Articles and Commentary

Russian Demonstrations and French Illusions

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It is fairly easy to explain to French students the reasons for the Russian demonstrations.

 

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How I Didn't Make It Big in Ukraine

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*** Hayden Berry is Assistant Editor at New Eastern Europe and a Krakow-based musician. He recently played a few concerts in Eastern Europe. This is his personal account of his misadventure in Kyiv and how he missed his one shot at hitting the Ukrainian big time. ***

On February 9th 2012, I flew into an icy Boryspil International Airport with my partner and a couple of friends. Poland had recently been experiencing sub-zero temperatures of between minus 15 to 20 degrees centigrade, and the news out of Ukraine, in which over 150 people had died as a result of exposure to extreme temperatures, had warned us to expect worse. As the plane touched down, the stewardess informed us that it was, indeed, minus 25 degrees centigrade and the passengers started the all too familiar ritual of putting on their hats, coats and gloves before disembarking onto the airport bus. The roads out of the airport were edged with billboards advertising EURO 2012 designed to hide the construction of the new VIP facility referred to as Boryspil 2, still as yet unfinished.

 

In the footsteps of Les Kurbas

We were in Kyiv to perform two weekend concerts at the Les Kurbas State Centre for Theatre Arts at the invitation of our hosts, a group of young people who organise concerts under the name AZH Promo, and the Polish Institute in Kyiv who provided funding for the event. Les Kurbas had been one of the most influential Ukrainian theatre directors of the 20th century until he was sent to Solovki labour camp and eventually shot on the direct order of Joseph Stalin in the forests of Sandarmokh. The theatre named after Les Kurbas is off the main street opposite the golden spires of the Saint Sophia Cathedral on Volodymyrs’ka Street and pays tribute to the man many claimed a genius. The theatre website ambitiously states that the centre aims to “to provoke experimentation and to create globally-constructive models for theatre as a builder of a national spiritual environment,” followed by a hope for the future: “The intellectual thought of new Ukraine and its culturology and art research, should reintegrate themselves into the European and world contexts from which they have been separated for well-known historical reasons.”

The premises of the Les Kurbas State Centre comprise both a large and small rehearsal hall, sometimes used as an exhibition space, as well as the “Theatre Laboratory” in which we were booked to perform. The theatre itself is a small flexible studio type space, with a capacity of around 80 people on a rising tier of seating that can moved to suit the play or director. It has a high ceiling with suspended lighting rigs, and long velvet theatre curtains hiding a plain white wall which serves as a projector screen. From the balcony above and in front of the stage, there is a projector which would be used to project the sequence of visuals which accompanies our music created by composer and my co-performer, Marek Kamiński.

Marek and I had been invited by AZH Promo in Kyiv to play our respective projects, Lights Dim and Visionary Hours on subsequent Saturday and Sunday nights, together with two Ukrainian artists, each of whom would open the concert on the different nights. On the day we arrived, the organisers walked us to the theatre to check the space, equipment and projector screen, as well as to meet the other artists, Heinali and Creation VI. We returned to our hostel exhausted, but content in the knowledge that everything was prepared.

The next morning we bundled ourselves up in every piece of clothing we had brought with us and walked the 25 minutes from our hostel to the theatre looking like arctic mummies to set up, sound check and do a last-minute rehearsal. During a break in the afternoon, while we were chatting and relaxing with the organisers and sound engineer, the sound of a traditional Japanese flute could be heard being played in one of the echoey corridors of the theatre complex. The album I was here to perform was inspired by the travel diaries and haiku poetry of Matsuo Bashō who lived and travelled throughout Japan in the 17th century, writing poetry and practising Zen Buddhism. Getting extremely excited that a chance meeting in a theatre in Kyiv might be able to add something authentic to my Japanese-themed performance, I asked whether the person playing the flute might possibly be available to play on the Sunday evening to introduce our performance. This turned out to be the lighting engineer, Zhenya Kopyov, who said that he would be delighted to play, and we agreed that as the Creation VI finished his performance, Zhenya would go onto the stage and play a piece on his traditional shakuhachi right before we came on.

 

Two concerts, one film crew

The concert on the Saturday night was opened by the Ukrainian artist, Heinali, otherwise known as Oleg Shpudeiko, who performed his drone-ambient compositions sitting behind a see-through screen with stills and footage of the loss of Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance projected on to it. Later, Marek Kamiński and I performed his Lights Dim project, with Marek playing his neo-classical piano compositions accompanied by the swells of my heavily reverberated and delayed guitar, against a backdrop of photos of Japan. The theatre was full to capacity and the evening was a success. We celebrated with the organisers and crew in an unusually empty pizza restaurant in the centre of Kyiv, which had run out of beer. How unfortunate.

