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Tuesday, 31 March 2015 00:00

Portrait of a City: Wrocław

Breslau bridge
Photo: Tobias Melzer

On the Tumski Bridge in Wrocław

As part of a new feature for Sixth Sense, E&M photographer Tobias Melzer will be exploring lesser-known European towns and cities on look out for hidden gems and unexpected wonder. First up is the Polish city of Wrocław, a place of decidedly mixed heritage.

It is hard to imagine a city that sums up the tangled histories of Central Europe better than Wrocław.  Straddling the Oder, itself a river that unites Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, Wrocław has seen the rise and fall of many an empire. Whether as part of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Duchy of Silesia, the Habsburg Monarchy or Weimar Germany, Wrocław has always maintained its position as a cultural hub and will in fact be a European Capital of Culture in 2016.

Since the terms of the Potsdam Conference saw Wrocław pass to Poland in 1945, it has grown to become the forth largest Polish city, with a population of over 600,000. The architectural variety of the city gives an insight into its chequered past. The university, in particular, with its exquisite Aula Leopoldina and the stunning views to be had from the Mathematics Tower, harks back to the days when the city went by the name of Breslau and was counted among the most revered seats of learning in the German-speaking lands. Nowadays, Wrocław is also home to a number of dwarf figurines (known as krasnale in Polish), whose presence – besides the obvious tourist appeal – commemorates local opposition to communsim. Graffiti dwarfs were the calling-card of the underground movement Pomarańczowa Alternatywa (Orange Alternative) during the 1980s.

Published in Postcards from Europe

 

Christmas Ukraine tree
Photo: Ivan Bandura; Licence: CC BY 2.0
 
This Christmas tree was going to be put up on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence square) during the wave of 
demonstrations in Kyiv back in December 2013
 

 

This round, E&M author Ana Maria Ducuta, a Romanian student, takes up the challenge and enriches our little series on Christmas traditions by looking at what happens in Poland and Ukraine. Between animals that may speak with human voices if they eat a traditional dish and weather forecasts that influence people's future, the two countries definitely have interesting traditions to read about.  

Ukraine

 

In Ukraine Christmas is celebrated on the 7 of January. The country, in fact, follows the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one. Although during the Soviet Union Christmas was not officially celebrated there, after gaining independence in 1991 Ukraine started to celebrate it once again. Now the period between 7 and 14 January is a festive week and many Ukrainian Christmas traditions, which are actually based on pre-Christian pagan customs, take place within that period. But Ukrainian Christmas rituals are also dedicated to God, to the welfare of the family and to the remembrance of ancestors.

 

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
640px-Solidarity 1984 August 31
Photo: Thomas Hedden (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: Public domain
A Solidarity demonstration on the streets of Warsaw back in 1984

 

In the second part of our series commemorating a quarter of a century since the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe, we hear the views and recollections of Szymon Pozimski, who was born in Poland in 1988.

This year we have witnessed the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the historical milestones that, along with other memorable events like the first partially free elections in Poland in June 1989, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the toppling of Ceauseșcu in Romania, marks the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

Naturally, it only makes sense to consider the events of 1989 in reference to the decades that preceded them, decades of struggle for the oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe. Without at least a cursory glance at what it was like to live in a communist state, it is impossible to understand what sort of a victory we celebrate. Placing the great triumph in its wider context is all the more important, as with the passage of time the recollection of the period 1945-89 becomes more and more obliterated in the common memory – and this goes for both sides of the now-defunct Iron Curtain.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
Monday, 12 November 2012 13:09

In Pursuit of Shale Gas

There is a slow evolution in Central and Eastern European energy supply and Poland is pushing hardest to ensure that shale gas is at its centre. Rather than pursuing a policy solely of energy independence from Russia though, the pursuit of shale is also part of a broader move to cope with European Union environmental policy.

The extraction of shale gas, still a relatively controversial process that involves injecting pressurised liquid deep into ground rock is a new method in Europe. It is rapidly becoming the next capital investment for countries in the East though, who are desperately seeking to reform outdated, coal based and import reliant energy sectors. By exerting pressure within the European Union, Poland is slowly establishing the necessary conditions to use shale gas to promote growth within the constraints of the EU's climate targets.

Loosening Russia's noose

Russia's influence over much of Europe's energy is hardly disputed. In 2009, during a 22-day dispute between Ukraine and Russia, Gazprom, the Russian owned gas supplier, managed to cut supply to 18 European states. As well as wiping out Ukraine's supply, supply to Bulgaria and Moldova dropped by 100 per cent; Poland by a third, and Germany by 10 per cent, with Slovakia declaring a state of emergency as supply through the Ukrainian pipeline faltered.

