What would it look like, if the Charter 77 was still active, with members from all across the world and from all generations? One of the answers to this rather odd question took place for the 30th consecutive year in the city of Caen, in Normandy (France), on January 25-27, 2019. In French, it is called “Concours de Plaidoiries”; a competition of defence speeches and pleas for fundamental freedoms. Four of these fundamental freedoms were named by President Roosevelt on January 6, 1941: “the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear”. And for this 2019 edition, the competition covered all four of them, defended by high school students aged from 15 to 18 years old, law students, and lawyers. Why, then, would this competition be in the continuity of the famous Charter 77?
It is essential not to forget, when it comes to history, for otherwise, we might not repeat history, but we might fail at taking a step further and risk taking a step back. The initial point is an improved version of our world two hours ago, but also ten centuries ago. Improved? For the sceptics among the readers of this article, please allow me to mention that ten centuries ago, the United Nations did not exist, nor did the Geneva Convention, the Istanbul Convention, and most of the texts quoted during the event I am writing about today were not even drafts, not even thoughts. Improvement does not mean perfection. And this is precisely what the Charter 77 was about: reminding a sovereign state of its own duties, namely, respecting human rights, international law, and the Helsinki Declaration.
This is precisely what these 37 people did during three days in the “Cité de l’Histoire de la Paix”, in this Memorial dedicated to peace and human rights: reminding sovereign states of their duties. They were coming from all corners of France and beyond.
Among the ten lawyers present, only four were from France. Two were from Belgium, one from Québec (Canada), one from Switzerland, one from Mali, and one from Benin. It is this one, from Benin, whose defence speech is the source of the title I chose for this article. These were among the last words Maître Koukpolou said in his plea. “Hold on, help is coming!” (“Espera, la ayuda viene!”, in Spanish.) Even if he did not win any award, his speech was among the most touching for me. His word symbolised the message of this year’s edition: there is still hope, as long as there are still humans who care about and defend others. He was the only one, of all three competitions, to focus on the political and humanitarian crisis currently killing so many people, including children, in Venezuela. The title of his plea: “Give me food and I’ll do whatever you want”. Continue reading “Espera, la ayuda viene!”→
The period between late November and early March is generally known as a film award period, during which we have the opportunity to follow several national European ceremonies (most notably the BAFTA in the United Kingdom, the Goya Awards in Spain, the Deutscher Filmpreis in Germany and the Cérémonie des Césars in France). However, there is only one ceremony that helps us recapitulate all the movies produced and made in Europe during the year: the European Film Awards (EFA). The annual award ceremony started in 1988 and it changes the host city every other year, while during the year in between the event takes place in Berlin; this system was introduced in order to give equal representation to all parts of Europe. This year the award was given in Seville, Spain on December 15, 2018.
The main award, the European Film of the Year, was given to the Polish film Zimna Wojna (Cold War). The movie got 5 awards overall, just one less than the all-time record holder, The Ghost Writer, by Roman Polanski. Besides the awards at the EFA, its director Paweł Pawlikowski previously got an award at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie set in the 1950s tells us about a love story intertwined with the political and social landscape of the time, about love torn between identity, longing, and ambition. Continue reading “European Film Awards: What makes them European?”→
This is the second part of the interview with Michael Hindley. You can read the first part here. In this part, the interview focuses on the border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following Brexit, but also on Trump, Ukraine, Germany…
We would like to thank Michael Hindley for his time and his insightful answers.
You can also follow him on Twitter and watch his video about Brexit.
B: Moving a bit to the left on the map, let’s talk about Northern Ireland, which also has a feeling of sometimes not being part of the UK at all. But because of the Brexit, is there any chance of another “trouble times” happening again?
