ISSUE 3-2012
INTERVIEW
Petr Vagner
STUDIES
Игорь Яковенко Мыкола Рябчук
RUSSIA AND EUROPE
Petr Vagner Виктор Замятин Сергей Саркисян
OUR ANALYSES
Ярослав Шимов Stepan Grigoryan
REVIEW
Матуш Корба
APROPOS
Pavel Venzera


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

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RUSSIA AND EUROPE
RUSSIA AND CENTRAL EUROPE: CONCEPTION AND CHALLENGE. INTERVIEW WITH TOMÁŠ STRÁŽAY
By Petr Vagner | Historian, the Czech Republic | Issue 3, 2012

The ties between Russia and Central European countries have been neither ideal, nor simple. Historical burdens make the search for optimal level of mutual relationship quite complicated. The complexity of the situation is demonstrated by the discussion about what Central Europe is. Different perception of this entity causes first misunderstandings.

Russkii vopros discusses problems with the definition of Central Europe and the relationship between Central Europeans countries and Russia with Tomáš Strážay, Senior Research Fellow at the Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (RC SFPA)

Russian researchers in politics as well as politicians elaborate various terms for Central European region. We can meet terms like “Visegrad Europe”, or simply “Eastern Europe” as a designation of countries which were under Soviet control after WWII, or “New Eastern Europe”. Apart from the "innocent" designation “Visegrad Europe”, the other terms provoke negative reactions of Central European countries. Shall we consider these reactions a useless hypersensitivity or is there a gist of rationality?
 
In the past the territory of today’s Central Europe was a buffer zone, which was under direct influence of big powers like Prussia/Germany, Russia/Soviet Union and Austria or was even absorbed by them. The example of Poland shows that a single nation was partitioned among all three powers mentioned above.

After the World War I new states in Central Europe emerged, but it took only about 20 years and they fell again under the rule of big powers—Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This happened despite the efforts of convinced Central Europeans, including Milan Hodža or Oskár Jászi, who were strongly in favor of deepened cooperation among Central European states. Nazi Germany used the concept of Mitteleuropa, which put Germany and its interest above all.

The Soviet Union pushed Central European nations to a collective amnesia—they were expected to identify with the Soviet rule and forget about their affiliation to Central Europe. In light of the above, it is not surprising that Central European countries look at terms like “New Eastern Europe” with certain suspicion—it reminds them of the periods when their countries were the playground of big powers.

Central Europeans prefer those definitions of Central Europe that originate in the region. The idea of Visegrad cooperation, for instance, is an autochthonous idea born in Central Europe and Central European countries can therefore identify with it. “Mitteleuropa” or “New Eastern Europe” are terms imposed from outside, so there is a natural resistance to them.
 
It is possible to notice such natural resistance in the reaction of Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg during a joint press conference given by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov with Troika in Moscow on 11 February 2009. Minister Lavrov positioned Poland and the Czech Republic in Eastern Europe and Czech Minister reproached him for “old political way of thinking”.[1] Minister Schwarzenberg’s remark demonstrates an interesting approach to the question and an effort to keep clear and evident difference between Central and Eastern Europe. When mentioning Russia—what does this country actually mean for current Central European countries?
 
Russia is perceived as an important partner by all V4 countries, but they stress—in one voice—that this partnership should be based on equality of both partners and respect the partner’s position, even when it is different. Today all V4 countries are EU members and the membership itself provides them with an important instrument for communication with Russia.

It is true, however, that Russia (still) considers the EU to be a weak partner and prefers to develop a dialogue with particular member states. If the deepening of the European integration process continues, however, Russia will have to change its position. Russia certainly plays—and will continue to play—an important position in big energy projects in Europe; it is also not possible to exclude it from a dialogue about security issues. In both fields V4 countries have a lot to say.

This does not mean that a bilateral dialogue between Russia and a particular V4 country does not make sense, but the voice is stronger if a decision is adopted on the V4 level. In the last twenty years there appeared ideas to build an exclusive partnership with Russia in some Central Europe countries, but these attempts were not successful at all. When looking in the future, it is also important to remember lessons learned from past mistakes.  

We have various definitions of the complicated term “Central Europe”. There is also an interesting development of the understanding of this term. In the context of the first question it would be useful to remember the opinion that the term Central Europe has been used by Central Europeans to stress that we are not Eastern Europe. What is your understanding of Central Europe? 

Even in the interwar period the enlightened political leaders and intellectuals used the term Central Europe to distinguish their countries from Germany and Soviet Union. Under communism, Czech, Hungarian, Polish (and Slovak) intellectuals used the term Central Europe in order to draw a dividing line between their countries and Eastern Europe characterized by Soviet domination.
 
The concept of Central Europe “kidnapped to the East” could look as a pure intellectual concept in the 1980s, but after 1989 it provided political leaders in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland with central idea on which the Visegrad cooperation was established. “The kingdom of the spirit”—to put it in the words of Timothy Garton Ash—was transformed in a real and viable model of regional cooperation.
 
Even today there exists a number of definitions of Central Europe, some of them—besides the four Visegrad countries—also include Austria, Slovenia or Croatia. A regional initiative that bears the name “Central European” (CEI), for instance, includes even countries like Italy or Belarus.
 
It can be, however, argued that the four Visegrad countries are part of any concept of Central Europe and therefore create the core of Central Europe. In addition, the Visegrad cooperation has become the most efficient regional initiative in Central Europe, with increasing reputation in Europe and beyond. From my point of view, Central Europe is—first of all—the Visegrad Central Europe. 

[1] "Most unfortunate, and Mr. Lavrov is normally good and does not make that kind of mistake, but the difference is whether you think in geographic terms, in which case the definition of Eastern Europe is fairly clear. It is the area where the Russian Orthodox Church is the dominant church, in which Cyrillic script is used in writing, and which has traditionally been a part of the Russian Empire. Central Europe is the part which used to be Austro-Hungary, and that includes, clearly, the Czech Republic. During the Cold War, when there was no Europe at all, when the world was simply divided between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’, then we were considered Eastern Europe, just as England was considered Western Europe. So I think Mr. Lavrov here reverted to the old political way of thinking, a Cold War division between East and West. But we are back to doing geography, not politics.”

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