At the fringes of Europe

This text is part one of a review, evoked by my recent trip to the Balkans (part two – ‘Yet another borderland: The Balkans’ upcoming). This travel, the book “Bloodlands” from Timothy Snyder, Frantz Fanon´s “Wretched of the Earth”, and my own work on the Levant made me think about ‘fringe-spaces’.

Although Balibar (2009, 200)  in his interpretation of borderland stresses there is no centre anymore but only peripheries, a recent visit to the Balkans made me think about the physical fringes of Europe; `borderland´ in a conventional, literal sense. This article is further picking up on another Balibar text, ‘World borders, political borders’, in which he and his co-author state that “[…] on one hand, the Balkans are a part of Europe, and on the other, they are not. Apparently, we are not ready to leave this contradiction behind, for it has equivalents in the eastern part of the continent, beginning with Turkey, Russia, and the Caucasus regions, and everywhere takes on a more and more dramatic significance” (Balibar & Williams 2002, 73).

Europe’s fringes, from north-eastern Europe (the Baltic States, Belarus, Poland, and the Ukraine) to the Balkans (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and parts of Slovenia), the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia), the Eastern Mediterranean or Levant (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria), and North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia), all of these areas seem to bear the imprint of unrest, conflict, violence and war. The list of states in brackets only gives a rough idea of the regions, as they are certainly not clearly defined or definable. However, I find this ‘inaccuracy’ not only inherent in the idea of `borderland´, but also better qualified to depict `reality´. Hence, despite a seeming contradiction to Balibar´s notion of ‘no centre and only peripheries’, featuring blurry boundaries and multiple interrelations, these regions still also constitute progressive notions of `borderland´.

The relation between the regions spanning across different states to states themselves seems decisive. With a few exceptions, many of the named states are historically speaking very young. If we therefore continue considering the separation of territory into states the ideal form, and the state the “exclusive political authority” (see a critique on this in Agnew 2005, 456), and given the European history, we have to gear ourselves up to another 300 years of conflict and war. This was the period between the peace treaties of Westphalia, ending the Thirty-Years´-War in Europe and the founding of an alternative spatial entity next to the state system, the European Union.

This supranational entity complements the spatial order of states, and, at the same time, increases the relevance of other entities such as cities or regions (for questions on state, sovereignty and territory see among others: Agnew 2005; Elden 2005, 2007; Jones & McLeod 2004; Osiander 2001). As this supranational integration started in the geographical core of Europe, the addressed fringe spaces find themselves in a race to join the EU. The alternative for states in the respective regions would be to remain outside and look for alternative affiliations, or to be/come strong enough to be on their own.

Next to outstanding histories and constellations of the states in the Levant, the role of Israel is particularly so. While its culture and mentality are certainly ‘Levantine’ – a vibrant mix of influences from three continents and beyond -, its religious orientation, its military power, its economic strength and connectedness to the West significantly contrasts to its neighbours. Moreover, many Israelis feel `western´ and `modern´ and not part of the (`backward´ and `underdeveloped´) Middle East. Despite partly heavy critique on ‘the West’, for instance about the too lax stance against the Muslim-World, many Israelis see their state close to the United States of America or Europe. Nevertheless, and this is part of what I would like to show in my work, Levantine states are no exception in terms of similarities and difference, and, moreover, in identical situations in terms of actual and future challenges.

Without tying in with voices that blame religion for all the misery, looking at the map below, an overlap of these fringe-regions with religious contact zones becomes obvious. All the named regions seem to sit at spots once disputed among different religious orientation; between Orthodox and Catholic Christianity in the case of Northeastern and Southeastern Europe, and between Christian (European) and Muslim (Arab, Persian) territories in the other cases. In terms of religion, the Levant again stands out as a region contested even between three and more denominations. Against this background, Huntington´s “Clash of Civilisations” uneasily creeps back into my mind. Received as highly judgemental and attuning to dichotomies by wide areas of the (academic) world, his work consolidates international blocks into `civilisations´. Huntington claims that “the central and most dangerous dimension of the emerging global politics would be conflict between groups from differing civilisations” (2002, p 13). The book, following an article published earlier in Foreign Affairs, also draws on “Western universalism [and] Muslim militancy” (ibid.), thereby conflating already disputed, complex or inappropriate terms like culture, group, civilisation and religion.

