Civil Society and Conflicting Narratives

The pitfalls of attempting to carve out a Central European identity

Anna Wójcik, Jan Kubik
13 June 2017

In the ever changing political and social landscape of Europe, how is Central Europe understood today, and how important is it when considering the traditional East/West division?

The East/West division is stronger than any other idea of amalgamation of states in our part of Europe. Whether it is regrettable or not, in the perception of European and American publics, Central Europe does not really exist. It is a concept used by a small elite in political life and a group of intellectuals, people who professionally study and interact with the region.

Moreover, in academic institutions pivotal to the global understanding and knowledge of Europe – located predominantly in North America, UK, Germany and France – the division of Europe between the East and the West has been extremely powerful, and recently these perceptions have only been reinforced. As always, the attention span of researchers and resources are limited, and they are definitely directed towards studying the developments in the West.

Do you see any dimensions that nevertheless distinguish the region as a worthwhile area of inquiry?

There is one thing which distinguishes the region, and it isn’t something to give up on: the legacy of communism and the methods we used to confront it. In my opinion, this was the most defining phenomenon of Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th century, and we can still feel its consequences. Although I have often repeated the idea, there was not only one communism and one post-communism. It still influences how people organize their life, how they think about themselves. We cannot pretend that the time from 1945 to 1989 no longer has any meaning. It dramatically reset society, not just politics.

At the same time, I believe that the correct method of inquiry is to start with the problem, not the area. Say, we will focus on inequality or transitional justice and look into it throughout the world. Does it manifest itself differently in Latin America, Southeast Asia or in Central Europe? If so, it’s important to try to solve a problem using approaches appropriate for a given geographical context.

The more objective approach would be if we were able to show that there has been a historical trajectory of this region that sets it apart both from the East and the West. And that is being done and it can be done, but I think that this is the source of a lot of confusion. I honestly do not see, in my work, a serious difference in the frequency of phenomena when comparing the south to the east Europe. The civil society in Poland is just as strong as it is in Portugal or Spain, for instance.

Is this from the homogenizing effect of Europeanization or globalization?

Probably both. The bottom line would be that when it comes to the basic ways of doing things, few alternatives are accepted in this part of the former communist bloc, which has now become part of the EU. It is just a replication of practices, learned through emulation; basically, if you look at some patterns in the region, they are not that different than many other parts of Europe.

The Polish and Hungarian governments have – at least rhetorically – pushed for a greater cultural alliance between the two countries. Do you think other societies will follow their lead?

I have always tried to think carefully about the difference between what the governments think, what they do and where the public opinion is. On one hand, there are a number of issues where the public opinion in this part of Europe is not that different than in others, and yet, on the other hand, there are clear differences. Those differences lie in some very important layers of culture. For example, the attitudes towards gay people, same sex partnership, abortions, immigrants, and religiosity. As a social scientist, I do not dwell on this or that result, but I am trying to figure out whether there is something more general. Whether those various syndromes cohere into something what might be called a national culture, I doubt it; I seriously doubt that this is a useful concept.

People say that Eastern Europeans are this and that, because of a specific issue on which the public opinion differs from the majority of Europeans. The truth is that these populations are split, and the division is quite complex due to the tremendous diversity of the region. Poland and Hungary are at the moment drifting off in a non-liberal direction, but the societies are not homogenous. In the case of Poland, there is a cultural war being fought, and it is very hard to say which of the views represents Poland and its population.

Another dimension, which I have been rather upset about is the discussions about certain European issues or even global issues in terms of a sharp, symmetric contrast between the West versus Russia. This is very serious because the West is not monolithic. Second, what do you include in the “West”? Do you include the Baltics, Poland, Hungary or is it just the “classical” West Europe?

The third thing, the most troubling from the point of view of the interest of Central European countries, is that the self-understanding of the people in the region has disappeared. Shared interests, desires and dreams have all disappeared, and the countries are drifting apart, enclosed in narrow national imaginaries. At the same time, all those countries share a desire to be treated seriously, to draw the attention of the world to the fact that they are pretty serious countries, which have very distinct histories and traditions. But they are not communicating this effectively, and the world is not listening.

The current leadership in Poland and Hungary, as well as elsewhere in Europe, is putting a lot of stress on sovereignty and the sense of national pride…

There is, arguably, an important dilemma: to make Visegrad countries partners in a pan-European dialogue, while allowing them their sense of distinctiveness. There are ways to solve this dilemma, but you couldn’t decide on a worse way of doing this than what the current leadership has done. I am especially worried about the Polish government’s historical policy, and their using hard measures to impose one official version of remembering the past on the populace. This is an incredibly dangerous project, which will lead to a further fracturing of society. This is also a way to promote nonstop conflict within civil society, which has its own visions of the past.

If you are going to say, well, there should be one central vision and this one is the proper one, those actors in the civil society are not going to give up. The political and social life is very much based on action and reaction. The more you push, the more they will push back unless you suppress them. By definition, it is the end of democracy. You need a more skillful way of constructing those policies and strategies, and the goal should be a consensus of some kind, a set of compromises. The principal virtue of democracy is almost by definition a compromise. In a society of any complexity, you have to figure out the way of finding some kind of mutually satisfying solution of various ideas and interests.

What is the value of producing one proper vision? A modern state, a modern complex society, is and should be producing a unifying self-image. But it has to come from various sources, and it has to be polyphonic. I see that the current government has an idea of sending out a monolithic message of what Poland is. And it is not working very well for Poland’s reputation abroad.

What is the potential for civil society to produce a counter image, its own narrative?

Civil society in Central Europe, particularly in Poland, is not weak. It is just that the strategies and methods and cultures of associating here are partially different than in the West. We don’t have the same intensity of formal organizations, but there are other ways in which people actually work together. Even if we assume that the civil society is not very strong in Poland, it doesn’t mean that the society is weak. Weak society means an anomic situation of excessive individualism where everything begins to fall apart. Let’s make it clear: the strength of cultural ties, informal and formal, that bind people together varies from place to place. It is wrong to assume that those kinds of ties are weak here. It can be that people are more concentrated in networks of friends and families, but I think that there is enough research that shows that people do assemble to work on various problems and projects. It is maybe stronger on those informal ties than in the West, and it is increasingly divided, but is not a weak civil society, and it definitely can speak for itself.

Jan Kubik works on the interplay between power and culture, protest politics and social movements, and post-communist transformations. Most recently has been the Director of the Univerity College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

The interview was first published in Visegrad Insight 1 (10) 2017.

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