Western ‘Eurasianism’ and the ‘New Eastern Europe’: Discourse of Exclusion*

Mykola Riabchuk 02 December 2011


The term ‘Eurasia’ has many meanings but all of them can be subsumed under two main rubrics. The first is purely geographical, referring to a formidable landmass stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and considering Europe and Asia as a single continental entity, with a former as a peninsula of the latter. The second meaning is much more versatile but in all its multi-facet representations it refers typically to a Greater Russia, to some space dominated historically by the Russian Empire and its Soviet (and post-Soviet) reincarnation.

The term is rather political, cultural, and ideological than purely geographical. It entails not only idea of Russian political dominance, either justified or not, either legitimate (in terms of mission civilisatrice and/or ‘liberation’ of neighbors from somebody else) or illegitimate (in terms of imperial conquest and subjugation). It promotes also the idea of cultural/civilizational peculiarity of the region suggesting that it is neither Europe nor Asia but some mixture of both that represents a separate and very special ‘Eurasian’ civilization. Its essence is Russian culture – but rather imperial than national. The common imperial past and some imprints of Russian imperial culture is the only thing that draws together the nations that otherwise are world apart in all possible terms, like Ukrainians and Turkmens, or Moldovans and Chukchas, or Belarusians and Buriats. It would be rather impossible to pack them all into one bag if there was not a common denominator – a Greater Russia.

One need not be an expert in critical discourse analysis to figure out that such a labeling is highly harmful in both political and cultural terms for all the parties involved. First, it mystifies the reality. It features Russian/Soviet imperial legacy and post-imperial influence as the only or the main factor that determines virtually everything in today’s (under)development of post-Soviet republics. In some cases this factor is really important, in other cases many more historical and present-day variables are involved that, unfortunately, are neglected or undermined. Secondly, the ‘Eurasian’ labeling implicitly encourages Russian imperial feelings and great-power politics, endows it with some international legitimacy, and discursively resonates with the most chauvinistic, crypto-fascist tenets of today’s Russian ‘neo-Eurasianists’. And thirdly, it discursively excludes all the European nations of the former Soviet empire from Europe and effectively marginalizes pro-European forces in all these countries (including Russia itself) making them easy prey of Russian/pro-Russian profoundly anti-Western nationalists.

In other words, the term ‘Eurasia’ lacks not only precision (which is hardly achievable in any taxonomy) but also impartiality – and this is a very serious flaw in international politics, especially where it plays in hands of the former empire that still seeks to re-establish its neocolonial dominance. Indeed, the main thing that the ‘Eurasian’ countries have in common (at least in the European realm of the former Soviet empire) is their profound internal divide for pro-Western and anti-Western forces – divide that reflects not only the opposite geopolitical orientations but also systems of values, historical narratives, and, still worse, national identities. In all of them, as Josef Langer aptly remarked, “the EU is challenged by another spiritual power” – that can be roughly defined here as a Great-Russian imperialism and messianism. All of them, including Russia itself (and, for another matter, Turkey), “are involved in a more or less open civil war which seems to be fed by a disagreement on the adoption of Western values”.[1]

It this regard, both Ukraine, and Moldova, and Belarus can be considered as 'not-quite-European'. There is nothing wrong in admitting this fact – as an important factor that precludes their European integration and, probably, modernization. But labeling them ‘Eurasian’ is another matter. It means, in fact, interference in a domestic war and taking a side of ‘Eurasian’, pro-Russian, profoundly anti-European forces. It helps to shift a tough balance between the rivaling parties into the ‘Eurasian’, anti-Western direction. No alternative to the term ‘Eurasian’ is perfect but, in most cases, the term ‘post-Soviet’ looks more precise and far more neutral than the term ‘Eurasian’.


Takinga Russian Side


The power of labeling, othering, and exclusion inherent to presumably neutral geographic terms, had been noticed long before the classical studies by Edward Said, Larry Wolff, or Maria Todorova were published. Milan Kundera and his colleagues from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia had desperately rebelled against the term ‘Eastern Europe’ as allegedly excluding them from Europe as a family of free nations and placing them implicitly into the Soviet legitimate sphere of influence. ‘Eastern Europe’ became like a stigma that signified the inferiority of the region, its primordial backwardness, lack of political freedom, of civic liberties, of rule of law. To escape from this dangerous, disreputable place they invented the term ‘Central East Europe’ that included primarily Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia but was embraced also in Romania, Yugoslavia, West Ukraine, and the Baltics by locals dissenting intellectuals.

