“Other Europes”, Book Review

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Review of Identities and foreign policies in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus: the Other Europes, a book by Stephen White and Valentina Feklyunina published in 2014.

By Nataliya Borys, University of Geneva (Global Studies Institute).

What does “belonging to Europe” mean for the European Union (EU)’s eastern neighbors? What role did competing visions of “Europe” and ideas of belonging or exclusion play in the fates of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in the post-Soviet period? To what extent are these countries “European”? These are some of the questions asked by Stephen White and Valentina Feklyunina in their new book about political identities and foreign policies in post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

The book’s goal is quite ambitious: to explore “the ambiguity of ‘Europe’ and the attitudes towards Europe that have been taken in the three Slavic post-Soviet republics” (ix) through a conceptual framework consisting of three discourses about Europe: “Europe” as unconditionally European, “Greater Europe” which is simultaneously European and distinctly different and an “Alternative Europe”.[1] Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are analyzed through this framework using elites’ discourses, public opinion surveys and foreign policy decisions.

In the first chapter, the authors give a historical overview of relations between the USSR and the EU up to the conclusion of a formal treaty between the two entities in 1989. Chapter 2 focuses on partnership and cooperation agreements between the EU and CIS countries, while Chapters 4, 5 and 6 analyze elite identity discourses in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Chapter 7 focuses on public opinion and uses focus groups, while in the conclusion the authors complete their analysis with a comparative perspective and discussion of policy implications.

Authors and research methods

Through these intriguing and captivating questions, the book surprises with its wide use of a variety of theoretical frameworks and research methods. Its sources include articles, statements in the mass media and series of extended interviews with elite actors “in parliaments and the political parties and private business, as well as in the offices of their EU and NATO counterparts” (ix). Moreover, the book’s authors place their discussions within the wider context of public opinion and use interviews with focus groups. Undeniably, the book is extensively researched. The main author, Stephen White, is a famous professor of politics and author of more than 494 publications, mainly on Soviet and post-Soviet politics but with special emphasis on elections, voting and nonvoting parties, political elites, public opinion and media in Russia.[2] Valentina Feklyunina is also a professor of politics, with specialist specialization in Soviet and post-Soviet identity, as well as in foreign policy.[3]

Forgotten Maidan

These countries have changed dramatically between 2013 and2015, which is significant given that White and Feklyunina’s book was published in 2014, with writing and editing probably completed by sometime in 2013. Nothing in the book forecasts the events of the Ukrainian Maidan in the beginning of 2013 and, as is often the case, most of its analyses do not predict any changes in Ukraine at all. Moreover, the authors conclude their book with the quite pessimistic claim that a European choice is in sharp decline in Ukraine, though the subsequent revolts for a European Ukraine surely contradicts this analysis. Curiously, the authors do not discuss the Maidan—it is not even listed in the index—even though they mention nonetheless that Petro Poroshenko won the presidential elections of 2014 (247), meaning the outcome of the Maidan was known to them by this stage of writing. Why not adapt the book to the Maidan, one of the major events in the region, or even mention it at all? Does the Maidan contradict the book’s analysis?

Besides the omission of the Maidan, the authors cite outdated Ukrainian elites such as Leonid Hrach, Oleksandr Moroz and Nataliya Vitrenko, who do not play an important role in Ukrainian politics anymore. Moreover, the events of the Maidan swept away the vast majority of these older politicians. The most current Ukrainian politician cited is Oleh Tiahnibok. Some new Russian leaders are also missing, such as the Russian deputy Vitaly Milonov, an eminent gay-fighter in protection of Russian Christian values and an important figure for his anti-European discourse.[4]

Political elites vs. people: whose opinion matters?

The authors choose to analyze the political identities of these countries via the political discourse of their political elites, mainly their presidents and official leaders. However, as the recent events in Ukraine have shown, the political discourse of leaders is not always that which defines the political opinions and identities of their country. Moreover, presidents often contradict themselves in their definitions of Europe. As White himself recognized, Putin emphasized in 2007 that Russia in its “spirit and culture was an inalienable part of the European civilization” while also claiming the opposite on many other occasions (10).

Fortunately, in Chapter 7 the authors focus on the opinions of “ordinary people” in these three countries about their belonging to Europe. Their findings are interesting, but it is worth cautioning that there are no inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine among those Ukrainians interviewed. Furthermore, it seems that the authors questioned mostly the elderly and middle-aged, neglecting youth.[5] They likely interviewed some segments of youth, but cite only a kind of “Soviet-nostalgic people” which makes Ukraine seem as if it is the most “Soviet-friendly country.” More surprisingly, their surveys found Belarusians to be the most likely to “think of themselves as Europeans” (46% in 2011), with Ukrainians and Russians lagging behind (29%[6] and 29%[7] accordingly) (206). Belarusians also chose “European” the most often as their first or second identity (25%) when compared to Ukrainians (10%) and Russians (12%). The Russian and Ukrainian focus groups regretted the end of the USSR the most (216), while Belarusians regretted it least (220). The authors claim that there was considerable support across the three countries for the demise of the USSR, which was described as a “disaster,” but that taken as a whole there was more regret in Russia than in Ukraine and Belarus (222, Figure 7.3). The authors also claim that a multivectoral option[8] was the most popular in Ukraine from 1991 until 2012, while the European choice[9] diminished from 19% in 2000 to 6% in 2012 (See 227, Figure 7.7). The small percentage of Ukrainian supporters of the Western choice in 2013 is quite surprising given the context of the Maidan, raising many questions. How is it possible that the Maidan could occur despite such little support of the “Western choice” in Ukraine? Is there a problem with the book’s methodology or surveys? Is a Soviet-indifferent Belarus automatically more European as a result?

