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Europeanisation is more than about the EU

A review of Russia, The Former Soviet Republics, and Europe Since 1989: Transformation and Tragedy. By: Katherine Graney. Publisher: Oxford University Press, United Kingdom, 2019.

November 12, 2019 - James Baresel - Books and ReviewsIssue 6 2019Magazine

It is always hard to decide whether to praise or to critique a book which combines exhaustive factual information with a deeply flawed analysis of what that information means. Does one commend such a book for its valuable collection of facts or condemn it for its propagation of serious misunderstandings? The answers to those questions will decisively shape any accurate assessment of Katherine Graney’s Russia, The Former Soviet Republics, and Europe Since 1989: Transformation and Tragedy.

At its most basic level the book is an account of how the lands of the former Soviet Union have, since the fall of the Soviet Union, integrated into the political, economic and security structures and into the cultural life of Europe and how they have in some cases subsequently begun to move away from such integration. Countries once ruled as satellites of the USSR by Moscow-backed puppet governments are analysed only sporadically and for the sake of comparison with those which were formally part of the Soviet Union. Despite this focus, Graney’s intent is not to concentrate on the consequences of membership in the Soviet Union and subsequent independence from Russia but, rather, to analyse the Europeanisation of peoples whose historical cultures have, in some sense, been distinct from Western Europe.

Eastern European confusion

For Graney’s purposes “European” or “western” refers to societies, cultures and ethnic groups which were historically either Catholic or Protestant or were strongly influenced by the Renaissance and Baroque periods, or were either hostile to or geographically remote from Russia and, more generally, looked to Western Europe for cultural models. By this standard, former Soviet satellites, such as Poland, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia and other satellite territories, qualify as “European” or “western”. Many were long part of the Holy Roman Empire, or under Habsburg dynastic rule. Poland was joined to the West by its Catholicism, by the close familial ties of its elected kings with ethnically German royalty, and by its close involvement in the international politics of the German world. The western cultural orientation of many Soviet satellites pre-dated the Europeanisation which rapidly accelerated in Russia at the time of Peter the Great, and was generally stronger and more widespread than that which existed among non-elite Russians of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Because of this distinction, Graney uses the phrase “Eastern European” in a more narrow sense than is more commonly used. For her the term refers to societies and ethnic groups which historically adhered to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and either belonged to or were culturally oriented towards tsarist Russia, while “eastern” (as distinct from “Eastern European”) refers to societies and ethnic groups historically dominated by Islam and which were oriented towards the Mongol, Ottoman and Persian empires.

There are obvious shortcomings in using membership of the Soviet Union as a criteria to determine which countries qualify as Eastern European. Lithuania, for example, was part of the European oriented Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the mid-16th century until the late 18th century. When Lithuania was politically incorporated into the Russian Empire, ethnic Lithuanians continued to look West rather than East, as did those Poles who lived in regions which came under Russian rather than Prussian or Austrian control after their country’s partition in the late 18th century. Both Poles and Lithuanians are also traditionally Catholic. But, unlike Poland, Lithuania was formally part of the USSR. Serbia, however, presents a contrast. Historically, Eastern Orthodox and oriented towards Russia, Serbia was not incorporated into the Soviet Union and is, for that reason, excluded from particular consideration in Graney’s book.

In most cases, however, Soviet membership correlates reasonably well with earlier historical orientations towards Russia rather than Western Europe; and while it is easy to find a few obvious exceptions to this general rule, it at least provides an unambiguous criteria in a region of the world where various gradations of “European” and “Eastern European” influences would otherwise make it difficult to determine which category many societies should be placed in.

Cultural Europeanisation?

Considering the central role such historical cultural differences play in Graney’s categorisation of countries, they play a surprisingly small role in her consideration of the contemporary Europeanisation of Eastern Europe states – in fact, almost no role at all. This, no doubt, is largely due to the fact that the spread of traditional European culture into the lands of Graney’s Eastern Europe is distinctly limited. But it is also due to the fact that she does not understand “cultural Europeanisation” as an embrace of traditional Western European culture. Cultural Europeanisation for her is, rather, an embrace of the social and cultural liberalism which is now dominant in the western world, but which seeks to overthrow much of the Western European tradition. On the basis of this conceptualisation, when the peoples of Eastern Europe (in any sense of the term) defend the traditions and norms once shared by all societies and culture from Lisbon to Moscow against contemporary social and cultural liberalisation, Graney characters this not as a defence of European tradition (which it actually is) but a refusal to Europeanise.

