East European dejà vu

25 June 2004
Only in en
Since the collapse of communism, Ukraine has been a white spot on the map of Europe and a non-entity to policy makers in Brussels. Whereas Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have safely found their place in so-called "Central Europe", the Ukraine's place in the history and the geography of Europe continues to go unrecognized. The reasons are to be found in cynical political and economical reasoning more than anything else, argues Taras Wozniak and calls for a show of unity of Eastern European countries and their common interests.


The following text is an edited version of a speech held at the conference “Where is Central
Europe?” in Zurich, organised by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at 22 April 2004.

The subject matter of today’s conference “Where is Central Europe?” in Zurich, in the very heart of Europe, touches upon the problems of definition and self-identification of Central Europe. Somebody might have lost it again, as it has been repeatedly searched for. Probably, on the eve of the greatest expansion of the European Union (for me personally Europe means the European Union – and my sincere apologies to the small, proud and independent Swiss Confederation) when ten more states are to join the EU, this subject is more than pertinent.

It is relevant for “old” EU members, who sanction such an expansion, and who now find themselves in new circumstances, experience difficulties to foresee all possible complications of the expansion. They find themselves face-to-face with partners they know very little about. The failure to adopt a new European Constitution or the Iraq War saga have demonstrated that the EU has varied visions about its future.

The issues of new, re-considered geopolitical constellations in our part of the world is equally important for new EU members stretching from Germany, Austria and Italy to the new EU frontiers, which, in fact, are the good old USSR borders. The Baltic exceptions just confirm the rule.

In my view it looks somewhat symbolic that due to certain circumstances at today’s discussion, in this European orchestra, Ukrainian representatives are not be present. After all, what are Ukrainians supposed to make of this EU expansion celebration or with the problem of Central Europe?

In this all-European process, Ukraine has received the part of a “not-to-be-mentioned” player. For the thirteen years of its independence, the country has hardly done anything but standing at the sidelines. It is not talked about and Brussels makes no essential decisions in regard to its issues. The Ukraine is not seen as an EU member-state or even associated member. The truth is that the EU is not interested in Ukraine as a partner either. If it had been, then its attitude would have been different. Brussels views Ukraine rather like an amusing incident, however, less outrageous than Belarus. Although the Ukrainian government publicly declares its intention to integrate with the EU, everything ends with these declarations.

For almost a year the Ji magazine web-site www.ji-magazine.lviv.ua has presented a map of a future Europe published in Lviv’s Postup newspaper, an essential periodical for Ukrainian Europe-centrists. It is the map which mirrors the view from Brussels as we see it. On this map, the area between the European Union and Russia is covered by water – Ukraine does not exist. On the surface, this could be an ideal situation for everybody. However, Ukraine does exist – and this is a problem. Up until now the EU has been able to cope with it by simply ignoring it. For the EU, Ukraine is a non-entity. And not just because its existing political system is one way and not the other. To a degree, the current form of Ukraine’s political regime is a result of being completely ignored by Brussels, and not just a proof of the inability of the Ukrainian people or due to intrigues from Moscow.

When discussing Central Europe, we should be definite at least about two terms “Europe” and “the Centre”.

With regard to the term “Europe”, everybody will agree that it is associated with something positive, worthwhile, civilised and at the same time (!) successful. Everybody would love to be related to this type of Europe, particularly new members of the European community.

However, we should remember that historically, Europe had different definitions:

Geographers had their own ways of delineating Europe – they thought in terms of mountain chains and seas. They identified some territories, which they boldly called “Europe” reaching to the Caucasus and the Urals. These European boundaries are still valid at preparatory schools of the post-Soviet space.

Politicians also have had and still have their specific ways of defining European borders. Their criteria are less solid and stable as the ones placed by geographers. They are driven by political feasibility, often undermined with open cynicism.

General de Gaulle bravely delineated Europe with the Urals, cutting a single body of the USSR, actually of Russia, in half. It is difficult to understand, though, what Russia has to do with its Siberian tail which makes up 75 per cent of its territory and only 25 per cent of its population.

Instead, the young European Union, under US pressure, has courageously offered Turkey to become a EU member – considering only 5 per cent of its European territory down to the Bosphorusstrait . Thus, EU geo-politicians have moved the EU frontiers to the Tigris and the Euphrates – all the way down to the cradle of the civilisation. In December 2004 it will be necessary to take the responsibility for such brevity and decide whether or not to sign an action plan for Turkey to join the EU… or to continue to fool gullible Turks. But it becomes increasingly dangerous. Right now, there are more Turks in Berlin, then in 1683 at Vienna, when Central Europe was saved by John III Sobieski (not without the support of Zaporizhia Cossacks led by Semen Pali).

