Dispatches from the “civilized world”

The Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, after the NATO bombing on May 7, 1999

Dispatches from the “civilized world.” The Ukraine war and the depoliticizing effects of crisis in permanence

von MARK TERKESSIDIS

“My generation, but also all those born since 1945, are now experiencing this form of interstate war in Europe for the first time,” a university lecturer in modern and recent history recently wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ). Here and elsewhere we learn that the “war of aggression” is back in Europe. What is more, this war of aggression is supposedly led by an irrational president trapped in the “building of his self-made madness” who has taken on the “civilized world” (all quotes from various articles in SZ).

There can be no doubt that this war is to be condemned, just as there can be no doubt that Putin’s clique has been redesigning the Russian Federation for years according to the ideas of the “New Right.” Nevertheless, after a few weeks, one should perhaps refresh one’s memory a little. Wars of aggression existed in Europe before. In 1974, Turkey—today’s mediator in the conflict—intervened in Cyprus. The intervention was not completely unjustified, as it was preceded by a fascist coup. What was unjustified, however, was the conquest of more than a third of the island, which Turkey had occupied since—in violation of international law.

In 1999, NATO—without a mandate from international law—attacked the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The reason was the alleged genocide in Kosovo. No doubt, a repressive apartheid regime was ruling in Kosovo, however, information about it had to be inflated by way of shameless lies of all kinds to enable comparisons with the Holocaust among the political elites in the West. The fact that the conditions in Kosovo were suddenly classified as a reason for war also seems astonishing in view of what was then and is now tolerated not only outside but even within the European Union. In 2019, for example, the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv became European Capital of Culture with a supposedly inclusive approach toward the Turkish-speaking Roma minority. But hardly any of the projects announced in the bid were implemented. The totally segregated district of Stolipinovo, inhabited by this minority, continues to have problems with sewerage, drinking water and electricity supply; the population is shamelessly discriminated against. After the Capital of Culture award, Stolipinovo was forgotten again—apart from a few human rights and Roma activists, no one was really interested in it anyway. For this reason alone, Stolipinovo is worth a visit. Things were not that bad in Kosovo at that time.

NATO’s 1999/2000 deployment followed a few months after the first step in its eastward expansion by admitting Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, pushing the alliance right up to the border of the Russian Federation. Moreover, since the war, the United States has maintained one of its larger military bases in the world, with 7,000 troops at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. The People’s Republic of China, which vehemently opposed the intervention at the time, had to accept the bombing of its embassy in Belgrade—the building was hit “accidentally,” despite the fact that the compound was located rather in isolation. Who could have imagined that this attack on a state definitely connected with Russia, viewed together with NATO’s recent eastward expansion, could have had something to do with a demonstration of power?

Be that as it may, today is the right time for the German foreign minister to tweet on the death of Madeleine Albright, who had stood up for the “strength and freedom of democracies,” without mentioning that her erstwhile American colleague was in charge of the NATO intervention in former Yugoslavia at the time. “Our” wars of aggression are always waged for the good cause, in the name of humanity, peace, “civilization” or “our” lessons from history. And I haven’t even talked about Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course, “we” are not committing war crimes either.

For years, strategists in Moscow have taken perverse pleasure in parodying NATO’s rhetoric of humanitarian intervention: The attacks on Georgia in 2008 and on Ukraine in 2014 (apparently not wars of aggression in Europe either, see above) were unceremoniously declared as peacekeeping operations in the name of threatened minorities. Currently the same rhetoric is deployed: We have no idea, the Kremlin claims, what kind of war they are talking about in the West, this is just a “special military operation” against Nazis… It is amazing how much the Western public ignores how “we” are being mirrored our own hypocrisy and double standards.

None of this relativizes the war in Ukraine. Recently, Ukrainian intellectual Volodymyr Artiukh accused his leftist friends in the United States of “US-plaining” because they explained away the war in quasi-ethnocentric ways. Artiukh pointed out that in the meantime the Putin clique was creating its own reality with the military power of the Russian Federation from its own dynamics. This is true, although it is not the irrational work of a madman. Putin has been elaborating on his authoritarian Eurasianist philosophy in speeches for years, drawing from different (but not at all incoherent) sources—Soviet primordialist ethnology (Lev Gumilyev), Slavophile or later “white” reactionary thinkers (Leontiev, Ilyin, Danilevsky, Soloviev, and others), and current neo-fascist discourses, again mainly of Russian provenance (Alexander Dugin).

