Las Ramblas in November (Barcelona)

Anybody who in their youth has read George Orwell’s book on the Spanish Civil war in Catalonia is likely to think of him when visiting Barcelona. Not that there is anything that reminds a visitor in November 2007 of the Spain in 1937 that Orwell evokes. His city was one in which armed guards roamed in the streets, in which bread was scarce, and in which people were arrested at random. An anarchist uprising had been defeated in 1937 and Stalinism was rearing its ugly head behind the Republican front-lines of the Spanish civil war: a dark moment in an even darker decade. As Orwell put it:

“It is not easy to convey the nightmare atmosphere of that time – the peculiar uneasiness produced by rumours that were always changing, by censored newspapers, and the constant presence of armed men. It is not easy to convey it because, at the moment, the thing essential to such an atmosphere does not exist in England. … the notion of ‘liquidating’ or ‘eliminating’ everyone who happens to disagree with you does not yet seem natural. It seemed only to natural in Barcelona.”

In fact, one can still walk down the tree-lined ramblas boulevard (today packed with tourists) to the Cafe de l’Opera which Orwell describes. One can also go in search of bullet holes in the walls in some hidden courtyards in the old town that (I was told) go back to the Spanish civil war.

When I worked here as a guide for Austrian tourists in the early 1990s I would present this beautiful city as the stage for a succession of bitter struggles throughout history, an epic story of its rise, fall, rise and fall (again) leading up to the 1930s. There are the monuments of the great medieval merchant city, centre of a Mediterranean Empire; the drama of Barcelona loosing its preeminence and prosperity at the beginning of the modern era (the destruction of its Jewish community being one of the reasons); repeated defeats in its struggles against the centralising Spanish crown; the 19th century rise of a new industrial power-house and the flourishing of Catalan modernity (the Barcelona modernista described by Cristina and Eduardo Mendoza); and then the bitter struggles, from anarchist terrorism to the confrontations in the Spanish civil war, ending in the deafening silence of another dictatorship. It is a riveting tale, worthy of the great epics. It also includes the most important element of a good Hollywood movie: a happy ending, sometime between the fall of Franco’s regime and the Olympic games in Barcelona in 1992.

For my tourists the dark shadows of Barcelona’s past were, of course, safely remote: even the most tragic history was ultimately info-tainment. Certainly gruesome stories of the Spanish civil war were no obstacle to feel good at the end of the day, to retire to a 4-star hotel and enjoy a good Spanish, sorry, Catalan dinner. Groups like the ones I would lead through Barcelona (at least 5 times in the early 90s) had themselves become part of a new Barcelona story: the reinvention of the city as a place of European cool and elegance, a truly post-modern place in which historical narratives were used to attract tourists.

Of course, there were also those who regarded the city’s rising popularity with foreigners as suspicious. Post-modern Barcelona is the “prototype of a factory-town”, one local anthropologist complained: too perfect to reflect any real life, too superficial, in a way dishonest, hiding its true self. Attracting 4.5 million tourists in 2005, Manuel Delgado writes, has come at the price of “destroying all spontaneity, all rebelliousness, no disobedience goes without punishment.” There is even a book to celebrate an alternative “city of rebellions”, la Barcelona rebelde. The book tells a story of uprisings and protests and celebrates the revolutionary spirit of the place, recalling times when the strength of local anarchism had given Barcelona the name rosa de foc (rose of fire), referring to the large number of arson attacks. One of the most striking quotes in that book refers to the anarchist uprising of 1937, which plays such a prominent role in Orwell’s book. It is presented as the highlight in a long tradition of revolts: “perhaps Barcelona has not been in the hands of its citizens ever since that 7 March 1937” (the day the anarchist uprising was repressed).

1937 as the “good old times”? A narrative where everything has gone downhill since the 1930s and anarchism is a political philosophy worthy of admiration? Reading this made me realize how little I really knew about the Spanish debate. But I knew enough about Barcelona’s history to be skeptical: my walking tour on the ramblas always included an account of the anarchist who had thrown two bombs in the Liceu opera house in 1893, killing 22 people. In 1909 eighty churches, monasteries and convents were burned in one week when protests against a call-up of troops to go to war in North Africa got out of hand. How could anybody innocently celebrate a “culture of protest” in the early 20th century?

I also remember another disturbing experience. On one of my last trips as a tour guide I slipped out of the hotel one evening to watch a movie by Ken Loach (Land and Freedom) about the Spanish civil war. At one moment some people in the audience broke out into loud applause. The trigger for their joy was a scene where some unarmed Franco-supporters and clergy were shot. Some in the audience cheered the execution. Stepping out of the cinema I found myself again among the bars and pleasures of the beautiful Gracia quarter, disturbed and confused.

More than a decade has passed since then. What will the admires of Barcelona rebelde make of the fact that it is no longer George Orwell who most inspires young visitors from abroad but Xavier, a 25 year old French economy student looking for pleasure and distraction; not Homage to Calalonia but Xavier’s adventures in auberge espanole? Xavier and his film do not need an introduction, I assume? Judging by the huge number of foreign students I see in the streets and bars on this mild November day there is no shortage of young Europeans who seek to follow in his footsteps: unlike Orwell, they are not drawn by an ideological battle against evil. Instead they search for fun, friendship and amorous adventures in a Mediterranean setting.

