“We entered a system of freely competing lies”

The Central European Forum 2015 took place from 13 to 15 November in Bratislava in the Astorka – Korzo’90 Theatre, and from 16 to 17 November in Banská Bystrica. It brought together well-known European writers, intellectuals and political leaders, offering a space for public discussion around the most pressing political and social issues of the day. ERSTE Foundation was, for the 7th year in a row, the main partner of the Forum.

We took the opportunity and interviewed Marta Šimečkova, co-chair of Bratislava-based Projekt Fórum, the organisation behind the Central European Forum.

This year’s Central European Forum took place under the headline “Everyone is lying”. How did you come up with this theme?

It was in August 2014, at the European Forum Alpbach, in a conversation with Oksana Zabuzhko, after the official program was finished. We were talking about what we felt, which was especially disgust, in the context of the war in Ukraine and its perception by the rest of Europe. And we agreed on one sentence: Everyone is lying. This is the most widespread reaction to this war, and it is deliberately supported by Putin’s propaganda through constant release of confusing pieces of news that often contradict themselves. The “everyone is lying” comment is pretending critical thinking, you can even feel clever if you keep repeating this, while in reality it is just another pretext allowing you not to think autonomously, to abandon your duty to fashion your own opinion. After several months I managed to convince my colleagues and co-organizers of the Central European Forum – Andrea and Pavol in Bratislava, and Julia in London – that this would also work in a more universal context, transcending that of Putin’s propaganda, as a title for the 2015 conference.

_DSC5950What are the major “lies” of today’s European societies, in your opinion?

We are surrounded by lies, of course. This is nothing new. Perhaps lies are just more virulent than they used to be because of the possibilities of the communication age. On the other hand, my generation in Slovakia spent the first half of our lives in a single, official version of a lie, which inhabited almost all spheres of life. We were not just told lies, we repeated them ourselves, mostly being very well aware of it. So, to us, the outbreak of freedom meant the collapse of this one big lie imposed by the regime. We entered a system of freely competing lies. I have no idea which is the major one in the contemporary European societies. By the way, semi-lies are even more dangerous than pure lies, because you will never entirely dismantle them. For sure, the “Everyone is lying” lie belongs to the most dangerous type. And what are the major lies of today? If we thought we have the right answer to this, we would probably choose another main theme. After all, the very idea of the Central European Forum is to look for answers that we feel we are in urgent need of, but we honestly cannot find and formulate on our own.

For those who were not able to attend this year’s Forum, what were the main highlights?

We wanted the main theme – the “Everyone is lying” leitmotif – to be loosely binding all the panels, which are, of course, dedicated, at least partly, to the most urgent topics of the day. For the first time, one panel – focused exclusively on the “lie” phenomenon – took place outside of Bratislava, in Banská Bystrica. This is the third biggest town in the country, center of the Slovak National Uprising against the Nazi regime where recently a Neo-Nazi candidate won the regional elections, but at the same time, it is a town with a vibrant modern culture and civil society. It was a powerful panel discussing lies in a local theatre struggling to survive under pressure from the municipality which is cutting subsidies on ideological grounds: Oksana Zabuzhko, the Lithuanian philosopher Leonidas Donskis, the director of the famous Sarajevo East West Theatre Haris Pašovič, the former prime minister and sociologist Iveta Radičová and the head of the theatre in Banská Bystrica that hosted this debate, Iveta Škripková. The reaction of the audience was very encouraging and we definitely want to develop Central European Forum panels in Banská Bystrica in the forthcoming years too.

Another highlight of this year’s Forum: the president of the Slovak Republic Andrej Kiska officially met three of the Central European Forum speakers, Adam Michnik, Ivan Krastev and Martin C. Putna (while our colleague Julia Sherwood translated from Polish into English) in order to discuss current European issues with them.

In a project like this, we have to do our best to have each panel rather special, and, maybe, this year we finally succeeded. The Forum had a strong beginning on the Holocaust and the question of next generations’ responsibility, with Bernhard Schlink and Eva Hoffman, perhaps even too strong and honest.

_DSC6007As for me, I found the discussion of journalists entitled Salon of Independents absolutely perfect: chaired by Thierry Chervel from perlentaucher.de, with the great Ukrainian essayist Jurko Prochasko, Tony Curzon Price from OpenDemocracy and Slawek Sierakowski, the founder of Krytyka Polityczna, on the vulnerability of the western left in the face of Putin’s propaganda. This particular panel was exactly what we dreamed about: a juxtaposition of opposing perspectives and intellectual experiences of people who have no prefabricated truth, but are seeking for answers together, trusting each others’ opinion.

Some debates I simply didn’t have the chance to attend. For example, I missed the panel entitled “Visegrad on Fire” about the meaning of the Visegrad Group today, with Adam Michnik, M.G. Tamas, Martin C. Putna and Martin Simecka, for which people were literally streaming into the theatre. But I could hear the audience laughing again and again, triggered by the speakers’ fine arts of irony, although the statements themselves were very pessimistic. And, talking about irony and humour, I hope you enjoyed our side programme, the homeless people theatre, making fun of our classical literature, and also of themselves.

Bernhard Schlink was a great highlight in and of himself. The late night reading session with him was miraculous: the theatre was not full anymore, but instead of being somewhat disappointed, he was visibly enjoying talking people, he was very personal, very authentic.

And my personal miracle: according to the law, whatever is going on in a theatre – a performance or a conference – there have to be at least two firemen present all the time, for security reasons. So, each year there is a lady and a gentleman in blue uniform in the last row all the time, doing their job by sitting there with the indifference of professionals, without caring about anything else. For the first time this year I saw them with headphones, listening to the debates: they were participating. Every time I looked at them, they had their headphones on, or even commenting on the translation. So I told myself: there must be something really interesting going on after all!

_DSC5969Was there anything different or surprising about this year’s Forum compared to the previous editions?

This year was absolutely different from others, of course, in the tragic sense: after we came home on Friday night (on 13 November), we found out what was happening in Paris while we were talking about past murders in the theater. Our French speakers – Gilles Kepel and Pascal Bruckner – couldn’t come. Europe changed that night. We were speechless. But the audience came and we knew that the rest of this Forum will be shaped by what had just happened. Perhaps, in this situation, even more people came, because in a state of shock we all prefer not to sit at home alone. I hope the Central European Forum was able to offer a kind of symbolic shelter, where the moderators and speakers tried to articulate the shock and think through the new situation, and all the questions that it triggered.

Interview by Andreea Gurau, Communications Manager
Photos by: Peter Zupnik