The Curse of the Margin? Central Europe before and after Communism

In conversation with RevDem assistant editor Lucie Hunter, Dr. Aliaksei Kazharski discusses his newest book Central Europe Thirty Years after the Fall of Communism: A Return to the Margin? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022, 2022).

Aliaksei Kazharski, PhD, is a lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University in Prague and a Visegrad Insight Fellow. His research focuses on countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, regionalism, identity in international relations, critical approaches to security, and terrorism studies. He is the author of two monographs: Eurasian Integration and the Russian World: Regionalism as an Identitary Enterprise (Central European University Press, 2019) and Central Europe Thirty Years after the Fall of Communism: A Return to the Margin? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022, 2022), for which he has recently been awarded the International Studies Association’s book award.

Lucie Hunter: I would like to start our conversation with a short reflection on the main subject line in your book title and that is: Central Europe. I know that “Central Europe” is an ambiguous and highly contested term, or as you mention in your book, an open-ended but perhaps also a never-ending journey. But despite all this tension and ambiguity, could you give us a short run-down of the main developments of this term and what exactly do you mean by it in your book? And more specifically, what are the major characteristics of countries located in this region?

Aliaksei Kazharski: I do not pretend to be a comprehensive historian of the term. If you wanted some comprehensive history, I would refer you to another book, Otilia Dhand’s The Idea of Central Europe: Geopolitics, Culture and Regional Identity. This is where Otilia Dhand tracks in a very meticulous way how this concept mutated in the 19th century and later. I am trying to look at it from the point of view of Political Science and International Relations, and this is also where I try to identify, what you may call, different definitional strategies. This is part of a broader conceptual problem because how exactly do we define regions? What makes their borders? For instance, is it about physical borders, like mountains and rivers? In that case, Central Europe would be a bit tricky because we cannot really pin it down like that. For some people, this could be about the river Danube or the Carpathian Basin, but not everybody would agree with that. There are other definitional strategies, which, for example, refer to the way that political institutions have been developing here for centuries, starting from the Middle Ages. They would say that these institutions in Central Europe have been Western-like but they are, in fact, not entirely Western.

I would say that the bottom line here is that there have been various attempts to define Central Europe and I do not think we necessarily need to reach one single definition in terms of geography. This is where I would very much agree with Otilia Dhand who argues that Central Europe is an idea. It is not a place. But it is a kind of idea that tends to mutate a lot. It goes through a lot of change all the time. For example, think about the early 20th century German notions of Central Europe, the Mitteleuropa, introduced by Friedrich Naumann. He was a German liberal nationalist who published a famous book called Mitteleuropa, which is traditionally quoted regarding the history of the term. The concept of Mitteleuropa was about building a German cultural and political hegemony over the lands that lie between the West and the Russian Empire. Then you see that six or seven decades later this concept of Central Europe was about something entirely different: Central Europe was about not wanting to be a part of the Soviet sphere of influence. It was about the so-called kidnapped West. So geographically speaking, this may be about the same territories, but the political meaning that is attached to it is obviously very different.

This is how I try to understand Central Europe: not as a place but an idea, a discourse, a political project whose substance can vary a lot. And sometimes this idea can even disappear from view but then is somehow revitalized, brought back. Iver B. Neumann compared Central Europe to a Cheshire Cat: it disappears and then it comes back.

And one thing that several people who study this have noticed is that this talk about Central Europe comes back when there is a demand for a big change, when somebody is trying to challenge the established order, to rebel against it. That was the case at the end of the Cold War because the countries who were forced to belong to the Soviet bloc no longer wanted to belong there. And there was this rebellion against the bipolar division of Europe into Eastern and Western Europe, which had been established for decades.

One of the major concepts or metaphors that you use to characterise the relationship between Central European countries and the European, or more specifically, the EU “Other,” is that of a student and a teacher. Could you tell us how this hierarchical dynamic has been changing over the last 30 years in each country respectively, and perhaps reflect a little bit on what are the wider implications of these changes for the future relationships between the Visegrád Four countries and the EU?

In terms of this concept, we have seen quite an evolution. Initially, when the Central European countries were trying to get into the EU and NATO, they were, of course, in no position to reject this student-teacher hierarchy. They had to prove that they were eligible to be members of this Western club, so to speak.

Now, we are seeing various kinds of rebellions. A tendency to take on some things but not others. We are going to take only that which we like from the West. And in some cases, the most confident ones even say that: “now we have nothing to learn from the West anymore, and now the West has to learn from us. It is the West’s turn to learn.” And there is an argument out there that the problems with democratic backsliding and the populist backlash in Central Europe are due to Central Europeans becoming tired of imitating the Western model because this imitation, just like any other imitation, will never be as good as the original. That is disappointing and frustrating.

