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New Europe Grows Old

By
June 28, 2005

In March 2005 Canadian writer Stephen Henighan made a trip around Eastern Europe. What he found there confirmed impressions formed on an earlier trip that, contrary to many media reports, “New Europe” and “Old Europe” are not irrevocably split. In the article that follows, Henighan puts events such as the French and Dutch rejection of the proposed European Union constitution and forces such as anti-Americanism into a new light that suggests that on many fronts public opinion in Europe’s two halves is converging.

When I first began traveling in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the dividing lines on social questions were stark. Western Europeans supported the welfare state; Eastern Europeans craved the free market. Western Europeans defined themselves as anti-racist; Eastern Europeans expressed hostility towards ethnic minorities. Western Europeans saw feminism as a progressive force and often disapproved of pornography; Eastern Europeans considered feminism to be a Communist conspiracy and viewed the spread of pornography as evidence of personal liberty. Above all, Western Europeans regarded the United States as a shallow culture promoting a foreign policy of dubious probity while Eastern Europeans worshiped America and all its works.

During the decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall these oppositions began to erode. Their erosion has been uneven and contradictory, yet undeniable. Beneath the divisions on economic policy, a growing convergence of cultural outlook between older and newer members of the European Union is taking shape. Donald Rumsfeld’s January 2003 dismissal of France and Germany as “a problem” and his hopeful statement that “the center of gravity is shifting to the East” laid the cornerstone for a U.S. policy of exploiting residual Cold War idealism about the United States in Eastern Europe to undermine Western European objections to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In two speeches of breathtaking cynicism in Bratislava, Slovakia on February 24, 2005 and Riga, Latvia on May 7, 2005, George W. Bush claimed the spirit of 1989 as the inspiration for the U.S. invasion, telling his Bratislava audience: “It is important to pass on the lessons of that period…. By your efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq and across the world, you are teaching young Slovaks important lessons.” Bush’s desire that Eastern Europeans, remaining forever mindful of their experiences under Soviet rule, will offer unquestioning support to any foreign adventure to which the U.S. attaches the “freedom” label, depends on a vision of Europe that is already outdated.

Donald Rumsfeld, it seemed, had highlighted the differences between Eastern and Western Europe just as these differences were going into decline.

In 2002, after attending a conference in Athens, I hit the backpacker trail through Greece. My fellow backpackers, many of them young northern Europeans, spoke fluidly neutral Euro-English. They all disliked the United States, an issue that arose early in any conversation since I usually had to explain that I was not American but Canadian, at which point my fellow travellers relaxed and opened up. In that spring lull –post-September 11 but pre-Iraq invasion– disdain of the United States, in Europe as in other parts of the world, was muted by comparison with the virulence it would assume later, as the Bush doctrine slouched towards Baghdad to be born. I was surprised that when I reached Bulgaria, where I visited two Bulgarian friends whom I had met on earlier travels, the attitudes of the Scandinavians and Germans who had crossed my path in Greece did not feel alien. The forces driving the repudiation of the United States were different, but the attitudes were similar. In Bulgaria, the turning point had been the 1999 bombing of former Yugoslavia, conducted by NATO but blamed on the United States.

One day I climbed Mount Vitosha, above Sofia, with my Bulgarian friend Tereza. We rode a ski lift up the mountainside then hiked through the trees into a rock-scarred landscape where spars of stale-looking snow resisted the tepid June warmth. Tereza was far more cosmopolitan than most citizens of introverted, mountain-ringed Bulgaria. The five languages she spoke included Turkish. Tereza’s fluent Turkish made some of her friends uneasy: Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, resented as a reminder of the centuries when the country was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, is treated with hostility by mainstream Bulgarian society. During the 1980s Bulgaria tried to force its Turks to adopt Slavic names. Tereza’s interest in Turkish culture originated in her long-term relationship with a Turkish man, as a result of which she continued to spend part of each year in Istanbul.

