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Reading between the lines

The Iron Curtain is long gone; so how come the division between Western and Eastern Europe appears greater than ever, asks Vanessa Pupavac

Why is there still an Eastern Europe?

  • Values and political change in Postcommunist Europe
    William L Miller, Stephen White, Paul Heywood, Macmillan, £60 hbk

  • Inventing Eastern Europe: the map of civilization on the mind of the enlightenment
    Larry Wolff, Stanford University Press, Stanford, £15.99 pbk

  • Imagining the Balkans
    Maria Todorova, Oxford University Press, £17.99 pbk

Why Eastern Europe? Why, nearly a decade after the dramatic pictures of the Berlin Wall being pulled down, is Europe still divided into a West and an East? Communism has fallen, the Cold War is over, the Soviet Army has withdrawn, and the new regimes pursue market economics and hold multi-party elections like the rest of Europe - but the concept of 'Eastern Europe' persists. Though Eastern Europe is in Europe, it is still considered not altogether European, as if it were the Orient of Europe.

Images of the region conjure up pictures of violent and irrational peoples caught up in ancient myths and feuds; people not quite like us, sometimes exotic, more often barbaric. During the Cold War it seemed that the peoples of Eastern Europe were only waiting to be able to rid themselves of Soviet oppression to take their rightful place in Europe. Since 1989 that view has been forgotten. Instead, cultural differences are offered as an explanation for continuing problems in Eastern Europe. Today when there is no longer an Iron Curtain, culture has emerged as an apparently permanent barrier between East and West.

The ideological contest of 1917-89 has been supplanted by what Samuel Huntingdon defined as the 'clash of civilisations' (Foreign Affairs, summer 1993). The official ideology today is that the West is menaced by dangerous alien cultures from the East.

The persistence of the East-West divide has been accepted by most commentators, so it is refreshing to read books that do not take this division for granted. The books reviewed here examine the validity of that division. From various perspectives, Burgess, Miller, Todorova and Wolff all challenge the predominantly negative view of Eastern Europe and the idea that it is inherently different from Western Europe.

These authors locate Eastern Europe in the European context. Miller, White and Heywood compare values in Eastern Europe with those in Britain. Burgess parallels the phenomena of ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe with the escalation of regional movements in the rest of Europe: the Catalonians and Basques in Spain, the Lombardy League in Italy, Scottish nationalism in Britain etc.

In Divided Europe: The New Domination of the East, Adam Burgess considers how an East-West division is employed as a framework to understand European affairs, arguing that this approach assumes what should be explained. Starting with the question of why Eastern Europe is such an enduring concept, Burgess offers a provocative and compelling study of the persistence of divisions in Europe.

Events in Eastern Europe are generally discussed separately, but Eastern Europe cannot be understood outside its relationship with the rest of Europe. To examine Eastern Europe out of context, Burgess argues, mystifies the region, making events appear to be driven by irrational forces. Developments in Eastern Europe cannot be understood in isolation: 'Eastern Europe has been continually made and remade by external influences - to the extent that those forces native to the region have played a distinctly secondary role.' (p4) Ignoring the role of external forces means that tensions in the region tend to be blamed on the intolerant culture of the peoples of Eastern Europe.

In particular, Burgess and Maria Todorova, in her Imagining the Balkans, highlight the way that ethnicity and history are perceived as having a peculiar power in Eastern Europe. Violent conflict is treated as an inherent characteristic of the culture of the region. By contrast, the Holocaust is often seen as an aberration or even blamed on Germany's Eastern European culture (Imagining the Balkans, p137).

Seeking to deconstruct the usual stereotype of Eastern Europe, Burgess, Todorova and Wolff argue that our perceptions of Eastern Europe are seen through the prism of Western Europe. Much of the writing on Eastern Europe, they contend, tells us more about political attitudes in Western Europe than in the East. Whether a state was seen as Eastern was not primarily a question of geography, but of the state's political distance from Moscow. For example, both Burgess and Todorova cite how during the Cold War no differentiation was made between the Western-oriented Balkan states and the rest of Europe. Yugoslavia and Romania (despite its ruthless dictator) were both favourably regarded in the West because they took an independent line from Moscow. Greece and Turkey were not considered part of the East at all but part of the West and strongholds of democracy in the Cold War, despite the chequered history of their own democratic institutions.

As suggested by the titles the theme of Larry Wolff's Inventing Eastern Europe and Todorova's Imagining the Balkans, is that the concepts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans are constructed in the West. Wolff sees the origins of the concept of Eastern Europe in the Enlightenment:

'It was Western Europe that invented Eastern Europe as its complementary other half in the eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment...the Enlightenment, with its intellectual centres in Western Europe, that cultivated and appropriated to itself the new notion of "civilisation",...and civilisation discovered its complement, within the same continent, in shadowed lands of backwardness, even barbarism.' (p4).

Wolff's attack on the Enlightenment for oppressing Eastern Europe might strike a chord with post-modernists, but it is difficult to sustain. Wolff even goes so far as to link the mental mapping of Eastern Europe with the physical mapping of Europe by military conquest of Napoleon's army, the focus of his attack being Enlightenment rationality. But he makes the mistake of conflating Enlightenment thought with the actions of Western states.

