Part 1: Moving beyond East & West on the road to ‘transition’

Geographic metaphors dominate orientalist writing on the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The ‘West’ is tightly bound with notions of liberalism, democracy, and ‘free’ markets. To move in a westward direction, is to move towards a peaceful and prosperous Europe whole and free. To move eastward, is to go down the road to perdition. Synonymous with autocracy, backwardness, corruption, and eternal ethnic strife (Bakić-Hayden, 1995). “The very term, Balkanization” writes Stjepan Mestrovic, “was invented to denote those people in the Balkans who seem to like to slaughter each other, as opposed to civilized Americans, French, and British” (Mestrovic, vii, 2004). In the prologue to his sweeping history of the Balkans, Misha Glenny adds sarcastically, that “the Balkans apparently enjoy a special exemption from the rules against stereotyping” (Glenny, 1999, xxi).

For some analysts, the entire region appears to be sliding backwards (or eastwards) in time. “The key insight about southeastern Europe,” according to Robert Kaplan, a noted travel author and correspondent, is that “in the quarter-century following the collapse of the Berlin Wall […] it has reverted to the geography of the second half of the 19th century.” Adding that, “the Near East used to begin in the Balkans. That is again becoming the case” (Kaplan, 2013). Kaplan is only the latest in a series of travel authors dating back to at least the mid-19th century who have tried to ‘place’ the Balkans in relation to ‘western’ Europe (Todorova, 1997).

Stuart Shields argues persuasively that Eastern Europe, “was invented as the backward, complementary other-half of Enlightenment Western Europe which replaced the Renaissance north-south neologism, and instantiated a deep ambiguity around where the easternmost limits of Europe ended and where Asia began as the geographical border remained unfixed and [Eastern Central Europe] became defined in its opposition and adjacency to both West and further East” (Shields, 2012, 40).


Spatio-temporal metaphors that run along an East-West axis have become the predominant lens through which the Western gaze has been cast upon Eastern Europe – a trend that has only intensified since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began. 

After the dissolution of the Former Yugoslavia and the slow painful break up of the Soviet Union, political entrepreneurs in the region, in lock-step with their western contemporaries, advanced an east-west neologism in pursuance of a political project of ‘re-integration’. Slovene and Croat political leaders in particular, attempted to “Legitimate and inform a new Western political and economic orientation that would facilitate transitions to democratic, free-market states, and secure membership in European and Euro-Atlantic institutions, namely the European Union and NATO” (Lindstrom, 2003, 314). This re-orientation was exemplified at the time by adopting the mantra “Europe Now!”

More than two decades later, we continue to see similar geographic reasoning in the discourse of political leadership in both east and west Europe, the media, and  academic scholarship, as different actors wrestle over the boundaries of “Europe.”However, by the early 2000’s this ‘Western’ gaze had become the subject of  scrutiny, leading some to suggest that orientalist depictions of the “East” would eventually wither away entirely. More than ten years on, a resurgence in the usage of the ‘East’ as an essentialist and retrogressive spatio-temporal metaphor has coincided closely with a ‘revenge of geography’ or a ‘return to geopolitics,’ opening old wounds that never completely healed, as a surprising number of academics, journalists, and politicians continue to refer to the East in overly general antagonistic terms. Both NATO and European Union officials, for example, regularly refer to the east when diagnosing a particular set of political and economic problems supposedly endemic to that general direction. Invariably Eastern Europe and the Balkans are almost always associated with a certain level of backwardness with varying levels of curability given the right triage. But in the Western imaginary the East remains perpetually cancerous.

True to the Christian tradition, geographic salvation is said to come through repentance of one’s sins. In the case of Eastern Europe, repentance means expressing regret for one’s communist and socialist past and resolving to live in accordance with ‘western norms.’ Atonement is marked by the good grace of membership in the European Union and NATO. But membership can only come after a long and difficult pilgrimage along the path of transition. A technocratic clergy made of a tightly-knit network of Eurocrats, academics, NGO’s, and local politicians preaches the dogma of transitology along the way.

