Monday, December 17, 2012

SOUTCAUCASUS: Where does Europe End? By David Rinnert (

(hertie-school.orgMore than twenty years after the Soviet Union’s disintegration, uncertainty about a border between Europe and Asia prevails. While in the North, West, and South of Europe, geographical demarcations at least simplify the discourse there is no consensus on an Eastern ‘end’ to Europe. The Urals are often viewed as a natural demarcation between Europe and Asia; however, this border is nothing more than a political and cultural construct. The following article aims to shed light on the relevance of a Eurasian continental border and thus on the question where Europe (not the EU) ends. Examining the historical developments and determinants of this border and looking at viewpoints from the South Caucasus, a region allegedly located outside of Europe, existing wisdom will be questioned.

The Borders between Europe and Asia

Despite statements in many schoolbooks to the contrary, no official geographical border between Europe and Asia exists. In terms of plate tectonics, Eurasia is one continent. But then what is ‘Europe’ and why do most of us have an opinion on its geographical scope? According to Greek mythology “Europa” was a daughter of Zeus whose name was used to describe the area of Northern Greece around 500 BC. In its modern sense, Europe was first mapped as a single entity during the 8th century; however, meanings and understandings of the term have differed widely ever since.

As Bernhard-Henri Lévy puts it, Europe has developed more as an idea than as an area. But can an idea of a collective identity flourish without physical demarcation? Most scholars researching in the field of identity agree that any construction of a unit is not possible without demarcation of something different or exterior (Krause, 2008). Construction of identity thus always means construction of alterity.

After the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 the understanding of sovereign nation states took root, which in turn resulted in a sharp increase in the usage of maps. Consequently, questions of physical demarcations and specific borders gained importance in this era, especially because they represented a new legitimation of power. As the number of alliances and treaties amongst states rose, the question of ‘Europe’s end’ also arose. Rulers began to define geographical endpoints of a European continent to divide ‘good’ from ‘evil’. For instance, in the early 16th century the French minister Sully considered “Russia as a barbarous country…in the same class with Turkey”, categorising both as non-European (Jacobs, 2012).

While many geographers came up with ideas for a Eurasian border, there was no consensus until the 1720s. At that time, Swedish officer Johann Philipp von Strahlenberg, backed by the powerful Russian tsar, proposed a continental border that has formed the basis for the understanding of Europe’s scope until today. Following the Urals, trahlenberg’s demarcation goes along the Volga and Don rivers until the Black Sea. Although intended for academics, the broader acceptance of Strahlenberg’s proposed border was namely political: the Russian tsar Peter II wanted to present his empire as European as possible, especially because the term ‘Europe’ was increasingly understood as a synonym for progress. He thus welcomed Strahlenberg’s proposition, which included a relatively large part of Russia in Europe.

Despite statements in many schoolbooks to the contrary, no official geographical border between Europeand Asia exists.

This demarcation was accepted by a majority of academics and politicians in the following two centuries while at the same time, generally the division of the world into continents became an ever more important concept in Europe. The formalisation of a continental system in the 19th century and the naturalisation of continental categories were regarded not as political constructs, but as “real geographical entities that had been ‘discovered’ through empirical inquiry” (Lewis and Wigen 1997). Western geographers such as the German Carl Ritter used the concept to show that "each continent is like itself alone…each one was so planned and formed as to have its own special function in the progress of human culture" (ibid). From today’s point of view, however, it is evident that such theories of the 19th and early 20th century were mostly used to underline European superiority in the international arena.

While from 1945 on the Iron Curtain separated Europe (as Strahlenberg defined it), politicians still held on to the previous consensus on the continental order. Only after the Cold War the ambiguity of the Eurasian border concept became apparent: with an increasingly important European Union and a new order in the post-Soviet space, politicians and academics alike were confronted with the question of Europe’s eastern ‘end’ once again. Geopolitical events—such as Turkey’s pending application for EU membership, the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy within and outside ‘Strahlenberg’s Europe’ and the emphasis of countries such as Georgia on their European roots and identity—all the more blur the existing wisdom on what is Europe.

Due to this growing uncertainty, especially within Europe, a look beyond the previously accepted border can help to cast light on the question of this continent’s ‘end’ in the east. There is no region that would be better suited for this purpose than the South Caucasus where questions about belonging to Europe or Asia have been prominent in public discourse for centuries.

Viewpoints from the South Caucasus

“Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia’s cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our [Baku] should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia”.

