Transcending Post-Communism?

?In Central and (South-) Eastern Europe the cultural landscape has entered the Post-Soros Era, while still awaiting the arrival of the widely expected EU patronage for the arts and the civil sector ?? (from the original description of the ?Enduring Post Communism? panel)

: Eastern Europe is not a territory but a myth once used to prop up the cold war. Soros is not an era but an ideology, and it hasn't vanished, it just changed its domain. Civil society does not exist.

When, as they say, the curtain fell, activists from the wealthiest corners of the world cast their hopes and aspirations toward the countries of bearded intellectuals with deep accents who talked politics over unfiltered cigarettes and a bottle of palinca, where oppositional culture somehow seemed more real.

"Maybe the changes in eastern Europe were not about a switch from communism to western style democracy, but rather about the potential to invent a different kind of social arrangement, some way out of the dichotomy between closed authoritarian regimes and the *blessings* of the free market ... That potential is already squandered, the new EU members are being assimilated by the collective and the other states are still lagging behind in their enduring postcommunist state, but ultimately en-route to the EU and the world market system" (Eric Kluitenberg, excerpt from a post to the n5m4 list, 24.08.03)

The hope was that something in the communist past (or the legacy of cultural opposition during its last phase) would create the potential for a radically different society, if not the third, then maybe a fourth road to socialism. The reality behind the dream, taking Romania as one example, has been the near collapse of industry, a gradually deteriorating system of agriculture sustained by small farmers, a completely inadequate healthcare system, salaries below 100 euro per month, and a situation of perpetual economic crisis in which any superpower who could bring in a promise of foreign money is almost unanimously welcomed with open arms. In the general confusion, promoted to the level of national policy, it mattered little whether this would be NATO or the EU.

Many people (the ones who are old enough) speak with pride about the time at the beginning of the "transition" when there was a lot of noise, when artists suddenly discovered happenings and started making political theater in public spaces, when intellectuals and writers started thousands of small newspapers and magazines almost overnight, when the newfound culture of demonstrations started taking root and people began gathering together on the streets. Fourteen years later, everything seems much quieter.

"I'd like to quote how the situation was pointed out to me by Victor Voronkov, Director of the Center for Independent Social Research in Saint-Peetrsburg. It starts with one anecdote-like story. A researcher, sitting in his cabinet, was bothered by the noise which a group of children was making outside. It was so terrible that he couldn't concentrate on his work anymore or make any progress. So he came up with the following trick: he went out to the children and suggested to them that if they shout even louder then he will pay them a dollar. The children got very happy and made noise twice as loud to get the money. On the next day the situation repeated and he again came to the children with the same idea, but this time he suggested to them only half a dollar. The children continued but this time already not so enthusiastic. On the next day he again asked them to make more noise but without any payment. As a result the children stopped shouting at all. That's exactly what happened with many NGOs and activist movements in Russia." (Tania Goryucheva, excerpt from a post to the n5m4 list, 28.08.03)

Some friends in Bucharest organized antiwar demonstrations last February and March. About 100 people showed up, the most you can hope for now at any demonstration in Romania. After the protests they discussed how to go forward, what to do next. The result of two months of organization and many discussions on the mailing list was a decision to form a new NGO. The NGOification of nearly everything is one of the strangest turn of events during the past few years in Romania, whether it is an art space, a magazine, a self-help group, a political formation or even a loose group of people with very divergent interests who gather on the streets to demand the right to voice their opinion. Most NGOs operate in starts and fits, and inertia quickly sets in once the sources of funding start to dry up. The NGOification of the civil sector also tends to atomize and to isolate. Subsisting as a kind of monad, each NGO is busy doing its own thing (according to its stated objectives and activities), each has a relation to its funders and to its potential benefactors, but seldom any relationship with the other monads. It is very hard to discover a network of different groups joining efforts and collaborating toward a common vision and aims - and a "civil society" in the true sense of the word would presuppose exactly these absent social relations.

