Russia’s war against Ukraine is an attempt to settle outstanding post-imperial scores and consolidate spheres of influence. It is also about real and perceived cultural and political boundaries in Europe, including the old familiar problem of what is Central and Eastern Europe.
“Central Europe is culturally in the West, politically in the East, geographically in the centre.” This is how the Czech writer Milan Kundera described the “tragedy of Central Europe” in an essay published in 1983. The thesis of Central Europe as a “hijacked West” sparked an extensive debate among the region’s intellectuals – its Dichter und Denker – that contributed not only to changing its self-conception, but also to transforming the mental geography of the continent in Western Europe.
The key and most controversial issue in the debate on this topic in the 1980s was Central Europe’s relationship with Russia. The latter was clearly a major component in defining the borders of the region, with Soviet Russia itself being the other component. Perhaps one of the most telling illustrations of this can be found in the memorable debate in Lisbon in 1988, which was attended by writers from Central Europe and Russia. There was a lively exchange between György Konrad and Czeslaw Milosz, who spoke of the occupation and the imperial dimension of the relationship, and Josef Brodsky, the Leningrad poet, who criticised the concept of Central Europe as an illusory community whose aim was to drive Russia out of Europe. The Russian writer Tatyana Tolstoy’s reminder to her audience that ‘we have no power over tanks, we are writers’ has a particular resonance today, with Russian tanks scattered across Ukraine. The invasion has revived Soviet-era perceptions of Russia in Central Europe and beyond, as well as dubious forms of “cancel culture” towards Russian art.
The cultural and mental emancipation from Soviet influence and the post-war division of the continent into East and West can be seen as a prelude to the real demise of Central Europe in 1989. Thereafter, the Central European idea shifted from culture to politics – from the “Kundera moment” to the “Havel moment”. The whole region had common problems and a common political agenda (de-westernization, democratization, regional cooperation, “return to Europe”), although it was not clear who exactly was to be part of it.
These different mental geographies are not related to the institutional embodiment of the Central European idea. One of the first attempts after 1990 came from Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis, who – pointing out that the northern part of his country had once belonged to the Habsburg Empire – proposed an association, originally called Pentagonale, that would link northern Italy with Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. It was later joined by Poland and then by a long line of sixteen countries with an increasingly ambiguous relationship to Central Europe. When Macedonia joined the project, renamed the Central European Initiative, in the late 1990s, I asked Havel what this meant for the project. He replied, “There are institutions that disappear out of too much politeness.” When asked whether this observation could apply to the European Union, he replied that it could not be ruled out.
This is why Václav Havel insisted on the narrow conception of Central Europe that was embodied in the Visegrad Group, founded in 1991, although this did not exclude other ad hoc associations. In 1994, therefore, Havel initiated a meeting of the presidents of the Visegrad Four countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia (V4) – with their counterparts from Slovenia, Austria and Germany. The inclusion of the latter two countries reflected the idea of a Western and Central Europe with its Germanic component, although German President Richard von Weizsäcker cautiously rejected the term Mitteleuropa, aware of its historical connotations as a code name for the German sphere of influence.
The founders of the V4 were three dissidents who became presidents: Havel, Lech Wałęsa of Poland and Arpad Gönz of Hungary. Their goals were clear. First, to build on the cooperation of the dissidents in Central Europe and to prevent a return to the pre-war nationalist rivalry between the supposed “winners and losers” of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, with its irredentist conflicts (note: irredentism, the attempt to unite national minorities with the nation-state) over borders and minorities. Second, the democratic transformation that was to lead to European integration.
The success story of Central Europe contrasted with war-torn South Eastern Europe, with its nationalist and semi-authoritarian post-communist regimes. With the retreat of Russia as a threat in the 1990s, the Balkans implicitly became the second pillar of Central Europeans’ own constitution. A variation on this theme was later articulated during the 2015 wave of migration from the Middle East. It provoked a common protectionist reaction in the V4 countries and, given that migrants came via the “Ottoman route” through Turkey and the Balkans, revived historical narratives of Central European nations as a bulwark protecting Europe from the “invasion” of another civilization (and from their own multicultural delusions).
The V4 countries have also become vocal advocates of EU enlargement to the Balkans over the past decade, although this has not always been convincing given their own democratic decline and strident Eurosceptic rhetoric. In recent years, the group has gone into reverse mode in terms of its original intent: ‘illiberal democracy’ and ‘easy populism’ under Prime Ministers Robert Fico in Slovakia and Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic, sympathy for Brexit and open contempt for a liberal Europe that is seen as week, permissive and decadent. In Europe’s “culture wars”, the ideologues of the ruling Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland are much closer to Russian nationalist ultraconservatives than to mainstream Western Europeans.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has now radically changed the landscape, with the V4 looking like a collateral casualty of the war. In March, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia travelled to Kiev to show solidarity with President Volodymyr Zelensky and to push for increased military support for Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was a “notable absentee”. Instead of visiting, he campaigned on the premise “We have no handcuffs in this fight”. This is also why the Czech Defence Minister recently cancelled a meeting with her V4 colleagues, saying that “cheap gas is more important to Hungarian politicians than Ukrainian blood”.
Russia used to unite Central Europeans, now it divides them. Differences have smouldered since at least 2014, when Hungary and Poland reacted differently to Ukraine’s Maidan revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The invasion of Ukraine on 24 February has laid bare this split again, with important consequences.
The most notable of these is the demise of radical Euroscepticism in Central Europe. Until the end of last year, radical Euroscepticism came loud and clear from Budapest and Warsaw. The Polish prime minister likened the allocation of EU funds conditional on compliance with the Union’s legal and value commitments to “unleashing World War III”, to which his country is prepared to respond “with all available means”. “Thank God they don’t have nuclear weapons,” was the ironic response of the European Commission. Meanwhile, in the midst of a real war, Putin has also started referring to Russia’s nuclear capabilities. Last autumn, the justice ministers of Hungary and Poland attacked the EU’s conditioning of the rule of law, comparing it to the Soviet Union. But try saying that Brussels is the new Moscow, in Kiev, from where Zelensky made an impassioned appeal to the European Parliament on March 1, calling the EU the anchor of Ukraine’s future democracy. One cannot equate Brussels and Moscow and at the same time call (as the three Central European prime ministers did in Kiev) for accelerating Ukraine’s EU accession process.
Meanwhile, we are reminded once again that Lvov used to be Lvov and Lemberg, and that part of Ukraine was in Central Europe. Today, Ukraine is leaning towards the West, and its closest West is Central Europe, while Central Europe is trying to reinvent itself in its eastward expansion.
Jacques Rupnik is professor of political science and director of research at the Centre de Recherches Internationales at SciencesPo in Paris.
This article was translated from the Czech original.
published: 6. 6. 2022