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Thursday, 19 December 2013 00:00

The spirit of Euromaidan

The escalator at Maidan Nezalezhnosti metro station in Kiev is the longest I've ever seen. It takes a few good minutes to reach the top, which leaves plenty of time to form expectations about what lies at the end of the climb. Yet nothing you read in the news or see in pictures truly prepares you for what happens after you come out of the underground. The Independence Square (or Euromaidan) is a kind of Hemingwayesque resistance city. It smells like burnt wood and rusty iron and improvised kitchens. Here and there fires lit in old trash cans give rise to grey columns of smoke. A few hundred people are already on the Maidan at 9 am in the morning, most of them holding tall Ukrainian flags.

In the centre of the main boulevard, a festival-like stage hosts speeches from opposition leaders and public figures, as well as live performances by popular Ukrainian artists. On the left hand side, there is a large banner of Yulia Timoshenko's elegant portrait looking towards the sky. People are silent and still, listening to the words coming from the stage. I can't understand a word of Ukrainian except when they say "Slava Ukraini!" (Glory to Ukraine), to which people reply unwaveringly, in perfect sync "Heroyam Slava!" (Glory to our heroes).

Next to the stage, on the Trade Unions House - now a bastion of the "revolution" - a huge screen displays a pixelated livestream of those speaking into the microphones. On the other side of the boulevard, a tall metal Christmas tree is now covered in Ukrainian flags, posters made by protesters and cartoons of Ukrainian politicians and Vladimir Putin. No sign of police or the feared Berkut officers anywhere. No sign of traffic or anything that doesn't serve the purpose of the protest. The Maidan belongs to the resistance.

Published in Contentious Europe

For some 20 days straight, tens of thousands of Bulgarians have taken to the streets, protesting against the newly-elected government, in office for only a month. Riots brought down the previous government in February – what has happened to make tensions mount once more?

Published in Contentious Europe
Friday, 28 June 2013 10:38

EVERY DAY I’M CHAPULLING!

Facing tear gas and water cannons, Istanbul's youth gets creative over the Gezi Park events.

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Photo: Julia Schulte
Anti-Erdogan slogans on walls

Recently, Istanbul's biggest Open Air Festival took place. For six days, young people turned the city's main square into a party area. There was camping, there were concerts and discussions. Families with young children joined as well as tourists, who took pictures on barricades and demolished cars, turning a revolution into a fun park site. The mobile traders, always business-minded, sold grilled fish and köfte, sesami rings, tea, coffee, water – and also diving goggles and simple face masks against gas attacks. You could get Turkish flags and Guy Falkes masks. The square was overcrowded during the day but even at about 4.30 am, when the Muezzin chants for the first time, you'd find people wandering around, chatting, eating. Also, someone always had to guard the barricades and claim territory by spraying new slogans on walls and streets. Starting with 'Tayyip istifa' (Tayyip resign) and 'Her yer Taksim' (Taksim is everywhere), people got more and more creative.

Published in Contentious Europe
Tuesday, 18 June 2013 09:00

A week of clearing up Taksim

What started as a protest against the tearing down of a park and quickly became a nationwide uprising of Turkish youth is now brutally being cleared by the police.

After a weekend with a festival atmosphere at Taksim Square, the big hangover comes on a Tuesday. Clearing Gezi is a three step operation: very early in the morning on the 11th of June, the police start removing the barricades the protesters have built line by line in every street leading to the square. Soon Taksim is crowded again. I am told not to leave the house in Cihangir all day in order to stay safe. In the early evening I go out to get some food – and instead get my first load of teargas even though I'm one kilometre away from the main square. All night there are little explosions in the streets. Those who don't join the protests shut the windows to protect themselves from the gas and keep the curtains closed to avoid police spies. Anxiously, people follow Twitter posts, Facebook, and live cams of Taksim. At 1.30 am the noise grows louder: people flee down side streets, wait, rearrange their masks and goggles and run back. Until early morning you can anticipate the noise of the police attacks. After this night I flee to the suburbs.

Published in Contentious Europe
Thursday, 06 September 2012 05:43

In league with the devil

Mainstream journalists are failing to recognise that the most resolute reactions to Pussy Riot's recent incarceration are originating from outside of Russia. Moreover, the majority of the Russian population disagrees with the group's actions. The chances of political change in Russia need to be placed within the context of the ongoing power of the Russian Orthodox Church within society, and we have to see today's differences from those historical events that did trigger mass revolutionary movements.