The US State Department has taken a very interesting position in this matter. After a short period, when it has even assigned Ukraine to “Europe”, now it simply does not classify what kind of territory the area between Przemysl and Vladivostok is. This area, however paradoxically, is not even shown in many American atlases (and this is not a joke). American politicians are simply disoriented. Perhaps, for them this whole area is what Russian nationalists call Eurasia, and what, on contrary, their Russian opponents ironically call Azopa. Nevertheless, in this concept Ukraine is missing, as it doesn’t have its Asian “tail”. Unfortunately, without joining Russia, Ukraine would fail to become a truly Eurasian country.

At the same time one can’t help but noticing that these are the matters of past times – sins of old politicians. Instead, the term “Europe” is viciously expropriated for the benefit of the European Union – as if it is the European Union who considers itself as Europe. One can agree or disagree with this. However, this is the situation for now and for the foreseeable future. Everything outside it won’t be Europe. And Ukrainians and others have to accept it.

We should also remind ourselves of the humanitarians who after the European catastrophe of 1945 began to look for the grounds to create a new Europe. They sought for the spiritual foundations of Europe – referring to Christianity. However, it was in Europe itself where Christianity started to decline and for some strange reasons began to grow in Latin America. More accurate scholars drew the borders of Europe within the Latin world or the world of the Roman Church, cutting off post-Orthodox communist countries – and Russia in the first place. Instead, successors to the Greek writing and Greek Church traditions did not fit into this concept of Europe. Heirs to the “Greek” or “Byzantine” tradition were just thrown out of Europe. Truly, for those Latin purists a place for Greece in this new EU project looked rather vague. Samuel Huntington tried to put an end to this matter and with a decisive hand of an American neophyte cut the Gordian knot and separated the Orthodox and Islamic world from the Latin world. He didn’t even notice that he cut Ukraine and Belarusia in half. Moreover, he threw (rightfully so!) Greece, a cradle of the European civilisation, out of the civilised European entity completely. Now, what is spiritual Europe without Greece? -our European colleagues should ask themselves.

Some of the more considerate researchers called upon a “democratic tradition”; however, it was hard to talk about it after two decades of nationalism and fascism in the very centre of Europe. Particularly, for Europeans.

Hence, a precise definition of a spiritual foundation for “Europe” has not been found, despite of all the efforts and “broken lances”. Perhaps, this subject remains open just to let numerous departments at European universities to continue their studies and work. Eventually, a quest for self-identity never ends. It’s an on-going daily process.

We do understand that all these intellectual pursuits are only attempts to sanctify certain political and economic realities. The European Union has been built to a great extent on economic and political interests, rather than on Christianity.

The expanded European Union, to be more specific, the expanded Europe, true Europe, now ends at the current Polish-Ukrainian border. From now on I will use the term “Europe” meaning the European Union. I think it would be simpler, shorter and fairer. Hopefully, in a few years Europe will expand also to the Romanian-Ukrainian border. I regret that there is no Albanian-Ukrainian border.

Apparently, Ukraine will not take part in this process. It will remain outside the “European project”. At the same time, it is reluctant (at this point) to partake in the Russian “Eurasian” project of the creation of a new modernized “liberal (and not very much so) empire”. Ukraine remains in-between, at the bottom of the sea, as our map shows. A proposal by the Apennine grocers about a status as a “new EU/European neighbour” causes in Ukraine either irritation or Homeric laughter – at last Poland and Hungary have found their “new neighbour! ”

What does Central Europe mean?

What is the situation for the countries that are entering this newly defined and structured Europe? They delve into new geopolitical conditions.

When the continent was divided in half by the Berlin wall, Milan Kundera wrote his key article under the title Tragedy of Central Europe. Ukrainian dissidents of those days diligently re-printed it in the Ukrainian samizdat and immigration press -so did Ji magazine. But they were looking in vain for any reference to Ukraine. For Milan Kundera, Ukraine was outside his vision of Central Europe – it was rather a part of Soviet Russia, which enslaved his Central European Cechy. At that time, naive Ukrainian dissidents didn’t even notice this omission. He started his article with a fight for Europeanism, with the 1956 Hungarian uprising and a famous phrase of the Hungarian Radio News Agency Director, “We are ready to die for Hungary and Europe”. However, he didn’t suspect, that still in the early 1950s the last fights of a ten-year long partisan warfare against Soviets “for Ukraine and Europe” were still taking place in Western Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians were dying, not theoretically, but really dying for Ukraine, and for Europe, as they, naïvely so, saw it. Perhaps, he didn’t even suspect that for a decade of fighting 150,000 Ukrainian partisans were taken to Stalin’s concentration camps. Equally, in the 1940s and 1950s hundreds of thousands of Czech partisans fought against the Soviet occupation.

Perhaps, my politically incorrect statement might shock some of you. But I dare to use it considering the fact that almost every second person in my generation is a child of parents who spent at least ten years in Stalin’s concentration camps not for being intellectuals, but on the contrary, armed fighters. For us it is not a simple political or intellectual speculation but the history of our families. I know the answer to my political incorrectness – Kundera articulated it precisely. It referred, however, to Russia (but for him Ukraine and the USSR/Russia, I suspect, meant one and the same thing, that is why we, including myself, have to bear the responsibility for the defeat of the USSR). “I wish I knew nothing about their world, that it has ever existed.” Naturally, he is not interested in the Ukraine’s tragedy. It is quite reasonable then, that the place for Ukraine is right at the bottom of a sea, but not in Zurich’s conference rooms, where these problems of Central Europe are currently discussed.

