Reviews Phantom borders in Europe. A fluid phenomenon

“Phantom Borders in the Political Geography of East Central Europe”, Erdkunde 69, no. 2 (2015), ed. Sabine von Löwis

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, pp 111-112
Published on on June 23, 2016

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Over the past century, East Central Europe has experienced the disappearance, appearance, expansion, shrinking, and shifting of nation states and of the borders defining their territories. The central theme of this special issue of Erdkunde relates to the complex legacies of former — phantom — borders, with a particular emphasis on the influence they continue to exert on the countries’ electoral geographies. The publication comprises seven interesting articles, including an extensive contextualizing introduction written by the guest editor, Sabine von Löwis. While von Löwis’s definition of the phantom border is rather straightforward — “political borders which politically and legally do not exist any more, but seem to appear in different forms and modes of social action and practices today” (p. 99) — it is evident from the issue’s contributions that the phenomenon can be understood more broadly. Baars and Schlottmann, for example, propose that phantom regions are discursively produced spatial entities that are “constantly changing and always in-becoming” (p. 184); this is a position that betrays an undeclared affinity to assemblage theory.

Informed by the example of Ukraine, von Löwis’s main point of departure is that phantom borders occupy an important place in the imagination of East Central Europe’s mosaic of territories and identities, and that they are complicit in the Othering and Orientalization of the people living beyond them. This is a legitimate concern, and Europe offers numerous examples of discrimination by region of provenance (against the Italian mezzogiorno, for example), with phantom or administrative borders separating the Us from the Them. However, the perpetrators of this Othering are apparently also found among leading students of the region, who are guilty of associating narratives of political backwardness and pro-Soviet or pro-Russian views with the “Easterners”, while ignoring the complexity and diversity of the multiple identities coexisting in the Donbas for example. Von Löwis’s main charge is as uncompromising as it is unsubstantiated: “Scientists […] seem to be trapped in stereotypes of Eastness and Westness; they oversimplify data and explanations in the tradition of orientalization” (p. 102). Mykhnenko,1 whose work von Löwis cites as an example of such dubious scholarship, stresses that Orange vs. pro-Russian support is related to social class rather than to the “regional variable” — to my mind, this conclusion does not lend any support to the orientalization allegations raised in von Löwis’s j’accuse. Moreover, von Löwis misjudges the vast scholarship that challenges the mainly mediatic notion of a clear-cut sociopolitical, regionally and ethnically determined division in Ukraine.2  As a result, she concludes that “what all these studies have in common is the strong effect of a regional variable” (p. 102, my emphasis), disregarding the scholars’ interpretations of that effect. Few scholars, if any, would be willing to ascribe major agency powers to the regions themselves, unless the regions are “empowered” through particular local discursive practices (cf. Baars and Schlottmann’s contribution to the issue). In short, the alleged Othering perpetrated by contemporary scholarship on Ukraine exists in a spectral dimension.

None of the contributors to this theme issue exhibit any particular concern with the Othering qualities of the phantom boundary, although both Zarycki’s and Janczak’s studies of the electoral geography of Poland show some lateral engagement, and this is particularly motivated in regard to Poland. Tomasz Zarycki’s work discusses voting patterns in the light of the heritage of the country’s 19th century partition into Prussian, Austrian, and Russian-controlled areas. Over time, these regions developed very different forms of economic, social, and cultural capital (in a Bourdieusian sense), and he argues that this resulted in durable voting geographies, reinforced by the urban-rural dimension, that can be traced along both the left-right and liberal-conservative axes.

Jaroslaw Janczak’s contribution complements Zarycki’s article by carefully examining the idiosyncrasies of Polish voting in a “double-downscaled” context, meaning that the focus is redirected towards the subregional level and towards local elections. Using the regions of Pomorskie and Wielkopolskie as case studies, Janczak reveals differences in electoral behavior between those areas that were subject to post-1945 resettlement and those that were not — a tendency also noted by Zarycki. In Wielkopolskie, moreover, it appears that formerly Russian-controlled areas increasingly exhibit voting patterns that approach those prevalent in the region’s “non-Russian” parts — possibly indicating an eastward shift of the phantom border (and Othering front), towards the eastern administrative boundary of Wielkopolskie. The processes underlying this tendency are certainly fascinating and worth exploring more carefully, not least in view of the fact that a similar phenomenon appears to have been taking place in the electorally Ohioesque central regions of Ukraine well before the Euromaidan revolution (which thoroughly transformed the political divisions in the country).

