The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

The Legacy of Totalitarianism Today

Last week I spent a few days in Prague, where I was attending an International Conference ‘The Legacy of Totalitarianism Today’ (Dědictví Totality Dnes). The conference was organised by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience in association with several of their partner organisations, and hosted by the Senate of the Czech Parliament. In addition to two full days of conference presentations and discussion, two linked film showings were offered at European House (Evropský dům): Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn (2007) and a special screening of The Soviet Story (2008) followed by a great Q and A session with Director Edvīns Šnore. You can read more about The Soviet Story (and order copies!) at the official website here.

 

It's always nice to have a reason to visit beautiful Prague! Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

It’s always nice to have a reason to visit beautiful Prague! Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

A particular highlight for me was the invitation to attend the presentation of the first Prize of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience at Kampa Museum. The award, designed by Polish artist Mikołaj Ostaszewski, will be awarded annually to a person or persons who are fighting anywhere in the world today against totalitarianism, for the ideals of democracy, fundamental human rights and freedoms and the rule of law. This year, Crimean Tatar Leader Mustafa Dzemilev was presented with the award, to enthusiastic applause from all of those in the audience. You can read more about the award here.

 

Presentation of the first Platform of European Memory and Conscience Award to Mr. Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatar People. The award was presented by Göran Lindblad, President of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Presentation of the first Platform of European Memory and Conscience Award to Mr. Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatar People. The award was presented by Göran Lindblad, President of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

 

Mustafa Dzhemilev's acceptance speech. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Mustafa Dzhemilev’s acceptance speech. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

 

The aim of the conference was to assess the legacy of totalitarianism twenty five years after the collapse of communism, by combining discussion about past lessons with analysis of contemporary developments in the region. Discussion thus covered a broad range of topics, with themed panels including the ongoing fight to achieve justice for victims of totalitarian crimes; the evolving role of memory institutions; democracy the rule of law and economic transparency; media engagement; the role of the European Union and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. However, I have briefly highlighted some of the key themes and ideas that emerged from the conference below.

 

The Long Shadow of Totalitarianism

“We have been living in an atmosphere of freedom for the last 25 years, but what is freedom? Freedom is just a space that needs to be filled with positive developments and actions. Today, it is important to defend this space of freedom and prevent the past from repeating, by filling this space with positive content, for us and for generations to come” (Conference Statement by Daniel Herman, Minister of Culture of the Czech Republic)

 

Twenty-five years after the collapse of communism across the region, the legacy of decades of totalitarian rule continues to cast a shadow. The Berlin Wall may have fallen in 1989, but there is compelling evidence to suggest that for many, the maur im kopf (‘wall in the mind’) still persists today. Despite the widespread joy expressed when communism ended, millions of people had been deeply affected, and often damaged, by decades of totalitarian rule. This created the mass ‘moral illness’ described by Vaclav Havel. It is generally accepted that mentality lags behind institutional change during times of transition and during the conference presentations, many questions were raised about how effectively the totalitarian legacy has been overcome, and to what extent the ‘ ‘post-communist mentality’ has endured, and continues to influence both individual attitudes and institutional reforms.

 

 

Conference Poster: Legacy of Totalitarianism Today. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Conference Poster: Legacy of Totalitarianism Today. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Assessing the Post-Totalitarian Transition

In the past twenty-five years attempts by former communist states to establish and consolidate democracy, the rule of law and respect for individual rights; establish social trust; develop political accountability and fight corruption have produced a variety of experiences. From the mid-1990s the prospect of EU membership was a key motivating factor driving reform in many post-communist countries, but some were able to use this ‘window of opportunity’ more effectively than others. Often however, there has been little political will to reform beyond the requirements necessary for EU accession, and little evidence of genuine internalisation of many of the associated democratic values (including individual rights). Today, while official data provided by organisations such as Freedom House tend to rate Central and East European countries relatively highly with regards to levels of freedom and democracy, popular opinion polls suggest that democracy in the region is not working so well, although there is evidence to suggest that citizens are now more willing to hold governments accountable by ‘punishing them’ via the ballot box. Law still has a tendency to ‘bend’ before political power, many of the big anti-corruption cases are politically motivated and there are cases where the security services have been misused for political purposes.

