Using xenophobia or even Islamophobia to label the ethno-nationalistic movements in Central-Eastern Europe (CEE) is misleading. If they are anti-foreign, how come the CEE governments and peoples are so passionate with the 16+1 commitment with China as well as some co-development programs with certain Asian countries such as Japan and Vietnam? True, the CEE nations do not welcome mass influx of immigrants. However, it is something about modernity (see below). And it is because of this element of modernity that, after being unjustifiably aggravated by the Western liberal-universalists’ identity politics, some, if not all, CEE countries may be interested in mapping out a new Eurasia with the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) member countries.
Andrey Kortunov, the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, has not just noticed that the SCO may be “replacing the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)” eventually, but also drawn our attention to the fact that “almost 30 Eurasian countries are already in the SCO orbit”, and therefore the SCO has a potential to build a “New Eurasia” [Note 1]. However, a new Eurasia cannot make real sense if it covers merely Belarus and Russia on the western front without countries like Poland, Hungary, Serbia or Greece. So, how could the CEE nation-states with growing heat of ethno-nationalism possibly be interested in co-formulating a New Eurasia rather than staying with the European Union? Among the numerous variables, the identity politics deliberation inspires two considerations, namely, the insolvable intra-EU nationalistic division, and the unique roles that could be played by China in such a mapping process for a new Eurasia.
Many sociologists, anthropologists and historians have showed us that, following the collapses of the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Swedish Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the monarchies in western Europe, the emergence of nation-states steered their courses simultaneously with urbanization there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Such a metamorphosis was distinguished by a gigantic transformation from a form of ‘composite state’ of feudal and clan-based communities to the modern form of ‘civic societies’ with a key feature of ‘living with a large number of strangers nearby’. In order to strengthen the central government’s ‘direct-rule’ (without the lords, princes in the middle) over the people in a specific territory, and encourage each individual’s ‘self-rule’ for peaceful and orderly co-existence with the ‘strangers’ within the said territory, there was a need for cultivating a ‘national consciousness’.
Professor Matthew Lange, a sociologist at McGill University who studies ethnic violence, finds that during this evolution from ‘communities of acquaintances’ to ‘communities of strangers’, the nurture of the necessary binding consciousness was very often, at least in Europe, based on cultivation of an ethnic consciousness of the in-group on one hand, and differentiation of self from the out-group on the other, by emphasizing on similar ancestries, similar mores, similar traditions, similar dialogues and alike. With reference to the better documented studies of Albert Guerard (1959) and Eugen Weber (1976), Lange uses post-Napoleon France as an example to prove how state-led education fostered the ethno-nationalistic consciousness by forging a common language as mother tongue through the elimination of “linguistic diversity only 150 years ago”, and the plantation of an idea into the French people’s brain that “The fatherland is not your village, your province, it is all of France. The fatherland is like a great family. Your fatherland is you. It is your family, it is your people.” [Note 2]
In short, the success of state-building in our modern era relies heavily on nation-building. The ingrained senses of common citizenship, national identity and in-group obligations, generation by generation, enable a state’s people to cope with and benefit from ‘modernity’. We are the products of this interwoven effort of socialization and thereby know who we are, and how different we are from the ‘Others’. Although many modern states are ethnically heterogeneous rather than homogeneous, political stability can be secured by assimilation in one way or the other, or by compromising efforts in achieving peaceful co-existence. Typically, a state with success in long-term assimilation between a dominant single ethnic majority and various co-operative ethnic minorities can rear a common patriotic sentiment toward the state. Many CEE countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Balkan states (after the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992) possess this feature now. Under normal circumstances, nationalism is not just healthy to the buildup of a nation’s self-confidence and cohesiveness but also constructive to making international deals based on mutual respect and proper protocol.
While applause should be given to the European Union (EU) founders who braved all sorts of difficulties in overcoming nationalism, the actual policies the EU leaders devise and implement are not just dysfunctional but also provoking identity politicization. So far, among the numerous problems, two are particularly salient.
Firstly, as demonstrated by the term “Repolonization” which “means here going back to the old times when economy, industry, etc were in the hands of Polish capital instead of Western capital” [Note 3] and also shows the Polish’s negative feelings about the “center-periphery” relation between the west and east inside Europe, the CEE nations have a perceived identity of being regarded as an “other” by their western peers.