However, the zones around Europe, highlighted below, seem to correspond with the boundaries of Huntington´s `civilisations´. Discussing Huntington´s views, Lawrence Freedman, in light of 9/11, even speaks about a potential “Third World War” along these frictional spaces. Also highlighting the tensions between Muslim and `Western´ countries, he states that “[t]hese conflicts occupy much of the current international agenda, taking place in the Middle East, the Gulf, the Balkans, Central and East Asia, and parts of Africa” (Freedman 2001, p 63). What do we make of this? Is there some relevance in Huntington´s thoughts after all, or are they just another form of generalisation, running counter to the notion of `borderland´?

fringes of europe

The fringes of Europe

Source basic map:; amended: borderlandlevant


clash of civilizations

World map according to Huntington´s `Clash of Civilisations´


Let us have a look at the fife fringe-zones (map above) I would like to discuss:

Timothy Snyder writes about the `Bloodlands´ of Europe (2011), seeing Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine, and to a certain degree the Baltic States crushed in between Russia´s Stalin and Hitler´s Germany. He claims that “[i]n the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people. The place where all of the victims died, the bloodlands, extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. […] The victims were chiefly Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts, the peoples native to these lands. […] Though their homelands became battlefields midway through this period, these people were all victims of murderous policy rather than casualties of war” (Snyder 2011, p vii-viii). These lines of Snyder’s book give an impression of how he came to conceptualise this region as `bloodlands´. Besides some historical similarity between Snyder´s `bloodlands´ and the Levant, I would like to emphasise that the fact that the majority of the people loosing their lives in these `bloodlands´ were Jews. This sets up another connection to the Levant and triggers more general (personal) thoughts.

Hence, here is a parenthesis, evoked by Snyder´s book, I feel is due with regard to my work. As Austrians we have particularly had to face up to the terrible pogrom and murder of millions of Jews and other innocent people during the Holocaust. Although as a nation we did not do well in recognising our role and responsibility during these terrible years, the matter was very present from my time at primary school in the late 1970s onwards. I recall shocking, in-depth feelings when I first visited the former concentration camp in Mauthausen, for instance. The stories we have heard so many times before, suddenly obtained a real framing and a concrete spatial context. The horrors of the Nazi-machinery, so far mainly known from books and other documentary, materialised in the form of buildings, rooms, squares, beds, latrines, pipes and other facilities, and the only thing missing was people; people who have been killed in masses only 50 years ago at this very place. Having lived in Israel for a while now and being critical about Israel´s policies, particularly against the Palestinians, Snyder’s book is a proper reminder of the cruelties, persecution and killing Jewish people have suffered not only during the Holocaust, but over thousands of years. It is another reminder of oppression, racism, and barbarism, cumulating in events that must never be forgotten. And it is also a reminder of the complex situation and the sensitivity of Israel, one has to bear in mind, when criticising the state’s politics.

(Although introduced as one of the five fringe-spaces, the Levant is not going to be part of this post, since it is the subject of the overall research and represented by most of the other posts.)

Coming back to Snyder’s ‘bloodlands’, they are a striking example of how spaces can get caught between powerful political blocks. It not only forces the respective states to balance relations in all directions, but makes it hard for them to develop on their own. Dependencies on resources or general economic support may lead to developments that are not necessarily profiting the concerned populations.

snyder - bloodlands

Source: basic books at:

Addressing another part of Europe’s fringes, a very brief analysis of its history and present and my recent short trip to the Balkans (see upcoming post) also revealed an uncanny likeness with Snyder’s `bloodlands´. The historical geopolitical situation on the Balkans in between the powers of the Austrian-Hungarian-, Russian-, and Ottoman Empires certainly represents major roots for recent conflicts and contemporary challenges. A comprehensive study of the influence of big powers on the Balkans (and Eastern Europe) is offered by Miller & Kagan (1997). They confirm that “it is critically important to know the type of great power involvement in various regions in order to explain the considerable variations in the intensity of regional conflicts, even if the sources of these conflicts and their full-blown reconciliation are accounted for by local elements“ (Miller & Kagan 1997, p 80). Underlining the ongoing dependence of the Balkans on Europe and the `Western World´, Adrian Smith comments that “[i]nclusion is possible but solely on the terms of powerful western interests” (2002, p 667). Visiting Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia, more or less obvious symbols in the streets, and more or less open talk about ethnic-, national- or religious affiliations and respective mistrust and suspicion are omnipresent. While most of the named states and their people see their future ‘in Europe’, decades of hostility and violence have shaped a still present dissent. Hence, when it comes to spaces of overlapping interests of outside powers, the Balkans certainly represents one of the paramount examples. Overlapping and clashing ethnicities and religious believes that are only partly and vaguely reflected by state-boundaries characterise this part of the world until today.


The Balkans


balkans ethnic

Ethnic/religious groups on the Balkans


Not immediately in geographic proximity to the European core, the Caucasus represents yet another example of such a fringe-space or lands of continuous bloodshed. Lying at the south-eastern edge of the European continent, the region used to be in the sphere of influence of Russia, and since the collapse of Communism did not calm down. The main ethnic groups living there are Azeri, Armenians, Georgians, Chechens, and Russians. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, there are, however, more than 50 different ethno-linguistic groups, which is not a recent phenomenon, but reaches far back into history. Starting with the demand for independence, and self determined states, six major wars have been fought since 1990 and tensions are ongoing. The main clashes are between Georgia and Russia over the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; the wars between Chechens and Russians; and the war over Nagorno-Karabah between Armenia and Azerbaijan. With a clear domination of Christians in Armenia, a majority of Muslims in Azerbaijan and a Christian majority with a reasonable Muslim minority in Georgia, religious overlaps, on top of the mentioned ethnic-linguistic divisions are again noticeable.


The Caucasus


caucasus ethnic

Ethnic/religious groups on the Caucasus


Another fringe-space, gaining attention because of the so called Arab-Spring, but also increasingly because of streams of refugees coming to Europe, is the Maghreb or North Africa. Having recently read Frantz Fanon´s “Wretched of the Earth” (“Die Verdammten dieser Erde” in German, 1966), I learned how much the fate of North Africa has been tied to fraudulent European politics and centuries of exploitation and humiliation. Although we Europeans also managed to infect and destroy far away places, the geographic proximity, despite also bringing some prosperity to the north of the African continent, made the southern shore of the Mediterranean especially vulnerable, a condition lasting till this day. Besides the fact that hundreds of years of de facto colonial rule (first the Ottomans, then the Europeans) left their traces, even after official withdrawing, former colonial states still use their power and connections within and upon these countries. In fact the states are being pushed to sign treaties, for instance about a `privileged partnership´ with the EU. My fear is that the only ones privileged by these partnerships are once again we, the Europeans and possibly some corrupt native elites in the respective states.


North Africa/Maghreb


maghreb ethnic

Ethnic groups in North Africa/the Maghreb


Summing up, while there are undeniably also challenges, confrontation and conflicts within the European heartland, Africa, Russia or the so called Arab World, spaces at their fringes appear to be particularly vulnerable to unrest and instability. With a particular interest in the Levant, I wonder to what degree this vulnerability is related to the situation of having been worn down in a conflict zone between ‘big powers’. Are we still confronted with pulsating expansionist policies from big blocks, seeking to gain control and influence over territory not immediately in their sovereignty? Is it that the tides of history wash up regions of extreme heterogeneity at the edges of more stable blocks, resulting in political instability, conflict and violence, without a chance to stabilise? Or are there positive aspects to such spaces as well? Can their ‘hyperheterogeneity’ for instance mean that these regions are in reality used to and therefore innovative in terms of co-habitation? Are they involuntary models of a cosmopolitan living-together? As the overall view of centres and fringes constitutes an opposition to the main idea of borderland as I see it, these thoughts cause considerable irritation but hopefully also inspires discussion!

I would like to thank Dr. Thomas Macho for pointing me to Timothy Snyder´s book and for an inspiring and pleasant conversation in Tel Aviv!


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