Today, there are suggestions that we are seeing a post-EU accession ‘crisis of democracy’, even amongst countries that have previously been viewed as success stories in terms of their post-communist transition (such as the worrying drift towards authoritarianism in Hungary), but given recent political developments in Western Europe (as highlighted by the 2014 European Parliament elections), I wonder to what extent we need to see this ‘democratic crisis’ in the context of a wider European political shift rather than as the direct result of an incomplete post-communist transition and the legacy of recent totalitarian rule.

 

Communism and Nazism Compared

“Nazism and communism are, in effect, interchangeable” (Conference statement by Valters Nollendorf, Occupation Museum Association of Latvia)

 

 

In 2009 the European Parliament designated 23 August as an annual day of European Remembrance for Victims of Nazism and Stalinism (‘Black Ribbon Day’) to act as ‘a Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes’. But should we emphasise the similarities or the differences between these ideologies and the regimes they fostered? Should victims of communism be considered together with or separately from victims of Nazism? To what extent can the persecution and repression associated with the early communist period be considered as a continuation of Nazi repression? Nollendorf’s conference statement was controversial; the comparison between Nazism and communism has been addressed by numerous scholars and still remains a highly disputed subject. However, this comparison was evident in the screening of The Soviet Story, which highlights the ideological similarities and practical parallels that existed between the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. It is worth noting that many victims of totalitarianism suffered under both regimes and following WWII the Soviets often used former Nazi concentration camps as ‘special camps’ for prisoners of war, where many people were killed (although, there was no organised industrial genocide on the scale of the Nazi Holocaust). After the communist parties had consolidated their power in central and eastern Europe however, they also established their own system of prison camps and labour camps across the communist bloc – an extension of the Soviet Gulag – many of which have been described as ‘extermination regimes’. At last week’s conference, journalist Karl-Peter Schwarz highlighted the 2009 discovery of 4000 mummified bodies, victims of communist terror buried in a mass grave mine shaft at Huda Jama in Slovenia, which had created a ‘Pompeii of communist horrors’, and questioned why this story had barely been covered by wider European media (There is some information about this here).

 

How comparable are Nazism and Communism?

How comparable are Nazism and Communism?

Although communism was declared ‘dead’ after 1989/1991, it was arguably never fully buried. Communism has never been wholly discredited in the same way that Nazism was after WWII, and there has been no international attempt at ‘truth seeking’ along the lines of the Nuremberg Trials. In fact, in many instances attempts to bring legal action against communist-era officials has been met with reluctance and resistance. This lack of accountability allowed many communist parties across central and eastern Europe to rebrand themselves – some of them retained power into the 1990s, while others returned to political office just a few years after the collapse, and former communist parties in many countries have polled highly in recent elections (such as the success enjoyed by KSČM in the Czech legislative elections of October 2013, where they polled around 15% of the vote, making them the third largest parliamentary party). Today, communism and Nazism still tend to be presented differently, leading to allegations that communism is often ‘whitewashed’ for political reasons. In particular, academics and analysts often appear more willing to make excuses for the crimes of communism, presenting the ideology as well intentioned but distorted, due to a combination of the conditions under which it was enforced and the influence of human error.

 

Preserving and Promoting Voices of Victims of Totalitarian Persecution

“The communist experiment resulted in an ocean of injustice. I am just one drop in that ocean” (Aristina Pop Săileanu, former political prisoner, Romania)

 

Conference participants stressed the importance of recording the experiences of those who lived under communist regimes ‘to help give a voice to truth’ in the future. Several speakers also expressed the importance of education, knowledge dissemination and raising awareness of the crimes of communism. A number of organisations represented at the conference – including the Institute for Totalitarian Regimes , the Confederation of Political Prisoners (Czech Republic) and the International Center for Studies into Communism (Romania) described their involvement in oral history projects designed to collect testimonies from victims of the past, the ‘eyewitnesses of totalitarianism’, to ensure the preservation of their experiences. A variety of other positive initiatives were also outlined, including the organisation of school visits to encourage engagement between former political prisoners and victims of totalitarian repression, and the new ‘post-totalitarian’ generation. This is great news – I’ve seen first-hand how effective first-hand testimony from survivors can be in engaging younger students. But this process of ‘memory transfer’ can still be problematic.