I liked auberge espanole, but then I quite like happy endings. Those with a more tragic bent of mind will find the multi-national fraternity found there infinitely less worthy of interest than the multi-national army of fighters against fascism celebrated by Ken Loach. I do wonder, however, whether Orwell would not have been the first to welcome, rather than mourn, the recent transformation of Barcelona: the city which he left as a fugitive turning into a centre of innocent (and international) hedonism. Is this not another European miracle worthy of celebration? A city that has set aside its tragic history, turning it into a fairy tale of Barcelona modernista, Gaudi and Miro, Gothic churches and the FC Barcelona? Today websites discussing ‘”what is cool in Europe” no longer mention anarchism but coffee:

“barcelona is also fabulous, and the rambla is not really too dangerous – there’s just scammers. keep your wits about and you’ll have a great time. take the stairs in sagrada familia cathedral rather than the elevator, your legs will hurt but it’s worth it – like climbing a giant seashell with amazing views. the textile museum has a lovely cafe. the cafe del’opera bar is great for cava and people-watching. oh, and – spanish coffee is like crack. uno mas caffe con leche y sucre, por favor!”

It is a city – in a country – marked by material progress, a booming economy, a vigorous democracy, even a European model in terms of gender relations (as measured by the WEF’s gender gap index). If the price for all this is consumerism and some superficiality, so be it. A country, where even crazy people escaping from the mental asylum – Antonio Banderas kidnapping Victoria Abril in Tie me up! Tie me Down! – have a soft spot and a good heart is a civilised place indeed.

But the cheering in the cinema and the celebration of anarchism still made me wonder to what extent I understood what was going on. Had Spain really turned into the grand island of Circe so attractively depicted in auberge espanole? On one of my trips I had seen a book by Giles Remlett “The Ghosts of Spain – Travels through Spain and its silent past” which promised to offer some answers. I bought it to read it during an upcoming trip to Barcelona. An invitation in November 2007 to give a presentation on the Balkans provided the opportunity.

Ghosts of Spain

Cidob is one of the leading think-tanks in Spain, wonderfully located in an old town house in the centre of the city. It is close to the museum of modern art, surrounded by small boutique shops and cafes. My presentation is in the morning, the audience is a group of Catalan academics, journalists, business people. My host is the president of Cidob and former Spanish minister of defence, deputy prime minister and previous mayor of Barcelona, Narcis Serra. The topic is the future of the Balkans: Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, and the fact that in the Balkans the transformation and Europeanisation that Spain has gone through remains far from completed.

I report on new research from Serbia and Bosnia; on the struggles to overcome the legacies of the past in these places; on the achievements of the people of Ahmici (the scene of a gruesome massacre in Central Bosnia in 1993) and on the risk that some brave individuals in Serbia are still running today as they try to confront the legacies of the murderous 90s.

As always there are some in the audience who have difficulty to image the Balkans as part of modern Europe, who believe that while the rest of Europe is able to banish its ghosts this very same feat is beyond the Balkans, which are somehow condemned to be part of a different world for ever. Others in the audience are well informed. Some have even worked in the region in the 1990s (there was a lot of solidarity in Barcelona for war-time Sarajevo, a fellow Olympic city, shelled when Barcelona held its games in 1992). Narcis Serra, of course, knows both the Balkans and the difficulties of transition, having first reformed civil-military relations in Spain and then advised a number of other governments on this matter, including Boris Tadic, when the latter was minister of defense in Belgrade.

Following the presentation I retreat to a cafe near Plaza Catalunya and open my book, “The Ghosts of Spain”. It is a strange experience: sitting in this cosmopolitan, joyful city on a sunny autumn day, having defended the Europeaness of the Balkans, delving into the secrets of Spain, and suddenly discovering unexpected connections between recent events in the Balkans and here.

Giles Tremlett, the author of this extremely well written book, sets out to describe what he calls the surprising Spanish “relationship with silence”: the pacto del olvido (the pact of forgetting) that has marked Spain’s transition from Franco’s authoritarianism to today’s democracy in the 1970s and since, as well as its (very recent) unraveling. Tremlett describes how in 2000 a Spanish journalist went to the village of his grandfather in Leon to find the roadside grave where his grandfather, a civilian shot by a death squad of France supporters, had been burried:

“DNA tests, carried out by Spanish forensic scientists with experience in digging up much more recent mass graves in Chile or Kosovo, finally enabled him to identify his grandfather …. Suddenly, it turned out, there were graves all over the place. Spain was sitting on what campaigners claimed were tens of thousands of such corpses.”

This experience triggered Tremlett interest:

“As history erupted from under the ground, I decided to turn my back on Spain’s glittering, entertaining and enticing surface. I wanted to undertake what one Italian writer called ‘that difficult voyage, to travel through time and space across the country.'”

In fact, until 2000 a pact of silence (whose legal expression was the Amnesty Law of 1977) concerning the civil war and the crimes immediately following it by the victors was largely respected. Even very recently, when the Spanish parliament in 2002 approved a motion that agreed that local authorities could, if they wanted, set aside funds for exhuming bodies, it also told them to avoid “reopening old wounds or stirring up the rescoldo, the embers, of civil confrontation.” As Tremlett notes:

“That a European parliament should, at the turn of the twenty-first century, be passing motions about a war that finished sixty-three years before may seem surprising. That it should include in one of those motions a stern warning about reviving the embers of that confrontation shows that the Civil war still had the power to provoke fear.”

Tremlett points out that there are “still thousands of bodies in unmarked graves. The highest estimates talk of 30,000 unidentified corpses. Around 300 have now been recovered.” And he quotes the Spanish author Isaias Lafuente:

“Can a democratic country allow thousands of citizens murdered like animals by a dictatorial regime to remain burried in its roadside ditches? Can it tolerate this while a man who allowed and encouraged the mass killings rests under the altar of a Christian basilica? The answer is so obvious that it is almost an offence to have to ask the question.”

Tremlett concludes that the Spanish Transicion “was a success because Spaniards made a supreme effort to find consensus.” At the same time the transition was still very violent, with more than a hundred demonstrators killed by the police in its first five years and many more killed by ETA and other left-wing terrorist groups.