A research by two economists Filip Novokmet (Paris School of Economics) and Pawel Bukowski (London School of Economics) shows clearly that “foreign capital, coming primarily from Western Europe (particularly from Germany)” has brought up the productivity and average wage in CEE countries, but “productivity gains have been increasingly going to capital owners rather than workers.” Most of the earnings end up going back “disproportionately” to the investors’ host countries or some tax havens. The ugly outcome is that although CEE workers do have higher real income, “they have received relatively less and less from what they have produced” which means that they are unjustifiably underpaid. What is worse is that the EU has been “perceived as promoting (neoliberal) market fundamentalism” — “High value added operations have become a domain of the ‘center’, while low-value added fabrication has been out-shored to the ‘periphery’” [Note 4]. The anger against such a second class or lower tier identity on the same continent has heightened the nationalistic consciousness among the CEE nations.
Secondly, clashes of social values also cause identity problems. One significant source for the fights of this kind is the West’s heavy-weight ideological emphasis on individualism which runs against many CEE societies which by today still retain centuries-old traditional family values. A 2014 comparative study, according to the English translation, shows that Hungary’s family system belongs to the ‘non-European model’ which “is characterized by relatively early marriage age, low non-marriage, high fertility rates and extended families” [Note 5]. The fact that the two Hungarian scholars have coined the term “non-European model” has implied an ‘identity’ problem.
What is worse is that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its communist bloc, the West has been implanting lots of networks and institutions onto the CEE soils ranging from ‘liberal’ media to purposively funded or sponsored think tanks. Whenever there is a happening which does not comply with the liberals’ expectation or principle, these transnational agents denounce it in one way or the other, and may even mobilize protests against one or more CEE governments. It has long been the usual ‘West-vs-Rest’ antagonistic tactic employed by the liberal-universalists after WWII [Note 6]. Although some successes have been achieved in certain Third World countries, this tactic backfires inside Europe, as the two sides dispute on Muslim refugees. Believing that it is legitimate for them to protect their own fatherland and traditional cultures, the CEE nations stand firm against accepting Muslim immigrants despite being labeled as ‘illiberal democracy’[Note 7]. It is because with the strong national consciousness, the CEE nations see it not just a defense of their land, but also a defense of their identity and dignity.
The existentiality of national consciousness which makes up the essence of modern state and the imbecility of playing identity politics by the liberal-universalists have indicated a high probability that the EU project would fail. The EU may continue to exist loosely among France, Germany and some Nordic countries (Euroskeptic is increasing inside them as well), but their eastern neighbors’ active participation will be absent from this club eventually.
A feasible alternative is a less binding Eurasia under the umbrella of an expanded SCO (may have a new name later) which mainly serves as an economic platform for (re)setting terms of trade, rules for currency exchange, standards for quality control and etc. Yes, some countries such as Ukraine and Poland may have hesitation due to their unease with Russia. However, the presence of China and India should be able to dilute the uncomfortable feeling to certain extent. For at least three reasons, China has offered beneficial attractions to the CEE states.
Firstly, China’s ‘16+1 Initiative’ [Note 8] for expanding the Silk Road Zone has already laid down a solid foundation. The Silk Road is not a Chinese road. It was a historical trading route between the occidental and the oriental. It belongs to all those who are interested in participating into fair exchange of goods and services. It is a new ‘win-win’ trading platform waiting to be modernized by all parties involved. Given the recent development of peace on the Korean peninsula, the eastern front may reach here very soon.
Secondly, China is an atheist nation, and the ruling Communist Party prefers to keep it as what it is. China has long been recognized as a non-hegemonic state and also a non-aggressive nation with full respect of other nations’ cultures and customs. China always has the sincerity in and capacity of acting as a mediator for any ethnic and religious conflicts. Unlike the EU which imposes intrusive demands or restrictions on members’ budgets, migration policies and even media regulation, Beijing has been known for its non-interference doctrine. Being a member of this Eurasian entity brings no damage to any CEE country’s national interest, national identity as well as national sentiment.
