IT HAS BEEN THE FATE of Central and Eastern Europe — that wedge of territory between what was once the Soviet Union to the east and the European Community to the west — to wrestle with its own “abnormality.” For nearly five decades, the region experienced varying degrees of Soviet-style Communism, from the relatively liberal version enjoyed in Hungary to the more Stalinist model endured in Romania. After 1989, the region celebrated not only a joyful “return to Europe,” through its accession to the European Union, but also, as Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman argue in a recent Foreign Affairs article, an even more liberating “return to normality.”

One of the indicators of that “normality” is near-invisibility. Central and Eastern Europe, once on the front pages of the international press for various uprisings against Soviet-sponsored regimes, rarely achieve headline status these days, except on anniversaries — such as those of the initial revolutions of 1989, the wars and breakups that convulsed parts of the region in the 1990s, and (occasionally) the economic and political reforms that accompanied the often difficult transitions. When The New York Times Magazine addressed the region in one of its issues this summer, the article tellingly focused on the efforts of a Czech libertarian to create his own minimalist state on a spit of unclaimed land between Croatia and Serbia. The region has become so uninteresting to American readers, or so the Times editors imply, that only something literally off the map (and truly off-the-wall) is worth devoting more than a couple column inches to.

If part of the price for living in a “normal” country is the indifference of newspaper editors and media consumers in the United States, most people in the region would surely welcome the bargain, especially those cursed with living through the “interesting” times of the 1990s, when the region was wracked by high levels of unemployment, escalating ethno-religious tensions, and (in former Yugoslavia) the return of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Like a celebrity recovering from a media scandal, East Central Europeans are eager to get on with their lives away from the glare of the TV cameras.

But the notion that East and Central Europe has become “normal” is a peculiar one. Though inflation and unemployment rates have largely fallen to more conventional levels, the region remains economically dependent on its richer, Western neighbors. In part because of thwarted expectations of greater economic success, a backlash against Western-style liberalism has swept through the region, nowhere more prominently than in Hungary, once a bastion of that same liberalism. Large segments of the population in almost every country confess nostalgia for the Communist period they resolutely rejected in 1989 — even in Romania, despite the nearly impossible-to-romanticize hardships under Nicolae Ceausescu. And parts of the region remain in geopolitical limbo, either in the halfway house of EU accession (like Serbia), in a situation of contested sovereignty (like Kosovo), or in a perpetual state of incoherent governance (like Bosnia).

This gap between the declarations of normalcy by some authoritative observers and the anything-but-normal reality on the ground has not attracted much attention from foreign correspondents, most of whom have migrated to more “interesting” beats. Nor are there many mass market books examining these trends, though publishers are now interested in what’s happening just beyond the frame in Ukraine, Greece, and Turkey.

The field is clear, then, for the more patient analysis of academics. The last decade has witnessed a quiet explosion of scholarly essays, monographs, collections, and book-length treatments of the economic, political, and social trajectories of East Central Europe. The four books under review here go well beyond the binary stereotypes of the region — East versus West, liberal versus authoritarian, nationalist versus cosmopolitan — in their interrogation of what constitutes normalcy for a group of diverse countries with overlapping historical experiences and the frequent misfortune of being stuck between larger, more ambitious powers.

 

Wrapping Communism

It is very difficult to imagine large numbers of Germans becoming nostalgic for the Nazi period, and German advertisers using Nazi imagery to tap into this nostalgia for marketing purposes. But nostalgia for the Communist period persists and, in some places, continues to grow more intense.

In their edited collection Remembering Communism (Central European University Press, 2014), Maria Todorova, Augusta Dimou, and Stefan Troebst focus on how Southeast Europe has wrapped and unwrapped its Communist experience. Ostalgie — nostalgia for the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) — has been popularized in the West through such films as Goodbye, Lenin and tourist attractions like the GDR Museum. Lesser known are the comparable nostalgias in the rest of the region. In Bulgaria, for instance, the Coca-Cola Corporation used the positive memories their potential consumers retain for that period to sell a product deeply associated with the capitalist West. As contributor Milla Mineva writes about the company’s 40 Years Together campaign, “It restored to the public eye socialist interiors, clothes, and famous pop songs.” Coca-Cola was contributing to a wave of Bulgarian sotz-nostalgia (nostalgia for socialism) that revived older brands of chocolate and tomato-pepper relish, the reputations of pop singers like Lili Ivanova, and even to a certain extent the political platforms of previously despised political figures like Communist kingpin Todor Zhivkov.

