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Geopolitics 101: “East-Central Europe” is an Atlanticist Scheme

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The discourse and words that we use are more impactful than we might realize. When analysts casually or unconsciously use terms without understanding their ideological background, they run the risk of serving a paradigm which runs counter to their own views or reality itself. In recent time, terms like “Central and Eastern Europe” or “East-Central Europe” have crept into anti-Atlanticist, multipolar discourse. 

Theories purporting the existence of an historically unified civilizational space in the likes of “East-Central Europe” are often taken for granted as an assumed geographical or cultural axiom. This is the main slogan in “post-socialist” studies, and has also been reified back in search of a unified “medieval East-Central European” experience.  

In both of these instances, “Central”, “Eastern”, or “East Central” Europe are understood as a region(s) with common socio-political experiences and intertwined or analogous processes which yield a unique civilizational identity. While these approaches might boast some undeniably relevant correspondences, they should be subject to rigorous typological criticism. 

Here we seek to present the ideological origins of “Central”, “Eastern”, and “East-Central” Europe and explore the critique of such concepts which can be found in the field of geopolitics, especially of the Eurasian bent, which argues that no such historically unified region exists. Instead, according to the laws and categorizations of geopolitics, “East-Central” Europe and its variations are subjective projects, not objective realities, and are Atlanticist ones at that. 

 

Central/Eastern Europe in theory: A brief overview

The notion of “East Central” or “Central and Eastern” Europe is relatively new. In the words of the historian Alexei Miller, “[Russian] political analysts are almost unanimous that an independent political subject called Central Europe doesn’t and didn’t exist. But it is clear that Central Europe exists as an ideological phenomenon.” [1]

Miller astutely remarks that “discourses on Central Europe must themselves be the subject of historical or, if you will, historical and political scientific studies…Only by finding out the variety of interests and ‘tendentiousness’ associated with various concepts of Central Europe can historians use the concept of Central Europe as a tool of historical research.” [2] This ideological phenomenon with all of its corresponding “interests” and “tendentiousness” can be traced back to the dawn of European Modernity.

With the rise of the paradigm of Modernity in Western Europe and specifically the movement of the 18th century Enlightenment, “Eastern Europe” in particular was invented as a concept by “Western European” elites to distinguish between the modernizing “West” and the “other.” On the one hand, this represented the ongoing process of “imagining the reality of Europe” [3]  in the context of profound transformations in European thought and socio-political organization and, on the other hand, it played into “inherited mental dispositions”, i.e., archetypes embodied in the classic Schmittean distinction between “us” vs. “them” which were used to justify a new Western project. 

As Western Europe embarked on a qualitatively new civilizational experience with new understandings of the world, humanity, culture, science, etc., a counterpoint was crafted in the supposedly “backwards” eastern stretch of the continent. The emergence of the notion of “Central Europe” or “Mitteleuropa” in the 19th century represented a continuation of this process of mentally, “civilizationally” segregating Europe, this time distinguishing a “middle Europe” centered around Germany lying somewhere between perceptions of Western and Eastern Europe, a point prevalent in the history of the elaboration of geopolitics which we will explore below.

These notions of different Europes reached their ideological peak in the 20th century with the bisection of the European peninsula into “capitalist, liberal” West and “communist” East, meaning that Central Europe became “a middle region which has dropped out of many conceptual maps of Europe after the Second World War and the East-West polarization.” [4] Towards the end of the 20th century and in tandem with the collapse of the socialist bloc, the notion of “Central Europe” reappeared in Western jingo to refer to the satellites states of the Soviet Union, the “People’s Democracies”, who were envisioned as opposed to the hegemony of Eastern Europe, i.e., the states comprising the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, primarily Russia.

This notion of Central Europe was distinctly ideological. It promotes an identity predicated on definitively oppositional undertones (e.g., “East-Central Europe vs. Russia”), suggesting that the socialist experience comprising Central and Eastern Europe was in fact a form of Russian, “Eastern” domination. Opposition to and self-distancing from this was to form the essentially unifying basis for the processes of new state and identity formation in Central Europe which were picked up in (Atlanticist) EU and NATO policies and discourse.

This marked the beginning of the “Central and Eastern Europe” paradigm in post-socialist studies. Thus emerged in the 1990’s and 21st century a distinct approach to this purported region which sought to fill in the content of its supposed unifying experience, i.e., to impart this ideologically defined region with an imagined common history stretching from the Middle Ages to the present day. The notion of “East-Central Europe” was coined to designate the region “between two worlds, between two stages, between two futures” [5] situated between German- speaking countries and Russia, whose common historical propensities were slated for discovery and emphasis in the new post-socialist identity-construction of this space. Of course, the underlying assumption was that the peoples of this space cannot have any identities of their own, much less positive relations with the “East.” 