Yet in spite of her appealing acceptance of Muslim culture, she had no sympathy for Bosnian Muslims or Kosovo Albanians. Tereza dismissed the atrocities committed by Serb forces during the war in former Yugoslavia as concoctions of the U.S. media, cooked up to provide a pretext for military intervention. Her hostility was reinforced by the claim that during the 1999 bombing campaign one U.S. bomber, running off course, had bombed Bulgaria by mistake. But the central issue was her identification with neighboring Orthodox peoples. The bombing of former Yugoslavia alienated Orthodox opinion not only in Serbia and Macedonia, but throughout Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. Older people, who remembered tuning in to Radio Free Europe during the Cold War to hear news reports denied them by their own media, continued to idealize the United States. But for someone of Tereza’s generation, the defining encounter with U.S. foreign policy was the bombing of Serbia, whose religion she shared and whose language was mutually intelligible with Bulgarian.

Dmitri, a friend of both mine and Tereza’s, whom I visited in a different region of Bulgaria, also mentioned the bombs dropped on Bulgarian soil. A bohemian with a mid-back ponytail and two university degrees who had learned fluent English at the American College of Sofia, Dmitri was earning his living as a hard-rock musician. Dmitri’s political vision was in many ways more nuanced than Tereza’s. In spite of his allegiance to Orthodox cultures, he acknowledged the reality of Serbian war crimes and recognized that significant differences existed between the multiethnic political institutions that Serbian forces had fought to destroy in Bosnia and the intransigent ethnic insurgency of Albanian nationalists in Kosovo.

Yet Tereza’s choice of a Turkish boyfriend made him uncomfortable. The Turks had the potential to destroy Bulgaria. What if the Turkish minority regions began to fight for their independence and NATO bombers came in to support them? Dmitri was considering applying for a scholarship to attend a foreign university. The thought of studying outside Bulgaria made him feel guilty; he was susceptible to the criticism that too many young people were leaving the country. One thing was certain: he would not be studying in the United States. His friends from the American College of Sofia had made that mistake. They had returned home after a year, disgusted by the closed-mindedness of American life, and transferred to universities in Western Europe. So where was he going? Dmitri mulled this over. Holland, perhaps. He wanted to live in an open society.

The difference is that no one in Western Europe is trying to drive out traditional ethnic minorities: the hostility is directed at immigrants.

My friends’ disaffection with the United States surprised me. It left me unprepared, however, for the raging hostility to all emanations of United States influence that I encountered during a trip through Romania and Hungary in March 2005. Donald Rumsfeld, it seemed, had highlighted the differences between Eastern and Western Europe just as these differences were going into decline. Within the countries formerly dominated by the Soviet Union, a generational divide was opening up. After the death of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the Romanian magazine Curierul Românesc (The Romanian Messenger), the international voice of the country’s intellectual elite, ran a lead editorial under the headline (in English) “Thank You, Mr. President!”. A breathless editorial hailed Reagan as the bestower of “freedom” (not the way he will be remembered in Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Honduras). After reading this gushing praise, I set off on my trip ready to wrestle with the diametrically opposed outlooks of a Europe divided between East and West. Taking refuge from a blizzard in northeastern Romania in the home of a teacher with whom I was acquainted, I was introduced to her family, then to her fiancé. Romulus was a startling figure. A man in his mid-thirties, six-foot-four with black hair receding into a thinning widow’s peak, and with riveting blue eyes bequeathed to his dark Romanian face by some Ukrainian ancestor, he had trained as an engineer and now worked in the non-profit sector. The great achievement of his life was his traveling. Romulus had toured the Balkans on a bicycle, sleeping rough or in accommodation offered to him by people he met along the way. On a later trip he had hitchhiked from northeastern Romania to Iraq, then back through the Middle East as far as Libya. He retained many views typical of Orthodox society (NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia came up immediately), but it was the broadening of his horizons that had stoked his hatred of the United States. Having become acquainted with the impact of U.S. influence on the wider world, rather than measuring the United States strictly on the basis of its Cold War duel with the Soviet Union, he had reached dire conclusions. We retreated to an upstairs room to sit out the blizzard, and ate and talked for eight hours. My acquaintance the teacher became less vocal in her fiancé’s presence; in this way, as in the endless rounds of food with which the family supplied us, traditional values remained intact.