It was a just attempt to overcome an exclusion imposed upon them by the dominant West European discourse. But their own discourse proved to be equally exclusivist vis-à-vis other East European neighbors. Slovenians claimed they have nothing to do with the ugly ‘Balkans’ because they had always been Central European. Croatians followed the suit by becoming ‘Mediterranean’. The Balts stressed they do not belong to the post-Soviet club since they were occupied by the Soviets (as if Georgia or Ukraine or anybody else joined the USSR voluntarily). All this made a historian to quip: "What's the new geography? Western Europe, Central Europe and... Eurasia. Europe has a West, it has a Center, but holy cow! it has no East. Foucault would have loved this geographical gaping wound.”[2]

Today, as all the non-Soviet countries of the former Communist block have been either admitted in the EU or placed on a firm track towards membership, the process of othering and discursive exclusion/inclusion has changed its forms but not essence. ‘Eurasianism’, in this respect, can be defined in Saidian way as an attempt to control and manipulate the so-called ‘Eurasia’ which is merely a code-word for post-Soviet republics. Russian ‘Eurasian’ discourse is aimed primarily at dominance over and re-integration of the post-Soviet space. Western ‘Eurasian’ discourse is aimed primarily at marginalization of the post-Soviet republics, their exclusion from the European project and placing them within the Russian sphere of influence and, presumably, responsibility.

Ignorance might be one reason for such a Western approach. Neither Ukraine, nor Georgia, nor Belarus have ever existed on mental maps of the Europeans. All these nations have been always perceived through the lenses of Russian historical myths broadly accepted in Western media and academia as ‘scientific truths’. Imperial likeness of big Western powers has also facilitated their uncritical acceptance of Russian imperialistic views of the ‘near abroad’. The alternative views and voices of the subaltern nations have been silenced, marginalized, or discredited as ‘nationalistic’.

Yet, Realpolitik and, in particular, a notorious Russia-first policy pursued by major West European countries seem to play a decisive role in exclusion of post-Soviet nations of Eastern Europe from ‘European’ discourses and ceding them into the Moscow-centered discourse of ‘Eurasianism’. Perhaps the clearest even though the most cynical example of such a reasoning comes from a staff columnist of the influential “Asia Times” daily, somebody Spengler:

“The West has two choices: draw a line in the sand around Ukraine, or trade it to the Russians for something more important. My proposal is simple: Russia's help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the "Orange" revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia's assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia's existential requirements in the near abroad […] Russia has an existential interest in absorbing Belarus and the Western [sic] Ukraine. No one cares about Byelorus. It has never had an independent national existence or a national culture; the first grammar in the Belorussian language was not printed until 1918, and little over a third of the population of Belarus speaks the language at home. Never has a territory with 10 million people had a sillier case for independence. Given that summary, it seems natural to ask why anyone should care about Ukraine. That question is controversial; for the moment, I will offer the assertion that partition is the destiny of Ukraine.”[3]

Virtually the same ideas but in much more subtle, diplomatic form can be found in a classified report drawn up by the German and French foreign ministries in 2000: “The admission of Ukraine [in the EU] would imply the isolation of Russia. It is sufficient to content oneself with close cooperation with Kiev. The Union should not be enlarged to the East any further…”[4]

The crude Huntigtonian scheme reigns supreme over the minds of many Westerners, including the EU officials of the highest rank. One of them, a former French president and the incumbent head of the European Convent, Valerie Giscard d'Estaing gave a graphic explanation of why Ukraine should be definitely excluded from the European project: “A part of Ukraine has, indeed, a European character – these are the lands that had belonged to Poland and, earlier, to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But the territories behind the Dniper river and those to the south have a Russian character. Those lands cannot belong to the European Union as long as Russia is not admitted to the EU.”[5]

