Archive for the ‘Central & Eastern Europe’ Category

EUROPE – WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

June 24, 2016

Living in Europe for 35 years, I greatly appreciated the people and their various ways of life. I was happy to return to live in England, since I imagined that within the European Union we could be one. So now that Britons have dropped a nuclear bomb on the relationship with Europe, I am devastated.

That we should have a constitutional crisis, utter confusion, no government and no plan for the future was eminently foreseeable. Yet a majority of voters, including friends of mine, embarked on this apparently reckless course. Why did the Remain camp fail to convince?

Voters knew David Cameron was no friend of Europe, so he had no credibility in declaring he would campaign “heart and soul” to stay in. No more persuasive were statesmen who urged Britain to stay inside the Union to play a leading role in reforming it. If Britain could not fix the defects before, why hang around? As for experts’ prophecies of economic disaster, voters clearly thought economic forecasting had too bad a track record.

A Leave friend wrote on Facebook “Now we will be back in the driving seat again!!!” Indeed so, and the responsibility rests primarily with Leavers to draw up strategies, act and take care of the people of Britain. Just now, they have no Prime Minister, no government and no plan. We Remainers however must realise that the European Union cannot continue as the framework for relating to the continent. Leavers and Remainers have a joint responsibility to end the chaos and devise new ways of functioning with our neighbours.

As for European leaders, they should take this bombshell as a warning. It is not enough to dwell on the Union’s success in ending post-war animosities and providing a democratic framework for liberated Eastern Europe. The people of Hungary and Poland have elected governments that patently care little for this.

It is not a time for European leaders to close ranks to hold the Union together at all costs. Britons are not the only people who are dissatisfied. Who today expresses enthusiasm for the Union? Jean-Claude Juncker, Head of the European Commission, has failed to rise to his task. Angela Merkel performs a useful role as a “nice German” at the heart of Europe but will not act decisively as a leader.

However Europe must have smart people able to solve issues such as the bias of the euro system in favour of Germany. Germans’ insistence that other countries should merely act economically as they do is unrealistic. If limited liability laws enable individuals to go bankrupt, renege on debts and eventually return to economic activity, why can this not be done also for Greece?

The European Union has to resolve the chaotic inflows of migrants, the number one issue in the British campaign. There is talk of “defending frontiers”, but the free passage provided by Schengen has been built into infrastructures of airport and road systems, and can scarcely be dismantled. Britain, for all the boasts of the Leavers about regaining sovereignty, has only a handful of coastal patrol craft, and Italy or Greece have even less chance of sealing off their huge coastlines. However Spain does. It pays money to Morocco and Mauritania in return for measures to head off migrants. Such measures do not choke off channels altogether, but manage the flows better.

Financial stability and migration are among the big issues of our time. They need imaginative ideas and cooperation, far more than exasperated reactions to bothersome bureaucrats.

4th edition of my book, Slovenia 1945, due to be published shortly

March 3, 2015

 

Chosen as Book of the Year by John Bayley, who compared the characters to those of War and Peace. New preface includes British Government expression of regret for the events described in the book. Co-author is John Corsellis.

www.ibtauris.com

Slovenia 1945 Inside OK

WE GERMANS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WAR, SAY BOMBED DRESDENERS 70 YEARS ON

February 17, 2015

DSC06412 DSC07959

I was in Dresden last weekend for a deeply cathartic commemoration of the 70th  anniversary of the British bombing which destroyed the beautiful historical centre of Dresden and killed up to 25,000 in a firestorm. Seeing the pictures of the utter devastation of the burning ruins, and listening to stories of survivors, it is hard to believe that a people and a city could ever rise again. The sheer scope of the catastrophe makes our troubles today seem trivial.

I was there as Vice-Chairman of The Dresden Trust, which dedicated to reconciliation and raised £1 million to help rebuild the city’s main church. The Trust’s Royal Patron, the Duke of Kent, was honoured with a Dresden Peace Prize, which has previously been awarded to Mikhail Gorbachev and Daniel Barenboim. DSC07969 Reconciliation is possible for one reason – the recognition by all German leaders for the past 30 years that the German people as a whole were responsible for bringing Hitler to power and following him willingly into a war of genocide. The     Dresden Trust awarded its Medal of Honour to Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz, who declared that Dresden was bombed because Germans first bombed Coventry, London, Rotterdam and Warsaw. German President Joachim Gauck said: “We know who began this murderous war.”

