Numerous stories and novels by the greatest living Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare (1936-), build on anti-Ottoman stereotypes and metaphors, ostensibly directed against authoritarianism, as exemplified by communist Albania. However, the author appears not to notice the irony that, like many of his compatriots’, his own name is of an Islamic and Turkic origin. In one short novel, Komisioni i festës (1977, The Feast Committee), Kadare describes a historical event. In 1830, Reşid Mehmed Pasha (1780-1839) as Grand Vizier and Serasker (Commander-in-chief) of all Ottoman forces in Rumelia (or the Balkans) invited about 500 southern Muslim Albanian beys (that is, chiefs, warlords, village leaders) for a feast of reconciliation in Manastır (or today’s Bitola in Macedonia). The 1820s had been a destructive and murderous decade across the entire southern Balkans, where the Greek War of Independence had been fought out between 1821 and 1833. At the end of this period, in the north, the Russian armies attacked the Ottoman vassal principalities of Walachia and Moldavia in 1828-1829. Shortly afterward, the Egyptians defeated the Ottomans in Syria (1831-1833).
One Friday morning in late August 2014 I attended a seminar at the University of Stirling on how literature, Scottish literature, reflects or fails to represent the devolution. A participant remarked that within the British Empire, the English ran their emporium of commerce while the Scots built an imperium of spirit. Scottish spirit. In this view of the imperial British past, Scots wrote, invented, founded universities and educated the ballooning British Empire from Canada to South Africa, India, Australia, and to New Zealand. Unfortunately – according to this view – in the wake of the Great War when settler colonies were turned into dominions complete with home rule, these pioneers of Scottish spiritual imperium speedily morphed into Canadians, South Africans, Anglo-Indians, Australians or New Zealanders. The spiritual imperium of Scotland disappeared two generations earlier than the English’s emporium of commerce.
All of a sudden, Scotland appeared even poorer than it had been before joining the English imperial project of the British Empire. The spirit declined, though it was not extinguished, even when Scotland became just a northern appendix of England in the decades that followed World War II. Hence, the long-striven-for project that bore fruit in the form of devolution and the Scottish parliament, remains soulless, a political feat that needs grounding in the spirit in order to be revived. The spirit of the nation. The Scottish nation in a future independent, or maximally devolved, Scotland is to be civic, open, tolerant and all-embracing. But to be true to itself, this nation also must be a phoenix reborn from the long-gone-cold ashes of the aforementioned Scottish imperium of spirit.
My old home, the Monarchy, alone, was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men. This mansion has been divided, split up, splintered. I have nothing more to seek for, there. I am used to living in a home, not in cabins.
Joseph Roth. 1935. The Bust of the Emperor
In 2011 my Wife and I came to Scotland. After having lived in different corners of Britain and Ireland since 2004, at long last, we found our own place under the sun, our new home, courtesy of permanent jobs secured earlier that year. In May 2010, upon leaving the building of Edinburgh Airport, a rainbow welcomed us. A good omen, we thought. We got on a Jet 747 bus to Inverkeithing. I picked up a newspaper orphaned on an empty seat. The front page hit us with the information that an independence referendum was planned. We looked at each other unsure what to make of it.
I come from Poland. Under communism, in my history school textbook Jews appeared just before the Holocaust, as a jack out of the box, and then were gone, completely. But in the conversations of adults around me Jews were constantly present. I gave little thought to this schizophrenia then, the mysteries of which became clearer to me when I began to research the history of language politics in Central Europe. How languages were standardized and shaped by the joint iron rule of official state-approved grammar, dictionary, script and orthography. Jews, living across the length and width of Central Europe, contributed to this process significantly, especially in the northern half of the region, where the idea of writing, recording the spoken word on parchment, was introduced in the wake of Christianization between the ninth and fourteenth centuries.
Jews had preserved their Hebrew-script literacy since Antiquity, ensconced in the Pentateuch, the Torah, which accompanied them wherever they went. Even the poorest of them adorned the door of their modest lodgings with the mezuzah containing a piece of paper with a calligraphed and rabbinicaly approved quotation from the Holy Book. Jan Hus, the prophet of religious and social renewal in early fifteenth-century Bohemia, used the local Slavic language (today’s Czech) in liturgy and dared to translate fragments of the Vulgate into it. (What bore on his decision was also Slavonic written in Glagolitic letters that had remained In Bohemia, vis-à-vis Latin, a parallel language of Catholic liturgy since the times of Greater Moravia.) For this, a century later he was seen to be the forerunner of the Reformation on a par with John Wycliffe. But in his own times, Hus’s views, interpreted by the Catholic hierarchy as intolerable heresy, led to him being burnt at the stake.