Thus, the notions of “Central”, “Eastern”, and “East-Central” Europe and their various offshoots are not objective zones, but subjective perceptions projected from without with clear ideological connotations in the context of historical transformations, such as the Enlightenment, the Cold War, and post-socialist processes. This interpretation and critique can be elaborated through the laws and lens of geopolitics which is not coincidentally tied to the history of the evolution and application of these notions.

Geopolitics

As the founder of the modern Russian school of geopolitics and author of the acclaimed textbook The Foundations of Geopolitics, Alexander Dugin (1962-), has noted, “the history and fate of geopolitics as a science is paradoxical.” [6] On the one hand, the concept and apparatus of geopolitics is increasingly used in modern politics, and scholarship on geopolitics has increased exponentially since its first surfacing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yet geopolitics remains somewhat ambiguously left out of mainstream, conventional academia and official Western policy discourse. The reasons for this are three-fold. 

Firstly, even though geopolitics as a framework has been used ubiquitously, on the ideological level it in fact contradicts the “hyper-critical spirit of early positivism” which “considered geopolitics to be an ‘over-generalization, and consequently it is believed to be little more than a variety of charlatanism” (Dugin’s words). This means that geopolitics has to be ambiguously suspended between utilization and criticism, otherwise it would expose the holes in the official ideological narrative of Western modernity.

Secondly, the political applications of geopolitics in empire-building and since disgraced regimes such as Nazi Germany have left a bitter taste surrounding the idea of “space” as a political value.

Thirdly, geopolitics is open and explicit, which can lead it towards being seen as “cynical” or “Machiavellian.”

Nevertheless, these are circumstantial arguments, not refutations of geopolitics, whose basic history and laws we shall now briefly expound in order to arrive at a more contextual understanding of “East-Central Europe.” 

The history of geopolitics is ambiguous and often tangled, because theoretical contributions are simultaneously translated into concrete geopolitical schemes. For the sake of brevity, we will present the defining thinkers of geopolitics, their essential theses, and only then proceed to extract the fundamental laws that underlie these theories of geopolitics.

The beginning of geopolitics is traditionally associated with the works of Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), who in 1897 authored the concept of “political geography.” Ratzel posited that states are akin to living organisms, the most decisive and central factor in the life of which is geographical space. States are understood as “spatial phenomena governed by this space” which should be “described, compared, and measured” in terms of geography. Ratzel’s student, Rudolf Kjellen, was the first to coin the term “geopolitics,” which he defined as the “science of the State as a geographical organism embodied in space.

The notion of “Mitteleuropa” was established in geopolitics as a geopolitical project for Germany by Kjellen’s contemporary, Friedrich Naumann.

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Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), since recognized as the founder of the official Anglo-Saxon (Atlanticist) geopolitical school, was among the first to propose a geopolitical outline of the world and on these grounds proposed a geopolitical life-plan for the British Empire, just as Naumann applied his geopolitical “findings” to Germany’s “geopolitical imperative.” Mackinder affirmed the centrality of geopolitics in asserting the “geographical pivot of history” and divided the world into several key geopolitical zones: the “World Island-outer crescent” consisting of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania; “Rimland—inner crescent” concerning Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and the outer edge of Asia; and “Heartland”, or the bulk of the Eurasian landmass at whose center stood Russia as the “pivot area.” While Mackinder later revised his map to delineate Eastern Siberia as “Lenaland”, or a peripheral zone potentially open for detachment from and use as a beachhead against Heartland, his main contribution to geopolitics remained the thesis that global geopolitics is centered on the strategic domination of the Heartland pivot, primarily via Rimland.

Nicholas Spykman (1893-1943) continued Mackinder’s school while revising the role of Rimland, or Europe, to be the central pivot disputed in geopolitical schemes. The German geopolitician Karl Haushofer (1869-1946) countered the Anglo-Saxon school with a “continental school” of geopolitics centered on the geopolitical unification of Germany, Russia, and Japan to form a “continental bloc” capable of strategically cutting out the Anglo-Saxon school’s mission. It is from this point in the history of geopolitics that the primary division in theories and practical instrumentalization of such is manifested between the Anglo-Saxon, or “Atlanticist” view and the German and Eurasian or “continental” school.

The specificities of these particular foundational approaches or schemes, however, are all grounded in general tenets that make up the basic laws of geopolitics. At the heart of all of these geopolitical theories and schools lie several, essential paradigms: (1) planetary contradiction between thalassocracies and tellurocracies, or “sea-” and “land-” powers; (2) the necessity of strategic domination of/over Rimland and Heartland; and (3) the primacy of space and conceptualizations of space to politics, culture, sociology, etc.

Geopolitics as a science thus views and interprets history and concepts through these lenses. The first distinguishes between two fundamental types of civilizational systems and geopolitical propensities which are in constant conflict and have varying incarnations from “sea power” vs. “land power”, “Anglo-Saxon vs. German” geopolitics, “Atlanticist vs. continental” geopolitics, etc. The second law or thesis concerns the relationship between geopolitical plans and the nominal importance of regions. Indeed, it is in this view that theories of Central, Eastern, and East-Central Europe are considered in geopolitics.

