When the 2014 pan-European Eurovision song contest was won by an Austrian singer doing a drag queen act under the stage name Conchita Wurst, Western media hailed the victory as signaling a new era of tolerance in Europe. No better symbol was needed for the success of liberal democracy in the old continent; Brussels especially was ecstatic, and the European Parliament quickly extended an invitation to Wurst to perform on its premises.
Eurovision is an old event that seeks to promote European unity through entertainment, but the show often instead gives evidence of continued differences and regional conflicts. Viewers phone in to vote on who should receive their country’s points. Old dividing lines often emerge when Greeks don’t vote for Turkish contestants, Armenians for Azeris, Russians for Ukrainians, etc.
Reveling in their progressive pride, many may have missed the interesting fact that of all the states that awarded points to Austria’s Conchita Wurst, only one, Slovenia, was Slavic. For that matter, Slovenia once belonged to the Austrian Empire and the two countries maintain close ties, which might explain the neighborly support. Conversely, the other six Slavic states were apparently not impressed by the culturally innovative Austria. Indeed, not one former Warsaw Pact country cast its votes for Wurst, nor did Muslim Albania or staunchly Catholic Malta.
One of the unspoken truths of the EU’s successive enlargements to the East is precisely the dissimilar cultural values of the new entrants. Many of the new member-states actually vote for MEPs who end up joining the ranks of Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament. Gay pride parades have met numerous difficulties in the new members’ societies, and in 2013, one of the most liberal societies of the Western Balkans—and the latest member of the EU—Croatia, actually voted to ban gay marriage. The same is the case with such current applicants for accession as Serbia or Turkey. Turkey’s AKP party governments have dialed back the conquests of Ataturk’s secularism; Serbia is even more socially conservative than Croatia.
The EU speaks of its “power of attraction” in the region, an attraction allegedly inspired by shared and universal values. One might recall the EU flags in the background of Mikhail Saakashvili’s office during his 2008 wartime broadcasts pleading with the West for help, or more recently those waved during the “Euromaidan” revolution in Ukraine. Yet while both Georgia and Ukraine wish to join the EU and NATO, even the EU’s current eastern members pale in comparison to Tbilisi and Kiev when it comes to homophobia and intolerance. In truth, many of the activists in Georgia and Ukraine promoting the European path are themselves not the most liberal minded people—even excluding the ultra-nationalists.
So why do they so desperately see their future in Europe? What drives a nation like Serbia to bend over backwards to ingratiate itself with institutions and countries that were just a few years ago its tormentors and enemies, risking even its historical claim—a claim backed by an insurmountable pile of international law—to Kosovo? Western polling on the matter clearly reveals that societies in Central and Eastern Europe consistently choose the Brussels and Washington path over Moscow’s socially conservative message.
The Western narrative is confident that the younger generation, the one organizing the gay pride parades, risking their lives in exposing corruption, serving as the cannon fodder for the dogs and brutal paramilitary forces of authoritarian regimes in the region, will turn around the backward mentality of the region’s masses.
There are also large numbers of the new generation that are swayed by less liberal ideas, however. In Russia for example, the Kremlin has cultivated young nationalist initiatives, and the appearance of neo-Nazis and other radicals throughout the region, is certainly not a phenomenon driven by the elderly.
The most important difference between radicals and liberals is that liberals have the political and financial support of the West, and radicals do not. Liberals can promise investment as well as access to a larger export market, radicals—especially autarkic ones—cannot.
Through academia, the NGO sector, and industrial delocalization, the Western imprint on these societies exerts an important form of soft power. American and European funding of exchange programs, activism, or simple foreign direct investment, has, since 1989, artificially swelled the critical mass of liberals in these societies. It is in fact impressive to observe the disproportionate number of young adults who in their respective capital cities, professionally depend, directly or indirectly, on some form of Western development aid—and this counts double for territories under international protectorate such as Kosovo or Bosnia-Herzegovina.
When highly individualistic liberal westerners looked at the velvet revolutions behind the Iron Curtain, they saw themselves. If the French had rid themselves of absolutist monarchs, the British from authoritarian republicans, and the Nordics from Nazi occupation, then it stood to reason that overthrowing despotic communist regimes was also a path towards a liberal society; this perception held even when some movements were clearly inspired by religious tradition, others by simple economic misery, and all by nationalism.
One of the easy critiques emanating from Moscow these days is that some activists fighting for the new regime in Kiev are neo-Nazis and ultranationalists. While this is true, it also reveals the nature of the alliance between Eastern Europeans and the West: for the former, such an alliance is purely instrumental, serving the purpose of eliciting Western aid to the common anti-Russia cause.
The scholar Stathis Kalyvas describes the utter parochialism of societies different from the West and the purely tactical role played by ideologies in procuring external power assistance for purposes of domestic power conquest. In his words, “local cleavages are typically articulated in the language of the war’s master cleavage, often instrumentally”
This is precisely what happens in the border between Europe and Asia and why high-minded policies invariably end up propping the weaker party against adverse odds. Furthermore, the phenomenon is not new.
By the time the 1848 revolutions had arrived in far-eastern Europe, totalitarian ideologies had taken over Western Europe. Thus, many of the local ethnic irredentist leaders that sided with the invading Nazi armies did so only nominally. From the shores of the Black Sea to those of the Baltic, the social consensus for liberation impelled the native populations to welcome the Wehrmacht as liberators, and to seek to shine a “modern” national-socialist light on their more primitive desire for ethnic emancipation and Russophobe resistance; hence the Eastern European “Spring of the Peoples” came into a bad reputation.
Similarly, the “multi-national missions” or the “international community responses” carried out today, are embedded in paradoxical strategic interests and serve, often, almost completely symbolic purposes.
Estonian troops are not mobilized to the Central African Republic because they bring unique assets or competencies, any more than Ukrainian and Georgian troops did in Iraq. And it is difficult to discern how soldiers trained for harsh winter conditions in a Slavic area would be of particular use in desert and tropical environments in Africa or the Middle East.
Their true agenda is rather to further add to the rhetorical entrapment of the West: if “solidarity” and “world order” demand international contributions, so too one day such contributions will be required to protect “New Europe” from the likes of Russia.
This is the nature of the Conchita Wurst Consensus. It is an exchange between dissimilar cultures that results in a superficial political compromise. During the communist era, Socialist Bloc citizens had a saying, “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Perhaps today it should go, “they pretend to protect us and we pretend to admire them.”
Miguel Nunes Silva has a Master’s degree in European studies from the College of Europe and is an analyst for the consultancy Wikistrat. He has worked with the International Criminal Court and the European External Action Service, as well as written for such publications as The National Interest or Small Wars Journal.