Analysis to the Current Politicization of Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space
In the last few months’ several manifestations that we can categorize as nationalistic have happened across the post-soviet countries. Those unexpected events raise once more questions about the transitological stance of the fourth wave of democracy. Is the fourth wave (the post-soviet) reversing now that the fifth wave (the Arab Spring) is in progress? Or is the post-soviet experiencing a new type of phenomena?
On August 14, 2011 the British newspaper The Guardian reported that “in a move that has upset the Greeks, Alexander the Great has made a huge comeback in Macedonia” (Smith, The Guardian) that, we remember, continues to be in a stalemate over its official name with (surprise!) Greece. Less than one year after the move that has upset Athens, Skopje decided to built a new controversial statue “of a person claimed by one of its neighbors” (Wisniewski, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), and so this time the monument distressed the Albanians.
On Hungary the fact that Miklós Horthy “as head of state in 1944 was responsible for the mass deportation of 400.000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered in Auschwitz” (Verseck, Spiegel) was not reason enough to prevent the erection of his statue. On another Balkan country, more specifically on Serbia, the newly elected president Tomislav Nikolic “has said the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 was not genocide” (Anon., State Building and Fragility Monitor) surprising all the Western partners, like the European Union.
On February 18, 2012 Latvians rejected Russian has the second official language of the country. The Russian minority stated that their rights were being overtly discriminated but on the other side “many ethnic Latvians believe the referendum was an attempt to encroach on the country's independence” (Anon., BBC News), something that continues to frighten Riga. On the other side, on Ukraine on the 4th of July 2012 “protesters led by opposition members of parliament defended the role of Ukrainian as the only state language” (Polityuk, Reuters) after the approval of a law that made Russian a regional language in regions with strong Russian communities. The situation descended into anarchy with protesters and police clashing on Kiev.
Why is Macedonia asserting their national uniqueness through direct confrontation with Greece and Albania? Why is Serbia’s political elite reviewing through denial recent traumatic historic events? Why is Hungary rehabilitating pro-Nazi historic and extreme-nationalist figures? Why Latvians deny to the Russian language the status of second national language? Why is the recognition of Russian as a regional language a motive to chaos in Ukraine?
Let us start from the beginning. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 only accelerated the events that the Prague Spring and the Solidarity Crisis initiated: the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 1991. After the collapse near thirty states proclaimed or reacquired its full independence and began its transition to a new phase. According to Johann Arnason (2000, p. 90) the premise of “transitology is that the current Western constellation of capitalism, democracy and nation-state (…) represents a universal and definitive model”, which in time would be embraced by all societies emerging after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Arnason argument in fact is not a new one but is more of an update of Fukuyama’s predictions.
A group of researchers, political analysts, and academicians, usually tagged has Modernists, stated that “in the wake of the collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a dominant paradigm for the transition to the market and democracy was quickly established” (Müller and Pickel, 2011, p. 2). The fact that eight out of ten of the states that entered in the European Union in 2004 came from the post-soviet space (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) seemed to confirm the predictions of an inevitable march to Westernization.
In 2007 two more countries (Romania and Bulgaria) of the post-soviet realm entered the European Union club and Croatia is the next to enter to the so called “European Family” (on the 1st of July 2013). Cumulatively the fact that three (Serbia, Montenegro and Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia) of five states with the designation of “EU candidate” are part of the post-soviet area might be seen as an extra indicator of the European Union (a purely Western-oriented Project) continuous magnetic strength.
To the European Union officials and to all Modernist analysts and researchers “there is “a singular answer to major social problems such as underdevelopment and poverty. The countries [of the post-soviet space] need to adopt Western political, economic, legal and financial institutions” (Blokker, 2005, p. 506) because only those will allow progress and sustainable growth.
But there seems to be a hindrance to this entire fairy-tale alike scheme: nationalism. To Modernists (of course) “nationalism is seen as having a negative influence on the prospects for democratization” (Gill, 2006, p. 616), since it appeals to a dialectic vision of the world: an “us” (the Nation) against “them” (the Outsiders) that easily degenerates into violence. Nationalism is seen as a backward phenomenon that restrains countries from modernizing themselves and yet leaders of the Western world usually refer to their States as Nation-States. Even more, the forum for interstate discussion is the United Nations.
In our perspective, in its core the nation “is a psychological bond that joins a people and differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from all other people” (Connor, 1994, p. 92) making it easier for the individual to position himself in individual and communal terms. If the nation is psychological what we study are its effects, its language and that is the role of nationalism: to be the nation’s language. If nationalism is the language of the nation it should not be automatically categorized as a prone-to-violence phenomenon.
Even more pressing, if nations are psychosocial ties that organize individuals through time and space materialized through nationalism and the national idea we can assert that nations do not enter in transitological periods because they do not politicize and/or control individuals. The state, on the other hand, is capable of controlling individuals and politicizing them. As Jieli Li (2002, p. 141) asserts the “state is a variable with multiple aspects including the control of land, population, natural resources, and ethnicity”.
States, like nations, organize individuals in common spaces, but unlike nations, states are capable of enforcing control. Nations are built through memory, history, familiarity, symbols and commonness (Smith, A., 2006, pp. 25-27); inside the nation there is a prevalence of horizontal relations. States are built through laws, institutions, procedures and the standardization of daily practices through bureaucracy; inside the state the vertical type of relations are predominant.
