Can new neighbours tell Slovenia from Slovakia?

April 30, 2004

Like many Western Europeans, Silvio Berlusconi, could not distinguish between countries in Eastern Europe. Wendy Bracewell wonders how things will change as the EU expands

From May 1, the European Union will extend from the frontiers of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine all the way to Portugal's Atlantic coast.

Eight Eastern European states - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - will have joined the EU (along with Malta and Cyprus), and Romania and Bulgaria are lined up to follow in 2007.

Tony Blair and others have hailed this event as uniting Europe after the cold war division of the continent into East and West. This reunification began in 1989, with the opening of previously closed frontiers, but will increased travel and communication help erase a lingering sense of an East/West divide?

As part of the "East Looks West" project, my colleagues and I have been reading travel books published from the 16th century to the present with an eye to the various ways that Eastern Europeans have used travel writing to explore their position in relation to the notion of Europe. The texts show that there has been no one "Eastern European" attitude to Europe, but most travellers from the continent's eastern margins have measured themselves and the lands they travelled through against some idea of what Europe is, though its meanings could vary wildly.

Some have argued, as did Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic in Café Europa: Life after Communism , her collection of post-1989 travels, that these Eastern European imaginings have contributed more than most to the idea of Europe: "Europe was built by those of us living on the edges, because it is only from there that you would have the need to imagine something like 'Europe' to save you from your complexes, insecurities and fears."

If "Europe" has been at least in part a product of projections and inventions from the east, it's been argued that "Eastern Europe" was brought into being by Western European efforts at self-definition. Eastern Europe was conceived as the complementary opposite to all that "the West" imagined itself to be. Distancing itself from a backward, oppressed and ambiguous East allowed the West to see itself as progressive, democratic and civilised.

Our texts suggest, though, that travellers from the East have helped to perpetuate the East/ West division. They have aligned themselves and their societies on one side or the other of such a divide, whether to distinguish themselves from their neighbours or to criticise their own society's social and political practices. "Here we leave Europe, and cross into the East," noted the Czech Konstantin Jiricyek, on the train to Bulgaria; and the Serb Aleksa Stanojevicy, leaving Belgrade for the provincial town of Nisy; and the Croat Miroslav Krle*ya, pointing to the underpass that linked Zagreb's centre to the slums on the other side of the railway tracks. Where "the East" began depended on who was being excluded from Europe and why.

Belonging to "the West" could be a matter of degree, as Desanka Maksimovicy pointed out in 1972 while travelling from socialist Yugoslavia to Paris:

"the real West, not the sort of West we represent in the eyes of those coming from, say, Siberia, or Azerbaijan, or from Bulgaria".

How much glamour an idealised West will retain once these states are in the EU is open to question. But the game of "orientalise your neighbour" will probably be played for some time - as long as there are advantages in emphasising degrees of difference among various claims to "European" legitimacy.

One other variation on the theme of East and West seems unlikely to alter quickly. Travellers from the East have not been the only ones observing, evaluating and categorising. They have, in turn, been observed and pigeonholed by those whom they meet. The experience of being identified in ways they don't recognise and can't accept is a recurrent theme in much of their travel writing before and after 1989. According to such accounts, Westerners couldn't tell Yugoslavia from Czechoslovakia and couldn't be bothered to learn the difference; or they refused to accept assertions of national identity as valid ("Croatian? Doesn't exist") or worse, imposed unwanted or invented identities ("Soviet", "Ruritanian"); or dismissed any distinctions at all as irrelevant.

One Romanian academic who was at Oxford University in the 1990s reported that, as a visiting fellow placed in a special category, "your own concrete identity becomes less important; for the college administration and the fellow scholars you encounter at table, you are 'The East European Scholar', and none other... As a result I forgot my identity in the space of a month, and I was glad to see the Bor& customs officer's profiteering snarl, in order to regain it."

Are travellers from the East likely to find greater understanding and more discernment once their countries enter the EU? How much, in fact, do we in the UK know about the accession and candidate countries? In recent weeks, they've featured in UK newspapers mainly as a source of fraudulent labour migration and "welfare tourism", or as a destination for British stag parties seeking cheap booze and commercial sex. Both George W. Bush, the US president, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, have self-confidently jumbled Slovenia and Slovakia in recent public statements.

Such high-profile blunders highlight a more general inability to distinguish among the very different countries subsumed under the label "Eastern Europe".

The current popularity of a spoof guidebook for Molvania ("a land untouched by modern dentistry") is also indicative of popular attitudes. Its overt intention may be to parody Lonely Planet-style celebrations of obscure, uncomfortable and un-touristy destinations, but the joke depends heavily on old stereotypes of an undifferentiated Eastern Europe that is backward, linguistically incongruous, violent, frozen in the past - and somehow inherently comic.

All this suggests the persistence of the East/West divide in the western imagination. Travellers from the East seem likely to continue to be (mis)understood in these terms. And as travel accounts demonstrate, the failure to secure recognition on your own terms can be disconcerting. It can be taken to imply not just ignorance or arrogance, but a determination to keep you in your place - as different, "East European", on the other side of a boundary.

Does this matter much? After all, Eastern Europeans aren't the only ones who are stereotyped, and, in any case, just being part of the EU will eventually lead to more familiarity and understanding. Even so, it matters to the nations in question. Slovenia has considered changing its flag, which is very similar to Slovakia's, as a rebranding exercise.

It ought to matter more widely, too. Even if the effort to recognise states and individuals on their own terms isn't sufficient in itself, retaining inaccurate stereotypes could slow the uptake of the opportunities offered by enlargement. A European Commission report shows that British fears of a mass influx of unskilled labour from the accession countries are unfounded.

Instead, the typical migrant will be young, well-educated or still studying, planning to spend only a limited time abroad. UK universities ought to be among those benefiting, with applicants from the region likely to be attracted by a broad approach to degree subjects and a distinctive model of teaching.

Will this new generation of student traveller find UKuniversities contributing to a better understanding of their place in Europe? Will courses on European history, politics or literature include the experience of these countries as a matter of course? Touring Britain in 1990, the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal was ironically amused by the way that Czech studies - if offered at all - was bundled into Russian departments and taught under the gaze of Soviet heroes staring down from film posters on the walls. Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it's still common to see academic positions advertised in terms of "Russia and Eastern Europe". The formal institutional unification of much of the continent will take place on May 1. It may take a little longer for the walls in the mind to come down.

Wendy Bracewell is director of the "East Looks West" Arts and Humanities Research Board-funded project on Eastern European travel writing at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. A book on the project's work will be published by IB Tauris next year.

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