“I’m delighted,” said Henry Kissinger, “to be here in Eastern, I mean Central Europe.” And for the rest of his talk he kept saying “Eastern, I mean Central Europe.” The place was Warsaw, the time, summer 1990, and this was the moment I knew Central Europe had triumphed.
For nearly forty years after 1945, the term was almost entirely absent from the political parlance of Europe. Hitler had poisoned it; the cold war division into East and West obliterated it. In the 1980s, it was revived by Czech, Hungarian, and Polish writers such as Milan Kundera, György Konrád, and Czeslaw Milosz, as an intellectual and political alternative to the Soviet-dominated “Eastern Europe.” At that time, I wrote a sympathetic but also skeptical essay in these pages entitled “Does Central Europe Exist?”1
In the 1990s, Central Europe has become part of the regular political language. To mark the shift, both the US State Department and the British Foreign Office have Central European departments. Although people still privately say “Eastern Europe,” every young diplomat knows that one should refer to the entire postcommunist region as “Central and Eastern Europe,” a phrase so cumbersome it is often reduced to an abbreviation: CEE in English, MOE (Mittel- und Osteuropa) in German. Even Queen Elizabeth II has spoken of “Central Europe,” in the Queen’s Speech to the British Parliament. So it’s official. If the Queen and Henry Kissinger say it exists, it exists.
Just one problem remains: Where is it? “Central Europe,” wrote the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a newspaper article last year, “has more than 20 countries and 200 million people.”2 Yet we often find the term used to mean just the countries who are joining NATO this spring, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, or the “first wave” of post-communist states negotiating to join the EU: the same three, plus Estonia and Slovenia.
Such disagreement is nothing new. In an article published in 1954, the geographer Karl Sinnhuber examined sixteen definitions of Central Europe. The only part of Europe that none of them included was the Iberian peninsula. The only areas they all had in common were Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia.3 Tell me your Central Europe and I will tell you who you are.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the debate about who did or did not belong to Central Europe had real political significance. So it has today. For to be “Central European” in contemporary political usage means to be civilized, democratic, cooperative—and therefore to have a better chance of joining NATO and the EU. In fact, the argument threatens to become circular: NATO and the EU welcome “Central Europeans,” so “Central Europeans” are those whom NATO and the EU welcome.
The rival definitions are based on arguments from geography, history, culture, religion, economics, and politics. There are also major differences between how countries see themselves and how others see them. Since countries are not single people, and there are many “others,” one has to generalize dangerously from a whole kaleidoscope of national and individual views. I am mainly concerned here with the way the concept is deployed in what we still often call “the West,” meaning primarily policymakers and opinion-formers in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and other members of NATO and the EU.
Since Central Europe is, by definition, somewhere in the center, every one of its boundaries is disputed: northern, western, southern, and eastern. By the same token, in delineating Central Europe we also delineate the other major geopolitical regions of Europe today.
Interestingly, and encouragingly, the boundary that was most hotly disputed at the beginning of the twentieth century is largely uncontroversial at its end: the western one. The idea of “Central Europe” exploded during the First World War as a furious argument between those, like the German liberal imperialist Friedrich Naumann, who envisaged a German- and Austrian-ruled Mitteleuropa, and those, like Tomáså? Garrigue Masaryk, the future president of Czechoslovakia, who were fighting for a Central Europe of small states liberated from German, Austrian, and Russian imperial domination. This argument between visions of Mitteleuropa on the one side and of Strå?ední Evropa or Europa Srodkowa on the other continued throughout the “second thirty years’ war” from 1914 to 1945. It culminated in the Austrian-German Adolf Hitler’s attempt to impose his own grotesque version of Mitteleuropa on Germany’s eastern neighbors.
