About three weeks ago I came across a so-called article in a British tabloid, The Sun, about a drunken Polish man, walking around town naked. Oh no, I thought, is this going to be about the immigrants again. To my surprise, the incident happened not in the UK, but in rural Poland.
Why would The Sun take the effort to publish a story on this? What’s the news value of a naked man – or, as they put it, a “pie-eyed bloke showing bare-faced cheek” – in a small town? Which preconceptions does it challenge or confirm, and which new ones does it contribute to?
I rarely read news about Eastern Europe without simultaneous boredom and frustration: they’re all so similar.
I rarely get to read news about Eastern Europe without the simultaneous feelings of boredom and frustration: they’re all so similar. This time, I wanted to take a closer look, and to systematically analyse the mainstream representation of Eastern Europe.
But before we get to the exciting part, let’s have a quick look at how it all began, and where the idea of Eastern Europe even comes from.
A brief history of “Eastern” Europe
Historians of Eastern Europe agree that the idea of “Eastern Europe” originated in Western Europe in the 18th century. It was created by Western geographers, philosophers and travel writers as part of the collective project of defining Western Europe: it was during the Enlightenment that Western Europe became associated, and then synonymous with, civilisation, development, and rationality.
No self-image is complete without an adversary, though, and Western Europe, the self-assessed new centre of human civilisation, needed an ‘Other’ to measure itself against. Therefore, (next to Asia and the Orient) Eastern Europe served as a measure of civilisation: backward enough yet close enough to highlight the glow of the West.
The idea of a separate East and West is so old that we accepted it as natural and objective.
This idea of the existence of a separate East and West, and of their perceived inherent differences, has been around for so long that its origins have become obscured, and we have accepted it to be natural and objective. Precisely because of this, with every shifting geopolitical era the difference appears in a new, different shape, appropriate for the fashion of the times – the Cold War and the so-called post-Communist era, for example.
But the idea does not appear as a consequence of geopolitics – it has been passed down to us from the Enlightenment, reproduced by scholars and journalists.
That’s why I wanted to find out how contemporary Western media represents Eastern Europe. Since that’s a bit of a broad question, I stuck to only British media and only three papers: The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Daily Mail. I was hoping that these three would offer a range in political affiliation, as well as sophistication.
Then, since analysing “coverage” is also too broad, I chose three events. I wanted to see whether coverage evolved, so I chose the 2004 EU accession as the starting point, and the autocratic turn in Hungary and Poland between 2010–2016 as the closing event. And since three is a better number than two, I also included the time in-between and focused on “non-events:” articles not prompted by a political event.
In total, I read and analysed more than 120 articles: 127 to be precise.
And here is what I found.
2004: Cappuccinos and ethnic fighting
Although their economies might be “dynamic,” they are still poor.
The first impression was overwhelmingly positive: the articles bore a celebratory tone, were optimistic about both the EU and the new members and even the more sceptical pieces agreed to what a “historical” event they were witnessing. They acknowledged the new members’ political and economic achievements – although always with the stipulation that their economies might be “dynamic,” they are still poor. Given how most writing about Eastern Europe is currently dominated by topics of immigration, I was surprised to see that even the conservative The Daily Mail and The Telegraph refuted negative stereotypes.
But a closer look revealed two recurring, patronising patterns. The first was seeing the accession as a unification of Europe and the true end to the Cold War, and the second was the equation of the pre-2004 EU with Europe itself. I’m not exaggerating when I say these came up in all, I repeat, all articles.
The first metaphor, the reunification of Europe, appeared in the depictions of the accession as a grand event of great historical importance and always mentioned the Communist past of the new member states, making the event a symbol of the definitive end of the Cold War. Examples include, “[Poland], a country that was nearly obliterated by decades of communist rule had rejoined Europe,” or, “The accession of [the eight formerly communist states] restores the once captive nations of the Soviet empire to their place as full members of Europe’s political family after half a century of exclusion;” or, “On Saturday, after years of intensive negotiation, ten new member states and their 72 million citizens join the Union, drawing a line at last under the decades of tyranny that have kept Europe divided.” Mentioning that there were other formerly communist countries, which did not join in 2004 – such as Romania, Bulgaria, or other states of former Yugoslavia – would’ve disrupted this reunification-rhetoric, and so they were conveniently absent from all articles.
Equating Europe with the EU, almost always included hints that the reunification was not between equals.
The second pattern, equating Europe with the pre-2004 members, almost always included hints that despite its significance, the reunification of “the two halves of Europe” was not a reunification of equals. When describing the enlargement, the terms “Europe” and “European Union” were used interchangeably.
Now, there’s plenty of Europe beyond the frontiers of the current EU member states – the EU does not equal Europe. Not in 2004, not now, and, it would seem, not in the future.
