Accessibility links

East European Perspectives: August 7, 2002

7 August 2002, Volume 4, Number 16


By Taras Kuzio

Good And Bad Nationalisms In Post-Soviet Transitions: Ukraine And Belarus
Mobilization by civil society in multiethnic societies -- or those where the titular nation is divided, as in Ukraine, or weak, as in Belarus -- is made more difficult. Democracies can be created in multiethnic societies, but these may require the construction of consocial arrangements that lead to "centrist" consensus politics, as has happened in Ukraine. This negatively affects the political and economic transition by reducing the possibility for societal mobilization in support of post-Soviet change (Meadwell, 1989, p.149). Consensus politics has led to muddled "third way" domestic and "multivector" foreign policies in Ukraine.

Popular opposition in the late Soviet era was "national-liberationary" in that it combined elements of nationalism and democracy. Nationalist mobilization was greatest in the non-Russian republics, especially in Ukraine and the Baltic states. As Bohdan Krawchenko has pointed out, "In the Baltics, in Byelorussia, and in Ukraine, there is no reform current outside the national movement." This has remained the case in the post-Soviet era. The nationalist movement in the Baltic states and Ukraine "incorporated and hegemonized the democratic discourse in the widest sense of the word" (Krawchenko, 1991, pp. 187-188; Nahaylo, 1998, p. 188, 194). The largest reformist movement in Ukraine is Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, whose kernel are national democrats.

Societal mobilization only took place in Western-Central Ukraine in the late Soviet era, a feature of Ukrainian politics that has continued throughout the 1990s (Kuzio, 2002c). In Eastern-Southern Ukraine and Belarus, societal mobilization has been hampered because of a weak national identity. In Ukraine, the Popular Movement (Rukh) was buttressed by a large group of former political prisoners and cultural intelligentsia who have continued to remain active in domestic politics. In the March 2002 elections, they were mainly members of the Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko opposition blocs. In Belarus, the absence of a dissident movement, smaller cultural intelligentsia, and the lack of a national communist movement created problems for launching a nation- and state-building project after 1992, leading to the election of the Sovietophile Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Nationalism and identity play a pivotal role in promoting reform while blocking the re-emergence of Sovietophile regimes. The drive to modernity through creating a democracy, market economy, state institutions, and united civic nation is forward-looking and seeks to emulate Western liberal democracies (e.g., Ukraine's desire to "return to Europe"). The quadruple transition can be either implemented (Baltic states), muddled through (Ukraine), or rejected altogether (Belarus). All four aspects of the quadruple transition are therefore closely bound together ("Uriadoviy Kurier," 10 March 1999). This close correlation between all four aspects of the quadruple transition has also remained consistent in the Ukrainian and Belarusian cases.

Of those who hold "liberal" views in Kyiv, 90 percent backed Ukraine's state independence. Those who do not regret the disintegration of the USSR are the strongest supporters of reform and Ukraine's integration into the European Union (see White et al, 2002). One hundred, 91, and 43 percent, respectively, of the extreme right, center right, and socialists/communists backed independence ("Uriadoviy Kurier," 18 February 1996). President Leonid Kuchma believes that: "At issue is the assertion of the main principle of nation building, which states that our sovereignty can only exist on the basis of the transition to a market economy" (Ukrainian Television Channel 1, 17 March 1998).

On a different occasion, Kuchma argued that on no account will Ukraine "leave the road of democratization in public life, deep economic transformation, [or] give up the aims declared with the proclamation of independence" (Interfax, 25 May 1998).

Ukraine's elites have long recognized the link between civic nationalism and modernization, believing that reform will be faster and easier in countries with stronger national identities. The "scale of the problems" facing Ukraine and Poland "are fundamentally different," and elites in both countries find it problematic to understand each other ("Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnya," 31 October 1998). Volodymyr Polokhalo, editor of the journal "Politychna Dumka," is therefore critically disposed toward those commentators who feel that Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary undertook their transitions "with greater skills." The reason, he believes, is simpler: After the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, they possessed "better starting conditions than Ukraine" ("Ukraina moloda," 6 November 1998). In comparison to the non-Russian states of the former USSR, these three Central European countries were able to better preserve their "national, cultural, and spiritual elites" who "were always oriented toward the development of national culture." Meanwhile, because private enterprise was to some extent allowed, the "class of small producers" was never completely destroyed in these countries. Ukraine, meanwhile, endured two famines and political purges "that led to the physical elimination of the nation" ("Ukraina moloda," 6 November 1998). Belarus suffered even greater bouts of Russification and Sovietization.

