Central or Eastern? Schwarzenberg, Lavrov tussle over map of Europe

Karel Schwarzenberg, Sergej Lavrov and Javier Solana (left to right), photo: CTK

Prague, as any Czech schoolchild will tell you, is west of Vienna, and Czechs get notably prickly when their country is placed in “Eastern” rather than “Central” Europe. So there were loud murmurings of disapproval in the Czech media this morning after Russia’s foreign minister Sergej Lavrov spoke of the Czech Republic and Poland as being in “Eastern Europe”.

Karel Schwarzenberg,  Sergej Lavrov and Javier Solana  (left to right),  photo: CTK
Sergej Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister and one of its most experienced diplomats, was speaking at a press conference in Moscow on Wednesday after meeting his Czech counterpart Karel Schwarzenberg. The two men are usually on friendly terms, but Mr Lavrov’s description of Poland and the Czech Republic – which have agreed to host parts of the U.S. missile defence shield – as being in “Eastern Europe” drew an immediate response from Mr Schwarzenberg:

“First of all, the radar base [in the Czech Republic] definitely isn’t [going to be] placed in Eastern Europe, it’s in Central Europe. Even the proposed Polish base – which I’m not entitled to speak about – you can’t even call Poland an Eastern European country. Just look at the geography.”

To which Mr Lavrov replied somewhat impatiently that even the UN defined the Czech Republic as being in Eastern Europe. There was no further debate on the matter in Moscow, but it was immediately remarked upon in Prague – indeed for at least one national newspaper it was the top story. Erazim Kohák is a professor of philosophy whose latest book – Hearth and Horizon – examines the theme of Czech identity:

“Most unfortunate, and Mr Lavrov is normally good and does not make that kind of mistake, but the difference is whether you think in geographic terms, in which case the definition of Eastern Europe is fairly clear. It is the area where the Russian Orthodox Church is the dominant church, in which Cyrillic script is used in writing, and which has traditionally been a part of the Russian Empire. Central Europe is the part which used to be Austro-Hungary, and that includes, clearly, the Czech Republic. During the Cold War, when there was no Europe at all, when the world was simply divided between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’, then we were considered Eastern Europe, just as England was considered Western Europe. So I think Mr Lavrov here reverted to the old political way of thinking, a Cold War division between East and West. But we are back to doing geography, not politics.”

And some find Mr Lavrov’s “old political way of thinking” profoundly disturbing. Michael Romancov is Professor of Political Geography at the Metropolitan University of Prague:

“If someone like a minister of defence or minister of foreign affairs is using those geopolitical expressions, he or she definitely knows what he or she wants to say. So I think it was a political statement which was used not by mistake, but on purpose to show that Moscow again thinks that this part of Europe has or will turn to Russia’s zone of influence.”

The search for a definition of Central Europe - and the Czechs’ place in it - is nothing new. As far back as 1895, the man who would become Czechoslovakia’s first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was rejecting the idea of the Czechs being “next to” the east.

Almost a century later, Milan Kundera’s seminal article “The Tragedy of Central Europe” in the New York Review of Books re-examined the concept and found the Czechs were neither culturally nor historically attached to Russia, but firmly situated in a place called Central Europe, with their eyes looking very much to the west.