H: This often comes up in the present debate on Brexit. I think sometimes it is inaccurate or somewhat hysterical. People on both sides of the border agree that being in the EU certainly helped the Irish/Irish dialogue. Both “Irelands” in the EU helped. There is no question about that. Also, to some degree the EU has guaranteed the peace process. The fact that there was no border helped. If it becomes a “harder border”, I think it is false to assume that it would simply go back to hostilities. Sinn Féin long ago bravely disbanded its link with the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. It is a constitutional left-centre party enjoying shared government in Northern Ireland and has members in the Republic [of Ireland]. So the Party of freeing Ireland by the “ballot and the bullet” has become constitutional. Martin McGuinness (1950-2017) was an active member of the IRA and subsequently shared power with Ian Paisley the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Very difficult if not impossible to go back to the dark days of the “Troubles”.Continue reading “Interview with Michael Hindley – Part 2”→
The European Union is home to 60 regional or minority languages which are threatened and risk to disappear. Language can constitute more than just a communication tool, as it can be regarded as a bearer of culture and traditions. In such a culturally diverse environment, where the EU can be seen as an engaging multicultural mosaic, is the diversity constituting a key point for our sense of communality? Or is the presence of multiculturalism representing an obstacle for a potential homogeneity?
One of the most varied and endangered linguistic minorities in Europe is the Sami. The Sami is an indigenous people living today in a territory which extends on four countries (Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway), in a region called Lapland. Sami livelihood and economy was mainly based on the reindeer husbandry, coastal fishing, and hunting. Thus, due to their need to follow reindeers, they have never lived in one and only big community, setting up several smaller communities instead. Consequently, their nomadic life led to the development of different Sami languages, at least ten, which cannot be classified simply as dialects of the same language. Nowadays, the Sami language which counts the larger number of speakers is the North Sami, followed by the Lule Sami and South Sami. It belongs to the finno-ugrian linguistic family and it is commonly divided into three branches, depending on the grade of mutual intelligibility they can reach.
Since the establishment of borders in the Scandinavian peninsula and Russia, the Sami population quickly became a minority and encountered all the correlated difficulties as, for instance, the prohibition to speak their own language and the obligation to learn the new majority (“national”) languages. This was a consequence of the development of the agricultural activities, which implied a progressive settlement in the most Northern-most areas where the reindeers used to graze, and the wish to reach a certain homogeneity amongst the territory after the drawing of new borders. Thus the Sami people was considered a threat to the in-borders safety and homogeneity of the now “national” population. Continue reading “The EU & Minority Languages Promotion”→
Imagine how the map of the European Union could look like in 2030. A compact conglomerate of Member States, with only two small black holes – Switzerland and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Oh, three actually: Great Britain will have become the third one by that year.
While the UK is slowly putting out to the sea, definitively leaving the well-known harbor of the European Union, there are some countries which are struggling to join those that might seem safe and still waters. Lucky for them, they do not have to cross any stormy sea, as they are in the heart of the continent. According to the captains, the first Balkan ships should enter the EU in 2025 if nothing goes wrong during the remaining voyage. But bad weather seems to be a permanent feature of the European political scene and by that time the secure Union could have become an even more troubled and tempestuous harbor unprepared to welcome the newcomers.
At the moment, the incoming fleet counts six components. While Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina still hold the position of potential candidates, Albania and the FYR Macedonia already have the candidate status; Serbia and Montenegro are progressing with accession negotiations and thus are at the forefront in the path towards the European harbor.
Apparently, Serbia and Montenegro now start to see the light at the end of the tunnel – a very long one. The integration process of Western Balkan countries has been on the European agenda since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. Afterwards, stabilization and association agreements have entered into force with all six partners. However, expected progress has faltered. Enlargement has been hindered by numerous hitches, including the slow pace of reforms and economic growth, the influence of external actors such as Russia and Turkey, together with problems both in the domestic and European contexts.
2018 might prove a pivotal year in this long and turbulent voyage. Enlargement in the Balkans is one of the priorities of Bulgarian Presidency at the Council of the EU and in May a summit will be organized in Sofia for Western Balkan countries – for the first time since 2003. This new wave of engagement could lead to advances in each country’s process. Continue reading “A Bridge over Troubled Water: The Balkans and the EU”→
For over 70 years, the United States has upheld an international order that has not seen a single major power war, brought wealth and prosperity to dozens of nations which adopted open and free markets, and has advanced issues such as democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and other progressive issues through the international institutions the US helped to create at the end of World War II. Yes, it is easy to point out when the US’s foreign policy has aligned with countries that did not uphold similar values, or that the US has violated international law through its military undertakings, or assisted in overthrowing foreign governments – even established democracies. But even when acting against its own founding values, the American president has always at least rhetorically upheld the values of a liberal world order, albeit it sometimes hypocritical. But it seems that era has come to a screaming halt.