White figure 1

White figure 2

White figure 3

Mass media outlets and social networks, as new softpower

If the authors did interview focus groups, they somehow underrepresented the civil society and active population in these three countries, particularly Ukraine. As for Belarus, the merit of the authors lies in their attempt to include multiple Belarusian politicians, intellectuals and sociologists (such as Vital Slilitski, Irina Bugrova, Oleg Manaev and Svetlana Kalinkina) and not only Lukashenka in their analysis. The authors also claim to have taken inspiration from the Internet “in a small number of oppositional outlets, such as the newspapers Narodnaya volya and Nasha niva” for Belarus (165), but did not pay attention to Ukrainian Internet sources as an alternative space of civil society.

I believe White and Feklyunina should have paid more attention to the civil society actors, mass media outlets and social networks which have played an important role in Ukraine, proving that the power of civil society can supersede official discourse. Social media was one of the main sources for protests in Ukraine, quickly emerging as the primary method for circulating information, commentary, creative work and appeals to action. Transgressing politically correct rules and images, this medium allows one to more accurately “measure” the Europeanness of the population. Moreover, social media hubs such as Facebook and other online media became the main tribune for the Ukrainian youngsters. The generational gap plays an important role here, as while White and Feklyunina cite Borys Tarasyuk and other “outdated” leaders when referring to the Ukrainian youth, youngsters were actually reading new online journals such as Europeiska Pravda (European Truth) and Evropeiska Ukraina (European Ukraine).

The LGBT issue as a new Iron Curtain

Very little is written in the book about the new Iron Curtain splitting Europe, or the LGBT issue. Connecting LGBT rights to the idea of Europe has become a recurring theme in international politics since the late 2000s and particularly with the enlargement of the EU, as it became a contentious element of belonging to “Europe” and a rhetorical vehicle used by all counterparts to defend their notions of “Europe.” Initially marginal among the EU’s policies, LGBT rights became a powerful symbol of the expanded EU’s introduction into a variety of fields from foreign relations to economic trade. The current conflict in Ukraine also demonstrated that LGBT rights belong increasingly to the core of European values within the imaginations of many actors. Moreover, it is the LGBT issue, or specifically gay rights, which has become political with Putin’s promotion of a “Russian world” in which the LGBT community is persecuted and “homosexual propaganda” is prohibited. The Russian government tried to discredit the European choice of Ukraine by sending messages to the public linking Europe with a pro-gay ideology, even going so far as to organize fake gay pride parades.

The utopian vision of Europe, Conclusion

One of the Maidan’s posters contained the phrase “In search for Europe, we found Ukraine.” The Maidan showed that the utopian vision of Europe has played and continues to play an important role in the post-Soviet space, and that it remains an important discourse in the region. The European utopian discourse helped perpetuate the reboot of the Ukrainian political system, but it forced Russian and Belarusian elites to define their Europeanness or Otherness. Nonetheless, as White and Feklyunina demonstrate, the concept of “Europe” and “Other” is a complex matter subject to unpredictable and contradicting changes. Their merit is in giving these concepts the renewed attention they deserve. We can count on White’s team to conduct new surveys and continue their analyses for further publications.

Reference : White, Stephen and Feklyunina, Valentina, ed. Identities and foreign policies in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus: the Other Europes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 350 pages.

[1] Alternative Europe is “often as more “European” than a mainstream that has lost its original Europeanness”. See more explanation, p. 26.

[2] For information about Stephen White, see http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/socialpolitical/staff/stephenwhite/#/researchinterests,publications,books, accessed November 15, 2015.

[3] For information about Valentina Feklyunina, see http://www.ncl.ac.uk/gps/staff/profile/valentina.feklyunina#tab_profile, accessed November 15, 2015.

[4] See more about him http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/14/vladimir-putin-gives-state-honour-to-anti-gay-politician, accessed November 15, 2015

[5] The authors cite Anna, a pensioner from Uzhgorod, Mariya a nurse in her late thirties, Vasilii,a builder, Ivan, a farmer in his late thirties, a schoolteacher Tanya, etc (pages 198-202)

[6] 29% of Ukrainians in 2012.

[7] 29% of Russians in 2014.

[8] It means to maintain good relations with eastern and western neighbors at the same time, and to lean in one direction or the other in the basis of pragmatic, often economic considerations (p. 199).

[9] To join the EU.


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