Before its protest on March 3, 2012 in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, most people had never heard of the group Pussy Riot before. They staged an illegal performance, which they called a 'punk prayer' at the altar of the tallest Christian Orthodox church to get rid of Vladimir Putin. Specifically, their protest was aimed at Putin's re-election and the Orthodox Church which continuously supported the Russian president. At the trial, Judge Marina Syrova reasoned the high sentence of two years in penal camp by elaborating how thoroughly the group planned their crime and how they activated internet bloggers to distribute their protest online. The church quickly branded the group members sinners and Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Church's department for relations with society, accused the members of representing a campaign of 'satanic rage'. While such statements might cause laughter in many European countries, the Orthodox Church has a solid and influential role in Russian society.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
Wednesday, 18 July 2012 06:58

Gavras taps into the poetics of protest

The recent protests, and especially those of the Occupy movements in numerous American and European cities, have gained a vast presence in the media and in many cases popularised radical alternatives to the current democratic system. This process brought back situationist initiatives such as the 90's "Reclaim the Streets" that were envisioned as a model for the contemporary manifestations. Along with the protesters' demands came symbols of civil disobedience, such as Guy Fawkes masks, a human microphone, tents in a cityscape, or the calls simply to "occupy everything." The last of these didn't just remain in the symbolic sphere. Patterns of communication and cooperation that were adopted in the occupied spaces effectively appealed to the public imagination and thus formed a "poetics of protest."

Tapping into the feel of these movements, Jay-Z and Kanye West released a video for their song "No Church In The Wild" last May. The video was directed by a young Greek, Romain Gavras, who is known for his violent yet elegant aesthetics, a coldly tinted imagery and daring narrative themes. This time, Gavras had a go at the spectacle of a riot scene.

The video quite clearly strikes the viewer as glamorous. When a protester lights up a Molotov cocktail in the opening sequence, it is difficult to resist an association with French New Wave cinema chic. On a fiercer note, for Salon's Natasha Lennard the video is unmistakably "riot porn," "capturing particularly dramatic riot scenes - the sort with fire, tear gas, charging police horses, careening masked crowds and, often, a hardcore backing track." "Riot porn" might also earn its name because it shows scenes of passion staged especially for the camera. Indeed, the video's striking beauty is disturbing and alarming when we realise the familiarity of the images and our consent to watching them paired with some rather decadent rap.

Jay Z & Kanye West "No church in the wild" (dir. ROMAIN-GAVRAS, available on Vimeo.)

Published in Cafe Cinema

UPDATE: This story reflects the situation in Romania on Friday, 6th July 2012. President Basescu has now been suspended by Parliament and will face a referendum on the 29th of July. PNL party leader Crin Antonescu is now the president of Romania, at least temporararily. European and American leaders have expressed clear concerns about the political situation in Romania, all of which have been firmly, even rudely, dismissed by prime minister Victor Ponta. Traian Basescu started his election campaign with the theme "Threats to the justice system" and turned to the people, whom he "never lied to" (ahem..), not even when the goin' got tough. Yeah, we're still a weird country...

It may not come as a big surprise that Romania is a pretty weird country. We have more stray dogs and cats than illegal taxis, we don't like to invest in tourism despite its huge potential, and it takes about ten years to complete a highway which then needs repairs after four months. However, after recent political turmoil, Romania may become famous for something much deeper than any of this - the savagery and stupidity of its political class, the trashing of its own Constitution, and, as much of the international media has already noticed, the breach of every democratic principle out there.

In the last two months we have witnessed the impossible becoming possible. Romanians have always believed their country was a place of all possibilities, but Victor Ponta's government and the centre-left wing ruling coalition (along with every other party and politician) took this belief to the next level.

Romania may become famous for something much deeper - the savagery and stupidity of its political class

Mr Ponta, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was bound not to get along smoothly with President Traian Basescu, who is supported by the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL). President Traian Băsescu had designated Ponta as Prime Minister after the previous incumbant had fallen to a motion of no confidence, but the members of the PSD were hungry - they hadn't been in power since 2004 and President Basescu has done nothing but criticise their wrongdoings, while the justice system (allegedly under orders from the president) has taken many of them to court for corruption. Political vendettas, they say. On the other hand, anyone who remembers the pre-2004 period, when the PSD was in power, refers to it as the "golden age" of corruption, of threats to the freedom of the press, of total control over the justice system. This is why it's almost impossible to visualise a healthy collaboration between the two parties and this is why Romanians can't choose sides today.

Published in Snapshot
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