So when the term was revived in the 1980s, there was understandable nervousness both among Germany’s neighbors and in Germany itself. Many German writers preferred to use the less historically loaded term Zentraleuropa. But recent years have been reassuring. After some discussion, the Masaryk of the 1990s, Václav Havel, invited President von Weizsäcker of Germany to attend regular meetings of “Central European presidents,” and the German president has done so ever since. Most German policymakers now accept that the reunited country is firmly in both Western Europe and Central Europe again. As Havel once put it to me, Germany is in Central Europe “with one leg.”
Of course, there have been tensions between Germany and its eastern neighbors—especially between Germany and the Czech Republic. And there will be more as the enlargement of the European Union slowly approaches, with Germans fearing that Poles and Czechs will take their jobs, and Poles and Czechs fearing that Germans will buy up their land. (The latter fears are especially pronounced in the formerly German western parts of Poland and in what used to be the Sudetenland, in the Czech Republic.) Yet no one could now argue that there is any fundamental political difference between what a mainstream German politician means by Mitteleuropa and what a Czech leader means by Strå?ední Evropa or a Pole by Europa Srodkowa. Increasingly, they are just different words for the same thing. This testifies to the wisdom of all sides, and it is one of the bright spots on the map of Europe at century’s end.
Meanwhile, the Austrians quietly pursue their own dream of Central Europe, by which they mean nothing more or less than the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Symbolically, Austria celebrated its first presidency of the European Union with a “Festival of Central European Culture.” More practically, flying Austrian Airlines is now the best way to get around the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a new Central European air traffic control center will be located in Vienna. At the same time, Austrians are even more hostile than Germans to the idea of people from their former empire actually coming to live in their country and competing for their jobs.
For completeness, one should add the eastern parts of Italy that have very special ties with Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria—special ties consisting partly in the fact that Italy contains a small, still largely German-speaking piece of what used to be Austria (the South Tirol or Alto Adige) while Slovenia and Croatia have a little bit of what used to be Italy (eastern Friuli, the area around Trieste, and the Istrian peninsula). Some would also include Liechtenstein and German-speaking Switzerland, although the Swiss generally hold themselves above this kind of thing. In all these cases, the historical legacy is still being played out in a hundred intricate ties and tensions. As I write I have before me a purely hedonistic Guida alla Mitteleuropa, published in Florence in 1992, which maps an Italian “Mitteleuropa” from Milan via St. Moritz, Vaduz, and Bayreuth to Prague, then back through Vienna, Budapest, and Zagreb to Trieste, Venice, and Verona.
I find it useful to distinguish between West Central Europe—meaning mainly Germany, but also Austria and that corner of Italy—and East Central Europe. But when people say “Central Europe” in English, they usually mean just the latter. As Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic become Western-style capitalist democracies, join NATO, and (eventually) enter the EU, so the line between Central and Western Europe becomes increasingly blurred. Far from being dismayed, those who revived the term in the 1980s should be delighted by this merging.
The frontier that needs trouble us least is the northern one. In his anxiety to gather all the small nations under the flag, Masaryk included in his Central Europe everyone from Laplanders in the north to Greeks in the south. The region stretched, he implausibly suggested, from “the North Cape to Cape Matapan.” But Scandinavia has a quite distinct identity. To be sure, the Baltic states are an important borderline case. Lithuanians, in particular, will tell you their country belongs both to the Nordic or Baltic area and to Central Europe. Lithuania, they argue, is a bridge between the two. Since, however, Scandinavia is part of the Western capitalist democratic world, and the Baltic states are small, their in-between position is not of itself a political problem, although Russia’s objections to their membership in NATO and the status of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad will be.
The major political argument now is about the eastern and southern edges. 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.”4 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. But politically it was now imprisoned in the East. Out of a cultural canon he made a cannon—firing against the East. As Joseph Brodsky pointed out, this was quite unfair to Russian culture. But politically, it was justified and effective as an antidote to the even more misleading notion of a single “Eastern Europe.”
