All quiet on the Eastern Front?

From the 3rd summer school 2013 in Sofia. Photo by Daniel Šarić (2013). From the 3rd summer school 2013 in Sofia. Photo by Daniel Šarić (2013).
LeftEast, the East European Left platform for analyses and struggles beyond national borders
 
Interview with Rossen Djagalov, Mariya Ivancheva, Mary Taylor, on behalf of the LeftEast collective
 
 
When  did  you start LeftEast? What were your main aims? 
LeftEast is an international platform for informed analyses where we also share information, election or action reports and solidarity statements that come from different movements in Eastern Europe and beyond. It was founded as a result of the growing communication between individuals and groups in the newly emerging Left in the post-socialist world. It started in late 2013 as a follow-up initiative of a series of summer encounters on the neoliberalization of the post-socialist world. The first one was co-organized in 2011 by Mary Taylor in Budapest. The launching of the website itself was a result of the second summer school in Budapest in the summer of 2012, and a follow-up meeting in Bucharest that same winter organized by the Romanian left-wing web-portal CriticAtac, which still hosts LeftEast. It was clear to all of us, that each group is locally engaged, and internationally connected, but we know each other’s reality mostly through word of mouth and the scarce and often biased, shallow, or misinformed analyses in the mainstream media in the West. We understood the need to break with the dependence on the West as a source of funding, information, and as an ideational center through which all our collaboration has been mediated in the past. Instead we needed to strengthen the links between movements and struggles in our part of the world, and also open up to further peripheral countries and regions from which we have been divided due to different historical experience and taxonomies of knowledge production. In this sense, LeftEast is not a movement or an initiative that comes out of one movement or struggle, but rather a space where such movements and struggles can find expression and space for debate.
 
Please give us some information about how you function: editorial board, gathering the texts, standards and rules etc.
The editorial board consists of a core of around ten people who do not function as a political collective with unitary opinion, but who express an amalgam of opinions and positions from different tendencies on the Left. We also have contributing editorial board members who are less active in the day-to-day function of the webportal, but produce, edit, or solicit texts with specific geographical or topical focus. We usually solicit texts through our networks of activists and scholars who work in/on the region. Facebook –a necessary evil– is also very helpful in this regard, as we often encourage people to turn their long critical comments we encounter there into short opinion pieces. Once a text arrives, at least two of us read and comment on it. As some of us have native or close to native knowledge of English, we also do proofreading. After all, most of our authors are not native English speakers. We feed editorial and language comments back to our authors. We see this as a longer process of learning both for them and for us.  Sometimes we solicit translations from texts published in some of our kindred platforms from the region. We do our work 100% on a voluntary basis and so do the voluntary translators. This means we all have full-time jobs that have little to do with LeftEast. Each one of us is active in other initiatives locally where she or he is based. And this, by now, is often outside the region. So, LeftEast gives us a unique opportunity to stay connected with the region and –hopefully– to help movements connect, get to know of each other, and get coverage outside their national context. We also try to meet every year in summer encounters – we ’ve held such in Budapest, Sofia, Kaunas, and this year we plan to have one in Istanbul. 
 
The name of the platform is “Left East”. 

The name was actually invented by Costi Rogozanu from the CriticAtac web portal after the Bucharest meeting in 2012. Back then the discussion rotated around names that were heavier, not easy to remember, and definitely exceeded our ambitions – like The East International or East Left Review. Retrospectively, LeftEast was shorter, smarter, and funnier. As your readers might have guessed, it reflects a joke – in everyday Eastern European English it sounds like ['leftist] – the verdict of the infantile disorder of the Left according to V.I. Lenin. As this was a pilot project, the joke was on us, but so was also a more relaxed atmosphere than a longer title would have suggested, so we went along with it. In fact, it spared us “the naming debate” which kills the energy of many collectives at the start. 
 
