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All things modern are Western

Africa has historically been the antithesis of modernity. Yet, in a sense and for a while, that mantle seemed to have been turned over to Eastern Europe. It was at the turn of the millennium, and the region was transiting from communist rule. From Belarus to Bulgaria, there were feverish transitions from controlled economies to free enterprise and from totalitarianism to democracy. In the U.S. press, these transitions were reported as transitions to Western values. And the dominant storyline was that in so changing, the region was closing its distance from modernity, albeit fitfully.

It is only fitting. The very idea of Western culture in its contemporary usage is said to have evolved during the years after World War II. It was the beginning of the Cold War between the communist “East” and the democratic “West”. This is discussed more fully in Chapter 12. Suffice to state here that the notion of Western values gained currency at this time as an armor in the war. “In the chill of battle, [the West] forged a grand Plato-to-NATO narrative about Athenian democracy, the Magna Carta, the Copernican Revolution, and so on.”1

In due course, the West won the war and Eastern Europe began to return to democracy and free enterprise. Predictably, the Western press covered the transition as Westernization. Correspondingly, the end of the Cold War also marked a change in the dominant division in national politics. Hitherto, the fault line was class struggle; after the Cold War, it was identity contestations. As “the class-based leftwing parties that were so prominent in the politics of the twentieth century”2 faded away, ethnic and religious identities came to the fore in the 21st. This change is manifested in the cultural chauvinism in the coverage of Eastern Europe’s transition from communism.

The 20th anniversary of Romania’s anti-communist revolution in 1989 provided an archetypical context for such coverage. In a dispatch on December 16, 2009, the Associated Press (AP) contrasted Romania’s past and present, leaving little doubt as to which represented

Western standards and values. Before the revolution, “Romania ... seemed like a relic of the 19th century;” now it is “a nation with many of the trappings of modernity,” the AP correspondent writes.

Referring to Timisoara, a city that played a prominent role in the revolution, the correspondent painted this picture of modernity:

[T]his westward looking city of ornate fin-de-siecle buildings, exclusive boutiques, huge shopping malls and fine restaurants was awash in bright Christmas lights and streets were flooded with well-dressed shoppers, some jumping to avoid the spray of slush thrown up by late-model Western cars speeding by.

Moreover, “Today, Romania is a member of both the EU and NATO, both of them clubs associated with Western values and prosperity and on the surface seems to have overcome the past.”

The story states, however, that the glitz belied continued difficulties. The Romanians had not quite overcome their non-Western past.

Today, Romania is drowning in debt with foreign obligations of almost 78 billion euros ($113 billion). Although it joined the EU in 2007, the nation remains deeply troubled, plagued by corruption, mired in recession, and paralyzed by political infighting most recently by a hotly contested presidential election marred by allegation of wholesale fraud.

In effect, by being allowed into the European Union, Romanians were given ample opportunity to catch up with Western values. But persistence of the listed problems was evidence that they were having difficulty measuring up. Similar storylines were used in the coverage of Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and a number of the former Soviet republics. One is left with the impression that those civic and political problems are absent in Western democracies, that they are evidence of lagging modernity.

The storyline roughly corresponds with the policy basis for admission of countries into the EU. Originally, it was supposed to encompass countries in “Central Europe,” a construct that is more ideological than geographic.

Today, however, the point of the construct is not so much ... to repudiate any connexion with Russian experience during the Cold War, it now serves to demarcate superior from inferior—i.e., Romanian, Bulgarian, Albanian, etc.—candidates for entry into the EU?

 
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