Looking to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states, President Kuchma also recognized the link between national unity and modernization: "The states where society consolidated and accepted a common viewpoint on where their prospects lay were able to launch reforms earlier and to conduct them actively and dynamically. As a result, they made a powerful spurt, went through the phase of inevitable problems sooner, and now have tangible, vivid results" ("Uriadoviy Kurier," 15 July 1999).

On a different occasion, Kuchma added, "We have not achieved success because of an absence of understanding between the branches of power. For economic growth we need political consolidation and political stability" ("Ukrainian Weekly," 15 February 1998, "Uriadoviy Kurier," 18 March 1998).

It is, of course, a moot point whether Kuchma's policies have increased Ukraine's national consolidation and whether he has indeed supported political and economic reform. It may be in the interests of the authorities to not promote national integration as a continued ambivalent identity in Eastern and Southern Ukraine blocks the advance of reformist forces, such as Our Ukraine, and gives non-ideological, centrist, pro-presidential forces an electoral base (Ryabchuk, 2000, p.190).

The weakness of civic nationalism exerts a negative influence on the post-Soviet transition process in Belarus and Ukraine. In the absence of a legitimizing ideology for political and economic reform, the transition process lacks mobilizational potential and can be attacked and derailed by ethnic nationalists and communists on both extremes of the political spectrum (Brudny, 1998, pp. 261-262). Civic nation building is therefore central to the political-economic transition process. A territorial loyalty to only the state PER SE similar to Jurgen Habermas's (1996, pp. 281-294) "Constitutional Patriotism" will be less successful in uniting and winning the allegiance of a population than an ideology which combines both territorial-civic AND ethnic-cultural factors (Kuzio, 1998a, pp. 45-70).

This was clearly seen in the close correlation between high national consciousness and support for the Yushchenko Our Ukraine reformist bloc in the March Ukrainian parliamentary elections. In Belarus, opposition to the Lukashenka regime spans reformist forces across the center and center-right who support the implementation of policies that would support a quadruple transition in that country.

National Identity And Civil Society In Ukraine And Belarus
NATIONAL INTEGRATION AND THE FORGING OF A COMMUNITY OF VALUES. Without state capacity and national integration, Ukraine is unlikely to be able to build a robust civil society (Czarnota, 1997, p. 99). Government programs to form a civil society on the basis of a "single spiritual space" remain weak, ill defined, and confused ("Uriadoviy Kurier," 31 July 1997). Political culture, identity, a community of values, civil society, and democratization are interrelated (Rudych et al, 1998, p. 212). Weak national integration and a decline in the political community will lead to a weakening of the democracy and civil society. Democratization, at a time of weak state capacity and national integration, hampers political-economic transition. The origins of a "sultanistic," authoritarian regime in neighboring Belarus, for example, has been traced by Eke and Kuzio (2000) to a weak national identity and its impact upon civil society.

Upon being elected in July 1994, President Kuchma's leading advisers recognized that Ukraine lacked a civil society that they themselves defined as a polity "where the majority of citizens hold one system of general values, moral basis, ideas, myths, values, social norms, etc." (Vydryn and Tabachnyk, 1995, p. 10). Civil and political society are contested by different regional, clan, and oligarchic groups who compete for the spoils of office with little concern for the public good. The Donetsk elites perceive greater cultural similarity between, and harbor positive feelings toward, themselves and Russians in Russia than between themselves and Western Ukrainians (see Shulman, 1999). Seventy-five percent of the public believe that Ukraine's leadership is indifferent to their fate (Rudych et al, 1998, p. 33). In such an environment, where there are competing visions and an absence of state policies, it is difficult for a political nation and civil society to be developed if there are no commonly agreed values that are promoted to unite the majority of the population.