In another splendid fit of absentmindedness, so typical for its history, Britain now left the European Union as a result of the referendum on 23 June 2016. The supporters of brexit rejoice, while the remainers despair. Those who tipped the balancenumber fewer than two per cent of the voters, so in reality neither the option of staying in nor of leaving the EU received a full-hearted and unequivocal mandate. Now, couple of days after, the triumphant brexiters backtrack on their promises of scores of economic and financial benefits that, according to them, were immediately to follow after the exit. In a typically British manner of muddling through, they even caution the public that the freedom of movement of people between Britain and the EU will continue for some indefinite period, while on the other hand the brexiters want Britain to retain full access to the single market. In a way they wish to straddle the fence by simultaneously being in and out. Ironically, it might mean that Britain, will join the ranks of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in the European Economic Area (EEA). It is an extension of the single market, but without the right to deciding about its principles for EEA members. They just need to follow the rules as legislated and prescribed by the EU members.
Democracy: Already Paseé in Europe?
In 1989 communism fell in Europe and the Soviet bloc split. In the same year Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history upon the almost instantaneous adoption of democracy and capitalism in the freshly postcommunist states. Now all in the West – the postcommunist half of Europe included – had seen the light of how to properly organize matters temporal in human societies. But since the mid-1990s populism has begun trumping democracy in Italy under the succession of the cabinets led by Silvio Berlusconi, at times in alliance with the pro-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party. Finally, in the 2013 general elections, the populist Eurosceptic and anti-establishment and Five Star Movement (M5S) won a quarter of the votes in this country. In the 1999 general elections over a quarter of the Austrians voted for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which subsequently became a coalition partner in the two Austria governments between 2000 and 2007. In the May 2016 presidential election, the FPÖ candidate lost to the mainstream one by the wafer-thin margin of 0.6 per cent. In France, the radical Front National (FN) successfully fielded a candidate who participated in the runoff of the 2002 presidential election. In 2014 the FN won the elections to the European Parliament and the following year the French regional elections, in each case gaining more than a quarter of all the votes cast. Mainstream parties and politicians began bowing to the growing authoritarian feeling palpable among the electorate. In 2007 Romania joined the European Union, but already the following year a plethora of Italian mayors and politicians vowed to expel from the country over 10,000 Romanian Roma – EU citizens. In 2009-10 the French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the first-ever postwar expulsion from a democratic Western state: tens of Roma housing sites were razed and 20,000 Roma – EU citizens, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, were removed by force to their countries of origin. The European Commission’s harsh criticism of this unprecedented act fell on death ears.
With the turn of the 21st century, mainstream political parties in the new postcommunist EU member states took a good note of this growing populist and authoritarian tendency in Western Europe. In 2000 displeasure with the continuing hold of the former communists-turned-democrats’ hold on power in Romania translated into the great electoral success of the far-right irredentist Greater Romania Party (PRM) that polled almost a quarter of the votes. The PRM became the second largest in the Romanian Parliament. However, in the wake of the generalized disillusionment with corruption in politics, this party’s popularity waned and since 2008 it has not managed to win a single mandate. Uniquely in Central Europe, thus far it has been the end of far-right parties in Romania, though no end of the use of ideological elements from their radical program. On the contrary, this far-right xenophobic radicalism has begun coalescing as a new political norm across the region. Since taking office in 2003 the Czech President Václav Klaus gradually introduced Euroscepticism as an important tenet of Czech politics. His successor Miloš Zeman continues this populist line with the addition of pro-Russian rhetoric. This stance paved the way for the rise of the anti-corruption populist and right-wing ANO 2011 (YES 2011) party as the second political force in the Czech Republic, and allows for the survival of the sole unreformed communist party (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, KSČM) in a postcommunist EU member state as the country’s third largest political force. The radicalizing trend found its reflection also in neighboring Slovakia that between 1994 and 1998 had already had an early brush with authoritarianism under Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. Recently, in 2006-10 the far-right nationalist Slovak National Party (SNP) was a coalition partner in the Slovak government. Another party of the same ilk, with clear references to the wartime fascist Slovakia in its program, People’s Party – Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) gained a tenth of all the votes during the general elections of March 2016.
Once Upon a Time
I was born and brought up in communist Poland. No, I had a happy childhood. Kids do not discern about political systems and are content as long as their parents are around. Their family, alongside the local community, provides them with reassuring routines. Like education. Going to school at 8am every morning on each working day. One of the routines in my own childhood was the all-school celebrations of the anniversary of the Great Socialist October Revolution, scheduled incongruously – from the schoolkids’ point of view – for early November. No explanations followed from the teachers, so we accepted the reality around us, unquestioning. We did not know anything else and our parents knew that it was better to keep silent on the subject until we grew older.
Teenagers question all and sundry. That is their right. In the two short years of 1980 and 1981 before I entered my secondary school, the old certainties were shaken by the Solidarity movement. At that time around four million people belonged to the Polish communist party (PZPR), but two and a half times more (that is, ten million) joined the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (NSZZ Solidarność). It dawned on all that a different political reality was possible, that many different political views may be, at different, times right for various peoples in this or that country. That a single ‘correct – meaning: socialist – view,’ as prescribed for everyone by the communist party, is a fallacy.