I cannot not care about what happens in Ukraine
I cannot not care about what happens in Ukraine. It’s a revolution happening almost next to me - on the brink of European Union. I follow it as closely as I can, while not knowing Ukrainian.
Protests started on Nov. 21, caused by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to create closer relations with the European Union but to tighten the ties with Russia (which offered him a $15 billion bailout and 33% discount on natural gas, at least for three first months of 2014). In January the demonstrations became deadly.
On Jan. 22 Yuriy Verbytskyy, 50-year-old seismologist and Euromaidan volunteer, was found dead in a forest near Kyiv. Together with activist and journalist Ihor Lutsenko he was abducted from a hospital after being injured in the eye during a police clash. Lutsenko says both of them were tortured through the whole night: the police claim Verbytskyy died of exposure.
Serhiy Nihoyan, 21, died on Jan. 22, shot dead during fight between riot police and protesters. According to the authorities, bullets he was killed with are not in the police arsenal. He wanted to be an actor.
Roman Senik, 45, died on Jan. 22 in hospital, from a wound in the chest being a result of clashes with riot police.
Mikhail Zhyzneuski, 25, died on Jan. 22 of a gunshot wound to the heart during fights between protestors and riot police.
Euromaidan PR reported yesterday on Twitter: 5 dead, 90 missing and 1,000 arrested. KyivPost mentioned 4-6 causalities and published an infographic stating: 6 dead, 30 missing, 116 arrested and 2 000 injured.
According to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, 234 protesters have been detained since the beginnings of the protests, about 140 of them remain in custody. 4 people had been killed and about 500 people, including 253 police officers, had been injured. No one knows exact numbers.
On the international level, there seems to be an agreement that the most important thing right now is meaningful dialogue in Ukraine. Yesterday the Visegrad Group issued a joint statement condemning the cycle of violence and warned that escalation of the crisis “endangers the future of Ukraine and threatens the complete destabilization of the country."
They also voiced concerns regarding the role played by extremist groups. Meanwhile, EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Jan. 29, after meeting in Kyiv with Yanukovych that the dialogue between the president and opposition leaders must "address the concerns that people genuinely have about the future" of Ukraine.
According to Chancellor Merkel’s office, she spoke on the phone with President Putin and urged him to push Ukrainians in the direction of constructive dialogue. The Kremlin states that in response Putin stressed the unacceptability of outside interference. On Jan. 29 Putin said that Russia will hold on to the promised $15 billion bailout until the new government of Ukraine is formed. If this is not a form of outside pressure, I don’t know what is. For the moment it is unclear whether the new government will include pro-European politicians.
When in western Ukraine the protestors seize and occupy government buildings, in the east, traditional power base of Yanukovych, counter-protestors form self-defence groups. They have already helped the police in breaking up pro-EU rallies in Zaporozhzhiya and Odesa among others.
It’s the second revolution in Ukraine in ten years. They differ, of course: the first one was closely connected with a political party – Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine. The second one does not have that kind of political affiliation. But the president they rebel against is the same: Viktor Yanukovych. Last time, there was Yushchenko at the front: now the revolution doesn’t have one leader, but many - Vitali Klitschko, nationalist Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda”, Yuriy Lutsenko, Petro Poroshenko. Present are nationalists, liberals, students, representatives of Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches. In the words of Yuri Andrukhovych: "The Maidan funds itself, through its own love and its own hatred". But still, Euromaidan is not completely internally united and it does not represent the whole of the Ukrainian people.
Another difference is that the Orange Revolution started on Nov. 22 and was successfully finished on Jan. 23. Euromaidan started on Nov. 21 and continues while I write these words, on Jan. 30. There is no telling when, and how, it will end.
A southern tide to overflow Europe
It's been almost three years since the plazas of the Spanish cities called out for real democracy now. Still there is none, and the struggle to win that democracy has turned into tiresome banging of heads against the institutional blockage. More cuts. More exclusion. More evictions. More repression. More misery.
Yet even in this situation a multiplicity of democratic embrions are developing. In the practices and demands of the various initiatives born in or fortified by the uprising of the plazas in 2011, democracy is the common denominator. The destitution of the current political and economic regime dating back to the Transition from Franco's dictatorship smacks of urgency. In the bipartisan game played by conservative PP and centre-left PSOE, everything will be finished off by the ongoing austerity policies. Jobs, education, healthcare, income, housing, social service and benefits, political, social and labour rights are at stake. The Troika of ECB, European Commission and IMF holds the strings.
In this framework enRed , a process of organization initiated in Madrid in the autumn of 2012, set out to compile the demands and proposals of the streets and plazas into one document. This document, called the Charter for Democracy, aspires to serve as a tool in the democratic revolution announced by the #15M. Since the first draft was formulated, the Charter for Democracy has passed through different movements both in Madrid and other cities. The critiques, improvements and additions proposed to it have been discussed on and incorporated to it. On Saturday 18th a first encounter  was organized in Madrid to work on the Charter. Besides the document – seen as a gradual, open protoconstitution–, there are still many open questions about the roadmap of its implementation and the organizational model to make it happen. The openness is not only a weakness. Heard in the encounter was: “I got interested because it was the only thing that was still open to participation in the process.”
