Through the Lens of Transition

Through the Lens of Transition has been a series of webinars held by Transition Dialogue over the course of May and June. We covered a range of topics, from the economy to public spaces, from education to media and the closing of borders, and have had the privilege of hearing from a wide variety of speakers, many of them experts in their field and all with interesting and thought-provoking experiences  of their own surrounding the transition period and the current pandemic. Throughout the course of the webinar series, many ideas came up that fed into each other across all the topics and they create a fascinating insight into the current concerns and expectations that feed into pre-existing experiences of such a time of uncertainty.

A key idea that kept recurring was the concept of responsibility, both of organisations and of individuals, and their need to take it in a time of crisis. This is particularly relevant in discussions of the younger generation’s perception and therefore reaction to issues brought to light by the pandemic, such as of climate change and of economic stability. The latter was particularly important in discussions of the future of the European Union and its need to “show its power” in support of its members, as something did not exist in its current form as a wide-ranging structure for multiple members at the time of democratic transition thirty years ago. Perception leading to action was a similarly crucial point relating to this concept of responsibility, and this was particularly relevant when looking at the sceptical perception of public spaces and individuals experienced by those who lived through the transition period, and how the opportunity has arisen now for new perceptions to be formed.

Historical distrust and exclusion from discourse were related issues that tied into the need to reshape perception, and this was especially with regard to how memories of the transitional period have fed into experiences of the effects of the global pandemic today. Concerns were raised as to the potential negative effect of the pandemic upon global trust, as discussed during our “Closed Borders, Then and Now” webinar, where one of our speakers, Momchil Metodiev, touching on the notion that “open borders may be a right, but those rights may not remain permanent,” as each nation’s needs and issues become less internationally focussed and instead become more insular.

However, in spite of these anxieties surrounding distrust and disarray, one of the continual messages of our webinars ended up being one of hope for a reformation of society as we know it, and taking advantage of the potential for change that was also seen during the transition period. Alicja Pacewicz raised this issue in particular in our talk “Education, Interrupted” about the need to make the increasing digitalisation of our education systems more sustainable and systematic, and the hope generated by both the pandemic and the transition period: “Hope that this challenge is common for all of us. Maybe we will all see how education has to change… in a fundamental way. It will give us the push, not just for more digital education, but for a better education, better adapted for the future world that we and our students are going to create.”

Closed Borders: Then and Now

The first of our talks Through the Lens of Transition, “Closed Borders: Then and Now,” took place in our new online format on 14th May. We welcomed as speakers at this event: Alicja Pacewicz, economist, social and educational activist and co-founder of the Center for Citizenship Education in Warsaw; Alexander Morozov, political scientist, publicist, and co-director of the Boris Nemtsov Academic Centre for the Study of Russia in Prague; and Momchil Metodiev, editor-in-chief of the Christianity and Culture Journal and Research Fellow in the Institute for Studies of the Recent Past in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Our event began with our speakers relating personal stories to do with their experience of closed borders before and during the transition into democracy, ranging from attempting to buy heavy metal music in a foreign shop for a friend who had been forbidden to travel, to facing time in a foreign prison for straying close to its border. Our discussion then moved onto impressions of how the current crisis of closed borders compares to the crisis we face today and the difficulties created by the closure we face today. Particularly, we looked at whether the younger generation, who did not live through the transition period 30 years ago, will rise up to the challenge of “reverting to normality,” and whether their age makes them more predisposed to view open borders as a right rather than a privilege, with Momchil noting that open borders are a right, “but such rights are not permanent.” Alicja pointed out that a potential positive impact of the younger generation being forced to act to revert to normality is that they will be inspired to act upon issues such as climate change, a noted difference in which has been seen due to the impact of reduced travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

Our discussion tailed off with a question as to how will the closure of borders due to the pandemic ultimately shape each nation’s perception of itself, and a worry about how insular that perception could become, with one of our speakers raising his concern that they may become “suspicious or anxious” of outsiders. Yet, as the discussion ended, there was hope in the form of our panellists’ discussion of their next destination, when the borders have reopened.

