realclearworld Newsletters: Europe Memo
Some of the most enduring positive changes in politics occur slowly. The development and expansion of the European institutions that eventually brought about the European Union can be seen as an encouraging example of that precept, to the extent that their gradual evolution has been positive for the Continent since the end of World War II -- and to any extent that it still might in the future.
Author Robert Kaplan expounded on this theme when he and I sat down for an interview in December. We were discussing Kaplan's latest book, "In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond," which hits bookshelves on Feb. 9 and provides an incisive, tactile introduction to the politics and potential prospects of Central and Southeastern Europe -- a region that finds itself once again caught in the headwinds of history. Unlike neighbors such as Poland and Hungary, Romania at the end of the Cold War did not rush to take its place in an integrated Europe. Nor, however, did it fall apart, as it well could have. Kaplan:
"Romanians will argue with me. But I believe that the fact that after the coup against [Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu, it was taken over not by democrats but by Reformed Communists, was actually a good thing, because it gave the country about six years of stability without which Romania could have descended into violence -- like Yugoslavia did. Remember, Romania didn't have a normal communist society, it had a Stalinist society. it was much further back than Poland and Czechoslovakia. Therefore it needed another layer of transition, which the Reformed Communists provided. Yes, they stalled a lot of reforms, but they kept things stable. The worst never happened."
Kaplan, as he is wont, turned to philosophy to bolster the idea.
"Edmund Burke wrote that most historical change that is gradual tends to work out better than anything sudden or dramatic. Poland and the Czech Republic were ready for sudden change, because they had bourgeoisies, they had nascent middle classes. They had Reformed Communists in many cases. They had a history of that, whereas Ceausescu had eliminated most people who were Reformed Communists. Romania has been slowly breaking out of the gate simply by being stable, and by chalking up growth rates that while may be bad in a worldwide historical sense, are very good given Europe over the last six years."
Romania's gradual reform, and its slower pace of integration with the European Union, has left Bucharest sitting outside of the Union's most ambitious projects -- the euro common currency and the Schengen passport-free zone. Kaplan argues Romanians are all the luckier for it, and it sure is hard to disagree with him. Indeed, Bucharest in October 2015 withdrew its bid to join Schengen.
Portrait of a nation
"In Europe's Shadow" provides a portrait of a country that flies beneath most people's radar and yet in many ways serves as a microcosm of the region at large, and a key to understanding it. Kaplan's relationship with Romania is intensely personal. The author was, as he described himself, "drifting in my late 20s" and reaching the end of his service with the Israel Defense Forces, when, aspiring to build a resume as a journalist, he bought a ticket to Ceausescu's Romania. His own personal and professional evolution, as Kaplan returns to Romania time and again over the course of decades, mirrors a heartfelt, exhaustive rendering of the historical aspirations of a land indeed always caught in the shadows -- of Byzantium, of the Ottomans, of Russia; of gothic spires, Carpathian ranges, and the contemplative magic of an Orthodox church.
Kaplan's is travel writing at its contemporary finest, weaving in the sights and sounds of a faraway land alongside interviews with its philosophers and politicians. He juxtaposes the brutality of Romania's history with the hopes for its present. Crossing the Prut River into Moldova, he also provides a detailed account of what it is like, in the Europe of the 21st Century, to look across a border that still has very real meaning.
Shaking hands with the return of geopolitics
If Ukraine's rapprochement with Europe, and Russia's subsequent takeover of Crimea, have marked the return of geopolitical concerns in the halls of Western European capitals, that concern is existential in Bucharest. Kaplan notes the difference as he talks to Romanian officials, remarking that the Ukraine crisis has made the governing class that much more serious, though the crisis has yet to pose a demonstrable threat.
That threat is far more direct in neighboring Moldova, however. The tiny country is occupied at its eastern end by the separatist enclave of Transdniestria, which hosts Russian troops and abuts the border with Western Ukraine. While a full-scale invasion of Ukraine likely carries too high a cost for Moscow, tiny Moldova could provide a soft, easy target for Russian meddling. (At the same time, the idea of Moldova joining Romania carries strong political currency on both sides of that border.) Traveling in Moldova, Kaplan refers to what he terms the Pontic Breach: the hinterland of the Black Sea that offers an invasion route to or from the Balkans or the Mediterranean. Moldova occupies that territory, and Transdniestria sits close to the strategic Ukrainian port of Odessa. These are the concentric circles of European geopolitics, as identified by Kaplan: Moldova is key to Ukrainian security; Ukraine is key to Russia's.
While Europe struggles to acquire a more strategic outlook, its greatest tool in the struggle against Putinist authoritarianism may still be its oldest: the draw of its soft power, rooted in the supremacy of the rule of law in its member states. Returning to a theme he addresses in the book, Kaplan told me about the vastly different attitude Romanians hold toward the European Union:
"I find in Eastern Europe, the EU is not looked upon with the same level of cynicism as in Western Europe. The cynicism you find in Washington, in Western Europe, about the EU is much more profound than in Romania. In Romania you still have this sense that the EU constitutes national survival. It's our way out of history, our way out of ethnic nations into rule-of-law states that protect the individual. That's felt very strongly in Romania."
In other words, Eastern Europe sees now what Western Europe saw 20 years ago -- a chance to declare that history can be defeated. But as history stretches its long arm across Europe once more, its cold touch is felt far more intimately in Warsaw and Bucharest, and in Belgrade and Skopje, than it is in Brussels. Kaplan:
"Historically, the Balkans were always a zone of massive migration from Eurasia and the Near East into Europe. So in a sense the Balkans are resuming this role. Not only are they less developed, and less stable in the case of Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bulgaria, than Central Europe, but now they're being cut off. Fences are going up in Slovenia and Hungary that are separating off the Balkans again.
"But it's a mixed picture. Romania is on track to have 4 percent economic GDP growth. They're hoping to lead Europe [in that category]. Romania is very stable, its economy has handled the last 10 years better than almost any place in Europe. It has no fascist pro-Russian parties. It's healthier than Poland politically. Romania's doing well. Albania is doing about as well as could be expected considering how poor they were. NATO has taken Montenegro in, which is something that helps. So the Balkans are not going to descend into violence like in the 1990s, that's not going to happen.
"What's going to happen is more of a nuanced picture of a place that's more beset with refugees, that's poorer than the rest of Europe, that continues to have its own otherness, but to a much lesser degree than in the 90s. I don't see a return to that at all."