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>Eastern Europe’s climate of opinion

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The Guardian teams up with liberal newspapers around the world to make a quintessentially middle-of-the-road appeal for moderate and sensible agreements between world leaders to rein in carbon emissions at Copenhagen. East European partner newspaper are, however, conspicuous by their absence: Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, Russia’s embattled Novaya Gazyeta and no less than two Slovenian newspapers (serious broadsheet Delo and the popular Večer), but no press voices from Hungary, the Baltic, Slovakia, Romania or (possibly no surprise here) the Czech Republic.
Perhaps The Guardian just wanted a representative sprinkling of global opinion. However, medium sized, Old EU countries are much better represented. As one of PhD student points in a journalistic blog thinkpiece, CEE states, intellectuals aside, tend not to do global responsibility or even want much of a hand on the tiller of global governance. Too used to being transition states stoking the fires of economic growth to realize that they are part of the global North. But as Czech philosopher Václav Bělohradský, anti-capitalist liberal, pithily observed, when viewed from Africa a butcher’s shop in Munich or Prague looks pretty much the same.

>Fairtrade with Josef Vissionovich

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Tesco’s fairtrade coffee bears an image worrying reminiscent of a youngish Stalin. Somehow, I don’t think Josef Vissonovitch would have approved of Fairrade – as we know, he was not one to approve of petty bourgeois commodity production. Still, no doubt this will encourage the friend of mine who always turns down the fairtrade option and asks for a cup of capitalist-explotation filter coffee, though perhaps some kind of rebranding might be in order. Freedom Blend? Capital Coffee?

>View from a castle

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Two days later I find myself, still somewhat to my surprise at a conference on Society, History and Politics organized by Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History at the chateau-cum-conference centre of the Academy of Sciences in Liblice.

The chateau is lovely, almost embarassingly so, and perhaps not something the Academy will want to draw attention to as it tries to fight off swingeing cuts in its budget driven partly by post credit crunch austerity and partly by the shifting balance of power in Czech higher education. The universities want to get their hands on more of the research spending, hinting very sotto voce that the Academy is an old-style centralized monopoly based on the Soviet model and needs shaking up.

I am something of fish out of water, although the difference in approach are fascinating: dense detailed investigation of localities and time periods without the usual ‘model fitting’ preoccupations of most political science conferences or the concern with big scale (national, European) institutions. The papers (well not mine obviously) are of almost uniformly high quality and perhaps because the Czech language medium forces me to concentrate more, I realise that I learned a lot.

The central focus is much more on 1989 than the Brno conference, but there a still new insights on offer . The mass spontaneity of popular mobilization during the Velvet Revolution was more a subjective experience of surprise and togetherness than a reality; the mass flyers and leaflets produced during the early weeks of the revolution in the Czech lands and Slovakia, when caredully and painstakingly analyzed reveal – outside the more radical and anti-communist capital cities – a desire for a kind of monitory popular democracy firmly rooted in social(ist) property relationships.

Interestingly, Czech contemporary historians’ research interests also bleed into political science and sociology. There are papers on the not-in-fact-quite-so-successful success story of Roma integration in Český Krumlov and Czech political parties after 1989 and their historic identities, although frustratingly I miss the one the role of Social Democrat exiles who re-founded the Czech Social Demoratic party in 1989. Not only would the pre-history of debates about what social democracy means in post-communist CEE be very interesting to know, but clearly the Big Orange Machine currently Czech politics upside down by giving up on early elections might not exist if things had turned out differently in 1989/90.

It would be an interesting piece of academic alchemy if political science and historical methods could really be harnessed together, but it rarely seems to happen, either in the Czech context or generally. Jason Wittenburg’s book on Hungary is the only major work of this kind that really comes to mind. All too ofte, political scientists dabble well intentionedly in historical research and historians in contemporary political processes without quite coming up with anything new.

I pack my bag and switch on the telly to catch the latest political news, but there’s only a discussion of whether Elton John and David Furnish should be allowed to adopt a Ukrainian orphan. “Adoption by two high-quality homosexuals (dva kvalitní homosexuálové) is preferable to life in an Ukrainian institutions”, a spokeswomen for Czech Children’s fund enlightenedly tells viewers. Then we are on the sports news. Slavia Prague play well, but they are outclassed at every turn and eventually beaten by Genoa.

I walk outside with my suitcase to sit and read and soaking the sun and the atmosphere. Then I hitch a lift with the Goethe Institute’s minibus to the rather less lovely surroundings of Holešovice station.

