25 Years Later – “What is to be done?”

Franz Karl Prueller

The topic of the Central European Forum 2014 inspired Franz Karl Prüller, member of our Managing Board, to reflect upon the 25 years that passed since the Velvet Revolution, as well as on the current situation in Europe and around:

During 2014 we mark many anniversaries, with the centennial of WWI being for sure the most prominent one. Throughout the course of the last eleven months we – as Europeans – have been remembering many dates, while at the same time witnessing how history is once again teaching us tragic lessons. I am referring to what is happening in our immediate neighbourhood – Ukraine and Syria– with bloody conflicts going on for many months. Also, other events in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary and some countries in the West of the continent, less bloody but just as unsettling, are questioning our beliefs in the validity of democratic, open and liberal societies for people living today.

Recently we marked 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – an event which not only for Eastern Germany, but for all of Europe and the whole world, symbolised a new beginning, a period of transition to more freedom, to more just societies and overall economic prosperity. Although in many ways quite painful, this process was crowned 10 years ago with the EU-accession of ten new member states, mainly from the former socialist parts of our continent.

Not all parts of Europe got the chance to go through this process peacefully: while most of our eastern neighbours made a peaceful transition to more democratic structures after 1989, the developments in former Yugoslavia went unfortunately in the opposite direction, with its tragic climax 19 years ago in the genocide of Srebrenica – the worst atrocity on European soil since the Shoa.

The theme of the sixth Central European Forum, «Us and Them», which took place in Bratislava from 14 to 17 November, inspired me to reminisce some of these positive, but also less positive memories from our common past.

It seems to me that the year 2014 reflects many of Europe’s ambiguities also regarding the “us” and “them”. Ambiguities which have not been in the public eye for quite some time: not for the mainstream academia, politics or the economy, nor for us practitioners from civil society. It was only a handful of individuals and intellectuals during the last 20 years, who gathered on occasions like the Central European Forum, and who kept reminding us of Europe’s ambiguities – something that Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko calls the «abandoned secrets of history»: fragments of our collective and individual memory, many dating from the socialist era, but some going back centuries. I would call them the ghosts of the Berlin wall, ghosts that speak to disenfranchised people about injustices and brutalities suffered throughout centuries by hegemons, of opportunities missed or suppressed by economic imperialists, of social, cultural and economic securities eroded and threatened by those considered “outsiders”, be they Roma, Jews, Migrants, sexual minorities, or anyone else whom one can blame, including corrupt politicians.

25 years after the fall of the wall in Berlin we are again erecting walls, some concrete as in cities across Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Romania, in order to “keep out” Roma; others in our minds and actions against people who are desperate to find shelter and hope in Europe, as well as against those we begin to perceive again as “unfitting” to European ideas and values, those who in the political and economic tensions surrounding Ukraine or Turkey are quickly labelled “un-European”.

Last year, for the 10th anniversary of tranzit, we cooperated with an art collective that named itself Chto Delat – Russian for “What is to be done”? – taking its name from a book written 150 years ago by a citizen from a country that today is again regarded as “them” rather than “us”: Nicolai Chernyshevsky who wrote about how people with ideals could change the world by taking small steps. Dostoyevsky thought him naïve but Lenin was so impressed that he named his main work on how to achieve the revolution also Chto Delat.

It is time again to ask ourselves “What is to be done?” to link us up with those in our societies who refuse to look at the world in a black or white mode and who can distinguish the “us” in “them” and vice versa.

“Chto Delat?”, “What is to be done?” when looking at the tragic events in eastern Ukraine, the nationalistic awakenings on the Balkans and fragile democratic structures and extremism rising in many places in Europe? How to ban the old ghosts rising out of cold war animosity and even older resentments against Russia, or fears of an ill-defined “Islam” that is only seen as threat, with dates like 1389 or 1683 remembered and the atrocities of a brutal and deranged ISIS fresh before our eyes? Many will agree with Professor Timothy Snyder, also an old friend of the Central European Forum, who stated that what is happening in Ukraine is marking the beginning of a new era for all of Europe. A time not only marked by the old divisions of «Us and Them» being actualised once more, but especially one of doubts about the fundamental understanding as to what democracy is all about.

People are drowning on the shores of the Mediterranean and are being killed close to the Ukrainian and Turkish borders. And Europe appears to be impotent in ending these atrocities at its doorstep.

Why are we so weak? Could it be because our citizens have lost their faith in the democratically elected leaders or that the biggest peacebuilding project in the world has lost its magic? Or is it exactly the other way round: do politicians no longer trust US, THE PEOPLE? And therefore, are they not able to muster the courage to address the challenges upon us? Do politicians fear we will not be with them in this struggle? Jean-Claude Junker once put it very succinctly: we know what to do, but we do not know how to get re-elected once we did it: this betrays the deep distrust of the politician in the maturity and sincerity of the citizens.

So my question to all of you begins again with the refrain “what is to be done?”, “Chto Delat” so that we can restore this faith in us, the people by the politicians we have elected to lead us? Let us not continue the bashing of politicians but ask what we can do to show them that they can trust US, THE PEOPLE. Of all the walls we have built concretely or in our minds, the wall against the political class in all our countries is probably the most dangerous for democratic societies.

What is to be done so that old ghosts and new prejudices are not taking hold of our minds, 100 years after the suicide of the old European order, 75 years after the most destructive war – a direct consequence of the war preceding it, 70 years after the beginning of what we called the “cold war” between the East and West, but also 625 years after the battle of the Kosovo Polje or just about 330 years after the siege of Vienna.

History weighs heavy on the shoulders of those aware of it, but it will even be heavier in its consequences for those who ignore it. As Aldous Huxley said: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” We, who are conscious of this dictum, have the responsibility to help prevent history repeating itself and to bring all forces of good-will together in this endeavor.

At ERSTE Foundation we have the belief that strong civil society partnerships can be a guarantee that at least some of history’s lessons won’t be forgotten, so that the ugly ghosts of the Berlin Wall can be banished. As Abby Martin – anchor woman for Russia Today, who might be seen as being on the “Them” side of our perception, recently said: “Until we realise just how futile it is to build walls, we will never be able to build bridges!”