When the East Tries to Become the West

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of NewsNet. Please click through for a full list of resources. 

Following the example of Anna Grzymala-Busse’s President’s Address at last year’s convention, this article considers the 2018 Annual Convention theme of “Performance” by comparing the incomparable. I examine the two major Western-centric efforts at “Europeanizing” the East: attempts to establish institutions, policies, and practices associated, first, with the modern nation-state concept, and second, with the European Union (EU). Both inspired certain performances from eastern elites, whether as nationalists, Europeans, or both, potentially altering values and identities. Comparing these periods explains why scholars tend to underestimate the retrenchment of liberal-democracy after the “return to Europe.”

The first major application of the modern nation-state concept in the East began with recognition of Greece in 1830 – the inaugural state recognized for a specific people. Yet few Greeks on the Peloponnese or nearby areas wanted a nation-state. Rebel leaders simply wished to end Ottoman control and make themselves rulers with powers similar to local warlords. Local appeals to the nation-state idea and efforts to appear as a state in the making largely reflected an understanding of how to best court external forces. Greek expatriate activists and Philhellenes more genuinely advocated for recognition of a European nation-state centered on the reconstruction of Ancient Hellas, thus illustrating Chip Gagnon’s claim that major powers, which facilitated the international recognition of an area’s independence and sovereignty, shaped nationalist discourse towards demonstrating the existence of a territorially-based, linguistically-defined nation.

Following the defeat of Napoleon and European governments’ move towards or enhancement of authoritarianism, the Greek campaign channeled unfulfilled desires for political liberalism and constitutional government across Europe even though most inhabitants of the incipient Greece showed little appetite for liberalism. Major powers initially categorized the Greek rebellion as a liberal revolt comparable to the 1820-21 rebellions in Spain, Portugal, and Italy rather than taking stock of local conditions. This “Europeanization” of the Greek revolt reflected the great powers’ attempt to forestall a European-wide war should Russia intervene on behalf of the Greek rebels. Greece’s emergence soon depended heavily on these powers after rebel fractiousness increased, effective government proved elusive, and defeat by Egyptian-Ottoman forces became imminent.

Recent historical research shows that a significant nationalist uprising never appeared in the Ottoman Empire before WWI, with much of the population resisting nationalist appeals even into the 20th century. In such circumstances, the sporadic application of the nation-state concept in the Balkans owed much to great power policy. Edin Hajdarpasic provides a glimpse of the performative effects. The precedent-setting recognition of the Greek Kingdom and a semiautonomous Serbian principality, following regional revolts, facilitated a post-1830s shift in local activism towards the planning of other uprisings to create new states such as Bulgaria, Macedonia and Bosnia, or at least the enlargement of the Greek and Serb areas, even if such goals were considered unattainable or rejected by many sympathizers.
The 1878 Berlin Treaty recognizing Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and an autonomous Bulgaria signaled a change of major powers’ focus to the ethnonational identity of populations. According to Ron Suny, European powers unintentionally sanctioned nationalist activism as a means to acquire European acceptance of territorial claims to secure political freedom for various peoples. These new states in turn facilitated irredentisms spurring further competition among nationalists to win the support of local Balkan populations. While local actors were essential for nation-states’ emergence, the absence of indigenous roots for nationalism in Ottoman lands signals the influence of the European-style nation-state concept on local actors’ self-presentation.

Major powers often facilitated the de facto autonomy, if not independence, they eventually recognized. The powers turned towards the nation-state concept primarily to undercut imperial competitors by supporting particular nationalist activists or to reach agreement on post-conflict settlement. During WWI, Allied policy-makers tended to support nationalists who offered military forces for their respective war aims. While national self-determination served as a key policy goal at Versailles, troop locations largely determined the location of borders. By the interwar period, further application of the nation-state concept in diverse areas facilitated irredentisms for new or expanded states and helped give national identity substantial traction across Eastern Europe.

Shifting to the second major Western-oriented “Europeanization” project involving the granting of EU membership to eastern countries, we see a more intentional, systematic effort occurring within a much shorter time. In setting policy Western powers again prioritized their interests, and once more were initially reluctant to “Europeanize” these territories. As before, the Western-centric incentives for particular forms of self-presentation among eastern elites—this time reflecting post-national, increasingly neoliberal reforms—did not fit easily with existing norms, values, and practices. Since some socialist regimes referenced nationalist ideas to bolster their legitimacy, national identity continued to have significance during the Cold War.

Yet, in 1989 and its immediate aftermath the path to transformation in the East was unclear. Then the idea of a “return to Europe” encompassed electoral democracy and the re-establishment of civil society. Liberalism would supposedly prevent the return of an overbearing state. While neoliberalism appealed to reformers eager to pursue a form of anti-socialist capitalism, economic pluralism by forging a “third way” between capitalism and socialism gained ground in the early 1990s. An uptick in nationalist politics and the early stirrings of the Yugoslav wars also occurred, leaving the re-emergence of space for civil society to be filled instead with illiberal discourses of social exclusion.

A second path towards Europe, a route that gained in importance as home-grown civil society and third-way ideas on economic reform lost prominence, involved candidate countries joining all key pan-European and international organizations: the OSCE, OECD, NATO, the Council of Europe (COE), and especially the EU. Though EU conditionality was sometimes vague and inconsistent, joining the EU generally required that new members adopt policies supporting: (1) human rights, the rule of law, constitutional democracy, freedom, and market economics, (2) minority rights, and (3) economic integration by allowing the free movement of people, goods, capital, and services between member states, and market regulation to diminish the social downsides of capitalism.