These German leaders are brave, since they risk unpopularity with their voters. But it is the only way Germany can take its place in the community of nations. Still. I find this frank admission of guilt quite exceptional, and the key to the peaceful European order of the past 30 years. “We have to keep saying it, because not all Germans acknowledge it,” says Helma Orosz. Three days later 4,000 right-wing “Pegida” demonstrators were out in the main square chanting slogans against Islam and immigrants.

Dresdeners no longer hold animosity towards the British for a raid which was controversial from the start. Now they welcome Britons for the more stable, tolerant values they hope we will share with them. They look to us to counter the malevolent influence of the neo-Nazi fringe. I did my bit by joining 10,000 Dresdeners in a human chain formed around the historical centre. We held hands for a few minutes in a gesture of peace – but also symbolically to keep out the neo-Nazis.

Everybody I met had their stories. A Coventry woman remembered a relative was killed on the last day of the war bombing U-boats in Norway. A Dresdener whose hand I was holding in the human chain told me of an uncle bomber pilot who was shot down over England and then invited in for a cup of tea by the locals.

Dresden is now an expanding young city with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Germany. From the smouldering ruins it has risen again, demonstrating how resilient the human spirit can be. I was proud to show a bit of solidarity they have finally earned.

Working on my new book … The Fight For Freedom

May 9, 2014

Not much time for blogging, as I am writing, writing, writing. Here’s the book I am working on:

19.3.2014 cover FFF - iPad cover (3)

WEAK THOUGH I MAY BE, I DO NOT STAND FOR RUSSIA’S NAKED AGGRESSION

March 3, 2014

Russia's President Putin, Defence Minister Shoigu and head of Russian army's main department of combat preparation Buvaltsev watch military exercises at Kirillovsky firing ground in Leningrad region

Russia has returned to its bullying, autocratic ways. Its arguments and actions in Crimea are the same as it used in invading Hungary in 1956 to put down the Uprising and sending tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring.

Now as then, Russia (at the time the Soviet Union) disagrees with a government brought to power by a popular revolt in a neighbouring country, and for no other reason feels justified in launching a military invasion.

Having been a correspondent in Eastern Europe in the Cold War, I vividly remember the loathing of the local populations for the occupying Russians who foisted on them oppression and poverty.

I also recall the euphoria after the enlightened Russian Mikhail Gorbachev set about democratising Russian society and in doing so ended the Cold War and released hundreds of millions of people from the fear of nuclear annihilation.

Now the ex-KGB Vladimir Putin has reverted to the Russian norm. I hear the “explanations” that Crimea once belonged to Russia, as if that justifies trampling over treaties it freely entered into.

I hear the “realistic” assessments that there is little the West or anyone else can do. That may be true but they are weasel words, excuses for failing to take a personal stand against wrong. I remember how my German mother took a stand against the Nazis and paid the price. I prefer her courage in a fight she was bound to lose than the comfortable evasions of the realists.

It may be useless, but I am angry and proud of it. I do not accept that in the long term might will prove right. In the meantime, I wait to hear one Russian voice raised in dissent.

Photo: Reuters

Troubled Eastern Europe: understanding the turmoil

February 26, 2014

The Budapest House cover                        IMG_0728

NOW ON VIDEO …

A talk about my new book featuring a woman who travels to Eastern Europe to rediscover her roots – and encounters a world in upheaval. It’s about dealing with trauma and moving on. As we can see in the Ukraine, the turmoils of Eastern Europe are far from over.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkIdgP_qbHQ

Ukraine: cut off and thirsting for contact with the world

February 23, 2014

I first published this blog after a visit to Ukraine in April 2010

The roads are broken up with potholes, the pavements are full of ice, slush and mud, the buildings are Soviet and not much works. The students I am teaching can’t speak much English or any other foreign language. The Schengen visa system makes travel to western Europe difficult, and few can afford it.

I am in the Ukraine. It means “borderlands,” and that’s what it is. One of my students asks me anxiously: “Do you think we are European?” I say: “Of course you are.” She is relieved. She was not sure she qualified, but she definitely does want to be one of us.

Excluded as Ukrainians largely are from contact with the West, they have an uphill task joining the modern world. The Institute for Human Development “Ukraine” in Kirovograd, a sprawling provincial city, is doing its best by inviting foreign teachers, but its internet service usually goes off in mid-afternoon because the service provider rations its kilobytes.

Nobody speaks nostalgically of the old days, but there is little sense that the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union in 1990 was a turning point. Life did not change much. Now the oppressors are corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen. Individuals are unsure that they are empowered. Pessimism is the norm.