While enRed opts for sharing a tool –the Charter– and has proposed a certain process –with its organizational model and strategy– the contents of the Charter are also a resource for others. During this spring, for better or worse, democracy will be the trending topic of the European elections. Spain is already in full blossom with new post-15M parties like Partido X, Podemos or EQUO popping up day by day. Many of the initiatives have surely been inspired from the Charter, and the copying should be seen as with open source software: a welcome contagion between organisms inhabiting the same ecosystem. In a political ecosystem of the 99% these organisms will have to find a way to relate to each other.
They need each other: as the institutional blockage doesn't give up any space for regenerating the political structures from below, the question of breaking the blockage becomes imminent. If not breaking it a la Ukraine, how to do it? The real divisive questions between the different electoral strategies are the ones of representation and leadership on one hand, nationalism and views on Europe, on the other.
There are three factors in why the proposal of enRed excites us. Firstly, proposing as the only programmatic point the dissolution of Las Cortes and the convocatory of a constituent assembly.
Secondly, it understands that there is no democratic outcome from the current systemic crisis within just one nation state. Thirdly, the first two factors are presented assuming that the elections are not an end in itself but only one of the means. If there isn't a democratic tide that wipes away the old, overflowing the neoliberal Europe with new forms radically democratic institutionality, there will only be a change of the flag in the palace of power.
What are the forms we can think for the democratic tide as the electoral acceleration of time hits the temporal autonomy claimed by #15M? Is a reappropriation of the electoral space possible –as tending towards talk-show debates and opinionism instead of organization from below as it always is– for the expansion of the process that the occupation of the plazas inspired? Is it possible to hack the elections from below without reproducing the same calamities and succumbing under the diagnostic of the tristezas del poder?
The introduction of harmony and transparency in European finances is a priority
I opened this series on Europe on the run up to the 2014 European general elections with the hope of seeing more leadership from the institutions’ executives. Before Europe can regain momentum a basic acknowledgement is necessary: the European Union (EU) is not the root cause of the rough times Europe is experiencing. Europe, with all its shortcomings, has been a driving force on the Old Continent during the crisis.
The EU’s future is dependent on countries’ capacity to reform today. European finances and the European banking system are therefore an absolute priority beyond matters of European foreign policy, defense and security, enlargement, development and research. Europe was not able to foresee the latest financial and economic crises, nor could it really have prevented them – though a more forceful Europe could prevent future cataclysms. This is surely what Commissioner Michel Barnier and his team are contemplating in their attempt to regulate and reform the largest financial institutions in the EU. Approximately 30 banks considered “too big to fail, too costly to save and too complex to resolve” are those targeted by this potentially far-reaching reform.
Although non-binding and only to be presented to the next European legislature, this project will be submitted to the European Parliament for a possible vote. As such, it would strongly protect taxpayers from banks liquidity shortages or outright defaults and necessary state intervention, even though it falls short from strict separation of retail and investment banking activities. Nonetheless, it seeks introduce clarity and protection in a domain that needs both.
The capacity of European heavy weights to live up to the challenges of the opening century – public debt, pensions and healthcare spending, demographic change, immigration and relative economic decline – is key. France and Italy remain allergic to change and the United Kingdom’s dangerous game is not helping. Germany alone cannot succeed in steering the whole continent in the right direction. As long as political leaders do not make painful efforts to reach a socio-economic sustainable plan, Europe cannot be cured. Countries reluctant to reform such as France and Italy are certainly not showing the way forward. Recent criticism against Barnier’s plan by French leading politicians underscores their incapacity to reform banking and the EU’s determination to change the system. Critics say the split between banning proprietary trading, which currently represents 4% of balance sheets, and separating retail banking from investment banks’ more risky trading activities, will unsettle the very model of leading French and European banks.
But perhaps this is an initial cost necessary to sanitize and modernize a model that has reaped extreme havoc and worsened the burden on the taxpayer’s shoulders. The Vickers Commission in the UK already works towards separating the deposit taking business from the investment banks’ trading business. Banks may be forced to create spinoffs to trade on the derivatives market in the land of high risks and high returns, but would be equally secluded from the taxpayer’s money. The point is to prevent proprietary trading to develop again as economies get kick-started and quite simply to avoid some of the pitfalls at the origin of the 2008-2009 debacle.
This is also why I have hope in a more charismatic European leadership helped in its task by an active European Central Bank (ECB). If the United Kingdom’s economy is picking up amid deep cuts in public spending, this diagnosis cannot be made across the continent where France and Italy remain laggards where they should lead. In the past two years, the UK propelled by London has created over 1 million jobs and unemployment is dropping. This cannot be said of France, Italy, Spain and many other south Europeans. As long as France is reluctant to rendering the labor market more flexible, to reducing unemployment benefits and to decreasing corporate taxes, the country’s attempt to go forward will stall.
