he describes as “strategic relativism” – an idea that has long been common currency in the discipline of International Relations, but was presented by the Historian as something new. Snyder argued that Russia sees itself as relatively weak compared to the powers supposedly aligned against it: the West (in various configurations) now joined by a corrupted or kidnapped Ukraine. According to Snyder, this is why the seemingly stronger side in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine adopts the tactics of the weak, although there are also plenty of other reasons for doing so.

Snyder also argued that this self-perception of relative weakness, which does fit with narratives of victimization and humiliation in international affairs that have been prominent in much Russian discourse since the end of the Cold War, also lies behind Russia’s propaganda war against the West. In this analysis, a weak Russia can become stronger by weakening other powers, particularly the EU. This weakening has taken two forms. Firstly, Snyder claimed that Russia has sought to undermine European unity by supporting anti-EU parties and groups on both the far-right and far-left, many of whom have bought into the type of propaganda discussed below. Secondly, Russia has sought to undermine the confidence of Europeans and their political leaders in the EU and in their own societies, branding them as decadent. As Snyder cleverly pointed out, this term not only differentiates the EU from Russia in terms of values – “gay latte drinkers [vs.] true defenders of Christianity” – but also implies the decay of Europe and European societies. If true, this would weaken the basis for political action, by states and by the EU, as well as by civil society actors, which Snyder claims requires a re-assertion of true ‘history’ rather than the nihilistic relativism that he sees as further weakening Europe.

To achieve the goal of a relative re-balancing of power, Snyder claimed that the Kremlin has employed methods of dissembling and confusion, throwing up enough lies (of varying degrees of plausibility) to obscure what Snyder sees as ‘the truth’ in the long run, or even ‘facts’ in the short term. He claimed that this type of propaganda not only effective in Russia, where it falls on favourable ears and eyes, but also in the West where rather than trying to get us to believe something in particular, the propaganda further “corrode[s] our ability to believe anything.” Snyder links this to the West’s embrace of what he sees as a radical postmodern skepticism that has not only undermined our ability to read the present, but has also undermined our “confidence in history.” Crucially, Snyder sees this undermining of history as having a doubly detrimental effect in that it hinders the action by both civil society and states (and the EU) in the face of situations such as that which has developed in Ukraine, as both interests become obscured and communities fail to bond or to believe they should or even could act.

 

History, Politics and Critique

In responses to questions, which unfortunately were required to be in written form which hindered the level of critical engagement, Snyder discussed how Russian propaganda could be countered, while emphasising the importance of not resorting to counter-propaganda. Instead, Snyder made a convincing argument for the need for reporters on-the-ground to provide information and for academics and others to point out the contradictions or inconsistencies in propaganda and political messaging. Both measures are attempts to re-assert the value of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ in opposition to the confusing “postmodern” “cacophony” that Snyder bemoans. It was unfortunate therefore that when answering a question on the supposed presence of right wing or ‘fascist’ elements in Eastern Ukraine, Snyder resorted to the same tactic. He offered a bewildering list of those that have been alleged combatants, ranging ranged from the Polish army to Blackwater and the (non-existent) NATO foreign legion, in order to cast doubt on the validity of claims that the those such Azov battalion, which has been pictured using fascist symbols, are indicative of a right-wing presence.

This essay has shown some of the inconsistencies in Snyder’s own positions, which do not necessarily undermine the overall thrust of his argument, but do cast doubt upon some of the foundations upon which his scholarship is based. This is particularly the case with regard to the inconsistent treatment of ‘language’ and ‘ethnicity’, which move from being “silly” constructs to ‘real’ factors in explaining conflict and community as suits the argument. This is perhaps linked to Snyder’s unwillingness to talk about intersectional identity politics for fear of its proximity to the postmodernism he so abhors, but it is not good scholarship and nor were his quasi-orientalist remarks about Russian and Chinese propensities for skulduggery and cunning respectively. Despite criticising the complacent assumptions and conclusions of the ‘end of history’ Snyder reproduces many of its aspects, particularly regarding its liberal goals, while somewhat incredulously claiming to be “true left wing”.

