Robert Kaplan is a journalist and a writer who possess a good understanding of the world and has a special interest in Eastern Europe. His new book, In Europe’s Shadow, focuses on Romania, but reflects his wide knowledge of the entire area of East-Central Europe. The book addresses a host of regional issues and is many-faceted. It takes up historical questions, old and new challenges, socio-political and philosophical issues, as well as contemporary worries, politics and geopolitics. Equally important is that Kaplan thinks journalists should be completely detached and objective and should approach their missions ‘impersonally.’ Can anyone be one hundred percent objective?
For Kaplan, Romania is key to understanding Southeastern Europe and is of real geopolitical importance in the present confrontation between East and West. He sees Romania (together with Poland) as the pivot of America’s policy against the new Russian aggressiveness. The author reveals a nuanced sense of history and a good grasp of current events.
Robert Kaplan is fascinated by the uniqueness, culturally, historically and ethnically, of Romania. Coming from Hungary, he writes, Romania is an Eastern country, but coming from Moldova and Ukraine, it is a Western country.
In fact, Romania is both and thus is even more interesting. He admires Romania’s Byzantine inheritance and is puzzled by its unique diversity. He also wonders at the survival of the Roman and Latin roots of the people.
Romania, he writes, “constitutes one of those indigestible ethnic nations…that have miraculously survived the millennia despite being oppressed, overrun, and vanquished.”
Obviously, he has studied the country and visited it several times both under the old regimes and since the fall of communism. He also visited other countries of the area and was able to make pertinent comparisons. For Romania, he notices, geography was a nightmare and history was a tragedy. He puts Poland in the same category and recommends that the two countries be strengthened as outposts of NATO in the new East-West balance of power.
Romania is the sole Eastern European country that in its recent past was subjected to three invading powers: The Ottomans, the Germans, and the Russians. Currently, Romania is again threatened by Russia. In this vein, he cites several Romanian leaders who are worried about Moscow’s new aims and provocations.
Among others, he consulted George Cristian Maior, former director of Romanian domestic intelligence and currently ambassador to Washington. Maior stressed that presently Moscow is buying influence with Eastern European media and politicians and is trying to subvert again the region. Russian influence is already strong and growing in Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and even beyond. Furthermore, Romania’s former province of Bessarabia (Moldova) is still under Moscow’s thumb, while its split region of Transdniestria is directly under Russian control. These days, Moldova and Ukraine represent the primary battle ground between NATO and Russia, Kaplan writes. And he adds that Russia is not giving up the two countries and there is little the West can do.
In the opinion of this reviewer, the murky state of affairs of this area started with the new partition of Europe decided by the U.S. and USSR at Malta in 1989 under the administration of then-President George H.W. Bush. For reasons not shared with the public, Moldova and Ukraine were left in a limbo as a neutral zone between Russia and Europe. Nonetheless, this region could trigger a grave international conflict. Moscow’s ongoing war of attrition in Ukraine proves the point, particularly after Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
Robert Kaplan cited a rich bibliography and consulted a good number of Romanian leaders, writers and analysts. Many of them are well-known to this reviewer who was a journalist with Voice of America.
However, Kaplan relies too heavily on the opinions of those who, after the fall of communism, veered toward the new internationalist trend. Yet, except for some subjective tilts, the book is a valuable source of information and offers a welcome contribution for the understanding of what is going on in the region. A good number of Romanians, for example, regret the end of the old communist regime that gave them a sense of social security. However, they only have to read the pages written by the author about the gloomy situation in Romania of 1981to reconsider their misplaced nostalgia for the communist past.
As a native Romanian myself and a former political refugee, I visited Romania in 1990, less than one year after the fall of Ceausescu. At the time, the country was a disaster and many people seemed almost de-humanized. I was thinking then that thousands of years ago when our ancestors left the caves they probably smiled with happiness when they saw the beauty of the sun. In 1990, the Romanians looked as if they had just gotten out of a cave, but were not sure if they were free to enjoy the sun.
The Romanians did survive the ‘communist ice age,’ as Kaplan writes, but I realized then that surviving is not a virtue. One must be a winner!