In her contribution, Simina Badica argues that “communism is fashionable again in Romania and all over Eastern Europe. Not its ideology, its leaders, nor its ‘achievements,’ but its visual wrapping.” If it were just a matter of pop songs and fondly remembered comfort foods, Badica would be right. But the longing runs deeper.

For instance, in a fascinating essay on the “brigadier movement” in Bulgaria, Tsvetana Manova quotes alumni of the movement — which mobilized 193,000 young people in 1947 and endured for more than four decades — who fondly remember the friendships, the shared purpose, and the overall solidarity of the period. Nostalgia for that period encompasses oppositional culture as well, for rarely has intellectual engagement been so highly valued as in East and Central Europe in the years before 1989. Sly jokes and a non-traditional structure made the play Improvisation, by Radoi Ralin and Valeri Petrov, so popular in Bulgaria in 1962 that tickets for performances functioned like an alternative currency — until the Party shut down the production. Quite a few writers from the region who had no love for Communism wistfully remember when the government, the people, and the foreign media paid much closer attention to their words.

Of course, the flip side of these nostalgias are the unpleasant memories of Communism — of repression and state surveillance and collaboration and economic want. For some, the dismalness of the past has produced a welcome amnesia. Others, who have labored over the last 25 years to bring the torturers, prison camp officials, and leading state security functionaries to justice, risk ending up as fixated on the past as those who remember only the positives of the period.

But it’s not surprising that people in the region continue to look backward. “It took a whole generation in post-Franco Spain after 1975 to reach the climactic moment of opening mass graves in 2000 and putting the issue on the table,” Maria Todorova reminds us in her introduction to the volume, “not to mention the lag of a generation and over two decades for the Germans to begin to come to terms with their legacy, a process that is still incomplete.”

A defeated Germany, of course, was able to close the wealth gap with the rest of Europe within a decade of the end of World War II. Prosperity helped much of the population turn their backs on the past. But 25 years after the 1989 revolutions, East Central Europe has still not closed the wealth gap with Western Europe. The Czech Republic has done the best with a per capita GDP at 84 percent of the EU average, in 2014, while Bulgaria has managed to reach only 45 percent.

 

The Radiant Future, Recast

Nearly everyone I interviewed in Central and Eastern Europe in 1990 told me that they expected to live like the Austrians or the French within five or 10 years. The method the region intended to use to span the wealth gap was membership in the European Union, which functioned in the early 1990s as a “radiant future” that replaced the utopian promise of Communism. Accession did come for most of the region, with most countries joining in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013 (leaving out only parts of former Yugoslavia). But full and equal membership in the EU continues to be a work in progress. Although certain sectors of society clearly benefitted from accession, significant portions of the population were left behind: unskilled workers, pensioners, the Roma minority. For these constituencies, the past was a refuge and socialism was not simply a brand. It signified substantive equality and provision of government services to all, however imperfect (and imperfectly remembered) these services might have been.

The region didn’t simply replace its “backward” Eastern European traditions with “forward-looking” EU norms. There “were rarely clashes of civilization,” write Janos Matyas Kovacs and Violetta Zentai, the editors of Capitalism from Outside? (Central European University Press, 2012). Rather, the “process of negotiation” produced a variety of hybrid outcomes.

This process often yielded surprising results. Eva Kovacs writes, for instance, of small vineyards in Hungary that modernized their wine production to produce French or Italian quality wine — often served in traditional ethnic German garb to Japanese tourists — but without becoming subsumed by larger European conglomerates.

Other efforts at reconciling East and West generated less felicitous results. After 1989, Poland and Hungary emerged as the most promising reformers in the region, based in part on their prior experience of extensive tinkering with the Communist system. But it was precisely this status as early adopters that “translated into a considerable amount of pride and honor among highly ranked members of state administration,” write Katalin Kovacs and Petya Kabakchieva in the same volume. When it came to implementing EU programs to upgrade agricultural and rural development, Polish and Hungarian officials took umbrage at the arrogance of EU representatives, who sometimes trashed reports that required months of patient work by frustrated researchers. In Bulgaria and Romania, meanwhile, officials were so delighted to be included in the accession process that they eagerly adopted whatever the outsiders presented.