>1989 ABC

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Here I am interviewed on Australian radio’s ABC Overnights magazine programme about 1989 in Eastern Europe. Attentive listeners may hear my brain whirring as I try to answers questions about the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany.

My children suggest that next time I use simpler words, stop saying ‘er…’ and perhaps consider singing a song. Damn good advice.

The recording is from 19 July 2009 and was provided and used by kind permission of ABC.

>Lithuania: Anti-gay laws highlight CEE states moving apart on social issues

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Lithuania’s Gay League have sent me and various other specialists working on Central and Eastern politics a press release highlighting forthcoming illiberal legislation in Lithuania against the propogation of homosexuality asking that it be widelty circulated. I am more than happy
to reproduce it below.

For British readers old enough to remember the 1980s this has some echoes of the the (now repealed)Clause 28 legilsation passed by Mrs Thatcher’s government which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in school (although the bill reported below seems much more wide-ranging) and this perhaps gives a clue how to interpret it from a more academic, political
science perspective, giving that ‘Thatcherism’ had a strong ‘authoritarian populist’ elements

Lithianian developments seems to fit into a wider pattern of growing illiberal populism – and illiberal legislation concerning gender and sexuality – which seems to a feature of politics in some countries in the region (Poland, Latvia and Lithuania). Meanwhile, others parts of CEE have bumped along with a slow process of social liberalization: the Czech Republic and Slovenia have even got round to legalizing civil partnerships, although God forbid that you should want to propagate totalitarianism (legally banned in the CR) or question Slovenia’s claims to its maritme border (currently blocking Croatia’s accession to the EU).

“LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT TAKES FURTHER STEPS TOWARDS THE CRIMINALIZATION OF HOMOSEXUALITY

Press release by Lithuanian gay league (LGL)
July 10, 2009

The Seimas, which earlier rejected amendments criminalizing propagation of homosexuality, this Thursday took another step in this direction.

The amendments will be returned to the assembly hall at autumn session after considering them by the parliamentarian committees. Only the Liberal Movement Alliance and the Liberal & Centre Alliance had no representatives who supported these amendments.

The initiators of the amendments: the members of the group Order & Justice Petras Gra?ulis, his colleague in the group Algimantas Dumbrava, the representative of the group of the Nation Resurrection Party Jonas Stanevi?ius, and conservatives Petras Luomanas, Kazimieras Uoka, and Justinas Urbanavi?ius.

The amendments of penal and administrative codes suggest that a person propagating homosexual relationships in public areas is committing a criminal action to be punished either by public works, or by a fine, or by arrestment. The amendments stipulate that a legal person also is to be responsible for such actions.

It is suggested to impose LTL 1 to 5 thousand fine for propagatinghomosexual relationships or for financing propagation in public places.

Earlier, the Seimas rejected initiated by P. Gra?ulis amendmentsstipulating the punishment for propagation of homosexuality, zoophilia and necrophilia, by deprivation of freedom for the term up to one year.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus vetoed a bill that banned from schools and public places information that agitates for homosexual, bisexual orpolygamous relations, late last month.

Seventy-one votes would be needed to override Adamkus’ veto on July 14.

The vetoed Law on the Protection of Minors Against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information, has been denounced by Amnesty International, ILGA-Europe, Human Rights Watch, foreign governments and members of the European Parliament but is likely to be finally approved next Tuesday.

Vladimir Simonko, chair of the national LGBT advocacy organizationLithuanian Gay League says:

“These heavy homophobia driven laws codify discrimination based on sexual orientation, deny freedom of expression, and inhibit LGBT persons’ rights to education, information and every day life. Panic fear of the Baltic Pride event planned in Vilnius for May 9, 2010 overshadows clear violation of international and European human rights law to which Lithuania is a
party”.

For more info:

Eduardas Platovas,
Programmes co-ordinator
Tel.:+370.5 2610314
Fax: +370 5 2130762
Mob. +370 612 15243
E-mail: edis@gay.lt
www.atviri.lt; www.lgl.lt

>Political consequences of the economic crisis in Eastern Europe

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And for those who can face more writing by me, there’s a short piece in Chatham House’s World Today magazine on the possible political consequences of the global economic crisis in Central and Eastern Europe. Journalists and economists were making all the running on this – and sometimes not very good running, I felt – so I thought I stick my oar.The piece is downloadable here until the end of May, longer if you are a CH member. As one of my colleagues has already pointed out, I underestimate the extent to which the crisis will push CEE elites towards support for further European integration even if they feel the need to make populist forays into bashing Sarkozy.

