The Trap of Being New Europe


In the face of the migration crisis and populist shift within the EU, the outmoded and stale division between New and Old Europe is coming back into favor in European public debate. The concept of ‘New Europe’ can easily serve to explain and at the same time to normalize, in a politically correct way, a qualitative difference between Western Europe and its Eastern neighbors. From a Central and Eastern European perspective, however, the term ‘New Europe’ seems essentially contradictory, since being a part of Europe in its cultural and political dimensions always was and still is an undebatable assumption, an axiom. For this reason, the discursive construction of a Central, Eastern or South-Eastern European Other as a younger, immature member of the family is one of the sources of the increasing dissonance of Europe’s self-perception as a coherent entity.

There are two major ways of confronting this intra-European ‘othering’ – both of which go awry. One approach is to behave like a diligent student of the processes of democratization and try to prove that there is not actually a deep divide between New and Old Europe. This strategy has been applied by left-liberal elites in Central and Eastern Europe. Only recently, in light of the rise of Eurosceptic politics in the region, this image of the diligent student has started to be questioned by its most zealous promoters. In his letter of January 31st addressed to the 27 EU heads of state or government in advance of the Malta summit, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council and the former Polish Prime Minister, not only writes that “national egoism is (…) becoming an attractive alternative to integration,” but also emphasizes another threat to European unity: “the state of mind of the pro-European elites (…) a decline of faith in political integration, submission to populist arguments as well as doubt in the fundamental values of liberal democracy.”[1]

The other approach is to celebrate the ascribed difference in a subversive way and introduce a strategic counter-othering of Western Europeans, with the aim of re-negotiating the hierarchical order of European societies. This re-negotiation, however, which is mainly called for by right-wing populism and leftist anarchism, too willingly gives way to nationalistic, xenophobic discourse and leads to unintended consequences. Namely, the more independently and self-sufficiently a society wants to conduct itself in a world that is based on interdependence and multitude, the more parochial, bizarre or exotic a self-image it produces.

The tension between the Centre and the Periphery that is embedded in the European public sphere has led to a gradually growing skepticism in so-called New Europe towards particular aspects of European integration considered in their broader historical context. It is no coincidence that it is Central and Eastern Europe where postcolonial theory has been studied and developed energetically for two decades, with the goal of revealing the relations of subjection between Europe’s West and East, as well as the colonizing experience between societies in the region, such as Poles and Ukrainians or Hungarians and Slovaks. Moreover, postcolonial critique is also used extensively – in a strictly instrumental manner – by right-wing Central and Eastern European politicians as a justification for their Eurosceptic and nationalist discourse. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice, the ruling party in Poland, and the éminence grise among Polish authorities, delights in calling EU bureaucracy “a post-colonial system” of oppression aimed at national states and in ascribing a “post-colonial mentality” to the pro-European opposition in Poland.

The post-colonial dictionary is, however, only one of a few crucial symbolic and discursive sources of mistrust or even hostility between European governments and societies. Firstly, ‘Old Europe’s’ growing disillusionment with the (relatively) new members of the EU is linked to the exhaustion of the post-Kantian rhetoric of immaturity directed at so-called New Europe by Western elites and left-liberal domestic elites. Boris Buden calls this rhetorical and argumentative tactic the “repressive infantilization” of nations, who, despite having proven their political maturity in their non-violent divorce from communism, are supposed to learn the democratic modus operandi from scratch and liberate themselves from their alleged communist mentality. In this narrative, the communist period is regarded as non-history, and it is only 1989 that marks the political birth of the Eastern part of Europe[2].

This rhetoric has accompanied the democratic transition from the beginning and was accepted uncritically by the vast majority of the leaders of democratic change. For instance, Bronisław Geremek, a Polish historian, liberal politician, and one of the architects of the transition in Poland – and the patron of a fellowship program at the IWM – once articulated a phrase very symptomatic of the rhetoric of immaturity. In 1990, after the first round of the presidential elections in Poland when Stan Tymiński, an unknown outsider with a populist program, came second, Geremek said: “The Poles aren’t grown-up enough for democracy.” Today, however, 25 years after the advent of democracy, the rhetoric of immaturity, which was hardly questioned in Poland and other countries of the region in the 1990s, leads directly to communicational and political suicide, since a growing number of Central and Eastern Europeans no longer want to be taught how to create democracy, and patronizing, elitist argumentation serves as nothing but fuel for the radicals. Though populist discourse and illiberal tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe are becoming more and more performative, we should acknowledge that the strategy of shaming the authorities has become counter-productive. Nonetheless, the rhetoric of immaturity is very resistant to critique, since it functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more ‘New Europe’ rejects the role of the inexperienced cousin, the more immature it appears to external protagonists.