As I set aside the book and look around at the affluent young crowd in this Barcelona cafe on this November day in 2007 my thoughts wander back to the Balkans. Why is so hard for outsiders to show respect for the achievements of people there? Have we forgotten how hard the road to a democratic consensus, to stability and prosperity, was in our own countries?

In fact, it did not take Bosnians decades to answer the question posed by Lafuente: a sign of European maturity that deserves some recognition. And if we expect Serbs (I believe rightly) to confront the crimes of their recent past, to openly address atrocities committed in their name in neighbouring states and in Kosovo and to hand over those responsible for mass killings: should we not at least be more aware of the enormity of this challenge under conditions of physical isolation, economic turmoil and social crisis? The outside world reprimands Kosovars (I believe rightly) for not setting aside all feelings of hatred against former oppressors, for not turning a page and moving on. However, why are we not more prepared to accord respect for those efforts that are made in this direction?

Tremlett notes that “Spain will probably not be fully ready to confront its most bloody episode until all those involved are dead.” The people of the Balkans do not have this choice: they try to build new forms of consensus, stable democracies and prosperous economies while at the same time confronting the ghosts of their pasts. In the long run I believe that this could well be to their advantage: but in the short term it certainly requires a modicum of understanding – if not empathy – by outsiders for the challenges faced by the people of the region.

Or is there another way to read the Spanish experience? Certainly if you are interested in how countries – in the Balkans, Turkey, elsewhere in Europe – deal with their past I highly recommend The Ghosts of Spain. And do let me know, once you have read it, what, if any, the lessons of Spain in your view might be for the countries of the Balkans.

Looking like a swan (Budapest)

People like to talk about their own success, although it is not polite to do so too often, is never a good way to make friends and is often bad manners. Indeed, as the style book of the Economist notes: “Do not be too pleased with yourself”: you are more likely to bore or irritate rather than to impress.

It is much better, then, to be invited to talk about the success of an institution one identifies with: then if one bores or irritates it is not entirely one’s fault. It was a pleasant assignment to travel from Vienna to Budapest in mid December at the invitation of the Central European University to give a presentation about ESI. It seemed like a good idea to go afterwards to some excellent Hungarian restaurant and answer questions from a student who is writing her thesis on ESI. I also owe Central European University a debt: it is thanks to CEU that I am an Open Society Fellow, travel around the world giving presentations for 12 months and maintain this blog. If you read this, and derive any pleasure from it, it is due to CEU.

The sad reality is, however, sometimes different from what one expects. I have rarely enjoyed any of my presentations less than the one I gave in Budapest. This had nothing to do with the hospitality of the CEU, which was excellent (my colleague Kristof and myself were picked up at the train station, the hotel was wonderful), or with the audience, which asked very good questions, or indeed with the city, Budapest, which appears to be getting prettier (and richer) every time I come to visit.

It had to do with my head, where a drum was beating without interruption from the moment we arrived in Keleti station, getting louder as I got up to speak, reaching a crescendo at the moment when it came to questions. By the time one student came up to me after the talk to ask something about Turkey (whether Kayseri was typical or an exception) I could hardly stand any more and was afraid of fainting. I found it hard even to think straight and struggled to answer. The most stressful two months of the year (indeed, it seemed at times, of my whole ESI experience) had preceeded this talk, and a week without much sleep was beginning to take its toll as well. In the end, dinner (without alcohol) became bearable due to a lot of aspirin. What a pity, I thought afterwards.

The irony was that – I assume – few people noticed the state I was in, and that the one reaction I most remember was from the woman writing about ESI: she told me that “it all seems too easy”. Standing there, my head bursting with headache, the first grey hair a legacy of a few stressful months, I almost laughed when I heared this. I could see her point: seen from the outside the story we were telling did appear too easy. But this, I told her, was exactly the point of any success.

Let me digress a little. There is a wonderful line in one of the best films I ever saw about successful story-telling: The Making of Nemo (yes, that Nemo, the clown fish): “it takes a lot of effort to make something look effortless”. In the film this line refers to efforts by a large team of creative people at Pixar to portray fishes moving around, to capture different states of light under water, and to communicate deep emotions, such as the desperation of Dori, the friend of Nemo’s father, and her recurrent amnesia. But it might just as well refer to any ESI product: our reports, our discussion papers, now our documentaries. Sometimes it even refers to public presentations (I rarely sleep much before giving one, however often I do it).

To use another image: I once read somewhere that when a swan swims it is actually a major effort for this animal to move, and that underneath the surface there is a huge invisible exertion, hectic activity by its small feet. This obviously contrasts with what one sees: a silent, proud and unphased bird, the very symbol of elegance. I know nothing about swans, and whether this is true for them, but this picture stuck with me as a metaphor: to look like a swan is not to reveal the enormous effort it takes for something to, well, appear effortless. This is of course a normal feature of much human activity. Let me explain what looking like a swan might mean for a think tank like ESI.

The story we told our audience in Budapest was a deceptively simple one: it is the story seen from the outside. A group of friends sits in Sarajevo in 1999 and discusses the political situation in Bosnia. It then decides to create a virtual organisation and begins to write reports. The group does not have money, it is not even an “institution” in any formal sense for another year. Then the first reports quickly attract attention. The Financial Times, the Economist, Die Welt, write about ESI as a “think tank changing thinking on the Balkans”. One year after the group decided to come into existence it has a staff of four, a bit of funding, and works in Montenegro as well. That same year it receives a call from the NSC (National Security Council) in the White House and is asked to brief Leon Furth, vice-president Al Gore’s National Security Advisor, about developments in Montenegro. Other governments across Europe invite ESI to provide input to their internal policy debates: Sweden, Germany, they UK, Greece. Five years later ESI has a staff of more than 10, and works across the whole Balkans, trying to influence debates on Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and EU policy towards the region.