More worryingly, Snyder also smuggled in big, political claims under the banner of academic scholarship, such as the questionable assertion (particularly in the EU context) that “you cannot have a foreign policy if you don’t have an army.” Taken together with Snyder’s argument that we need to believe in history rather than fall prey to dangerous critical relativism, this amounts to an attempt to put his own politics beyond the pale of serious critical questioning. This sits uneasily with the first point Snyder made – the need to critically examine received wisdoms or stabilised concepts, such as the notion of civil society. This inconsistency is the most serious critique of his talk as it undermines his own challenge to the propagandists, who he is more similar to than it would be comfortable for him to admit. There is much to admire in the detail of Timothy Snyder’s scholarship, as the astute observations reported above testify, but we should also hold his work up to the critical standards that he applies to others, rather than allowing it to be off-limits to thoroughgoing critique.

A Full video of Timothy Snyder’s talk is available here

Clashes In Kiev As Police Try To Clear Protest Camps

The EU can seize the moment created by the protestors on the EuroMaidan to help Ukrainians and help itself 

by Benjamin Tallis

The barricades on the EuroMaidan have been reinforced with snow-filled sandbags, following the sneak attack by chainsaw-wielding police and protestors are holding firm in Kyiv city hall having repelled the riot squad. The protestors must be hoping to avoid a repeat of what Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister yesterday described as “Eurasia versus Europe in streets of Kiev tonight. Repression versus reform. Power versus people.”

Bildt, like his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski has been steadfast in support of the pro-Europe protestors and EU foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton also paid a morale-boosting visit to the Maidan. Using its unexpected popularity, the time is now ripe for the EU to seize the moment and act decisively, but, as Bildt tweeted, “the Government of Ukraine has discredited itself in terms of economic help from the EU.” Geopolitical eminence grise Zbigniew Brzezinski agreed, commenting in the FT that “Ukrainians have to realise that European taxpayers are not enchanted by the prospect of paying for the misdeeds and corruption of the current Kiev elite.”

However, there is an option that would allow the EU to give real support to the protestors not the regime, remain true to its values and revive its best traditions and, in the process, potentially resuscitate its Eastern Partnership, of which Ukraine is the centerpiece. The EU should lift the requirement for Ukrainians to have a visa for short-term travel to countries in the Schengen zone, a step known as Visa Liberalisation.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

If Visa Liberalisation doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, then you probably don’t need a visa to travel to too many places. For average Ukrainians, this is THE hot button issue in relation to the EU. Although many visas are granted each year, the experience of the laborious and humiliating procedures and many people are put off from applying because of them. Activists and the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry agree that current practices amount to “consular sadism” and leave many in no doubt that they are considered ‘second-class’ Europeans. It is a sad indictment of everyday perceptions of EU neighbourliness that the artist and activist Nikita Kadan could suggest that the section of the Berlin wall symbolically displayed outside the German embassy in Kyiv should be relocated to the Polish-Ukrainian frontier, which, because of current visa policy, marks the border of “real Europe.”

Removing the need for Ukrainians to have a visa for short-term travel to the EU would not only make life easier and better for millions of people, it would send an important message – we recognize you are Europeans, we are with you and you are welcome to visit us. Too often the EU has sent the opposite signal to Ukrainians, betraying a fear born of ignorance and chauvinism. This has been compounded by an overly cautious approach to security in its neighbourhood that has failed to balance the risks of closer engagement with the opportunities that it brings for people on both sides of the current border.

The EU has been dragging its heals over short-term Visa Liberalisation for several years, blaming the failure of the government to ‘do its homework’ and implement necessary reforms. However, the current situation actually rewards those in power, the corrupt officials and their cronies, who can already travel freely thanks to special dispensations – this effectively welcomes the winners from and friends of the Yanukovych regime as wealthy tourists.