Yet, the authors kept on repeating it, sometimes even within the same article. One author referred to the newcomers to “the club” of the EU, yet simultaneously spoke of reunification and a “newly expanded Europe;” the day of the accession is called the “grand day [which] finally reunifies a long divided continent.” Other articles wrote of a “widening Europe,” the “enlargement of Europe,” the “integration into Europe.” Equally ubiquitous was the image of Eastern Europe’s “return” to Europe, such as the “eastern bloc returns” “to the free family of Europe.”
The key to becoming a European is to follow Western standards.
In these articles, the new members gained a more genuine Europeanness – one of a Western European nature. Numerous articles implied that the key to becoming a European is to follow Western standards and to open up one’s markets to Western investors, or as they put it, “catching up.” The authors were also pretty clear about who deserved credit: “the EU’s finest minds have spent years getting the ten newcomers’ economies, and social and trade policies and just about everything else in line with EU norms.”
“Slovenians are more likely to go to Italy for cappuccinos than join the ethnic fighting in Kosovo.”
Other authors did not shy away from taking this even further, stopping just short of open categorisation: an article wrote that “some investors already consider [Hungary] to be a European country, and ’emerged,’ rather than a transitional or eastern European country,” rendering “eastern European” and “European” not only as mutually exclusive, but equating the latter with a higher state of development. The author seemingly offers a gesture of recognition, which is in fact only a backhanded compliment at the expense of other “eastern European” countries. An article about Slovenia makes a similar move: it begins the country’s characterisation with its location: “It is a Balkan state, but…” claiming that despite being Balkan, Slovenians are more likely to go to Italy for cappuccinos than “join the ethnic fighting in Kosovo,” seemingly trying to contradict readers’ presumed stereotypes of the region; yet at the expense of other, presumably stereotypical, Balkan or Eastern European countries – which only reinforces the stereotype, and simultaneously implies that Eastern Europeans should strive to be associated not with each other, but with Western European states – whose essence, in turn, is cappuccinos, I assume.
2005–2009: Post-Communist, pre-tourist
Thus, I learned that even though accession to the EU is mostly thought of positively, its coverage was more self-congratulatory than celebratory and more patronising than fraternal. Before comparing this coverage with the period between 2010–2016, I wanted to see how it compared to the “non-event” coverage of 2005–2009 to see whether the different type of coverage would show different attitudes.
During this period, the main topic of coverage was tourism, and the most common pattern was the excitement at the discovery of unknown lands and at its cheapness, to which authors felt attached and entitled.
“Eastern Europe is no longer faceless.”
Cities and landscapes were described not only as uncharted, but also as impatiently wanting nothing else but to be discovered. Seasides and landscapes were depicted as “the wild east,” cities and countries as “an unknown entity,” “terra incognita,” “forgotten,” and, my favourite, “post-Communist, pre-tourist.” Cultures are waiting to be “unearthed.” As with the previous period of coverage, the travellers take credit for making the countries known: one author, after admitting that his knowledge of the region was as inadequate as his audience’s, nevertheless assumed the authority to report on it. Referring to his reportage he proclaims, “Eastern Europe is no longer faceless.”
Once there, Eastern Europe’s main attraction is, of course, that it’s cheap. The authors did not hesitate to tell us, and repeat it in case we missed the point: “knock-down prices, […] lured by dirt-cheap flights,” “cheap beer and even cheaper women,” “bargain prices,” “excellent value,” “an already cheap destination is even better value,” “laughably reasonable prices,” and “pocket-money prices.” Only one article reflected on the reasons of low prices, mentioning it very briefly after a long account of Latvia seen mainly through the lens of its cheapness, before quickly moving on again: “…It was a small reminder of Latvia’s painful past. But the country has come a long way since then.” The inhabitants of these cheap countries who lived the painful past and its consequences were similarly hardly mentioned – except in the context of describing their excitement at the sight of westerners’ purcha$ing power; or as wild, undesirable side-effects.
These cities are only desirable as long as only few people know about them.
Accordingly, travellers often expressed an entitlement to this cheapness, referring to it as a “secret” to be kept both from other Westerners and the locals, lest they realise their potential and raise the prices that their economies depend on and lamenting the necessity to find new undiscovered cities with “cultural buzz and cheap rent,” since those cities are only desirable as long as only few people know about them – under “people,” I assume, they meant Westerners.
2010–2016: The Islamophobic Hungarian DNA
Compared to 2004, the coverage showed a lot of improvement in this period: authors attempted to provide socio-historical context beyond shallow references to communism, and events were discussed from multiple points of view. Importantly, both Hungary and Poland were referred to as integral parts of both Europe and the EU, with politics and economies comparable to Western countries.
As the coverage in 2004 celebrated the new members’ democratic and economic achievements, I expected that the coverage between 2010-2016 about the new Hungarian and Polish governments’ actions in undermining those exact same democracies would be more negative in tone. I was surprised to find, however, that both The Telegraph and The Daily Mail supported the new governments – not necessarily because they endorsed their policies, but, in line with British media’s traditional Euroscepticism, because they saw them as allies against the EU. The Guardian, on the other hand, while it condemned the new policies as anti-democratic, typically saw them as deviations from a standard western path of development.