In the 1990s, the cultural ca(n)non has been directed against the south more than the east. The new democracies of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia set out early in the decade to pursue Central European cooperation, symbolized by their forming the “Visegrád group” in February 1991. They did this partly because they believed in the idea of Central Europe, which Havel and the new Hungarian president, Arpád Göncz, had preached in the 1980s, and wished to preclude any return to the petty nationalisms of the interwar years. But it was also because this tight little regional cooperation would win their countries favor in the West. Which it did.
They had little trouble distinguishing themselves from the new eastern (with a small e) Europe: Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia. More difficult was the south. Romania tried to join the group at an early stage. The door was firmly closed in its face. A good reason for this was that Romania was at that time an undemocratic mess. A less good reason was that Polish, Hungarian, and (then still) Czechoslovak leaders thought they had a better chance of entering or (as the Central European ideology prescribes) “rejoining” the West in a smaller, more homogeneous group. Which they did.
Then came the bloody collapse of the former Yugoslavia. This revived another previously dormant geopolitical notion, “the Balkans,” with connotations as negative as those of “Central Europe” were now positive. For politicians everywhere, and especially for Polish, Hungarian, and Czech politicians, the Manichaean contrast between “Central Europe,” bathed in light, and “the Balkans,” drenched in blood, was irresistible.5
To cap it all, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington made his influential argument that the new cleavages of world politics would be based on “the clash of civilizations”—civilizations being defined mainly by their religious origins.6 Kundera’s view of Central Europe, arguing as it does from culture to politics, fits perfectly into the Huntingtonian scheme, and it’s no surprise to find Huntington enthusiastically adopting the term. But he goes further, suggesting that the eastern and southern boundary of Central Europe is simultaneously the frontier of Europe and “Western civilization.”
What is this boundary, more fundamental, it seems, even than the post-1945 iron curtain? According to Huntington, it is the dividing line between Western (Catholic or Protestant) Christianity on the one side and Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity or Islam on the other. This line has been in roughly its present position (see map) for about five hundred years, and its origins go back as far as the division of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Huntington even suggests that, because they are on the wrong side of the line, Turkey and Greece might not remain full members of NATO and, in the case of Greece, the EU. Note, however, that the Baltic states, most of western Ukraine, half of Romania, all of Croatia, and even small parts of Bosnia and Serbia (i.e., the formerly Hungarian province of Vojvodina) fall on the “western” side.
At worst, the result has been an extreme cultural determinism. I call it Vulgar Huntingtonism, by analogy with Vulgar Marxism. It says: If your heritage is Western Christianity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, Baroque architecture, and coffee with Schlagobers, then you are destined for democracy. But Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity or Islam, the Russian or Ottoman empires, minarets, burek, and Turkish coffee? Doomed to dictatorship. Of course this is crude to the point of parody. But the way political ideas get used in real politics is very crude. And it has not been in the interest of the “Central Europeans” to restore any confusing nuances.
Yet this extreme cultural determinism curiously coexists with an equally extreme political voluntarism. For in the political usage of the West, countries seem to jump in and out of “Central Europe” according to their current political behavior. The best example of this is Slovakia.
In 1990, few people doubted that Slovakia belonged to Central Europe. It joined the Visegrád group as part of Czechoslovakia, the common state to which it had belonged for all but five of the previous seventy years. Being in the same state as the Czech lands, core areas of Central Europe according to all the definitions collected by Karl Sinnhuber, was certainly a help. Yet Slovakia had many of the historical qualifications in its own right, being geographically central, overwhelmingly Catholic, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and with a capital that was once—though as Pressburg or Pozsony rather than as Bratislava—a cosmopolitan Central European city.
At the same time, its politicians were looking for more autonomy from Prague and a better deal in the Czecho-Slovak federation. These nationalist demands escalated under the demagogic populist Vladimir Mecå?iar, until the new Czech prime minister Václav Klaus suddenly gave more than most Slovaks (and probably Mecå?iar himself) wanted: full independence as a sovereign state, from January 1, 1993. A headline in a Czech newspaper summed up the Klaus view. It said: “Alone to Europe or with Slovakia to the Balkans?”