This passage from the Caucasus’ most famous novel “Ali & Nino”, published in 1937, shows how much the region is torn between Europe and Asia. The eventful history of the South Caucasus has certainly left its mark on the identity of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia as those countries were exposed to different political and cultural forces to a much greater extent than other ‘bordering’ nations of Europe. While in the 18th and 19th century, Persia, the Osman Empire and the Russian Tsardom fought over power in this region, in 1921 the Soviet Union won control over it—against the will of the local population that partly kept up resistance during the 20th century. Thus, the USSR’s disintegration in 1991 resulted in a geopolitical and cultural reorientation of the three nations in different directions.

Since the Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia in particular has increasingly presented itself as a country with European roots often referring to its history as one of the oldest Christian nations in the world. In his inauguration speech, President Saakashvili stated, "[the European] flag is Georgia’s flag as well, as far as it embodies our civilization, our culture, the essence of our history and perspective, and our vision for the future of Georgia…Our steady course is toward European integration” (Saakashvili, 2004). But how are such political statements also reflected by the opinion of the broader public?

While in representative surveys a majority of Georgians answer that they see themselves as Europeans and 40 percent of Armenians and a majority of Azerbaijanis remain sceptical of the EU, it is interesting to look behind these numbers. As part of a research with the “Studienkolleg zu Berlin” fellowship program, my project group recently interviewed 37 Georgians and Azerbaijanis about their viewpoints on Europe’s Eastern ‘end’. Furthermore, each interviewee was asked to draw the boarder between Europe and Asia according to her opinion, wherein two themes became apparent.

First, opinions on the location of a Eurasian border differ strongly between people across generations and employment. Second, perceived determinants of this demarcation vary even more greatly. Although religious factors are decisive for some, others define the European continent based on economic and political factors or the style of their respective traditional music as a reason for the demarcation of Europe. Abstract discussions on the scope of Europe become tangible through such individual perceptions, which in turn also reveal the difficulty of formulating coherent narratives on the continent’s demarcation.

The Non-existence of Europe’s end

Is there an ‘end’ of Europe in the east? In general, some kind of demarcation remains necessary for anything that is understood to be a connected unit since the construction of an ‘I’ or a ‘we’ is not possible without a certain separation from the outside. At the European level, identity formation follows the same principles. Considering, however, the diversity of perceived individual demarcations, one can conclude that the simplified Western discourse about one continental border as Strahlenberg defined it is no longer appropriate.

Although religious factors are decisive for some, others define the European continent based on economic and political factors or the style of their respective traditional music as a reason for the demarcation of Europe.

While the EU must set borders according to precisely defined criteria, the scope of Europe as a ‘continent’ (understood as a cultural area and/or value system) is determined by the perceived relevance of defining factors such as historical, cultural or political events, which differ widely from person to person.

Therefore, the question of how far Europe reaches can and must be answered for the clearly defined institution of the EU, but not for the undefined, overarching continent, especially as the meaning of the word continent in this context may never be agreed on. Coming back to Bernhard-Henri Lévy’s argument mentioned above, it seems likely that aside from the EU, Europe will continue to develop more as an idea than as an area. Politicians and economists alike should take this into account when making use of terms such as ‘neighbourhood’ or when referring to the ‘naturalness’ of a European continent in their decisions.

The advantages of a more flexible continental concept are manifold. Firstly, it would reduce the fear of proEuropean ‘bordering’ countries (such as Georgia) of being excluded. Secondly, it could—to a certain extent- separate the political from the cultural and historical discussions about Europe’s scope at the EU level, thereby taking pressure from EU decision-makers at a time when further enlargements are becoming more and more unlikely. Finally, such a flexible continental concept would allow for a less close-minded discourse on the integration of cultural diversity into ‘our’ value sphere.


Jacobs, F. (2012). ‘Where is Europe?’, New York Times, 09 January, (accessed 07 July 2012).

Krause, J. (2008). Die Konstruktion der Grenzen Europas: Das staatliche Territorialitätsprinzip und seine Extrapolation auf die supranationale Ebene. Leipzig: Universität Leipzig.

Lewis, M. and Wigen, K. (1997). The Myth of Continents. A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Saakashvili, M. (2004). Presidential Inaugural Address in Tbilisi, 25 January 2004.


This article is based on the results of a “Studienkolleg zu Berlin” (Berlin Studies Centre) project. For more information on the fellowship programm of the Studienkolleg see


David Rinnert is a MPP candidate at the Hertie School and has previously studied Social Sciences and Philosophy at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, SciencesPo Paris, and the City University of New York. Currently, he works as a Young Professional at the GIZ in Moldova. Besides, he researches and publishes on the transformations of post-Soviet states.

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