This early part of the story is told in Budapest by Kristof, who was the very first ESI researcher setting up a field office in 2000 in Podgorica. I tell part II, the story of ESI in Turkey. Two foreigners arrive there in the summer of 2004. We look for some young Turks to join us. We set out to introduce our plans to Turkish institutions. We try to raise funding for research in Turkey. Wherever we turn we notice polite skepticism. Why would 2 foreigners, who do not even speak the language, and three young Turkish analyst, who are unknown in Turkey, possibly have any impact on the European debate on this large and complex country? This is a country of more than 70 million people, Istanbul alone has 20 universities, there are a huge number of media and experts and public intellectuals: why would anybody even notice ESI here? One potential donor we meet is particularly honest about this. After we explain what we intend to do he says: “why should we pay for your education?” The “education” was our field research in Central Anatolia that led to our very first report.

In the end, however, this story has a happy ending. We publish our first report, Islamic Calvinists, in 2005. It explodes on the Turkish media-scene like a fire-work: there are more than twenty op-eds about it in Hurriyet, one of the most read dailies, alone, more than a hundred articles in quality media across Europe and the US. There are discussions of the report on 10 different occasions on Turkish TV. The BBC, PBS from the US, German ARD and other TV stations go to Kayseri and report on Islamic Calvinists. The foreign minister (and now president) declares that “I am an Islamic Calvinist.”

While this debate continues, and we are invited from across the world to speak about our Turkey research (even Chinese media want an interview about Kayseri), we publish a second report: Sex and Power in Turkey. It had taken a few months for the debate on Islamic Calvinists to take off. The reaction to Sex and Power is even more immediate. It is the main topic in an article in the Economist in the week before the 2007 elections. It is discussed favourably in Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the BBC and other media across Europe and the US. Leading Turkish commentators (Alpay, Akyol, Ozel) write about it. We notice a record number of visits to our website: more than 100,000 people download the report in four months. We also notice the interest in other ways, as we receive a large number of invitations to speak about gender and Turkey: in Berlin and Vienna, Baku and Tbilisi, at Yale, in New York and at the Wilson centre in DC. In December 2007 Hurriyet writes another long article about Sex and Power, and in January a long interview about it will be broadcast on CNN Turk: it looks likely that this debate too will continue for a while. This, in a nutshell, is the 3-year story of ESI in Turkey: pick a country, create a small team of young researchers, chose a topic, write a report, send it out, wait for reactions. Any questions?

“I do not believe you, it cannot be so easy” was the reaction of the student who writes about ESI. She is right, of course. As we walk to dinner through wintry Budapest, and as she looks for the “true story” of ESI and our impact, I realise, however, that she might be looking for the “true story” in the wrong place.

Her questions focus on how we disseminate our reports. How do we get people, especially influential people, to read them? What are our networks? As I try to answer, I realise that this is like looking into the telescope from the wrong end. One person at the CEU had asked about our “legitimacy” making public policy recommendations: what gives us the right to recommend policy? It is a good question, but our answer was – I hope – convincing too: it is the simplest thing in the world to ignore us! We offer no money and no votes, there is no reward other than the information contained in the report itself. It is the easiest thing in the world not to read our reports, and if more people decide this we might as well not exist. So the real question is: why do people want to read them?

People do not read ESI reports because they know us. People know ESI because they read our reports. Of course dissemination is easier once one is known, has a website and a newsletter. However, in 1999 nobody knew me, or Kristof, or any other ESI analyst in any European foreign ministry or news room. Certainly nobody in Turkey knew us in 2004 or would have expected us to have anything worthwile or interesting to say. It is not the creation of networks, but the production of reports, which holds the secret of any impact. Dissemination is like eating desert: producing a gripping analysis (or documentary) is like preparing, cooking and digesting the whole rest of a 6 course meal. And it is only because people expect a certain type of menu that they return to this particular restaurant and might even recommend it.

But what is the secret of production? I tell the questioning student (Anna) that in our case it is a very simple principle, adopted in summer 1999, to which we have stuck until today: unless we are convinced that a report is truly excellent, and that we would still like to read it one year later without embarassment, we will not send it out. As a result, at least three people (usually many more) in ESI read every report in great detail. And as a result of this, we are often incredibly slow.

This sounds simple, again, but it has a lot of real life consequences. It explains 90 percent of all negative stress inside ESI. October and November 2007 were terribly stressful and sleepless months because of pressures on us that had all to do with production while upholding this principle.

It means, for instance, that when we receive funding from a donor and are committed to produce a report by a deadline and do not succeed in getting a report to be of the quality we believe is needed, we will not send it out. This then requires an effort of diplomacy, to explain, present excuses, give reasons, win a few more weeks, sometimes months, and in the worse (thankfully very rare) case even to risk a quarrel. What it must never mean is to break our principle and send out a semi-finished product early! In the worst case we even return money (we have done so).

This principle also means that when we put our logo on a product, we must be able to identify with it fully. Now take the case of an ambitious film project, that costs more than 1.2 million Euro, involving one production company, two large TV stations, five directors, another script writer, all working under huge time constraints to produce 10 films that are to be “based on ESI research.” In this real life example from 2007 there is a large number of creative and ambitious people who need to be convinced of our own ideas of quality (in terms of content). This requires intense interaction, and can sometimes lead to tensions and arguments. For everybody in this constellation time is money: for us this is also true, but, if need be, we will simply work longer to ensure we are content with the final output. This is at the heart of our institutional identity.

This core principle also means that what we write often (usually) takes more effort (and time) than we had planned or budgeted for at first. For a consultancy company, where time is literally money, this cannot be its working assumption: it must submit as good a product as possible, but within the time allowed (and paid for). For us, however, meeting our internal standards often requires researching, writing and editing until we are done. As a result, we often fall behind. We use up rare core funding quickly. We face recurrent cash flow problems (about once a year). We then have three (or more) things to finish at the same time, requiring us to work long nights for weeks on end, until that drum in our heads calls upon us to slow down. There were many evenings in November when I would see five ESI analysts on skype working at 11 pm, not once, but every night in the week and on the weekend.