Even though the 'Eurasian' rhetoric is not employed explicitly in these statements, all their major premises are based on a strong belief that Ukraine is a natural part of some primordial Russian-Eurasian space: “The West must appreciate Ukraine’s historic closeness to Russia and realize that many Ukrainians consider themselves members of the East Slavic group, composed of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.”[6] “Any definition of the West that excludes Russia because of its ostensibly divergent ‘values’, must perforce exclude Ukraine, whose culture and values are inextricably interwoven with those of Russia”. Hence, Ukrainians should “stop fighting this centuries old religious and cultural affinity” and to “work together” with Russia because this is “the only way to place the task of European integration on a solid footing”.[7]

The bottom line of these mantras is clear – and hardly the Kremlin propagandists could put it better: “Ukraine is firmly anchored in the Eurasian region that traditionally answers to Moscow. The cultural-historical fusion with Russia reaches deep into the past to the Kievan Rus, the original formula of the East Slavic concept of state, as does the Byzantine-Orthodox hold on mentality and society. The majority of the population speaks Russian and geographically and geo-politically speaking, the country has a number of non-European coordinates that are indispensable to Russia: the Black Sea, Crimea, the Caucasus.”[8]

A very frivolous if not overtly ignorant treatment of historical and geographical facts is a lesser problem of this type of writing. What really strikes here is a 19th century essentialism that looms large in the quoted texts. Even though Western ‘Eurasianists’ recognize, in most cases, that Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Belarusian societies are divided in their identities and geopolitical orientations, they not only unabashedly invent Russian/pro-Russian (‘Eurasian’) majority where it barely exists but also claim that this very group, with such an identity, is ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’ while the alternative is alien and artificial, imposed by some sinister Westernizers:

“Regional identity discourses instigated by regional elites emphasizing their countries’ adherence to the cultural and societal space of Europe risk severing ties to traditional cultural and socio-structural spaces. Such an artificial elite discourse in the NEE [New Eastern Europe] is hardly consonant with the self-definition of large segments of NEE societies… A regional identity discourse that accepts the NEE as part of the post-Soviet space, with century-old ties that link these states together, may be much less exclusive and divisive for these societies than an EU-centered discourse.”[9]

The flaws in this argumentation are so numerous that it is really difficult to believe they all come from incompetence rather that political and ideological bias. First of all, the scholar should know that the EU-centered discourse does not play any “divisive” role anywhere – either in Ukraine, or Moldova, or Belarus. Year by year, opinion polls in these countries reveal only tiny minority in these countries opposes the eventual EU membership. In actuality, it is the opposite, Russia-centered discourse that is really divisive and exclusive. Historically, it was seasoned with strong Pan-Slavonic, anti-Western, imperialistic overtones and fashioned in such a way that leaves no room for Ukrainians and Belarusians as separate nations, with distinct cultures and languages.


Paradoxes of primordialism


Yet, even of greater importance is a simple fact that neither the “post-Soviet space” where the NEE countries should arguably belong, nor the “cultural and societal space of Europe” where they arguably should be excluded from, are primordial, value-free, and sealed forever. Both of them are constructed, exactly like the NEE, by the domestic and international actors.

What, for instance, the “post-Soviet space” means in this mantra and why it should be considered “traditional” by Ukrainians, Moldovans, and Belarusians? Wasn’t it a space of slavery, lawlessness, brutal colonization, genocide, deportations, forceful Russification and crackdown on any dissent? Of course, there were quite a few Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Moldovans who took the side of the colonizers and benefited from this. There were many more of them who accepted that daily rape as a marriage, a mesalliance. They learned not to think, not to remember, not to question “normality” of things abnormal, – they learned to survive. And there are still many of them who suffer from collective amnesia, from fear of freedom, and are stuck to the “post-Soviet space”, with all its “traditions” – of corruption, of backwardness and blatant disrespect for human rights and dignity. The NEE societies are really divided in this regard – and this is probably what makes them a region distinct not only from Central East Europe but also, by and large, from Russia.