In the gloom of the fag end of an Eastern winter however shines the eternal Slav spirit – warm, hospitable and emotional. My journalism students snatch the western newspapers I have brought from my hand (the Swisscontact aid organisation has sent me). I give lessons in journalism, but what they really want to hear is how it is where I come from. They beam with pleasure that somebody has taken the trouble to come to them.

My hosts immerse me in culture. I eat bortsch and blinis with cottage cheese. Two of my students take me to a sauna, I buy a fur coat and I end up at the local beauty contest. I learn how to toast vodka: the first of the 39 traditional Ukrainian toasts is for good, the second for friends, the third for women, and after that nobody can remember any more.

After a couple of weeks, I am feeling quite at home.

Ukraine: more Russian than you may think

February 23, 2014

I published this blog in April 2010 after spending two weeks teaching journalism in Kirovograd, in central Ukraine 

Most East European countries which left the Soviet embrace in 1990 felt they were regaining their independence. Not so the Ukraine, where the desire to differentiate itself from Russia is not so obvious.

It depends which part of the country you are in. In the west, there is a long separatist tradition. There, the Ukrainian language is widespread, and Polish words are used too, since Poland used to rule there.

In Kirovograd in the centre however, Ukrainian and Russian are used almost equally. A teacher at the Institute where I have been teaching journalism told me she spoke Ukrainian with her students and Russian with her friends. Further east in the Ukraine, Russian is even more common.

Kirovograd was founded in the 18th century by the Russian Empress Elizabeth as a fortress defending Russia against Tartars and Turks. Two Russian generals who defeated Napoleon came from its military academy. It was named first after Elizabeth, then after an early Soviet Communist, Zinoviev (a local boy), and then after another top Soviet Communist, Kirov. Trotsky also came from here.

Local guides don’t mention that Stalin had all three murdered. Somehow that does not help the townsfolk’s sense of identity.

So what to call the city now? An Orthodox priest tells me it should be Elizavetgrad again. One of my young students snorts in indignation: too old-fashioned. For lack of agreement, it stays Kirovograd. Three streets remain named after Lenin, Marx and Dzerzhinksy, the head of the Soviet Cheka secret police. For these too, nobody can come up with anything more suitable. It is hard to find historical references which are appropriate.

So what IS the Ukraine’s cultural identity, and how close does it want to be to Russia? This is a tough question for a young country and it deserves respect. It is not just a question of democratic Western Europe versus autocratic Russia. Many Ukrainians feel so close to Russia they do not even consider it “abroad.”

But the European Union of the West is likely to help the Ukraine to modernize itself much more effectively than Russia. There is not really a choice.

Ukraine: the revolution has won and it changes everything

February 22, 2014

A policeman from Lviv (L), who has joined anti-government protesters, visits barricades in Kiev February 21, 2014. REUTERS-Vasily Fedosenko

This weekend (22.2.2014), all the signs are that the Revolution in Ukraine has won:

– Russian-supported President Yanukovych has fled to the east, where there is an ethnic Russian population.

– Parliament in Kiev has declared him deposed.

– His riot police have lost control of the streets and partly deserted to the revolutionaries.

– His army has failed to intervene on his side.

– His main political opponent has been released from prison.

– He has lost control over the news flow: all the news now comes from the revolutionaries.

He may yet make a comeback, but as time passes, this seems less likely. The likely consequences:

– A huge setback for Russia. Having actively supported and protected him for years, their man is now more or less on the run.

– The historic beginnings of Russia were in the Ukraine; many Russians consider it de facto an integral part of their nation. The prospect of “losing” it to the West is therefore highly damaging for Russia’s standing.

– The mostly Russian population of the east may not wish to break with Russia. However people there are as aware as anybody that the European Union offers valuable benefits and an opening to the world at large. On whose side will they be?

– Nobody seems to want partition. So Ukrainians have to try to see what they can rally around. They show few signs currently of being able to do this. So expect long unrest.

– The EU negotiating team included a German and a Pole. Both are aware from recent history of the advisability of assuaging offended Russian pride. Have they offered any quid pro quo to Putin?

Lastly, the battered European Union has received a fillip at the sight of revolutionaries brandishing its flag to despatch a tyrant. The introspective grumblers in Western Europe must find it a shock to realise tens of millions of Europeans want to get closer to the EU, not more distant.

No big surprise really. The EU offers the rule of law, a harmonious framework for international relations and an efficient open market economy – none of which the Ukraine enjoys at the moment.

