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Ivan Krastev on Normality, Imitation, and Revenge in Europe

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Ivan Krastev is a recent Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Kluge Center, as well as a contributing writer for the international New York Times, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He will be at the Kluge Center on Wednesday, February 19 at 4pm for an event on his new book The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy, (with Stephen Holmes) for which free tickets are available here. I asked him about a couple central themes in the book.

Q: In The Light that Failed you and co-author Stephen Holmes argue that illiberalism in countries like Hungary and Poland is driven by disillusionment with imitation of the West, which is surprising considering that imitation of the West was a principal goal at the time of the transition from communism. What are the key features of this disillusionment and why is it driving illiberalism?

A: The magic word of the 1989 revolutions was “normality.”

The dream of East Europeans to have a normal life in normal countries meant living like in the West. In this sense imitating the West – its institutions, norms and lifestyles – was seen as the fastest path to normality. But since then, several things happened that stirred resentment against the politics of imitation.

First, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 put in question the very model East Europeans were so eager to imitate.

Second, the East Europeans were imitating constantly changing models, and for many more conservative-minded East Europeans the direction in which the West was heading was not the direction they wanted to follow.

And third, and probably most important, the populist revolt in Eastern Europe is a revolt against the region’s position of an imitator in a cultural environment that insists that what matters is to be unique and original. In many respect the revolt of East European populists resembles the revolt of a second generation of migrants who tend to suspect rightly or wrongly that they are treated as second class citizens.

Q: You describe Russia’s post-Cold War imitation of the US and Western Europe as having a goal of “revenge and vindication”. How can it be that imitation in this case is actually an aggressive act?

A: There are different ways to imitate. Russia imitates America in the way a nasty comedian imitates a politician she hates. You imitate in order to destroy what you are imitating.

When the Kremlin used human rights rhetoric to justify its annexation of Crimea, it did it not because of a commitment to human rights but because Russia wanted to show that all talk of values by the US is only cover for America’s geopolitical interests, and that in this sense there is no difference between Moscow and Washington.

Get your free tickets to hear Krastev on these topics and more at the Library of Congress on February 19, at 4pm.

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