If there is a “secret” to our impact on public debates it lies here, and only here: in our methodology of producing reports and the commitment by a team to work as required. Nobody unwilling to work like this will enjoy being part of our team for long. This methodology has also developed for many years now. In the process we created our own working vocabulary and habits, something we notice every time there is a new staff member. In fact, none of this is a business secret: it can be observed, described and (perhaps) also taught. This is what we try with our capacity building efforts. But it cannot be taught in the abstract, just as a team sport can only be taught by actually playing it. It also requires training: you can read about how to run a marathon as much as you like, in the end you need to put on your running shoes.

It also never gets easier: as we say internally, to get a report read by elites (decision and opinion makers) in any country is like playing football in the Champions League, not for pleasure in the gym: it does not matter what games you won in the past, if you play bad once or twice today you get relegated. And since it is a team sport, it requires a lot of attention to be paid to the whole dynamics of what creates winning teams, again and again. As Katzenbach and Smith describe high-performance teams in their classic (The Wisdom of Teams): “extreme commitment to one another as well as to their team’s purpose and performance, out of which blossoms an incredible ethic of work and fun, complementary and interchangeable skills, shared leadership and dramatic results.” And as they also note: “high performance teams are extremely rare”.

In the end, I am happy I came to Budapest. The questions by Anna, the student writing about ESI, remain in my head. I wonder whether it might not be worthwhile to try to explain in more detail how we actually work in practice: the inside story of a European think-tank. It might be impolite to talk too much about ourselves, but in this case there might even be an interest in our story? Perhaps there are other students fascinated by the idea of think-tanking, interested in this example of an interaction between ideas and policies; students who write papers and reports and wonder what it is that increases the impact of ideas.

Here, then, is my little plan for the new year (and this blog): to tell the inside story of a successful small think tank, in installments. To describe how we actually work, from chosing a topic to editing the final version and presenting it to the wider world. This breaks the rule in the Style guide referred to at the beginning of this entry. But then again: the Economist felt confident enough to sell its style guide to the rest of the world.

I have only one request for you, dear reader, in return. If you are interested in this question, please do let me know, and spare a moment to share your thoughts and questions. I do not know who reads this blog. This creates a funny sense of speaking from a chair on a small stage looking into a dark room. This would make it easier for me to respond to precise questions.

I thought about this question more on my way back from Budapest the next morning, sketching out this and other entries for this Observer. By now I looked forward to Christmas. Until the new year then, and the first installment of Inside a think-tank. Otherwise, may your life in 2008 be like that of a swan!

Jane Jacobs and the mystique of cities

Chain Bridge in Budapest

Any great city is a magic place, and the stories of great cities are the most concentrated version of the story of humanity. One should perhaps introduce a new subject at high schools across Europe, “Urban life – past present and future”, focused in particular on the history and functioning of European cities. Certainly, investigating how cities work in South East Europe today – from Timisoara in Romania to Gyumri in Armenia, from Tirana to Diyarbakir – will be at the heart of ESI research in 2008 as well.

For a largely urban European society, a one year course on urban life could be the liberal arts course par excellence: a combination of politics, economics, sociology, art and religion. For future researchers eager to work in think tanks and contribute to public debates through empirical research, it would be the perfect school as well. Maps, slide shows, economic and demographic tables, but also poems and novels would be the teaching aids. Students would explore the rythm of cities prospering and decaying in the past. They would study the feedback mechanisms between different economic sectors today. They would explore governance in an urban context through the ages. Then they would visit a three-dimensional website, offering virtual walks through the chosen cities. There would be hyper-links as one would (virtually) walk through these cities as part of one’s homework. These would point to background information explaining urban growth and decline. They would thus link the exploring student to all the sciences and arts that will help him make sense of a particular urban story, and see the wider meaning in the narrative of a specific town. One could probably encourage the publishers of guide-books and the cities themselves to support its creation.

(Dear reader, if you have an idea and the energy to take this concept forward, I would be delighted to explore this with you: just let me know).

The first step in the design of such a course would be to select some cities; the second would be to identify some excellent stories of cities that already exist; and the third would be to identify some of the essential background reading. Rome, Istanbul, Paris and Berlin would certainly be included: my own list would also include Barcelona (there is the rich city history by Robert Hughes), Cordoba (and the account of medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal), Sarajevo (and the excellent story by Robert Donia), and Thessaloniki, with Mark Mazower as guide to its past.

Notre Dame in Paris

Excerpts from Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations would certainly deserve to be included in such a course’s reading list. I do not know how widely read her little book still is today. However, while some of her concepts might not have convinced other social scientists, her overall approach – setting aside general macroeconomic theory in favor of an investigation of the forces at work in creative cities – remains both thought-provoking and inspiring. It has certainly influenced the work of ESI, as can be readily seen from our reports: beginning with our study of the small Bosnian town of Kalesija; our study of the West Macedonian city of Kicevo; our research on urban development in Pristina; our research on Kumanovo in Macedonia; and most recently our thorough study of economic innovation and development in the Central Anatolian city of Kayseri.

Some of Jane Jacobs’ concepts – such as the notion of “passive regions”, brilliantly evoked in the examples she cites, from the French village of Bardou to the Japanese village of Shinohata or Pickens County, Georgia (US) – have become part of the intellectual background to ESI reports. Her description of “regions workers abandon” (she points to Wales and Napizaro in central Mexico) – has inspired some of our research in the rural Balkans.