First, Left. What does  “Left” mean to you, in the 21th century?...
This is a broader debate in which we enter rather with an exploratory mission than with the aim of giving firm and definite answers. What is important to know is that LeftEast functions as an editorial collective, but not as a political collective: in the sense that we rarely publish shared editorial texts or try to have a political line that represents the whole editorial board. We come from different tendencies within the contemporary radical Left in Europe and beyond: autonomous Marxists, Leninists, Trotskysts from different tendencies, anarcho-syndicalists etc... We do share firm anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian, decolonial, and egalitarian beliefs. We try ourselves and encourage others to connect political economy oriented analysis with empirical research or experiential knowledge that take into account complex intersections between class, gender, race, and sexual identities. So rather than taking firm positions and political lines, we try to read most materials together and try to generate and curate debates among authors. Surprising as it sounds given all the traditional splits within the Left, it mostly works. 
 
…and, secondly, “East.” How do you describe this region (Balkans and East Europe and…)? And is this “East”  mainly,  a  geographical, historical, or political, concept/term? In your “About” section you say: «The aim is to constitute an alternative to the way we see the region but also to the type of intellectual production historically associated with this part of the world». Please tell us some more on this.
It technically means that we are dealing with the complexities that divisive historical processes have played in the region. We try to resist simple Cold War taxonomies of knowledge, which designate as socialist and post-socialist only East European countries, or stratify them even further into the Baltics, Central Europe, the West Balkans, Southeast Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc., looking for shared patterns. We try to engage critically with different possible or imagined alliances (e.g. a Balkan or Transdanubian federation), also linking past and present experiences of socialism or projects for radical anti-capitalist social change. We are also interested in transversal knowledge that brings together countries beyond these divisions, for example, Latin America and Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey, etc. Still, due to shared experiences, and contingent circumstances (our origin or research), we are still mostly focused on the formerly state-socialist regions of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Most texts come from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Ukraine, former Yugoslav countries, and less so from the North or further East. We have more recently tried to reach out to authors and cover topics in other geographies, including a few texts on Latin America and Asia, and have had a strong focus on Turkey and Russia. 
 
There are certain objective obstacles in this expansion: the further we move from the region, the thinner our networks become. Our audience (for the most part Eastern European) also seems to recognize LeftEast as a source of information and analysis about the region, while looking for information on foreign contexts in better established or geographically-specific Left-wing sources. Interestingly, one of our Greek readers and friends (Dimitra Kofti, Greek anthropologist working on Bulgaria) recently asked why we don’t cover Greece. Seems we've unreflectively reproduced one of these divisions we set out to problematize. True, Greece stayed on the “other” side of the Iron Curtain as part of Southern European and second wave EU member countries (PIIGS) and has been –unlike Eastern European countries– covered widely in Left-wing media. The assymetry became ever greater when Syriza was rising to power while the Left in Eastern Europe is still tiny and mostly politically marginalized. Since then Greece has been discussed by our writers, some of whom have contributed to AnalyzeGreece - a kindred English language portal - but Greece has mostly stayed out of our focus. Of course, we would be only delighted if you or your readers send us articles on Greece to publish, that include analysis sensitive to the different historical experiences within the Balkan peninsula. 
 
I would like to hear your thoughts on Syriza and the Syriza government. What does it mean for the movements  and the Left of the Balkans and Europe?
As an editorial collective we don't have a common view of Syriza, and neither do East European movements: for some groups/individuals connected to LeftEast, Syriza was never a real revolutionary alternative; others saw it as a last hope. In the region it was for a few years a hope that a socialist government can put other issues on the agenda of national and EU level politics, which our governments did not. We were all excited and campaigned in solidarity with the Greek people during the referendum in July 2015. Yet, both the Troika dealing and the Tsipras governments’ reaction were sobering and disappointing. Not so much the last-moment surrender, but rather their not having thought of a Plan B –Grexit – and actually preparing for it. While this was all happening, however, many of us realized a second, retroactive disappointment: how was it that a similar solidarity on the Western Left was nowhere to be found in the 1990s at a time when Eastern Europe –without a real Left in government– went through even more severe cycles of crisis and dispossession? So now it’s no surprise that solidarity is not there to be found - Greece still seemed affluent when looked at from e.g. Bulgaria or Moldova. Currently, we’ ve been engaged – individually and at times collectively through texts or invites we receive - in critical dialogue both around Lexit in the UK, and around DiEM’s attempts to revive a democratic Europe. As members of the editoral collective we have different opinions on these and the future of the EU or the lack thereof.  As for Syriza – for good or for bad, the refugee crisis sheds new light on how far the Greek government is ready to go in obeying the Troika, reneging on its mandate. Sure, the brutal economic blackmail doesn't help, but it's disappointing none-the-less...
 
