EDITORIAL: What is Europe?

“The ideologues of modernization see it as a kind of race, in which, obviously, some are first and some are last”—writes Boris Kagarlitsky in his book “Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System” (2012).—It resembles a running contest or a horse race in a hippodrome. In such a race, it is always possible to establish why some participant speeds ahead or is slouching at the back. But the relations between the centre and the periphery are shaped by completely different rules. Resources provided by the periphery allow the centre to speed up. (…) The more active the participation of the periphery in this »contest«, the more backward it becomes and the more easily the West can »break away«. On the other hand all the stages the West has been going through are repeated by peripheral countries, not so much with a delay but in a different form. In other words, it is not a situation of two independent race participants but rather a horse-rider relation. Both the horse and the contestant riding it cross the finish line, achieving the same goal, but not so much in different time but in different shape.”

The Soviet Union tried, paying for it with huge suffering and sacrifice, to bridge the gap created over centuries and to build a Moscowbased centre of the world economy competing with the West. In the late 1970s the Soviet per capita GDP reached 48 % of the American level. Then the Soviet Union lost its momentum and in the next decade, which ended with the collapse of the Eastern Block, it became clear that the only modernization strategy for the countries of our part of the continent is integration with the economic, political and cultural structures of the West.

From the perspective of the “post- communist East” countries, European integration was perceived as a chance for the “return to normality.” Only recently we began to understand that in the case of peripheral countries of Europe the return to normality means the return to the periphery of Europe. After a half-century of “Soviet modernization” (which the Russian scholar compares to an attempt to shake the rider off and continue to run in the same direction), the countries of Central Europe are in the same boat. Or rather, to stay with the brilliant metaphor of Kagarlitsky, they run in the same team of horses.

Despite all that—or perhaps because of that—the Poles and the Czechs like to underline the differences between them. The Czechs are traditionally “Orientalizing” Poland, perceiving it as an even more “Eastern” country than it really is. Anything can serve as a proof of backwardness but most often named are traditionalist religion, Catholicism, a high share of rural inhabitants in the population, affirmation of the traditions of the nobility, lack of a native middle class, antisemitism, nationalism, militarism.

The Poles in their turn “Occidentalize” the Czechs, sometimes imagining them to be more “Western” than they really are. Anything can serve as a proof of the Czech advancement but named most often are the middle class and industrial traditions, cultural tolerance, religious indifference, sense of humor, pacifism, philosemitism and common sense. In such a scheme of thinking, the Czechs no longer are an actual nation but a phantasm. “The Lord created the Czechs for the pleasure of the Poles,” wrote Mariusz Szczygieł, currently the most popular Polish author in the Czech Republic. It seems that this pleasure has a masochistic undertone.

For in the mutual relations there is a characteristic disproportion: the Czechs are generally not interested in the Poles while the Poles are interested in imagined rather than real Czechs. If need be, cowardly smartasses and plebeians lacking sense of humor and respect for any values may turn out to be warm, witty, tolerant and unprejudiced people who know how to enjoy life and let others be (read: as opposed to us). The negative stereotype is replaced with a positive one, as much divorced from reality.

The enhanced Polish interest in the Czechs is undoubtedly related to our simultaneous bid for the EU membership and the subsequent accession. In addition, the “Occidentalization” of the Czechs, that is perceiving them as a more “Western” nation than ours, is connected with the modernization processes going on in our part of Europe after 1989. We look at the Czechs with envy, forgetting that in the 19th century their country was the most industrialized province of the Habsburg Monarchy. Sometimes we see them as a model of modernization.

The problem is that the Czechs did not invent modernization but, so to speak, modernization “invented” the Czechs. There would be no modern Czech nation without the industrialization of the lands of the Czech Crown, initiated in the first decades of the 19th century by the local Germans (who were to regret it) and the resultant migrations of Slav population to urban centers. Milan Kundera was right, calling Bohemia a “kidnapped West.” But the price for odsun and getting rid of more than three million German co-citizens after World War II was falling under the Soviet rule and leaving the Western development trajectory.

Despite that the Czechs still earn more than the Poles, have higher productivity and twice as big average savings. However, the once huge development gap between these two countries is systematically shrinking. The French political scientist Jacques Rupnik notes that while in 1995 the Czechs earned 73 % of the EU average, now this figure is 80 %. The Poles have made a bigger leap, from 43 % in 1995 to 61 % now. The countries of Central Europe are not only steadily becoming more and more similar to each other but also closing the distance to the European centre. So from the perspective of Prague, Warsaw, Bratislava or Budapest the European Union is what it is. A new Empire of the Periphery.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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