I had meant for my first post to deal with the BBC’s Panorama investigation – if a month-long research trip which draws no conclusions other than ‘Polish and Ukrainian football both have problems with racism’ merits that title – but felt compelled to turn it over for a little longer lest I came across as contrarian. With the benefit of an extra day’s consideration, I still feel that the programme was flawed on almost every level, and conveyed far more about the shortcomings of the contemporary TV documentary than about the issue it purported to address. Moreover, it emblematised lazy thinking about Central and Eastern Europe: dogged by its unwillingness to supply a political or historical context for the behaviour it (rightly) condemned, it managed to ignore the fact that the racist and anti-semitic convulsions it represented are the perverse outcomes of the factors that mean the Euros are being held in Poland and Ukraine in the first place.
First of all, though, something has to be said about the style of the documentary. In a lineage of televisual treatments of football disorder which goes back at least to Donal MacIntyre’s strangely priapic infiltration of the Chelsea Headhunters, Chris Rogers’ film was edited and soundtracked in a manner which virtually demanded vicarious participation in the adrenalised spectacle of hooliganism. Long panning shots of choreographed Nazi saluting and jump cuts between various clips of drunken paggering were interspersed with ‘brave’ interviews with self-confessed race warriors: make no mistake, the audience were told, we got right in the thick of it. Oddly, this documentary vocabulary is almost identical to the one employed in the much-maligned Danny Dyer’s The Real Football Factories. The difference, I think, is that Dyer – a long-time straw man for advocates of ‘intelligent’ media in Britain – almost always attempts to provide some form of social or historical rationale for violence, something Rogers didn’t find time to fit into his schedule of going to football matches and looking shocked.
A second criticism, which moves firmly in the direction of my real gripe with the programme, centres on the its lumping together of Poland and Ukraine into a homogeneous Ryanair Ruritania. Hey, there’s a tram! There’s some decaying brutalist architecture! The policemen wear funny hats! Although a certain ideational blurring of national characteristics is inevitable when countries co-host tournaments (Switzerland and Austria were transformed into a United States of Heidi in 2008; 2000’s general iconography was of beer, chips and featureless landscape) the differences are, in this case, hugely important. Poland is a Central European country in which the Catholic Church continues to play a fundamental ideological role: geopolitically, it tends to lean westwards or towards nations with a comparable economic and historical profile such as Hungary. Ukraine is Orthodox, much poorer than Poland, and far more ethnically heterogenous, with a significant Russian population hinting at its long history of governance by its eastern neighbour. At this point, one might wish to point out the to makers of the documentary that the temperature and character of nationalism varies according to particular cultural determinants.
However, one of the primary determinants in both countries, and in fact in nearly all of the nations which once constituted the Warsaw Pact, is the legacy of an antagonism between state-endorsed communism and the (western-sponsored) drive for the recognition of national singularities. The pro-democracy movements of the 1970s and 1980s were often propelled by ideological liberals, some of whom fitted the western media’s agenda of generic humanism (many, of course, had to conceal socialistic leanings in order to appeal). However, popular support was often generated through the stirring up of chauvinistic resentment: communism became linked in a schematic sense to Russia, and Russians were cast as the inevitable enemies of the patria. The Party and its functionaries became simplified as nationalists were encouraged to think of themselves as constituting a noble opposition.
The end of communist rule throughout Eastern and Central Europe left reservoirs of nationalistic feeling with nowhere in particular to go. ‘Independence from Moscow’ had largely been achieved, yet the rush of rebellion proved addictive. Having been legitimised as romantic outlaws by the democrats who were taking governmental positions in the wake of elections, nationalists began to locate new arenas in which to express what, ultimately, was a combination of unadulterated anti-authoritarianism and narcissism. Football was an obvious sponge for this machismo, and the new governments – many of whom found it expedient to play down their links to the political right – were ideal in a nationalist imagination seeking new agencies to disobey.
Racism is driven by a very peculiar motor in the countries discussed by Panorama. While the groups which espouse it undoubtedly pick up members by providing extremist ‘solutions’ to socio-economic problems, it doesn’t react as – say – the BNP or the Front National do to the perceived threat of large-scale immigration. There isn’t any large-scale immigration, in fact. What Rogers unanalytically portrayed was a more general hostility to government which turns (often with horrific results) on minorities because liberal politics are seen, surreally, as the new heels which grind down ‘real Poles’ or ‘real Ukrainians’. In many respects, the nationalist groups are the monsters of pro-democracy Frankensteins.
The hype around the Polish-Ukrainian tournament has tended to disregard this. Euro 2012 is, in a manner which is admittedly rather subtle, being painted as a triumph of westernisation. The stadiums in Poland and Ukraine are no longer the imposing constructivist edifices, all angular concrete and blazing floodlights, in which ‘crack Eastern European outfits’ used to outwit Melchester Rovers on their European Cup awaydays. Instead, they’ve largely been built or remodelled to match the expectations one has of a modern British or French stadium, namely bright colour – the chromography of choice and diversity – and gentle curves embodying late capitalist flexibility and openness. On the whole, the tournament is a slightly belated welcoming of Eastern and Central Europe into the fold of core EU values. It’s unacknowledged that the flip side of the establishment of those values is the racism and xenophobic violence Panorama picked up on last week.
Posted by Joe Kennedy