Jacobs encourages her readers to look for and understand concrete success stories. Citing the example of Boston after World War II she notes that genuine development

“depends on fostering creativity in whatever forms it happens to appear in a given city at a given time. It is impossible to know in advance what may turn up, except that – if it is to prove important – it is apt to be unexpected”

Jacobs calls successful development a “process of open-ended drift”, the opposite of “placing faith in the ready-made”. If this sounds slightly mystical then this is because it probably is. What saves her writing from being esoteric, however, are her illustrations. Let me just refer to one she likes a lot: the production of bicycles. In an early part of her book she describes the emergence of import-substituting cities in Japan:

“When Tokyo went into the bicycle business, first came repair work cannibalizing imported bicycles, then manufacture of some parts, finally assembly of whole, Tokyo-made bicycles.”

Later in her books she writes about the bicylce again:

“the many improvements in Europe and America that made it a practical vehicle instead of merely an awkward toy or clumsy curiosity consisted of a long, long series of improvisations, each added to imitations of what had already been achieved. Makers and tinkerers [emphasis added, GK], using the means at their command in their own economies at the time, came up with ball bearings, roller bearings, pneumatic tires, chain-and-sprocket rivers, differential gears, the tubular metal frame in place of the solid metal frame, calipher brakes, brake cables, drum brakes, and in sense they even partially reinvented the wheel itself, gaining unprecedented lightness and strength with unprecedented economy of materials from an unprecedented way of spoking the wheel asymmetrically. These improvisations developed for the bicycle turned out to have ramifying uses … “

Kayseri - view from hilton city walls


Now the skeptical reader, perhaps an economist herself, might question to what extent the bicylce can serve to explain any development in a modern economy, where innovation is organised in large research laboratories, technical knowledge is transferred across nations by trans-national enterprises, and most value added is generated in the service sector. But as we (ESI) tried to understand, for instance, the rise of a city like Kayseri, and the story of it turning into the furniture capital of Anatolia, we found a process very similar to the one described by Jacobs. Let me quote this Jacobsian passage in full:

“Today, there are more than 3,500 companies in Kayseri in the furniture business. Of these, some 400 use mass production techniques. On average, 20,000 sofa beds and 8,000 armchairs are being made on any given day. The Association of Furniture Producers in Kayseri estimates that 40,000 people are employed in the furniture and related sectors, making it a motor of the Kayseri economy. To understand where Kayseri has come from, and to assess where it is going, this sector is a useful place to start.

The market for furniture reflects the extraordinary economic and social transformation of Turkey since the 1950s. In the traditional Central Anatolian home, the central piece of furniture for sitting was the sedir, an elevated platform made of piles of mattresses, blankets and carpets on which guests were seated. Families would eat dinner seated on the floor around a low, wooden table, and sleep on mattresses stuffed with raw wool which were rolled up during the day. The blankets and carpets were woven by women at home on hand looms. The sedir was a symbol of rural self-sufficiency.

Between 1950 and 1965, Turkey’s urban population doubled, from five to ten million people. The town of Kayseri grew from 65,488 inhabitants in 1950 to 160,985 in 1970. Urbanisation changed lifestyles dramatically. In the new urban apartments, hand-woven carpets were replaced by machine-made products, mattresses became filled with metal springs rather than wool, and people took to dining on tables and chairs. Only in the town of Kayseri, there were 100,000 new apartments to be furnished by the end of the twentieth century.

In 1956, Kayseri municipality established its first (‘old’) industrial zone, just beyond the city limits, where all craftsmen were required to relocate (partly through fear of fire). This concentration of traditional industries proved a key factor in the city’s transition to industrial capitalism. In the close conditions of the Old Industrial Zone, new ideas and technologies passed quickly from one craftsmen to another, setting the scene for a technological revolution.

In 1959, one of the carpenters began to produce upholstered furniture, originally with dried grass as stuffing, and then later foam rubber. In the early 1960s, another company began to produce metal furniture – spring mattresses, bedsteads, frames for couches – drawing on metalworking skills introduced to Kayseri by state-owned enterprises such as the aircraft factory. New machinery, like staple guns for upholstering, was brought in from outside Kayseri, and before long these were also being produced locally. A number of wholesalers emerged to supply the growing furniture cluster. Close links between artisans and traders ensured the flow of capital and access to markets.

In 1976, a Dutch economist, Leo van Velzen, visited Kayseri to assess the region’s growth potential. Van Velzen counted 1,150 small workshops in the old industrial zone, of which 588 were engaged in woodworking and furniture production. The workshops ranged from 30 to 300 sq. metres in size, usually with no more than three workers and using “no more complicated mechanical aids than hammer, pliers and scissors.” Van Velzen traced the origins of this emerging cluster of furniture producers back to “a group of about 20 carpentry workshops that began operating in the 1950s, producing doors and window frames, and to some 10 wood traders with a broader commercial horizon.” His assessment of Kayseri’s growth potential was, however, guarded. He concluded that “at the moment there is no evidence to suggest that trade capitalism is caught up in a process of change which will yield industrial capitalism.” He quotes a saying which was popular at the time: “If you want to become rich, buy and sell. But if you want to go broke, produce and sell.”

In 1976, in the same year that van Velzen published his study, Mustafa Boydak and his brother went to Europe to visit furniture fairs and buy machinery. There they discovered the potential of industrial furniture production. Mustafa Boydak remembers that upon returning he told other local carpenters that they “needed to move on from the old way of making furniture by hand.” In time, their example – and evident commercial success – was to inspire others.”