One may find this abysmally horrible, “irrational” it is not. Nor is it surprising. Because this ideological ground preparation was reported in the past years by Walter Laqueur, Michel Eltchaninoff or publications by the US military academy in Fort Leavenworth for that matter. It is not for nothing that Putin is the hero of the Far Right in Germany. Richard Gebhardt recently reminded me of the fact that some of the biggest protests by the Far Right in the last decade (Monday vigils and Pegida demonstrations) were largely motivated by the change of power in Ukraine in the wake of the Euromaidan protests. The Russian president’s incessant invectives against “homosexual culture” in the West have also, of course, gone down well in these circles.

The Ukraine war is now the third major crisis in a sequence (after the so-called refugee crisis and the pandemic) that seems to come out of nowhere. But it doesn’t come out of nowhere, any more than the other two. In 2015, I once had to listen to a representative of the Bavarian government sneer at me, saying that I was also someone who had known everything about it beforehand. In fact, I knew it beforehand—Tom Holert and I have published a book titled Fliehkraft in 2006 about the interrelation of flight, migration and tourism at the EU borders. I don’t know anything about virology, but it is clear that all experts assumed that a pandemic was imminent. And now the Ukraine war, which has actually been fought as a “hot” war since 2014 (with about 15,000 dead), seems to be descending upon “us” like a natural disaster. Couldn’t “we” have known, for example, that Russia’s GDP per capita has dropped by about 30 percent since 2014, and what a problem this poses for whoever is portraying himself as the embodiment of the Russian people’s will? Or to be able to listen to the voices that have warned that another attack on Ukraine is only a matter of time?

But good grief, until yesterday Ukraine was far away, as far away as Syria, which is also just across the EU’s external border. I vacationed in Odessa in 2015; on the one hand, because Odessa is an important part of the “Greek” map of the world and I always wanted to go there; on the other hand, because it was obvious that such an international and heavily tourism-driven city would hardly be visited due to a war (which was still raging far away from Odessa at the time). I don’t want to make this a big deal at all, it was just a vacation, but I was very surprised at the reactions I got in Germany at the time: most people hardly knew where this place actually was, but my trip was seen as some kind of exotic suicide mission to the post-Soviet insanity. And now suddenly it is totally self-evident that Ukraine belongs to “us”? Flags, war rattle, arms deliveries, 100 billion for the Bundeswehr. An even more intense version of the mobilization in the “mass cultural war” that we experienced in 1999 (and about which Tom Holert and I wrote the book Entsichert in 2002).

The moral self-righteousness of people whose front line is in their own living rooms would actually be laughable if they weren’t all bitterly serious. The fewer political categories there are for analyzing the world, the more capitalized the next crisis will be: Now “we” have to do something, there is no other way—now “we” have to write, demand, hold panel, help and call for interventions against “genocide.”

Yes, Ukraine has been attacked, the helpfulness and also the partisanship are justified without question. But the permanent crisis is a false form of government that keeps us permanently stuck in the present. If the crisis no longer has a political history, then we can only decide in the moment; alternatives are then very limited. And what about the consequences of what “we” are doing now?

If the negotiations do not come to an early result, then Ukraine could also turn into the European Afghanistan. True, Putin probably has no intention at all of conquering western Ukraine, which is not part of his Eurasian spatial idea; but war in the east could also take a long time: it took Stalin ten years after World War II to defeat the rival remnants of Stepan Bandera’s nationalist army. What about the young men to whom all kinds of weapons are now being distributed. How exactly do “we” send them back home? At what point do “we” realize that we might disagree politically in part with these beloved freedom fighters?

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”—this phrase by Carl Schmitt has been quoted up and down since the 1990s. And the phrase is wrong, for:

Sovereign is she/he who has a plan.

 

Mark Terkessidis is a freelance writer and independent scholar on migration and colonialism, among other things. Together with Natalie Bayer he just finished editing the volume Die postkoloniale Stadt lesen. Historische Erkundungen in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (Verbrecher Verlag, May 2022).

April 5th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 05
Interface

The Reconstruction of Ukraine. Ruination / Representation / Solidarity, online symposium, September 9-11, 2022. “The Reconstruction of Ukraine: Ruination / Representation / Solidarity” devotes particular attention to cities, architecture, art, culture and psychological trauma – but the scope of the conversations it aims to start is broader. In due course, the discussions held during the symposium may coalesce into myriad projects, initiatives and experiments undertaken by government institutions, municipalities, educational and cultural bodies and other more interstitial actors. The ambition of this symposium is to establish a platform for dialogue, facilitating communication, collaboration and constructive argument between diverse actors and initiatives.

