Central and Eastern Europe’s Growing Borderlands

Kevin Doremus | @k_doremus

Friends from Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia, and Croatia talk about how in the West they are viewed as “eastern,” but in the East, they are considered western. There is a growing sense in Central and Eastern Europe of people who caught between two different worlds. Today, some migrants who left the region for better opportunities now want to return to what they call “home.” One common variable repeated by ex-expats was that they could not fully identify with the country they migrated to because of differences in historical experience.

According to polling from GLOBSEC in 2018, over 70% of Central and Eastern Europeans used to identify as part of the West. But after the economic and migration crisis and the ongoing debates over the nature of the European Union, support has fallen. In a recent poll, 59% of Czechs and 78% of Slovaks believe that they are not part of the West. In Poland, pro-western support is only 42% with only 27% amongst 18 to 24-year-olds. Moreover, in Hungary, it is 46%. Transatlantic scholars are now asking what has happened to cause the post-socialist states’ divergence. They lament that these people are xenophobic and illiberal or Russia is meddling in their media. There is no explanation or coverage on why expats are returning home.  However, one variable that is a possible cause is the historical experience.

Different Histories

Following the economic, political, and migration crises there appears to be a divide along the former cold war lines. Many in academia assumed that through economic cooperation the Viségrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) would develop in the image of Western Europe. The central question is to investigate why the social intuitions are influencing the group to defect from cooperation when they have all economic benefits of being an EU member.

I contend the historical experiences of multinational empires, the Cold War and post-socialist period affected the social intuitions on the polity and economic development. Additionally, the geographic location between Russia and Western institutions leave the Viségrad Group vulnerable to foreign actors.  Social entrepreneurs can change a society and political institutions, which can affect the geopolitical orientation.

Isolation from Identity

Many of the new EU member states (eastern bloc) emerged out of multinational empires. This includes not just the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also the Ottoman and Russian empires. These states, without a doubt, were economically and culturally underdeveloped. The inhabitants were mostly peasants with foreign elites; the multinational empires of Communism and Nazism squashed their attempts to form distinct identities.

The period of under socialism acted as a time capsule, isolating Central and Eastern Europe from the 1960s and other cultural revolutions that occurred in the West. Following the collapse of the USSR, an identity formed in a series of negatives (“We are not German, Hungarian, Russian, and Turkish). These new states choose between a cosmopolitan allegiance to an external idea (Atlanticism, EU, and The Church) or a narrower horizon of nationalism. Central and Eastern European states want to be part of a civilized world while creating an independent nation.

Post-WWII Europe has left two distinct historical legacies, Communism and Nazism.  The history of the Nazis drives Western Europeans towards cosmopolitanism to flee the dark past. Central Europe’s and Eastern Europe’s anti-cosmopolitanism has roots in an aversion to the communist-imposed internationalism. Also, the concern of foreigners originates from the historical memory of foreign actors dictating the rules of the game and foreign invasions from the east, south, and west.

The Borderlands

A significant point that Eastern European scholars have pointed out is that Central and Eastern Europe are religious and cultural borderlands. The religious divide between Catholic and Orthodox Slavs defines the state mind.  Orthodox Slavs, who take their culture from Byzantium, identify with the East. On the other hand, Holy Roman Empire-influenced Catholic Slavs tend to identify either with the West or being in-between the East and West.

In conclusion, it is important to note the historical and cultural differences between Central and Eastern Europe and Western Europe. If the West does not understand the historical context, it should not be surprising to see the decline of pro-western views in the region. The West needs to acknowledge the differences and adapt its policies to be more considerate of others; recognition of differences can help find common ground on issues where interests converge.

If the West can maintain positive relations with its eastern neighbors, cooperation does have a chance to influence organic change. Culture is not static but dynamic, positive interactions between the Central and Eastern Europe and the West may better relations that will be fruitful for everyone.


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