Place in Europe or Nesting Eastern Europeanism

How we name places is important – for proof look no further than the dispute between China and Japan over what to call those islands in the Pacific, or Greece’s refusal to accept Macedonian accession to NATO or the European Union so long as it insists on calling itself the Republic of Macedonia. In those cases, the place names serve or are viewed as (in the case of Greece and Macedonia) fairly straightforward proxies for physical control, but they also work as cultural signifiers, endowing the locations they denote with a host of contested connotations. As such, even when something as tangible as territorial control isn’t at stake, place names are of crucial importance, since how we call a certain thing can profoundly influence how we talk about it, with subsequent real implications for the formation and execution of actual policy there. Unsurprisingly then, controlling the geographical discourse regarding a given location isn’t just idle pedantry. The sinister version of this exercise has been conducted with unfortunate skill by Putin in his resurrection of the term “Novorossiya”, but a more harmless and delightful example appeared on Monday this week in a post for the FT’beyondbrics blog by Jan Cienski.

The piece is titled “[C]entral Europe should help entice eastern Europe into the EU,” and its last paragraph puts his argument most succinctly saying of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary:

A quarter of a century ago, the prosperous and well-run countries of western Europe were an attractive model for a central Europe shaking off decades of communist dictatorship. Today, central Europe can entice eastern Europe in the same way.

The thesis itself is unsurprising – it’s the verbiage that catches the eye. With his phrasing Cienski firmly situates Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in Central Europe – Easter Europe is presumably Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and perhaps Armenia or Azerbaijan (to say nothing of Russia).** But this is by no means standard practice – here is Der Spiegel, Bloomberg, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies all referring to Poland (to take one of the countries under consideration) as part of Eastern Europe.*** There is of course a strong geographical argument in favor of Cienski’s decision to use Central Europe; Poland is in Europe and there is more of Europe to both its right and its left. So it is in Central Europe. But I suspect that’s not what motivates his choice.

There is a long European history of “East” and “the Orient” as signifiers of a combination of intoxicating exoticism, economic and political backwardness, and social underdevelopment. Larry Wolf’s Inventing Eastern Europe (which admittedly I haven’t read, but would like to), and Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (Ooo, this one I did read) both demonstrate how geographical terms like East and West have been adopted as conceptual identifiers to differentiate between the “civilized” world and its primitive neighbors, who almost invariably live further to the south and/or east of the person doing the differentiating. Milica Bakić-Hayden describes the phenomenon with the concept of Nesting Orientalisms, in which as one moves eastwards, so too is a perceived, primitive, otherness consistently displaced, such that one maintains a consistent distance (physical or otherwise) between one’s own location and that of the barbarians believed to live just over the horizon by the local inhabitants. It is the power to shape discourses contained by these concepts of place that lead some Slovenians to protest vehemently their country’s inclusion in the Balkans, or that led an Austrian manager at OMV to make damn sure I understood that Austria is not part of South East Europe and most definitely part of Western Europe. In each case there is a palpable fear of unwarranted inclusion with “the backwards unwashed hordes” conjured up by words like Balkan, South, or East.

So by placing Poland in Central Europe, I think Cienski is trying to do more than strike a blow for geographical accuracy. Indeed, I think he is quite consciously laying claim to a historical concept of Central Europe or Mitteleuropa in an effort to disassociate modern, forward-looking Poland from the images of Warsaw Pact-era backwardness conjured up by the term “Eastern Europe”.**** In the words of Timothy Garton Ash:*****

“As revived by Kundera and others, the idea of Central Europe was directed against the East (with a large E), and specifically against Russia. Central Europe, Kundera suggested, was the ‘kidnapped West.’ Until 1945, it had participated fully in all the great cultural movements of the West, from western Christianity, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment to Expressionism and Cubism.”

Thus to say that Poland is in Central Europe is to say that Poland is not backwards, it is to say that Poland works, that Poland is a modern nation-state fully in keeping with the great tradition of Western democracy and post-Enlightenment rationalism (all of this is true, by the way, and Poland is fantastic and you should definitely go there). And by locating Eastern Europe outside the border of the European Union, the attendant negative associations it carries with it become located there, too. In this way, a sort of Nesting Eastern Europeanism results, in which countries that many “Western” publications still refer to as part of Eastern Europe have come to see the term as only applying to the countries to their immediate east. To the extent that Eastern Europe does prompt unflattering connections in the minds of readers it is a bit unfortunate that now countries like Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova will have to deal with them, but on the other hand, having a European identity is a bit of an upgrade since, insofar as they spent much of the 20th century as part of the USSR, they were not necessarily considered part of Europe at all.******

*There’s something pretty intuitive albeit childish about the idea that if you own a place you can call it whatever you want, and if you don’t own a place having people use your preferred name for it will at least make you feel like you do
**I mean, Baku did host Eurovision
***Though interestingly Wikipedia says Poland is in Central Europe
****Sort of the academic version of a re-branding, if you will
History of the Present, pg 352. Also here is Robert Kaplan making the same point
******Incidentally, I don’t point out any of this to criticize Jan Cienski for using the term Eastern Europe to describe what lies to the East of the V4 countries. You have to call places something and “those countries in between Russia and Germany” is a bit of a mouthful