Many see the election of the American president as an opportunity to change the status quo and to embark on a new set of policies. Take for example the election of Barack Obama who ran on a progressive platform and repeatedly vowed to drastically change the foreign and domestic policies of past administrations. To be fair, Obama has accomplished several of his stated goals and changed American policies in a wide range of areas both domestically and abroad. However, the US has a larger portion of its population incarcerated than any other country; its governing apparatus more resembles an oligarchy than a democracy; its security state has only grown further at the expense of Americans’ civil liberties; and the undeclared wars in the broader Middle East have continued and expanded with no end in sight. Although Obama vowed to change America, the similarities are more striking than the differences.
But Obama is not an exception. It has been nearly the same for every modern American president. The change and reform they promise during the campaign quickly collides with the reality of the presidency. Career bureaucrats and civil servants that constitute the majority of the federal government do not change together with the president and his staff – even if the presidency is won by the different party. This leads to a continuation of policies across party lines. However, the recent change of presidents is different in more than one way.
Donald Trump’s surprise electoral college victory may not constitute a dramatic change in the country’s foreign or domestic policies. But his victory did not happen in a vacuum. It was coupled with an emboldened and in many ways radicalized Republican Party and a highly volatile international order, which relies heavily on American leadership. The combination of these factors will most likely disengage the US from the international community, including Europe and the European Union.
It is first worth examining the governing philosophy of the Republican Party, which won the presidency, Congress, and appointed a judge to the Supreme Court to ostensibly tip the court in the party’s favor. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Republicans – under the banner of conservatism, neoconservatism and most recently the ultra-conservative Tea Party – began shifting their bellicosity from foreign powers to domestic foes, such as American liberals and progressives. From their unprecedented partisan 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton to their obstructionism towards Obama, the party has repeatedly obstructed democratic processes for electoral gains.
Over the course of the last eight years, the Republican Party has engaged in political tactics and rhetorics more common in authoritarian regimes than a developed democracy. As an opposition party they praised foreign leaders over their own president, they attempted to delegitimize the Obama presidency through the birther movement (with the movement’s leader eventually becoming the new president) and even denied millions of elderly Americans healthcare by not expanding Medicare at the state level, which would have been completely subsidized through federal legislation commonly referred to as Obamacare.
On the international stage, a resurgent Russia is using hybrid warfare to influence other country’s domestic politics and elections – its greatest succes being the recent US presidential election. Through propaganda, disinformation, and financing of nationalistic parties, Russia aims to install more pro-Russian governments or, at the very least, undermine Western democracies. Due to the civil war in Syria, Europe has experienced the largest migration of refugees since World War II. The influx of refugees coincided with a rise of lone-wolf and small-cell terrorist plots inspired by ISIS. The destablization of the international order has been exploited by nationalistic politicians around the world with racist and xenophobic rhetoric, all to gain power and all to the expense of the values of liberal democracies.
The Trump administration has so far expressed the desire to pursue more realpolitik on the international stage, although detailed positions are unknown or do simply not yet exist. The ‘America First’ slogan translates into a parochially defined set of national interests, most likely limited to the economy and military. Trump’s comments on NATO being obsolete actually fit into this parochial nationalist rhetoric. Moreover, Trump has shown an inclination to align with authoritarian leaders around the world rather than traditional American allies. He has also displayed a strong tendency to be more bellicose and provocative confronting friends and foe alike, most shockingly evident in the conversations with the Australian and Mexican heads of state. This will most likely worsen if the domestic situation in the US further destablizes.
It is also evident that Trump will not so much turn a blind eye towards Europe as he will take positions that are explicitly contrary to the EU’s interests. For example, Trump has shown to be rather indifferent about a united Europe and even openly admired nationalistic European politicians. This will force the EU into an uncomfortable situation. Will it stand up against Russian meddling and American rhetoric and pursue a robust and united EU, or will it allow the nationalists to win-out? Any attempt by the EU to stay united and robust can easily backfire due to the growing nationalist sentiments accross the continent. However, the situation has proven to be a Catch 22. If the EU does not stand up against the threats posed by the disruptions in the international order, the existence of the EU could be in grave danger. This would pose an existantial threat to free trade and the peaceful relations on the continent.
