The Ghosts of Nationalism

By Singer, Daniel | The Nation, March 23, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Ghosts of Nationalism


Singer, Daniel, The Nation


The specter haunting Europe today, as it approaches the twenty-first century, is the ghost of nineteenth-century nationalism. It sends shivers down spines everywhere on the no longer formally split but still deeply divided Continent. In eastern Europe, the collapse of the Stalinist empire, followed by the fragmentation of the Soviet Union itself, has provided scope for the resurrection of local nationalisms. Since the alleged purpose of the whole operation is to reverse the course of recent history, this revival of nation-states is logical, even if it does not make much sense. In western Europe, where history has developed more in line with what was expected and the boundaries of the nation-state are being blurred, rejection of the alien, of the other, is spreading from Brussels to Vienna; the racist Jean-Marie Le Pen is no longer the odd man out. Is there some link between these two dangerous trends?

Recent developments in central and eastern Europe are probably easiest to understand. The Stalinist regime had been thrust upon these countries, even if it was imposed by the Red Army liberating them from the Nazis. The discarding of "communism" in 1989 was at the same time a rejection of Russian domination. Since then, the new regimes, while enjoying their newly found independence, have been fast discovering its economic limitations. But, as discontent is rising and the governments do not dare to rebel against the iron rule of the International Monetary Fund, they must seek scapegoats. Putting the blame on the "commies" can work for a while, and attacks against aliens." within or without national frontiers, are a classical substitute for solutions.

On the face of it, the evolution of the former Soviet Union is more difficult to grasp, since nationalism was supposed to have, been uprooted there by seventy years of socialism and equiality of national groups. The plain answer is that there was no more equality than there was socialism. The Russification of the outlying republics was no more acceptable because it was practiced by a Georgian tyrant and the ruthless dictation from Moscow no more bearable because it was disguised in Marxist mumbo jumbo. Nationalism was never uprooted in the Soviet Union. In Russia itself it was at times extolled and at other times suppressed. In the other republics it was always driven underground. There it festered. When perestroika unleashed pent-up discontents and glasnost allowed their expression, nationalism came back with a vengeance.

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev perceived that the union could be saved only through some form of federation of independent states, it was too late. In fairness, it must be added that he was not helped by Russia's so-called democrats. In his relentless struggle for power Boris Yeltsin played the nationalist card to the hilt, and he must now pay the price for his victory. Why should the Bashkirs, Tatars or Komi in Russia treat Russia as "one and indivisible" when the Kazakhs, Uzbeks and the Russians themselves refused to grant that definition to the Soviet Union? Why should the Ukrainians or the Belarussians permit Yeltsin in Moscow to set their economic and military policy now that they are allegedly sovereign members of a commonwealth? After all, they refused such dictation by Gorbachev while they were still full members of the Soviet Union.

In principle, devolution-the transfer of power from a monolithic center to republics-is progressive. In practice, a nationalism based on common blood, ethnicity and historical tradition is seldom conducive to democracy. Besides, the disruption it will cause is likely to be tremendous. In human terms the Soviet Union was a melting pot. Seventy-five million people, a quarter of the total population, live outside their native republics. Non-natives account for more than 60 percent of the population of Kazakhstan, nearly half the population of Latvia and Kyrgyzstan, and more than 27 percent of Ukraine, which gives an idea of possible migrations should there be ethnic conflict in these republics. …

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