For millions of Eastern Europeans living in accordance with this geographic theology, transition has become a purgatory of sorts. An indeterminate stage in the fabric of space-time where one’s past and present must undergo a process of purification before being canonized as ‘western.’ Transition has “turned into a never-ending process…And even today, more than twenty years later, we hear that the transition is incomplete. The wandering in the desert seems to be endless’ (Horvat and Štiks, 2015, 157-158). For most the final judgement never comes, though in the rare moments that it does, we are constantly reminded how readily newly acquired western credentials can be put into jeopardy – the potential of “sliding backwards” is never out of the question. The ‘Europeanness’ of those living in eastern Europe and the Balkans is perpetually put into doubt. Piety to geographical theologism persists.

Entire government agencies along ‘EU’rope’s periphery are organized around this east-west axis.  KosovoAlbania, Bosnia and Herzegovina,  Serbia and Ukraine all have ministries of European Integration. Montenegro has gone the extra-step of rebranding their entire Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration. The Republic of Georgia also has a ministry dedicated to European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, the latter meant to signify the government’s NATO ambitions. 

Russia, for its part, has attempted to create mirror institutions, but has been no where near as effective, often resorting to opaque threats and the use of coercive military force to achieve its geopolitical objectives instead. It should be mentioned, of course, that both NATO and the European Union have also resorted to military force repeatedly to achieve their own. In the case of NATO and the European Union, geographical theologism has become so engrained in their naturalized geopolitical reasoning , that it has become impossible for their leadership to understand the EU or NATO as expanding in an eastward direction. 

According to the dogma of geographical theologism, the East must always come knocking on the ‘open door’ of the West – it is never the other way around. Nor could it ever be. A recent NATO Parliamentary Assembly report makes this more clear: “Enlargement is both part and parcel of a continuous process of transformation of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe towards a Europe whole and free and at peace and a means to improve Alliance capabilities and effectiveness.” Adding that, “The prospect of NATO membership […] continues to depend first and foremost on political conditions in candidate countries” (NATO, 2016, 9).

As the EU and NATO have become synonymous with the West and Europe, NATO and EU expansion can only be seen through the prism of Europeanism or Trans-Atlanticism, i.e. the natural geopolitical ordering of things around the western-European core, that does not expand outwards, but absorbs those willing to abide by a supposedly coherent set of norms and values. This allows western institutions to simultaneously distance themselves from any consequences of their interventions, which they understand only as invitations, whilst setting the conditions for membership in the West. Technocratic checklists that set out these conditions may give the veneer of western accountability to maintaining an open door policy, but they are easily amended or disregarded altogether depending on geopolitical circumstance.

There is an  ontological disconnect between having faith in the transformative power of norms and reducing these to a tangible inventory of reforms and an index of transferable policies. There is a further disconnect from the actual practices of NATO and EU countries, that invest millions in their peripheral regions, only to suggest that they are not expanding eastward, but that the east is coming ‘home.’ But cognitive dissonance has never held-back the proponents of transitology.*

Source: The Economist, 2014

For the group of nation-states that purportedly comprise a monolithic bloc known as the ‘West’, the advantage in using such geographical metaphors is straight-forward. Polarization requires a sort of fixed orientation, defined by a set of finite coordinates provided by the core. Occupying a fixed pole in metaphorical space means the core alone can define other spaces as liminal – that is, as moving along a constantly shifting East/West axis somewhere in-between. The polar ends of this axis are set on a rash continuum made up of associated terms that favor the core: developed/underdeveloped, advanced/backwards, liberal/illiberal, good/evil.

Whether or not the core group of states that comprise the ‘West’ become more or less tolerant of liberal norms such as  freedom of press or the right to a fair trial does not imply a shifting of coordinates however. When Denmark passes a law in order to seize the valuables of refugees, for example, or when the EU constructs hundreds of detention centers to lock up tens of thousands of otherwise innocent migrants in prison-like conditions, or devises a plan to swap these migrants as if they were geopolitical poker chips (to be traded with an autocratic ruler that wants to sell his own version of westward transition to a disaffected citizenry by getting visa free travel as a condition) we do not hear of Europe’s ‘slide eastward.’ Yet if similar illiberal practices occur in a liminal space, such as Azerbaijan, the map itself is supposedly redrawn. Consider the following representation of Azerbaijan on the east-west axis.