The requirement that incoming member states adopt the EU’s Single Market policies and minority rights policies raises the question of what happens when, in the late Jerzy Szacki’s words, familiar ideas “are transported to entirely different conditions from those in which they originated.” Though the same could be said for the nation-state concept in Ottoman lands, its application occurred sporadically and over the course of a century.

Divergence between general citizen preferences in candidate countries and international institutions’ conditionality began with the Council of Europe and OSCE’s emphasis on minority rights. Though minority issues appeared most problematic in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and the Baltic states, even a country with small national minorities like Hungary supported minority protections more for strategic reasons than genuine concern. While these states would likely have formulated basic minority protections without external pressure, the emphasis on minority rights for eastern states came more from West European countries. Ethnic conflict over national minorities, potentially spurring westward movement of refugees and migrants, appeared a key security threat after the erosion of the Soviet Union’s influence in Eastern Europe. Unrestricted immigration from eastern countries and cross-border crime replaced the threat of a Soviet invasion as Western Europe’s key security concern coming from the East. With the 1990s conflicts in the Balkans feeding into such concerns, the EU-15 became supportive of the EU’s eastern enlargement.

Early EU involvement with eastern countries, however, had more to do with the promotion of the Single Market. The EU made numerous bilateral agreements with eastern states to establish formal trade relations, East-West cooperation, and to promote the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor across borders over ten years. It eventually developed a specific preparatory framework for a country’s membership, creating the Accession Partnerships to bring all forms of pre-accession assistance into one package, with prioritization of those areas acutely in need of work. But the Partnerships minimized the role of varied social actors in industry and organized economies in general along Anglo-American neoliberal lines, even though many citizens in eastern countries continued to value the economic aspects of socialist ideals.

EU accession negotiations opened in 1998, followed by a dramatic wave of expansion in 2004. Candidate countries were expected to adopt the entire body of EU law, often leaving states to set up offices to approve and implement the massive acquis communautaire without undertaking lengthy parliamentary debates. The speed-up of the process of harmonizing with EU law spurred concern over the EU’s potential export of its now infamous “democratic deficit.” In 2003, Anna Grzymała-Busse and Abby Innes presciently noted improved prospects for populist leaders by the late 1990s, given the absence of genuine debate and perception that the EU was an exploitative power, particularly in the states that had less chance to debate their futures after having done the most to meet EU demands: Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

This brief retelling of the post-1989 story, following an overview of the eastward spread of the nation-state concept, raises the question of why scholars accepted the consensus on EU enlargement as the centerpiece of the “return to Europe.” Three interrelated answers come to mind. First was the emergence of liberal-democracy as the post-Cold War Zeitgeist, linked with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty creating the EU in 1991. Given mass East European support for the “return to Europe” under such conditions, other options seemed unthinkable at the time. Many also assumed that European integration was responsible for decades of stability in Western Europe and could be extended to eastern countries without great difficulty. With the resurgence of nationalist politics in several eastern states, scholars would have been less inclined to favor a home-grown approach to reform within such a context.

A second answer concerns the unforeseen shift in already diverse understandings of liberalism, given several large-scale challenges within the EU. “Liberalism is no longer an ideology of those oppressed by the state,” claims Jan Zielonka. “It is an ideology of the state run by mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties. Liberalism is not defending minorities against majorities; it is minorities—professional politicians, journalists, bankers, and jet-set experts—telling majorities what is best for them.” When coupled with concerns over the EU’s democratic deficit and the faults of pro-EU political parties, alterations in understandings of liberalism have contributed to the rise of would-be elites willing to engage publicly in nativist, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic thinking.

A third answer concerns trends in the social sciences that harmonized with the post-Cold War Zeitgeist of liberal-democracy. The rationalist-institutionalist approach providing the analytical scaffolding for EU conditionality reflected the dominance of political science with its preferences for methodological sophistication and narrowly-defined research questions. Historical trends, local understandings, and the remnants of the social movements and other key catalysts of the initial push towards democratization thus received less attention.
EU enlargement has not (yet) proven capable of creating the structural change that might result in deeper and broader appreciation for liberal democracy. External pressures to perform as post-national Europeans did not widely shape identity and values, particularly among the masses, while nationalist and socialist economic ideals gained deeper social traction. At the same time, space constraints here leave important nuances unconsidered – such as variation in understandings and practices of Europeanization, liberalism, civil society, etc., or that political elites’ may reference the EU and associated values and norms to justify preferred, sometimes nationalist policies, just as earlier imperial elites (i.e. Germans, Magyars, Russians) tended to employ the Zeitgeist of nationalism. Nevertheless, a longer view of history indicates the difficulty of substantial changes in norms and values – yet, also the possibility that change may occur over the long run.

Lynn M. Tesser is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Command and Staff College of the Marine Corps University. Her essay draws from earlier research on why EU enlargement may exacerbate nationalist politics, culminating in Ethnic Cleansing and the European Union (Palgrave 2013), and her present book project introducing recent historical research to social scientific analysis of new state recognition, a project focused on the interplay of great powers and nationalist activists in the Balkans, Americas, Europe, and the Middle East.