Starting with the latter. In The Guardian, most authors left behind the view of Hungary and Poland as “newcomers” or as still catching up. Instead, most articles depicted the two countries as established members of both Europe and the EU, suggesting that, finally, the sense of Eastern Europe’s belonging to “Europe” has become, if not yet the only view, at least significantly stronger.
Contradictorily, almost as frequent was the depiction of the developments in Hungary as a reversal of time, the “rolling back the democratic gains” as returning to a previous backwardness. Poland, comparably, was described as having fallen from being the poster child of Western-style liberalisation to being a problem. The two metaphors are not quite comparable, as one describes Hungary’s nature, while the other describes a relation between Poland and the EU. Nevertheless, they are variations on one theme: the reversal of the western path of development.
The point was always to make the Polish and Hungarian governments seem like honourable independence fighters.
The conservative The Telegraph and The Daily Mail both supported the Fidesz and PiS governments and based their support on the depiction of the two states’ conflict with the EU as the latter’s harassment. They expressed their contempt for the EU either explicitly or implicitly, but the point was always to make the EU seem like a hysterical imperialist bully, and the Polish and Hungarian governments like honourable independence fighters.
Despite their differences, there was one thing all papers had in common: their attempts to contextualise the covered events all turned into explanations of “how this region operates.” Similarly to our travellers before, these explainers take the West’s presumed ignorance about the region, and set out to correct it with their personal insight. Nevertheless, most of them cite either only one cause for the present circumstances, or, when they cite multiple, they connect them linearly and coherently, becoming simplifying rather than informative. The causes they “reveal” are vague phenomena from the countries’ histories, which are shown to be in a direct causal relation with contemporary cultural attitudes.
“Many westerners are ignorant of how this region operates.”
Thus, one author begins his explanatory article with suggesting that the whole region of Eastern Europe has one explainable “operation” mechanism by stating, “Accusations of bigotry and historical amnesia are thrown at eastern European governments, but many westerners are ignorant of how this region operates. Heartless and mindless – that is how western eyes view how eastern European governments [dealt with] the refugee crisis.” Another one argued that the reason why so many attended Poland’s pro-choice strike protests in October 2016 was because “Political protest is a way of life there, for those of all ages. In this country, where democracy is relatively new, there is no expectation that MPs will deliver unless they are forced to.” The author suggests, first, that because the democracy is young, people are more engaged with their representatives, which, in Poland’s case, just isn’t true. Secondly, they also compare forced mass mobilisation during the Cold War with contemporary political activism, which is just, like… what?
It just goes on and on – although I’m quoting only some examples here, these weren’t exceptional cases. I’ve trawled through dozens of articles, and these examples are unfortunately very representative.
Another author explained Hungary’s response to the so-called refugee crisis with the country’s Ottoman occupation.
Here’s my favourite: “There’s something about having being part of Eastern Europe, the ignorance of its history and language, that allows people to believe anything bad about the place, that allows for a condescension on the part of Western journalists and politicians that borders on racism. Just to put things in perspective; if you want to see an example of a successful multicultural and multilingual society that produced a throng of Nobel Laureates, try Budapest in 1914, before Two World Wars ravaged it.” Unfortunately, the author’s bold statement undermines his own argument and only reinforces the readers’ “ignorance.” Let’s get the facts straight: in 1914, Budapest was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Hungarians excluded their national minorities from civic life to such a degree that historians see it as one of the reasons for the Empire’s end. Another author tried to explain Hungary’s response to the so-called refugee crisis of 2015–16 with the country’s Ottoman occupation in the 17th century: “[Orbán’s] Crusader rhetoric conjures up an image of Muslim hordes at the gates of fortress Hungary. Indeed, to understand the psychological forces behind the hatred you need to understand how Christian-Muslim conflict is deeply embedded in the Hungarian DNA just as mutual suspicion and hatred have historically existed between Arab and Jew in the Middle East.”
The assumption that the region is what we know of it is the foundation of all orientalising discourses.
This simplifying tendency seems harmless when compared to the smug ridiculing of Eastern Europe for its poverty or the erasure of its Communist and pre-EU history from the European narrative. But it reveals the central assumption that the region is not only knowable, but that it is what we know of it – the foundation of all orientalising discourses, leading more often than not to violence.
So where does this leave the pie-eyed bloke from rural Poland?
It seems that although the general tendencies of coverage have improved significantly in the last decade, the basic assumptions at the bottom of our attitudes change much slower. Eastern Europe might have climbed a couple of ranks in the human zoo of non-westerners – but the analysed coverage reveals an image of Eastern Europe stuck in its Communist, or even earlier, history. The articles kept on regurgitating familiar tropes, somehow always echoing and validating what we already know. At this rate, I’m afraid, it’ll take a long time before we will be seen as equals.