Russia’s war against Ukraine is about postimperial unfinished business and spheres of influence. It is also about real and imagined cultural and political boundaries in Europe, including that old chestnut about what constitutes Central and Eastern Europe.
“Central Europe is culturally in the West, politically in the East, geographically in the center” is how the Czech writer Milan Kundera described the “tragedy of Central Europe” in an essay published in 1983. The thesis of Central Europe as a “kidnapped West” sparked a major debate among the region’s intellectuals—its Dichter und Denker—that contributed to a change not only in its self-perception but also in the mental geography of the continent in Western Europe.
The key and most controversial issue in the 1980s debate on the subject was Central Europe’s relationship with Russia. This clearly was a major ingredient in the definition of the boundaries of the region, with Soviet Russia as the constitutive other. Perhaps one of the most telling illustrations can be found in a memorable debate in Lisbon in 1988 involving writers from Central Europe and Russia. There were lively exchanges between György Konrad and Czesław Miłosz, who spoke of occupation and the imperial dimension of the relationship, and Josef Brodsky, the poet from Leningrad who criticized the concept of Central Europe as an imagined community designed to expel Russia from Europe. The Russian writer Tatiana Tolstaya’s reminder to the audience that “We have no authority over tanks, we are writers” has strange echoes today as Russian tanks fan across Ukraine. The invasion has revived Soviet-era perceptions of Russia in Central Europe and beyond, as well as dubious forms of cancel culture vis-à-vis Russian art.
The cultural and mental emancipation from the Soviet fold and the postwar East/West divide of the continent can be considered as a prelude to its actual demise in 1989. After that, the Central European idea moved from culture to politics—from the “Kundera moment” to the “Havel moment.” There was across the region a shared predicament and a shared political agenda (de-Sovietization, democratization, regional cooperation, “return to Europe”) though it was unclear who exactly was to be part of it.
In a speech to the Polish Sejm in January 1990, Czechoslovakia’s President Václav Havel gave a hint: “For the first time in history, we have a real opportunity to fill the great political vacuum that appeared in Central Europe after the collapse of the Habsburg empire with something genuinely meaningful.” That was a profound insight into an old geopolitical question, but it also gave a very Czech Habsburg version of the space concerned. That could suit Slovaks or Slovenes too but others have different versions of the boundaries of Central Europe. For Hungarians the favored term is “Danubian realm,” which tends to concern essentially the countries that have an ethnic Hungarian minority. The Polish version is broader still and concerns the whole space between Germany and Russia. For historical reasons related to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which from the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century covered the lands of today’s Belarus and a good part of Ukraine. Poland’s Three Seas Initiative, envisaging a common space from the Baltic to the Black sea (Ukraine) and the Adriatic (Croatia) is a good example of how historical imagination can enhance the ambitions of a would-be regional power with a geopolitical agenda in the eastern neighbourhood of the European Union.
These different mental geographies are not unrelated to the institutional incarnation of the Central European idea. One of first attempts after 1990 came from Italy’s Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis who—recalling that the northern part of his country had once been in the Habsburg empire—proposed an association, initially to be called the Pentagonale, that would group it with Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Poland was later included, followed by a long string of sixteen countries with an increasingly vague relationship to Central Europe. When at the end of the 1990s Macedonia was added to what was renamed the Central European Initiative, I asked Havel what that meant for the project. He replied: “There are institutions that perish out of excessive politeness.” Asked if that observation could apply to the EU as well, he replied that it could not be ruled out.
For that very reason, Havel insisted on a narrow concept of Central Europe that was embodied in the Visegrád Group founded in 1991, though it was one that needed not preclude further ad hoc associations. In 1994 Havel thus also initiated meetings of the presidents of the four Visegrád countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia (V4)—with their counterparts from Slovenia, Austria, and Germany. The inclusion of the latter two reflected the notion of West-Central Europe with its Germanic component, though Germany’s President Richard von Weizsäcker carefully dismissed the term Mitteleuropa, aware of its historic connotations as code word for a German sphere of influence.
The founding fathers of the Visegrád Group were three dissidents-turned-presidents: Havel, Poland’s Lech Wałęsa, and Hungary’s Árpád Gönz. Their aims were clear. First, to build on the cooperation among dissidents in Central Europe to avoid a return to the prewar nationalist rivalries among alleged “winners and losers” of the Versailles Treaty of 1919 with their irredentist conflicts over borders and minorities. Second, democratic transformation that was to lead to European integration.
Central Europe is where East and West meet without neutralizing each other.
Central Europe’s success story contrasted with war-torn Southeastern Europe with its nationalist and semi-authoritarian post-communist regimes. With Russia receding as a threat, the Balkans in the 1990s became an implicit constitutive other for Central Europeans. A variation on this theme was later formulated during the 2015 migrant wave from the Middle East. This provoked a joint protectionist, nativist response in the V4 countries and, as migrants were arriving via the “Ottoman route” through Turkey and the Balkans, it revived historical narratives of Central European nations as a rampart protecting Europe from an “invasion” associated with another civilization (and from its own multicultural delusions).
At the same time, the V4 countries became loud advocates of EU enlargement to the Balkans in the last decade, though that was not always very convincing given their own democratic backsliding and vehement Eurosceptic rhetoric. In recent years the group has been in reverse mode with regard to its initial purpose, with “illiberal democracy” and “populism light” under Prime Ministers Robert Fico in Slovakia and Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic, discreet sympathies for Brexit, and overt contempt for a liberal Europe seen as week, permissive, and decadent. In the European “culture wars,” the ideologues of the governing Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland have sounded much closer to Russia’s nationalist ultra-conservatives than to mainstream Western Europeans.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has radically changed the landscape now, with the V4 looking like a collateral casualty. In March, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia travelled to Kyiv to show solidarity with President Volodymyr Zelensky and to advocate enhanced military support for Ukraine. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán was a prominent absentee. He was instead running an election campaign on the premise that “We have no dog in this fight.” More recently, the Czech Republic’s defense minister cancelled a meeting with his V4 peers, saying that “For Hungarian politicians cheap gas is more important than Ukrainians’ blood.”
Russia used to unite Central Europeans; now it divides them. The differences were simmering at least since 2014, with different responses in Hungary and Poland to Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The invasion of Ukraine on February 24 has brought the split into the open, with important consequences.
Most notable is the demise of radical Euroscepticism in Central Europe. Until the end of last year, radical Euroscepticism was coming loud and clear from Budapest and Warsaw. Poland’s prime minister compared conditionality for the attribution of EU funds to “starting a third world war” to which his country was prepared to respond “with all available means.” “Thank God they do not have nukes,” must have been the response in the European Commission. Meanwhile Putin, in the midst of an actual war, started also to refer to Russia’s nuclear options. Last fall the ministers of justice of Hungary and Poland attacked the rule-of-law conditionality by the EU comparing it to the Soviet Union. But try saying that Brussels is the new Moscow in under-siege Kyiv from where Zelenskyy on March 1 made a passionate plea to the European Parliament that identified the EU as the anchor for a future Ukrainian democracy. One cannot equate Brussels with Moscow and at the same time call (as the three prime ministers did in Kyiv) to fast-track the EU accession process for Ukraine.
Meanwhile, we are being reminded, Lviv used to be Lvov and Lemberg, and part of Ukraine used to be in Central Europe. Today, Ukraine is leaning westwards and its nearest West is Central Europe while Central Europe tries to reinvent itself in its eastward expansion.
Jacques Rupnik is professor of political science and research director at the Centre de Recherches Internationales at SciencesPo in Paris.