Secondly, growing social disenchantment with post-industrial capitalism results in the symbolic ‘bankruptcy’ of the neoliberal narrative and the dismissal of a pro-Western scenario of imitative democratic transition in post-socialist Europe. Without a doubt, conservative parties, like Fidesz or Law and Justice, profited immensely from publicly exploiting the weaknesses and contradictions of neoliberalism, but they have proved to be incapable of offering any alternative narrative that the vast majority of people would find acceptable. The one who has come closest to hitting this target is probably Victor Orbán, but despite stable support for his rule among Hungarians, his deliberately staged faith in what he calls “a non-liberal state,”[3] based on freedom in a universe of national symbolism, cannot win over his fervent opponents. As long as the EU was operating smoothly, the lack of such an integrating collective discourse did not pose any serious problems, but this is now a thing of the past. Przemysław Czapliński, the Polish literary scholar and public intellectual, stresses in his latest book that “no adequate and up-to-date narrative about the presence of Poland in Europe exists today, in the face of the cumulative troubles experienced by Poland and Europe.”[4] This Polish example seems not to be an isolated case and can be compared to the other countries of the region, where a widespread critique of neoliberalism was not followed by the introduction of any sort of constructive self-identification into the public debate.

Thirdly, from the perspective of public discourse in Central and Eastern Europe, democratic transition is not a fait accompli, but the subject of constant dispute. But the debate over the transition and its outcomes reveals more differences than parallels between the Polish, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian public understandings of Europe. For instance, the pragmatic and secular orientation in Hungarian, Czech, and, to some extent, Slovak political discourse usually translates into evaluating the transition in economic terms and constructing a sharp social division between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of capitalism. From this point of view, the non-secular political discourse in Poland, in which economic inequalities are moralized on the basis of carefully chosen aspects of the Catholic worldview that are allegedly threatened by EU policy, may seem completely misguided and bizarre. Another demarcation line lies between the Czech public debate, which is focused on the present-day political struggle waged within a “show-must-go-on” framework that celebrates politics’ “bad boys”, and Polish or Hungarian political discourse, whose crucial dimension is the re-invention of the nation’s glorious past. While the Czech media seems to be constantly preoccupied with utterances from the politically incorrect Miloš Zeman and the scandalous career of Andrej Babiš (thanks to which he gained the nickname Babisconi, referring to the alleged misuse of his financial assets and media ownership to improve his political position), in Hungary and Poland it is playing with the imaginary past that rules the present. Treating history in this way usually requires sacrificing any attachment to Europe as such. As Orbán announced just after Donald Trump’s presidential victory, “We are living in the days where what we call liberal non-democracy – in which we lived for the past 20 years – ends, and we can return to real democracy.”[5] An imagined true democracy within the EU but beyond its core values – which do not have any precedent in Hungarian history.

This historical bias in Polish and Hungarian public debate may result from not having had any sort of ceremonial closure to the communist era, the lack of “a dramatically staged rite de passage” and unfinished processes of de-communization. This uncertainty as to whether a fully democratic transition did happen results in the impossibility of what Jan Kubik and Amy Linch call “mnemonic reconciliation”, that is, the collective negotiation and ultimate establishment of “a minimal set of common mnemonic fundamentals” related to national history and the national ethos, which not only make the idea of collective memory feasible but also enable democratic consolidation around the state and the symbolic pillars of the new regime. The essence of mnemonic reconciliation does not consist in the exclusion of certain narratives but in forging a framework (including a founding myth, heroes and a set of crucial events in the past) acceptable to most groups in a given society.[6] The lack of such a mnemonic reconciliation with the dynamics and final form of the democratic transition leads to the de-legitimization of the liberal democratic order by particular social groups, though not by post-socialist societies as a whole, often though wrongly represented in the Western media as static, monolithic entities. In fact, the ongoing settling of accounts with the post-socialist transition gives rise to a divergence of opinion and values, and measuring the strength of European identity may serve as the litmus test for this deep social divide.

