Highlights from Central European Forum 2016

On Friday 11 November Central European Forum opened its doors for the eighth year running. The panellists and audience were welcomed by CHRIS KEULEMANS who payed moving tribute to three past participants – Aleš Debeljak, Péter Esterházy and Leonidas Donskis – who have left us over this year but whose legacy will inspire us forever, as well as that of Leonard Cohen, who passed away on 10 November 2016. .

CHRIS KEULEMANS)(Central European Forum is a place where the spirit of the Velvet Revolution is not a distant memory but an everyday inspiration, where the most brilliant minds of this continent are confronted with questions to debate in public that would terrify if they had to face them in the solitude of their writers‘ rooms.

“ALEŠ DEBELJAK, a beautiful charmer, a witty debater and wonderful elegant poet who brought a mix of mind, melancholy and mischief to the Forum.”

“LEONIDAS DONSKIS, a man of fierce intelligence and, at the same time, an eternal beginner, always hungry, always aware of the responsibility to move ahead.”

“PÉTER ESTERHÁZY who was kind, humorous and carried his nobility like a summer jacket, light and elegant, who set a high standard for all of us here.”

On behalf of President Andrej Kiska, who was unable to attend the opening, his adviser MARTIN BÚTORA spoke about liquid uncertainties of the times we live in.



On the first panel on The Politics of Interest, chaired by journalist NATALIE NOUGAYRÈDE, writers PETER POMERANTSEV and ILIJA TROJANOW discussed exclusive identities,  holistic thinking and disinformation, Donald Trump, political nostalgia as well as the popularity of kittens on the internet.


ILIJA TROJANOW)(Grievances exposed by the voters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders should have been taken more seriously by liberals. By demonizing them and being hysterical we are doing society a disservice.  (…) The negative thinking should be countered by the narrative of moral action – millions of Germans who were involved in helping refugees provided an encouraging counter-narrative to hysteria.


PETER POMERANTSEV)(Unlike the West, Russia sees the big picture, knowing that they can’t take win the war, they have set out to defeat not the fact of the US power but the idea of US power. (…) Putin’s own power does not depend on the economy but on the idea that there is no alternative to him. He wants to be demonized and feared, to play the bogeyman, and every time he finds himself in a tight corner he comes up with a new gambit – Syria is the latest narrative in this game.


Pavel Tychtl

European Commission’s PAVEL TYCHTL illustrated his poignant warning against forgetting and loss of memory and cultural diversity with examples of the disappearing Jewish legacy in the Czech countryside:  “When emptiness becomes a vacuum it becomes the breeding ground for fantasies that replace memory and real understanding of the past is replaced by nostalgia and self-pity.”


Michal Havran

Chaired by MICHAL HAVRAN, the second panel on the Clash of Freedoms brought a potted history and political economy of jihadism, leading up to last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris from orientalist and sociologist GILLES KEPEL; historian and political scientist JAN-WERNER MÜLLER offered an in-depth definition of populism and writer DUBRAVKA UGREŠIĆ shared her  experience of fleeing from democracy.


GILES KEPEL)(The third phase of militant jihad, which began on 9/11, was initially driven from the top down but has become more effective once it adopted a bottom/up approach, targeting young second generation of immigrants, which was further enhanced and spread by the use of YouTube and Twitter. (…) The Iron Curtain stopped people in Central and Eastern Europe from fleeing to the West but has also sheltered them from diversity, unlike France where everyone has a friend or family member who is from North Africa.


JAN-WERNER MÜLLER)(Populists claim to be the only ones who represent ‘ real people’, to have the moral monopoly on representing them. They dismiss everybody else as lacking legitimacy. By implication, the 48% of Brits who voted against Brexit are not real people. (…) For populists such as Orbán, what looks like an obvious failure on paper – his defeat in the recent referendum and failure to amend the constitution – can be recast as a victory. The present situation has helped Orbán and Kaczyński to make their conservative cultural revolution pan-European. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen.


DUBRAVKA UGREŠIĆ)(Refugees are a test of humanity.  Although analogies are being drawn between the current refugee crisis and the Balkan wars, comparisons are just speculation. (…) Although post-communist countries went through different developments with some suffering violent wars, they all ended up with autocratic regimes.  After 25 years of democracy school children in Croatia cannot tell the difference between Mickey Mouse and Hitler.



A fairy tale, a coming of age story, a political statement or philosophical commentary on a world shaped by violence?  Following the screening of “White God”, economist TONY CURZON PRICE discussed the possible ways of reading the bleak visionary film with its creators, director KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ and script writer KATA WÉBER.


KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ)(The main character, the dog Hagen (named after a character in Wagner’s Ring cycle) is a revolutionary revenge hero who rebels against the state of being a dog. He rebels against autocratic power represented by the grown-up characters – the figure of the father, the conductor, the dog trainer. All these characters are declassé, they are people who are deeply frustrated because they have lost their standing in society. Their frustrations are typical of Eastern Europe. (…) Music played a central part in constructing the film, and Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsody was chosen because it is the most obvious piece of Hungarian music there is. The films final scene, a tableau, suggests that art can connect people and that certain things cannot be reached by intellect but by something deeper than emotion – that music reaches the heart.


KATA WÉBER)(The film is a story of many perspectives – it works as a fairy tale that points at things hidden under the surface, which are more important than what we see. (…) It is also a parable: you have to go down to the underworld and meet the dark forces to find redemption.



On the panel entitled Transformation MARTIN M. ŠIMEČKA engaged philosopher ASPEN BRINTON, sociologist OĽGA GYARFÁŠOVÁ, film director KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ and distinguished historian ROGER GRIFFIN in a lively debate on the toxic effects of populism, resurgence of fascism in Slovakia and elsewhere, Donald Trump, the mechanism of recognition and, last but not least, hope.


OĽGA GYARFÁŠOVÁ)(The fact that in this year’s general election people across the whole Slovakia (except the capital, Bratislava) and walks of life voted for Kotleba‘s neo-fascist party shows that higher education doesn’t immunize voters against populist appeal. It is less about economy than comparative deprivation, about how people define themselves compared to others. However, their feelings weren’t respected and this disrespect is one of the factors behind the rise of neo-fascism. (…) My hope is in democracy and the faith people still have in democracy, its checks and balances that will help us get over the current crisis.


KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ)(Prehistoric models no longer apply and populism is the product of the people we forget. Jobbik has proved better at expressing people’s grievances and it is high time that we come up with radical answers for these people. (…) Past ideology is in ruins, we live in a world surrounded by post-Soviet and global ruins, which create many layers and many truths. That is why we live in a multi-truth age.


ROGER GRIFFIN)(Corruption of liberal democracy frightens me more than a possible return of fascism.  People are too preoccupied with the danger of a repeat of fascism and lose sight of the present dangers. Liberal intelligentsia has spent decades coming to terms with the trauma of the past but however much you try to digest the past it will only give you indigestion. (…) Populists are the new fascists, not in the strict sense but they are toxic because they delegitimize pluralism, cosmopolitanism and human rights which they see as an attack on their identity. When you get rid of tyrants, the world doesn’t become wonderful and pluralist.

ASPEN BRINTON)(For Trump’s voters the mechanism of recognition has broken down. Proper democracy should be receptive to the needs of people. When the government fails in the task of recognition, it creates a sense of alienation from the ruling class, which has become pervasive in the US. People hate politics, there is a strain of anti-politics that needs to be addressed by the government. (…) Václav Havel’s and Jan Patočka’s ideas of living in truth, care of the soul and solidarity of the shaken, formed the basis of civil society. These ideas still offer hope for today.


MICHAL HAVRAN read from the forthcoming Slovak edition of DUBRAVKA UGREŠIĆ’S book of essays, Europe in Sepia, translated by TOMÁŠ ČELOVSKÝ. He talked to the celebrated author about the concept of Central Europe, reasons for anxiety and antidotes to despair.


DUBRAVKA UGREŠIĆ)(A few decades ago Milan Kundera, György Konrád and others attempted to lay the foundations for the idea of Central Europe. They wanted visibility and achieved it briefly, but now it’s over, Central Europe is no longer in focus and nobody talks about it as a specific place anymore. (…) We have more reasons for anxiety at the moment as we no longer live locally but globally. The US President-elect and the rise of radical Right all across Europe are both reasons for anxiety. We live in a world that makes us nervous and anxious and we have no time to relax. (…) Education is the antidote to despair:  constant, stubborn, moral and political education. Education on human values has vanished from our world and should be part of the curricula from kindergartens to universities.



On Sunday afternoon moderator CHRIS KEULEMANS steered the debate towards a hope for the future as anthropologist MARIE-CLAUDE SOUAID, journalist NICK COHEN, political scientist JACQUES RUPNIK and Krytyka Polityczna founder SŁAWOMIR SIERAKOWSKI tackled big issues from the blurring of the distinction between the Right and the Left to the decline of liberal democracy and disintegration of Europe.


