What is Europe, Anyway?

Emil Majidov
An Azerbaijani view of the eternal conflicts between Europe and Asia
In no other place does East meet West in quite the same way as in Baku, Azerbaijan. Image:  Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till earth and sky stand presently at God's great judgment seat.

"Rudyard Kipling"


Since the middle of the 19th century, we, the people of Azerbaijan, have lived with European dreams. At least to some extent. Our literature, music, political systems and traditions have undergone Europeanization. We eat Caesar salad at weddings, wear suits and dream of European education for our children. We have long seen ‘European’ as a synonym for civility, scientific rigour, democratic values, and a life filled with theatres and museums, good food, fresh air, beautiful nature, nice people, and a high quality of life.


In the late 1990s, the prospect of becoming ‘European Muslims’ - and someday entering the European Union - felt like a realistic option. We have seriously stated that Baku’s Absheron Peninsula is the southeastern border of the European continent.


Today, 20 years later, Europe is a still-beautiful dream. However, the sheen on its image seems less glossy, and the reality feels more distant. As a result of internal disagreements, Europe as represented by the EU seems to have slipped back towards its 1917 borders and shows no intention of changing that. And so, we Azerbaijanis have too returned to our "normal" state of being border people, guarding the Caucasian gates, the borders of Eurasia and the Middle East.


But hang on a moment. What is this notion of Europe with its multiple senses – aspirational, cultural and geographical?  It’s time to dig into history to search a little deeper for some answers.


East versus West

Whether military, cultural, political or ideological, confrontations between the West and the East have run as a refrain practically through the entire history of humankind.


Varangians versus Mongolians.

Romans versus Huns.

Greeks versus Turks.

Nato versus Soviet.


“Onslaught of the Tartars” (pre-1938) by the French Georges Antoine Rochegrosse. A Roman villa in Gaul sacked by the hordes of Attila the Hun. Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

And as a more concrete synonym for this ‘eternal’ tension, we might substitute Europe versus Asia. Long-repeated stereotypes frame Europe as technological and pragmatic in contrast to Asian spirituality and wisdom. European individuality vs. Asian unity. Pride versus humility. Etc etc. But what is behind these popular juxtapositions?  How did the geographical blur with the aspirational? It’s been a long time coming.


In ancient Greece, "Europe" was – geographically – the western Aegean while "Asia" originally meant Asia Minor – the area to the east and north of Phoenicia (the Eastern Mediterranean coast). From this early perspective, Europe was less a continent than a historical and political tradition. Ever since, a series of conflicts of various scales can be seen as part of the self-determination of Europe.


Athens versus Troy.

Greeks against Persians.

Rome against Barbarians.

Serbs against Ottomans.


Slowly Europe becomes defined as an idea as much as it is as a place. Yet for “Asians,” Europe was a natural continuation, a quiet haven with good pastures and deep rivers; this is a traditional and legitimate target, either as an object of aggression or peaceful migration.


Despite all the efforts and beautiful poetry of Kipling, West and East never completely diverged but remained two parts of a whole following the classical dualistic model.


In the historical sense, Europe is a child of Asia. "Proto-Indo-European" horsemen arrived in Eastern Europe thousands of years ago, and even the first "Europeans" – the Cretans and Phoenicians – were themselves immigrants from further east. This theme repeats itself throughout history.


Asian Ugrians became European Hungarians.


Khazarian Akatsirs turned into Orthodox Bulgarians – and even into Italians as Bulgar knights settled in Northern Italy during the early Middle Ages.


Kypchaks became an integral part of the Russian supraethnicity – the Cossacks.


In reality, for thousands of years, Europe has been fighting for freedom from its Asian roots. It’s been seeking to separate from its eastern neighbours and erase memories of its regular historic resettlements from Asia. 


