5 December, 2023
The fifth part of the podcast with Codru Vrabie deals with agency in Southeastern Europe, with the ideas of collectivism vs. individualism, bridge vs equilibrium and the role of journalism
Codru Vrabie (source: Association INK)

Vladimir Mitev

Codru Vrabie is a civil society activist, trainer and consultant on good governance, transparency, accountability and integrity in the public sector. He has contributed to numerous justice and public administration reform measures. Vrabie holds a degree in legal and political sciences (Romania, Bulgaria, USA) and a master’s degree in public administration, as well as a master’s degree in European affairs (Romania, Netherlands, Spain). Since 1998, he has worked for various civil society organisations in Romania. In 2010, Vrabie started working for the Leaders for Justice program in Romania, which has been replicated in Moldova since 2017.

See the contents of the fifth part of the podcast with Codru Vrabie:

00:00 Definition of agency. Agency and autonomy. Comparison between agency in Western Europe or Northern America and in Southeastern Europe. How could people’s agency be affirmed in the region? 

02:25 China as an example of collectivist agency 

04:45 Collectivism vs. individualism in Southeastern Europe. Our interpretation of collectivism (tribes) creates problems, because our individualist agency is not empowered. 

06:52 Agency in our societies today: as long as we are collectivist, we can’t employ the autonomous individual’s agency, which we admire in Western Europe; if we don’t educate individuals to become autonomous, they will not develop their agency. And we have chosen we don’t want to be like China, but like Western Europe 

09:14 This trend of agency, related to autonomy, in a number of social movements that deal with minorities, like feminism 

11:45 The challenges of having change agents with mutually negating changes: the need for equilibrium and measure vs the bridge identity 

13:02 The bridge is a better metaphor, because it brings allies together and also maintains the balance. Agency means that you have a clear objective, the resources and the allies and the capacity to bring them together and channel their efforts towards achieving the objective 

15:25 Journalism and change. Journalism/media is what stands in-between everyone, but it is also a profession of fallen nature in Bulgaria. To what extent journalists can have agency? 

17:10 Journalism as news reporting (neutral by definition, cannot have agency/attempt to change anything) and as the group of people who do this job – within the guild journalists should have agency and specific objects for change 

21:09 Positive and negative scenario for the near future of Southeastern Europe 

26:43 Ending

Yes. I tried reading something about Anthony Giddens’ understanding of agency because I know he’s one of the big theoreticians about it. And I also read other stuff and I have the feeling agency may be seen also as some capacity of individuals to act independently and make free choices, including in conditions of strong political and hegemonic structures and do change in spite of these structures. So it’s somehow related to your idea of autonomy, which you discussed previously, and it could be a property of people, but also of organizations.

I want now to take back our look a little bit from our individual countries and look a little bit more in general to our region and compare it to Western Europe or the USA. Because different social contexts, different political and any culture, in fact, different culture maybe hints at different properties of the people who have or organizations who have agency. And I have the feeling many theories about agencies deal with some kind of clean environment where people just act or just are. But I’m aware that our region is of a fallen nature. I have the feeling often in our region that maybe somebody has some level of agency, but there is also some kind of fallen nature of his person or his organizations. It’s not exactly the pure essence of existence. It is somehow something which is still to be emancipated, maybe. And I want to ask in this sense. What could be the specifics of agency in general in Southeastern Europe? and how exactly this population of ours, which generally is not very much involved in political or social action -there is always this understanding that people are generally apathetic and withdrawn from life, how could the greater level of agency be encouraged and promoted in our region and among our citizens?

I am thinking. It does relate to the autonomy discussion that we had at the beginning. And again. With regards to a collectivist society from Hofstadter’s understanding of relying on the collective, the tribe, the group, whatever, you can look at agency, for instance, at China. Think about the reform that China had to go through when computers first appeared. And computers are very good at typing with a Qwerty keyboard. But that is not very useful when you have 10,000 ideograms to write in Chinese. So, I don’t know. 30-40 years ago, China was even considering ditching the Chinese alphabet just to make sure that they can use computers. But the collectivist agency of a country like China. translates in the ability to formulate an objective and pooling resources because everybody believes that the collective makes better decisions.