What is the best way to pass on information, understanding, knowledge and experience about the past? As the generation gap widens, it is not only students but also their teachers who have no lived experience or memory of communism, and today, not all of the younger generation are interested in learning about the totalitarian past. Even twenty-five years on, it is often difficult for those who experienced communist repression to convey the truth of their experiences and discuss the ‘stripping of human dignity’ they endured, and some victims still refuse to speak about their experiences at all. Finally, how do we ensure equal representation of these voices, without privileging the more educated, more literate, more vocal members of this group? For example, Čeněk Růžička, President of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, argued that the experiences of the Roma, a group persecuted by both the Nazi and Communist authorities, remain marginalised compared with many other victims of totalitarianism. It is estimated up to 500,000 Roma were murdered in the Holocaust, but their fate is not given the same recognition as Jews and other groups who were victims of Nazi genocide, and Roma survivors have often been denied equal access to compensation. The issue of restitution for property stolen from the Roma has still not been addressed, and neither has any compensation yet been offered to victims of the forced sterilisation that routinely occurred in communist Czechoslovakia. In part, this marginalisation can be explained by the higher levels of illiteracy and the insular nature of many Roma communities, but it is also a product of continued prejudice and racism, as the Roma continue to be viewed as ‘second class citizens’ across much of Europe today.

Panel discussion about the legacy of witnesses of totalitarian persecution. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Panel discussion about the legacy of witnesses of totalitarian persecution. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Remembrance and Restitution

Stéphane Courtois, Professor of History and editor of the Black Book of Communism gave a thought-provoking presentation, arguing that in post-totalitarian societies ‘memory goes hand in hand with forgetting’. Courtois talked about the slow process of ‘cleansing’ national memories, following decades when communist regimes used a combination of propaganda, censorship and brute force to supress or stigmatise any alternative interpretations or memories that deviated from or contradicted their ‘official line’. The fall of communism allowed many people to speak openly about ‘how things really were’ for the first time and today a more honest assessment of the past is finally possible.

 

Stéphane Courtois, Professor of History and editor of the Black Book of Communism talking about the post-communist 'memory cleansing process'. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Stéphane Courtois, Professor of History and editor of the Black Book of Communism talking about the post-communist ‘memory cleansing process’. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

The contemporary consensus is that memory institutions and sites of remembrance remain important, as a memorial honouring the victims, a source of support for the survivors, sites of authenticity, museums of history, and centres for research and education about the totalitarian past. However, to date, the majority of memorials to communist repression across central and eastern Europe have been organised and built without any real state assistance. However, some questions are being asked about memory institutions: how long will they be needed? What role should they play? How should they be financed? Similar debates surround the future of many sites of repression and suffering, including prisons, labour camps and execution sites. How many sites should be retained as permanent memorials? How should these decisions be made? Who should finance the preservation of such sites? What functions should they serve? What about the future function of those sites which are not preserved? Some sites are already well established (such as Auschwitz-Birkeanau and Terezin) and others are currently under development (such as the ‘red tower of death’, a four-story building at the Jachymov uranium mine (the location of an infamously harsh communist-era labour camp) which was donated to the Czech Confederation of Political Prisoners after the production facilities closed. There are currently plans to develop the tower as a monument to the maltreatment and suffering experienced by the prisoners and a memorial to slavery across the eastern bloc). However, many other sites remain disputed, such as the Lety concentration camp, south of Prague, where an estimated 1,327 Roma were interned and hundreds died 1943-44. Today Lety remains the site of a functioning pig farm, despite a concerted campaign to close down or relocate the business out of respect for the victims.

Questions were also raised regarding restitution. How successfully have the crimes of the communist past been dealt with? Given the advancing age and declining health of both perpetrators and victims of some of the worst crimes of these totalitarian regimes, is there still a moral responsibility to achieve justice by bring them to trial? 2002 saw the launch of  ‘Operation Last Chance’ in an attempt to bring remaining Nazi war criminals to justice. Should a similar international campaign be launched targeting perpetrators of communist-era crimes, especially since more information has become available since the opening up of more state archives? The 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism stated that crimes committed under communism could often be classified as crimes against humanity, but relatively few trials and convictions have been achieved in the former Soviet bloc to date, and approaches to restitution have varied widely. In Poland, the creation of the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for Crimes Against the Polish Nation to cover the period 1939-1990, a body with special powers for investigation and prosecution has been an important development – between 2011-2014 there have been 311 indictments filed, over 470 perpetrators formally accused and 170 convicted and sentenced. Following the 2006 establishment of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes there have also been recent attempts to bring communist-era prison authorities to justice in Romania (where 600,000 people were imprisoned under the communist regime), such as the recent cases of Alexandru Visinescu and Ioan Ficior. In Hungary too, the conviction of former Interior Minister Béla Biszku on charges of war crimes in connection with the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising earlier this year was viewed as a landmark case, and clips from the controversial documentary Crime without Punishment (2010) highlighting Biszku’s apparent lack of remorse were also shown at the conference by director Tamás Novák.