Assessments of French economic and fiscal policy by the OECD and the IMF remain grim. The political establishment should stop living in the 1970s and radically change course. The same is true in Italy where politics seem out of touch with reality and remote from the new generation of political leaders in Northern Europe. Beyond individual cases, attention should be paid to flat inflation (and the risk of deflation). Economies are picking up at different paces – some genuinely recovering and others presenting flat growth – and negative perspectives remain attached to many. At 0.8% in the EU, inflationary values are also far off the ECB’s 2% target. Unless a commodity price shock wave is triggered, inflation is set to remain tepid. In addition, foreign direct investment (FDI) has plummeted in 2013 in a number of European countries such as France, in contrary to Germany.
Politicians must begin to voice what the majority of analysts and people who care have diagnosed. Politicians must end the vote winning easy ‘blame it on Eurocrats’ talk and tell their constituents efforts are necessary for the good of all. Together we can get out of the slump and the EU is the medium between European economies. The old statist nationalist approach will postpone the reform agenda. We need brave politicians at the national level, as well as the supranational European level. We need to acquire renewed confidence in Europe, which only positive voices of reform can incarnate. It is time to elect forward-thinking young European deputies (MEPs) in 2014. It is time to avoid the simplistic and flawed reasoning of anti-European voices already present in individual member states; for these could plague the next legislature.
Returning to Europe for the first time
We are at a very critical juncture today in Europe. In Ukraine, for the first time since independence twenty-three years ago, the police clashed with protesters leaving several dead, hundreds kidnapped, imprisoned or tortured.
It reminds me of Berlin in 1953, Prague in 1956, and Budapest in 1968, Gdánsk in 1970. Does it remind you?
It also reminds me of Cairo in 2011, when the revolutionary movement gathered to overthrow the Mubarak regime. Two days ago, forty-nine people from those who marched on Tahrir Square to celebrate the third anniversary of that historic event, were killed. Prisons are overflowing with activists; the streets are dry with fear and bitterness. The square today is a tragic monument of what could have been. In 2011 we saw the initiation of a power struggle – not one between political elites but one between generations. As one Egyptian activist put it in a recent interview for the National Public Radio, it was an attempt by the young to fix the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. They have been unsuccessful.
The Maidan [Independence] Square may soon resemble the tragic sight of what Tahrir has become. In Ukraine, the vision of the future could once again lose to the repressive grip of the past. Here’s why.
More than fifty years ago, on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Prague, the Hungarian News Agency Director issued a statement shortly before his office was bombarded. That message ended with the words: “we are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”
According to both Milan Kundera and Jürgen Habermas, this was a common discourse in Central Europe, which eventually culminated in the overthrowing of totalitarianism. For those nations, Europe did not represent a geographical location, but a ‘spiritual notion synonymous with the word “West”', as Kundera once put it. The moment, when, for example, Hungary is no longer European, which was the central aim of totalitarianism, it loses the essence of its identity; it is dislocated from its history and its destiny. That is what drove the Prague Spring and eventually culminated in the 1989 revolutions – a need for rectification. Fixing what has been done and returning to Europe. They were successful.
Today people in Ukraine are also ready to die for Europe. But for a very different reason than the director of the Hungarian News Agency who ended up sacrificing his life. Not because of a common history, a Roman-Catholic heritage, a lineage of modern philosophy, art, or classical music. Not because of the past, but because of the future.
Where people in Central Europe gave their lives to remain European, Euromaidan today is a symbol of the war fought by Ukrainians to becomeEuropean.
Perhaps if Ukraine did not have its western parts, where Soviet monuments are torn down and a rebellious anti-communist spirit remains alive, “it would be easy to turn the country into another Belarus” says novelist Andrey Kurkov. But people there are so strongly committed to fighting for their future; fighting for those basic values of freedom, reason, and human rights, that are so vividly represented as being European.
I know what these values mean, what it means to be European. Along with thousands of others we marched the streets in Sofia for seven months, fighting to remain European. We were not met with force because we are already in Europe.
But, just like Kundera notes at the end of his essay The Tragedy of Central Europe (1984), the real tragedy is that the News Agency director died unsuspecting that his Europe ‘was no longer experienced as a value’ within Europe itself.
Today, I fear the same. I fear that the Maidan Square will resemble Tahrir because the value of that European future of democracy and freedom, which brought the protests to life, is not a value shared within Europe itself. I fear that the dream of an open, integrated Europe, as a political unity and as a community, is shared and wanted by fewer and fewer nations. I fear that people in Kiev may realize that sooner rather than later.
The tragedy of Central Europe was that the vision of a shared and unifying past was lost in the centre; today, the tragedy of eastern Europe is that the normative foundation of a unifying future has been put to the test. Can Europe make it?