In our neck of the woods in Western Europe, where we want to be agency is more related to the individual, to the autonomy that an individual can muster when they see something that they think is wrong and they set on changing the rules in such a way that injustice is done away with. Because our society in Romania, Bulgaria, other people in the Balkans, even Hungary to some extent is a bit more collective, then we believe in an objective set by our group. You believe in another objective set by your group and because of group allegiance, collectivism. The two objectives come into conflict. Now this is a problem because we do not educate individuals in terms of autonomy so that they can go and bring in allies one by one. But we think that a sort of a battle must entail between my group and your group. And whoever wins will get the cake and eat it, too.

So when we relate agency to the way our society is functioning today, we understand two things. Number one, as long as we keep being collectivist, we will not be able to muster the agency, the autonomous individual agency that we admire in Western Europe. And if we don’t educate individuals to become autonomous, they will not be able to muster the agency that we admire in Western Europe. And apparently we have made this decision that we don’t want to be like China, but we do want to be like Western Europe. So we only have one choice, and that one choice is to make sure that in our societies we educate individuals toward autonomy. And that we sever the ties that keep these groups, collectives, tribes together. But we are not moving at the right pace in this direction. And it’s going to take a lot more time than we would like, unless this is a very conscientious effort. As otherwise we can forget about it and allow time to fix it. And then if you allow time to fix it, it will get fixed, but maybe in a hundred years and we want it fixed in maybe in ten years. So this is the choice that we have.


And Vladimir, I’m sorry. Just one second. You can see this new trend about agency related to autonomy in our region. You can see it if you look at a number of social movements with minorities. The type of feminism that we have in the Balkans is very different from the feminism that we had, I don’t know, 50 years ago in the UK and the United States, because in the UK and the United States 50 years ago, feminism was related to a collective agency of all women and relied on bringing in some allies from amongst the men. But in in Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, I’m sure if you look at it in Macedonia or in Albania, possibly even in Greece or Turkey, you will see that feminism is predicated on the autonomous agency of a woman who wants to be seen as equal and respected as a human being, not in comparison to a man, but in comparison to any other human being. And I think this is a very important shift in the way that we think about agency and autonomy in the Balkans. You also see that happening with the sexual minorities of gay, lesbian, bisexual and so on. I think you also see it with the Roma minority. I don’t know about Bulgaria, but I do know about it in Romania, and that’s for sure how it goes. So it may be the case that we will see this model being replicated in more walks of life in more areas of human interaction, because it sort of proves successful in a way.

Okay. You mentioned the feminist agency, and I am sure that maybe some people could discuss about Orthodox or Protestant agency. I mean, these groups, religious groups, also want to change something in society. They also promote some values, etcetera. And now we may reach or maybe already have reached a situation in which it’s full of change agents around. But the change of one group of them may be against the change of the other and neutralizes the change of the others. And I think that makes once again an important issue of the center or of the balancer type of person – some kind of a person or organization or structure which plays the role of equilibrium, because we may well imagine that every agency or every group has its righteousness or justice valid within certain limits. And it also becomes important what the limits are.

But, I think the bridge is a better metaphor than the balance. The equilibrium. Because the bridge brings allies together. And also maintains the balance. If a bridge doesn’t maintain the balance, it will collapse. But the bridge not only maintains the balance, it also brings allies together. And again, agency means that you have a clear objective. You have the resources and the allies and the capacity to bring them together and channel their efforts in order to achieve the objective. So I think what we need is not necessarily a center that keeps the balance, but a center that bridges alliances between changes or objectives that are compatible. Now, it may be the case that some of the objectives that are not compatible will remain on the fringes and they will probably continue to contribute to polarization. But I would very much like to focus on those objectives that relate to the bridge in the center, the one that brings everybody together. And that is mostly going to relate to some of the core values of togetherness and equality or equity, if you want. Respect for human dignity. And this is not ideological to the left or to the right. This is simply human nature.

