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World: Nationalist Challenges Increase

  • Charles Fenyvesi

Washington, 11 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Yugoslav Federation and Czechoslovakia has fueled rather than dampened expectations of self-determination among minorities across Eurasia, according to a new collection of essays prepared by scholars from that region and the West.

But the outcome of what the writers in this volume call "the second round of nationalist assertion" remains unclear as the Chechen conflict shows, both because of the attitudes of existing states in the region and because of those across the international community.

Edited by Professor Ray Taras of Tulane University in the United States, this new volume, entitled "National Identities and Ethnic Minorities in Eastern Europe," nevertheless represents an important breakthrough on these issues on two grounds:

First, the essays this book contains were first presented as papers offered at the Fifth World Congress of Central and East European Studies in Warsaw in 1995, the first such scholarly gathering held in a former communist capital which analyzed the region's post-communist culture and society. And thus they include scholars from the region as well as the West.

And second, the essays themselves reflect a variety of disciplines, ranging from psychology to political science, from investigations of overlapping group identities in Eastern Europe to a political assessment of statistics that suggest a significant development of ethnic consciousness among the Finno-Ugric minorities in Russia.

Other chapters track the resurgence of nomadism among Bulgarian gypsies and the revival of ethnic awareness among Poles in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine,

But the volume is unified in its general approach. Each chapter examines why ethnic minorities have become more assertive in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In each chapter, an ethnic minority is suddenly more assertive than it was before the collapse of the Soviet empire. And despite differences in language, each scholar poses what amounts to the same question: Will the minorities and the majorities draw from the deep well of historical grievances and decide to live apart or will they venture into the bustle of the marketplace in the hope of building a better future together.

Three findings of the book are likely to provoke new controversies: First, most of the authors suggest that the chances of conflict have increased with the appearance of new diaspora populations as the result of the collapse of old states and that this development in Eastern Europe serves as a "bellwether" for the rest of the world.

Second, the authors argue that identities other than ethnicity remain remarkably weak: Europe is a distant mirage for most groups and local communities seem to narrow to hold the attention of most.

And third, and this will certainly prove controversial, the authors suggest that neither Poland nor Ukraine has returned to the exclusivist nationalist approaches of the past. Many have argued otherwise, and this book provides evidence for the alternative view. According to one of the authors, the influx into Poland of new immigrants from Vietnam, Palestine and parts of the former Soviet Union has made it easier for Poles to acknowledge the existence of its historical national minorities such as Ukrainians, Germans and Jews

And in Ukraine, political leaders overwhelmingly are seeking "a form of statism, rather than nationalism," a striving that reduces historical forms of nationalism.