Finding the right words in the overwhelming mass of truisms about war and peace that surround us these days is a challenge.
I will keep this as down-to-earth as I can and not let my emotions cloud my approach – neither my sympathy for the people under attack, nor my fear for my friends and colleagues in Ukraine, or my outrage about the regime committing these crimes.
The all-out act of war that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is carrying out against Ukraine has shocked the world. That reaction is human and legitimate. But, to make things even worse, the war has also inspired a large number of people to come out with their hatred of democracy, and to cheer Russia’s aggression as an anti-Western act of heroism.
What does all this mean? It shows that the complacency of democratic societies towards all varieties of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in the name of ideology and profit has long gone too far. The people of Ukraine are now paying the price. The answer to this is: it’s time to take democracy back.
But to do that, we need to clarify a few things.
First, we need to stop ahistorical policy making. Europe is dependent on Russian gas and how this came about is a nefarious example of negligence by generations of ignorant policy makers.
Among many other factors, policy making needs the knowledge that stems from historic experience. Had this been the case, Europe’s energy supply map would look very different today.
In my student days, I lived once in a Berlin apartment that had charcoal heating, like most apartments in Berlin at that time.
The house had functioning, but disconnected gas pipes. When I asked my abrasive landlady why she didn’t use gas, she answered in a bewildered tone: “Young man! Why would I trust Russian gas?”
We need to make Bismarck’s alleged bon mot about too much history in the Balkans sound like the pile of nonsense it is. Knowing history, and owning it in all its facets, good and bad, knowing that it never belongs to one people only, is the foundation of informed policy making. It is the way to counter dumb but lethal narratives like Putin’s, that Ukraine was Lenin’s creation – and the counter-narrative put out by the US embassy in Kyiv.
We need to decouple the misleading and lethal symbiosis of democracy and neo-liberal turbo-capitalism. The latter has brought itself to the brink of crisis, and we need to stop it before the damage is irreparable.
But the reasons for its crisis are different ones than for democracy. They lie in aberrations, personal greed and in corrupting a system to allow an excessive concentration of wealth, and the implicit power coming with it. And all that beyond any control.
We need to rediscover empathy in politics. People have to become the centre of policy making. Human-based policy making has so far remained an empty phrase, found in UN papers. We need to make it reality. We need politicians to regain the capacity to listen to people, their grievances and wishes, and act on them. Either that, or we hold them accountable.
But we need different forms of representation for that to happen. Political parties as instruments for the perpetuation of clientelist systems do not represent the will of the people. They have become machineries of repression of the people, forcing them to take sides, imposing their own narratives. “If you are not with us, you are against us.” This has nothing to do with democracy, this is the essence of dictatorship. We need to reinvent them.
This may sound like a pipe dream in many Balkan countries. But it is not impossible, even if it seems far-fetched. We cannot let kleptocrats continue to stamp on the little decency that’s left. If we do, we become nothing but hatcheries for little would-be Putins. Today, every one of us has the chance to watch live and in colour why we cannot let this happen. With every minute of this bloodshed, we need to ask ourselves why we have let it come this far.
We need a lot more empathy, but we also need to define limits. Many liberal societies have mistakenly interpreted tolerance as laissez-faire. Dark forces have grabbed the opportunity to flourish and enter the mainstream. Thanks to social media, the blabbering uttered by dense and often drunk individuals has mutated to conspiracy theories with worldwide audiences. We need to find ways to limit the spread of this blabbering. Tolerance cannot justify ignorance.
There is no human right to ignorance, but there is a right to information. We need to enforce the second right to combat the first. And, information means hard, proven, checked and re-checked facts, the old-school journalist way.
We need solidarity. For the next months, this will mean solidarity with the people of Ukraine, with the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming from Ukraine, and people ready to help them. But receiving these people while intentionally letting others drown in the Mediterranean is not solidarity but applied bigotry.
We need to force our representatives to understand and exercise solidarity with all members of our societies, regardless of how many days, weeks or centuries they have been part of these societies. This is no lesser challenge. We must make it clear that the free market is no remedy for social ailments; all too often, it is their cause.
The world around us has changed overnight, and we are slow in coming to terms with it. We have the luxury that the people of Ukraine lack – time to think, let it sink in. We need to learn from this: we need to make our societies, our democracies, more resilient.
The war in Ukraine has upended the European dream of peace on this continent – a fine illusion in fact, given the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav wars. Some have begun to grasp the challenge of the time. We need to be able to defend ourselves against those whose aim is to destroy democracy. We need to stand up to confrontation in any shape or form.
Yuval Noah Harari was very right in his recent short article in the UK Guardian, saying that Putin has already lost the war, regardless of any battles he might still win. But Harari is mistaken in adding that: “For oppressed nations, hatred is a hidden treasure”.
I was born and raised in Romania, where resentment towards anything Russian runs deep in the collective memory. Historic experience created mythology of distrust, and the Soviet experience added to that. But I fail to see “treasure” in that. It is a source of transgenerational complexes of inferiority.
My grandfather, who was too old to fight in the Second World War, and had nothing to do with Nazis, spent several years in a gulag, in a coal mine in the Donbass, for the simple fact that he was ethnic German. He never recovered physically. But at least he returned, unlike more than a third of his fellow inmates.
His story and my Romanian heritage could have been enough to justify a certain degree of Russophobia. Instead, I dedicated years of my life to study Russian language and history, but also literature, art and culture. Stockholm syndrome? No, it was the simple wish to grow beyond my inherited psychological and cultural baggage, to prove that I can define the narrative.
But I did come to the conclusion that Russia’s role in Europe is at least ambivalent and that we need to confront it. In a friendly way, in peaceful times, and in a less friendly way, in times like these.
Why mention this? Because hatred is not a treasure, but a curse. The Balkans can give us multiple arguments for this thesis. I have to contradict Harari on another issue as well. It is not these last days that proved that the Ukrainians are a nation. They are a nation because they say so. Nobody, including Putin, has the right to question that.
Nations are not at the core of European civilisation. It is the capacity to look beyond limits, especially those imposed by our rulers. Europe’s force is the force to transcend, to join others and to develop joint dreams based on joint experiences. This has been confrontative at times, and cooperative at others. Today it looks from the outside like a culture running out of steam and vision. But, although it might be the last thing he would want to do, Putin may have done Europe a favour. I read a lot about these days being a wake-up call throughout Europe. Let’s hope this is true.
We need to invest in winning the narrative. Ukraine shows us that it is possible. There are many compelling reasons why a democracy, imperfect as it may be, is always preferable to autocracy or dictatorship. Ask the thousands of people arrested in Russia these days because they voiced a simple opinion: no war. Ask the people of Ukraine whether they prefer their own, imperfect, scandal-ridden, corrupt democracy to Putin’s regime. They are providing the answer now.
We need to build the narrative on the sacrifice of the people in Ukraine. We owe them at least that. It’s not hatred that sustains resistance, but hope.
This could have been a nice end to this column. But I promised to be rational. So, we need to re-establish the validity of principles of international law.
Their erosion started a long time ago and is part of the very fabric of the UN. Take the absurd and obsolete instrument of permanent membership of, and veto rights in, the Security Council.
Now is the moment to revisit this issue. Russia should be excluded from the Security Council; the UN has to reform in its political dimension. Then, international law stands a chance. And, according to those principles, the world will be a better place only when Putin stands trial for crimes against humanity.