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  • The Challenge of Ethnic ConflictThe Cruel Face of Nationalism
  • Vesna Pešić (bio)

With the fall of communist regimes in Europe and the demise of the bipolar structure of international relations, we are witnessing the outbreak of old conflicts and animosities among the nations and peoples of the Balkans and East Central Europe. At the same time, we are seeing the emergence of latent national and ethnic conflicts in Western Europe, as the unifying force of the Cold War and of bloc-defined politics wanes. I am convinced that the way in which the international community deals with the strife in the former Yugoslavia will have a profound impact on the resolution of Western Europe's own internal difficulties. It will also have significant repercussions for Russia and the other former Soviet republics. It would be a great tragedy if the message that is drawn from the Yugoslav crisis provides an incentive or justification for the revival of the Russian Empire or attempts to unite all Russians now living beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.

The nationalism that has recently emerged in this context is distinctly undemocratic. As such, it is reproducing the old totalitarian structures in the new postcommunist societies. In countries with historically rooted ethnic tensions and significant socioeconomic difficulties, it is introducing elements of fascism. Because of the structural similarities between communism and this brand of nationalism, it has been [End Page 100] relatively easy to move from the one ideology to the other—that is, from one form of collectivism to the other. The former was based on class, represented by the Communist Party; the latter is founded upon ethnic homogeneity, represented by the national leader. Both systems neglect the individual and undermine the notion of rights to equal citizenship. Thus I agree with Adam Michnik, who has stated (ironically rephrasing Lenin) that nationalism is the last stage of communism. We can only hope that this stage will not last another 50 or more years.

Why is this resurgent nationalism in Eastern Europe antidemocratic? The main reason lies in the very understanding of the "nation" that forms the core of the notion of the nation-state in this region. As Julie Mostov has pointed out, membership in the nation here is defined by genealogy. That is, national identity is tied to presumed common ethnic descent as well as common language, religion, myths, and culture.1 Citizenship rights are treated not as individual rights extended equally to all, but as the collective rights of ethnic or "national" groups. The nation is understood as a kind of superfamily. Such a conception excludes those who are not members of the dominant national group, and relegates all others to second-class citizenship.

Manipulating this kind of ethnocentric nationalism has been seen as the quickest and most effective method of gaining political power and maintaining control of the population. Old communist leaders who have recently transformed themselves into nationalists have taken this road and used national feelings and fears to serve their own ambitions. Power gained in this way is by definition authoritarian. The originally democratic idea of self-determination has become, in this context, a tool in the leaders' struggle for power.

In such struggles, particularly where armed conflicts have broken out, the use of this ethnic-based notion of nationalism has left no place for real pluralism or genuine multiparty politics. Many opposition parties have also been drawn into using nationalist appeals. Those parties or groups that have tried to withstand the pull of this force have been labeled "unpatriotic" or "traitors" and have been marginalized. Political actors have been mobilized as if they were military troops. Those who serve in parliaments are conscious that practically nothing at all is decided there. They know and implicitly accept that might will decide the direction of policy and all other matters. In this way, resistance to these nationalist regimes has been effectively undermined or destroyed.

Exclusive nationalism is expansionistic. National questions are put in terms of territorial battles to "recover" or "secure" territories in order to protect fellow nationals or national "treasures." The path of obtaining guarantees of civil and political rights for fellow nationals living beyond the boundaries...