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Bittersweet Europe: A Study of Albania and Georgia

Adrian Brisku connects two seemingly disconnected European experiences—those of Georgia and Albania—in Bittersweet Europe: Albanian and Georgian Discourses on Europe, 1878-2008, to be published this month. Brisku shares the triumphs and difficulties of the writing process, and what interested him in the area to begin with, below.


Berghahn Books: What drew you to the study of Albania and Georgia, especially as they exist within the larger European framework?


Adrian Brisku: I had written about Albanian debates on ‘Europe’ while living in Georgia—from the year 2001 to 2005.

By learning Georgian, I was able, then, to better understand contemporary public and political debates in Georgian politics, history and culture and to sense a number of parallels with the respective Albanian context on the perceptions on Europe, which I thought it would be exiting to pursue it in an academic project.


These parallels consisted not only in terms of these countries experiencing a traumatic post-communist period of political, economic and societal transition, but also in the debates about European integration as a process that both countries sought to embark upon. What was apparent, in my view, with regards to respective countries’ contemporary debates about ‘Europe’ was a narrow concern with question of Europeanness (identity and civilization) and how to relate Georgian and Albanian national identities to it.


I questioned this narrowness (or essentialization) of the contemporary debates—which features prominently also in the larger European framework—in these two small countries at the edges of southeast Europe in two ways. The first was to expand the field of inquiry by adding concepts of Europe as geopolitics and as modernity. The second was by taking a historical approach to the contemporary debates by looking at continuities and ruptures in the discourse on ‘Europe’ and Europeanness.


I wanted and I was convinced that I could make something out of the subject matter. I was also reading Edward Said’s Orientalism and Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe in which the paradigm of how unfavorably ‘Europe’ saw the others featured prominently in the two texts. Instead of this take, I thought it would be great to see how the notion of ‘Europe’ has been perceived in two entities that rarely have been compared.



BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?


AB: In terms of framing the analysis, little changed for this triadic conceptualization of the debates on Europe as geopolitics, modernity and civilization remained in the book. I was struck by the strong continuities in the discourse of Europe as a civilization in both settings throughout the time frame, i.e. late nineteenth century to present. I did not expect that much of contemporary Albanian and Georgian debates on Europe as civilization were informed by those of the communist period, and in turn these in the communist period were drawing on the pre-existing early twentieth century (inter war period) and late nineteenth (national movement) century debates.


It became clear how respective contemporary debates have become impoverished whereby in the counter-conceptual juxtaposition of West vis-à-vis the East, over time, Albanian and Georgian political and intellectual debates had displayed multiple positions: of being European, then of being Eastern and of having something from both civilisational frames.


And there were differences in the two countries, too. Seeing oneself as Eastern in the early twentieth century Georgian debates was less unnerving than in Albanian context of the time. Also, it was striking to find out how respective communist debates saw Albania and Georgia as part of a European civilization, defined in terms of secularization and development of the European (Italian) Renaissance and how actively each of them contributed to it.


The discussions and debates on Europe as geopolitics and as modernity, however, were much more prone to rupture. Noteworthy were the instances when each of these countries, in one way or the other, became part of the communist space. Here, the discourses of being part of the inter-state order of the Great Powers Europe that respected the political independence of these small states and of a liberal-capitalist modernity that led to economic prosperity was discarded for the communist discourse of withdrawal and antagonism from this geopolitical space, while pursuing a self-reliant economic and social progress. Albanian and Georgian communist civilisational discourses were quintessentially Eurocentric; nonetheless, there was strong geopolitical and ideological point of difference being made in the Cold-War East and West division of the European continent.


Other geopolitical and modernity ruptures can be observed in the post-Communist period in these two countries with the emergence of the new Europe of the European Union and the expressed desire to become part of this entity. The rupture in terms of Europe as modernity consists on parting with the Soviet/communist discourse and striving to materialize the European (EU) alternative of democracy and market economy and its political, legal, and bureaucratic benchmarks and standards.


The other noticeable change in the discourse of Europe as a geopolitical space. With Albania becoming part of NATO and in having an open perspective to joining the EU—conceived a ‘peaceful community of nations’—as opposed to Georgia where these two options appear much more distant, ‘Europe’, at least in the Albanian context, is appearing increasingly more as a political as opposed to a geopolitical space, which was how most of the respective national historical narratives have depicted the Europe of the Great Powers.



BB: What aspect of writing this work did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?


AB: The most difficult and yet most rewarding part of writing was that of establishing a flowing narrative in which a great number of political and intellectual figures’ viewpoints were to be incorporated, while not losing track of the conceptual analysis. Another aspect was dealing with the old text in Georgian language, particularly challenging were a number of poems by the early twentieth century Georgian poets of the modernist literary movement called tsisperkhantselni.



BB: To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field? Will aspects of this work that be controversial to other scholars working in the field?


AB: In one fundamental way, it wants to shift the focus from debating ‘Europe’ only in terms of civilization and identity to debates about to Europe as politics and socio-economic alternatives. It also seeks to put these two countries in the map of the field of study, with the hope that the book will serve as a point of reference.

The comparison, as such, could be seen as controversial. It might be questioned whether such a juxtaposition—two countries’ histories and two developments, without direct historical experiences with each other—could have anything meaningful to say. Reading the book, however, scholars may find the comparison stimulating and hopefully an exercise from which there would be much to draw upon.



Adrian Brisku is a research fellow at the University of Helsinki, working on the “Research Project Europe 1815-1914,” funded by the European Research Council (ERC). His interests include comparative political and intellectual European history with a particular focus on modern Albania and Georgia and nineteenth-century Ottoman and Russian empires.