As 2016 proved, nothing can be taken for granted anymore. The chaotic and unpredictable behavior of Donald Trump will most likely become the norm and not the outlier in the coming years. This will not bode well in an already volatile international order. The special relationship between the US and the EU (and its individual nations) may be in for some hardship – especially if Trump follows through with his proposed Russian alignment. But if one thing is certain, expect uncertainty.
Tyler is a local news reporter for the Alpena News in Michigan. When escaping from his unhealthy obsession with international politics, you can find him traveling and exploring the great outdoors.
On the morning of 12 February of this year, 1260 members of the German Federal Assembly, which includes Bundestag members and state electors, voted to choose the 12th President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Garnering over 900 votes, the clear winner was the Grand Coalition candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served twice as foreign minister and ran for chancellor under the SPD banner in 2008. He has held public office for over 20 years.
On paper, Steinmeier has all the makings of a tame president; he is well-liked and respected in the international community and within the German government. According to Bild, Steinmeier even has the dubious honor of using the German informal “you” with more members of the Cabinet than any other – high praise for those in the German-speaking world.
However, appearances can be deceiving, and surely the Steinmeier presidency will not be without a backbone. During the last year of his term as foreign minister, Steinmeier spoke out strongly against Russian aggression, the inaction of the international community in the Syrian crisis, and the shortsightedness of the Brexit decision. Most notably, he is a decisive critic of US President Donald Trump and of the nationalist movements taking hold around the world.
From Freedom to Courage
Germany’s current president, Joachim Gauck, has spent most of his term promoting freedom. Gauck, who was an East German resistance leader before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has repeatedly stressed reconciliation and social justice in his speeches. His term has not been without crisis – the floundering euro, Brexit, and the refugee influx, just to name a few – but he has continued to call for openness, tolerance, and a need to cherish the freedoms that are easy to take for granted. Gauck embraced the “Refugees Welcome” movement more than any other German politician and at times was harsh in his criticism of those who were steadfastly anti-refugee.
Steinmeier promises to be a different kind of president. After nearly three decades in the spotlight, he is politically savvy and will likely be less concerned with visiting children’s shelters and more concerned with asserting Germany’s role in the world. If “Freedom” was the motto of the Gauck presidency, it is safe to say that “Courage” will be the that of Steinmeier’s. In his acceptance speech following his election, Steinmeier spoke of two kinds of courage: the courage that Germany can give to others, and the courage that Germans must display in the face of rising unrest in Europe and beyond.
Steinmeier recounted a story of a young Tunisian activist telling him that Germany gave her courage. Germany, which not so very long ago represented the opposite of freedom and justice, now has a place as one of the pillars of modern democracy in the West. Germany gives courage, said Steinmeier, because it is proof that peace comes after war, that reconciliation can follow division. In this sense, Germany must continue to be a symbol of courage for countries in crisis.
But Steinmeier also meant courage in another sense. Three important European elections – France, Germany and the Netherlands – are coming up this year, each with its own populist candidate. In the face of Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, and Geert Wilders, respectively the leaders of the nationalist waves in these countries, Steinmeier preached patience, tolerance, and above all, a commitment to the core values of Europe.
The “Anti-Trump” President?
Following his election, the German daily Berliner Morgenpost dubbed Steinmeier the “Anti-Trump President” – a title that has since been reprinted everywhere from The Independent to Bloomberg. Whether or not he enjoys the moniker, Steinmeier has certainly been among the strongest critics of the US President, referring to him at one point as a “hate-preacher.” After Trump’s election, Steinemeier issued the following statement as foreign minister: “I think we will have to get used to the idea that US foreign policy will be less predictable for us and we will have to get used to the idea that the US will tend to make more decisions on its own.” He went on to say that working together with the US will be much harder over the next four years and that Europe must stay the course, despite the unsettling results.