On the Sunday afternoon we returned to the theatre to soundcheck for the Visionary Hours concert. We had plenty of time and were able to practise some of the compositions which mainly consist of mixing the various recorded instruments live, while playing live keyboards and guitar over the top, as well as manipulating sound effects to enhance the sound of the original album. We checked the visuals on the large screen which had been created by using a selection of old Japanese films and other interesting clips that Marek had cut up and slowed down, adding visual effects and layers to build a collage of interesting footage which tells the imaginary story of the wandering Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō. During a break, we could hear the sound engineer practising his shakuhachi and felt confident that we were all ready.

Around 6.30pm, the audience started to arrive and everybody started taking their seats. Just before the show began, a film crew from the internet television channel, TV News 24, turned up completely unannounced. They were obviously late and rushed in to take their place as Tim Six of Creation VI was just about to play. Tim performs by using a selection of differently-sized Tibetan singing bowls and then effecting the sound to build up a steady sweet-sounding drone. His performance lasted around 30 minutes and was accompanied by a water-based projection on the big screen. Once his performance had ended, the television crew hurried to interview Tim about the performance they had just filmed, as well as some of the audience.

Minutes later: the lights go down, Zhenya takes to the stage under a single spot-light and plays his five-minute traditional shakuhachi piece as the perfect introduction to our longer Japanese-themed performance. You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre as the audience listened to his music. In the video news footage that appeared online at TV News 24, Marek and I can be seen sitting at a table to the left side of the stage behind Zhenya, waiting for the sound of his flute to set the mood and tone of the evening, ready and poised to play. After his performance, Zhenya walks off to gentle applause, the visuals roll and our concert starts.

Big in Ukraine?

The show went extremely well and the concert seemed to be another success, packed to capacity. But in the footage that found its way onto the TV News 24 website, sections of Creation VI's performance is followed by  Tim Six's interview, all narrated by the TV News 24 presenter. However, when Zhenya comes on stage to play his shakuhachi, the presenter announces that Hayden Berry of Visionary Hours, who came all the way from Poland, also performed a lovely piece of music on his traditional Japanese flute. Imagine my disappointment when I watched the video clip for the first time, seeing my new friend Zhenya Kopyov playing the flute but hearing my own name being mentioned, while I can actually see myself sitting patiently in the background waiting to play. My one (and probably only!) shot at Ukrainian mega stardom had been foiled. I had been tripped up right before the first hurdle.

Despite being quite a funny anecdote, against the bigger picture of inaccurate journalism and news reporting, this story is not particularly important. This situation is nothing new and these things happen all the time. But it does illustrate the issue of the responsibility that TV news broadcasters and journalists should have to their general public. The film crew which got it wrong didn't tell anyone they were coming to the concert, and didn't ask anyone who was playing and where they were from. As a result they got the story wrong. This is one example of a simple three-minute news story, on one single day in 2012, from one of the hundreds of internet television channels that have been sprouting up all over the world on the internet since camera technology became cheaper and internet broadband speeds became faster. On a larger scale, the potential for the inaccurate proliferation of news and information throughout the world is not only immense, but just a little bit frightening. And while I can't but help chuckling to myself every time I think about this story, there is the danger that internet journalism is getting it wrong on a scale that we can't even hope to imagine.

On a personal level, we thoroughly enjoyed playing the concerts at Les Kurbas Theatre in Kyiv. And despite the cold, we were extremely well-looked after by our Ukrainian hosts at AZH Promo, and left Kyiv having made many more new friends. However, I would like to both thank and apologise to Zhenya Kopyov. Firstly, I would like to thank him for having the courage to play his shakuhachi, unaccompanied, unmiked, and without much prior warning. And secondly, I would also like to apologise to him on behalf of the TV News 24 channel for all the millions of ordinary Ukrainians who might see him walking down a street in Kyiv and mistake him for being a British musician from Poland. Or perhaps I should just learn how to play the shakuhachi?

Hayden Berry is a musician and Assistant Editor for New Eastern Europe, Krakow, Poland.

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Russia 2012 - History Repeating?

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*** Kelly Hignett from The View East recently did an interesting report examining Vladimir Putin’s role in a historical comparison to the role of other leaders in Russia’s past.

 

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Travelling Backwards

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A review of Putin’s Progress: Four Films on Vladimir Putin and his influence over Russia. Shown at The Rich Mix (London) March 3rd 2012.

 

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Catharsis or a Headache? Parliamentary elections in Slovakia

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The fast-approaching early parliamentary elections in Slovakia will bring changes on the political scene and along with it either a national catharsis or a huge headache. Everything will be decided on the March 10th.