Kayseri is far from the only example of “Jacobsian urban development” in recent ESI reports. In fact, my colleague Kristof Bender even came across the Jacobsian bicycle story in Macedonia:

“Sobim is a company belonging to the brothers Branislav and Marjan Angelovski, who began in business in the early 1990s with two clothing boutiques in downtown Kumanovo. One day they were offered five bicycles through a friend for a good price. They sold them quickly through their clothing shops, and ordered another 25. The following season, they ordered an entire container. The bicycle trade expanded rapidly, and by 1996 they abandoned the textile business altogether and focused exclusively on bicycles. In 1997, the brothers began to experiment with importing bicycle components and assembling them in Kumanovo. Soon they had constructed a production hall of 6700 m2 in Karpos, a new small industrial zone on the northern outskirts of Kumanovo. By 2002, Sobim began to replace imported components with its own manufacturing. It now produces bicycle wheels with the help of two sophisticated Taiwanese robots, and operates a production line to paint bicycle frames. Today, Sobim employs 100 workers and produces around 85,000 bicycles annually, most of which are exported to Slovenia, Bosnia and Serbia.”

Piata Unirii (Unity Square) in Timisoara

Next year we hope to contribute further examples, as part of our new economic geography project: the story of the amazing recent industrial development of Timisoara, an account of recent developments in Thessaloniki, some insights into the causes explaining the absence of similar development in the South East Anatolian city of Diyarbakir. In all these places we will look for “makers and tinkerers”, in the footsteps of Jacobs, her little book in our suitcase.

Understanding the Austrian Psyche I

Vienna, early December 2007.

Vienna - Hundertwasser House

Vienna – Hundertwasser House

It is a anecdote hard to forget, told off the record to a group of visitors from the Balkans by one of the most influential journalists in the country. In the previous government the Austrian minister of defence told this journalist that when he was thinking about whether to send Austrian troops abroad on one particular occasion, he first sought the opinion of the editor/owner of Austria’s largest tabloid, the Kronenzeitung. Only then did he turn for advice to his generals. It was one of several occasions during these two December days when our visitors from the Balkans were surprised: is this how Austria, today one of the richest countries in the world, actually works?

This anecdote might of course be embellished (the only person who would know whether this is how decisions on military deployment are commonly made would be the former minister himself), but what is remarkable is the fact of a minister telling such a story to Austrian media representatives without blushing. The explanation offered by journalists we had invited to explain Austria to their Balkan visitors was this: Kronenzeitung is read every day by 3 million Austrians (out of a total population of just over 8 million, children included), which is the highest coverage of any newspaper in the world in any given country, and this gives it extraordinary influence.

Dear reader, before proceeding with an account of this Balkan exploratory visit to Vienna, let me ask you a personal question and try to make a more general point: how many serious books have you read in your whole life about modern Austria? Let me remove “serious” and broaden my question: how many books have you ever read about modern society in the Netherlands, Greece, Finland, Denmark, Portugal? If you belong to the majority of people who would honestly admit that they have not actually read much or anything about any of these proud members of today’s European Union, are you going to do something about this in 2008?

I remember my own shock when I read an excellent book about Switzerland a few years ago (Why Switzerland by Jonathan Steinberg: if there is only one book about Switzerland that you will read, this could be the one). I discovered it by chance perusing the shelves in a bookshop in DC: it was the first book I ever read about this country. The book appropriately starts with the question: “Why should I read about Switzerland, when there are so many other things to read about?”. It then answers this question in the most brilliant way, discussing history, politics, wealth and identity, before it reaches its conclusion, “why Switzerland matters”:

“the dilemma of majority will and minority rights can be overcome by the ingenuity of men. There is nothing startling or very new about these ideas, but it is striking how little they are observed. The Swiss believe that there will always be a political compromise or bit of constitutional machinery that will get round a given difficulty, whether it is the rights of the Jurassiens or conscientious objectors … the Swiss in their lumpish, practical way assert the defectiveness of all government at all times, and they are right to do so.”

The book fascinated me at every step: when it describes how “until recently Swiss Roman Catholics lived in a ghetto”: a Swiss Catholic “might be born in a Catholic hospital, attend Catholic schools from kindergarten to university, read Catholic newspapers and magazines, vote for the Catholic party and take part in Catholic clubs and associations.” When it quotes a Luzerne politician: “For me Switzerland is only of interest as long as the canton of Luzern – this is my fatherland – is in it. If Canton Luzern no longer exists as a free, sovereign member of the Hellenic Confederation, then Switzerland is as irrelevant to me as the lesser or greater Tartary.” The author describes how Swiss federalism in the 1848 constitution was a response to civil war between liberals and “what they must have seen as bigoted, backward Catholic communities”: how the liberals won that war, but then shared the victory: and how the “transformation of religious hatred into religious accommodation owes a great deal to the institutions which 1848 established and, in particular, to two: federalism and semi-direct democracy.” Swiss federalism allowed the Swiss to resolve the religious issue. It embodies their “painful experience of conflict and its resolution.”

I will write about Switzerland, and what this experience might teach the Balkans in particular, on this blog on another occasion. (We have already referred to it in an ESI report on Bosnia in 2004). My point here is a different one: my mother grew up as a stateless refugee child in Switzerland, I grew up in Austria, a neighbouring country, my grandfather comes from a small village in the Austrian mountains very near the Swiss border and I studied European politics in Oxford and Brussels: yet I could get to age 30 without ever reading a single book about one of the most fascinating political experiences in the world. In hindsight, it was this fact that baffled me. And then I realised that it is a rather common condition: very few Europeans – even among the educated who consider keeping up with the course of events a part of their job or identity – know much about the way other European countries actually work. Europeans are blind to their own recent continental experience. And while this does not seem to bother most of us, it also seems awkward to admit it openly.