For nearly six years thereafter, with one six-month intermission, Mecå?iar ran a corrupt, nationalist, semi-authoritarian regime of the kind that has been called, adapting a Latin American term, demokratura. It had more in common with the Tudjman regime in Croatia or even the Miloså?evicå« regime in Serbia than it did with politics in the Czech Republic. The two parts of the former country—Masaryk’s country—grew apart at extraordinary speed. (“Yes, we occasionally look at Czech television,” a Slovak friend told me. “We watch it as we used to watch Austrian television in the communist times.”)
The three pillars of Mecå?iar’s demokratura, as of Tudjman’s and Miloså?evicå«’s, were state television, the secret police, and the misappropriation of the formerly state-owned economy by regime members and supporters.7 Television was grotesquely biased and manipulated. The secret police, called the Slovak Information Service (hence SIS, but not to be confused with the British Secret Intelligence Service), bugged, burgled, and intimidated Mecå?iar’s opponents. SIS officers were almost certainly implicated in kidnapping the son of the country’s president, Michal Kovácå?, Mecå?iar’s most prominent critic, and the subsequent murder of someone trying to spill the beans on their involvement in the crime. “Privatization” was a polite word for misappropriation. And then there was nationalist scapegoating against ethnic Hungarians, some 11 percent of the new state’s population. They were denied basic minority rights, such as having street signs in their own language, and they were ranted against by Mecå?iar in what one Slovak democrat described to me as his “hate hours.” Relations with Hungary were abysmal.
In this fashion, Slovakia ejected itself from Central Europe. It fell off the “first wave” list of candidates for NATO and the EU. The Czechs, despairing of their former partner, took up instead with Slovenia, that most northern, prosperous, and peaceful of the former Yugoslav republics having successfully sold itself as a Central European state. (There were even quips about Czecho-Slovenia.) Early in 1998, Madeleine Albright, herself of Czech origin, warned that Slovakia could become “a hole on the map of Europe.” As late as August, Martin Simecå?ka, one of the country’s leading independent journalists, wrote to me: “The situation here is worse and worse. Yesterday happened something bad in the private TV channel Markiza, Mecå?iar is going to take it. He learns from Miloså?evicå« and Tudjman.”
Then, suddenly, everything changed. In September 1998, Mecå?iar lost the election. He was peacefully and decisively defeated by a grand coalition of opposition parties supported by non-governmental organizations, trade unions, independent media, and parts of the Catholic Church. When I visited Bratislava in November, there was a real sense of liberation. Slovakia did not have much of a popular “velvet revolution” in 1989, and the sociologist Martin Bútora suggested to me that this peaceful overthrow of Mecå?iar was “our delayed velvet revolution.” In previous years, people who joined in the October 28 manifestation to mark the founding of Czechoslovakia looked around nervously, fearing surveillance or provocation by Mecå?iar’s agents. This year it was all smiles and celebration. The head of the private Radio Twist told me he used to spend three quarters of his time defending it against regime harassment: licenses revoked, punitive taxes, power lines cut. Now he jokes that he has so much free time he doesn’t know what to do with it.
In parliament, I watched the dismantling of two pillars of the demokratura, as deputies installed a new supervisory board for state television and a new head of the security service. One deputy prime minister told me how the new government was going to build a true market economy. Another, himself a Hungarian, explained how the rights of the Hungarian minority would be respected.
The governing coalition is a fragile one, but thus far its members have made all the right noises about minority rights, the rule of law, genuine free-market economics, and qualifying for membership in the EU and NATO. The West has responded in kind. Madeleine Albright told the new foreign minister in January that “if Slovakia continues these reforms and keeps improving its relations with its neighbors” then it would be “a strong candidate” for the next round of NATO enlargement. The French foreign minister encouraged him to believe that the EU might start negotiations with Slovakia sometime this year. As if by magic, Slovakia is back in Central Europe again.