After all, it was the Enlightenment that introduced the idea of equality to European thought. The idea of a universal human nature meant that the divisions between people became regarded as less important, arising from mere differences of custom instead of being rooted in nature. Indeed it was Enlightenment ideals, such as the rights of man and national self-determination, that became the rallying cry of nineteenth century East European movements demanding their right to be freed from foreign domination.

Maria Todorova, a Bulgarian historian, does not condemn Western thought per se in her excellent critique of 'Balkanism'. Rather her objection is that the West does not judge the East by the same standards as it judges itself. She condemns the way that Eastern Europeans are treated as irrational beings, trapped in history - for example, the way that the Yugoslav war is discussed in terms of ancient feuds: 'It seems as if the mountaineers of the seventeenth century have re-entered the political stage of the late twentieth unmarked by any change.' (p137) For Todorova, 'It would do much better if the Yugoslav, not Balkan, crisis ceased to be explained in terms of Balkan ghosts, ancient Balkan enmities, prim-ordial Balkan cultural patterns and proverbial Balkan turmoil, and instead was approached with the same rational criteria that the West reserves for itself' (p186).

It is interesting seeing the results when the East is judged by the same criteria as the West, but rare that research on Eastern Europe is approached rationally. What is striking is the lack of empirical work on the region. Eastern Europe is prejudged negatively without any serious evidence having been gathered. Though Eastern Europe is condemned for failing to uphold liberal norms, the Western researchers appear not to heed the maxim innocent until proven guilty. William Miller, Stephen White, and Paul Heywood's extensive survey of Values and Political Change in Postcommunist Europe provides a welcome contrast. Much has been written about the lack of a democratic culture in Eastern Europe, yet few studies have been conducted to find out what East Europeans actually think. This survey of Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic is one of the few attempts to do just that.

Miller, White and Heywood interviewed 7350 citizens and 504 members of parliament to find out their political values. The starting point for their research was how Western analysis of Eastern Europe frequently refers to dividing lines on the map of Europe: between Eastern and Western Europe; Eastern Europe and Russia; Catholic and Orthodox cultures; Europe and Asia and so on. They wanted to investigate to what extent these much cited lines marked real boundaries of political culture (p6). The results of their survey revealed these alleged cultural divisions to be unimportant: 'Within the FSU/ECE [Former Soviet Union/East Central Europe] the lines of division that have excited so many theorists and historians seem remarkably faint in terms of contemporary political values.' (p28)

The thesis developed by the Westerner Samuel Huntingdon did not appear to be borne out by the views of Easteners: 'The "clash of civilisations" line between Catholic and Orthodox Europe proved a complete irrelevance....And the divide at the Urals, between Europe and Asia, revealed no significant value differences at all.' Even more pertinently, when postcommunist values were compared with those of the West, there were more similarities than discrepancies: 'the differences between political values in the FSU/ECE and an old established democracy like Britain were not that great.' (p28)

In contrast to the image of Eastern Europe as intolerant towards minorities, some of the results even suggested that Eastern Europe was more relaxed about ethnic differences. For example, they found that, the 'impulse towards cultural conformity was as strong in Britain as in the FSU/ECE', and, 'The British were even less willing to support Muslim schools than people in the FSU or ECE were willing to support teaching in languages other than the state language' (p395).

Adam Burgess suggests that the Western concern with 'democratising' Eastern Europe is often misplaced, a point confirmed in Values and Political Change in Postcommunist Europe. The survey results call into question the presupposition that the population of Eastern Europe lacks democratic values. The authors' conclusion was unequivocal; the peoples of Eastern Europe express democratic values comparable to those in Western Europe: 'in terms of democratic consolidation in the FSU/ECE, political values in the early 1990s were part of the solution, not part of the problem. There was no evidence that the people of the FSU/ECE were not yet ready for democracy.'

Burgess documents the double standards in the treatment of the West and East. He observes that Western states themselves often fail to meet the democratic criteria that they are setting for Eastern states as prerequisites for membership of European institutions. The evidence of the former Communist states meeting the West's own democratic standards raises the question as to why obstacles are being put in the way of their joining European institutions. With the demise of Communism all Eastern European states have been seeking closer ties with Western markets and trying to demonstrate that they belong within Europe.

Cold Warriors argued that only Communism prevented Eastern Europe from being integrated into the free West. But that never quite happened. The idea of some kind of cultural or value deficiency in the East is a way of explaining the problem away. It is not a weakness in the market, say apologists for the West, but a weakness in the East that accounts for the persisting divide.