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The Virus in our Economies

The second of our talks from Through the Lens of Transition, “The Virus in our Economies” took place online on 28th May. The speakers at this event were: Asta Ranonyte from the Open Lithuania Foundation, Head of Examination Department at the National Examination Centre of Lithuania; Vedrana Pribičević, Economist and lecturer at the Zagreb School of Economics and Management; and Victor Guzun, teacher, former politician and diplomat, formerly Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to Estonia. Our aim was to discuss the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping our economies in a way much similar t to that of the transitional period in formerly communist countries, where people who had lived in a socialist economic system and were learning how economic activity worked now as an individual were thrown into the deep end, and were forced to either sink or swim.

The seminar began with a discussion on whether the fears of the implosion of our economy due to the pandemic have roots in similar fears for the economy during the transition period, an idea that can be summed up in the image of empty shelves: once a symbol of new economic potential from the West, and now an image that induces paranoia about the functionality of our current systems.  We then moved to a discussion of the necessity of the European Union to, in the words of speaker Vedrana Pribičević, to “show its power” in its support of each other and “why it pays to be a member of this cooperation.” Victor Guzun added to this that the actions of the European Union during the pandemic have showed that they are a “real global, value-based player and power” and have taken powerful steps to support its member countries, both in their economies and in coming together to tackle the major crises created by the pandemic. He also crucially noted that the consequences of the pandemic should teach us as a societal system as how to interact between individuals and businesses.

We then moved onto a discussion as to how the effect on the economy is manifesting itself in politics. Vedrana pointed out that this can be taken advantage of, as is being currently done in Croatia, with elections being brought forward due to the party in power’s belief in their victory due to their apparent success in cushioning the blow from the virus, even going to the extent of “using epidemiologists as proxies” due to corruption from what she called an “incomplete transition.”

Looking at the polls put to the viewers, many thought that residents of formerly communist countries believed that they would be more “resilient” to the effects of the virus on our economies due to having lived through the transition period. The question was raised amongst the panellists as to whether the pandemic will increase or decrease economic trust between partner nations. We closed our discussion with the question of whether the economic transition of formerly communist Eastern European countries truly over, and with a key point from Asta Ranonyte: “This pandemic is an opportunity. In the transition period, we also faced issues of lack of trust and transparency and worries of the future of our society. Now we are facing similar worries, and we can take this as an opportunity to create new ways to evaluate our societies when it comes to our key issues, such as digitalisation.”

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The Transformation of the Public Space

Through the Lens of Transition, “The Transformation of the Public Space” was our third online event to take place in our new webinar format on the 12th of June. The speakers at this event were: Andrei Zavadski, researcher and communications scientist; Zhenya Kulyeba,  urban activist, NGO “Misto Sad / Garden City”; and Gruia Badescu, urbanist, Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellow at the University of Konstanz. Our aim was to discuss the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic changes our perception of public space, and particularly how the state of public space affects democracy and the ability to demonstrate one’s political views openly and freely.

We began our discussion with each panellist presenting their experience with the transformation of a public space in a city they know well, with our first speaker Gruia discussing first the commercialisation of essential spaces in Bucharest, even of places that have important memory and politicisation attached to them. Andrei went on to discuss the significance of statues and their locations in both his native town in Belarus and his later home in Moscow, and Zhenya continued with her experience working with her organisation to transform public space in Kiev for the benefit of the public and to unite them in communities in places of history and memory that could otherwise become commercialised.

These initiatives to encourage the public to take part in the care of public space and therefore take responsibility for their public spaces were then discussed. We also touched on the concept of public and private life and whether its change from Soviet times to now has an effect on people’s incentive. This led into a discussion on whether this gap between public and private is experiencing a resurgence due to people’s fears of the public space in times of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how this may bleed into our perception of virtual spaces as substitutes. We ended with Andrei noting that the fear of the public space diminishes when it comes to fundamentally important issues, such as recent protests for the Black Lives Matter movement all over the world, “people all over the country are going out into these streets to fight for their rights… for reclaiming your rights and your dignity, the public space is crucial.”

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Education, Interrupted

On the 25th June we hosted our fourth online event, “Through the Lens of Transition, “Education, Interrupted,” with three speakers: Alicja Pacewicz, a Polish economist, social and educational activist and co-founder of the Center for Citizenship Education with Class Foundation, and an expert of the Polish Ministry of National Education and the Central Examination Board; Caroline Hornstein-Tomić, a Research Advisor at the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar in Croatia, specialising in high-skilled and return migration and related policies, identity politics, post-socialist transformation and state building processes, and also co-founder and Chair of the Management Board of the Zagreb based foundation Wissen am Werk / Znanje na djelu; and Veronika Ludwig, formerly teacher of German as a foreign and technical language at Jiangsu Teachers University of Technology Changzhou, China, as well as a teacher in Integration Courses, and since 2011 a high-school teacher at the Robert-Jungk-Oberschule in Berlin. We looked to discuss the long-term consequences of educational gaps created in transitional times and what teachers and practitioners of education need in order to guide their students through them.

