Tuning the "Sound of Eastern Europe": The Building of Good-Neighborly Relations in Slovakia and Serbia

Event Date: 
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Event Time: 
12:00 p.m.
Location: 
012 Bendheim Hall

Béla Filep, Visiting Student Research Collaborator at LISD, presented a lunch seminar talk, "Tuning the 'Sound of Eastern Europe': The Building of Good-Neighborly Relations in Slovakia and Serbia," at 12:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 24 in 012 Bendheim Hall.

According to Filep, the "new" Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has remained an area of political and social tensions; this all in spite of accession to the EU by ten post-communist countries and intense transition processes since the fall of the Iron Curtain 1989. The "European Project," as attractive as it appeared to the new member states of the European Union, has not (yet) succeeded in overcoming tensions between states, majority and minority populations, "winners" and "losers" of the transition period, to mention just a few examples. The persistence – some would argue re-emergence – of inter-ethnic tensions is especially alarming, notably for the culturally diverse (border) regions of CEE. The reasons for these tensions are manifold: lack of inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation, lack of knowledge about and understanding for each other, conflicting "ethnic discourses," exclusion of minorities from nation-building, nationalist and assimilationist policies, the "ethnic card" as a comfortable instrument to distract the public from other (e.g. socio-economic) problems, and also an EU (enlargement) neglecting sensitive (non-violent) inter-ethnic issues.

Filep's research pursues – in contrast to the frequently problem-oriented inter-ethnic research on CEE – a solution-oriented approach aimed at highlighting good-neighbourly practices and discourses. Thus the fundamental question in this research project has been how "good neighborhood" is understood and practiced by "local" stakeholders, and what their perceptions, ideas and strategies for a good neighbourhood are. Distinct from a concept of bon voisinage by Alan Henrikson, who defined good neighborliness for the inter-state level (or on what basis states shall maintain good-neighbourly relations with each other), the research develops the concept around ethno-linguistic boundaries rather than state borders. The latter have rarely coincided in Central and Eastern Europe, thus the relations between people of different ethnic affiliation, often referred to as "cultural nations" rather than "ethnic groups," have had a greater significance in the course of history than simply the struggle between neighbouring countries.

In the case of the relationship between the Hungarian "cultural nation" and the Slovak, Romanian and Serbian "cultural nations," the major event that has shaped these neighbourly relations in the 20th and early 21st century is the Treaty of Trianon signed in 1920. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a number of smaller states turned the Hungarians as the largest population group in the Hungarian Kingdom into minorities in Czechoslovakia (today Slovakia), Romania and Yugoslavia (today Serbia), both numerically and in terms of their political position in the respective states, being exposed to discrimination, deportation and resettlement in the course of the 20th century. While the relations have improved since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the need to organize coexistence across the cultural diversity at hand has not ceased to exist.

Based on extensive research in the Hungarian-Slovakian and the Hungarian-Serbian border regions, the dissertationargues that intercultural capital, social interaction, mutual respect and appreciation represent the pillars of a "good (multi-ethnic) neighborhood" in CEE. It includes over 120 interviews, which provide insights into local good-neighbourly initiatives, and practices. The enquiry has confirmed that (1) language proficiency and cross-cultural knowledge are fundamental in the interest of cohesion within multiethnic states such as Slovakia or Serbia; (2) that inter-ethnic (social) interaction is indispensable in such contexts, even though the latter has been mostly occurring in what Béla Filep calls “spontaneous meeting places of everyday life,” rather than in explicit scenes of inter-ethnic contact; (3) reconciliation and the granting of collective rights are necessary for the creation of sustainable mutual respect and appreciation among majority and minority populations, and "cultural nations."

Béla Filep is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bern and currently a Visiting Student Research Collaborator at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University. In the frame-work of a fellowship for prospective researchers granted by the Swiss National Science Foundation, he was also a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Government at Harvard University in fall 2010. Béla Filep holds an MSc in Geography from the University of Bern in Switzerland and an MA in International Relations and European Studies from the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. From 2007 to August 2010 he was as a research fellow in the EU 6th FP project Searching for Neighbours on the dynamics of physical and mental borders in the New Europe. He has published on the issue of inter-ethnic relations in Central and Eastern Europe in English, German and Hungarian, both scientifically and in his capacity as a journalist.