Returning to Europe for the first time

NIKOLAY NIKOLOV 31 January 2014

I fear that the value of a European future of democracy and freedom is not a value shared within Europe itself. Read more from our You Tell Us bloggers.

We are at a very critical juncture today in Europe. In Ukraine, for the first time since independence twenty-three years ago, the police clashed with protesters leaving several dead, hundreds kidnapped, imprisoned or tortured.

It reminds me of Berlin in 1953, Prague in 1956, and Budapest in 1968, Gdánsk in 1970. Does it remind you?

It also reminds me of Cairo in 2011, when the revolutionary movement gathered to overthrow the Mubarak regime. Two days ago, forty-nine people from those who marched on Tahrir Square to celebrate the third anniversary of that historic event, were killed. Prisons are overflowing with activists; the streets are dry with fear and bitterness. The square today is a tragic monument of what could have been. In 2011 we saw the initiation of a power struggle – not one between political elites but one between generations. As one Egyptian activist put it in a recent interview for the National Public Radio, it was an attempt by the young to fix the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. They have been unsuccessful.

The Maidan [Independence] Square may soon resemble the tragic sight of what Tahrir has become. In Ukraine, the vision of the future could once again lose to the repressive grip of the past. Here’s why.

More than fifty years ago, on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Prague, the Hungarian News Agency Director issued a statement shortly before his office was bombarded. That message ended with the words: “we are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”

According to both Milan Kundera and Jürgen Habermas, this was a common discourse in Central Europe, which eventually culminated in the overthrowing of totalitarianism. For those nations, Europe did not represent a geographical location, but a ‘spiritual notion synonymous with the word “West”’, as Kundera once put it. The moment, when, for example, Hungary is no longer European, which was the central aim of totalitarianism, it loses the essence of its identity; it is dislocated from its history and its destiny. That is what drove the Prague Spring and eventually culminated in the 1989 revolutions – a need for rectification. Fixing what has been done and returning to Europe. They were successful.

Today people in Ukraine are also ready to die for Europe. But for a very different reason than the director of the Hungarian News Agency who ended up sacrificing his life. Not because of a common history, a Roman-Catholic heritage, a lineage of modern philosophy, art, or classical music. Not because of the past, but because of the future.

Where people in Central Europe gave their lives to remain European, Euromaidan today is a symbol of the war fought by Ukrainians to becomeEuropean.

Perhaps if Ukraine did not have its western parts, where Soviet monuments are torn down and a rebellious anti-communist spirit remains alive, “it would be easy to turn the country into another Belarus” says novelist Andrey Kurkov. But people there are so strongly committed to fighting for their future; fighting for those basic values of freedom, reason, and human rights, that are so vividly represented as being European. 

I know what these values mean, what it means to be European. Along with thousands of others we marched the streets in Sofia for seven months, fighting to remain European. We were not met with force because we are already in Europe.

But, just like Kundera notes at the end of his essay The Tragedy of Central Europe (1984), the real tragedy is that the News Agency director died unsuspecting that his Europe ‘was no longer experienced as a value’ within Europe itself.

Today, I fear the same. I fear that the Maidan Square will resemble Tahrir because the value of that European future of democracy and freedom, which brought the protests to life, is not a value shared within Europe itself. I fear that the dream of an open, integrated Europe, as a political unity and as a community, is shared and wanted by fewer and fewer nations. I fear that people in Kiev may realize that sooner rather than later.

The tragedy of Central Europe was that the vision of a shared and unifying past was lost in the centre; today, the tragedy of eastern Europe is that the normative foundation of a unifying future has been put to the test. Can Europe make it?

About the author

Nikolay Nikolov is originally from Bulgaria and currently lives in London. He has a BA in Political Studies from the University of Birmingham, a MSc in Political Sociology from the LSE and has worked as an associate producer for the New York Public Radio show The Takeaway. Currently, he’s doing a PhD in the Politics and Economics of Eastern Europe at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, UCL. His articles have been published in a Bulgarian journal – Venets – and he is currently Books Review Editor for a journal called SLovoand contributing writer for a magazine calledinteract. He also co-writes for the blog and tweets at @Nikolay_Nikolov

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