Despite its fixed image as a periphery, the ‘New European’ public sphere is a laboratory of postmodern modes of communication. Let us look more closely at Poland, until recently perceived as a leader in democratization and economic change in the region, but today probably seen as the greatest disappointment in the eyes of its Western partners. In 2015, both the presidential and parliamentary elections in Poland were won by Law and Justice, then the largest opposition party, with a conservative ideological program, a national perspective on European politics and a populist approach to economics. To put it concisely, it is a party of a new hybrid type that goes beyond the traditional division between Right and Left and that articulates radical slogans when beneficial to the party. When it comes to its hierarchical structure and clumsy use of social media, Law and Justice appears to be an anachronistic coterie, but it has attracted people with a highly hybrid notion of power, partially embedded in parochial modes of political thinking, partially in the promise of national-oriented or even ethnocentric foreign policy, but above all tied to the collective desire not to be patronized anymore. The first victims of this desire were migrants from the Middle East, not only stigmatized as barbarians and suspected terrorists, but also associated with the EU’s attempt at moral blackmail. Besides stressing the reputational weaknesses of the former center-liberal government, Law and Justice tipped the scales in its favor thanks to a mixture of islamophobia and the fantasy of punishing Western Europe for its unwanted orders.

You cannot exploit one single fantasy all the time, however: you need many tactics to play with. Thus, the ruling party in Poland is manufacturing an exemplary postmodern political discourse, which combines the technocratic demand for modernization and growth, premodern religious symbolism, conspiracy theories, and simulacra representing post-factual narratives. Interestingly, quite a few authors from Central and Eastern Europe argue that the notion of ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-fact’, introduced in the American context by Ralph Keyes and by Peter Pomerantsev in the Russian one, finds its best expressions on the Vltava, Middle and Lower Danube or Vistula River. Compare, for example, Donald Trump and Miloš Zeman. Both “are populists who declare strong pro-Russian views, both love the use of fear mongering and xenophobia to garner popularity and both possess a relationship with facts that can be described as tenuous at best. They also both employ PR specialists whose job descriptions include publicly ignoring reality,” claims Michal Chmela, editor of “Political Critique”[7]. The diagnosis of post-factual politics does not entirely suit the Polish case, however, since Law and Justice seeks to legitimize its political discourse as indisputable moral truth, as well as the logical consequence of conservative cultural hegemony based on select aspects of Catholic social teaching upheld by the Polish Right. To this point, on November 19th, 2016 the Catholic Church, in the presence of President Andrzej Duda, proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord and King in Poland – even God is being converted into a Law and Justice voter, sanctifying the party’s policies.

To what extent, then, is ‘New Europe’ different from the Old version? As for the current dynamics of political change in the democratic world, it would be hypocritical to assert that there is any fundamental qualitative difference between ‘New Europe’ and the rest, especially after Brexit and the recent referendum in Italy. Moreover, claiming that all societies labelled as Central, Eastern or South-Eastern European are drifting in the same direction is an unjustified simplification, taking into consideration, for example, the recent wave of anti-governmental social protest in Romania or the split within the Visegrad Group over Donald Tusk’s re-election as European Council president (27 EU member states supported Tusk, with only the Polish government voting against its former political rival). At the same time, we can point to a ‘substantial particularity’ of ‘New Europe’ that finds expression in a symbolic layer of resentments, the vitality of the concept of the nation as an empty signifier used to integrate the community, and a collective feeling of historical injustice that put the societies of this region in the position of inferior actors who have to, metaphorically speaking, “return to Europe” after the communist period, even though they always considered themselves an essential part of the European entity. If we want to take a further step towards utopian pan-European communication, we should acknowledge these historical and conceptual differences without rendering them in any way absolute.

 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Conference “Has Europe Reached Its Limits?”, organized by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and the IWM in December 2016 in Geneva.

Magdalena Nowicka-Franczak is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Research on Social Communication, University of Łódź, she was Bronislaw Geremek Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM (2014–2015).

© Author / Transit Online

[1] “United we stand, divided we fall”: letter by President Donald Tusk to the 27 EU heads of state or government on the future of the EU before the Malta summit, 31.01.2017,

[2] Boris Buden, “Children of Postcommunism”, Radical Philosophy, no. 159, 2010,

[3] Comp. Full text of Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) of 26 July 2014,

[4] Przemysław Czapliński, Poruszona mapa [Shifting the Map], 2016, Kraków, Wydawnictwo Literackie: 399.