Martin Šimon’s article looks for — and finds — phantom borders in the Czech Republic. The focus is on the Sudetes region on the one hand and on the long-lasting regional support for a Catholic party in the more rural southeastern parts of the country on the other. While the latter — i.e., that regionally concentrated practicing Catholics are more prone to vote for a Catholic Party — is not particularly surprising, the case of the resettlement-targeted Sudetes region is interesting because, as in western Poland, civil society is found to be weaker (as measured by electoral turnout). The new settlers who replaced the expelled German population did not have any previous connections to the area and were often of lower social status than their predecessors. However, I would argue that this interpretation may underestimate the effect of decades of exposure to socialism on future electoral behavior, attributing excessive agency to the experiences and cultural baggage of an earlier generation of settlers. Places like Most and Chomutov were subject to massive industrialization and “proletarianization” under socialism: is it the historical fact of resettlement coupled with the settlers’ presumed lack of attachment to the new soil that explains the observed patterns, or is the region’s heightened exposure to socialist ideology (including enforced political apathy) more important? In other words, while it is easy to support Šimon’s conclusion that “people in ‘disrupted regions’ vote less than people in regions with ‘historical continuity’” (p. 143), I am not convinced that the source of this disruption is resettlement alone.

Henry Rammelt’s and Andreea Zamfira’s articles make no explicit mention of phantom borders. Even so, Rammelt’s study clearly identifies a phantom border running along the Carpathians by showing that social mobilization (measured through protest actions and protest requests) is far more likely in Bucharest and in Transylvania than elsewhere in Romania. This suggests the presence of precommunist legacies and continuities stemming from the time when Transylvania was part of the Habsburg Empire while Moldavia and Walachia were under Ottoman rule.

By focusing on non-ethnic voting for “ethnic” parties in Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia, as well as on inter-ethnic relations within these countries, Zamfira’s work destabilizes the assumption of the regularity of ethnic solidarity voting patterns. Her article does not present any rock-hard conclusions (nor does it intend to do so), but it raises our awareness about how different the roles of ethnicity may actually be within multiethnic societies. As an interesting example, she mentions the enormous success that the local German party has had in certain towns in Romania despite their very low proportions of German residents. This is attributed to the amicable German-Romanian inter-ethnic relations, in contrast to the tenser relations between Hungarians and Romanians.

The issue’s final contribution, by Roger Baars and Antje Schlottmann, bases its rather straightforward message on a densely theory-packaged case study of the Central German Region (CGR): regions are the product of constantly changing, multiple, discourses — in all respects, they are spatial phantoms. Baars and Schlottmann single out three discourses for in-depth descriptive scrutiny: cultural heritage, cultural routes, and musical traditions. Each of these discourses has its own claims to territory, but these claims do not (yet) overlap in a way that would support the presence of a coherent CGR. Over time, they need the active and coordinated help of political and other stakeholders. Given the fuzziness of the CGR, Baars and Schlottmann steer away from the issue of phantom borders. In fact, the very nature of this phantom region, the fluidity of its configuration which is always in the making, precludes the existence of any real phantom borders.

Overall, von Löwis’s theme issue on phantom borders deserves the attention of political scientists and geographers, in particular those who have a specific interest in electoral geography. As the notion of the phantom border is still at an embryonic stage of theoretical and conceptual development, it is not surprising that the contributors to this issue exhibit rather disparate conceptions of the phenomenon. While not all authors engage with it explicitly, each article offers useful vantage points, perspectives, and, not least, empirical documentation that may spur its theoretical refinement. In this respect, Zarycki’s, Janczak’s, and Baars and Schlottmann’s contributions are perhaps the most valuable. ≈


1              Vlad Mykhnenko, “Class voting and the Orange Revolution: A Cultural Political Economy Perspective on Ukraine’s Electoral Geography”, Journal of Communist and Transition Politics 25, nos. 2—3 (2009), 278—296.

2              John O’Loughlin, “The Regional Factor in Contemporary Ukrainian Politics: Scale, Place, Space, or Bogus Effect?”, Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 42, no. 1 (2001), 1—33; Oksana Malanchuk, “Social Identification versus Regionalism in Contemporary Ukraine”, Nationalities Papers 33, no. 3 (2005), 345—368; Ivan Katchanovski, “Regional Political Divisions in Ukraine in 1991—2006”, Nationalities Papers 34, no. 5 (2006), 507—532; Neil Munro, “Which Way Does Ukraine Face? Popular Orientations toward Russia and Western Europe”, Problems of Post-Communism 54, no. 6 (2007), 43—58; Michael Gentile, “West-oriented in the East-oriented Donbas: A Political Stratigraphy of Geopolitical Identity in Luhansk, Ukraine”, Post-Soviet Affairs 31, no. 3 (2015), 201—223, to name a few.

“Phantom Borders in the Political Geography of East Central Europe”, Erdkunde 69, no. 2 (2015), ed. Sabine von Löwis