For Kundera, Central Europe means exactly the countries that are entering the EU, i.e. the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary. He naively considers a space “locked within Germany and Russia” as Central Europe. However, the term Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) itself historically refers (and I hope it will refer to the same in the future) to Germany and probably to its neighbouring German-speaking periphery (in perspective probably to Switzerland). With certain political reasons in mind, the term Central Europe in a modern EU political discourse has been replaced with all kinds of euphemisms, like “old Europe”, “Kerneuropa”, “European core”. It becomes obvious that France and Belgium would join this “European core”. Apparently now, we witness how the true Central Europe is being shaped up. The reasons for using the name for this informal club within the EU are not so much their geographic location or spiritual unity, but the actual level of their economic and social development and hence their political and economic interests. Countries of the “European core”, of true Central Europe have long been found not only lying eastward, but also lying southward. I would say that Great Britain itself is taking a very specific transatlantic position and is probably the only one that, in essence, can be called a West European (read transatlantic) country. In its turn, a special group of counties will be formed within the Mediterranean – here its own Southern Europe with its specific needs and goals will be created.

Instead, countries between Germany and “non-Europe in the East” (Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia), sadly enough, find themselves truly in Eastern Europe. What a biter “dejà vu“! And the reason lies not so much in this disgusting East European brand Milan Kundera was so desperate to get rid of. The group of these countries, whether they like it or not, lie to the East of Europe, to the East from the “European core”, and have their specific interests, their level of economic and social development and would inevitably form a rather unified group. Taking into account all these realities, it is quite right that their old partners from the EU see them as Eastern Europe.

Further to the East, as we have previously agreed with the map I have suggested, the sea begins. It seems to me that in order to quench any resentment of our new East Europeans, when talking about the countries within this area, we should mention the name of the empire, still nostalgically recalled in this whole region – we should mention good old Österreich that did not have any inferiority complex for belonging to the Eastern empire. For this reason I guess new Europeans should not feel inferior because of this name and stop playing a centre to something that does not exist – as Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals simply does not exist. It is only a game for old-fashioned geographers, but not a political or economic reality. And new East Europeans and new East non-Europeans should comprehend their real place on the new continent that is shaping up right before our eyes. Once, Constantinople was the centre of civilisation in Europe. However, from a political and economic point of view this means nothing nowadays.

Within the last ten years due to the help of old EU member states, new EU members have succeeded in modernising their societies and economics. Changes are enormous. They have to be grateful to the old EU for this. Nonetheless, they shouldn’t forget that it was the collapse of the USSR which lost the cold war to the US and gave a push to this process.

Surely, new EU member states are required, and are authorised by the “European core”. Europe needs new production capacities, news markets, more labour. Old Europe is getting older so rapidly. And obviously security issues are not down the list. The “European core” is nicely encompassed and protected from all sides (What a pity that modern buffer zones do not pose any obstacle for modern terrorism.) In essence, the countries of New Eastern Europe play an invaluable part. They form a zone of security and consistent growth monitored by Brussels. Taking into account their resources, they don’t play into hands of EU competitors. They isolate the “European core” from Russia’s neo-imperial projects and explosive improvisations at the Balkans. Subsequently, they isolate the “European core” from a new global confrontation with the Islamic world. Right now, the EU has left all mishaps of this confrontation to Americans, Israelis and Russians.

With a view to security issues, for the past few years the EU has been putting much effort into the development and fortification of its new European borders, turning the EU into a “fortress of Europe”. In essence, the old Ribbentrop-Molotov pact is being implemented with these EU efforts. New EU borders in the East almost replicate the intentions of those old far-seeing geopoliticians. Understandably, there is a lot of talk about “transparent” and “civilised” old/new borders. A number of discussions are taking place about computerised border operations, electronic border surveillance, as well as discussions regarding German (European) customs officers employed at the Ukrainian-Polish borders as civilisers (considering the corruption at the border). Expansion of “a space of freedom”, “a space of free travel” is declared. The question still remains, whom this space of freedom and free travel is being expanded for? At least, not for Ukrainians. For the past few years, Ukraine (or rather the 48 million Ukrainians), as a plagued territory, has been encircled with visa walls. Although the border with Russia has not been closed, it seems as if Ukraine is gently pushed back to the Russian imperial framework. In this sense, Ukraine does not look like a “new European neighbour”, happy that Europe is getting closer to us, but more like a cornered rat. A non-European rat. However, at various official receptions we would certainly welcome the EU expansion that offers us a great opportunity, that would render us closer to Europe, that would humanise and civilise our borders, that would…, et cetera, et cetera.

Published 25 June 2004

Original in English
First published in

Contributed by Ji
© Ji Eurozine

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