A visa-free policy for short-term travel would benefit ordinary people, not oligarchs, and would provide them with a tangible sense of European belonging, putting clear blue (and yellow) water between the EU’s democratic magnetism and Putin’s cronyism and coercion. Many Ukrainians – like those on the Maidan – are determined to change skewed perceptions of themselves and their country. They also want to learn about the EU, its standards and values by experiencing it for themselves, so they can bring the best of what they find back home. Visa-free travel would let them start to do both of these things.

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Doing Well by Doing Good: Embracing Ukraine is in (Almost) Everyone’s Interests

For the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have turned out on the freezing yet fiery streets of their capital, whatever Putin is ‘offering’ cannot compete with the long-term potential of integration with the EU. They are willing to bear the inevitable costs and hard work of making change in order to transform their prospects and those of their children, but need help and support to do so. The EU rightly defends democratic standards as the best expression of its values, but the best way that it can support the demonstrators in Kyiv and help Ukrainians choose the hard but worthwhile road of reform would be to be inclusive in both principle and practice. In the short-term this means Visa Liberalisation.

The vast majority of protestors in Kyiv are not only demanding integration with the EU, but are rejecting their self-serving government’s brutality and guarding against attempts by right-wing extremists and nationalists to hi-jack this moment. They demand the type of benefits that association with, and eventual accession to, the EU would bring and which were built by eschewing old style power politics and embracing value-driven, democratic development to deliver real economic prosperity for people. The EU should trust its instincts and its capacity to act as attractive force for change from the bottom-up, rather than punishing Ukrainian people for the sins of their governing elites.

By being bold and acting in the interests of Ukrainians, the EU can revive its tottering Eastern Partnership and re-invigorate itself by returning to the values that made it the world’s most successful peace and prosperity project. The Eastern Partnership was launched in order to help spread this peace and prosperity further and faster, making both EU citizens and their neighbours richer and safer through closer co-operation and deeper integration. This is the logic that has driven the EU’s own success and it remains sound. The EU needs a Ukrainian government that is serious about reform to be a partner in a free trade area, but the best long-term security move that the EU can make is to take seriously Romano Prodi’s old phrase about creating a ‘ring of friends’ around it. By treating the Ukrainians on the Maidan this way, the EU might soon find that it also has friends elsewhere – in Belarus and even in Russia, where it should be made clear that opposing Putinism does not mean being anti-Russian.

Visa liberalization can help gain the popular buy-in for long-term change, convince skeptical Ukrainians that the EU cares about their interests and help pro-EU and pro-people politicians build a serious platform to oppose Yanukovych. Encouragingly, the penny seems to have dropped with EU leaders that this is a chance for change, for themselves as much as for Ukrainians, as Commission President Barroso recently stated “When we see in the cold streets of Kiev, men and women with the European flag, fighting for that European flag, it is because they are also fighting for Ukraine and for their future […] Those young people in the streets of Ukraine, with freezing temperatures, are writing the new narrative for Europe.”

Its time for the EU to put its policy where its mouth is and bring Ukrainians in from the cold.

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by Benjamin Tallis

The news that Pro-European, anti-Yanukovych protestors in Kyiv had toppled the Lenin statue at the corner of Kreshchatyk and Shevchenko brought to mind a story told to me by the artist and activist Nikita Kadan.

It was merely days after Yanukovych’s Party of Regions along with their allies, the Communist Party of Ukraine, had secured victory in the parliamentary elections, gaining the majority that saved Yanukovych and Azarov in the Verkhovna Rada this past Tuesday. It seemed a long time since the Orange Revolution had failed; a long time since we had given up on Yushchenko; a long time since some of us realized that an oligarch, even one with a golden halo of wheatsheaf hair, could not be trusted. Now, it is that November night that seems a long way away.

As we wandered, frozen through Kyiv, in search of a bar for a warming brandy, we walked past the Lenin statue and Nikita told me the story of the Black Lenin. The statue of VI Ulyanov that stands at the opposite end of the Kreshchatyk to the Maidan was richly rendered in red Karelian marble and Kadan told me then about the last time it had been attacked, when acid had been thrown onto it, disfiguring the face and hands. The Communist Party of Ukraine, whose posters, tents and videos had been all over Kyiv that summer, paid for the restoration and arranged for a protective vigil to be kept close by.