The difference was that while during the Cold War those values had made young Romanians pro-American, in the era of globalization adherence to tradition contributes to a welling anti-Americanism. In Romulus’s eyes everything was a U.S. conspiracy: not just the bombings and invasions, but even the European Union, at first glance a counterweight to the influence of the United States, was in fact doing the U.S.’s work, he claimed, by stripping Eastern Europe of competitive industry. Like Dmitri in Bulgaria, Romulus linked his anti-Americanism to a quest for a society that was “open.” For a Romanian this implied a potentially disconcerting shift in values. A rambling, diverse country of 21 million people, Romania has always had large minority populations. Today there are more than two million Roma (called “Gypsies” by some), between one and a half and two million Hungarians, a few thousand Germans (the remnants of a community that once numbered 700,000) and, in the country’s border regions, outposts of Serbs, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and Turks. There was a large Jewish population until it was destroyed by the Holocaust. Some Romanian rulers have governed by turning the majority against the minorities. The Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu owed his survival until the last week of the 1980s, in part, to the promotion of a nationalism that depended on the brutal oppression of ethnic Hungarians. In the post-Communist era local politicians, most notoriously Gheorghe Funar, the ultranationalist two-term mayor of the city of Cluj-Napoca (which

Hungarians call Kolosvár) who was defeated in June 2004, have appealed to similar instincts. Romanians are acutely aware that they will enter the European Union in 2007 with the largest minority populations of any recent E.U. adherent. (Slovakia, already an E.U. member, has substantial, but smaller, Hungarian and Roma minorities.) The E.U. has set adequate provision for minority rights as a condition for Romania’s entry. The current picture is mixed, as are Romanians’ feelings. The far-right Greater Romania Party polled 12.7% of the vote in the 2004 presidential elections; yet the new center-right government of President Traian Băsescu contains three ethnic Hungarian cabinet ministers. When I mentioned to my hosts in the snowstorm that I had heard people speaking Hungarian in the streets of their town, they nodded their heads. “This is normal. There have always been Hungarian people here. They have their churches, they have their lives…this is normal.”

“I don’t want to say it, but learning English is a duty for him. I don’t want to say it, but it’s almost like Russian was before.”

The embattled equilibrium between traditional ethnic assertion and a greater openness perceived as integral to modernity is present in both Eastern and Western Europe, narrowing the gap between them. Even the liberal paradise of Holland has bred a successful far-right party and, in the aftermath of the assassinations of the party’s leader Pim Fortuyn and of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, has fallen victim to ethnic strife of almost Eastern European intensity. The difference is that no one in Western Europe is trying to drive out traditional ethnic minorities: the hostility is directed at immigrants. The immigrant, by definition, is visible; the historical minority is often maintained in a state of invisibility. My literary companion during my travels in Romania was Întoarcerea huliganului (The Hooligan’s Return), Norman Manea’s ironic, beautifully digressive memoir of a Jewish-Romanian childhood and youth, capped by an account of his return visit to Romania in 1997 after long-term exile in New York. Manea’s book is published by Polirom, the best Romanian publishing house; yet Romanian intellectuals to whom I expressed my enthusiasm for Manea’s writing grew tense or claimed not to have heard of Manea. At the same time, Manea’s descriptions of the southern Bukovina of his childhood remain oddly myopic because, in his meticulous narration of the region’s social dynamics, the Roma population disappears. It is impossible to travel in Bukovina without being surrounded by the Roma, yet Manea pretends that they don’t exist even though they shared his own community’s fate of being incarcerated, transported, starved, and murdered during the Holocaust.