Occasionally, the flow of knowledge went the other way. “One of the most successful workshops on traditional Bulgarian craftsmanship was structured around the rebuilding of an old house,” write Haralan Alexandrov and Rafael Chichek in their chapter.

At first, the foreign experts were convinced that the best solution would be to pull down the old shack and build it anew from scratch. The Bulgarian masons, however, started to work and over a couple of days demonstrated how it could be repaired. The foreigners were deeply impressed, acknowledged the virtuosity of the local masters, and volunteered to learn from them. This was an extraordinary experience of intensive cultural exchange in the language of art — the masons were “speaking with their hands.”

This story of the Bulgarian house resonates, perhaps precisely because it is so rare. Time and again, the negotiated compromises between East and West tilted in favor of the latter. The money, the decision-making power (over accession), and even the culture flowed out of Western Europe. The nostalgia for the Communist era can be read, then, as less an enthusiasm for socialism and more a longing for an earlier era of sovereign control, however illusory, over politics, economics, and culture. To join the EU and to integrate into the global economy — to become “normal” in political and economic terms — meant that East Central European countries had to subsume their national prerogatives within larger structures. It’s no surprise that this assimilation process has generated its own nationalist backlash against a variety of targets — the Brussels bureaucracy, multinational corporations and banks, the Roma minority, and most recently the refugees escaping war-torn countries in the Middle East and hoping to find sanctuary in the EU.

But the greatest nationalist backlash in the region against federal structures took place before any of the countries managed to win membership in the EU.

 

From Best to Worst

Before 1989, Yugoslavia qualified as the most “normal” of all the countries in East and Central Europe. It was considered the most likely candidate for membership in the European Community. It had the most diverse economy and the freest culture. Romanians risked their lives swimming across the Danube to defect to their Communist neighbor. Yugoslavia had also become normal in the modern European sense by laying to rest the nationalist demons of the 19th and 20th centuries. In creating an era of “brotherhood and unity,” Josip Broz Tito forged a successful supranational Yugoslav identity, but this also required both an amnesiac approach to the past and the often quite ruthless suppression of nationalist outbreaks in each of the constituent republics in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The descent of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s into ethnoreligious bloodshed — in this most advanced country of Eastern Europe — sent scholars scrambling to understand how the continent could take such a great leap backwards. Most would agree that an understanding of the history of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the region is indispensible to any explanation of what happened during the 1990s. Paul Mojzes, in his 2011 study, Balkan Genocides (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), tries to sort through the claims and the counter-claims to arrive at least close to the truth concerning the casualty figures in southeast Europe in the 20th century. These are not simply academic questions. What the Croatians did to the Serbs during World War II, what the Communist partisans did to the Croatian and Slovenian and Bosnian collaborators (not to mention Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans) as the war came crashing to an end, and what the newly independent countries that emerged from former Yugoslavia did repeatedly to each other remain highly sensitive issues in the region today.

As Mojzes writes, Tito never permitted an open inquiry into the bloodletting that took place in Yugoslavia, particularly during and after World War II. The battles between Serbs and Croats that broke out in 1991 were prefigured by disputes between historians arguing over the number of deaths at Jasenovac, the concentration camp complex established by the fascist Croatian government during World War II. Franjo Tudjman, who would later lead newly independent Croatia, argued in the mid-1980s that only 20,000 Serbs died at Jasenovac — compared to the 600,000 that many Serbs claimed (Mojzes settles on a figure in the middle). Such sharply divergent views of the past translated into equally polarized interpretations of Serb-Croat relations as they deteriorated in the early 1990s. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was part of an extended score-settling that stretched back to World War II and even earlier.

Mojzes concludes that what tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s were “religious wars fought by irreligious people.” These crusades were led by crafty politicians, populist leaders, and paramilitary fighters who used religion — the key factor that distinguished Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians — to pursue their own will to power.

Other scholars look for answers elsewhere. In Debating the End of Yugoslavia (Ashgate, 2014), edited by Florian Bieber, Armina Galijas, and Rory Archer, a number of academics from both inside and outside the former Yugoslavia evaluate the various theories put forward for why a seemingly normal country descended so rapidly and so violently into abnormality.