Tamás Novák tells us about 'hunting communists' and the interviews he conducted with former Hungarian Minister of Interior and convicted war criminal Béla Biszku. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Tamás Novák tells us about ‘hunting communists’ and the interviews he conducted with former Hungarian Minister of Interior and convicted war criminal Béla Biszku. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Russia and Ukraine

“The current situation in Ukraine has created a moral and material threat for Europe” (Conference statement by Marion Smith, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation)

“23 years of independent Ukraine has shown that ignoring the totalitarian past deforms the present” (Conference statement by Volodymyr Viatrovych, Director, National Memory Institute, Ukraine)

“Ukraine symbolises the crisis of memory faced by all post-communist countries today” (Conference statement by Stéphan Courtois, Professor of History)

 

Naturally, recent developments in Russia and the current crisis in Ukraine also provided a key theme running throughout the conference, from Sofi Oksanen’s opening keynote speech to the closing panel discussion entitled ‘Ukraine and beyond’. Oksanen’s speech (which can be read in full here) argued that Putin’s rise to power did not just signify a new leader for the country, but a new system of power, a form of ‘neo-totalitarianism’ which is evidenced by the Kremlin’s use of ‘information warfare’, attack of pressfreedom and restriction of civil rights, while Russian nationalism is acting as a new basis for increased hegemony in their former empire.

 

Writer Sofi Oksanen delivering her keynote speech, focused on Putin's Russia and the recent Russian annexaction of Crimea. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Writer Sofi Oksanen delivering her keynote speech, focused on Putin’s Russia and the recent Russian annexaction of Crimea. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Oksanen also questioned how easily ‘the West’ appear to have accepted and ‘forgotten’ the Russian invasion of Crimea. Mustafa Dzhemilev also gave an impassioned condemnation of the Russian annexation of Ukraine and the enforcement of Russian citizenship on Crimean people, stating that even as the Crimean Tatars still struggle to overcome the legacy of Stalin’s 1944 forced deportations, they are facing a new threat from Putin’s regime. Dzhemilev also expressed concerns about the lack of external protection for Ukrainian territorial integrity in the face of the renewed Russian threat, despite the assurances provided by the 1994 Budapest memorandum, asking what message this sends to other states threatened by Russia’s resurgence? Finally, Andriy Kohut, a Ukrainian civic activist and coordinator of the Civic Sector of Euromaidan, traced the evolution of the current crisis in Ukraine from peaceful protest through confrontation to full scale revolution, before discussing some of the key challenges faced by the new Ukrainian President Poroshenko: to finally leave post-totalitarianism behind, harness the renewed civic activity sparked by the Euromaidan movement in a constructive direction, and deal with ongoing instability in the east, much of which continues to be fuelled by Russian influence.

 

dzhemilev panel

Mustafa Dzemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatars, speaking about the current situation in Crimea. Dzhemilev is viewed as a ‘provocateur’ by the Russian authorities, and is currently banned from entering Crimea.

Finally, the ongoing situation in Ukraine also provided a focal point for a closing statement entitled ‘Time for Europe to Wake Up!’ which was released by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience following the conference, and this can be read here.

 

 

June 20, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

‘Europe’: Then and Now

 

On 18th April I visited London to attend “Europe” Then and Now, the second annual Central Europe Symposium hosted by UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), and organised in conjunction with the Austrian, Czech, Slovakian, Slovenian, Polish and Hungarian UK Embassies.Full details about the symposium are available HERE.

 

The symposium consisted of three panel discussions covering a range of issues broadly related to ‘The Question of Europe’, ‘Economics and the Moral Society’ and ‘Culture and the Public Sphere’.Some challenging but timely questions were posed throughout the day, with lively discussion and debate reflecting on the problem of defining ‘Central Europe’. experiences of post-socialism, European integration and the impact of the current financial crisis.