In his speech on Sunday, Steinmeier issued a thinly veiled critique on Trump and his populist counterparts in Europe. He called on all Germans to fight against baseless accusations and fear-mongering. “We must have the courage to say what is and what isn’t,” he said, claiming a universal responsibility to differentiate facts from lies. This, too, will likely be a theme of the Steinmeier presidency. Shortly before his candidacy was announced in 2016, the President-elect decried the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and the US and accused Trump and others of “mak[ing] politics with fear.”
Or the “Pro-Russia” President?
Rather than the “Anti-Trump” President, some may dub Frank-Walter Steinmeier the “Pro-Russia” President. As foreign minister, Steinmeier was regularly lampooned by his CDU colleagues for his mild stance toward Russia. He began his second term as foreign minister in late 2013, only a few months before Russia annexed Crimea. Following the annexation, Steinmeier joined his international colleagues in denouncing Russia and supported upping economic sanctions until the conflict was resolved.
However, Steinmeier has relaxed his stance since then and has insisted on a need to keep channels of communication open. Russia is an important actor in two of the most significant global crisis areas: Syria and the Ukraine. Continuing with heavy sanctions and isolation will do nothing to solve these issues, according to Steinmeier. Over the summer, he was also quick to criticize NATO for carrying out exercises in Eastern Europe. He accusedthe organization of “warmongering” and said, “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”
Thus far, only Russian news outlets seem to believe that Steinmeier will be a friend to the east, but the differences between he and Gauck are undeniable. As a former citizen of East Germany, Gauck was understandably apprehensive about former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Steinmeier, who has worked with the Russia on international issues since his time in the Schroeder administration, will be a welcome change for the Kremlin.
Emphasizing German Leadership
In an interview with television station ZDF following the election, Steinmeier indicated his intention to work closely with both Moscow and Washington. He was very clear that Germany is currently in the midst of a “reorganization of international relations” and that possible unpredictability in the East and the West will mean a greater need for a stable country.
Nevertheless, the role of the German president is not to negotiate with foreign leaders or herald in big changes. The German president is primarily a domestic role; he or she acts as a moral authority, but has very little political power. As the head of government, Steinmeier will be confined to ceremonial tasks like welcoming state visits and approving the Cabinet. The political might in Germany is held by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by the parliament, the Bundestag. Despite his limited power, Steinmeier is expected to set a tone for the coming years and it appears as though he will be just as active as his predecessor.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take office on 18 March 18 this year. On September 24, the country will vote for new Bundestag representation and a new government will take office.
The Western Balkan region is an often neglected corner of Europe and rarely attracts media interest from mainstream outlets. The result is that the region is fairly unknown to other Europeans. Is the region comprised of underdeveloped economies or do they have the potential to grow? Are they fragile or stabile states? And most importantly, are the Western Balkan countries ready to join the EU? To find any answers for these questions, it is important to look at Serbia and Albania, the two countries that have significant influence in the region. The stability and progress of the Western Balkans greatly depends on the relationship between these two countries.
Serbia officially became an EU candidate country in 2012, and in 2014 the accession negotiations were opened. The possible accession of Serbia is not without controversy or problems. Serbia was a crucial actor in all the conflicts that tormented the region in the last decade of the 20th century. Nowadays, Serbia’s refusal to acknowledge the independence of Kosovo is perceived as the biggest obstacle to a possible accession to the European Union. Furthermore, the multi-ethnical composition of the Western Balkan region has proven to be a sensitive issue. Neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to over a million Serbs and although Montenegro voted to leave the State Union with Serbia in 2006, the census of 2011 shows that 28.7 of the population still identifies as Serbian. When Serbia would join the EU, this could destabilize its multi-ethnical neighboring countries. Last but not least, Russian influences in Serbia raise questions about Serbia’s loyalty to the European project.
Albania has been an official candidate for accession to the European Union since June 2014. Similar to Serbia, it too has a considerable diaspora in neighboring countries. The country has a significant influence in the region, mostly in Kosovo where the majority of the population is Albanian. In neighboring Macedonia, 25% of the population identifies as Albanian, especially in the border regions of Western Macedonia. Also, there are large Albanian communities in the south of Serbia and in the south-east of Montenegro. Albania is already a member of NATO – it is seen as an important partner in combatting international crime – but also here questions of loyalty to the European project arise. Turkish influences in Albania have been historically strong.
