“Historical claims—and, in the context of central and eastern Europe, this means claims based upon medieval and feudal pretensions—have no relevance to the twentieth century. It is one of the great tragedies of Europe that peoples of central and eastern Europe, with long historical memories and little historical sense, cling so obstinately to these illusions of vanished grandeur.”
Norman J. Pounds (geographer)
The Scope of Geographic Imagination
In cultural geographic terms, the “railroad tracks” in the Balkans run north to south. Unlike the United States, where the wrong side of the tracks was the south(ern states), for peoples of the Balkan region the east historically has been an undesirable side of the tracks. Evident throughout the region, but perhaps nowhere more emphasized than in Croatia, such a perception is a combination of an almost-permanent illusion of “not belonging to the eastern backwardness,” and a delusion of being unmistakably aligned with the western greatness.
The only issue is that, in the region where borders so frequently fluctuate, cultural boundaries between east and west are anything but firm; they certainly do not align with countries’ boundaries. Despite contrary evidence, the imagined cultural divisions have become an engraved emblem of “real” cultural separation in local people’s collective memory.
Figure 1. Croatia in Europe. Can you identify the “cultural geographic railroad tracks” separating east and west?
The purpose of the east/west paradigm is to affirm national unity. Its other purpose is to reduce a sense of inferiority from living in a peripheral corner of Europe, which to the Western and other powers is generally considered a geopolitically marginal area. They would prefer not to become involved in continuous local bickering, but often they have to. This, in turn, makes the Balkan peoples—Croatians included—feel that their importance in the context of global affairs is exceptionally important. To emphasize their importance they revert to historical and geographic “evidence.”
Among the illusions of vanished grandeur is a myth of the defender. In Croatia, the scope ranges from the defender of Christianity, Catholic Christianity (as apparently the European Protestants do not need be defended), against communism or fascism (depending on times and circumstances), to various other menaces repeatedly trying to sneak in and destroy European civilization.
As a result, Croatia, as a political unit rather than a nation of people, is continuously experiencing an identity crisis. It wants to culturally and geographically belong somewhere where it is not, in order to not be where it is, while simultaneously preventing itself from efficient functioning internally.
Figure 2. Croatian warship participating in military exercise, ready to remain prepared for potential defense of the west. (Photograph by the author.)
Hypothetical Questions, Vague Answers, Mild Irritation
Try to test the above statements by conducting a brief conversational-type survey with east vs. west advocates in Croatia. Ask them to be specific in (A) listing a series of cultural traits that are clearly separated by the Balkan cultural railroad tracks and (B) outlining a corresponding map with the boundaries between the east and the west. The result will be clear. A map delineating the boundaries between east and west will still follow the current political boundaries, rather than cultural geographic regions “east” and “west.” Why? It is because in the former Yugoslavia, other than using ethnicity or religion, one can hardly find a significant cultural geographic basis for the separation of Slavic peoples.
In both east and west, almost all cultural traits are nearly identical. Even dialectical differences are rather modest. There is nothing else left to create the imaginary railroad tracks and separate people, other than to use political boundaries. But political boundaries in this region are by no means a determinant, certainly not as a marker of overall cultural geographic separation between the east and the west. The Croats alone, as an ethnic group, are separated with the border between Croatia (“west”) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (pretty much “east”). Does that mean that the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not the “defenders?”
When pressed further to articulate the rationale for arbitrarily drawn lines, the east/west advocates’ arguments will likely become increasingly vague. Their arguments will transition into “because that’s how it is” and “they are different than us, we are not like them,” while trying to use every possible difference—revisiting religion and ethnicity traits—and ignoring a great amount of similarities everyone actually shares. During the conversation, when their irritation becomes visible, they will use some historical event as evidence in support of their statements. Such evidence does not have an expiration date; an historical event presented may have occurred twenty, one hundred, or five hundred years ago.
Fear of Everything Regional Except Central(ized)
Another frequent topic of local popular debate is a cultural geographic dichotomy of living in the Balkans versus Central Europe (with a capital C). The Balkans in this context is synonymous with the east. The Central Europe, of course, represents the west—at least the west prior to 1945 and after 1990, i.e., the communist era— together with all cultural and historical perks it offers to those who belong to the region.
Advocates of this approach consider the Balkans a political concept and Central Europe a geographic culture region. The former represents a concept (in the advocates’ minds that equals something made up) and the latter a fact, an indestructible reality. This is news to geographers, because both terms are actually concepts, arbitrarily created cultural regions by the geographers to illustrate areas of certain cultural homogeneity.
In Croatia, an illusion exists that belonging to the center warrants more prestige, as opposed to the periphery (Balkans), and is accompanied by the delusion that a self-attributed geographic status brings realistic and practical benefits. They feed collective emotions in striving to fit in with the European in-crowd, while simultaneously displaying symptoms of a geographic identity crisis. Overall, this mindset is counterproductive for the country and its people’s well-being.
Among the most retarding aspects of such an attitude is paranoia, a continuous concern about imaginary centripetal forces that can break Croatia apart. Hence, most decisions are dictated from the capital city of Zagreb, contributing to centralization of power. This approach has greatly limited economic development in peripheral areas of the country. The Thomas Jefferson-attributed suggestion that the best government is the one that governs the least is not a foundation of any Croatian political party’s platform.
Calls for more power to local governments and cross-border regional economic interactions—based on historical connections and economic reality—are considered as the evidence that an enemy never sleeps. Among better examples is the Istrian Peninsula, looked upon with suspicion for (A) being too cozy with the Italians, even with the Slovenians, (B) its residents for not being nationalistic enough—despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Istria’s residents are ethnically Croats—and (C) for seeking more freedom in its own socioeconomic affairs and affiliations. In the instance of Istria, an orchestrated move toward the west is not permissible without consent from Zagreb, even though the west is holding such a significant status in Croatians’ collective memory.
Figure 3. View across the Istrian Peninsula with Slovenian and Italian ports in the background right (west to northwest). Mount Učka, from where I took this photograph, forms the physical barrier between Istria and the rest of Croatia, but certainly not a cultural divide.
It is always easy to focus on bogeymen constantly waiting to do harm, particularly when they appear from the eastern side of the cultural geographic railroad tracks. Meanwhile, this removes people’s attention from a plethora of internal political and economic issues.
In the minds of people in Croatia, chronic economic mismanagement, overall incompetence, and social problems, seem to exist for only one reason: their country’s true location was inappropriately acknowledged by the geographers and cartographers. If the geographers would employ cartographers to assign a place on a map for the Balkan countries somewhere between Austria and Germany, everything would positively change. They would be far away from the bogeymen and the railroad tracks, not having to waste their valuable time in being the “defenders.”