 

I’ve written a reviewed of the symposium for the journal New Eastern Europe and you can read my thoughts on their website HERE.

 

 

May 3, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Croatian EU Membership Under Threat?

It appears as though issues related to two of my current areas of study, organised crime and disputed borders, may conspire to scupper or at least postpone Croatia’s chances of joining the EU.

Croatia applied for EU membership in 2003, was granted official candidate country status in mid-2004 and entered official entry negotiations with the EU from October 2005. Croatia had been making good progress and was hoping to complete pre-accession negotiations by the end of this year, clearing the way for full membership by 2011. While the most recent European Commission progress report on Croatian accession (published in November 2008) remained generally positive about levels of progress, it did raise serious concerns about continued high levels of corruption and organised crime, strongly stating that ‘more needed to be done’ in this area to meet EU requirements before the country could be considered for full membership.

I explored these developments in a short article (‘Croatia Tackles Crime to Calm EU Jitters’) published by Jane’s Intelligence Digest in December 2008. In brief, the 1990s were a boom time for organised crime in Croatia because post-socialist economic privatisation, opportunities for profiteering and sanctions busting during the Balkan wars and the endemic corruption under Franjo Tudjman’s regime encouraged the establishment of close links between political elites, law enforcement, big business and organised crime. As a result organised crime has often been at best tolerated and at worst promoted by those in positions of power. Croatian intelligence reports highlight the activites of organised smuggling chains dealing in narcotics, arms, cigarettes and human traffic, with high levels of money laundering and counterfeiting linked to organised criminal activities. Working relations have been established between Croatian criminals and their counterparts elsewhere, particularly throughout the Balkan Region and Former Soviet Union, Turkey and Italy. A range of gangland slayings towards the close of 2008 (including the contract killing of lawyers daughter Ivana Hodak on 6th October and the murder of contraversial media magnate Ivo Pukanic in a car bombing on 23rd October, both linked to organised crime) led to demands for concrete action to fight organised crime from both the Croatian public and EU monitors. After a series of public protests against gangland violence and condemnations of the killings by the EC and OSCE (Hans Svoboda, Croatian monitor within the European Parliament declared that ‘either the government must impose some stability and order or Croatia will not be able to join the EU any time soon’), Prime Minister Ivo Sanader ‘declared war’ on organised crime,acting quickly to push a package of anti-mafia laws through parliament and establishing a new police unit, the National Office for Suppressing Corruption and Organised Crime. Dubbed ‘The Croatian FBI’ by the press, a well-publicised anti-organised crime crackdown was launched and dozens of arrests were made before the close of 2008.

While the Croatian government wait for the 2009 EC progress reports to find out whether their recent efforts have been sufficient to convince the EU they are taking a serious enough approach to resolving their crime problem, another issue has raised its ugly head, threatening to derail accession negoiations, this time concerning a disputed borderline along the Croatian-Slovenian coast.

The Bay of Piran is only twenty square kilometres (eight square miles) in area, but provides a treasured outlet to the Adriatic sea for Slovenia, whose total coastline is only 46 km (29 miles) long. Croatia, whose coastline stretches for 1,700 km (1056 miles) argues that a dividing borderline should be drawn down the middle of the bay, but Slovenia fear this would deny their ships access to the sea. This isn’t a new dispute, indeed it dates back 18 years to the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. However the issue has recently been given new impetus as Slovenia (currently the only former Yugoslav state to have joined the EU) are now threatening to veto Croatia’s EU application unless the issue is resolved. While Slovenia are requesting EU mediation to resolve the dispute, Croatia argue that this is a legal, rather than a political issue, so should be resolved by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

On February 20, European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn encouraged the two countries to ‘work on finding a solution to their border dispute if Zagreb’s EU membership negotiations are to stand a chance of making progress’. Slovenian and Croatian prime ministers Borut Pahor and Ivo Sanader are to due to meet tomorrow (24th February) in an attempt to resolve the matter. If they are unable to reach a satisfactory resolution Croatia may be unable to complete membership negotiations by the end of this year, which will almost certainly delay their entry into the EU.


February 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Czech Artist Courts Controversy.