Civil society is the arena where intellectuals can operate. They supply the legitimization and create the consensus on behalf of the ruling elites within the sphere of culture, manners, myths, and values. In Ukraine and in other postcommunist "transitions," the intelligentsia are often ignored (this was particularly true in the first two years of Kuchma's presidency). The intelligentsia in Ukraine is often Ukrainophone and national democratic in its outlook (e.g., the Congress of Ukrainian Intellectuals and the Writers Union). In contrast, a major debilitating factor for Russophones is a lack of an intelligentsia to formulate their demands and mobilize them into a civil society.

The intelligentsia is a source of values for Ukraine's civil society. But in Ukraine, there is little contact between it and the emerging middle class of "New Ukrainians," which is largely Russian-speaking and indifferent to Ukrainian culture and language. The creation of a community of values requires that the gulf between the cultural intelligentsia and "New Ukrainians" be therefore narrowed. Both are members of the emerging Ukrainian bourgeoisie, but one section ("New Ukrainians") is largely devoid of interest in Ukrainian culture, and its commitment to the creation of a liberal democratic state and market economy is questionable. Many of them made their capital through the shadow economy and/or shady business practices, a situation that they prefer to keep in place. Hence the support given by many "New Ukrainians" to centrist political parties and Ukraine's "Third Way."

STRONGER NATIONAL IDENTITY MEANS GREATER SUPPORT FOR REFORM. As civil society and national identity are closely interlinked in Ukraine and Belarus, nationalist mobilization against communism was greater in those regions where national identity was higher. These regions continue to be bastions of support for reformist forces and opposition to both oligarchic authoritarianism and communism. The highly urbanized and industrialized Eastern and Southern Ukraine, where identity is weak, played NO role (except for sporadic strikes by coal miners) in the drive to Ukrainian independence in the late Soviet era. Nationalist mobilization in Belarus was also low because of the absence of a counterelite of former dissidents and a weak national communist tradition. In the upheaval caused by the "Kuchmagate" scandal in winter 2000-spring 2001, Eastern Ukraine was again passive and only Western and Central Ukrainians took to the streets. During the March 2002 elections, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine received its least support in Eastern-Southern Ukraine.

Edward Shils believes that it is precisely the nation or nationality which "provides the cohesion which would otherwise have been lacking in those civil societies" in the 19th century (Shils, 1991, p. 7). In "inclusive" political communities, such as most Western liberal democracies, all inhabitants are citizens and therefore members of the civic nation. In such inclusive states, where civic nationalism predominates, the nation and civil society are "coterminous." The granting of citizenship assumes that the citizen will become a member of the civic nation (political community) and that a "particular nationality" (usually defined as the titular or core) will have "precedence" over all others within the bounded territory of the community.

In the Ukrainian case, this was not decided until June 1996, when the constitution was adopted that declared Ukrainians as the titular nation and Russians as one of many national minorities. In Belarus, the establishment of a Sovietophile regime since 1994 has led to the erosion of Belarusian national identity and the resumption of Soviet-era Russification. Russians are therefore joint titular nations with Belarusians. In Minsk, there is no longer a single Belarusian school -- unlike Kyiv, where 85 percent of schools use Ukrainian as their language of instruction.

How does the absence of a nation affect civil society? Shils (1995, p. 118) believes that "without a nation there can be no civil society." Nation building, if undertaken, develops both a civic nation AND civil society. If a country such as Belarus has given up on nation building, the development of civil society is threatened. The absence of national unity will directly affect civil society because national unity is "oriented by nationhood. Civil society is one of the institutional manifestations of the nation" (Shils, 1995, p. 111). Shils believes that, without nationality, the state does not possess the necessary preconditions to create a civil society, an effective constitution, laws, or citizenship. The core of civil society is the "dominant nation."

But how will civil society be affected if this "dominant nation" is divided, as in Ukraine, or weak and unclear about its identity, as in Belarus? Ukraine's regional, linguistic, and political divisions create obstacles to national integration, the creation of a unified civil society, and a single definition of the national interest. This is yet another obstacle faced by Ukraine in the creation of a united civil society. A divided titular nation in Ukraine impedes the formation of national integration and therefore by default the rise of civil society. A far weaker national identity in Belarus leads to the unique instance in the postcolonial world where a country that has achieved independence rejects its own statehood.