It does not take a paranoid frame of mind to start second guessing the so-called benevolence of funding for the NGO sector of former communist Europe, especially big players like Soros or the new European Commission. A widespread depression about the withdrawal of Soros and the end of the post-communist Soros era seems to have set in. Although Soros was never synonymous with post communism, this angle formed an initial stage of the Soros project. Post-cold-war would be a better term than post-communism insofar as it shows a dialectical relationship rather than a one sided pole - the relationship between the US and what it considered an evil Eastern Europe, the big other against which it could define its own American way of life and democratic institutions (consumption without restraint and "free" elections). The Soros interest in former communist countries did not stray too far from American foreign policy, which handed out aid to "developing" countries as a way of preventing any potential threat to its ideological hegemony (national security). At a time when the US was worried about the political instability and potential threat of those countries which had just emerged from communism, George Soros pumped in a lot of free money to help them make the democratic transition from "closed" to "open" societies. Today it seems very inaccurate to talk about Post-Soros when the Soros structure of philanthropy is still very much alive, though it has now shifted its priorities to other regions of the world (the oil belt in central Eurasia/Caucasus, Southeast Asia and inner-city America). This does not mean that what used to be called Eastern Europe has disappeared off the map of development aid, only now it has been renamed and is judged to be the EU's problem as a new potential threat of mass migration from poor countries looms on the horizon. Whereas Soros' concern with ideology translated into funding primarily for art and culture, "the widely expected EU patronage for the arts and the civil sector" is likely to be negligible by comparison, since the main focus of EU patronage seems to be the economic and technological infrastructure of acceding countries.

When "Enduring Post Communism" was proposed as one of the debate for the N5M4 festival, a lot of objections and criticisms were voiced on the editorial mailing list. Partly it was because the terms and the purpose of the debate seemed unclear. One of the issues that emerged during the discussions was that since the "post-communist" frame was coming from the outside rather than the inside, we should not buy into this and avoid perpetuating the myth of transition by creating ghettoes among ourselves. On the other hand, the purpose of the panel was to bring together new media NGOs in the region (although Bulgaria and Latvia can hardly be said to be part of the same region) in order to share our stories, tactics and aims, and try to build a better network between us. On the other hand, Eric Kluitenberg suggested that the problem seems to be not that we are regional, but that we are too much a part of an international network of media culture (international festivals, meetings and funding structures) and that we might need to better learn how to become more closely involved with our own local contexts. The confusion and contradiction exists not only in the mind of the moderators of the panel, it is often real. For the purpose of funders we are Eastern Europe and we have no problem using the transition discourse to get money which allows us to become part of a larger international community. Probably for most of us, it's not the international community the funders intend (with its neoliberal agenda and its language of rights and democratization), but another global network which is very critical of it. And sometimes we become so deeply involved in this global discourse (something that seems especially true for groups promoting open source, electronic democracy or information campaigns about the dangers of IP rights) that we appear quite foreign to local concerns. As Peter Style from CUKT replied in an interview when asked what it was like to be one of the pioneers of net activism in Poland: maybe that makes us feel somewhat "sad and lonely."

Despite the resistance by some of the international editors toward being grouped in a panel under the "post-communist" label, the discussions and sometimes heated debates gradually made it clearer why it makes sense to come together and to talk about uncomfortable issues which nonetheless bind us together. I have compiled a list of questions from the discussions on the N5M4 editorial mailing list, which I would propose as a general frame for starting the "post-communist" debate:

1. Is there a gap or a shift between the old post-cold-war language of transition and the new pre-EU language of ascension, or are these experienced as a continuation of the same development paradigm?

2. Are "Eastern Europe" and "post-communism" interpretations coming from the outside or is there something truly in common between these countries, and especially in the ways in which media culture initiatives are emerging?

3. If "post-communism" is a merely external interpretation, to what extent has it been internalized? Because even though a lot of people reject the idea of being categorized under the Eastern Europe subsections of events, there seems to be a tendency for groups from these neighborhoods to hang out together at large, international events. Why is that?

4. In many former communist countries the NGO sector seems to be more like an alien virus than a vital organ of society, artificially implanted and kept alive with outside sources of support. To what extent are the concerns of NGOs in these countries determined by the international networks that they are part of? How can connections to the local scene be strengthened?

5. Why is apathy among young people, the absence of a civic sphere, a general non-interest towards public discourse and communication, and a tendency toward hierarchical organization in the cultural and social sectors common to many former communist countries?

6. Does it make sense to attempt building networks that are specific to media culture initiatives in the former communist countries? Can we identify other points of common interests and aims that do not rely on the post-communist/transition narratives?