A Conversation between Prof. Ivo Banac and Anatoly Golubovksy

“The spirit of criticism and self-examination is characteristic of European identity.” (Prof. Ivo Banac)

A.G.: Some social analysts and commentators associate many current conflicts – from terror attacks to a return of the Cold War to Europe – with the painful process of replacing one identity with another, or multiple identities, such as “Soviet” with “post-Soviet” or “Yugoslav” with multiple “Balkan” identities. Do you agree with this? In your opinion, what is the role of identity in the process of present-day political and cultural integration or disintegration?

I.B.: No, I disagree, but, inasmuch as some identities are certainly being challenged, perhaps even changed, my disagreement is stated with a few attendant caveats. The current meaning of “terrorism” and “terror attacks” is most dubious and is regularly used to delegitimise the violence of disapproved groups. Nowadays it is, on the whole, meant to describe Muslim violence, particularly against the West. There might be some identity issues in that, but that is hardly the point. Nor do I see identity as primary in the conflicts of dissolving multinational states. The post-Yugoslav wars were mainly wars of independence that came in response to Serbia’s attempts to hold onto territories that the Serbian leaders considered to be properly Serbian, although they were within other federal units (Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo). Milošević’s message was “You can be independent, but not with our territory,” exactly the message that Putin used when he seized Crimea and portions of eastern Ukraine. Issues of identity enter into the picture when one tries to prove that Bosnia is Western Serbia or that Ukraine is Novorossiya, but these are justifications within primarily political conflicts. Of course, imperial identities mainly disappeared after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. I do not know how it is in Russia and the other post-Soviet states, but in the ex-Yugoslav states – not everywhere to the same degree – there are still some people who consider themselves Yugoslav by nationality and many more who are Yugonostalgic. This is a generational issue and recalls the lingering pro-Habsburg sentiment in some of the post-Habsburg states.
Identity issues enter to a greater degree in conflicts within complex and democratic European states, such as Britain, Belgium, and Spain, where the British, Belgian, and Spanish identities are being challenged. They also enter into the questions of federalism in the EU, something that the “Eurosceptics” reject. Nor should one forget the issues of integration of coloured and/or Muslim immigrant groups in Western Europe. If it is possible to be black, Muslim and French at the same time, conflicts of identity might abate. For the moment, the answer to this riddle is not encouraging.
A.G.: Do you think that the concept of “identity” is covered by language and culture, and if so, to what extent?

These are certainly important components, but political history should not be excluded. Educated classes in Eastern Europe and the Balkans spoke various non-vernacular languages into modernity, but their memory of medieval statehood, even under heterodox foreign rule, was kept alive by church or tradition. Modern nations were not “imagined” in a vacuum. They represented specific linguistic-cultural-political blends in the age of ideology and secularism.  

A.G.: Did the breakup of traditional empires in the course of the First World War lead to the creation of new identities, new cultural and linguistic entities? Or did they originate inside the empires and destroy them from within?

I.B.: I cannot remember a single new identity that followed the breakup of traditional empires. Even the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav identities that originated inside Austria-Hungary predated its collapse. Soviet identity came later and was not conterminous with the revolution. But, then, the collapse of Imperial Russia, just as in the case of Imperial Germany, meant only a limited loss of territory and the continuity of the dominant imperial identity. Of course, Leninist national policy, for its own reasons, frequently politically pragmatic, insisted on the recognition of various “new” nationalities, some of which might have been linguistically justified (although not necessarily culturally), as in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and some of which were quite dubious (Karelians, Moldavians).

A.G.: After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and the reunification of Germany (reverse dynamics), Europe underwent a renewed, large-scale social, cultural and national identification process, which is traditionally described as the liberation from the consequences of a totalitarian and authoritarian mentality of the Soviet type. What can we say of these tendencies today? Did they come to an end? What is their development vector?

