Orthodoxy and Europe

By Robert Kaplan

Horia-Roman Patapievici is a Romanian philosopher who, way back in the late 1990s, told me that Romania's task was to acquire a public style based on impersonal and transparent rules like in the West, otherwise business and politics would be full of intrigue. And he questioned whether Romania's Eastern Orthodox tradition is helpful in this regard. He went on to explain that Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece and Cyprus -- the Orthodox nations of Europe -- were all characterized by weak institutions, compared with those of northwestern Europe. He and many others have intimated that this is partly because Orthodoxy is flexible and contemplative, thus tolerant of the world as it is, having created its own alternative order.

Because of Orthodoxy, according to the late British historian Hugh Seton-Watson, early 20th-century Russians who lost their religious faith did not become "rationalist skeptics" in the Western tradition; they merely transferred their spiritual fervor to social revolution. Nicolas Berdyaev, a Russian intellectual of the era, observed that Bolshevism was an Orthodox form of Marxism, because it underscored "totality." (Indeed, Stalin, who studied for six years at an Orthodox monastery in Georgia, gave speeches that evoked the singsong litanies of the church.)

There is much to debate here. But clearly, given the millennia-old traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, with its forests of beeswax candles, silver-plated icons and other exemplars of intoxicating magic, there is a clear otherness to Orthodoxy that defines it as a great world religion. To say that the Orthodox countries that dominate the Balkans and Russia are capable eventually of the same level of institutional development as those in northwestern Europe is altogether reasonable; but to say that such things as culture and religion simply do not contribute at all to different development patterns in Greater Europe is not reasonable.

Culture, geography and historical experience are all of primary significance. They make us what we are. To erase the past and to say that we are suddenly all identical creatures in a global meeting hall is the height of folly. Yet that, after a fashion, is what Europe's elites have believed for decades. If you even mention national characteristics to them, such as those devolved from Orthodoxy, you are an "essentialist," an academic word that means you are guilty of ethnic stereotyping. But can it be wholly an accident that the countries facing the direst financial and political straits in Europe today are mainly in the southeastern and southern parts of the continent? Clearly, geography, history and religion play some sort of a role, however much they can be overcome, and however difficult it is to quantify them.

The key word in Orthodoxy is "Eastern." This is a Christianity that has battled Western Roman Catholicism just as much as it has battled Islam. Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy have the common experience of having lived for centuries under the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Muslim Turks were often more tolerant of their Orthodox Christian subjects than the Catholic Habsburgs had been. And before the Turks there was the Byzantine Empire in southeastern Europe. All of this gave the Balkans a weaker institutional and economic basis than the countries of Central and Western Europe, which lived under Prussian, Habsburg and Bourbon rule. These things matter, even if they are not determinative. Indeed, prior to the onslaught of Nazism and Communism, countries such as France, Germany, Austria and Poland were characterized by authentic middle classes more than by peasantries -- unlike Orthodox countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Greece.

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Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, and author of Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. Reprinted with the permission of Stratfor.

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