If you ask “why did it fall out?” you can find several answers. One is that the substantial Hungarian ethnic minority could be used by Mecå?iar as a scapegoat for Slovakia’s troubles—especially because the Hungarians are widely seen as a former oppressor. (Slovakia was part of Hungary until 1918, and subjected to “Magyarization.”) It has been something close to a rule in the 1990s that the greater the ethnic mix in a postcommunist country, the more likely it has been to take a nationalist authoritarian path rather than a liberal democratic one. Those that have done best are also those that are ethnically most homogeneous: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and, yes, Slovenia. (Like all rules, this one has exceptions to prove it, such as Estonia, with its large ethnic Russian population.)
There’s a great irony here so far as the Central European debate is concerned. The 1980s revival of the Central European idea involved a celebration of the region’s pre-war ethnic and cultural mélange: mixed cities, like Prague or Czernowitz or Bratislava before it was called Bratislava, where people habitually spoke three or four languages; large minorities, especially Jewish and German ones; multiculturalism avant la lettre. Yet it seems that one of the preconditions for being seen as part of the political Central Europe in the 1990s was precisely not to be Central European in this earlier sense. Or to put it another way: Slovakia’s problem was that it was still a bit too Central European, in the older sense.
Other reasons offered for Slovakia’s falling away included the weakness of its pre-1989 opposition. “There were really only two dissidents in Bratislava before 1989,” the former dissident Miroslav Kusyå« reminded me. (The other was Milan Simecå?ka, father of Martin.) This meant there was no liberal counter-elite to take power after the communists fell, leaving the door open for a skillful populist thug like Mecå?iar. Then there was the fact that Slovakia’s only previous experience of nation-statehood was the clerical fascist state of Monsignore Jozef Tiso, established under license from Hitler during World War II. And this was an agrarian society with a relatively small bourgeoisie. In other words, Slovakia was missing some vital elements on the 1980s Central European checklist.
But then you have to ask why it succeeded in bouncing back again. Well, there was the proximity to better examples: Slovakia is sandwiched between Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, while Bratislava is an hour’s bus ride from Vienna. And there was significant pressure from the West, both active criticism and what has been called the “passive leverage” of NATO and the EU (i.e., if you don’t do X and Y, we simply won’t let you in).8 But perhaps the most important was another key item on the 1980s checklist: civil society.
Even in the worst moments of Mecå?iarism, Slovakia had an active civil society—or what Slovaks call “the third sector.” There was the powerful Catholic Church. (Although its leaders were rarely outspoken in criticizing Mecå?iar, prominent lay Catholics were.) There were independent radio stations, magazines, and the private television channel Markiza. And there were numerous nongovernmental organizations. For this autumn’s election, some sixty of these got together in a countrywide campaign to persuade people to turn out and vote, starting in the remotest mountain villages and working down toward Bratislava. There were mass meetings, posters, pamphlets, T-shirts, buttons, baseball caps, and “Rock the Vote” concerts. Arguably this swung the election. The number of votes cast for Mecå?iar’s party actually increased marginally from the previous election in 1994 but, at least partly thanks to this campaign, the electoral turnout went up much more, from 75 percent to 84 percent. It was these new voters that did in Vladimir the Terrible. When I described this civic campaign to opposition friends in Serbia a week later, they threw up their hands in envious despair. So perhaps this was a triumph for Central Europe, in yet another sense.
In sum, the phenomenon of Mecå?iar shows that a positive political outcome (in shorthand, “democracy”) is not culturally predetermined by a Central European heritage. But the circumstances of his ouster also suggest that it helps.
Geopolitical boundaries are not just lines drawn on maps by officials in gilded conference chambers. If they are real, then things change when you cross them on the ground. The iron curtain was like that: walk ten yards from Checkpoint Charlie and you were in a different world. If you want to experience such a dividing line in today’s Europe, then I suggest you go by foot, as I did on a cold November evening, through the border crossing between Vyså?né Nemecké in Slovakia and Uzå?horod in Ukraine.