In reality, for thousands of years, Europe has been fighting for freedom from its Asian roots. It’s been seeking to separate from its eastern neighbours and erase memories of its regular historic resettlements from Asia. Occasionally, Europe has gone on the offensive – notably under Alexander, who briefly overcame the millennial paradigm. The Roman Empire followed Alexander. Then the Crusades. Eventually, Europe began to forget the degree to which the pressure of the East had shaped its earlier history. And the situation reversed. When – at Saint-Petersburg – Russia opened its Baltic Sea "window to Europe," it might have looked like the Asian seizure of a piece of European territory. But in fact, the “window” proved to be one through which Europe entered openly Asian, post-Horde Russia and the source of an internal civilizational conflict in what would eventually become the USSR.


As the second millennium progressed, Europe (and Europe’s American diaspora) increasingly came to impose its forces and values on the rest of the world with the help of scientific progress. Unprecedented levels of economic development showed European models as both profitable and prestigious. Indeed the West had overtaken the East so much that the need for direct military confrontation had largely disappeared. Hollywood, the dollar, Western brands, and the Internet became the basis of civilizational domination.  


Shifting Borders

The fluidity of what it means to be European parallels a regular redefinition of Europe’s perceived eastern "borders."


In ancient times, Asia was thought to encompass not only the known east but also north-Eastern Europe. In the Middle Ages, the hazily defined Asia-Europe “border” went somewhere along the Sea of Azov and the Don River. By the 18th century, with the "Europeanization" of Russia, the “border” slipped quietly east as far as the Ural Mountains. And if you’ve ever crossed the minor undulations of the Central Urals, you’ll realize just what a misnomer ‘mountains’ are in this sense.


What is clear is that there could be few topographical boundaries more imaginary than the Urals. Essentially it was hidden in plain view that Europe was a fiction – a purely European invention.


Kazakhstan midfielder Maxim Fedin against Russia defender Georgi Dzhikiya during UEFA Euro 2020 qualification match in Kaliningrad, Russia, September 9, 2019. Image: Alizada Studios/Shutterstock

At the historic moment when the USSR collapsed in 1991, it seemed that Europe had "reached out" even further. After all, states like Azerbaijan now share European-Russian values more than those of “Asian” neighbours like the Islamic Republic of Iran. Though geographically in Central Asia, Kazakhstan had become a member of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and began to play European football. Did that mean that Europe now crossed the Caspian Sea?


The question didn’t really need asking, and today, as Russia pivots east, and Turkey moves away from any EU aspirations, the Don and the Bosphorus seem once again to form the de facto edges of an imagined Europe, just as in medieval times.


New Realities?

Even today, in an age of a weakening Europe, the Western paradigm remains highly attractive. Many "Asians" still want to become "Europeans," just as the "barbarians" of ancient times wanted to be Romans.


Many Asians. But not all. Europe and the United States are now at a stage close to economic stagnation while China is rising. The poles of development are changing, and the inhabitants of the "East," having freed themselves from the "European dream,” return to the thousand-year traditions of their ancestors.


On the “west,” popular Baku coffee shop United Coffee Beans (Kanan Khasmammadov), on the “east,’ a typical tea house in Quba (Orkhan Azim)

Any attempts to compare and evaluate the "correctness" of Western and Eastern ways of life, state structures, or levels of cultural development are futile. There are no “good” or “bad” civilizations and cultures in history: only winners and losers. 


So from an Azerbaijani perspective, the European dream is still alive. Of course it is. Who, having walked the Italian lakeshores, skied Alpine slopes of the Alps, or swum in the French Mediterranean, wouldn't want to return there again and again?


But we must remain grounded in reality: Europe is retreating, Asia is advancing. Our future, at least medium-term, belongs with Central Asia and Siberia. There are demographic and historical reasons for this: the cycle will repeat itself, as has happened many times.


We are a small people at the junction of regions. For us, the only reasonable strategy is to guess the trends of development and to use them in our interests, avoiding confrontation and wars. 


We are a small people at the junction of regions. For us, the only reasonable strategy is to guess the trends of development and to use them in our interests, avoiding confrontation and wars.


Like surfers, we should be "riding the wave" of history. If we like the European lifestyle, we should gradually, within the limits of opportunities and resources, create it at home without getting involved in geopolitical strife, even if it takes a hundred years. After all, Europe itself took centuries to create and protect this lifestyle.