Typically, however, not all went to plan. The marble ordered to put right the damage was of a significantly darker shade than the original. Given that the damage had been to the face and hands, the botched restoration had the effect of changing the statues ‘skin’ colour, giving birth to a historical miracle – to the legend of ‘The Black Lenin’.

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Since then I have often thought about the Black Lenin. At the time it seemed to somehow symbolize what I felt about Ukraine, about the work of Nikita and the REP, of Maksym Butkevych and Vasyl Cherepanyn, about the conversations with Denis, Mariya and Julia and more recently with the Ukrainian students in Odessa, Lviv and Prague. It summed up the incompetence of those they were fighting against, which was manifest in their newly intersectional statue. It seemed in its own, amusingly surreal way to invert the old Viennese saw: “the situation is serious, but not hopeless” said Black Lenin.

The energy, decency and courage in adversity of those who I have known in Ukraine has come shining through to a wider audience in the last week. This is a second chance. A chance to put right what happened when the future turned out to be orange, but not bright. Apart from my friends there, my love of the diverse history, culture, food (yes, even salo) and drink I have found there, my engagement with Ukraine has been almost entirely through the prism of the EU. In my professional work and in my research or in relation to thinking through the direction that the country could take, for better and for worse; in reflecting long and hard on the perils of ‘transition’ and of stagnation; in weighing up the merits of association and isolation, of subjugation and sustenance. And it was the EU that triggered this wave of protests, finding that, almost despite itself, it was popular; that in official rejection it was still desirable as a counterpoint to Putinism and to the self-interested elites who have dominated Ukraine’s two decades of independence.

That evening, last November in Kyiv, Nikita who was recovering from a cold, was more subdued than usual, but had been a perfect host as he guided some friends and I through the exhibition at the Pinchuk Centre. He was featured twice in the show, which showcased the shortlist for the ‘Future Generation Prize’, once for a solo work ‘The Small House of Giants’ and once as part of the REP Group who were nominated for their work ‘Evro-remont’ – ‘Euro-Renovation’. Both stand as suitable prisms through which to reflect on the rubble of communist icons.

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Cloaked as ever in a disarming simplicity and precise control of material, Nikita’s ‘Small House of Giants’ comprised a classic, rusting iron-sided workers shelter, spliced with a clean, all too familiar, yet still unknowable neo-modernist façade of the type that a museum from the Soviet 70’s might take. This juxtaposition of depth and surface, of rich texture and subtle sheen are united through the myth of the heroic worker. Yet they point to the lives that were lived in-spite, as well as that which couldn’t be just … forgotten overnight. Kadan has long tried to mourn the loss of the Soviet art institution, replaced by the ‘prosthetic limbs’ of gallery’s like Pinchuk’s. This mourning drifted to melancholia because of the void that followed what was lost; because of the failure of ‘transition’ in Ukraine; because of the failure to replace and renew; because of Ukraine’s Euro-Renovation.

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The REP’s piece in the exhibition consisted of a series of gypsum walls, each decorated in a hastily adopted and discarded style from sometime in the last twenty years, with matching carpet or lino. Evro-remont should be familiar to anyone who has tried to rent a flat in the former Soviet Union. The cheaply rendered, hollow imitations of styles that might, briefly, look the part but won’t go the distance – “the kind of walls that you could put your elbow through in a good conversation” was how Nikita once described it to me. This prioritization of surface over substance has come to stand as a metaphor for Ukraine’s ‘transition’ – superficial imitations of elsewhere’s new cover the old core which rots underneath. “Eurorenovation is a style for people who are now stealing what they see and plan to run away in a very short time. From interior design from these super kitschy interiors of 90s it turned into everything.”

Now, Black Lenin is gone, the first to go in the protestors hastily-cobbled decapitation strategy. All the interpretations of anti-Russian-ness, all the overly simplified ‘finally, the victory over communism is complete’ rhetoric that will undoubtedly follow this highly symbolic moment, will miss the point. This was the tearing away of a euro-renovation, hastily authored by the rotten post-communist communist party. Rejecting Putinism is not to reject Russia – many Russians would like to do the same. Similarly, embracing the EU need not be only an embrace of imbalanced neoliberalism, as many in current EU states would agree. Ukrainians have shown the EU a way back to its better sides and given it a chance to resurrect and re-boot its Eastern Partnership. It should grasp it with both hands.