The shock was instantaneous. Well-made asphalt roads gave way to potholes and cobblestones. The Ukrainian border post seemed to have been overrun by shaven-headed, thickset men dressed in black boots, black jeans, black sweaters, and bulging black leather jackets: the uniform of the postcommunist mafiosi. I watched them taking customs officials by the elbow for a quiet word in a dark corner. I could almost hear the word “corruption” hiss through the freezing fog. Murmuring into their mobile phones, they jumped into dirty black Volvos of the latest, most powerful model, and screeched off down the road.
Pausing to set our watches forward one hour from Central to East European Time, my companion and I proceeded, more sedately, past large, extravagant villas, with giant satellite dishes, security cameras, high walls, and metal gates. “New Ukraine!” exclaimed our guide, a professor at Uzå?horod University, whose own salary is barely $50 a month—and he hadn’t been paid for three months. He accepted the hard currency that I gave him for a day’s guiding services (the equivalent of a month’s salary) with a mixture of gratitude and wounded pride, while we both desperately tried to keep up the pretense that this was just normal academic collaboration between Oxford and Uzå?horod.
The hotel demanded payment in advance, cash only, and we were instructed to lock our doors from the inside. A friend told how his father-in-law had a small collision with one of those black Volvos. Four men in black jumped out: “This will cost you $4,500. Cash. We come to your office tomorrow morning.” He rang the police and gave them the Volvo’s license number, which they promised to check out. An hour later the police rang back. They said: “When those men call tomorrow, you pay.” This is a different world. Its essential qualities, as in Serbia, are habitual corruption, arbitrariness supported by violence, and a state that either cannot protect you or is itself criminal.
Today the boundary between Central and Eastern Europe—Ukraine, Belarus, and European Russia—is clear and deep and real. I’ve made the case anecdotally, almost flippantly, but one could do so systematically and at length, with supporting statistics and graphs. This is emphatically not to argue cultural predestination. The Huntington line, our new successor to the Curzon line, runs many miles east of here. The line you cross at Uzå?horod is the western frontier of the former Soviet Union, not the eastern frontier of Western Christendom. Nor am I suggesting that these countries are eternally doomed to corruption, chaos, and poverty. Indeed, there is a real possibility that the western Ukraine and western Belarus, which, like the Baltic states, were only part of the Soviet Union for two generations rather than three, might recover more quickly than the rest. But both the quality and the sheer scale of the problems of postcommunism in the states of the eastern Slavs make a political dividing line that will probably last for at least another decade. Today, the eastern frontier of the West runs no longer along the river Elbe, or along the Oder and Neisse, but along two rivers most people have never heard of: the Bug and the Uzå?.
The crossings to the south, between Central Europe and what we again call the Balkans, present a much less sharp contrast. To walk from Hungary into northern Romania is not to enter a different world. Partly that is because Hungarians live on both sides of the frontier. Both Transylvania in the north and the Banat in the west, which between them make up more than a third of the country, are positively marked by the Austro-Hungarian heritage. But even if you take the southern and eastern parts of Romania that belonged to the Ottoman Empire, the differences in society, politics, and economics between Hungary and Romania are nothing like as marked as those between Slovakia and Ukraine.
If you go from the Slovenian part of Istria to the Croatian part, you hardly notice the difference at all. As my Guido alla Mitteleuropa rightly suggests, Catholic, formerly Habsburg Croatia clearly qualifies historically as part of Central Europe. Politically, in this decade, Croatia has been part of the Balkans. But, as I recently argued in these pages, there is a good chance that it will come back, with Tudjman’s demokratura crumbling either before or after his death. A new ethnic homogeneity—achieved by ethnic cleansing while the West looked the other way—provides favorable conditions for a return to Central Europe.