Two years later, I was baffled again. ESI was undertaking research on the Dutch debate on Turkey. I joined our researcher in the Netherlands for interviews with Dutch politicians, journalists, civil society representatives. This was a time – in the wake of the van Gogh murder (2004), the rise and then assassination of Pim Fortuyn (2004), and the Dutch referendum on the EU constitution (2005) – when the Netherlands had a rather bad international press. What I had read about, just like every other politically interested European, was a story of crisis, of the failure of multi-cultural democracy, of lack of confidence in aloof elites, of economic decline (in fact by then the Dutch economy was about to recover, as it had after every other “crisis” in previous decades). I had also learned a few other things (in history class in high school) about the Dutch golden age and I knew (from politics seminars) that there was something called consociational Dutch democracy. But had I ever actually sat down with any Dutch friend to ask him or her about how this country had become one of the wealthiest and (by any international standards this was true also in 2006) most liberal in the world? Had I ever read a book about the modern Netherlands? You can guess the answer.

So what I came to discover, even to the surprise of some of my Dutch interlocutors, was not a country in crisis but a remarkable story of a successful democracy in action: what we found in our research concerning the Dutch debate on Turkey was a most impressive process of public debate, involving a large number of people and institutions, in fact shaming most other European countries, where Turkey is either no serious topic at all or is discussed in a most populist manner. For this process of intense consultation the Dutch have a special concept: overleg.

During our research – which lasted a few months – I read every book on the Netherlands (in English) I could get my hands on. I was as baffled as I had been earlier learning about Swiss democracy (and prosperity) discovering the details of this story. Neither the fable of a multiethnic paradise nor the charicature of a naive (failed) experiment of toleration of religious differences explained the reality of this fascinating democracy. One of the authors Icame across then promises his readers: “this book is intended for people who find themselves surprised by the Netherlands and by the Dutch. I do not wish to take away the surprise, because that can be a positive and creative emotion. But if you have some idea of the background to customs and forms of behaviour that appear unusual, bizarre or even scandalous, it may help you to understand them and to respond to them more effectively.”

(This is another book I would recommend you add to your reading list for 2008: Han van der Horst, The Low Sky – Understanding the Dutch. If anybody from the Netherlands has read this, and finds fault with some of its descriptions, please do let me know)

Vienna - Schönbrunn

Vienna – Schönbrunn

Let me turn back from the Netherlands to Austria, another largely unknown country in the middle of Europe. This too is a country full of surprises for any outsider who goes beyond the cliches, some “unusual, bizzarre or even scandalous”. It is the only EU member that other EU member states ever felt compelled to warn about the state of its modern democracy: in 2000, when Joerg Haider formed a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party. This was widely perceived as a shocking development, as if some neo-nazi movement had captured the steering wheel of a European democracy. The reality was different, as it turned out, and media attention moved away, until, a few years later, the German press rediscovered Austria: this time as a model for its successful economic policy and welfare state reform (Austria – the better Germany, was the cover page in Stern magazine). Democracy at risk or a success model to follow: it appears that in the case of small democracies like Austria or the Netherlands it is only superlatives like this which get them any international attention.

Austria is today – by any international standards – a stable democracy, with low unemployment, an extensive welfare state, a rich (and publicly subsidized) cultural life and modern infrastructure. It is more international than ever before. Vienna is today one of the European cities with the highest percentage of foreigners resident. But Austria is also a country where the new Haider, Heinz Christian Strache (having taken over the Austrian Freedom Party he is fortunately not yet an international brand name, although he is trying hard to get there) runs election campaigns with openly xenophobic, anti-Muslim posters, including the silly slogan “Vienna must not become Istanbul”, getting 10 percent of the votes.

It is a country which allowed the vast majority of the large number of Bosnian, largely Muslim, war refugees who came in the 1990s to stay permanently. At the same time, Austria today has an interior minister who supports the expulsion of young Kosovars who have grown up in Austria, speak perfect German and are as “integrated” as any teenager born abroad can ever hope to be (see my previous blog on Arigona: unfortunately it now looks like Arigona will have to leave Austria in summer 2008). Like many European democracies Austrian society today both depends on foreigners and resents them: like no other it benefits from enlargement and rejects it at the same time. A country of paradoxes, then, like every other modern society when one looks closer. Can such a country be explained to a group of critical foreigners in two days of presentations?

This was the challenge, for my ESI colleagues and myself, in early December. To be more precise: we asked a group of leading Austrian journalists, pollsters, politicians and diplomats to explain to “Europeanisers” from the Western Balkans (negotiators with the EU, heads of EU integration departments, advisors to presidents) Austrian attitudes to their countries, the Austrian enlargement debate and how it influences policies. The particular paradox we tried to understand is well captured by three facts.

  1. No other country benefited as much economically from the most recent EU enlargement as Austria; no other country is likely to benefit more from further enlargement to the South East.
  2. No other country in the EU today is as skeptical about further enlargement – to the Balkans and to Turkey – as Austria.
  3. While Austrian public opinion has for many years been negative about any enlargement this did not seem to influence Austrian foreign policy in any meaningful way: all previous accession treaties were ratified, almost without opposition, in the Austrian parliament.

What, then, is the relationship between public opinion, politics and economic interest? And is the Austrian enlargement debate paradox something unique to this country, or does it hold lessons that go beyond this case of one small Alpine republic, suggesting wider lessons for the European debate as a whole?

To get (an attempt of) an answer, please read my next blog: Understanding the Austrian Psyche II.

In the meantime, may I ask you for a favor? If you have a favorite book to recommend that explains how different EU members actually work today, please let me know. Best send an email to I will then promise to read what you recommend and share teh most interesting findings with other readers of this blog. It is one of my resolutions for 2008 that by the end of the year I will have read at least one serious book on every one of the 27 EU member states during this year … (please let me know in particular what the best books are about contemporary Luxembourg, Denmark, the Baltic states, Slovakia, Malta, Belgium and Portugal). And by the end of 2008 I hope to be able to offer my own reading list of best books about every country in the EU today.