According to Wolff, 'the recourse to expert advice and economic assistance from abroad will certainly be construed as the ultimate vindication of our own economic success and the backwardness of Eastern Europe' (p9). The discourse of Europe has become as much about exclusion as it is about unity and inclusion. Indeed 'more-Western-than-thou' is a game that even Eastern Europeans have been taught. In the dual process of European integration and exclusion from Europe, each nation in Eastern Europe is seeking to prove its European credentials by denouncing the Easterness of their neighbours:

'East Germans are "eastern" for the West Germans, Poles are "eastern" to the East Germans, Russians are "eastern" to the Poles.... A Serb is an "easterner" to a Slovene, but a Bosnian would be an "easterner" to the Serb although geographically situated to the west; the same applies to the Albanians who, situated in the western Balkans, are perceived as easternmost by the rest of the Balkan nations.' (Imagining the Balkans, p58)

Special pleading is being made for at least some of the Eastern European states to be admitted, as Todorova notes: 'Central Europeanness became a device entitling its participants to a share of privileges.' (p156) For example, President Vaclav Havel argues for the inclusion of stable Central European states, which he says are part of Western tradition, to act as a bulwark against the unstable Balkans and states of the Russian Federation which do not fall within that tradition:

'If...Nato is to remain functional, it cannot suddenly open its doors to anyone at all...The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - and Austria and Slovenia as well - clearly belong to the western sphere of European civilisation. They espouse its values and draw on the same traditions....Moreover, the contiguous and stable Central European belt borders both on the traditionally agitated Balkans and on the great Eurasian area....' (Vaclav Havel, 'New Democracies for Old Europe', New York Times, 17 October 1993)

Our perceptions of the East have been confirmed by the war in former Yugoslavia. The Balkans have become 'synonymous with barbarism, dehumanisation, destruction of civilisation' (Imagining the Balkans, p36). The conduct of war in the Balkans is described as particularly savage, although the casualty figures do not bear this out. Todorova challenges Western perceptions of its own, presumably civilised wars citing how, in the Gulf War, 'In 17 days, American technology managed to kill, in what Jean Baudrillard claimed was merely a television event, at least half the casualties incurred by all sides during the two Balkan wars'. Even more tellingly, she adds that 'With the ease with which American journalists dispense accusations of genocide in Bosnia, where the reported casualty figures vary anywhere between 25 000 and 250 000, it is curious to know how they designate the over three million dead Vietnamese' (pp6-7).

Discussing the barbarity of the East helps the West to convince itself of the superiority of its own values, particularly at a time when those values are being called into question at home. Burgess' conclusion is that it is the West's own need for a sense of moral mission lacking at the end of the Cold War that is being projected onto its relations with Eastern Europe. Moreover, Burgess and Todorova describe the discourse on Eastern Europe as a new, more acceptable form of racial politics. As Todorova puts it, 'Balkanism became, in time, a convenient substitute for the emotional discharge that orientalism provided' (p188).

Vanessa Pupavac lectures in East European Politics at the University of Nottingham

Read On

  • One World, ready or not
    William Greider, Penguin, £20 hbk/£9.99 pbk

A recent edition of the New Yorker magazine carried an article singing the praises of Karl Marx, the forgotten prophet of market collapse, monopoly and social inequality. Now here comes William Greider of Rolling Stone magazine, with a book that argues 'the gross conditions that inspired Karl Marx's original critique of capitalism in the nineteenth century are present and flourishing again' (p39).

Greider is a great writer. His descriptions of the new capitalism in China, Malaysia and Eastern Europe have echoes of Engels' of Manchester, London and Liverpool in the Condition of the English Working Classes. But the nod to Marx in his book, as in the New Yorker, is for all the wrong reasons. Marx is remembered here only as a Jeremiah, singing the woes of industrialisation and financial trickery. His rehabilitation is more a sign of the morbidity of today's capitalist outlook, than a resurgence of opposition to capitalism.

According to Greider there are three big problems the economy faces, overproduction of goods that cannot find a market, the flight of capital in pursuit of low wages, forcing wages down, and the 'rentier regime' of the financial markets, bleeding the productive sector dry. In all three respects, he is wrong.

'Overproduction' only looks like a problem from the US perspective, faced with competition from Asia. Greider thinks that too many cars are being produced, a prejudice that would chime with many environmentalists today. But in absolute terms there are not enough cars, when only one in every 680 has a car in China. What looks like a problem of oversupply is actually a problem of the uncompetitiveness of US goods. Greider's promotion of a subsidised USA as a 'buyer of last resort' only suggests that he wants the rest of the world to pay for US consumption.

Similarly, the idea of capital flight lowering wages seems to fit the facts. But no matter how low the wages in the Former Soviet Union, or Africa - that in itself will not attract capital. Indeed most capital moves from one of the leading countries to another, rather than out into the rest of the world. In fact the reasons that capital crosses borders are more to do with the difficulty in investing it at home than any pull factors. But lurking behind Greider's complaint is the proposal that the USA imposes economic sanctions against Asian competitors - on the grounds that they pay low wages. Socialist reasoning, capitalist solution.

Greider gives a racy account of the 'rentier regime' of a financial sector that holds down industrial growth to redirect resources into speculative investments. His documentation of the inverse relation between growing stockmarket prices and productive investment exposes the apologists of Wall Street and the City of London. But it never occurs to him that it is not the markets that are responsible for low growth, but the lack of investment that is fuelling speculation. As ever, Greider sees the problem of capitalism as too much - too much produced, too much going on in East Asia, too much profiteering on the stock exchange - when the real problem is much too little oomph.

James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998

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