George Edwards (Zetkin Collective) on war, nationalism and the “anti-climate lobby” (via Arts of the Working Class): “The latest prognosis of this particular war was spelt out in a flurry of reports from the IPCC; the most recent, described as ‘an atlas of human suffering’ by the chief of the UN, demanded ‘rapid, deep and immediate’ emissions cuts in all sectors to ensure an inhabitable planet for all. In step with the science, many wish this conflict to mark the beginning of an intensified programme of decarbonization, ridding economies of not only Russian, but all fossil fuels, wherever their geological source. But whilst political leaders scramble abroad to secure new sources of fossil fuels – sweet-talking sheiks and summoning LNG terminals from the ground – a resourceful and committed cohort, let’s call them the anti-climate lobby, refuse to accept this diagnosis. The partakers in the fossil industry have seized upon this crisis, sensing it as an opportunity to enlarge and entrench economic interests rooted in fossil fuels. As the course of action prescribed by the IPCC imperils this line of business, the attempts to secure fresh investments in fossil fuel infrastructures, to lock-in production and secure profits for the coming decades may feel all the more pressing. The solutions they pose also fit within the national frame and it is with nationalist political forces that they find their most ardent allies.”

July 31st, 2022

The fundamental difference that we face in Europe at the moment between the Western approach characterized by the pursuit of peace and the Eastern one focused on liberation and independence poses a dramatic challenge – in order to survive and progress, democracy as a political regime has to be capable of defending itself also in a military way.” Armed Democracy revolves around the concepts of imperialism, liberation, fascism, autocracy, revolution, and militarization in pursuit of the world to come on Europe’s burnt out land. Conceived by the Kyiv Biennial and Biennale Warszawa from the East Europe Biennial Alliance, this special public program, curated by Vasyl Cherepanyn within the 2nd edition of Biennale Warszawa, the program is a first part of the series organized by the East Europe Biennial Alliance discussing Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and taking place in Warsaw, Prague, Kassel, and Riga over the summer and fall of 2022.

Olena Lyubchenko on Whiteness, Expropriation, War, and Social Reproduction in Ukraine (via LeftEast): “[…] when we hear on the news that ‘Ukraine is fighting a European war’ and ‘Ukraine is defending Europe’, amid images of fleeing ‘poor white’ women with children prioritized over racialized ‘Others’, ‘Ukraine’ is being made ‘white’ in the global imaginary. That is, “the injunction to ‘return to Europe’ by way of Europeanization is enabled and conditioned on the mythologies of Western civilization, and that Europeanization at once marks (promulgates) and unmarks (naturalizes) racial whiteness” [Nadezhda Husakouskaya and Randi Gressgård]. The paradox is that Europe’s existence as such has only been possible precisely because of the exploitation of global working peoples through expropriation of resources and today neoliberal economic reforms and reproduced by feminized labour.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn about the “inertness, hiding behind the European Wall” (via L’Internationale): “Many Western institutions that have been claiming ‘radical political engagement’ for years, have simply resorted to a white cube radicalism and self-satisfying humanitarianism, too afraid of acting politically beyond their comfort zone and unsettling their publics and authorities by attempting to affect the decision-making process regarding the Ukrainian cause.”

May 28th, 2022

Tatsiana Shchurko on the War in Ukraine, Entangled Imperialisms, and Transnational Feminist Solidarity, via LeftEast (May 2, 2022): “[An] uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn on that “It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt” (via Politico): “Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European ‘peripheries,’ and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was ‘deeply concerned.’ Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often ‘balanced’ with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.”

An unnamed anarchist and art scholar, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces, quoted by Olexii Kuchanskyi in an essay on “Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail” (via Your Art and e-flux notes): “At dawn, Dima and I talked about cinema. Dima believes that cinema is inferior to literature as a means of expression because you spend much more time with a book than a film. It’s a really interesting point, something to dig into. I studied at the department of art theory & history and I never thought of it. Dima served in the military after school and worked at the factory all his life. He listens to rap, smokes pot, and tries to have fun. He is thirty-eight, his child was born last year. He likes Wong Kar-wai and is a fan of Asian cinema in general. Dima communicates by quoting Omar Khayyam, Confucius, and other awesome guys.”

April 20th, 2022
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