Yet, if one really wishes to overcome these societal divisions, would not it be more reasonable – from a human, not Realpolitik point of view – to cure the amnesia, to promote European identity, and to cherish European values, so unusual in the “Soviet/post-Soviet space”? If Russia would like to join the NEE in this process, she should be welcome. But if she would like the opposite, the only honest position should be to denounce it unequivocally and to do everything possible to prevent this kind of “integration”. However deep and painful societal divisions might be in the NEE, we cannot cure them by imposing amnesia on the healthier part of society, by exposing a divided nations to further Russification and drawing them back into “traditional” space of despotic etatism and great-power paranoia.

In any case, a great number of Ukrainians, Moldovans and Belarusians would certainly not be happy with “inclusive” identity that brings them back into the Russian/Eurasian bag. I dare to say they would be much more unhappier with this prospect than their ‘pro-Russian’ fellow-countrymen would ever be with the alternative prospect of leaving that primordial space for good. The reason is simple: while the identity issue and all the related things are high on agenda for one group, they are of minor importance for the other. In practical terms this means that the pro-Western group, even if a minority (like in Belarus), is ideologically much more motivated and politically much more mobilized than the pro-Russian group (which in fact is rather ambivalent and nativist than pro-Russian, as is aptly observed by some scholars).[10] So, even though some authors contend that promotion of European identities in the NEE creates “mental and physical dividing lines in the region”, the truth is the opposite: promotion (or preservation) of so-called ‘pro-Russian’, profoundly anti-Western and anti-modern identities in the NEE creates the dividing lines within all three nations, supports their backwardness, and encourages Russia to even more bullish behavior.

What Western ‘Eurasianists’ misunderstand (or deliberately distort), is a simple fact that any identity is socially/historically constructed and that local elite as well as external actors often play an important role in such a construction. In this view, European identity in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova is not more “artificial” than pro-Russian (or, rather, nativist) identity that is praised by some authors as “traditional and unique”.[11] Everybody who is acquainted a bit with a non-imperialistic version of Russian history knows pretty well that neither Ukraine, nor Belarus, nor Moldova had ever been parts of Muscovy until the 18th century when she incorporated these lands, appropriated the name of medieval Rus (with the historical center in Kyiv), and developed the concept of East Slavonic community (Orthodox Christian ‘ummah’) as a core of imperial identity. This is a graphic example of invented tradition that had been transformed, however, into a powerful myth and, moreover, recognized internationally as a ‘scientific truth’.

Within more than two centuries, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Moldovan (Romanian) identities (“traditional and unique”, as primordialists would say) had been strongly eroded under imperial pressure and largely – but not fully – assimilated into Eastern Christian and, eventually, Bolshevik ‘ummah’. In a sense, the New Eastern Europe can be considered as a Europe-that-left in the area after two centuries of the dominance of a profoundly anti-European power. This Europe-that-left is made up of the remnants of Duchy of Moldova and Kingdom of Romania, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Polish Republic, the Habsburg Empire and inter-war Czechoslovakia, – the remnants not fully digested by Muscovy-turned-Russia-turned-the Soviet Union. European identity, whether “traditional” or “invented”, is the main if not only feature that makes the region substantially different from Russia and prevents its full dissolution in what Gerhard Mangott calls euphemistically “a wider region bordering the EU to the east”. One may call it also euphemistically “Eurasia” and pretend that Russia is just a “part of it.”[12] But East Europeans as well as Russians themselves know pretty well that Russia, ultimately, is not part of it but just it.


In a way of conclusion


Andrei Tsygankov, a U.S. professor from California, perfectly sums up the political essence of the exclusivist discourse of Western “Eurasinists”. He starts with an apocalyptic vision of the post-Soviet space, a.k.a. “Eurasia”: “Violence is gradually spreading, waiting for an opportunity to erupt into a large-scale conflict. Transregional transportation routes may soon be choked due to Russia's conflicts with Ukraine, Georgia, and Turkmenistan. The West's attempts to secure and stabilize Eurasia after the end of the Cold War must be recognized as a failure… Eurasia has not become stable or peaceful and continues to disintegrate.”[13]

The only way to preventing a “collapse in Eurasia”, he suggests candidly, is to recognize “Russia's role in stabilizing the region”: “Once this is done in practice, and not rhetorically, many pieces of the region's puzzle may start falling into place. Energy supplies may become more reliable; governments in politically contested areas -- like Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova -- may obtain a greater legitimacy; and the so-called frozen conflicts may have a better opportunity to be resolved”. And if Russia is not allowed to deliver a “greater ligitimacy” to the neighboring governments, they should blame nobody but themselves: Russia will probably “dedicate itself to obstructing Western policies in Eurasia”, and “we will see more of the collapsing dynamics in the region. Ukraine and Moldova may disintegrate, as did Georgia. Central Asia and Azerbaijan are likely to be subjected to a much greater degree of instability with unpredictable consequences”.

