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Arts, Education and Democracy

January 5, 2012 - Hayden Berry - Bez kategorii

Andy Williams cz1 054_1 (1).JPG

Andy Williams cz1 054_1 (1).JPG

An interview with Andy Williams, Director of the British Council, Poland, and the Director of the British Council, Azerbaijan, between 2004 and 2008.

NEW EASTERN EUROPE: You have worked for the British Council for over 20 years and first came to Poland in 1990. What are your personal experiences of living in the early days of Poland after Communism?

My first ever visit to Poland was in October 1990. I took the train from London to Warsaw, which took 36 hours, arriving in Warsaw in late October. And because of that experience I then applied for a job working for the British Council the following year in Gdańsk. For me, this was very much a time when I was growing up. I was 24 years old and not long out of university, and found myself in Gdańsk in the winter of 1991. Poland was quite a challenging place to live at that time and even though things were changing very rapidly, it was very different from living in London. I am sure it was very different to the period of martial law during the early 1980s, but I can still remember taking the tram to the university and seeing crowds of people at a kiosk that had just received a delivery of bananas.

I used to teach English to a group of professors and administration staff at the university and once I asked them to bring some examples of vegetables and fruit into the class to practise English. So in the next class they all brought in bags and bags of muddy vegetables, and once we put them all onto the table we basically had potatoes, carrots and a few other root vegetables. We had to improvise to get the diversity of products to actually learn a bit of English.

Do you feel that there was a sense of optimism amongst the people you met during this time?

Very much so. It was a time of creativity and innovation. I was involved with student groups that were setting up theatre companies and putting on quite complex, large-scale English-language shows. These were big explosions of British culture and events including theatre and music which were attended by massive audiences. It certainly felt to me arriving in Poland as a young 24-year-old British person that the country was going through a period of experimentation.

Was there still evidence of the Solidarity movement in Gdańsk?

I think a lot of that had played its course. I didn't get terribly involved in the political scene at the time. The closest I came was searching out the only bar that served Guinness in Gdańsk and ending up on a pool table where the winner stayed on. Eventually Donald Tusk came on. I played a few games of pool with him and then he beat me and I had to get off the table. I am sure he doesn't remember hammering me at pool at the Cotton Club, but he was a young, local, charismatic politician at that time and enjoyed his Guinness. However, as a 24-year-old working at the university, my focus was much more on education and finding my feet.

What are some of the major changes you have seen returning to Poland as Director of the British Council?

The biggest transition has been with Poland as a recipient of aid to being a much bigger player, whether it is in the arts scene, education or the political scene. Poland’s European Union Presidency over the last six months has shown that it is a big player in Europe now. One of the biggest changes I have seen is the confidence that Poland has developed, and whereas in the early 1990s the students were full of enthusiasm and creativity and wanted to make things happen, if you look at young people today, they are starting to operate on the global stage not just on a national stage. They might set up a company in Poland but work in the United States, or set up a company in the US that has European markets. This shows the dynamism of a country like Poland, and shows that people are very much tuned-in to the global picture.

Back in October 2011, I gave a talk at TEDx in Kraków and met a group of young Polish people who are running their own businesses whilst studying at the same time. They are globally connected and out there changing the world, making things happen. I remember the first time I came to Poland, people always talked about Poland as not only having suffered terribly during the World Wars and partition, but that Poland was the perennial victim. Young people don’t think that way any more. Young people just see opportunity and, if anything, see people who look back to the 1980s as being restrictive. When you think about the short amount of time Poland’s transition has taken, it is actually quite remarkable what has happened. And the results of the last elections, in which a ruling authority actually got back into power, illustrate a real moment in Polish political history because Poland has not had that kind of stability before.

Having worked in Baku, Azerbaijan, how do you view the path towards democracy of countries of the former soviet space?

It is a really challenging part of the world because the authorities in Azerbaijan are on a path which is very tightly controlled by a political elite and a family or clan-type system. When I was in Azerbaijan, there was a lot of instability when it came to moving along a democratic path. I have not been keeping up with events there so much in recent years, but let’s face it, not a lot of progress was made during the 2000s. It was a really positive place to operate for the British Council because we were able to have quite a lot of influence and provide a lot of development opportunities for the leaders of tomorrow’s society. We worked with British Petroleum (BP) to organise the “BP/BC Business Journalism Project” which was a programme to train journalists to be much more proactive in questioning big business. Those journalists within the business sphere who had the support of both the British Council and BP had a certain amount of security. Within the political sphere, journalists were being intimidated, locked up and pressured in all sorts of ways, but we were able to put a protective veneer around some of our journalists in order to train them up and give them the confidence and skills to be a little more questioning. It helped that they were questioning a British company and we hoped that this might catch on and spread out.