Even though there are considerable cultural differences between Albania and Serbia, the political situation is remarkably similar. Both governments have strong leaders as prime-ministers. Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia and Edi Rama in Albania have both displayed autocratic characteristics during their time in office. According to reports of the EU Commission, both Serbia and Albania have problems with media censorship and with deep-rooted corruption in the state and judiciary. Despite the questionable state of democracy in both countries, Vučić and Rama are pro-European leaders and have repeatedly stressed their countries’ commitment to gain EU membership. For their role in stabilizing the region after the horrifying civil wars in the 1990s, they actually received widespread support from EU Member States. The result of this support is that despite the corruption and autocratic leadership, the Western Balkan region is relatively stable.[i] Proposals for cooperation are heard from both sides. Instead of fueling ethnic tensions for short-term electoral gains, it seems the two countries embarked on a road of reconciliation and cooperation. One example of this new trend is the first visit, after 68 years, of an Albanian prime-minister to the Serbian capital of Belgrade in 2014. The most tangible example of how the reconciliation between Albania and Serbia leads to enhanced regional stability in the Western Balkans, is the relative relaxation of Serbian-Kosovar relations. The Brussels Agreement, which is a direct result of this dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, is a positive step forward for the stabilization of the entire region.
The EU is by far the main economic and political partner of the Western Balkans and as stated above, Vučić and Rama are well known for their pro-European orientation. But the question of EU membership for Serbia and Albania is complicated. On the one hand, the countries’ focus on regional stability, mutual understanding, and tolerance resemble the dominant EU discourse. On the other hand, the autocratic traits of the countries’ leaders strongly resemble the political situation of their allies in Russia and Turkey. Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan are also greatly admired in the Balkan region and as stated above, the political leaders are also not immune to this. Signs of Putinism and Erdoganism are evident in the politics of the Western Balkans.
The EU’s choice to support the Western Balkans’ authoritarian political leaders in an attempt to maintain and advance regional stability is a matter of political necessity in the current context. Yet at the same time that support and external legitimization is stalling the necessary process of further democratization. It can indeed be argued that the EU turning a blind eye towards the rule of law and human rights in these countries empowers authoritarianism. However, in the current circumstances it is a rational thing to do. Although paradoxical, Europe needs strong national leaders to stabilize the Western Balkan region. The price is paid in terms of slow political reforms. The EU leadership should however always be aware that this is a precarious and temporal situation. While autocratic leadership on the short-term might benefit Europe and the Balkan region, on the long-term it might also provide for democratic backsliding and further instability.
[i] This article was written before Serbian-Kosovar relations significantly deteriorated after Serbian provocations in Kosovo.
It is a cold and grey Saturday afternoon, just one week before Christmas and I am rushing over the empty Platz der Menschenrechte, Human Rights Square, in front of the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe. This huge building was constructed with German Pünktlichkeit during the First World War and managed to avoid demolition in the late 1970s after having been a reliable space for the preparation of violence and destruction. With sentiment echoing Adorno’s phrase, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” the city of Karlsruhe in the post-war decades seemed paralyzed and helpless to interact with this huge memorial of violence production in its heart.