Nation-states do not help us surpass the impossibility of nations entering in transitological sets. And even if they do, nation-states are a rare phenomenon across the globe (less than 10% according to a study of Walker Connor, 1994) and an inexistent one across the post-soviet space. The problem is that the transitions of the post-soviet space were in fact made by nations that filled the vacuum that the implosion of the Soviet Union (state) left.
Philip Roeder (1999, p. 858) explains that “national revolutions realigned borders so that states correspond more closely to national boundaries”, what we have seen on the post-soviet space was the politicization of national communities. The post-soviet nations have perceived themselves as the necessary mechanism to avoid an unbearable amount of “uncertainty” and so they have transformed themselves into states. This is not a surprise if we remember that “a key feature of Soviet Union was its acceptance of the idea of national territoriality” (Lynn, 1997, p. 63), a principle that allowed the imposition of an ethnofederal scheme to control an ethno-complex society.
Nations are the frontrunners of the post-soviet transitions and the subsequent transformation of the post-soviet space, united under the multidimensional legacy of the Soviet era and separated by identitarian and psychosocial differences. The state is then created to meet the criteria of a return to the Western realm. But this conception of the transitological specificities at the post-soviet space cannot explain the European attractiveness to the post-soviet (born out of nations) states.
Actually it can. One of the leitmotivs of the revolutions across the post-soviet space is the desire to be moved away from the influence of the Soviet Union; to return to a pre-stage in which Europe was supposedly the arena of all sociopolitical phenomena. Piotr Sztompka (1993, p. 86) clearly says that “the central theme of anti-communist revolutions and post-communist changes is grasp by the metaphor of “returning to Europe””, that is perceived as the epitome of liberty, equality and truthful civilization.
The problem is that the European building that was supposed to welcome the post-soviet politicized nations and that would allow the natural separation of state (political, economic and administrative realms) and nation (social and cultural arenas) inside the same territory is now plummeting under the financial crisis. The slow pass of Europe to reform itself; the incapacity to defend its interests and last year’s incredible absence of European solidarity towards Greece may have alarmed the populations of the post-soviet space.
The European Palace seen as the Eden after the harshness of the Soviet era had shown in the recent years to be powerless to protect their members from external menaces and from internal divisionism. The post-soviet states drawn from the national communities need to a political reification perceived these internal and external hazards as a perilous path that might endanger the continuity of the collectivity in the medium/long-term.
In this sense “nationalism is not engendered by nations. It is produced (…) by political fields” (Brubaker, 2009, p. 17) as a response to those serious threats that might prejudice the achievement of the collective goals that had justified in the first place the reification of the nation’ psychosocial ties. The new stage of the post-soviet space in which we are witnessing a return to the exclusivist nationalist rethoric happens because “states fail to carry out those tasks, spurring people to create more effective states” (Laitin, 2000, p. 125). The failure of the Soviet Union gave impetus to the building of states around national entities; and now the seemingly failure of the Western Dream is pushing post-soviet communities to a redrawing of their sociopolitical entities.
We can already conclude that Nations are once more heading the transformations that are occurring inside the post-soviet space. All the phenomena that are happening across the European post-soviet space that reify the [us not equal to them] dialectic vision are a common consequence of the fact that “any alterations in identity, whether as a result of structural international disruptions or internal revolutions, are difficult and traumatic” (Chafetz, 1996/1997, p. 665).
Macedonia confrontational attitudes are a demonstration of the fear that Macedonians as a nation feel; they are not confronting Athens or Tirana de per si, they are protecting themselves by exalting what they perceive as theirs unique and rightful inheritance. Equally Hungary is using Horthy statue as a symbol of their identitarian and socio-historical differences comparing with the Western powers that are proving more and more to be deceptive in their promises. Serbia’s declarations result less from a planned historic revisionist momentum and more from a fear caused by the Western uncertainty.
Latvia and Ukraine different reactions to the Russian language status also confirm that the “discourse of nationalism is inherently international. Claims to nationhood are not just internal claims” (Calhoun, 1993, p. 216) but they have also an external dimension. Nations perceive the others (in this case Russia) with interests in the same territoriality as enemies and so they tend to react energetically to direct threats.
The Russian language status upgrade was refused by the majority of Latvians that continue to see Russia (the state) as a threat to their existence as a nation. In Ukraine the reaction to the improvement of Russian legal status might be explained with the same arguments. Ukrainians are in a phase of national identity crystallization and they fear the possible “absorption” into the Russian identity.
In a time when numerous states across Europe are falling because of the financial crisis and due to a lack of truthful Europeanism, nations offer comfort in the post-soviet space and they might even result on a pursuing of a primeval past; a return to the pre-soviet and pre-Western drive; a return to a golden era in which the collectivities have exerted their full right to exist and to preserve their singularity. Nations do not isolate individuals, they protect them. We can assume that nations across the post-soviet space will continue to underline their specificities through acts that might be wrongly perceived as provocative and extremists as a defensive mechanism in this time of enormous uncertainty.
Tiago Ferreira LOPES
Analyst of Strategic Outlook
Researcher at the Orient Institute (ISCSP – UTL, Portugal)
Executive Officer of the Observatory for Human Security (ISCSP – UTL, Portugal)
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