What was the government’s response?

With this particular programme we made the government a partner. We went to the presidential office and said, “Look, this is what we are doing. It is about building an independent media that asks the right questions.” And because it was in a business context and it was focused on the oil industry, they were happy to support it. The British Council's experience was always really interesting if you compared it with the American embassy’s experience, because the American approach was to be much more head-on about what was going on in the country, and as a result they often came into conflict with the authorities. Because our approach was about arts, education and cultural relations, we probably got away with things under the radar a lot more than the Americans did.

In the run-up to the elections in 2005 we brought over a British theatre company that specialised in social theatre in which they would present the audience with a play about social issues. In this case it was about young people voting, and free and fair elections. They would then perform a simple 30 minute story that obviously had a resonance for the young Azerbaijani audience. At the end of the play they would say to the audience, “OK. We're going to perform the story again but this time feel free to stop and interrupt us,” and they gave them drums and percussion instruments to stop the action. The audience would stop the performance and question the actors and say, “Actually, in Azerbaijan, that person or character would have responded or acted in a different way.” It ended up being one big social discourse about elections which is quite a brave thing to do within a society like Azerbaijan because people are not used to being given the space to do this. However, because it was within a theatrical and artistic space, the authorities were quite relaxed about it. We used theatre as a vehicle build relationships and I feel that we played a small role towards democratisation. However, in a region like the Caucasus it is a really long-term game and is going to take years.

How do you think the future will play itself out in countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan?

For me, the crucial thing has always been how the countries of the ex-soviet space have managed their relationships with the big powers. We saw with Georgia a few years ago that when they go up against Russia, they come out really badly. Between 2004 and 2008, my sense was that the Azerbaijanis were pretty adept at managing the political cauldron they were in. They had Iran to the South and the northern part of Iran had always been referred to as southern Azerbaijan. Thus, there is a lot of interest in the Azerbaijani diaspora that is spread out there. They also had Russia to the North and a power like Turkey to the West, but I always had the feeling that the Azerbaijani authorities, the political parties and the leadership played that mix quite well, especially given America's interest within the region and the UK’s oil and gas interest. It is interesting what is happened in Georgia now, and how President Mikheil Saakashvili has lost the faith of the Georgian people and is almost being seen as part of the problem that he was so eager to change. I certainly don't envy the position that these countries are in as they are squeezed from every direction as they try to find their own path.

How would you define Eastern Europe?

I have always had a problem with thinking of Poland as being Eastern Europe because geographically, Poland is completely in the centre of Europe. When you are in the South Caucasus, for example, the obvious European connections are present, but there are just as many Asian connections. Baku has changed quite a lot, but if you walked down the streets of Baku in 2004, architecturally, the communist era was very much present; you could also see the almost Parisian or northern Italian architecture that came out of the first Nobel Oil era (The Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company), most of which was apparently designed by Polish architects; then you would go round the corner and you were in the Middle East. For me, this encapsulated the idea that a place which we may think of as Eastern Europe is actually a whole mix of cultures with connections to all sorts of other places. It is much more complex than simply talking about North, South, East or West, and I think that a country like Poland is so much in the heart of Europe. There is a joke about the border changes after the war in which a Russian soldier knocks on the door of an old lady’s house in a village and says, “We have come to inform you that you no longer live in Poland. You are now living in the Soviet Union,” and she looks at the soldier and says, “Oh, Thank God! No more Polish winters!” The concept of Eastern Europe is more of a Western perception than how people in the region actually feel, and the concept of Eastern Europe is one of those stereotypes that will simply dissolve away with time.

Andy Williams has worked for the British Council for over 20 years and is currently the Director of the British Council in Poland. In previous roles for the British Council, he has worked as the Director of Programmes and Partnerships for Russia and North Europe, the Director Operations in the EU, and the Director for South Caucasus in Azerbaijan where he worked in partnership with BP on a programme to train journalists.

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