The link between civil society and national identity as a force promoting positive change against foreign and domestic despotic rule is a modern phenomenon. Modernity unleashes the logic of identity (Hall, 1996a, p. 341). Questions of nationalism, national identity, and civil society are therefore central to the drive for post-Soviet modernization and the "return to Europe" of states such as Ukraine and Belarus.

The disintegration of empires leads many sectors of society to fall back on local identities in the absence of an all-embracing national one. The Soviet legacy of a Ukrainian republican SSR has left a legacy of territorial attachment to Ukraine but with an unclear cultural-ethnic identity in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Such a confused identity is not conducive to promoting civil society and national integration because trust is lacking across the country's regions (see Kuzio, 2002b, 2002c). Russophone Ukrainians and Russians may encompass a large segment of the Ukrainian population, but their ability to organize collective action is weak. Andrew Wilson admits that this is likely to persist because of a lack of "a clear-cut sense of identity" (Smith and Wilson, 1997, p. 855, Wilson, 1998, p. 135). The Russophones have a "softer" identity than their Ukrainophone counterparts, exhibit lower levels of civic activity, and do not translate their preferences into support for specific parties in elections. This is clearly seen in the abysmal failure of the two Russian nationalist blocs, which obtained support of just over 1 percent in the March 2002 Ukrainian parliamentary elections.

The Ukrainophones, Wilson believes, therefore have a clear advantage over the Russophones in organizing civil society, attesting to a close correlation between national identity, civil society, and mobilization. Civil society is consequently more active in Western-Central Ukraine. Even in the Crimea, the only region of Ukraine with a Russian majority, ethnic mobilization proved short-lived and weak (see Lievan, 1999). In the March 2002 elections to the Ukrainian parliament, the Russian nationalist groups fared worse than Our Ukraine in the Crimea.

Western civic states have always been composed of BOTH civic and ethnic-cultural factors (see Canovan, 1996, Kuzio, 2002a). Civic states are most commonly defined as "nation-states" because national identity is inseparable from political consciousness (Anderson, p. 135). The terms "nation" and "people" (in the Ukrainian language "narod" can be translated as either) are used interchangeably in legal and political terms (Habermas, 1996, p. 282). Political identity in the modern era is linked to national identity because political awareness implies a conscious national loyalty.

Gellner, (1996, p. 54) echoing John Stuart Mill, believed that civil society was therefore easier to establish in societies which were culturally homogenous and where a "modular man" exists who "is no longer tied to a social niche, but to a culturally defined pool." Civil society and nationalism came from the same source and were allies during opposition to despotic foreign or authoritarian domestic rule. Democracy is government by the people, and self-rule is only possible if the people are also a nation. Members should therefore share not only a sense of political allegiance to the territory (i.e., Habermas's "constitutional patriotism" and Kuchma's "ideology of state building") but also loyalty to common national-cultural factors (Kymlicka, 1996, p. 52).

The relationship between civil society and national identity lies at the heart of the transition process in post-Soviet states such as Ukraine and Belarus. Nationalism is an "occasional friend" and not an "eternal foe" of civil society. When nationalism and civil society are both opposed to a despotic regime or colonial rule, they are natural allies. If nationalism is ethnic, exclusive, and integral, it is more than likely to repress civil society (Hall, 1996b, p. 12).

Studies of transition in postcommunist countries therefore should neither ignore nor condemn nationalism PER SE; instead they should investigate how nationalism and identity can be mobilized along civic �- not ethnic �- lines in order for it to reinforce �- not suppress �- civil society. As I have argued elsewhere, the Ukrainian and Belarusian cases are examples of postcommunist states where the main problem negatively affecting their transition process has been too little �- not too much -- civic nationalism (see Kuzio, 2002d).