Thirdly, Beijing has proved its success in operating a flexible economic model (socialism with Chinese characteristics) for steady growth and a ‘win-win’ partnership strategy for infrastructure projects. By sharing the necessary experience and know-how with China, all developing countries can look forward to speeding up their progress after having learnt that the Western model may not be appropriate for them. As an all-land continent, all the Eurasian states can be connected not just by planes and ships, but also by superhighways and high speed railways which are particularly attractive to the developing countries in the light of its cost efficiency consideration.
Data shows that within the EU in 2015, the major ‘net contributors’ were Germany (€13.5 bn), UK (€10.9 bn), France (€4.9 bn), Netherlands (€3.5 bn) and Italy (€2.2 bn) whereas the major ‘net receivers’ in CEE were Poland (€9.6 bn), Czech (€5.7 bn), Romainia (€5.2 bn), Hungary (€4.7 bn), Slovakia (€3.1 bn) and Bulgaria (€2.3 bn) [Note 9]. After Brexit, there will be a funding crisis in EU. And the inevitable upsurge of Germany’s weight within the EU will doubtlessly further intensify the confrontation between Germany and some CEE countries. To the CEE countries, China will not just provide the necessary funds for upgrading their infrastructure, but also furnish invaluable experiences for economic development.
To China (and other Asian countries), the CEE nations offer enlightening attractions. The centuries-long harms done by the colonists to the world (such as the torture of the indigenous peoples in America and the enslavement of Africans) have ideologically caused the economically advanced liberal-universalist governments to promote excessive freedoms worldwide as some sort of compensation. Based on guilt, or “bad conscience” as suggested by Nietzsche [Note 10], the liberals have gone too far on laxity and too low on morality. Over-emphasis on individualism and over-tolerance of hatred are spreading globally under the protection of freedom of this and that. The Anglo-American civilization has been tainted not just by wasteful consumerism and predatory capitalism, but also by violent entertainment as well as netizens’ cyber-bullying. The CEE civilization, fortunately, has retained lots of graceful and elegant European values in general and moral prudence in particular. Closer ties among the Eurasian countries could greatly foster healthy cultural exchanges, thus a virtuous cycle for sublimation.
It will not be a surprise to see, say, after 10 years, three to five CEE states showing serious interest in forming a truly Eurasian supranational entity together with the SCO member countries. By that time, the multi-polarity of international relations will begin to solidify for longer term world peace and prosperity.
This article was first published by ‘The 21st Century’ on June 25, 2018.
The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of China Daily Mail.
RIAC, “SCO: The Cornerstone rejected by the Builders of a new Eurasia?”, May 16, 2018.
See Ch. 4 “The Origins of Ethnic Consciousness” in Matthew Lange (2017), “Killing Others: A Natural History of Ethnic Violence”, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Adam Szlapka, “Repolonization and State Patronage: Current Challenges for Poland”, SOS SOEs, p.65-78, Oct 6, 2017.
Political Critique, “The central Europeans, the bloodsuckers of the EU?
Le Moude, Le blog de Thomas Piketty, “2018, l’année de l’Europe”, Jan 16, 2018.
Csaba Dupcsik and Olga Toth, “Family Systems and Family Values in Twenty-first-century Hungary”, in: Rajkai, Zsombor (2014) (szerk.) Family and Social Change in Socialist and Post-Socialist Societies: Change and Continuity in East Europe and East Asia”, Leiden – Boston: Brill, p.210-249.
Institute for Sociology Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA)
Two books are recommended for understanding the liberal-universalists’ tactics and the West/Rest antithesis:
Mark B. Salter (2002), “Barbarians and Civilization in International Relations”, London, Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press.
Iver B. Neumann (1999), “Uses of the Other: ‘The East’ in European Identity Formation”, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
CIDOB, Pol Morillas (ed.), “Illiberal democracies in the EU: The Visegrad Group and the risk of disintegration”, Barcelona: Jan 2017.
China-CEEC, “Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries”.
BalkanEU, “Bulgarian, Chinese officials prepare for 16+1 CEE-China summit in Sofia in July 2018”, June 7, 2018.
CBS,nl, “Netherlands largest net contributor EU this century”, Dec 16, 2016.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1887), “On the Genealogy of Morality”, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson (1st ed. 1994, rev. ed. 2007), translated by Carol Kiethe, Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.