Olympic Cauldron Relit for Sochi Winter Games 2014 Feb 21st 12690365295The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi earlier this year unexpectedly helped fire public debate in the Russian Federation

What impact do major sporting events have on local people? Do mainstream Western media only scratch the surface when it comes to popular opinion in the former USSR? Edgar Gerrard Hughes takes a look at a project that sought to discover exactly that.

Every so often, in the midst of a European television report about sporting events in one of the successor states to the Soviet Union, a local citizen will appear on screen for a few seconds and angrily denounce Western arrogance. They are presented as the voice of the nation, and the (intended?) response of many viewers is dismissive: these are not original or authentic opinions, but rather the regurgitation of official propaganda. We all know that media freedom in Russia leaves much to be desired, so when we see a vox pop from the streets of Sochi, it is easy to assume that the speaker is simply parroting their government’s self-interested agenda.

A response like that is, of course, at best lazy and simplistic. But how can we get a more rounded sense of the domestic impact of events like the Winter Olympics when these brief news cameos are our most readily available source of popular opinion? Five participants from Berlin’s prestigious Studienkolleg programme (incidently also the birthplace of E&M), which gives young people a chance to explore Europe on their own intellectual terms, set out to provide a better answer to this question. An answer based on the experiences of people actually living in the countries in question.

Published in E&M Reports
Thursday, 25 October 2012 18:49

Elections in the Eastern Neighbourhood

Georgia has just chosen its new parliament. The elections in this Caucasus State were the second of three held in Eastern Partnership (EaP) States this autumn. Besides Belarus, which was given (as opposed to choosing democratically) a new assembly in September, Ukraine is also going to vote in a few days. Each election is different. How will they shape the EU's closest neighbourhood?

All quiet in Belarus

I guess the best summary of the Belarusian elections came from one of my Belarusian friends, who is currently living in the US and posted on her Facebook wall that she's curious as to whether anyone voted in her name (and for whom). Partly funny, partly scary - entirely true, unfortunately. There was no need to wait for OSCE reports or EU statements. Even before the election campaign it was obvious that the opposition was too weak (after its demolition following the last presidential election) and that Lukashenko was unwilling to share his power with anyone (or even give the opposition a chance to promote their ideas during the campaign). As a result, the Belarusian parliament is a pro-government monolith - the more insignificant due to the presidential system of government in the country.

Georgian dreams and reality

Georgia's case is a completely different story. Even though some violations of democratic rules were also recorded - both before and during the voting process - the Georgian elections may serve as a good example for the whole post-Soviet area. At least for one reason: it seems that they will lead to a constitutional transfer of power. There were no "anointings," which we observed in the case of colonel Putin (both in 1999 and recently), no man-hunting as in Belarus nor politically inspired litigations as in Yulia Tymoshenko's case. As Akhmed Zakayev, Prime-Minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, stated: "The results of the elections are a real victory for the Georgian people." This is true - as long the Georgians' choice was not forged. The quick acceptance of electoral defeat by President Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) is nothing less than the triumph of democratic principles in the country.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
Friday, 18 February 2011 07:40

The Key to Belarus

"The European Union holds the keys that could free the Belarusian demonstrators from prison." These were the words that ended Eva Nyaklyaeva's speech in the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee debate on the latest Belarusian election on January 12th.

Eva Neklyaeva, currently living in Finland, is a daughter of the jailed presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyaev, who was lucky to be alive after being severally beaten by Specnaz troops. Vladimir Neklyaev is one of about 700 Belarusians who have been imprisoned because of "destruction and barbarism" as President Lukashenko said after a mass demonstration of about 40 thousand participants which took place in Minsk after the announcement of the election results. According to Lukashenko, he "authoritatively" had to "end the destabilising wars in the country". That was not just an empty promise. All across Belarus activists, journalists are visited and harassed by the KGB. To sum up, the situation of people who are not placing themselves in the fictional 80% majority who agreed for the 4th term of Lukashenko, is not to be envied. 

It was not only the Belarusian democratic opposition who lost the last election. The EU strategy towards the last European dictator also failed. Throughout the whole of Lukashenko's reign since 1994, the EU has tried different methods to deal or cooperate with Minsk. There were better (1999-2000, 2008-10) and worse (1997-99, 2002-04, 2005-08) periods but in general Lukashenko has been playing with the eurocrats as well as with the divided Belarusian opposition.  

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
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