Twenty five years after regaining their liberty, the Romanians are still suffering and are still far from being real winners.
Kaplan admits that not everything is well in the new Eastern Europe, but he does not analyze deeply the danger for the future of the current dissatisfaction.
In Romania, for example, the old industry was completely destroyed, the agriculture was ruined, and over three million young men and women left the country to work in the West. The situation is similar throughout Eastern Europe. To be sure, there is freedom now, but there are also many split families and abandoned children. And there is unemployment, prostitution, pornography, moral decay, and other social ills, many of them imported from the West. The result is that countries like Romania have been deprived again of their national dignity. Is this the future?
The author may exhort the process of globalization, but all is not well in the new Europe. And Vladimir Putin is already exploiting this dissatisfaction to Russia’s advantage, while Obama’s America is ambivalent to say the least.
As for some aspects of the book that could be considered one-sided, the author dedicates a disproportionate amount of space to the evolution of the Jews in the area. As a Jew himself, and as an American and Israeli citizen, his attitude is understandable. However, his sources and numbers are incomplete and some are biased. He admits, for instance, that during the Second World War the Romanian Jews were saved by not being sent to Nazi concentration camps, while the country was led by General Ion Antonescu.
In this regard he writes, and I quote: “Antonescu kept, by some statistical reckonings, the largest number of Jews away from the Final Solution in Axis-dominated Europe.” Nevertheless, Kaplan demonizes Antonescu and calls him consistently a murderer of the Jews. He refers primarily to Bessarabia, Transdniestria and Odessa. Some prominent Jews do not agree with this assertion, and the author only marginally mentions some of them.
When, as a young man, I became a political prisoner in communist Romania, I met many former officers and soldiers who had fought on the Eastern Front alongside the Germans. I learnt that the Romanian troops did kill a number of Jews, but the real pogroms were triggered by the German Army.
Robert Kaplan should have also read the writings of Paul Goma, a Romanian refugee from Bessarabia married to a Jewish woman, who now lives in Paris. He would have learnt the Romanian side of the story and would have acquired a more balanced view. He would have also discovered what the Bessarabian Jews did to the Romanians, when the Soviet Army invaded this province in 1940, following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.
Many of those who Kaplan cites as sources of information cooperated with the communist regime in the past and have switched sides mostly to benefit from the new global trends. Actually, to a very large extent, the new political class of current day Romania is compromised and corrupt and is stridently pro-Western, chiefly to cover their murky past and to gain international legitimacy. Most likely, such people stretched their answers to satisfy Mr. Kaplan.
And a closing point; the author condemns, unequivocally, ethnic patriotism and nationalism and even any form of order and discipline that could lead to extremist attitudes and eventually to anti-Semitism. But, he should have also researched the roots of extremism to make sure that this scourge would not haunt us again in the future. Instead, he advocates internationalism and globalization, precisely what the Britons have recently rejected in their Brexit referendum.
Perhaps this UK vote to leave the European Union will provide the necessary escape valve from their problems of immigration and centralized control by helping to release the societal pressures that have gradually grown as a result of the Schengen agreement’s open border policy and Brussels’ over regulation. While Romania is a signatory to Schengen, it has yet to implement its provisions.
However, Kaplan admits the potential attraction of extremist movements even in this age “in a world where the masses, unable to sufficiently benefit from globalization, reject globalization outright.” Yes, extremism is a danger in Europe and Moscow is already exploiting it!
Does globalization bring the promised fruits to the average citizen? Or does it bring advantages mostly to a small established elite group? And then, how are we to reconcile Western internationalism with Eastern nationalism, in an era of increasing inequity and polarization?
It should be remembered that the West won the Cold War with the unreserved help of eastern patriots and nationalists. Yet, in the new Eastern Europe, those patriots were denied from sharing the fruits of their own sacrifices. Unless America and the West change their globalist policies, it is possible that in another confrontation between East and West the God-fearing patriots and the nationalists may not let themselves be used, abused, and abandoned again.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.