For several months, the current Slovakian government has been low on luck. In the autumn of 2011, as a result of rejecting the proposal to increase the country’s participation (from 4.4 billion euros to 7.1 billion) in the European Financial Stability Fund, the government of Iveta Radičova collapsed, the parliament was dissolved and early elections were announced. On top of this, a huge political scandal broke out earlier this year, when journalist Tom Nicholson published secret documents of the Slovak security agency (SIS) under the pseudonym “Gorilla”. These files contained analyses of corruptive dealings between businessmen and politicians, and the affair involves leading figures of Slovakian politics, including the current Foreign Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.

Were it not for the approaching elections, the January revelations, which, after all, concern events from 2006, would have fizzled out. But this coincidence is definitely favourable for the largest opposition party – the left-wing Smer (Direction–Social Democracy), for which the polls predict a 40 per cent support. The party’s leader, Robert Fico, is almost certain of becoming the next prime minister.

The affair also helped the newly established populist parties – Ordinary People of Igor Matovič (7 per cent support) and the “99%” party (polling at 3% per cent support). These two parties are the main stars of the current election campaign, although it may turn out that the “99%” party will vanish as fast as it appeared, killed by its own bullet. The party based its campaign on the slogans of fighting corruption and vested interests, but it turned out that on its register documents, there allegations of false signatures.

Nevertheless, comparing the political programmes of the parties, we should expect that a populist government will be formed.

The polls predict that the ruling Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKU) of Dzurinda and Radičova, supported by just four per cent of the voters, will not even be represented in the next Slovakian parliament, dealing a painful blow for Dzurinda, who has long been one of the main actors of Slovakian politics.

Mráz verzus hnev

It is not only the political elites who are aware that this shock therapy will bring the Slovakian society either a catharsis or a huge headache. The Gorilla affair awakened the apathetic Slovaks from their slumber. A page called “Kauza Gorila” (Gorilla Cause) was quickly created on the Facebook and protests were organised. The action “mráz versus hnev” (cold versus anger) attracted thousands of protesters both in Bratislava and in smaller cities. The participants of the protests turned up at the main squares in order to express their dissatisfaction and frustration with the current political situation.

The organisers of the protests announced that the demonstrations will continue until Election Day and so far they have kept their promise, but the last stretch of this marathon of discontent is getting tiring. The anti-political protests have lost their significance within a matter of weeks, with many Slovaks believing that the matter has been publicised enough.

The organisers of the protests also gained a reputation of being naïve idealists rather than genuine leaders. Many believe that that those in charge of protests were accidental – being at the right place at the right time. “Let’s create a document in Google Docs where every Slovak will be able to put forward his or her ideas for reform,” one of the protest leaders proposed at a February meeting in Bratislava.

In fact, the movement has not put forward any ideas but rather utopian slogans about changing the political and economic system whereby “people who are competent in something” will be responsible for that “something” and money will be replaced by a barter system. This revolution was to be exported to the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, etc. But it seems that it quickly will be forgotten after the Saturday elections. The social capital it has generated will most likely fade away.

In the first weeks of the protests some commentators compared the popular unrest to the Arab Spring but Jaroslav Daniška, a columnist writing for the conservative weekly Týždeň, finds only one similarity. “The Anti-Gorilla Movement wanted to change politics and it did, from bad to worse! The emergence of the new populist parties on the political scene makes Robert Fico and his party the lesser evil.”

Nevertheless, the protests will clearly have an impact on the election results. Smer and the new populist parties will gain and the SDKU, hardest hit by the revelations contained in the “Gorilla” files, will be ousted from parliament.

Hope for change

Although the protests are fading, you can still sense a mood for change in the system. Slovaks are hoping that politicians return to the path of transparency and European standards of democracy. The amount of attention given to the corruption scandal clearly illustrated this desire for change. During the debate on the “Gorilla” files held in the popular Bratislava club KC Dunaj, the author of the whole “commotion” Tom Nicholson sat opposite the head of the national police corps, Jaroslav Spišiak and the room was filled with young people.

Interestingly, at the meeting of the protest organisers mentioned above, the average age of the participants was about 40-50 years, while the debate in KC Dunaj was attended by twenty-year-olds. One may wonder about the reasons for this reversal of the roles – the middle-aged became revolutionaries, while the younger people sat down for a peaceful debate?

The main issue discussed at the debate was why the files were released so late and basically only one reason was identified – a defective system, in which neither the security services nor the prosecutors have any motivation to reveal irregularities. Exposing an affair often means acting against ones own interests, for prosecutors or secret services officials are largely nominated by politicians. As the police chief Spišiak said, “Some things you don’t talk about, you just do them”.

Let’s hope that Slovakia’s elections will be the first step towards changes for the better.

Kazimierz Popławski is a graduate in International Relations from Warsaw University and specialises in Central and Eastern European affairs.

 

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