Publicat în 22 octombrie 2014, 20:32 / 222 elite & idei

Antonia Colibășanu: Overcoming Borders in Carpathian Europe

Antonia Colibășanu: Overcoming Borders in Carpathian Europe

Passing through the Southern Carpathian Mountains to reach the Transylvanian Plateau, my thoughts wander back to the idea of Europa Karpat – „Europe of the Carpathians.” The term itself came from a panel at the Economic Forum in Krynica to discuss deepened cooperation among the Carpathian states – Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Croatia. To me, Europa Karpat resonates with the word „borderlands,” and the long road I’m charting through the region brings to mind the paths its countries have traveled toward a common destiny.

The Carpathians are a transitional zone where the ideas of West and East interlace. Cultural notions and material goods move through customs points in the mountains, while geography has made of this region a natural buffer zone for empires since antiquity – as it does now for the current world powers. These borderlands have an established function as a cultural intermediary. The villager on the other side of the mountain is never a complete stranger, though he may well be a foreigner. It follows to discuss how the EU membership of some countries in the region could be a catalyst for better connections, better cooperation. This is what was expected of the Visegrad Group and, to a certain extent, of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative. These efforts have mostly disappointed, but are the countries of Central Europe on a path to increased cooperation in the 21st century?

A landscape of change

We’re on the road moving north, and it’s impossible not to note the changing architectural styles of the villages. The gardens on the southern side of the mountains – expansive and open to the eyes of the passerby – are a marked contrast to the enclosed, gated spaces on the approach to the Transylvanian plateau. On the skylines farther north, the gothic roofs of Evangelical churches call and their Byzantine Orthodox counterparts respond. Here, the mountains express an embedded, natural tolerance that remains resilient. Is this the nature of the „Middle Europe,” as the Germans (Zwischeneuropa) and the French (Europe Mediane) call it – the reflection in stone and steeple of an unrecognized shared fate of resilience?

The shared fate that built nations in the Carpathians is one of conflict and stretches back to the middle of the 19th Century, when the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires competed to draw the boundaries of their influence. Conflict and contrast, that is – as in most places, the national myths that eventually sketched state boundaries in Central Europe were drawn by the whatever separated „our group” from „their group.” But in this region, the bluntness of West-East stereotypes leads each group to look down on neighbors with particular ferocity, viewing them as less developed and somewhat barbaric. Such views were imposed on these neighboring societies from the beginning – a historical streaming of the empires’ heritage to the region.

Religious and class differences in lifestyle and mentality shaped the image of the Westerners in the eyes of the Easterners. For instance, the Byzantine Orthodox sees the Western Christian as secularised and shallow. In the eyes of the West, the Christian of the East is idolatrous, backward and superstitious. Europa Karpat is where these views shake hands. They form the basis for defining how Hungarians and Romanians, Hungarians and Serbians, Polish and Ukrainians, and Polish and Belorussians, perceive one another.

Social stereotypes of the other grew to reflect national images of self. The Poles and the Hungarians think of themselves as aristocrats in contrast with the Slovaks, the Romanians, the Belorussians. The Czechs define themselves in relation to the Germans – they wished to build their nation on folk and middle-class traditions as well as on Bohemian traits, creating the image of a democratic and plebeian Czech nation. They are the bourgeois of the region.

These class-based stereotypes oppose the peasant to the noble and the urban inhabitant to the villager. This vernacular interaction among social classes, with few exceptions, seems to define the historical behavior of countries in Central Europe, when dealing with one another or with outsiders. A contemporary example is the way Poland balances its foreign policy: between the „noble” Weimar Triangle (Germany-France-Poland), more of a public relations endeavour than anything, and the humbler Visegrad Group.

The Cold War redefined this interaction, at least for a time. These countries, and the social strata within them, shared similar destinies. The Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, for instance, left an indelible mark. For at least a generation, Central Europeans felt united against a common evil – Communism and the system erected around it – though it took different forms in each satellite. After the uniformity imposed by totalitarianism, a new model has emerged for nation-building in Central and Eastern Europe – one built around the individual, the citizen, and the concept of universal equality. It has served as a starting point in the transition toward democratic societies in which ethnically and culturally separate communities have rediscovered traditions and have grown a newfound respect for „the other.” Democracy has thus crystalized Carpathian regionalism, adding another layer of history to the interactions among its peoples.

In the contemporary argot of the European Union, regionalization refers to coherence in economic development among nation states. In this sense, the countries in Central Europe – member states of the EU – have many reasons to enhance cooperation. We have seen some initiatives, mostly led by Poland, to speak with a common voice during debates in Brussels – debates on solving the European economic crisis and developing a European banking union.

The new pivots for cooperation

The Ukraine crisis has the potential now to raise Central European cooperation to a new level. Defense policymakers in these countries, while still looking for U.S. patronage and guidance to manage the threats at their borders, are becoming more and more aware that their countries’ defense is in their own hands. The geopolitical realities surrounding the evolution of the new Cold War will have a vernacular expression in the Carpathians. They may go further and create the solid basis that the countries in the borderlands of Central Europe needed for closer cooperation.

Until the Ukraine crisis, discussions between these countries and their Western partners mostly addressed economic development. Threat assessment and more stringent mapping of energy sources are now the dominant topics. Indeed, energy is the pivot of the new Cold War, and it is no wonder that while Poland is calling for the creation of an energy union, Romania – the country least dependent on Russian gas in the region – is seeking to reform its energy sector through sustained investment.

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