I.B.: I suppose it can be claimed that the collapse of “real socialism” contributed to the liberation from a totalitarian and authoritarian mentality in the whole of Europe, although the primary effects were in the countries that had previously been ruled by Communist parties. And I suppose, too, that this had contributed to large-scale social, cultural, and national identification processes, as is only normal when obstacles to self-determination are removed. But is this not a strange way of putting it? To me, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, or for that matter the GDR, were possible only because of communist totalitarianism. After the removal of this foundation, these entities also collapsed. Hence, emphasis should be placed on the process of implementation or restoration of liberal democracy with all the social and economic consequences that it entailed as the primary process. This process is still unfolding and, unfortunately, in some cases (Russia), it has been reversed. This should have been expected given the emphasis on continuity and avoidance of conflict in at least some versions of transition. The development vector, therefore, depends on the resistance of the old elites and ruling structures. Some call this the effect of the “unfinished revolution,” that is, the failure to account for the crimes and the attendant political attitudes of the Communist past, which translates into a failure to complete the transition to democracy and market economy.        

A.G.: What is the future of national and cultural identities within a united Europe? What is their impact on European integration?

I.B.: If by “united Europe” you mean the EU, which is the only “really existing” united Europe, there are no real surprises here. We have a community of nation-states, all of which are as old as the European process of national integration (beginning with the sixteenth century at the earliest), united over a set of common political and economic policies on which the idea of a common European identity has been superimposed. That does not mean that the same identity does not exist in the non-EU European countries, for example in Switzerland, but it does mean that its potential for even deeper integrations is lively only under the cover of the EU umbrella.

A.G.: Political correctness, tolerance, multiculturalism – can these notions be regarded as components of the modern European identity?

I.B.: Yes, as can equally European exceptionalism, intolerance, nationalism, and imperialism. It would be foolish to ignore European failures in favour of positive European values when it comes to the shaping of contemporary European identity. In fact, the spirit of criticism and self-examination is characteristic of European identity.

A.G.: What is the cultural and identical basis of the new confrontation between East and West? Would you define the confrontation in these terms?

I.B.: The West, which is to say the Euro-Atlantic states, views liberal democracy and capitalism as a universal framework that can be implanted everywhere. Authoritarian and totalitarian states of the East, even those with hoary universalist pretences, such as China, always stress cultural limitations to the Western universalism of democracy and market. The current ideological paradigm in powers as different as China, Russia, Iran, and Egypt insists on Western decadence and inherent weakness of Western permissiveness and self-indulgence. Yet they deny themselves the democratic advantage of self-correction, which is inherent in the spirit of the West. So, we are back to the old Slavophile reading of the East-West cleavage – the East as the civilization of grace and the West as the civilization of law. The real reasons for the current East-West confrontation are more mundane – they are less than promising attempts to maintain the monopoly of power (and the exclusion of democratic and economic competition) by the interested elites.     

A.G.: What do you think of the attempts to facilitate Eurasian integration? What are its historical and cultural origins? Can we talk of Eurasian integration as a reality or just as a prospect for the future?

I.B.: Integrations can be successful only if they are based on equality and cooperation. In 1940, Japanese imperialism offered something that was called the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Zone, but its content was determined by the exclusion of the West and the supposed superiority of the Yamato race. Eurasianism was as much a project of desperation when it first appeared in the heady atmosphere of Russian intellectual emigration in the 1920s as it became in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The idea that the Russian civilization is not “European” is admittedly somewhat more eccentric than the prospect of Soviet state evolution into an Orthodox Christian theocracy. I believe with Unamuno that Russia belongs to Europe as much as other European borderlands, such as Spain (which Unamuno labelled the Ibero-African civilization), and that the only prospect for Russia is reconciliation with Europe. That may take time, but it is the only way out of the current Russian predicament. That is why it is sad to observe backsliding from the European path in many countries that made excellent progress precisely because of openness to Europe, in Turkey, for instance. 
A.G.: Can you estimate or make a prognosis about conflict dynamics in the post-Soviet or – furthermore – in the post-totalitarian European space overall?

I.B.: Everything will depend on the viability of Euro-Atlantic values. One word of caution: if the belief system of the West is only a sham, if its real content is cynical consumerism, permissiveness, and moral relativism, its inherent weakness will not be sufficient against a determined ideological alternative – political or spiritual. That is the only real worry in the post-totalitarian European space.