No Race to the Swift: Negotiating Racial Identity in Past and Present Eastern Europe

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Abstract: Portrayals of Eastern European countries as "bridges" between East and West are commonplace both in the media and in the political discourse. While the question of the historical origin of Europe's East-West divide is still under heavy dispute among social scientists, it can be argued that it was the Orientalist discourse of the 19th century that decisively shaped the content of the present categories of Western and Eastern Europe and made policies of demarcation from "the Orient" an important strategy of geopolitical and cultural identification with Europe. The enduring quality of Orientalism's effects on both national self-definitions and social and cultural policy in Eastern Europe is examined in the present paper in two successive steps: first, by looking at the intellectual discourse in 19th century Romania against the background of the country's political independence from the Ottoman Empire and increasing economic, cultural and political orientation toward Western Europe; second, by discussing the resurgence of systems of representation based on this type of discourse in the context of the European Union's "Eastern enlargement". In the first case, the terms of the Western European discourse were appropriated such as to make the "Oriental barbarism" in which Romanian society had been "steeped" until acquiring independence from the Ottoman Empire the point of departure for the development of a European (civilized, Christian, modern) identity. In the second case, the degree of connection to the Ottoman, and therefore Islamic legacy of Eastern European candidates to the European Union has been reinstrumentalized as a legitimating strategy for discursive practices of inferiorization, exoticization, and racial othering that parallel the region's economic peripheralization.


Portrayals of Eastern European countries as "bridges" between East and West are commonplace both in the media and in the political discourse. In particular, the popular label "gateway to the East" is used in history textbooks, tourist guides, and economic reports to equally describe Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia, and Istanbul (Hann 1995: 2). Thus, in the European imaginary, Easternness, in its European variant, is being continually passed on-and, as such, consistently refuted-all the way to Europe's geographical borders as they are defined today.

As definitions of the border between Western and Eastern Europe have historically shifted to highlight ethnic, economic, imperial, or religious divides within the continent, so have attitudes toward the proximity of the Orient and the threat it was perceived to represent at different moments in time. Rather than a twenty-first century phenomenon, efforts to reject an Eastern identity constitute a historically recurring pattern in the construction of Eastern European national self-definitions that has been inextricably tied to (1) the military, economic and cultural impact of the Ottoman Empire in the region on the one hand and (2) the representations of Islam and the Orient in the geopolitical imaginary of the Euro-American core on the other.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the ongoing process of negotiating geographical borders while reasserting historical claims to territory and power resulted in further subdivisions such as Central, Northern, Southern and Southeastern Europe. Whereas Central Europe was conceived as a third zone between Eastern and Western Europe, but was coterminous with the nineteenth century geopolitical project of Mitteleuropa, Southeastern Europe was coined as a politically correct term for designating the Balkans, the easternmost region within the East itself (Gallagher 2001: 113). Due to its proximity to Asia and its legacy of Ottoman dominance, it was this last subcategory in particular which has conjured up the image of a bridge between Orient and Occident, and which as a result has periodically acquired the scent of temporal in-betweenness as well-of the semideveloped, semicolonial, semicivilized, semi-Oriental (Todorova 2002) always in the process of "catching up with the West. …