Graney’s bizarre use of terms does not, however, negate the quality of the evidence she has amassed to demonstrate the extent to which the former Soviet republics have or have not embraced social and cultural liberalism. She also presents a solid block of evidence demonstrating the extent and limits of Eastern Europe integration into aspects of Western and Central Europe popular culture, such as sport and recreation.

A similar mixture of good factual research with flawed terminology, conceptualisation and interpretation is found in Graney’s account of “political Europeanisation”. Oddly enough for a book published three years after the Brexit referendum, and at a time when nationalist political parties are on the rise throughout much of Europe, the book treats political Europeanisation as equivalent to alignment with the European Union – with co-operation with the EU, intention to join the EU, and EU membership representing increasingly higher degrees of Europeanisation. Although active co-operation with nationalist and anti-EU movements in historically Western European countries represents a form of political participation in Western Europe, Graney would characterise such co-operation as “anti-European”. While this might be mere cant when applied to anti-EU movements in Western Europe, in the context of Graney’s book it can be considerably more confusing – in other words, seeming to imply opposition to close engagement with Western Europe rather than the European Union as an institution.

Overinterpretation

Graney does give a good factual account of the efforts, successes and failures of both pro- and anti-EU movements in Eastern Europe but, in a fall from her usual high level of scholarship, fails to give sustained attention to the alliance between anti-EU Eastern Europeans and their Western allies. She also engages with the current underestimation of the strength of Western Europe’s nationalistic right and the pace they are gaining popularity.

Graney’s equation of Europeanisation with liberalisation and support for the EU is closely connected with what might be her greatest inaccuracy of the past 30 years. According to her understanding of history, the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite governments was linked to a widespread desire to embrace both political liberal values and social and cultural liberalism, and, through doing so, became integrated into the sphere of Western Europe. And she argues that Eastern Europeans of today are turning away from their former embrace of liberal democracy. In reality, however, the attitudes of Eastern Europeans have remained much more consistent over the past three decades than Graney allows while Western Europe has changed dramatically.

As recently as the 1980s, cultural and social liberalism, as we understand it today, was outwardly professed by no more than a small minority. To use just one example: support for the legal sanctioning of same-sex relationships was so small it had no relevance to practical politics. Perhaps a majority of those who favoured legal toleration of those relationships still favoured social and cultural opposition to them. On this and other social and cultural issues, many leftist Western European politicians during the 1980s were considerably more to the right than many professedly conservative politicians of today. Social and cultural traditionalism, to a considerable extent, remained the de facto standard of Western Europe despite the fact it was no longer legally maintained.

The nature of the European Union has also changed over the past three decades. Strictly speaking, the EU did not even exist when the USSR fell; it replaced the European Economic Community (EEC) the year after the Soviet Union came to an end. Since that time, what was once a close association of autonomous states has become, in effect, a super-state to which its members have become subordinated.

Changing attitudes

What has changed is not the attitude of Eastern Europeans but those of Western Europeans and the EU. Thirty years ago alignment with the EU meant alignment with an association of states whose societies maintained, at least in comparison to today, a considerable degree of social and cultural traditionalism. Today, preservation of a high degree of state autonomy and social and cultural traditionalism requires, at the very least, support for the scaling back of EU power.

Graney’s interpretation of changing Eastern European attitudes towards the EU also makes the mistake of equating circa-1990 Eastern European support for democratic political structures with support for liberal democracy. In fact, however, the practical goals of the Eastern European “democratic” movements of that time were shared by traditionalists, nationalists and liberal democrats. Many of those who supported democratisation were the successors of the traditionalists and nationalists of the early to mid-20th century, and the predecessors of those today. It is true that liberal democratic values influenced Eastern European opposition to the USSR, but that influence occurred within the context of what Americans call “fusionism” – which ranges from a pragmatic alliance of traditionalism and liberal democracy to an attempt to theoretically reconcile elements of traditionalism with elements of classical liberalism.

Looking at Eastern Europe (both in Graney’s sense of the term and in the more general sense) what we see are not so much moves towards and away from liberal democracy but changing beliefs about whether or not the liberal democracies of Western Europe are the best allies of traditionalists or nationalists. Russia, The Former Soviet Republics, and Europe Since 1989 does a first rate job of amassing details of the practical mechanics of various Eastern European countries move towards, and away, from the EU, but it ultimately fails to understand the big picture why these shifts have taken place.

James Baresel is a freelance writer.            

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