Here, in a delicate mixture of covert blackmail and mild self-fulfiling prophecy, a Western “Eurasianist” comes very close to his Russian counterparts from today's “neo-Eurasianist” movement. Mr. Dugin would definitely agree that “instead of expanding its reach further, NATO ought to learn its limitations”, and that the only way “to restore the region's capacity to function and perform basic services for its residents” is to “curb Russophobic nationalism”. Who will compile the list of “Russophobic nationalists” is not quite clear, but the record might be pretty long, provided that even Alyaksandr Lukashenko is failing to meet the requirements of genuine Russophilism.

The ultimate goal of both Russian and Western 'Eurasianists', however, is clear: “there is hardly an alternative to the emergence of an economically and culturally transparent community of nations with strong ties to the former metropole”. And therefore, “the overall objective of the outside world should be to strengthen Russia's confidence as a regional great power.”[14]

There is apparently no room for the New Eastern Europe within this project – as never has been.


* The earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Congress of Central and East European Studies at Stockholm on July 26-31, 2010. The presentation was supported by the Shevchenko Scientific Society, USA.

[1] Josef Langer, “Wider Europe and the Neighbourhood Strategy of the European Union – A Quest of Identity?” Europe 2020, 19 April 2004; http://www.europe2020.org/fr/section_voisin/190404.htm

[2] John-Paul Himka, What's in a Region? (Notes on "Central Europe")

[3] Spengler, “Americans play Monopoly, Russians chess,” Asia Times, August 19, 2008; http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/JH19Ag04.html

[4] Quoted in “New Neighbourhood – New Association. Ukraine and the European Union at the beginning of the 21st century,” Policy Papers 6 (Warsaw: Stefan Batory Foundation, March 2002), p.11.

[5] Rzeczpospolita, 26–27 November 2005, p. 7.

[6] Marcus Papadopoulos, “Russia steps up pressure on Ukraine,” 16 June 2008; http://www.religiousintelligence.co.uk/news/?NewsID=2169

[7] Nicolai Petro, “Recasting Ukraine's identity?” Open Democracy, 30 January 2009; www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/recasting-ukraines-identity. C.f. Valery Giscard d'Estaing’s statement based on the same dubious argumentation: “A part of Ukraine has, indeed, a European character – these are the lands that had belonged to Poland and, earlier, to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But the territories behind the Dniper River and those to the south have a Russian character. Those lands cannot belong to the European Union as long as Russia is not admitted to the EU” (Rzeczpospolita, 26–27 November 2005, p.7.)

[8] Richard Wagner, “Why Ukraine has no place in the EU,” Sign and Sight, 11 June 2008; http://www.signandsight.com/features/1708.html. Originally appeared in German in the Neue Zuercher Zeitung on June 3, 2008; http://www.nzz.ch/nachrichten/kultur/aktuell/war_joseph_roth_vielleicht_ruthene_1.749156.html

[9] Gerhard Mangott, “Deconstructing a Region”, in Daniel Hamilton and Gerhard Mangott (eds.), The New Eastern Europe. Ukraine, Belarus & Moldova (Washington, DC: Center for Transatlantic Relations, 2007), p. 263.

[10] Dmitri Trenin, “Russia and Ukraine”, in Daniel Hamilton and Gerhard Mangott (eds.), The New Eastern Europe, p. 200, 207.

[11] Mangott, p. 263.

[12] Ibid., p. 285.

[13] Andrei Tsygankov, “Working With Russia To Prevent Eurasian Collapse”, RFE/RL Headlines, October 29, 2009.

[14] Ibid.