Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 24
6 December 1999

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Caveman and the Alien

Sam Vaknin

Life must be curious, alert, erudite and moral, but it must achieve this without being holier-than-thou, a cynic, a know-it-all or a Peeping Tom.
(Edward K Thompson, managing editor of Life, 1949-1961)

When Chancellor Kohl's party and Edith Cresson are suspected of gross corruption, such activities are labelled "aberrations" in an otherwise honest West.

When NASA, in collaboration with its UK counterpart, blew a USD 130 million spacecraft to smithereens, having confused the metric system for its archaic imperial predecessor, people nodded their heads in disapproval: "accidents happen."

When President Clinton appoints his wife to overhaul the US health system, a move that could cost hundreds of billions of US dollars, no one thinks it odd.

And when the (talented) son of the police officer that investigated the Israeli Minister of Interior Affairs (rumoured to be hyper-corrupt) becomes a Minister himself, nobody bats an eyelid.

Yet, when similar events happen in the decrepit countries of Eastern, Central, or Southeastern Europe, they are subjected to heaps of excoriating scorn, to vitriolic diatribes, to condescending preaching or to sanctions. It is, indeed, a double standard, totally hypocritical and a travesty the magnitude of which is rarely encountered in the annals of human pretensions to morality.

The West has grossly and thoroughly violated Thompson's edict. In its oft-interrupted intercourse with these forsaken regions of the globe, it has acted, alternately, as a cynic, a know-it-all and as a Peeping Tom. It has invariably behaved as if it were holier than thou. In an unmitigated and fantastic succession of blunders, miscalculations, vain promises, unkept threats and unkempt diplomats - it has driven Europe to the verge of war and the region it "adopted" to the verge of economic and social upheaval.

Enamoured with the new ideology of the free market cum democracy, the West first assumed the role of the omniscient. It designed ingenious models, devised foolproof laws, imposed fail-safe institutions and strongly "recommended" measures. Its representatives, the tribunes of the West, ruled the plebeian East with a determination rarely equalled by skill or knowledge.

Velvet hands couched in iron gloves, ignorance disguised by economic new-speak, geostrategic interests masquerading as forms of government, characterized their dealings with the natives. Preaching and beseeching from ever higher pulpits, they poured opprobrium and sweet delusions on the eagerly deluded, naive and bewildered masses. The deceit was evident to the indigenous cynics - but it was their failure that dissuaded them above all else.

The West lost Eastern and Southeast Europe not when it lied egregiously, not when it pretended to know for sure when it surely did not know, not when it manipulated and coaxed and coerced - but when it failed.

To the peoples of these regions, the king was fully dressed. It was not a little child but an enormous debacle that exposed his nudity. In its presumptuousness and pretentiousness, feigned surety and vain cliches, imported models and exported cheap raw materials - the West succeeded in demolishing beyond reconstruction whole economies, in ravaging communities, in bringing ruination upon the centuries-old social fabric, woven so diligently by previous generations.

It brought crime, drugs and mayhem but gave very little in return, only a horizon beclouded and thundering with eloquence. As a result, while tottering regional governments still pay lip service to the Euro-Atlantic structures, the masses are enraged, restless, rebellious, baleful and anti-Western to the core. They are not likely to acquiesce much longer - not only with the West's neo-colonialism but also with its incompetence and inaptitude, with the nonchalant experimentation that it imposed upon them and with the abyss between its proclamations and its performance.

In all this time, the envoys of the West - its mediocre politicians, its insatiably ruthless media, its obese tourists and its armchair economists - continued to play the role of God, wreaking even greater havoc than the original. While knowing it all in advance (in breach of every scientific tradition), they also developed a kind of world weary, unshaven cynicism interlaced with fascination at the depths plumbed by the localsí immorality and amorality.

The jet-set Peeping Toms resided in five-star hotels (or luxurious apartments) overlooking the communist shantytowns, drove utility vehicles to the shabby offices of the native bureaucrats and dined in USD 100 per meal restaurants ("it's so cheap here"). In between mouthfuls of sushi and sake they bemoaned and grieved over local corruption, nepotism and cronyism ("I simply love their ethnic food, but they are so..."). They mourned the autochthonal inability to act decisively, to cut red tape, to manufacture quality, to open to the world, to be less xenophobic (all the while casting disdainful glances at the sweaty waiter).

To them it looked like an ancient natural phenomenon, a force of nature, an inevitability - hence their cynicism. Mostly provincial people, with horizons limited by consumption and by wealth, they adopted cynicism as shorthand for cosmopolitanism. They erroneously believed it lent them an air of ruggedness, rich experience and the virile aroma of decadent erudition. Yet all it did was to make them obnoxious and even more repellent to the residents than they were already.

Ever the preachers, the West - both Europeans and Americans - held themselves up as role models of virtue to be emulated, as points of reference, almost superhuman in their taming of the vices - with avarice up front. Yet the disorder in their own homes was broadcast live, day-in and day-out, into the cubicles inhabited by the very people they sought to transform. And they conspired and collaborated in all manner of corruption, crime, scam and rigged elections in the countries where they preached the gospel.

In trying to put an end to history, they seem to have provoked another round of it - more vicious, more enduring and more traumatic than before. That the West will pay the price for its mistakes I have no doubt. For isn't it a part and parcel of their teachings that everything has a price and that there is always a time of reckoning?

Dr Sam Vaknin, 29 November 1999

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Sam Vaknin's articles for Central Europe Review are archived here.

Sam Vaknin's website is here.

 

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