According to Till Bruckner, Azerbaijan’s crackdown on civil liberties has irrevocably positioned the country outside Europe.

Source: Till Bruckner, Huffington Post

It does not matter whether nearly 1 million barrels of Azeri oil flow westward every day – oil drilled by a western-led consortium, that passes through western-built pipelines – or that British Petroleum, one of the West’s largest corporations, came knocking early on in Azerbaijan’s ‘transition,’ with the full-support of western governments, to get access to it -notably among them, the United States. It does not matter that the current regime in Azerbaijan, relies on proceeds from these profits – flowing from western financial centers eastwards – in order to buttress itself against popular resentment, or that these same profits are now being recycled in mega-developments on the coast of Montenegro (a recent invitee to NATO). Much less that the West sets the rules for these kinds of transnational financial dealings in the first place. These concrete transactions and material cartographies are lost to abstract spatial metaphors. Reduced, inexplicably, to the dogma of geographical theologism. But perhaps most tellingly, the  spatial representations Azerbaijanis hold themselves, need not be consulted altogether.

“As a result,” of Ilam Aliyev’s civil liberties crackdown, Till Bruckner can state flatly, without any hint of irony, that “a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Europe’s easternmost border – politically, socially and culturally – has finally been clearly defined: it’s the line dividing Georgia in the west from Azerbaijan in the east.Mr. Bruckner, by virtue of his western credentials, can comfortably re-orient the map along the east-west poles. Lazy geographic reasoning provides an easy go-to narrative for the media to casually reproduce without giving much thought to its consequences, or to the complex reality it conceals. Or sometimes, even, the obvious geographic reality that it cannot – for example, Azerbaijan is often said to be ‘sliding east towards Russia’ when Moscow lays 12 degrees west of Baku.

Lost in these metaphors are the concrete struggles through which European ‘liberal’ democracies are formed and continue to be remade – in both the ‘east’ and the ‘west’. Political projects that cannot be thought of as an achievement, that once unlocked, are somehow maintained without constant popular struggle. At no point in the European Union’s recent history have multiple crises exposed the EU’s own structural fault-lines, and in the process made clear how such simple geographic reasoning is based on shallow orientalism. Yet the EU’s own internal strife has had, as of yet, little effect in erasing the imaginary East/West dyad that continues to persist in popular media, much academic research and political discourse. In some ways, they have had the opposite effect.

Meanwhile, “Mainstream Balkan scholarship still focuses on either obsessively explaining the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the wars and their consequences, or on monitoring the EU integration of the region (invariably understood as a natural and unquestionable political and economic process)” (Horvat and Štiks, 2015, 93-98). While ‘western’ activism is well-understood and written about in volumes, “Apart from occasional reports, often by activists themselves or their sympathizers, and rare attempts to analyze current struggles, the changing situation in the Balkans and the growth of local social movements has been under-researched and is still largely unknown to a global audience.” Emergent social movements in the Balkans and Eastern Europe often challenge the presumptive liminality of space, as defined in relation to abstract notions of West and East advanced by academics and the media. Learning from these movements, rather than paying only cursory attention to them in times of crisis, is essential in challenging the orientalist assumptions embedded in the naturalized geopolitical reasoning of the EU and NATO and political entrepreneurs who adopt such reasoning to advance their interests.

The fracturing of Europe is nothing to be celebrated. The EUropean project, utopian and elite-driven though it may be, has brought tangible benefits and a degree of peace and stability to a region rife with inter-imperial rivalry in the preceding epoch. However, these fractures do offer an opportunity for self-reflection. A chance to turn the ‘westward gaze’ on itself. And hopefully, to move beyond the simple east/west metaphor that has come to define the ‘road to transition’ once and for all.


* Stuart Shields has a great section on how cognitive dissonance was actually used early on by agents of transition in his book The International Political Economy of Transition: Transnational social forces and Eastern Central Europe’s transformation.

Next week I’ll be presenting some preliminary work from my dissertation Transnational Militarism and the Struggle for Neutrality at the annual Irish Association for Russian, Central and East European Studies conference. If you’re in or around Dublin the conference is free and open to the public.



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