In some sense, you could perhaps relate to that. It probably has something to do with human psychology because people in general do not like hierarchies, and they do not like being lectured at too much. And sometimes it has nothing to do with the content of the lesson. Objectively, you might actually need to learn something, but you do not want to. In particular, when you realize that the so-called role model is also not exactly ideal. So, this may be the issue. Central Europe is now part of the West but the West does not live up to its expectations. On the other hand, they no longer have such a big need to prove that they are eligible to be members of this club, because they are already in the club.

Having said that, I think we also see that the post-communist reform process is obviously not over. Legally speaking, Central Europe belongs in the West, but there are still huge gaps politically and economically speaking between the Eastern and the Western parts of the Union. In some countries, for instance, there is massive corruption and clear cases of state capture. In other places, you can have a very vibrant political life, like in Slovakia. However, it is a very turbulent and very unpredictable political environment because you do not really have a well-institutionalized system of parties, as you do in some Western democracies. Let’s see what the next election brings in Slovakia.

So there are these remaining East-West gaps. The EU membership of Central Europe countries happened almost two decades ago, but the transition is still happening. And now, you have a new and interesting variable in this equation because after the start of the full-scale war, some countries actually felt vindicated. Because they have been warning the West about Russia but the West just did not listen. This trend is particularly strong in Poland, for example, where you have this “we told you so” feeling. This is perhaps where the Western model can appear to be a bit too far from ideal, because part of it was about these naïve assumptions that you can somehow accommodate Russian authoritarianism through liberal interdependence. But there was also a degree of selfishness in that, basically excluding Central and Eastern European perspectives on the issue.

Another significant concept that you work with in your book is the idea of real or perceived marginalisation. As your case studies show, it is perfectly plausible for Central European countries to play the role of a victimised “small nation” or an underdog, while at the same time behaving like “subaltern imperialists,” trying to establish their own political and cultural hegemonies in the region. Could you tell us a bit more about this ambiguous identity laying somewhere between victimhood and exceptionalism and how this idea of “moral superiority” plays out in practice? If possible, not only in relationship to the European “Other” but also the Eastern “Less than,” if you may?

I am afraid that Viatcheslav Morozov who is best known for working with this concept of “subaltern empire” might take an issue with me for using this term in a very frivolous manner. In any case, I think that this is something that I would point out as being very interesting about Central and Eastern Europe. It is, perhaps, something that is unique or region-specific, but probably that is because I lack deep knowledge of other regions.

When you think about it, being a victim and a perpetrator at the same time is something very human. Some politicians, like Viktor Orbán, like to talk about something they call a shared Central European fate. What they mean by that is that there is a shared regional history of suffering from oppression. At the same time, we can see that sometimes the oppressor can become the oppressed and vice versa.

For example, let’s focus on Hungary in the 19th century. On the one hand, you can see the history of what they call the Hungarian Freedom Fight, or Szabadságharc. This was a struggle for autonomy and independence from Vienna, from the Habsburgs. And it happened in a very dramatic, very bloody, very heroic manner. At the same time, you have the Kingdom of Hungary that very aggressively tried to assimilate its non-Hungarian ethnies, denying them the right to exist as separate nations. At this point, for the Hungarian nationalists, there were no Slovaks, for example. Slovaks simply did not exist, and had no right to exist as a nation.

Now, let’s look at Poland where the notion of the Freedom Fight is also a cornerstone. Freedom, or Wolność, is absolutely essential in the Polish discourse. Not just freedom, but also a kind of heroic martyrdom. The partitioned Poland is portrayed as the Jesus Christ of nations suffering at the hands of other European countries. But then you see that in the 20th century, the restored Polish state, or the Second Republic that existed between the two World Wars, also became quite repressive and assimilationist towards ethnic minorities, including the Belarusians, the Ukrainians, and the Jews. You can find many other examples where you have this very peculiar combination of victimization, in a sense of being vulnerable and marginalized on the one hand. And on the other hand, you have these hegemonic ambitions and oppressive and expansionist behaviour.

I would like to take one more, perhaps controversial step, and try to inscribe the German experience into this as well. This is where we can come back to Friedrich Naumann and Mitteleuropa from 1915. When you read that book, you of course realise that this is a comprehensive hegemonic project. But on the other hand, there is also this inferiority complex that the Germans are experiencing with respect to the Western powers, i.e., Britain and France. In relation to them, Germany is also seen as somehow peripheral. It is vulnerable, weaker. It is kind of a latecomer to this European party of imperialism and colonialism. So, it wants to escape this peripherality and it wants to make itself not peripheral but central. This is why it needs this idea of Central Europe.

We have to bear in mind that history matters a lot, of course, but there is no automatic connection between the past and the present. The way in which we work with the past is always selective, i.e., we choose to remember and emphasize some things over others. As we know, nations are defined not only by what they choose to remember but also by what they collectively choose to forget. This has a strong impact on the present. For these historical traumas to play a role, they need to be revitalized, they need to be brought back and they need to be adapted to the present. You need to make them part of your political language. You need to connect these images of past oppression to the political enemies that you are facing today.

