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

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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." The resurgence of the stigma thus attached to the concept becomes increasingly clear today, when the same stereotypes attached to the alleged "Balkan identity" are being used in the political, social scientific, and media discourse of the very Europe the ex-Communist countries are trying to (re)join.

The question of the historical origin of Europe's East-West divide is still under heavy dispute among social scientists, and--in view of its economic, political, and religious dimensions--probably evinces more than one answer. For the purposes of the present analysis, however, it can reasonably be argued that it was the Orientalist discourse of the 19th century--in the understanding Edward Said (1979) attributed to the term--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 for the latter region. As a discourse dominating Western representations of the Other and allowing Western European culture to gain "in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self" (Said 1979:3), Orientalism first emerged in the period following the Enlightenment. Scholarly, literary and scientific depictions of the Orient as backward, irrational, in need of civilization, and racially inferior produced during the next centuries served as background for representations of the Occident as progressive, rational, civilized, even biologically superior, thus justifying European colonization and control. …


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