>Expect a riot

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For all the talk of contagion across the region, the Economist’s new Political Instability Index offers (almost certainly quite right) contrasting assessment of the political prospects of Central and East European states in the global downturn. Small, ethnically homogeneous, successfully reforming states with strong social safety nets and good(-ish) economic fundamentals such as Slovenia and the Czech Republic, are rated alongside Germany and Japan as among the most internationally stable political systems. Ukraine’s uncertain national identity, high levels of inequality and corruption and proximity to a restive and powerful Russia, by contrast, see it rated alongside African and South American states as the amongst the world’s highest risks for political instability. Expect a riot. Other Central and East Europe states get more mixed scores. Estonia’s success in democratic and market reform, for example, was offset by the higher risks associated with its ethnic diversity and weak welfare state. Poland’s traditions of protest politics also see it rated as moderately risky, despite otherwise good indicators.

The methodology is a fairly standard political science approach of producing baskets of variables covering different risk factos, some structural and longer term, others more short-term and conjunctural. It’s not sure whether all these have been crunched in some regression analysis or totted up some other way (the former, I suspect), but their high risk rating of Moldova seems to have been quickly borne out with the violence surrounding Moldova’s elections, won by the incumbent Moldovan Communists. The opposition cry foul and claim a stolen election – the first move for any Coloured Revolution scenario – and students vent their frustration on some government office equipment (PCs thrown through a window). I don’t know enough about Moldovan politics to make any judgements, but I suspect that if the PCM did steal the elections they probably didn’t need to.

>Lost World of Communism loses its way

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After weeks of overwork, I get time to watch a little TV. It’s a busman’s holiday. Itune into BBC’s 2’s The Lost World of Communism. This week’s second part of the series is about communist Czechoslovakia. The programme’s a disappointment, however. Well made and watchable. if built around the rather conventional TV history technique of tracing a few key figures and themes from the 1940s to the 1980s. Informative too, I guess – if you know practically nothing about Czechoslovakia. And, in fairness, there was some powerful documentary footage of Jan Palach’s funeral, and some rather less finely wrought, satirical films made in 1970 or 80s with an odd Benny Hill quality, neither of which I’d seen screened. There was also , for once, some effort to redress the balance and indicate that socialism did have its beneficiaries and supporters (A communist miner is proud of his awards, achievements – and earnings – under the old system, Karel Gott, the cheesy pop troubadour professes total ignorance of signing a document denouncing Charter 77 (unlikely), and points out that he earned as much hard currency for the country as Škoda factory (probably true)).
The rest, however, was less the Lost World of Communism than the World of Communism Everyone Who Knows Anything About Eastern Europe Already Knows About. Accordingly we got a familiar sideshow of images telescoping Czechoslovak socialism’s half century of existence the show trials of the 1950s and the judicial murder of Milada Horaková; the Prague Spring – reformist pop diva Marta Kubišová (and boy, could she sing) presents an impromptu bouquet to Dubček; then the tanks come crashing in and there are the familiar scenes; a brief bit on the stupification and stagnation of ‘normalization’, we see Václav Havel besieged by secret policeman at his country house, as well as some nods to Timothy Garton Ash with various references to Czechoslovakia as the Kingdom of Forgetting although they forgot to tell us what was being forgotten); then it’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and Havel and Kubišová on the balcony of the Melantrich building overlooking Wenceslas Square speaking and singing to a vast emotional and ecstatic crowd. An iconic scene. – but the lost world of communism stayed pretty much lost.

>Czech Republic: Communism (still) on their minds

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An interesting and well informed piece by Avizier Tucker on current debates on decommunization and historical memory appears in Transitions Online. The basic insight that a generational changing of the guard among historians and scholars of the communist past is changing the terms of the debate is well made: issues of personal morality, integrity and responsibility get disentangled from the writing of history as both Stalinists-turned reform communists-turned dissidents and non-communist victims of the regime leave the stage. However, whether this is leading to national new facing up of the past, let alone ‘catharsis’, I rather doubt. Indeed, the whole of Czech politics stretching back into dissident debates of the 1980s and before has been one long national conversation about the Czechs and their relationship with communism… Perhaps a necessary conversation, but the framing of the country’s historical memory as one giant, ongoing exercise in seeking catharsis from the communist experience seems restrictive.

>Into the grey

>An interesting up-to-date briefing on population ageing and reform in emerging economies by the Oxford Centre on Ageing appears here.