We opened our seminar with discussion of personal stories of education in the transitional period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with Alicja relating her experience of children’s confusion and anger at the change around them in society and how to help them deal with these feelings in a peaceful way during a time of martial law. Caroline then continued with her experience of Germany’s relationship with its migration background during the transitional period ultimately influencing her future educational career. Viktoria followed this with her experience of her teacher giving her class “Lord of the Flies” during this time in order to help them understand how societal change happens in groups.  

The discussion then moved onto obstacles surrounding the ways in which education changes during unprecedented times, one of the main themes of which being the lack of trust in favour of higher control, which often has presented issues in the face of reforming times when “obedience” is prioritised. Particularly, as Caroline noted, this comes into play when wishing to “encourage debate, discussion and controversy… diving into these issues and encouraging students to understand that there are different points of view on issues.”

We then moved onto the opportunities for the educational system to reform itself in light of the pandemic and how this may pan out, especially with the “digital push” of education online and the issue of its sustainability when teachers are retiring at an increasing rate. We discussed the need for standardisation of teachers in online settings so that accessibility for pupils remains the same. We closed with comparing the transitions and their effects: that of 30 years ago, and that of today. Although Alicja explained that she found the two transitions “incomparable,” she saw similarities in the way they generated hope: “Hope that this challenge is common for all of us. Maybe we will all see how education has to change. As a paradigm, not just in content or methods. It has to change in a fundamental way. Maybe the coronavirus will give us the push, not just for more digital education, but for a better education, better adapted for the future world that we and our students are going to create.”

Education, Interrupted:

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Media Credibility in Incredible Times

For our final talk in our series “Through the Lens of Transition,” we discussed the topic of “Media Credibility in Incredible Times.” This talk was held on the 24th July, and our three speakers at this event were: Dörte Grimm, freelance author, children’s writer, director of documentaries and short films; Anna Litvinenko, researcher and teacher at the department of Communication Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, and researcher in the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group “Mediating (Semi-)Authoritarianism – The Power of the Internet in the Post-Soviet World”; and Viktoras Bachmetjevas, teacher of philosophy at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas and former advisor to the minister of culture of Lithuania responsible for media policy. We looked to discuss the issues surrounding media responsibility to its audience and the balance between disseminating crucial information and keeping people safe, particularly when these people have lived through times where the media could not be uniformly trusted.

We started our discussion, as is now tradition in our talks, with each of our speakers sharing a personal story relating to their experience of our topic in the transitional period. This time, Dörte opened with a story of a relative of hers from Canada visiting her family in the GDR when she was a young child in 1988, and shattering their perceived illusion that the life they lived in the GDR was free and bountiful.  Following this, Viktoras described his experience of the sudden explosion of different types of media as Lithuania went through perestroika, and his experience witnessing the broadcasts of the January Killings, centred around the TV Tower in Vilnius. Anna finished this segment with her memories of the coup in Moscow in August 1991, with TV stations blanketed with performances of the ballet Swan Lake that had come to mean something was not well with the Soviet government, and how, to this day, she finds trust in the media something difficult due to her experience in the 1990s.

The discussion then moved onto issues of responsibility of the media when it is under various different influences, particularly financial ones. We also discussed the concept of “plural realities” when it comes to media, and how different inputs and perspectives on information affect the consumer, particularly when they become one, such as was the case in the reunification of Germany, and we also touched on the controversy surrounding the concept of “media watchdogs” in Russia.

Lastly, we moved onto questions on how scepticism in the media’s representation and information surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic relates to remnants of scepticism in the media from the pre-transition period, touching on issues of distrust and exclusion in our societies that push them into blaming the media for their exclusion. We also talked about how the realisation that the media can never be fully objective also affects journalists in their role, with Anna describing the precarious situation in Russia so: “they use the same rhetoric as democratic states to take control of the media: the law against fake news. But they are the ones who determine what news is fake.” Our discussion closed with methods on how to cope with “over-information” and how to systematically and critically approach it in our current climate.

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