Picture: Reuters

By Marcus Ferrar: The Budapest House: a Life Re-Discovered. http://www.thebudapesthouse.com/

DRESDEN 1945 – THEY DON’T WANT SYMPATHY ANY MORE

February 16, 2014

2014-02-13 13.13.47

“Dresden was no innocent city!” The city’s mayor Helma Orosz is haranguing her citizens in the street. “When we remember the catastrophe which befell the city in 1945, we should think of German bombing of Coventry and Rotterdam. Remember the millions whom Germans slaughtered in Poland, the forced labourers, the destruction of the Jewish synagogue in Dresden, the deportations. There were many Nazis in Dresden and people knew what was going on.”

Where else in the world, I wonder, does a political leader castigate the fathers and grandfathers of her voters so harshly?

But her audience laps it up. It is the 69th anniversary of the British bombing of February 1945 which killed over 20,000 people and destroyed the heart of one of Europe’s most beautiful historical cities. They are not sorry for themselves. I had come a little apprehensively as a Trustee of Britain’s Dresden Trust, set up to further reconciliation and help rebuild the ruined Church of Our Lady. Would they be hoping that I express regret, I wondered?

Not at all. When I tell a young journalist that for all the need to defeat Hitler, I felt the attack was not justified, she crisply retorts: “Why not? It was a military target.”

Well yes, in a way. But by my judgment the firestorms which Britain’s Bomber Command created in German cities were immoral. First they dropped high explosives to crack the buildings open, then thousands of incendiaries to light fires which, if the wind was right, came together in a fiery whirlwind that nobody could escape. They targeted town centres, where the old houses packed together burned better than the military targets located on the outskirts. That these houses were inhabited by civilian old men, women and children, they cared not at all. Indeed the plan was to break civilian morale (it did not work).

The British commander of the raid circling overhead radioed to an incoming wave of bombers, “It’s coming up quite nicely now,” as if he were talking of a bonfire at the bottom of his garden.

But Dresdners don’t have this on their minds today. They want to prevent neo-Nazis from streaming in from all over Germany, to rampage and demonstrate – trying to depict the British attack as a war crime relieving Germans of guilt for Auschwitz. Thousands of neo-Nazis used to come, giving the city a shameful reputation.

Now Dresdners have seized their commemoration back from the fanatics: Mayor Orosz calls on us to join a human chain around the historic centre as a symbolic barrier against the neo-Nazis. I can scarcely find space. 10,000 people last year, 11,000 this year.

It works. Although a few hundred neo-Nazis parade with burning torches the day before, none appear on the anniversary. There is no fighting, no disruption. The crowd clap. They may care little about politics otherwise, but they have done what Germans precisely did NOT do when Hitler was pushing his way to power. They have stood up en masse for normal, decent human values.

Actors, musicians and writers read texts at various points of the old centre. They too are doing what German intellectuals failed to do when the Nazis emerged in the 1930s. They are assuming responsibility for influencing hearts and minds.

I head for the magnificent Semper opera house, painstakingly rebuilt over several decades. The choir launches resoundingly into Verdi’s Requiem evoking the Day of Judgment when nobody can escape God’s fearful reckoning. Another tough choice: Dresdners certainly underwent their punishment by hellfire. After the soloists conclude by pleading God to forgive the sins of the dead and let them rest in peace, the conductor drops his baton, the musicians and audience of 3,000 rise to their feet, and for four or five minutes intense silence reigns. The cathartic emotions bursting to find relief in applause are turned inwards in silent contemplation.

As we file quietly out, the bells of Dresden peal out at 21.40 hours, the time when the first bombs fell on 13th February 1945. Some deep and funereal, others such as those of the Church of Our Lady higher in tone, suggesting life and joy after death and destruction.

In the square outside, hundreds of people stand with candles. At 22.00, the bells fall silent and we troop into the church. A choir chants Dona Nobis Pacem, and teenagers read texts they have written themselves. The pastor is expecting me and asks me to read a piece. It’s Jesus’s invocation to love thine enemy. That puts me on the spot. He says I can add a few words of my own.

When it’s my turn in the pulpit, I read my text and add (in German): “I have come here to represent the Dresden Trust of Britain in a spirit of reconciliation. My mother was German. She was anti-Nazi and was thrown out of her school. My father was English and fought in the British Army. My uncle was a bomber pilot, shot down and killed over Cologne in 1942.

“Immediately after the war, my mother insisted we go to Germany to renew contacts with her German family, even though some had been Nazis. From my German mother, who just died at the age of 101, I learned: after war should come peace.”

The pastor shakes my hand and says he is moved. So am I, and how. I stay in the dimmed splendour of the church till after midnight. When I slip out, Dresden’s teenagers are still going up to the pulpit, one after the other, humbly acknowledging their nation’s past and the terrible chastisement which followed.


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