Czech artist David Černý (recently dubbed the ‘enfant terrible’ of the Czech art world by the BBC’s Rob Cameron) has courted fresh controversy with his most recent exhibit entitled ‘Entropa’, a play on ‘Evropa’ (the Czech word for ‘Europe’) and ‘Entropy’ meaning ‘disorder’.  Installed in the EU Council headquarters in Brussels, and unveiled on 12 January to celebrate the Czech Republic’s assumption of the EU Presidency from 1st January 2009, it wasn’t long before the 16 metre square, seven tonne framework raised not only eyebrows, but also indignation and anger.

Why? While the Czech government thought they had spent $ 500,000 USD commissioning a collaborative effort between artists drawn from all 27 countries depicted in the piece to celebrate and promote modern Europe, the end product transpired to be the work of Černý and a couple of Czech compatriots, who chose to ‘celebrate’ Europe by drawing on a number of popular cliches and crude prejudices to represent EU member states. As a result, France was depicted as ‘Greve!’ (a country ‘on strike’), Italy as a giant football field, Romania as a Dracula theme park and the UK found itself excluded from the European ‘map’ altogether, in a clear reference to its perceived Euroscepticism:

Czech it out! Cerny's contraversial art installation 'Entropa'

In a statement released shortly after the true nature of Entropa  was revealed, Černý said the following:

“Grotesque exaggeration and mystification are signs of Czech culture and the creation of false identities is one of the strategies of current arts … The work thus parodies socially committed art that balances on the brink of would-be controversial attacks on national characters and an innocent decoration of official spaces.We knew that the truth will be uncovered. Still before we wanted to find out whether Europe is capable of laughing at itself”

Some EU countries however, have failed to see the funny side. Bulgaria (depicted as a Turkish squat toilet) certainly don’t appear to be laughing. After expressing ‘profound indignation’ about their unflattering depiction,  the Bulgarian Government formally requested the immediate removal of their ‘country’ from the piece, resulting in ‘Bulgaria’ being covered over with a black shroud and somberly concealed from view from 20th January:

The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

Toilet Humour? The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

The Czechs aren’t laughing that much either.  Leading government  ministers claim to be outraged,  having been ‘misled’ about the nature of the piece and it’s origins. Czech President Vaclav Klaus initially pledged his support for the installation, but following the controversy generated after its unveiling, he moved quickly to distance himself from the scandal, claiming that Entropa was ‘neither funny nor good’ and offering a public apology to Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.

Elsewhere however, the response to the scandal has been more muted. While some EU diplomats half-heartedly called for the removal of the Entropa exhibition, the  official launch went ahead on 15 January, and two weeks on from the initial furore it remains on view in the EC headquarters (minus Bulgaria). No other country have filed an official protest about their image, despite some depictions having the potential to prove equally controversial and detrimental. Germany, for example, is illustrated as a series of autobahns described as ‘resembling a swastika’:

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

So why aren’t the German government also clamouring in outrage? After all, if we’re dealing in national stereotypes, the Germans are all too frequently accused of humourlessness. It is interesting that those most offended by Entropa are among the newest members of the ‘European club’. Most of the former East European states who have joined the EU in recent years saw their accession to membership as a real turning point, a ‘return to Europe’ after the decades of communist rule. Perhaps this is an indication that these countries are still afraid they aren’t being taken seriously as ‘Europeans’, still having to prove their worth, and not yet secure enough in their post-communist identity to be able to shrug off such negative stereotypes. Bulgaria, who only joined the EU in January 2007, are still smarting after the recent European Commission decision to suspend almost EUR 500 million of their EU funding in July 2008, due to their failure to combat organised crime and corruption in line with EU accession requirements, while the Czech Republic are obviously anxious to be seen to be taking their first stint in the EU Presidency seriously.

Whenever art and politics combine there will be controversy, and the Entropa exhibition also raised another issue: that of censorship and freedom of speech.  Alexandr Vonda, Czech Deputy Prime Minister, while publically apologising for any offence caused by the exhibition, also defended the piece by claiming that ‘art is freedom of expression’ and that this demonstrates that ‘twenty years after the iron curtain, there is no place for censorship in the EU’.

You can see a video clip of Cerny explaining the inspiration behing Entropa courtesy of the BBC website here:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7829453.stm

And Wikipedia have a full listing of the images used to represent each of the 27 countries, and their symbolism here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropa


January 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments