Something rotten. Misha Glenny (Great Britain), Slawomir Sierakowski (Poland), Paul Caruana Galizia (Malta) and Zuzana Wienk (Slovakia).
Paul Caruana Galizia: “The Maltese government gradually kidnapped every institution until, eventually, the only uncorrupted person was a journalist – then the force and violence came down not on the corruption but on the critic. A good outcome for me would be not just to find out who my mother’s killers were and, moreover, who had ordered her murder, but also justice for every single article she has written and the reform of our institutions.”
Misha Glenny: “When McMafia was published in 2008 there was no general interest in this as a globalised phenomenon. Now, 10 years on, there is a general understanding of a global culture of organised crime, and also people determined not to tolerate it: NGOs, journalists, the police, who are insisting on transparency. The big battle is on. We are reaching a significant point in history with one thing affecting us all: global warming. Over the next 5 to 10 years we are facing very concrete challenges: what is going to happen to our species as a whole. Before everything goes up in smoke we must try and do something about it.”
Slawomir Sierakowski: “The Civic Platform lost in Poland even though the country was as prosperous as never before. But people in the provinces did not benefit from high-speed trains and motorways, they felt left behind and disappointed in a detached state. Kaczyński was the first who defined a community for them – maybe in a paranoid way, but in the eyes of the people that is better than no community.”
Something solid. Bernard Schlink (Germany) and Martin M. Šimečka (Slovakia).
Bernhard Schlink: “In Germany big political parties are in decline and, while the younger generation is willing to take on responsibility for matters such as an endangered forest or frog habitat, they are less willing to engage in politics and work in institutions. The danger is that if you enjoy democracy for long enough you take it for granted and start thinking that you can turn your attention away from it to hobbies. I hope people will realise that they have to work for democracy, that something is at risk. Words matter – they are small, but powerful.”
Svetlana Alexievich: The first Honorary European. Ingrid Timková (Slovakia), Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus) and Nathalie Nougayrède (France). Laudatio Peter Balko (Slovakia).
Peter Balko: “Svetlana Alexievich is a country. She is a human being suffused with empathy. Her words and sentences rise up from the printed page and turn into whispers.”
Svetlana Alexievich: “It turned out that freedom is a long road. Freedom is very expensive, but we never thought it would be this expensive. Dostoevsky believed that suffering prepares us for resurrection. I don’t understand the point of all this suffering. I agree with Varlam Shalamov: the camps don’t teach anyone anything, nobody needs the camp experience. We have to find the spirit that will free us from bondage. Only then shall we be ready for freedom. There were times when I thought the word was powerless, but then, once again, I believed in it.”
Let’s demand the impossible! Timothy Snyder (USA), Michal Havran (Slovakia), Nathalie Nougayrède (France) and Ivan Krastev (Bulgaria).
Nathalie Nougayrède: “We are dying of oversimplification. Demanding the impossible should mean: never simplify complex things. We need to seek clarity, not simplification, which obscures the full picture. Liberal democracy is more fragile than we thought, and its institutions must be protected.
We Europeans should find the energy to reinvigorate the European project, to care about it. Next year’s European Parliament election is important in an unprecedented way and we have to find a new narrative because the European project is what protects our rights and democracy.”
Ivan Krastev: “People panic because of demographic imagination – their fear of immigrants is not fear but anxiety. The greatest problem of Central and Eastern Europe is not people coming to the region but people leaving. Brexit has changed the question from who will be the next to join the EU to who will be the next to leave. One way to defeat populism is by not calling everyone you don’t like a populist. If you want to beat somebody, make sure you know who he is.”
Timothy Snyder: “Idealism alone is not a sufficient condition for reform, but it is a necessary condition. All realism has to include some idealism. I like the idea of pursuing the impossible because all good things are basically impossible. To beat populists, we have to know what we want, not just what we are against. Facts matter, and we need to support local and regional reporters so that they can do their work and fill the space with facts. Factuality is the ideal that makes all the other ideals possible.”
Standing up against hatred. Erik Kursetgjerde (Norway) and Chris Keulemans (The Netherlands).
Erik Kursetgjerde: “I attended Breivik’s trial because I wanted to know what ideology drives someone to create so much distance from other human beings that he is capable of killing them, and I understood that he believed we are not human beings but parasites. And I realised that what made it possible for him to kill was indifference. Our greatest enemy is not hate: it is indifference. The atrocity made my belief in democracy and politics even stronger – I believe that we need decent people.“
Decency as a dream. Mikuláš Minář (Czech Republic), Táňa Sedláková (Slovakia), Marci Shore (USA), Radu Vancu (Romania) and Chris Keulemans (The Netherlands).
Marci Shore: “The Ukrainian Maidan was not just a political protest but an existential transformation – human souls were changing before my eyes. What had brought me to Central Europe was the magical legacy of dissent, the language of Havel and Charter 77. Havel’s language was at first metaphysical, but later that disappeared. Yet it came back during Maidan, when people accepted responsibility.”
Radu Vancu: “Writers are like antibodies: when something big is happening, they are mobilised in large numbers to neutralise the infection. After the big rallies in Sibiu in February 2017, when 4,000 out of the city’s 43,000 inhabitants went out into the streets, the protests subsided, and we realised that this was not a sprint but a marathon. In December 2017 we started organising daily protests, under the slogan “We see you”, which have been going on for 320 days now: people come out in their lunch hour and stand in the square in front of the town hall. Sometimes there are just a few dozen of us, but sometimes, when something major happens, big crowds come out. These Agoras in Sibiu are broadcast live on the internet.”
Mikuláš Minář: “The only thing we have is the power of the powerless: to demand decency and demand the impossible. It doesn’t say anywhere in our constitution that the prime minister must not be under criminal investigation, that he must not be a former secret police agent or that he must not have his own son kidnapped, but nevertheless we believe that common decency demands this. Our goal is to cultivate decency, not to be an anti-Babiš protest club.”
Táňa Sedláková: “Our only chance is to stick to our conviction that an enormous cultural and political transformation of the whole of civil society needs to take place. We can demand that the politicians uphold the law, but we should also demand that people do not feel rejected and left behind, and that politicians may not kidnap their sons and use the language of drunks in a cheap station bar.”
Overheated humanity. Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Norway) and Chris Keulemans (The Netherlands).
Thomas Hylland Eriksen: “Overheating is not just about eating too much meat, global warming, information overload; it is also about speed and acceleration. Since the 1990s we have seen an acceleration of acceleration. Overheating fills our minds with rubbish makes us lose flexibility. 200 years ago, coal was the salvation of mankind; now it has turned into our damnation. There is also the danger of an overheating economy and financial world, and we are lacking a thermostat, no authority to say: that’s enough, this is destroying our planet and our minds. Politicians no longer sell hope, they sell fear and sow seeds of suspicion. What we need is a positive vision. We need something big, modern, green and humane that involves cooling down, slowing down, scaling down. We are the thermostat. ”
A new hatred? Gábor Schein (Hungary), Bożena Keff (Poland), Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Norway) a Chris Keulemans (The Netherlands).
Bożena Keff: “I am living in a country that looks as if the Enlightenment had never happened there. We have a Catholic Church that is more tribal and nationalist than religious. There is old and new hatred, and the anti-Semitic structure is a very good basis for every other kind of hatred. When we joined the EU the mistake was that our goal was economic progress, and liberal policy the tool to achieve it. Instead, we should have pursued the integration of European nations and the welfare state as our goals.”
Gábor Schein: “Hungarian society feels that every change it has lived through has been a loss. People feel the need for a strong leader to save them from these changes, a father figure, so that they don’t have to take responsibility for their own lives. Populist leaders are a product of a specific political situation, and we have to fight against the emptiness. The job of politicians should be to give people hope. If they can’t provide answers to a sense of frustration the people feel, they should be voted out.”
Photo: Peter Župník