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  • The Challenge of Ethnic ConflictThe Fate of Minorities in Eastern Europe
  • Janusz Bugajski (bio)

After four decades of statist centralism and "socialist internationalism," a far-reaching ethnic reawakening has accompanied the disintegration of communist rule and the collapse of multinational federations in Eastern Europe. Virtually all states there have been wracked by ethnic and regionalist movements demanding some degree of political self-determination, a role in national decision making, and a more equitable distribution of economic resources. Both majority and minority populations have been affected by this rebirth of ethnicity, and in some instances the aspirations of different communities have clashed, resulting in conflicts that threaten to derail the progress of democratic reform.

Ethnic nationalism may be a positive or a negative phenomenon: it can be aggressive or defensive, rational or emotional, consistent or unpredictable; it has moments of intensity, periods of passivity, and it is often contradictory. On the positive side, ethnic nationalism may be a cohesive and motivating force in helping a group to assert its cultural identity, regain its national sovereignty, or limit the influence of unwelcome outside powers in domestic affairs. Nationalism may instill a sense of patriotism, community loyalty, and cultural pride. During wrenching periods of revolutionary change, shared ethnicity—with all its mythic, ritualistic, and symbolic ingredients—may provide an important anchor of continuity and stability.

Nationalism becomes a negative force if and when it takes on a pronounced ethnocentric bias, asserting the superiority of one group's culture, language, and religion and excluding various alien elements in [End Page 85] order to strengthen the solidarity of the ethnic community. Operating on the axiom that a perceived domestic or foreign threat helps to unite a community, aggressive nationalist leaders promote discrimination against other nationalities and hostility toward neighboring states. The persecution of minorities by newly independent nations may also be a form of aggressive compensation for prior oppression at the hands of foreign elites, or defensiveness based on exaggerated fears of domination, absorption, or extinction. Xenophobic nationalism is more likely to be manifested among groups that live with larger and potentially more threatening minorities, especially where there are deep-rooted historical grievances and seemingly irreconcilable cultural or religious differences. Numerous issues can provoke hostility and confrontation, including questions of land ownership, language policy, and the allocation of power and resources.

The growth of ethnocentrism usually stimulates a nationalist response among neighboring groups, often for purposes of self-protection. Recently revived nationalism can be vibrant and confident without being chauvinistic, or it may breed paranoia and foster the growth of ethnic or religious differentiation and communal conflict.

Governments and political movements may seek to manipulate nationalism for either defensive or offensive purposes. By fostering isolationism, nationalism can delay progress toward international integration. Moreover, if political life is organized according to ethnic criteria, power may become polarized with little opportunity for compromise, the alternation in power of competing political elites, or the participation of minority parties in decision making.

Eastern Europe has a long history of irredentist and secessionist movements. Some states have from time to time fomented such movements in order to promote instability among neighbors, often en route to annexation. The danger persists that almost every manifestation of even nonseparatist ethnic aspiration among minorities, especially when backed by outside powers, can be interpreted as proof of deliberate subversion. If left unchecked, pressures for minority rights could be seen to challenge central control over a minority region, or even to threaten the disintegration of the state.

The existence of ethnic or cultural minorities resistant to assimilation can become a serious obstacle to nation-building or state integration, especially if such minorities claim some form of political autonomy. This can arouse the ire of the majority, fueling intercommunal conflict and possibly generating repression in the form of forced assimilation or [End Page 86] expulsion of minority groups. Such developments can in turn transform moderate minority autonomists into radical separatists. Southeastern Europe in particular has a poor record when it comes to protecting minorities, giving outside powers an excuse to press for territorial revisions and annexations. This is where the term "Balkanization" originates, signifying persistent interethnic clashes and territorial competition resulting in a spiral of international...