Okay. I can’t help but ask you about journalism and change. Because journalism is something like the thing that stands in between all the justices, all the rightfulness, all the change agents. It’s some kind of a middle ground. Media is the middle ground, but it is also deeply discredited professionally in Bulgaria. And it is reduced to a large extent to being a propaganda outlet for the political and economic powers in society. So in fact, journalists, at least in Bulgaria, in my view, very rarely have their own agency. Most of the time we are encouraged to just translate stuff or don’t mess with strong interests. As you said, a lot of qualities are necessary for being an agent or having agency, but also a lot of qualities. Maybe even more are required, if you want to be a journalist who does something like change through his work. But journalism or the press often becomes something like a stick. So when various economic groups or political parties want to battle the battle through journalists, they use journalists as a weapon. So in this sense, what is the potential of journalism to bring change in our region when it has such a fallen nature in general?

Vladimir I think we need to differentiate two very important aspects related to journalism. One is how journalism in general reflects the news. And this is a place where journalists cannot have agency. It is a place where journalism cannot attempt to change anything. If journalism simply reflects the news, then the journalist doesn’t need to have an agenda other than the public interest.

The other side of the coin is when you look at journalism as the group of people that are doing this job within this guild. The journalists should have agency and should have specific objectives for change. In the sense that a journalist that agrees to become the stick of a politician, the propaganda outlet of a political party, or the face of a specific oligarchic interest, or the ally of a foreign agent., should no longer be called a journalist. So it falls on the Guild of Journalists. To make a change in terms of professional ethics, to make sure that they ostracize the people, who present themselves as journalists, but they’re doing another job. Now. From this second perspective. I do see that journalists have a lot of problems. The media, the press have a lot of problems, especially trust issues. Are not only in Bulgaria, but very heavily in Romania and in Moldova as well.

I also see a movement of the Professional Guild of Journalists to get rid of the rotten apples. It is not very strong. I believe there is a role for agency and for change, but not with respect to society and how we do the news, but with respect to how we do the job. With respect to professional ethics. Does it make sense to you?

Very much, yes, for sure. We had already quite a long talk, and I want to make some kind of official ending, even though I may have something to say after that ending. But I want to ask you. It’s a kind of final words or preliminary final, final words, if I may say. We have discussed Southeastern Europe and we have touched on a lot of issues. We touched polarization. We touched agencies in this region, a lot of actors, a lot of interests. And at the end of the day, what is the future of our region? I would ask you to present a positive and a negative scenario or version of what could happen in the next few years in our region.

I think there is a very interesting theory – divide et impera, the Latin for divide and conquer. It goes like this: if you can fragment a society, then little by little, isolate the fragments. What will happen is that they get out of sync. And when a society is fragmented, the fragments are isolated, and then the isolated fragments are desynchronized. You get a mass of people that you can very easily manipulate, therefore conquer. What happens in the region, at least since accession to the European Union. 2004-2007 is that some elements of society are more increasingly synchronized with the West. Whereas other elements of society are fragmented, isolated and desynchronized.

So the good scenario, the optimistic view of what the future brings is that the synchronized elements of our societies start building bridges in such a way that their synchronicity starts to spill over and provide development for everybody else.

Bad scenario, the negative, the pessimistic view is that the polarization among the isolated and desynchronized fragments gets so strong, that we see a sort of a dissolution of the state and division in smaller political entities that cannot talk to each other. So burning the bridges.

I am an optimist myself. I can be very dark when I describe specific political phenomena, but I am an optimist myself. And I strongly believe that we are headed in the direction of more and more synchronicity. The bridges over the Danube or over the Prut River are very good metaphors for that. But I do believe that we are increasingly becoming more European, so-called “western”. And that means that there is a brighter future. Not only for us, when we’re going to retire in about 20 years or so, but more specifically for the kids that will be born next year in Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. When these kids will get to be about 40 or 50 like we are today, life is going to be a lot more a lot better for them than it is for us today.

Okay. I’m happy we ended on a very positive note. I do believe our talk, and especially your perspectives, expanded the frames in which we think about all these issues. And I really hope that our readers somehow get good insights and ideas and maybe get some hope as well. And I believe we will continue with such types of podcasts when we feel there is a need for that. So thank you.

Photo:‌‌ (source:‌‌ The Bridge of Friendship)

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