What Does Europe Want?

In the months before Slovenia’s entry to the European Union, whenever a foreign journalist asked me what new dimension would Slovenia contribute to Europe, my answer was instant and unambiguous: NOTHING.

Slovene culture is obsessed with the notion that, although a small nation, we are a cultural superpower: We possess some agalma, a hidden intimate treasure of cultural masterpieces that wait to be acknowledged by the wider world. Maybe, this treasure is too fragile to survive intact the exposure to the fresh air of international competition, like the old Roman frescoes in that wonderful scene from Fellini’s Roma which start to disappear the moment the daylight reaches them. Such narcissism is not a Slovene specialty. There are versions of it all around Eastern Europe: We value democracy more because we had to fight for it recently, not being allowed to take it for granted; we still know what true culture is, not being corrupted by the cheap Americanized mass culture.

Rejecting such a fixation on the hidden national treasure in no way implies ethnic self-hatred. The point is a simple and cruel one: All Slovene artists who made a relevant contribution had to “betray” their ethnic roots at some point, either by isolating themselves from the cultural mainstream in Slovenia or by simply leaving the country for some time, living in Vienna or Paris. It is the same as with Ireland: not only did James Joyce leave home in order to write Ulysses, his masterpiece about Dublin; Yeats himself, the poet of Irish national revival, spent years in London. The greatest threats to national tradition are its local guardians who warn about the danger of foreign influences.

Furthermore, the Slovene attitude of cultural superiority finds its counterpart in the patronizing Western cliche which characterizes the East European post-Communist countries as a kind of retarded poor cousins who will be admitted back into the family if they can behave properly. Recall the reaction of the press to the last elections in Serbia where the nationalists gained big—it was read as a sign that Serbia is not yet ready for Europe. A similar process is going on now in Slovenia: The fact that nationalists collected enough signatures to enforce a referendum about the building of a mosque in Ljubljana is sad enough; the fact that the majority of the population thinks that one should not allow the mosque is even sadder; and the arguments evoked (Should we allow our beautiful countryside to be spoiled by a minaret that stands for fundamentalist barbarism?, etc.) make one ashamed of being a Slovene. In such cases, the occasional threats from Brussels can only appear welcome: Show multiculturalist tolerance…or else!

However, this simplified picture is not the entire truth. The first complication: The very ex-Communist countries which are the most ardent supporters of the US “war on terror” deeply worry that their cultural identity, their very survival as nations, is threatened by the onslaught of cultural “Americanization” as the price for their immersion into global capitalism. We thus witness the paradox of pro-Bushist anti-Americanism. In Slovenia, the Rightist nationalists complain that the ruling Center-Left coalition, though it is publicly for joining NATO and supporting the U.S. anti-terrorist campaign, is secretly sabotaging it, participating in it for opportunist reasons and not from conviction. At the same time, however, it reproaches the ruling coalition for undermining Slovene national identity by advocating full Slovene integration into the Westernized global capitalism and thus drowning Slovenes in contemporary Americanized pop culture. The idea is that the ruling coalition sustains pop culture, stupid TV amusement and mindless consumption in order to turn Slovenes into an easily manipulated crowd, incapable of serious reflection and firm ethical stances.

In short, the underlying motif is that the ruling coalition stands for the “liberal-Communist plot”: Ruthless, unconstrained immersion in global capitalism is perceived as the latest dark plot of the ex-Communists, enabling them to retain their secret hold on power. Ironically, the nationalist conservatives’ lament about the new emerging socio-ideological order reads like the old New Left’s description of the “repressive tolerance” of capitalist freedom as the mode of unfreedom’s appearance.

This ambiguity of the Eastern European attitude finds its perfect counterpart in the ambiguous message of the West to post-Communist countries. Recall the two-sided pressure the United States exerted on Serbia in the summer of 2003: U.S. representatives simultaneously demanded that Serbia deliver the suspected war criminals to the Hague court (in accordance with the logic of the global Empire which demands a trans-state global judicial institution) AND to sign the bilateral treaty with the United States obliging Serbia not to deliver to any international institution (i.e., the SAME Hague court) U.S. citizens suspected of war crimes or other crimes against humanity (in accordance with the Nation-State logic). No wonder the Serb reaction is one of perplexed fury! And a similar thing is going on at the economic level: While pressuring Poland to open its agriculture to market competition, Western Europe floods the Polish market with agricultural products heavily subsidized from Brussels.

How do post-Communist countries navigate in this sea with conflicting winds? If there is an ethical hero of the recent time in ex-Yugoslavia, it is Ika Saric, a modest judge in Croatia who, in the face of threats to her life and without any visible public support, condemned general Mirko Norac and his colleagues to 12 years of prison for the crimes committed in 1992 against the Serb civilian population. Even the Leftist government, afraid of the threat of the Rightist nationalist demonstrations, refused to stand firmly behind the trial against Norac. However, just as the nationalist Right was intimating that large public disorders would topple the government, when the sentence was proclaimed, NOTHING HAPPENED. The demonstrations were much smaller than expected and Croatia “rediscovered” itself as a state of the rule of law. It was especially important that Norac was not delivered to the Hague, but condemned in Croatia itself—Croatia thus proved that it does not need international tutelage.

The dimension of the act proper consisted in the shift from the impossible to the possible: Before the sentence, the nationalist Right with its veteran organizations was perceived as a powerful force not to be provoked, and the direct harsh sentence was perceived by the liberal Left as something that “we all want, but, unfortunately, cannot afford in this difficult moment, since chaos would ensue.” However, after the sentence was proclaimed and nothing happened, the impossible turned into the routine. If there is any dimension to be redeemed of the signifier “Europe,” then this act was “European” in the most exemplary sense of the term.

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