[5] Hungarians react to news of Donald Trump’s victory,

[6] Jan Kubik, Amy Linch, “The Original Sin of Poland’s Third Republic: Discounting »Solidarity« and its Consequences for Political Reconciliation”, Polish Sociological Review, no. 1, 2006: 19, 27-32.

[7] Michal Chmela, “Professional Idiot: an Anatomy”, Political Critique, 7.02.2017,


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  • Emilia Palonen

    Politics, University of Essex
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  • Irina Papkova

    Irina Papkova is a Research Fellow of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. She spent five years teaching at the Department of International Relations and European Studies at Central European University, Budapest.   Print

  • Agnieszka Pasieka

    Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the Martin Luther University, Halle/Saale
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  • Gleb Pavlovsky

    President, Center of Effective Policies; Member, Public Chamber of the Russian Federation; Editor-in-Chief, The Russian Journal, Moscow
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  • György Péteri

    Professor of Contemporary European History, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim
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  • Tanja Petrovic

    Tanja Petrovic works at the Scientific Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana.   Print

  • David Petruccelli

    PhD candidate in History, Yale University
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  • Alexander von Plato

    Alexander von Plato ist ein deutscher Philosoph und Historiker. Er gründete das Instituts für Geschichte und Biographie an der Fernuniversität Hagen, das er bis 2007 leitete. Von 1996 bis 2000 war er Sekretär der International Oral History Association, von 2006 bis 2008 deren Vizepräsident. Er ist Mitherausgeber und Redakteur von BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral …
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  • Andrei Pleșu

    Andrei Pleșu ist Rektor des New Europe College, Bukarest. 1989- 1991 war er rumänischer Kulturminister und 1997- 1999 rumänischer Außenminister.   Print

  • Martin Pollack

    Martin Pollack, geb. 1944 in OÖ, studierte Slawistik und osteuropäische Geschichte. Er war von 1987 bis 1998 Redakteur des “Spiegel” in Warschau und Wien und lebt heute als Schriftsteller und literarischer Übersetzer in Wien und Bocksdorf im Südburgenland. 2011 erhielt er den Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung und 2012 den Stanislaw-Vincenz-Preis. Zuletzt erschien von ihm …
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  • Krzysztof Pomian

    Krzysztof Pomian is Professor of History at the Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń) and Academic Director of the Museum of Europe in Brussels.   Print

  • Romano Prodi

    Romano Prodi war von September 1999 bis November 2004 Präsident der Europäischen Kommission.   Print

  • Lipin Ram

    PhD candidate and teaching assistant in Anthropology and Sociology of Development, Graduate Institute, Geneva
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  • Mykola Riabchuk

    Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Political and Nationalities’ Studies, Academy of Sciences, Kyiv
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  • Edelbert Richter

    Edelbert Richter ist deutscher Theologe, Politiker und war Mitglied des Deutschen Bundestages.   Print

  • Paul Ricoeur

    Paul Ricoeur ist Philosoph und war Professor Emeritus an der University of Chicago und an der Sorbonne. Er war Mitglied der Académie Francaise und Mitglied des Wissenschaftlichen Beirats des IWM. Er starb 2005.   Print

  • Michel Rocard

    Michel Rocard, former First Secretary of the French Socialist Party and a member of the European Parliament for 15 years, was Prime Minister of France from 1988 to 1991.   Print

  • Akos Rona-Tas

    Akos Rona-Tas is professor at the Sociology Department of the University of California, San Diego and a research associate at Met@risk, INRA, Paris. He is the author of the books Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (with Alya Guseva, 2014) and Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and …
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  • Lew Rubinstein

    Lew Rubinstein lebt als Poet und Essayist in Moskau. Nach dem Studium der Philologie war er als Bibliothekar tätig. Seit Ende der 1960er-Jahre verfasst er poetische Arbeiten, seit 1974 serielle Textzyklen als so genannte Kartotheken. Zusammen mit Andrej Monastyrskij, Dimitrij A. Prigov und Vladimir Sorokin gilt er als wichtigster Vertreter des Moskauer Konzeptualismus. Print

  • Jacques Rupnik

    Geschichte und Politikwissenschaft, Paris
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  • Claudia Šabic

    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    PhD in Political Science
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University

    Visiting Fellow
    (July 2020 – June 2021)
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    IWM Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue and Ukraine in European Dialogue
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