It wasn’t poetry that brought a spirit of hope into the massive walls in Lorenzstraße – at least not just that. In the 1980s, the artist group “99.9% leerer Raum” moved into the old factory, just before, in 1984, the first ever email was received just a few kilometres away at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe (KIT). At that time, enthusiasm for new and connective technology of communication had awoken to end the rather destructive technology of weapons, which had dominated the atmosphere of the massive building. In 1987 the association for arts and media technology was founded, and eight years after the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien), the Centre for Art and Media, opened in the old German weapons and munitions production factory. Since then, the building has hosted exhibitions with a focus on media and communication technology. It is, however, an unusual exhibition for the ZKM, which I am visiting today. Usually, visitors come to stroll down memory lane between the antiquities and rarities of computer and video games, or to discover new developments occurring in the digital arts. Although this exhibition does not focus on technology and media art, it fits perfectly in this historic building.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” is the title of the exhibition, curated by Eckhart Gillen and Peter Weibel and their Russian colleagues Daria Mille and Daniel Bulatov. It is a cooperation between the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO in Moscow. The exhibition contains more than 500 diverse works of about 200 European artists. In Karlsruhe it has the significant subtitle, “The Continent that the EU does not know.” The curators aim to give a second perspective on the dominant narrative of post-war Europe. They present works by artists, who have responded to the breakup of a divided continent after a decade of destruction.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” focuses on a central cultural space. One that was damaged and torn apart several times during the 20th century. The curators present artistic developments, stemming from the huge area that is geographical Europe. With artwork coming from anywhere between the Ural Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, the exhibition draws on many sources in its goal of opening up a new narrative with regards to a shared past. The curators claim that until today historiography looked at the arts of the 20th century as divided into two main streams. Firstly, there was abstract expressionism, which is seen as a symbol of freedom in the West. Then there is social realism which, according to these curators, has been seen as a conservative kind of art, an art bent to serve the communist political system in the East. This exhibition, however, is an effort to engage with the history of art in Europe in a less simplified manner. This exhibition explores these themes through comparison, by finding similarities, and understanding differences in a socio-political approach to interpretation.
While walking through this huge exhibition, taking up two floors with an immense amount of art work, I can sympathize with the curators and let myself get lost in the many pictures, sculptures, films and photographs. It is hopeless trying to discover everything: this exhibition is the product of more than twenty years, and 200 people, full of creativity and extreme emotions. It is by accident, that I find the small Picasso, “Pigeon, Blue Variation” from 1951, hidden on the back of one of the huge white walls. The difficulty of mapping this great quantity and variety of art in post-war Europe can also be seen through the different strategies of structuring the exhibition in the three hosting places in Brussels, Karlsruhe and Moscow. In Karlsruhe it is organized into the five chapters “Trauma and Remembrance,” “Cold War,” “New Realism,” “New Visions,” and “Utopia 1968”. While 1945 is interpreted as ‘hour zero’, 1968 is defined as the starting point for a new relationship between West and East. What might seem like a very linear and horizontal approach, is in fact an attempt to entangle spaces, to invite visitors to discover art works that have not shared the same space before. Curator Peter Weibel calls it an active plea for understanding Europe – a goal which is just as important today as it was in 1945.
The idea of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” was conceived already in 2012, and it was supposed to be shown in Russia first. However, after the crisis in Ukraine and the strained relationship between the EU and Russia, many important sponsors withdrew their financial support. It is in these grey and cold days, that it becomes more important than ever to take a break and discover new perspectives on what shapes Europe: memories and trauma, war, utopia, and new visions. Now, in times of a critical public discourse regarding Europe, and in times of planning the building of walls, it is maybe more appropriate than ever to consider the leading questions of “Art in Europe 1945-1968”: “what is Europe?”
What I take with me walking back from the ZKM, in the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe, over the Human Rights Square, is the idea to keep my eyes wide open and to search for hidden ideas. Ideas that are not omnipresent in the main discourse surrounding us today. There was a lot happening in the period between 1945 to 1968 in Europe. It seems like a period of conflict and inconsistency . There is also a lot going on in Europe today, and it is essential to reflect on the present patterns of perception and communication. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” shows that it is worth challenging established constructs and opening a discussion about a common past and a common future. Despite or precisely because of its confusing multitude of pieces, visitors of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can find a new way of looking at Europe in the past and in the present. I interpret this exhibition as a liquid reflection on arts and European society. It commutes between the East and West in Europe, and changes its setting in each location. It is not a fixed construct which needs to be consumed in a certain way, but one that underlines different perspectives. An exhibition is more than its images or sculptures. It represents a reflection on the everyday reality of artists and curators, and it grows in the space where it is shown, and with each visitor approaching it. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” communicates with its surrounding and with its audience and it is worth, I believe, taking your time to look, listen, reflect and respond.
