Eastern Europe: Where Two Civilizations Collide

Global Affairs, 24.02.2016
Ian Morris

In his insightful Feb. 20 Global Affairs column, "Why the West Should Pay More Attention to Moldova," Steve Hall asked: "Why risk further conflict — perhaps armed conflict — with Russia over a place most Americans and many Europeans cannot locate on a map?" As if on cue, February also saw the publication of Robert D. Kaplan's latest book, In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond. In it, Kaplan offers a detailed and compelling answer to Hall's question: Moldova is at the heart of one of the defining geostrategic conflicts of the early 21st century.

A Careful Observer of Eastern Europe

Kaplan will be well known to Stratfor subscribers as the author of its Global Affairs columns between 2012 and 2014. In these columns and his 16 books, he has developed an analytical style so distinctive that he can fairly be said to have invented a genre all of his own. On the one hand, his writing is firmly grounded in the uber-realist tradition of geostrategic abstraction; on the other, it dives down to a deeply personal level, combining travelogues with interviews, cultural critiques, intellectual history and very personal memoirs. The result is attractive and addictive, helping us see not only why we should care about distant countries but also what the vast impersonal forces of geography and history mean for human beings.

Kaplan first visited the Balkans in 1973 when, fresh out of college, he spent three months traveling behind the Iron Curtain. His love affair with these lands, however, really took off in 1981, just after he had left the Israel Defense Forces. Unsure what to do with his life, he decided to head back to Eastern Europe. Upon learning (1) that his status as a reservist limited his travel to countries where Israel maintained an embassy, (2) that Romania was the only such country behind the Iron Curtain and (3) that Bucharest was the only Warsaw Pact city that had direct flights from Tel Aviv, that was where he went.

Kaplan returned repeatedly to the Balkans over the next three decades. His 1993 bookBalkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, is said to have played a significant role in swaying U.S. officials to intervene directly in Yugoslavia's civil war. ("The book's reported effect in policy circles was, to say the least, tragic," Kaplan reflects. "Thus, if it is not guilt that I feel, it is profound sorrow.") In returning to the region with In Europe's Shadow, Kaplan begins with a pair of chapters contrasting what he saw in Bucharest in 1981 and 2013, then devotes six chapters to his travels through Moldavia, Wallachia, Moldova and Transylvania before ending up in Hungary.

Along the way, he dips deep into Balkan history and — not quite the same thing — into the stories Romanians have told themselves about their own ethnic origins. These had horrific consequences in the 20th century, when the multiethnic Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman empires proved unable to contain the roiling mass of Balkan nationalisms, and the nation-states that succeeded them turned anti-Semitism into a powerful tool to mobilize their peasantries. In Romania, Kaplan observes, "prayer, mysticism, and authoritarianism" combined to make the Iron Guard, a paramilitary group of the 1920s-1930s that is usually simply characterized as fascist, "more like an Eastern Orthodox version of al-Qaeda." Romania became Hitler's second most important ally, with only Italy providing more men for the Axis armies, and its dictator, Ion Antonescu, presided over a schizophrenic version of the Holocaust. While shielding most of the 375,000 Jews within his country from deportation to the death camps, he also butchered more than 300,000 Jews outside Romania's borders.

Romania switched sides in 1944, but that did not save it from a particularly brutal Soviet occupation. By the time Kaplan arrived in 1973, the Soviet troops were long gone (the last left in 1958), but the effects of their presence were not. After all, Kaplan writes, "Repression is not only about prisons and firing squads. It can also be about a more mundane and punishing tedium." By 1981, the stifling weight of the communist state seemed to Kaplan to have crushed everyone. "People clutched cheap jute bags in expectation of stale bread," he recalls. "I looked at their faces: nervous, shy, clumsy, calculating, heartrending, as if they were struggling to master the next catastrophe. Those clammy complexions seemed as if they had never seen the sunlight." When he arrived as a reporter in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1984, Kaplan felt that "in its machinal, totalitarian intensity it bore a striking resemblance to Ceausescu's Romania."

Nowadays, historians often look at the long period between 1914 and 1989 as a single conflict, but Kaplan suggests that this was even truer in the Balkans than anywhere else. The effect, he argues, was to pull the people of the Balkans away from the wider world and trap them in vicious local hatreds. In 1990, Romanian politician Silviu Brucan caused outrage by suggesting that it would take Romania a generation to escape from this nightmare, but when Kaplan returned in 2013, he felt compelled to conclude that this conclusion was right. The bigger cities might be full of globalized coffee shops and hipsters glued to their cell phones, but more careful people-watching — one of Kaplan's skills — revealed that Romania's reorientation toward a cosmopolitan Europe is still very much a work in progress.