And then, I would like to ask you about your view on the refugee/immigrants issue, and especial the deal (the deal of shame, in my opinion) between the EU and Turkey.
The current dangerous liaisons of Turkey and the EU are one of the reasons why this year we are trying to hold our summer encounter in Turkey. The connection of Turkey to the region is complex, both because of lasting anti-Islamic sentiments due to the legacy of the Ottoman empire and to modern-day Turkey which have been key geopolitical players in the region. We are all clearly outraged by the dirty deal between the EU and Turkey. It uses taxpayers' money neither for economical and political integration of migrants escaping war and economic warfare, nor for the ending of the war and reparation of societies destroyed by war and plundered by neocolonial relations. It technically uses the Turkish state as an eager mercenary to fend off Fortress Europe from these migrants, while waging war on migrants and minorities. This is no surprise – the EU has been a key imperial power in the neocolonial exercise called “Euroatlantic integration” through which our region has gone since the 1980s. Inhuman reforms allowed millions of people in the region to become unemployed and homeless overnight while factories, land and buildings were privatized and remained empty. The neoliberal restructuring let people die without access to medical care while medical concerns and private doctors accumulated enormous sums. It allowed governments to cut even the miserable pensions, maternal and unemployment benefits for those most vulnerable under the premise of the survival of the fittest in a  “healthy” society of cut-throat competition. So as with the Greek crisis, we see the current intervention of the EU rather in continuity with its inhuman policies and tendency to defend elite interests and outsource its problems and create reserve armies by dividing and ruling its periphery. Sadly, the refugee crisis has exacebrated the fear of dispossession which our people experienced in the 1990s, and has pitted many against the migrants, instead of turning them against the elites.
 
What is the current situation, in other words, what are the main problems and prospects on the Left and among the movements in the region?
We have increasingly authoritarian governments driven by capitalist lobbies and not willing to obey even the simple rule of law. While the Left in Europe is raging against evil trade agreements as CETA and TTIP, Eastern European countries have been exposed to the detrimental results of the association agreements with the EU and bilateral trade agreements with European and North American countries, which contain the ISDS and which have twisted the hands of countries into deals that clearly go against the popular interest. At the same time, while the Left is ever further vilified and condemned by conservatives, liberals, and oligarchic social democrats, the right extreme has presented itself as the only alternative that “cares for the people”. The reemergence of Putin's Russia as some new hero for part of the Western and local Left has made it ever more difficult to form alliances locally and internationally. At a time of refugee crisis and the fight over non-existent or severely cut labour and welfare in the region, the Left-wing organizations are structurally volatile and severely underresourced: in each country many activists live abroad and are engaged in long-distance activism due to migration and precarity... In the final declaration of our encounter in Kaunas in 2015 (coorganized with activists based in South European countries), we said “The Balkans are the future of the PIIGS”. Unless the Left in Europe manages to find ways to fight back, it seems Eastern Europe will be the future of Europe. 
 
Rossen Djagalovis an Assistant Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the New York University. Formerly an organizer for Yale’s graduate student union (GESO), he works on representations of labor and international leftist culture in general.
 
Mariya Ivancheva holds a PhD in Sociology and Social Anthropology from the Central European University in Budapest, on the topic of the higher education reform in Bolivarian Venezuela. She is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at University College Dublin and a member of Attac Ireland.
 
Mary Taylor is Assistant Director at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, Graduate Center, City University of New York. Mary received her PhD in anthropology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research focuses on sites, technologies and politics of civic cultivation, social movement, and cultural management; the relationship of ethics and aesthetics to nationalism, cultural differentiation, and people’s movements in socialist and post-socialist East-Central Europe and the United States. She specializes in studying, theorizing, and organizing radical and alternative pedagogical activities under different conditions of urbanization. 

 
Mariya Ivancheva, Mary Taylor, Rossen Djagalov were interviewed by Stratis Bournazos.
 
First published in Greek on “Enthemata” of the newspaper “Avgi”, 15.2016.
 

 
 
 
 
  • Translated by: N/A
  • The original text was first published on: Written for AnalyzeGreece!