Transitologists have perhaps been unwilling to incorporate nationalism and identity within their studies -- unlike state and institution building -- because nationalism is often defined as an ally of ethnic exclusivity and xenophobia. But to deny the centrality of national questions to postcommunist transitions is to negate the close interrelationship between civil society and identity in all civic states. Without a "common identity" and "group solidarity," which "presupposes trust," societal mobilization for the goals of political-economic modernization are not possible (Shils, 1995, p.116). An atomized population, regionally divided, cynical, lacking efficacy and feelings of mutual trust with other citizens in the same country is unlikely to generate either a vibrant civil society or societal mobilization toward declared goals. The "collective self-consciousness" sustains civil society because "concern for one's nation reinforces the concern for the common good" (Shils, 1995, p. 93). National unity and integration therefore play a central role in sustaining civil society and generating mobilization: "Moreover, for the collective actor to be able to calculate the costs and benefits of collective action and act strategically, his identity has to be established. The process of the creation of identity occurs through collective interaction itself, within and between groups" (Cohen, 1985, p. 692).

Although bringing the state back into "transitology" is welcome, this paper has argued that studies of postcommunist -- and particularly post-Soviet -- transition cannot ignore the centrality of either nationalism or of identity. In contrast to a "triple" transition," we should therefore discuss transition in post-Soviet states as "quadruple" in nature. In Ukraine and Belarus, there is a close link between national identity, support for reform, and civil society. In both countries, weak identities have negatively affected the transition process toward the stated goals of democratization, marketization, and "returning to Europe."

Within the context of the quadruple transition, this paper has pointed to a variety of factors that exert a negative influence upon post-Soviet transition. The Soviet legacy of totalitarianism gave Ukraine and Belarus different starting points from those in Central-Eastern and Southern Europe or Latin America (see Kuzio, 2001a). A multiethnic society and weak (Belarus) or fractured (Ukraine) titular nation negatively influence democratic consolidation and the development of civil society. Ukraine and Belarus have either semiweak or weak civil societies, which can only be strengthened through the national integration of the titular nation.

The state, nationalism, and identity should be included within studies of transition, which should recognize that civic nationalism is central to the success of the quadruple transition. Nationality remains important to the vitality and efficient functioning of Western civic states, liberal democracies, and civil societies (see Canovan, 1996, Yack, 1999, Kuzio, 2002a). It is therefore incumbent upon those who study transition in postcommunist states, such as Ukraine and Belarus, to also place nationhood and identity at the center of their focus. By focusing on nationalism and identity, we shall be able to better understand why transition is muddled in Ukraine and why it has failed in Belarus.

(The author is resident fellow and adjunct professor at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.)


Anderson, B., 1991, Imagined Communities (London: Verso).

Brudny, Y. M., 1998, Reinventing Russia. Russian Nationalism and the Soviet State, 1953-1991 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Canovan, M., 1996, Nationhood and Political Theory (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar).

Cohen, J. L., 1985, "Strategy or Identity: New Theoretical Paradigms and Contemporary Social Movements" in "Social Research," Vol. 52, no. 4 (Winter), pp. 663-716.

Czarnota, A., 1997, "Constitutional Nationalism, Citizenship and Hope for Civil Society in Eastern Europe" in Pavkovic, A., Kosharsky, H., and Czarnota, A. (eds.), Nationalism and Postcommunism. A Collection of Essays (Aldershot: Dartmouth), pp. 83-100.

Eke, S. and Kuzio, T., 2000, "Sultanism in Eastern Europe. The Socio-Political Roots of Authoritarian Populism in Belarus," in "Europe-Asia Studies," Vol. 52, no. 3 (May), pp. 523-547.

Gellner, E., 1996, "The Importance of Being Modular" in Hall, J. A. (ed.), Civil Society, Theory, History, Comparison (Cambridge: Polity Press), pp. 32-55.

Habermas, J., 1996, "The European Nation-State -- Its Achievements and Its Limits. On the Past and Future of Sovereignty and Citizenship" in Balakrishnan, G., Anderson, B. (eds.), Mapping the Nation (London: Verso), pp. 281-294.

Hall, S., 1996a, "Ethnicity: Identity and Difference" in Geoff Eley, G. and Suny, R. G. (eds.), Becoming National. A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 339-351.