This is a niche for people that you may call political entrepreneurs or ideological entrepreneurs, and, politically speaking, this can be a very profitable business. In Central Europe, this business has obviously been growing with the rise of populism.

To stay on the “Eastern front” for a little longer – in your book, you make some interesting parallels between the political and ideological developments in Russia and their apparent “recycling” by certain Central European countries. Could you elaborate a bit more on this issue? What are these sources of inspiration and how are they manifested in the region?

One specific case to talk about here would be the political doctrine of illiberalism or illiberal democracy. Personally, I had an accidental advantage of working for some time in the field of Russian studies before I started writing about Central Europe.

I was positively shocked by how similar some of these ideas were. They reminded me of the earlier developments in Russia when Putin was solidifying his regime and the concept of sovereign democracy was actively used to legitimize his actions. I think it is very important to trace these parallels alongside some of the later developments in Central Europe because they do look as if they were somehow modelled on Russia and that is a bit scary.

I would say one crucial point here: in both cases there was capitalisation on the disappointments with the post-communist transition. This is where liberalism becomes the “Other.” We wrote a special study about this at some point, pinning down these parallels between Hungarian and Russian discourses. It is called Democracies: ‘Sovereign’ and ‘Illiberal’. The Russian-Hungarian Game of Adjectives and Its Implications for Regional Security. You can check that out for more detail.

On a connected note, I feel like there is quite a big elephant in the room that I think we should address. Your book begins and ends with two major critical junctures: starting with the migration crisis in 2015 and ending with the coronavirus pandemic in 2021. However, just a year later, yet another major critical juncture has completely re-shaped the regional dynamics, and that is the Russia-waged war on Ukraine. Do you already see any implications of this latest crisis on the questions you discuss in your book, on the relationships between Visegrád Four countries among themselves, but also on their relationship with the EU more generally?

This is why, when I presented the book in Bratislava last year, I said that it was outdated before it came out of print. I think that the Russian attack on Ukraine eclipses the migration crisis and, for Central and Eastern Europe specifically, even the pandemic. To me at least, they are totally diminished by this war. I would probably say that for the broader Central and Eastern Europe region in particular, the political and security implications of the pandemic were more terrible than the pandemic itself. I am not sure if that does not make Central Europe somewhat unique again.

These days you see that the V4 can be paralyzed by differences between Poland and Hungary in their reactions to the Russian aggression. I think this situation might to some extent vindicate one of the points that I tried to develop in the book, namely that their cooperation before was always heavily dependent on not addressing issues that could potentially be very divisive. And it was also dependent on the presence of the European Union and NATO. These institutions played a major stabilizing role and created a safe regional environment. That was what allowed the V4 to cooperate and to speak with one voice, when they felt it necessary. Now, with the Poland-Hungary rift, you see that some issues are no longer possible to ignore, and the whole thing is just falling apart. But I also think that the V4 and Central Europe will reinvent themselves in the new circumstances, because they always have.

To end on a slightly symbolic note: you start your book with an anecdote about getting stuck in Budapest right at the beginning of the migration crisis. You mention there: “one is not always capable of recognizing historic events, even when one is (un)fortunate to be in the midst of them. It often takes time.” As a conclusion, could you reflect a little bit on what it means to experience these great historical critical junctures, how can we reconcile with them, and whether there is any space for agency they might offer us as well?

I am obviously not very good at that. What you quoted was written before the war. When I was writing this in 2021, I had absolutely no idea what kind of history was waiting for us around the corner. This may be another lesson showing us that very few people, if any at all, are able to recognize the significance of such events as they are taking place. We are all very smart but always in hindsight. These days, people are talking about a possible world war. In this context, you can ask yourself: when exactly did people realize that they were living through the Second World War? That it had already begun? When did they realise that it was a World War, and not a local conflict? When was that exact moment?

That sounds very scary, but it is not a reason to give up on agency. Of course, in times like these, we may feel like we are just chips tossed around by the ocean, by these huge waves of history. But I think that agency matters. Individual choices matter. And resistance matters because, just as with big historic events, the significance of individual actions can sometimes be seen only from a great distance. Some things, the small deeds that seem pointless to us today, might be of great significance tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.

This is where you might have some room for optimism. I would finish by saying that

I often think about Karel Čapek, the great writer and intellectual of the first Czechoslovak republic, and how he died. He died on Christmas Day in 1938, just a few months after the betrayal of Czechoslovakia in Munich. I often think about how grim, how hopeless the situation must have looked to him. And of course, there were many terrible things that were yet to come, and he wouldn’t see them. It was a very dark century, but it ended better than you might have thought on the day of Čapek’s death, for both Czech and Slovaks today.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver.

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