15 Years in the Neighbourhood
Ivan Krastev in conversation with Philipp Dietachmair
We continue our conversation with Ivan Krastev in this second instalment of a five-part interview. After having looked back at what the past 15 years have meant for the building of democratic European communities in part 1, we dive into the issues around the real division between people within our societies across the continent.
We also invite our readers to join the dedicated ‘Another Europe’ Lab on ECF Labs where you can participate to the discussion on issues around these particular themes and download more texts on our work in the EU Neighbourhood as featured in our most recent publication Another Europe.
Part 2: Identity Politics
Talking about reach and people, let’s look at Zagreb’s independent cultural scene for example. From its beginnings around two decades ago it grew into a strong and well-connected group of organisations whose activities inspire cultural workers in Croatia and beyond. But nobody was supporting those contemporary forms of cultural work in the past. So, such initiatives were dependent on us collaborating with them from abroad.
We believed their work was interesting, also because of the support they received from Europe and from cultural foundations. They were never made to enter public institutions, they even developed a certain type of distaste for these institutions for good reasons. Some crowds are less supportive when it comes to new and bright ideas. Certain choices made by these new cultural actors also became a source of their current weaknesses as certain types of groups and ideas which were totally old fashioned and not interesting for us managed to remain positioned within these institutions. As eventually more money started to arrive for culture again, from national institutions and others, they started to push in a different direction: they managed to portray these much younger and urban groups as some sort of rootless cosmopolitans who do not understand their own societies.
I would like to illustrate this with an example I always find fascinating: the most popular T.V. series across all of the Balkans in the last several years have been the Turkish soap operas. Everyone who knows the nationalistic culture of places like Bulgaria or Serbia will know to what extent their national identity was very much based on anti-Ottoman and anti-Turkish sentiments. I find this new interest in Turkish soaps absolutely puzzling. Why are these Christian societies that have very much been shaped by anti-Turkish sentiments throughout the last hundred years, so receptive to this type of soap operas? They are very professionally done, sure, but there are good quality soap operas coming from other parts of the world too. I have been trying to answer these questions because we are talking about a really huge popularity: they are watched by all parts of society, neither education nor age really matters here.
Let’s look at the reasons why people watch these soap operas. The first thing they mention is the simple moral story: there is still good and bad. Secondly, institutions are still respected: prosecutors are not necessarily corrupt like in the Bulgarian or Russian or Ukrainian storylines. Also, the elderly are respected and the family has a strong presence. Viewers see people together all the time: around the dinner table, talking… As paradoxical as it may appear, the Turkish soap operas have become the expression of a nostalgia for socialism. They arrived in a situation where in Bulgaria, the conservative parts of society felt they didn't anymore have their own language to express their fears, their hopes, what they believed in, what they have lost and what they have gained. Because these new contemporary forms of culture that started to be produced in our societies could never really get these more conservative people as an audience.
In his essay for Another Europe called “Culture as a Way out of Crisis”, Jerzy Hausner states that ‘the conviction has reigned to date that culture is essential and useful when we make it a part of the economy or a political component such as Critical Art. It is time to look at this from another angle and consider how the economy or polity can become part of culture’. From your point of view, what is of particular value and maybe distinctive significance when engaging with civil society initiatives in the field of culture (in comparison with supporting much larger and maybe even more obvious agendas such as freedom of press, human rights, civil liberties, etc.)? What you just described regarding the popularity of soap operas from Turkey seems to be yet another phenomenon in-between.
The basic problem is that the issue of social cohesion has been very much challenged by this ongoing rapid transformation within our societies. I do believe that we, as societies, but also you as funders, were all so much fascinated by the creative power coming from the winners of this transition that none of us showed enough patience for the culture or demands of the ‘losers’. They were pushing for stability in societies where stability was not on offer, pushing for traditional values, such as respect for the elderly. But there was a void and a lack of cultural conversation. Then, when certain political forces decided to build all their cultural appeal on this void, it worked. You can see it to an extent with the current conservative agenda in Putin’s Russia, its attacks on gay marriage and on modernity. Everything that we regard as worthy to support there has been cut and reproduced nothing but a scapegoat that became the symbol for a certain ‘decadent’ culture.
This is interesting because certain parts of all our societies are currently very much in search of words and expressions for what they have experienced. How to enable these people to speak and to tell their story without turning what they have to say into a resource for disclosing a cultural space as we see it happening in many places? Many of these more conservative people are of course not wrong. There were many things that happened in Russia in the 1990s outside of the big cities that had nothing to do with creativity, there was just a total feudal repression in the absence of a state. But how to talk about this? How to talk about this in an opening and not closing way?
Another example; in the 1990s, the period we talked about earlier, Europe very much perceived respect for minorities as a crucial part of its identity – and for good reasons, especially after the Yugoslav wars. We tried to make the minority perspective the key for our understanding of European politics. What we however see in Europe today, not only in Eastern Europe but in France too, is something that I would call the rise of the threatened majorities. Majority groups develop feelings of being persecuted, of never being in power, despite being a majority, and they have started to radicalize. Marine Le Pen and the people behind her in France are a very classical expression of this.
We have arrived at a moment when we should not simply support this or that individual group, but should create a space in which these different intuitions about what's happening in the modern world can clash, but in a positive way. We need the cultural encounters that never happened before because a more urban open liberal culture and a much more conservative culture have both been living in their own worlds. Now we need common cultural encounters. There is a natural trend which is true for everything, it is by the way also true for the market as it is true for the Internet: people prefer to talk to people who are like them. They tend to stay in their own circles.
So how do we bring them together to talk with people from outside their own (liberal and cosmopolitan) circles? What are your ideas about who could create a place for such common cultural encounters?
I do not believe they can be simply brought together by the fact that we all know now how divided our societies are, over cultural issues but also many other issues. Politics in Europe these days are dominated by identity politics. It's not so much about socio-economic issues anymore, today we have a very strong anti-establishment sentiment.
If we want these new encounters to happen, it is very important - and I do believe it's critically important especially for foundations like the European Cultural Foundation, to find authentic and powerful figures and productions from this more conservative culture that are worth talking about. Put them in touch with figures who represent this much more liberal and open-minded view on Europe. Find topics and productions of the more liberal and cosmopolitan cultural circles that are worth to be tried out in contact with a public that feels so much more scared and persecuted now and is often very reactionary. This is going to be more difficult for us than it was showing new art from Croatia in Serbia in the 1990s or inviting Croats to see Serbian art. Most of us working in this field are a part of this more liberal, cosmopolitan high European culture ourselves.
For me, such questions are also all connected to the legacy of communism. From the point of view of somebody like me who was born in a communist country and then lived in a communist country for the first twenty-five years of his life, the only art that societally made sense was art that was challenging, criticizing and eroding power. Since then, we developed a very high level of praise and sympathy for any type of unconformist art. What is interesting these days is that you don't really know what is conformist and what is non-conformist anymore. Many productions that were non-conformist are now very conformist when we think about the established environments in which they take place and which are often created by donors that are very much in love with non-conformist groups. Beyond this elementary division of conformist versus non-conformist art we need to find cultural productions that express the divergent motions and experiences across different parts of our societies. This will help us understand that for the last twenty-five years, we have been living in the same countries, in the same Europe, but we have a very different idea of what is going on.
In part 3, we continue our conversation with Ivan Krastev, diving into the similarities of the many issues across our geographies, looking i.e. at concrete examples from Hungary and Ukraine.