As well as looking to the future, a proper reckoning with what was lost in the past is needed if a more solid foundation for progressive politics is to be built in Ukraine. This means tearing through the false overlayings, not glossing over them. If such a foundation can be built, then Ukraine can be build a better future for itself and become a bridge between the EU and Russia, not a gypsum buffer zone for either.

Ukrainians are fed up with Euro-renovations, this time they want Europe.

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by Benjamin Tallis

Appropriately sited on the corner of Aleja Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue) and Nowy Swiat (New World St), a red-hued mosaic celebrates the heroic resistance of the doomed 1944 Warsaw Rising, while its accompanying inscription offers a post-war rallying cry of unity “Caly Narod Buduje Swoja Stolica” (The Whole Nation Builds Our Capital). The familiar narrative of a shattered nation pulling together to rebuild in the aftermath of Second World War destruction is particularly poignant in Poland, where one in five people were killed, and especially visible in Warsaw, where nearly ninety percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed.

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However, although the capital did rise, phoenix-like, from the rubble in the spirit of the inscription, this is a deceptively simple cipher through which to read Warsaw’s urban form. The mosaic betrays the fault-lines which underlie the ‘miracle on the Vistula’ and which continue to cleave its urban canvas.

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It is too often imagined that communist-era urbanism must equate to grey uniformity, but anyone expecting Warszawa to offer monochrome monotony will be disappointed: this has always been a more diverse and upbeat place than Bowie’s Low lament might suggest. The particularity of Poland’s war experience and its aftermath, the periodic expansion and contraction of the meshes of communist power, internecine arguments over the past and the future and relations with the outside have all left their mark on Warsaw’s cityscape.

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Resentment towards the Red Army, which watched from across the Vistula as Warsaw was ripped apart, gave the post-‘Liberation’ communist regime a precarious hold on public affections. Rapid rebuilding was one way to cement the Party’s grip on power, inspiring Stakhanovite efforts from workers dreaming of providing “a home for everyone in Poland,” as Mateusz Birkut, the still-naïve hero of Andrzej Wajda’s film Man of Marble movingly relays. The whole nation also (re)built the capital in another way – bricks salvaged from the rubble of other Polish cities were sent to warsaw in order to accelerate the reconstruction of the ‘old’ town.[1]

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Histories of wounded pride and the prominent position of the Catholic church ensured that Warsaw’s old town rose from the ruins in record time. Even today however, the old-town churches don’t quite smell old enough. Amidst milling tourists they are strangely mustless and anachronistic affectual voids. The rebuilt ‘old’ reveals little about competing postwar visions of the ‘new’ apparent elsewhere in the city. As Architectural Historian Iwona Kurz notes, this was explicitly recognised at the time ” In the good, old film Adventure at Mariensztat, (directed by Leonard Buczkowski, 1954)  a leading female character dressed up in a folk costume, who has freshly arrived from a small village is sightseeing in Warsaw and she is bored to death with the sight of the reconstructed old town and Krakowskie Przemiesce. She prefers to go to a construction site which is bustling with activity.”[2]

The concurrent construction of the ‘Smyk’ department store and the Marszalkowska residential district showcased the competition between Modernist and Socialist-Realist styles that betrayed wider struggles. Smyk’s six elegantly glazed floors, with beveled, floating corners were unlike anything that had been built in Poland when it was unveiled in 1951. Amidst widespread condemnation from party hacks and their useful architectural idiots, it is a wonder that the Central Department Store was actually built. In Architektura, Jan Minorski wrote “This is an architecture devoid of any educational capacity [which] … just like the non-ideological architectural decadence of Loos’ and Corbusier’s Art Nouveau [shows] the ideology of ruling classes when their days are numbered.”[3] ‘The People’ however seemed to disagree, with 80,000 of them visiting the store in its first three days of opening.

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Meanwhile, only a few blocks away, between Plac Konstytucji and Plac Zbawiciela, a capital of capitals was rising. The thickset bombast of the Marszalkowska district would not look out of place in Kyiv or Moscow; hulking, sandy-coloured edifice complexes, decorated with classical colonnades and scant reliefs of workers, soldiers and peasants. This is the imagined community of the ‘whole nation’ that built the capitals atop the classical columns and which lend the area all the elegance of a borrowed suit.

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A similar conflict  plays out on Defilad Square, dominated by the massive Palace of Culture and Science (1955), – a ‘gift’ to people’s Poland from Josef Stalin. This Iofan-style wedding cake (locally nicknamed the ‘elephant in lingerie’), cuts an impressive and threatening figure, but softens as it is reflected in the windows of the Wars, Sawa and Junior shopping centres. These sleek ripostes to monumental folly were conceived in 1956 for “a Warsaw of the future, full of cars, helicopters, scooters, [of] quick life.”[4] Ironically however, delays meant that the shopping centres were only completed in 1970, as was the nearby Emilia furniture store, with its beautifully corrugated roof – an abstract wave topping out elegant linearity.

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Opening in the same year as the state massacre of protesting workers that precipitated the fall of Gomulka regime, these buildings seemingly presaged the relative openness of the Gierek period, with Western money and technology helping shape the beige banality of the Hotel Forum as well as the dramatic, swooping curves of the Central Station. Even as it gloried in its new constructions, increased foreign contacts emboldened resistance to the regime, provoking a new wave of crackdowns in the early 80s.

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The solidarity of workers, church and intellectuals in the face of martial law cracked the communist façade and the process of ‘transition’ opened the floodgates for Western capital to shape Poland’s capital, threatening to drown Warsaw’s modernist babies as it flushed out the socialist bathwater. The Palace’s skyline dominanace is now challenged by a crop of identikit office towers that signal a certain kind of belonging in the world of global flows and which blend into undulating CADishness at ground level. Everything is neon-sponsored, even the former party headquarters.

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Hipsters congregating in the colonnade bars of Marszalkowska render the columns more ironic than ionic, as yesterday’s worker-heroes look on uncomfortably between the adverts, while in Solec and Powisle, modernist buildings provide the backdrop for cool bars with endearingly warm welcomes. Yet this apparently easy coexistence belies the continued conflicts that will shape Warsaw’s future. In the shadow of the bland new skyscrapers, low-rise Emilia stands out, yet faces an uncertain future as developers wanting to destroy it compete with curators who have set about revivifying the space. Staging the exhibition ‘Warsaw under Construction’ (2012) in Emilia provided a focal point for resistance to the erasure of Warsaw’s socialist era modernism and has seen artists, activists and academics joining forces in the next battle for Warsaw: the battle for more nuanced memories of both the communist period and its modernist architecture.

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A version of this piece was originally published in ‘The Modernist’ issue 7 ‘Capital’ in March 2013 in Manchester.

[1] I am grateful to Stuart Shields for reminding of this!

[2] & [4] As quoted in Jerzy S. Majewski’s (2010) ‘Book of Walks: Landmarks of People’s Poland in Warsaw” which has been inspirational and invaluable for this piece.

[3] Architektura (1956), quoted in Majewski (2010).

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In nice news, uber-Designer Swiss Miss featured my CM Prague talk on space and borders on her website (more than 1m unique visitors per month!).

Check out the talk and the rest of Swiss Miss’ on the link below

http://www.swiss-miss.com/2013/08/link-pack-3.html

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And it was the headline piece in the CM Global monthly newsletter!

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Thanks again to everyone who made it happen – I was really pleased to be part of such a great event!

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– take a look at the wonderful photos of the event from Everybay here

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.490279277720830.1073741833.331379706944122&type=1

Also, have a look at the other great talks that CM Prague – who just celebrated their 1st birthday – have organised this year!

https://www.facebook.com/CreativeMorningsPrague