This refusal to see others who are different was prominent in my mind as I arrived in Hungary. Having had the mongrelized bulk of its territory sheered away by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, modern Hungary is an ethnically uniform rump where, as in most of Western Europe, internal minority issues are cast primarily in terms of recent immigrants, in Hungary’s case from China, Russia, or Ukraine. Yet the fate of the Magyar minorities living outside Hungary, not only in Romania but in Slovakia, former Yugoslavia, and Ukraine, continues to elicit strong emotions, which culminated in Hungary’s provocative decision to extend citizenship to Hungarians living outside Hungary. As the largest minority group, the Hungarians in Romania are the beneficiaries of much of the passion expended on this issue. When I first spent a month in Hungary in 1989, at a time when Romania’s Hungarians were suffering persecution by the death-spasms of the Ceauşescu dictatorship, I found this rallying to the defence of a beleaguered culture uplifting; in the democratic context of the present, the violent hatred of Romania expressed by many Hungarians can feel like a retrogade obsession.

Members of Romania’s ethnic Hungarian minority, aware that they are economically better off than other Romanian citizens, are often more sanguine about the situation than people in Hungary. Endre, an ethnic Hungarian professor from Cluj, told me: “Romanian law says that wherever Hungarians are 20% of the population we can have bilingual signs and government services in Hungarian. Personally, I would prefer a system more like that enjoyed by the Swedish minority in Finland: wherever you have 3000 Swedes you get services. Here in Cluj there are 60,000 Hungarians, but because we are 18.9% of the population, we have no services. Still, in many smaller towns mayors have authorized services for Hungarians even in cases where we are 15% or less of the population.” My Budapest friends Pisti and Julcsi shared the vision that characterized the condition of Hungarians in Romania as one of continuing oppression. Julcsi and I have been friends and colleagues for fifteen years. Her husband Pisti and I disagree about politics. Having graduated from an experimental bilingual (English-Hungarian) school established in Budapest by UNESCO, Pisti speaks stunningly fluent English and grew up worshiping the United States. But, during my latest visit to Hungary, I discovered that raising his two young sons in the early 21st century was making it difficult for him to harmonize his nationalism with his idealistic vision of the U.S.A. Pisti’s bookish older son Tibor, now aged ten, is already making speeches about the need to save the Hungarian minority in Romania; but father and son have different views of the United States. “For me,” Pisti said, “learning English was a statement. It was about my freedom. It meant I could go into downtown hotels where they sold Newsweek and Time and get information my government didn’t want me to have. Tibor’s generation has English all around it. He knows he has to learn it but he’s become indifferent.” “What about English as the language in which Europeans communicate with each other?” I asked, remembering my travels in Greece. “The fact remains that the United States of America is the biggest source of English in the world today. When my son turns on the television and sees American soldiers going into somebody else’s country and killing people, it doesn’t exactly help the language.” He hesitated, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t want to say it, but learning English is a duty for him. I don’t want to say it, but it’s almost like Russian was before.”

The European Union is not in the business of eradicating nationalism but of containing nationalist impulses within a legislative framework. In both Eastern and Western Europe, closer formal associations with nearby countries have thrown national traits into starker relief. The rejection of the European constitution by France and Holland in May 2005, in the name of the preservation of national values, demonstrates that cultural nationalism in Europe is a broad-based force, not merely a bogeyman unleashed on Eastern Europe by the collapse of Communism. Any clearly articulated nationalism, no matter how democratic, multiethnic and peace-loving the nation, will produce a dislike for the United States, whose current global quest for “freedom” mandates cultural homogenization as the pre-condition for commercial efficiency. Orthodox countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, and countries with large Muslim populations, such as France, have reached a common point of hostility towards the U.S. more swiftly than relatively undiluted Catholic societies such as Hungary or Italy. Poland, with its fratricidal antagonism to Russian culture, will persist longer than other nations in seeking solace across the Atlantic. Yet this year, for the first time, I found I was able to criticize U.S. foreign policy in front of young Poles without provoking outrage. National differences will endure in Europe, however the future of the European Union unfolds; but the rift between “Eastern Europe” and “Western Europe,” antiquated Cold War notions whose times are now past, is destined to fade away. To phrase the issue in Donald Rumsfeld’s terms, New Europe is growing Old.

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