There is at least another ten years of work ahead before all those states which have a credible claim to belong to Central Europe by virtue of geography, history, and culture will also be part of Central Europe, in the 1990s sense, on account of their current politics and the way they are viewed in the West. It will be longer still before this Central Europe becomes just central Europe, another region of Western Europe, as northern Europe and southern Europe are today. Meanwhile, countries like Ukraine may lift themselves up, especially if the West makes a more determined effort to help them than it has over the last decade.
Yet Central Europe does have to stop somewhere. To have a purely political, voluntarist definition of it is as absurd as it is to have a purely cultural- determinist one. It has been reasonable enough for the West to make political behavior the prime criterion of acceptance, saying, in effect, “Central European is as Central European does.” But you can’t go on forever suggesting that whichever among the postcommunist states exhibits the rule of law, democracy, tolerance, respect for minority rights, and interest in peaceful international cooperation will ipso facto become part of Central Europe. For example, even if Serbia one day meets all these political criteria, it will not be part of Central Europe. It will still be in the Balkans.
The trouble is that, at the moment, these are not neutral statements. They are heavily charged, positively in the first case, negatively in the second. This is the danger in making any association of a geographical expression with a set of values or aspirations. It’s a problem not just with “Central Europe,” but with “Europe” (as in “European values”) and “the West” (as in “Western civilization,” or “Western values” contrasted with “Asian values”).
Yet the difficulty lies precisely in the fact that this association with Central Europe (as with Europe and the West) is not completely arbitrary. There is some truth in it. There was a core and a periphery in European historical development. The difference between Western Christianity, with its crucial separation of Church and State, and Eastern Christianity, with its legacy of “Caesaro-Papism,” has deeply marked the political history of Russia as opposed to, say, France. And this truth is not just historical. It is also hard contemporary experience. As I was preparing to fly to Slovakia from Heathrow airport, I met a banker of my acquaintance who travels extensively in CEE. He bluntly summed up his personal findings thus: “The further east and south you go, the more corruption and chaos.”
The cardinal fault, it seems to me, is to turn probabilities into certainties, grey zones into lines between black and white, and, above all, working descriptions into self-fulfilling prophecies. We know, for example, that the following outcomes will be difficult to achieve: Balkan tolerance, Ukrainian prosperity, Russian democracy, Turkish respect for human rights. But to suggest that such pairings of words are contradictions in terms is not just to relativize our own values. It is also to betray the many, many people who are fighting for these things in these places, against the odds, and sometimes at the risk of their lives.
I have tried to make the case for Central Europe for nearly two decades. I believe it has been a good cause, and has helped to transform the central region of Europe for the better. But I am appalled at the way the idea has now been recruited into the service of the politics of relativism and exclusion. Whatever and wherever Central Europe is, it should never be part of that.
March 18, 1999
“NATO Enlargement: Build a Europe Whole and Free,” International Herald Tribune, April 30, 1998. ↩
Karl A. Sinnhuber, “Central Europe—Mitteleuropa—Europe Centrale: An Analysis of a Geographical Term,” Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society (London: Institute of British Geographers, Transactions and Papers, 1954). ↩
Milan Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” The New York Review, April 26, 1984. The version of this essay published in Granta, No. 11, 1984, bore Kundera’s own title, “A Kidnapped West or Culture Bows Out.” ↩
Vesna Goldsworthy explores the literary-political past and present of these negative images of the Balkans in her Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (Yale University Press, 1998). ↩
See his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon and Schuster, 1996). His original article on “the clash of civilizations” was published in Foreign Affairs in summer 1993. ↩
See the forthcoming book by Milada Vachudova, Revolution, Democracy, and Integration: The Domestic and International Politics of East Central Europe since 1989 (Oxford University Press). The argument in this essay is also indebted to the article by Tim Snyder and Milada Vachudova, “Are Transitions Transitory? Two Types of Political Change in Eastern Europe since 1989,” East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 11, No. 1, and to comments by Tim Snyder, Vladimir Tismaneanu, and Charles King. ↩