Sunday 16 October 2016

Postcards from Vilnius – the politics

[Sirenos Festival 28/09 – 02/10]

Do you know much about what’s going on in Europe at the moment? No reason you should, it’s hardly ever written about, and we’ve got our own troubles, right?

Last month, I was invited to co-moderate the teatro kritikų konferencija „(re)FRESH“ in Vilnius. Young critics gave a series of (excellent) papers, and my Estonian colleague Ott Karulin and I moderated discussions of them. It was an incredibly rich few days, having dozens of young critics from all over Europe (from Russia to Turkey, an many, many point in between) bring their perspectives to the table, and discussing them. And, as often happens, the main surprise is the number of similarities between diverse national situations, and much as the differences.

What was striking this year, however, was that there was one subject that stood out head and shoulders above the others; that of censorship.

In the summer, following an attempted coup, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, enacted a purge of press, teachers, academics, and civil servants and brought in a raft of repressive measures. Amongst these was an effective “ban” on foreign literature being produced on Turkey’s stages. “State theatre companies are no longer allowed to produce shows based on plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht and Dario Fo. At this moment, only Turkish plays are welcome” says International Association of Theatre Critics President, Margareta Sörenson.

A little over a year ago, the Polish people elected the Law and Justice party, with the first overall parliamentary majority since independence in 1989. one of the first things that the party did upon gaining power was to put all state-funded media (essentially the Polish-equivalent BBC) under government control. “We’re paying for it, why should we allow it to criticise us? We are the people’s choice” was, in effect, their rationale. This instinct for control has also spread to theatre. Poland already had a troublesome history with censorship, with a combination of Catholic Church condemnation and neo-Nazi rioting, several high-profile “controversial” productions have been shut down. Now, the Law and Justice Party is swiftly acting to remove “troublemakers” from artistic directorships, and are threatening funding withdrawal from festivals that have previously commissioned controversial work. All this in little more than a year.

In Hungary, the Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orbán, has been in power since 2010, while the third largest party in the Hungarian parliament is the far-right Jobbik party (“in 2014, the Supreme Court of Hungary ruled that Jobbik cannot be labeled ‘far-right’ on any domestic radio or television transmissions, as this would constitute an opinion because Jobbik has refuted the ‘far-right’ label... Jobbik describes itself as rejecting ‘global capitalism’, European integration and Zionism... The movement is described by some scholars and media outlets as ‘fascist’, ‘neo-fascist’, ‘Neo-Nazi’, extremist, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic, although the party rejects these claims.”). As in Poland, Fidezs has radically reduced arts funding, particularly to companies that are critical of the government, using the same mantra of “We’re paying for it, why should we allow it to criticise us? We are the people’s choice.”

The situation in Belarus is more entrenched. There has been state-censorship in place since it became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it was fascinating to learn that this state-censorship is now more relaxed, and the situation in the country is far less fraught, than when the artistic directors of Belarus Free Theatre fled the country in 2010.

And, well, the situation in Russia isn’t super either, is it? Perhaps the most frightening feature of the Russian situation is just how much widespread public support Putin and his policies still command. Indeed, it would not be fanciful to imagine that the policies for which Putin is most widely criticised in the West (and also admired, in certain circles) – his homophobic laws, his censorship – are matters on which he is personally indifferent, but which have been enacted as a populist sop to a largely bigoted constituency.

Meanwhile, in Croatia, the country narrowly elected a pretty far-right coalition(?) government in January this year. By June (I think) it had entirely collapsed. The Culture Minister of that regime,  Zlatko Hasanbegovic, was a particularly controversial extreme-right figure, who had written articles praising Croatia’s Ustaše past (if you’ve never heard of the Ustaše, that Wikipedia article is worth a read). Following the collapse of the government in the summer, Croatia held a new election in September. The same result was returned, and the right-wingers are currently having another stab at doing the people’s will, and forming a government capable of government.

In Slovakia, the country is also enjoying a far-right, nationalist government, although, miraculously, a friend there tells me that so far they’ve not really suffered censorship in the theatres, perhaps because their arts minister has an arts background himself, or perhaps, she said, because theatre is seen as too marginal to constitute any real threat, no matter what gets said.

Now, what’s interesting (to me) about all these instances of censorship in the EU countries mentioned above (so, excepting Turkey, Belarus and Russia), is that all this censorship and repression is being enacted in full view of the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights, with nothing more than the odd mildly worded letter being sent. Moreover, the countries involved are not using secret police forces to do their dirty work, they are doing it in fulll public view and, in many cases, increasing their popularity by doing so. This is censorship, in line with popular opinion, enacted by government, often backed-up with the threat of rioting football fans, skinheads and (less intimidatingly) Mary Whitehouse-style grannies.

This is Europe in 2016.

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