The geopolitics of East-Central Europe

If geopolitics posits the cruciality of Rimland, specifically Europe, to both theoretical considerations and geopolitical praxis, then the theories of Europe under consideration are necessarily part and parcel of ideological designs to this end. This is the essential conclusion of the continental or “Eurasian” school of geopolitics on the matter, especially in relation to these theories unifying axis of identifying Russia, or Heartland, as the “other” to be segregated from the rest of Rimland, or Europe.

This has been rigorously discussed by the contemporary Russian Eurasianist geopolitician Alexander Bovdunov [7], for whom Central, Eastern, and especially “East-Central” Europe do not bear coherent civilizational or geopolitical propensities to be considered independent zones. Rather: “These images constitute the specific relations of domination and subordination and define the specific civilizational function of the West in regard to the East on the one hand, and Russia is determined as constituting the ‘Other’ of Eastern Europe, the eternal geopolitical enemy, on the other hand. The combined result of these two discourses is a strengthening of Eastern Europe as the ‘buffer zone’, or ‘cordon sanitaire’ between Middle Europe (Germany) and Russia.” This “represents a fusion of political and geographical images” with “one resulting political function.” [8]

Moreover, Bovdunov traces this scheme back to Mackinder’s analysis of the post-World War I nation-state projects in “Eastern Europe” arising out of the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires which Mackinder saw as an opportunity for thalassocratic manipulation. Mackinder’s famous quote that “He who rules Eastern Europe commands Heartland” is seen as a case in point, while the notion of Central Europe is understood as fulfilling the same function according to the laws of geopolitics.

In other words, Central and Eastern or East-Central Europe cannot form coherent independent identities since their very designations as such are dynamic and relative to the reference point of the “Other”, habitually the tellurocratic focus of Russia. Bovdunov points out that the very inauguration of discourse on East-Central Europe in the foreign policy formulations of the former People’s Democracies was part and parcel of the replacement of tellurocratic domination in the region with Atlanticist hegemony in the form of NATO, the European Union, and the “New Eastern Europe” project.

Overall, in this view, attempts at constructing or retroactively imagining a East-Central Europe are thus an ideological project, one with clear geopolitical connotations that is exposable through the framework of geopolitics. Approaches to a common history or mutually relative historical processes in this alleged region are thus part and parcel of a discourse which ultimately bears geopolitical implications. The origins of the christenings of “Eastern”, “Central”, and “East-Central” Europe and their instrumentalization in geopolitics affirm Miller’s warning. 

Of course, this does not mean that the countries, peoples, and histories supposedly making up “East-Central Europe” do not have particular common experiences or interests which can be discerned.  Nor is this to say that integration or cooperation projects like the Visegrad Group are inherently, intrinsically Atlanticist. What this does reveal, however, is that, historically, attempts at crafting “East-Central Europe” have been largely Atlanticist schemes which, of course, are not really about the sovereignty or identities of these countries.

It is for these reasons that the tagline of “East-Central Europe” is often an indication that we are dealing with an Atlanticist source or internalization of Atlanticist discourse. If some kind of positive, constructive project in this heart of the European peninsula is possible, then we have yet to definitively see such. 

Any constructive project for the European and Eurasian continents’ many peoples in 21st century multipolarity will have to deconstruct and overcome these ulterior motives and prejudices. Geopolitics just might be an instructive tool in this process.

In the meanwhile, beware of “East-Central Europe”… 

Footnotes: 

[1] Quoted in Alexandr Bovdunov, “Central Europe Discourse and its Political Function.

[2] Quoted in Alexandr Bovdunov, “Political-geographical image of Eastern Europe and Orientalism.”

[3] See M. Buchowski, “Difficult Identities: Recreating Mental Map of Europe”, in: M. Buchowski, Rethinking Transformation (Humaniora 2001).

[4] Ibid, 176.

[5] “East-Central Europe” in Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias.

[6] Alexander Dugin, “Foreword to Foundations of Geopolitics“. See Aleksandr Dugin, Osnovy geopolitiki. Geopoliticheskoe budushchee Rossii. Myslit prostranstvom [“The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia – Thinking in Space”] (Moscow, Arktogeia, 2000).

[7] A.L. Bovdunov, Sovremennye altternativyne modeli geopoliticheskoi organizatsii Vostochnoi Evropy [“Contemporary Alternative Models for the Geopolitical Organization of Eastern Europe”]. Dissertation submitted to Institute of Sociology of International Relations at Moscow State University (2013).

[8] Alexandr Bovdunov, “Eastern Europe: Civilizational Specialty and Modern Geopolitical Situation“.

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