Choosing the West or choosing the East

4 mins read

By Sakke Teerikoski

May 2019 marks 15 years since the large eastern expansion of the European Union took place. Ten new member states from Central and Eastern Europe joined the Union on May 1, 2004. Three new members from the south-eastern corner of the continent have joined since, and several other Eastern European countries are still thinking about joining. Back in 2004, the expansion of the EU with 10 new member states was seen as a symbol for these countries leaving their East-bloc past behind and the political pendulum taking a swing towards the West.

History and politics, however, are never so straightforward. The pendulum has swung back and forth between East and West many times since then, at least if you are to believe the media coverage of national elections. We hear and see headlines about countries leaning East or looking West whenever there is a new election where either a populist or a pro-EU candidate wins. What is it all about?

Recently, in March, when the liberal and pro-EU candidate Zuzana Čaputová was elected as the first female president of Slovakia, people spoke about a turn towards the West. The neighbouring Czech Republic had presidential elections the previous year, and media reported about the race between Milos Zeman and Jiri Drahos being (literally, according to a title in the New York Times) “a Choice Between Leaning East or West”. Zeman had been known for being Russian-friendly and EU-sceptical in his views during his previous presidential mandate. In Hungary, Victor Orbán is increasingly strengthening his diplomatic ties with Russia, at the same time as the country’s relations with the EU are turbulent to say the least – naturally described in media as the country swinging towards the East and looking for allies elsewhere than the West. Orbán has also very much endorsed the role of traditional Christian values in society as a counter-weight against values that are too liberal in his view and that he claims are imposed on Hungary by the EU. In these newer EU countries, the East-West divide is largely associated with swinging between anti-EU and pro-EU rhetoric in the country’s politics.

In non-EU countries such as Serbia, Ukraine and Moldova, the choice between East and West is also very much real. It’s the question of a choice of path for the future. Moldova’s 2016 presidential election was a close call between pro-Russian candidate (current president) Igor Dodon and EU-integration supporter Maia Sandu. In Turkey, the shattered dreams about joining the EU have been followed by strengthened ties with Russia. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has steered his country towards a more authoritarian order and undermined democracy, consciously creating a gap towards the West and spreading anti-EU sentiments among Turkish citizens living in EU countries.

Serbia is often described as balancing between East and West in its foreign policy. The country has strong ties with Russia going far back in history, now strengthened under president Aleksandar Vučić, while simultaneously aspiring to become an EU member state. There, the question of pro-EU or anti-EU has become a choice between EU and Russia. For example, Serbia is increasing its dependency on Russia in the energy sector at the same time as the EU is actively trying to pull its member states out from the very same dependency. Russia also recently donated MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia, pulling the country closer to its military sphere.

Russia has traditionally disliked eastern expansion of the EU. This can be traced back to many reasons, one of which is an old ideological movement in Russia called the pan-Slavic movement. This movement advocates for all Eastern European countries that are inhabited by people speaking Slavic languages to unite under a group led by Russia. During the Cold War, these countries were indeed put under Soviet influence. In modern times, the concept of the Russian sphere of interest mirrors this concept. Russia desires to extend its influence on its neighbouring countries and keep them out of NATO and the EU. Needless to say, Russia prefers the pendulum swinging towards the East.

The East-West debate can be traced back to Russia too. In the 1800s, the future role of the East as a part of Europe was a heavily debated topic among the Russian intelligentsia. In the era following the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars, Russian thinkers faced the dilemma of whether the tremendous Westernization of the country and the reforms imposed by Peter the Great in the 1700s were still to be considered good, or were actually leading the country towards similar turmoil as had been seen in the contemporary West. The author Fyodor Dostoyevsky saw the modern West as a bad influence on Russia, and conversely  he saw Russia as the guardian of Christianity whose mission was to maintain and reintroduce Christian values in the West where faith and morals had been lost.

The debate regarded whether Russia should lean West or East. It was a predecessor to the East-West pendulum in European politics of our day. The pan-Slavic movement mentioned above is also a product of this grand debate. In fact, it still lives on. President Vladimir Putin’s embrace of what he calls traditional Russian values is a part of it. Victor Orbán’s endorsement of traditional values as an opposition against some modern-day Western values can also be viewed against the background of this 19th century debate. Orbán actually highlighted the very core of the question on a state visit to Kazakhstan, where he said that “[in] the past, it was a given that the West had reason to believe when it came to technology, economic development and finding successful political systems, that it was the strongest player in the world” – the past belonging to the West, while the future belonging to the East, one could argue.

The pendulum has swung between pro-West and pro-East many times since the days of the 19th century thinkers. One should not forget to mention the period of Communist occupation in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, during which people were yearning for freedom and democracy and eventually achieved it – this year also marks 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the people’s revolt against Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. Decades of European integration followed the fall of the Communist regimes, culminating in the big eastern expansion of the EU in 2004. And now, when we’re entering the 2020s, anti-EU sentiments are on the rise. The pendulum continues to swing.

Sakke Teerikoski is a long-time member of UF and is currently the vice president of the UFS. When he’s not busy writing for Uttryck, he dwells in the realms of space satellites and, previously, EU affairs. Sakke is an engineer, currently based in Uppsala.

Image: Sedef Hammarén Catir (original photograph by Jordan Ladikos)

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