The exhibition “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can be visited in the ZKM until 29th of January 2017 and afterwards in Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
Throughout history, the struggle between the West and the East has fallen on the shoulders of the U.S. and Russia. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the West’s relationship with Russia has always been testy. With the disintegration of the USSR, the US was deemed victorious, while spreading its influence and liberal ideology throughout the world, while Russia and its stalling economy was seen as the loser. Twenty-five years of US hegemony, good or bad, was felt in every corner of the globe, whilst Russia’s global headlines comprised of its propaganda, sniggered at by Western nations, poor economy and the propping up of dictatorships. However, in recent times, it is evident that Russia is somewhat gaining its influence back via foreign policies and especially through the soon-to-be new alliance with president-elect Donald Trump. It is now difficult to ignore the growing power of Russia throughout the world, especially as even its classic nemesis, the US, appears to be bowing to Putin’s charm.
After the events of 2014 there was an agreement in the West to isolate and punish Putin for his actions in, the now-annexed, Crimea. Russia was placed under economic sanctions that were intended to weaken its trade with the western hemisphere and contributed to the poor state of the Russian economy. Also diplomatic ties suffered between Russia and the West and at times have stalled, especially due to Russia’s role in Syria. It had looked like Russia would continue to play second fiddle to the US in the global political field, until the recent turn of global events.
Most significantly, president-elect Donald Trump has not hidden his admiration for Vladimir Putin. During the campaign, Trump praised Putin and his leadership qualities. Trump’s actions are drastically different from previous US presidents who had a frosty relationship with Putin. The oncoming US-Russia relations boom have alerted governmental figures and they have questioned if Putin would have influence in future US policies. Even in choosing his cabinet, Trump causes concern. Rex Tillerson was announced as the new Secretary of State and within hours of this declaration, concerns were raised by both Republicans and Democrats about Tillerson’s close ties to Putin. Were Putin to somehow have influence in US policies, then it is clear that the tide would clearly change in global politics. During the campaign, Russian hackers were blamed for leaking DNC emails, which destabilised the Democratic Party with Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation and the raised questions about the DNC’s authenticity. Post-election, Barack Obama called for an enquiry to examine if Russia had any influence on the final result.
Without a doubt, European leaders are concerned that Trump will have a soft approach to Putin and his foreign policy. This year, tensions escalated between the west, especially the US, and Russia due to its involvement in Syria and the continuous breaking of agreed ceasefires. Previously, there was no doubt that the Western block would stick together against Russia, but the stronghold alliance is not as stable as it once was. In France, Marine Le Pen secured a €9 million loan from Europe-Russia Bank (ERB), for her political party, Le Front National, to strengthen her far-right rhetoric which ultimately disrupts mainstream European values. Russia’s growing influence in Europe further demonstrates its tactical aim to have a strong hold in the continent à la pre-fall of the Berlin wall. Recently, during presidential elections, both Bulgaria and Moldova elected men who lean closer to Russia and distance themselves from the Western block. With uncertainty mounting in post-Soviet countries; it is evident that Putin’s foreign policies point to a wish for a quasi-USSR looking map. Trump’s limp response to supporting NATO may only encourage turning Putin’s attention towards the Baltic and Balkan states. In Germany, a warning has been issued from head of security that there may be interference in next year’s elections in Europe by Russia.
Further afield, in the strategically important Pacific region, the Philippine president, Roger Duterte, described Putin as his “idol”, recently claiming that the two have much in common. While creating a gap between the Philippines and the US – for instance calling Obama a “son of a whore”- it is evident that Duterte would welcome a strong alliance with Russia. This would diminish the US’ influence in the region, which has been essential for US interests for many years.
Despite its recent influence in global politics, some political leaders will still create obstacles for Putin and his Russia. Angela Merkel claimed that the sanctions placed against Russia must continue due to the lack of progress in Ukraine. Furthermore, Alexei Navalny, leader of Progress Party has declared that he will run in the 2018 Russian presidential elections and will “speak about things people refuse to talk about”.
Pockets of once assured Western alliances around the world are quickly being challenged by different leaders. With Russia’s frosty relationship with the West thawing with the election of Trump, and other global political party leaders, one thing seems certain: Russia is is finally coming in from the cold.