Hall, J. A., 1996b, "In Search of Civil Society" in Hall, J. A. (ed.), Civil Society, Theory, History, Comparison (Cambridge: Polity Press), pp. 1-31.

Interfax (Moscow), 1998.

Krawchenko, B., 1991, "Economic Reform, Democracy and National Movements in the USSR" in "Regional Politics and Policy," Vol. 1, no. 2 (Summer), pp. 182-190.

Kuzio, T., 1998a, Ukraine. State and Nation Building (London: Routledge).

Kuzio, T., 2001a, "Transition in Post-Communist States: Triple or Quadruple?" in "Politics," Vol. 21, no. 3 (September), pp. 101-110.

Kuzio, T., 2002a, "The Myth of the Civic State: A Critical Survey of Hans Kohn's Framework for Understanding Nationalism" in "Ethnic and Racial Studies," Vol. 25, no. 1 (January), pp. 20-39.

Kuzio, T., 2002b, "Anti nationalist Campaign to Discredit Our Ukraine" in "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 9 April.

Kuzio, T., 2002c. "Why Is There No Human Rights Movement In Ukraine?" in "RFE/RL (Un)civil Societies," 2 May.

Kuzio, T., 2002d, "Nationalism in Ukraine. Towards a New theoretical and Comparative Framework" in "Journal of Political Ideologies," Vol. 7, no. 2 (June), pp. 133-162.

Kymlicka, W., 1996, Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Lievan, A., 1999, "The Weakness of Russian Nationalism" in "Survival," Vol. 41, no. 2 (Summer), pp. 53-70.

Meadwell, H., 1989, "Ethnic Nationalism and Collective Choice Theory" in "Comparative Political Studies," Vol. 22, no. 2 (July), pp. 139-154.

Nahaylo, B., 1998, The Ukrainian Resurgence (London: Hurst).

Rudych, F. M. et al, 1998, Politychna Systema Suchasnoii Ukraiiny: Osoblyvosti Stanovlennia, Tendentsii Rozvytku [The Political System of Contemporary Ukraine: Its Establishment, Tendency and Development] (Kyiv: Parliamentary Publishers).

Ryabchuk, M., 2000, "Vid Malorosii do Ukraiiny" [From Little Russians to Ukrainians] (Kyiv: Krytyka).

Shils, E., 1991, "The Virtue of Civil Society" in "Government and Opposition," Vol. 26, no. 1 (Winter), pp. 3-20.

Shils, E., 1995, "Nation, Nationality, Nationalism and Civil Society" in "Nations and Nationalism," Vol. 1, no. 1 (March), pp. 93-118.

Shulman, S., 1999, "The Cultural Foundations of Ukrainian National Identity" in "Ethnic and Racial Studies," Vol. 22, no. 6 (November), pp. 1011-1036.

Smith, G. and Wilson, A., 1997, "Rethinking Russia's Post-Soviet Diaspora: The Potential for Political Mobilization in Eastern Ukraine and North-East Estonia" in "Europe-Asia Studies," Vol. 49, no. 5 (July), pp. 845-864.

"Ukraina moloda" (Kyiv), 1998.

Ukrainian Television Channel 1, 1998.

"Uriadoviy Kurier" (Kyiv), 1996-99.

Vydryn, D., and Tabachnyk, D., 1995, Ukraiina na porozi XXI stolittia. Politychnyi aspekt [Ukraine on the Verge of the 21st Century. Political Aspects] (Kyiv: Lybid).

White, S. et al, 2002, "A European or a Slavic Choice? Foreign Policies and Public Attitudes in Post-Soviet Europe" in "Europe-Asia Studies," Vol. 54, no. 2 (March), pp. 181-202.

Wilson, A., 1998, "Redefining Ethnic and Linguistic Boundaries in Ukraine: Indigenes, Settlers and Russophone Ukrainians" in Smith, G., et al, Nation-building in the Post-Soviet Borderlands. The Politics of National Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 119-138.

Yack, B., 1999, "The Myth of the Civic Nation" in Beiner, R. (ed.), Theorizing Nationalism (Albany: State University of New York), pp.103-118.

"Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnya" (Kyiv), 1998.