And yet, Kaplan concludes, the real point is that while "Romania might be an Orientalized backwater when viewed from Western Europe or Poland… When I returned to Romania from Moldova in the spring of 2014, I wanted to kiss the ground. From the vantage point of Moldova, a former Soviet republic never a member of the European Union, Romania unambiguously signified the West, complete with NATO membership and institutions slowly becoming more transparent." Europe, Kaplan realized, "was a series of gradations, gradually thinning out as one traveled east."

The Lasting Importance of the Intermarium

These gradations are the product of a very long historical process — even longer, I suggested in an earlier column, than In Europe's Shadow acknowledges. One of the most striking patterns in long-term history is the way that the greatest transformations have always begun in one particular place and then spread outward, producing just the kind of gradations Kaplan noticed in the Balkans. These gradations often do get smoothed out, but the process can take centuries, and it almost always creates misery for the people caught up in it and chaos for those who live around it.

Agriculture, for instance, was first invented in Southwest Asia around 9500 B.C., producing much bigger, denser populations and more complex societies than among the neighboring hunter-gatherer groups. The frontiers between farming and foraging zones were characterized by similar gradations, clearly visible in the archaeological record. As the dense farming populations spread out, they steamrollered the gradations, but it took 5,000 years for the wave of agricultural advance to reach the shores of the Atlantic and the oases of Central Asia.

In the first millennium B.C., new kinds of imperial civilizations were being created around the Mediterranean Basin, once again leading to population growth and expansion, and once again creating borderlands characterized by Kaplanesque gradations. By the second century, Dacia — ancient Romania — found itself on the frontier between a Mediterranean empire and the simpler agricultural societies of Central Europe. It was still in the same position in the 15th century, when the Romans were long gone and the expansive Mediterranean empire in question was that of the Ottoman Turks. By then, however, a new core had already taken shape among the commercial nations along the Atlantic facade and was expanding across not only oceans but also Europe.

From the 10th millennium B.C. through the second millennium, expansive cores were always fringed by what analysts often call a "semi-periphery" of rather less developed societies, and beyond that, a "far periphery" of groups less developed still (and beyond that, societies that remained altogether untouched by the growing system). Core, semi-periphery and far periphery constantly jostled and pushed against one another in relations by turns profitable, exploitative and violent as the far periphery tried to turn into a semi-periphery, the semi-periphery tried to turn into a core, and the core tried to swallow its peripheries up.

For several centuries after A.D. 1400, the expansion of the Western and Turkish/Mediterranean cores put the central Balkans in an unenviable position. To their northwest lay the Western core's semi-periphery, stretching from Sweden through Poland to Hungary; to their south was the Mediterranean core's semi-periphery, embracing Greece and Bulgaria; and to their northeast was Russia, the far periphery of both cores. Political geography turned Romania and Moldova into what Kaplan calls "the Pontic breach," by which he means "the hinterland of the Black Sea that offers an invasion route to (or from) the Balkans and the Mediterranean."

The strategic map has obviously changed in important ways in the past 600 years. The grinding conflicts between core, semi-periphery and far periphery took on particularly vicious forms in the 20th century; the old Mediterranean core has been downgraded into one more periphery to the triumphant Western core; and there have been several points at which Russia has seemed on the verge of leapfrogging from being a despised far periphery to becoming a core region in its own right.

However, in other ways the strategic map has not changed very much at all. As historian Charles Esdaile points out in his fine 2007 book, Napoleon's Wars: An International History, the great European conflicts of the 1790s-1810s owed far more to struggles over the semi-periphery than is usually realized. World War I was triggered by events in the Balkans, World War II was fueled by Hitler's desire to turn the semi- and far periphery into Lebensraum for a German core, and the Cold War revolved around the Soviet effort to become a new core and the competition over the East European semi-periphery. As Kaplan observed in his 2012 book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, in the 1990s the eclipse of Russia, the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism and the eastward expansion of the European Union temporarily obscured these long-term processes. But Russian revanchism is now making it clear just how little has really changed.


Back in the 1920s, Polish strongman Jozef Pilsudski argued that Europe's peace depended on what he called "the Intermarium" (Miedzymorze in Polish), a semi-periphery of buffer states running between the Baltic and Black seas that separated the Western core from the Russian would-be core. Not everyone understood his point, and before the end of the 1930s British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would be marveling at "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing."

In the 2010s, however, Pilsudski's insights remain as true as they were in his own day, although we now know enough about the longer-term patterns of history to be certain that the Intermarium will remain the scene of conflict and tragedy. That, as Robert Kaplan shows in his book In Europe's Shadow, provides the ultimate answer to Steven Hall's question: "Why risk further conflict — perhaps armed conflict — with Russia over a place most Americans and many Europeans cannot locate on a map?"

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