NICK COHEN)(Britain didn’t have to endure Nazism, it has never been invaded or had its borders changed for a thousand years and so the people got used to believing that once problems blow over things will get back to normal again. However, after Brexit and Trump’s election we can no longer say that and panic may be justified.  UKIP, PiS, Trump had the advantage of being outsiders, they could criticize because they had no power. However, now that they are in power we have to hold them to account. (…) If you keep losing like we, liberals are, what we need to do is be honest with ourselves. We have to engage with those who voted for Brexit or for Trump, otherwise we lose.


SŁAWOMIR SIERAKOWSKI)(Following Brexit and Trump’s election, liberal democracy is no longer the canon of Western politics.  Donald Trump has realised that America cannot go on promoting democracy around the world because the financial cost is too high. Orbán is a cynic while Kaczyński is a fanatic; Trump  is more like Orbán, and cynics never go against their own interest. (…) Students of European politics should now study European disintegration.  Maybe we need a pan-European intelligentsia – when everything collapses we should start creating a European republic of letters.


MARIE-CLAUDE SOUAID)(Democracy has nothing to do with refugees – refugees have to do with solidarity, social mechanisms, solutions to problems and bargaining in the region.  (…) Lebanon has a long history of helping refugees but that doesn’t make us better people than those in European countries who have refused to accept refugee quotas.  (…) Countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, who are directly involved in fighting in Syria or Iraq, have not taken a single refugee so far.  Islam has to change, otherwise the conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites will drive us into a corner. This is an issue Muslim theologians have to solve for themselves.


JACQUES RUPNIK)(The European Union used to stand for security, a certain order but is now presented as an example of instability. Centrifugal forces are at work and if we want to stop Europe from disintegrating, we have to be serious about its borders and complete the European project because an uncompleted project is bound to unravel. (…) Our political leaders have disappointed and we have to hope that new leaders will emerge from among non politicians, people who don’t see themselves as leaders, a figure like Václav Havel.


Jana Starek

Have Visegrad countries been engulfed by nihilism? In trying to answer this question, Moderator JANA STAREK engaged writer IRENA BREŽNÁ, novelist GRAŻYNA PLEBANEK, sociologist TIBOR DESSEWFFY, and writer and translator MICHAEL ŽANTOVSKÝ in a discussion that explored, among other themes, progress, love, anxiety and women’s rights.


MICHAEL ŽANTOVSKÝ)(The misguided trend of labelling people “progressive” or “reactionary” leads to the exclusion of large numbers of people from politics. This has now come back to haunt us and we have seen it in Brexit and Trump’s election. (…) The West sees history as an inevitable progression from one point to the next whereas we, with our Kafkaesque Central and Eastern European experience, have got used to upsets and uncertainties, to a struggle that is never won. (…) For twenty years we complained that the Visegrad Four fulfils only a cultural purpose and that it is incapable of uniting politically.  Now it has happened but in a very different way than we had imagined.


GRAŻYNA PLEBANEK)(The much trumpeted emancipation of women under communism was completely fake. However, Poland has a tradition of strong women – the term „matka Polka“ (the Polish Mother) was forged over the centuries when the country had been erased from the map and women had to preserve the culture while men fought in uprisings or were exiled. (…) For us East Europeans freedom has been a constant struggle, one that Western Europe doesn’t know.  We have always aspired to Western Europe and have known more about it than the other way around. In this respect the Iron Curtain was very efficient.


TIBOR DESSEWFFY)(What is happening in Hungary is not interesting because it’s happening there but because it can happen elsewhere – see Le Pen, Wilders, Kaczyński.  We have to ask ourselves about the reasons why Orbán keeps getting re-elected, why Trump won the election, why Brexit won.  And Hungary is an ideal laboratory for that. (…) Why do people in Hungary not revolt against the corruption and autocracy? The situation is similar to that in Turkey where masses of ordinary people, known as the  ‘black Turks’ have felt excluded from Kemalist history.  We also have our ‘Black Hungarians’ who now feel that Orbán has lifted them up. They are grateful for this and don’t care how much he steals.


IRENA BREŽNÁ)(In the West, Orbán’s rhetoric has damaged not just the image of Hungary but of the entire Central Europe, which is tarred by the same brush.  People in Western Europe don’t know anything about Eastern Europe and the only people who show any interest is the extreme Right. They follow the example of ‘courageous’ politicians such as Viktor Orbán. (…) The only time the West showed any interest was in 1989:  like a prima ballerina spinning around her own axis, who stopped for a moment and said: oh, look there’s a revolution going on, only to continue spinning. The love between the East and the West is an unrequited love.  But love is won by critical thinking, not by dumplings.