These explanations boil down to three categories. Those who subscribe to the “single man theory” blame the destruction of Yugoslavia largely on Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian politician who rose to prominence in the 1980s by exploiting the tensions between Serbs and Albanians in the autonomous region of Kosovo. His actions, which stimulated a rise in ethnic nationalism among his compatriots, in turn caused a comparable nationalist backlash throughout the country, particularly in Croatia.

Milosevic died before the Hague Tribunal could rule on his complicity in war crimes and genocide during the four wars that swept through the former Yugoslavia (in Slovenia, between Serbia and Croatia, in Bosnia, and between Serbia and Kosovo). But in her chapter, Sabrina Ramet argues that the evidence was clear. Milosevic was “paying the salaries of the officers in both the Croatian Serb Army and the Bosnian Serb Army” and “making key decisions about the mobilization and deployment of Serb forces.”

Meanwhile, according to the “outsider theory,” the international community deserves a lion’s share of the blame, either for intervening in the case of Germany’s recognition of the newly independent states of Croatia and Slovenia, or for not intervening when violent clashes first broke out in 1991. Many adherents of this view tend toward the conspiratorial. They are looking for puppet masters: the Germans, the Vatican, Washington, even Islamic fundamentalism. Of course, outsiders did play a role, but they were often guilty of sins of omission rather than commission, as in the American reluctance to get involved in a “European matter” in the early 1990s.

Most of the contributors to Debating the End of Yugoslavia generally emphasize a third factor: the role played by elites in the various republics. Nebojsa Vladisavljevic, for instance, fingers “the diffusion of nationalist ideas from narrow circles of dissident intellectuals to the masses, amplified with the sudden availability of the organizational resources of the party-state, as its officials adopted nationalist strategies in search of new sources of legitimation.” These elites were able, in a very short period of time, to delegitimize Yugoslavia’s fairly robust “supra-ethnic identity,” which prompted a majority of people surveyed throughout the country as late as 1990 — with the exception of Kosovo and, possibly, Slovenia — to oppose the establishment of new national states.

In areas outside Serbia where large concentrations of Serbs lived, these elites quickly took charge, even pursuing trajectories that Milosevic himself eventually found uncomfortable. In Bosnia, for instance, the Serbian elite purged virtually all non-Serbs from professional jobs in Banja Luka (the capital of what would become Republika Srpska). The Bosnian Serbs rejected the Vance-Owen peace plan, despite intensive lobbying from Milosevic to accept the compromise.

In the end, Yugoslavia suffered from what scholars Andrew Wachtel and Christopher Bennett, in an essay in another collected volume on Yugoslavia’s dissolution, term “multiple organ failure.” Prior to the 1990s, more astute observers identified the warning signs: the failure of any politician after Tito’s death who could successfully promote “brotherhood and unity,” the increasingly dysfunctional economy, the growing ethnic tensions in Kosovo, and the resentments of the richer republics of Slovenia and Croatia over subsidizing the federal center and the poorer regions of the country. These factors converged after 1989 to bring down an increasingly fragile state.

The EU could not have designed a more compelling worst-case scenario than Yugoslavia’s unraveling to emphasize the obvious virtues of joining a secure, supranational entity. Still, there were many in the region who wondered aloud if they were merely exchanging Moscow for Brussels. And the same resentments that ate away at Yugoslavia began to affect the EU as well: that of the richer subsidizing the poor, the weaker becoming dependent on the stronger, and the federal center dictating policy to everyone. Populist leaders like Slobodan Milosevic — as well as Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the Kaczynski twins in Poland — could find political leverage in widespread disgruntlement.

This, then, is the supreme irony for East and Central Europe. Just as they achieve “normal” status by joining the EU, the European federation is threatening to split apart because of economic differences (between Germany and Greece, for instance), escalating Euroskepticism (particularly on the extreme Right), arguments over the fate of Ukraine and the trajectory of Russia, and disagreements over how to handle the current refugee crisis. Having wanted nothing more than some peace and quiet (and a measure of prosperity), the people of Central and Eastern Europe are now thrust into the middle of a continent-wide debate on the very nature of Europe itself. In the end, then, East Central Europe continues to be interesting — to the delight of scholars and to the chagrin of its residents.

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John Feffer is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis, the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, and a recent Open Society Fellow.