The establishment of the Nord Stream pipeline, a gas link that runs directly from Russia to Germany, may have quelled fears in Berlin of any future shortages, but has heightened pressure on those transit countries cut out of the loop. Gazprom's ability to squeeze or halt supplies to Ukraine and Poland in particular, without angering its western customers, has given Russia the strongest economic leverage to use on Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Published in The Transnationalist
Monday, 01 October 2012 12:29

The new engine of Europe

In Warsaw in mid-September, the German led “Future of Europe Group” announced its plans for the next political development of the European Union. Both in that moment and subsequent speeches, the driving force behind this development has not been the traditional “engine” of European integration, a now increasingly fraught Franco-German partnership, but a new coalition led most prominently by Germany and Poland. Whilst eurozone states remain embroiled in financial crisis management, it is Poland, a leading EU member without the euro, that increasingly takes the lead. Germany may hold the immediate financial future of Europe in its hands, but it is Poland that has both the interest and the opportunity to shape a new Europe.

Enter Sikorski

Radosław Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister, made waves in a Berlin speech in late 2011 when he announced that “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.” What is less reported is the systematic programme of European reforms that formed the core of his speech. At the end of the Polish Presidency of the European Council, he advocated a smaller, stronger European Commission, with economic oversight for national debt in agreement with parliament; a central role for the European Central Bank underpinning the eurozone; and a pan-European list of candidates for the European Parliament. Sikorksi spelled out more specifically what the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, has broadly spoken of when he describes the solution as “more Europe”.

Entrenched in immediate crisis management of the Euro, Germany has been driven to guard its hand.

Poland has the raw economic interest to further embed itself within a European political framework. The common market has been a major driver in Poland's economic success. At a first glance, its astonishing that the eurozone crisis has not stifled Poland's growth, as around 60 per cent of Poland's imports and 80 per cent of her exports come from within the EU. Yet over a quarter of its trade is formed of bilateral agreements with Germany, a value of between 60 to 70 billion euros. As such, Poland has been largely insulated from the ongoing instability in the eurozone. Poland also benefits from receiving the highest net value of distribution of EU funds; 11.8 billion euros, from a 3.3-billion-euro investment. When the Commission votes on the 2013 budget, it will expect to lose some of its 7.8 billion in cohesion for growth and employment funds, but will nevertheless have enough influence within the Council to ensure it remains significantly better off through its European membership.

Published in The Transnationalist
Thursday, 21 June 2012 15:54

Football Diplomacy: Euro 2012

The imprisonment and alleged maltreatment of the Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko have, to some extent, overshadowed Ukraine's role as Euro 2012 host. Officials from Germany and the UK decided to boycott the tournament and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, cancelled his trip to Ukraine. But what is the political effect of boycotting a sporting event and what are the implications for EU foreign policy?

When former Prime Minister Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of office over a natural gas import agreement signed with Russia in 2009, she became a personified symbol of selective justice in Ukraine. Moreover, she has reported incidents of physical abuse during her time in prison and began a hunger strike, which increased international attention before the upcoming Football Championship. Simply ignoring these political developments for the duration of the tournament was impossible for European states, given that they have pledged to protect human rights.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
Monday, 28 May 2012 06:27

The art of critical patriotism

It's the middle of the night and we're on our way to Warsaw. Traffic lights on the motorway slow us down every other mile. Low volume Metronomy beats won't wake up the others, but give the scene a scent of detached stillness. Warsaw will be the 16th capital on our journey, albeit distinct in one important aspect. Poland is a nation on the rise. An island of success in the blue sea with 12 yellow stars. The forecasted growth rate for 2012 is 2.5%, where Germany presents a meagre 0.6% and Greece a catastrophic -4.4%. We have seen how a stagnating or even shrinking economy can depress whole countries. Is the opposite true for a country with a constantly growing economy? Will Poland be full of happy faces beaming with pride? (This article was originally published on Euroskop, a travel blog about today's Europe.)

Polityka news magazine building, second floor. People rushing by, accelerating as they do so. "Surely, we are proud. The West looked down on us for years. We have worked hard, made drastic reforms to get where we are now." Wawrzyniec Smoczynski is Foreign Editor of Polityka (which can be compared to German Spiegel or the French Nouvel Observateur) and stands for the Poland he is unravelling in front of our eyes. Proficient in English and German, he left his country to broaden his horizons and came back to support his country with his skills. "Young Poles are trying to form a new middle class. There might be a materalistic, even hedonistic aspect to their attitude, yes. But if you ask me, it is due time that our young students can enjoy walking through Paris or London without being regarded as the poor Polish plumber." On the political level weights are already shifting. "Behind closed doors the Germans are constantly asking us to join the Euro." As Smoczynski says: "The EU is blue, boring, and unelected." Similarities between the Champions League and the Eurozone? Both lost some of their charm in recent times due to foul play, though they will remain attractive for those in the second league.

A small office in a Warsaw University building, which turns out to be a former SS-Headquarters. Far too many chairs for such a small room. Lost between them sits Michał Bilewicz, who has a PhD on prejudice and identity. "Polish people always felt a very strong connection with their country and their people, not only but also due to decades of oppression. However, they are also very critical of their own kind. They are not used to thinking highly of themeselves. We call that critical patriotism." Apparently, critical patriotism renders you more open-minded towards other groups. A model for a European patriotism? At least Europeans seem to have internalised being critical of themselves and their institutions. Yet the strong connection might be missing...

Published in Reader Submissions
Thursday, 24 May 2012 07:01

Good Reads Author Special 24/05/12

This week, two of E&M's best writers share their favourite European reads. From blog posts to essays, it can be anything that amused them, worried them or got them thinking about Europe.

ziemowit

Ziemowit Jóźwik

"The nation (...) like a poor cripple at the cross-roads lying"

There has been much discussion about Ukraine in Europe recently. As long as the former "orange princess" Yulia Tymoshenko remains in jail after a politically inspired trial, many European leaders have decided to boycott the upcoming European Championship. The EU-Ukraine rapprochement seems frozen. If you're looking for detailed information on what's happening and what's going to happen in the near future between Ukraine, the EU and - of course - Russia, here are two must-read articles: The Centre for Eastern Studies discusses "The crisis in EU/Ukraine relations surrounding Tymoshenko" and Veronika Pulišová describes Ukraine’s "in-betweenness" ("Between Europe and Russia") in New Eastern Europe.

Reducing the democratic deficit

According to Article 11 paragraph 4 of the Treaty of the EU and Article 24 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU, the citizens of the EU have the right to invite the European Commission to submit the proposal of a legal act. As you probably know, since the 1st of April (the date the provisions came into force) several European Citizens' Initiatives have been announced. Perhaps these will be the primroses philosophers have dreamed of: the path towards transnational democracy or the European public sphere? Who knows. In any case, there's one initiative that you should pay attention to. On a blog with the exciting title Recent developments in European Consumer Law I found an article about the initiative "Fraternité 2020 – Mobility. Progress. Europe." It's brought forward by a youth initiative eager to persuade the Commission to enlarge the budget for EVS and Erasmus. We can only applaud and support! (And even though you might have no idea what CESL means and Directive 2008/48/EC might not sound very exciting - follow the blog mentioned above - we're all consumers, whether we like it or not...)

Greetings from the Iroquois of Europe

Finally, an article about something you've probably never heard of: the political traditions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A federal state of many nations, cultures and religions that in the times of absolute monarchies was governed by parliamentary assemblies and a king who was elected (by the whole nobility). How was that possible? To discover the interesting stories of the Golden Liberty principle or the intellectual origins of the first European constitution - whose anniversary was celebrated both in Lithuania and Poland a few days ago - I very much recommend "The heritage of Polish Republicanism" by Krzysztof Koehler in the Sarmatian Review.

Published in Good Reads
Saturday, 18 February 2012 14:50

An international atmosphere in my life!

Two years ago my life could be described pretty easily: I was a young girl from a town in Southern Germany dreaming about discovering the world, travelling to Africa or Latin America. But thinking about it more, I realised that I didn't even know Germany's own neighbouring countries. I decided it was time to go to Poland with the European Voluntary Service.

I hadn't heard about the EVS programme before, but found it by accident when I was browsing the web and thought immediately that this was exactly what I wanted to do! So I applied for various projects and chose the one which accepted me first. It brought me to a small village in South-Eastern Poland where I started working in a boarding school together with another volunteer from Istanbul. Frankly, it wasn't always easy. Sometimes we didn't know what our tasks were and sometimes we had to wait forever to get inside our building, because it was a big hassle to get our own keys. 

The year was so different from my life before: I travelled a lot and met so many people from different countries that I was 100% sure that I didn't just want to return to my hometown. During the nine months I got to know Poland from many different sides. I was impressed by the Polish people and their hospitality and learned pretty fast that that not everything always needed to be perfect for me to be happy! During one of the last weeks there I went to a birthday party that would change my life: I met one particularly nice Polish guy… and to cut a long story short, we're still together...

Published in Reader Submissions
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