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East/Central Europe: Multiculturalism Discussed In The Light Of Ethnic Conflicts

By Michael Ledig

Vienna, 6 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Last week (Sept. 28-30) representatives of 25 European countries met in Vienna to discuss multiculturalism and multiethnicity in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe. The meeting also addressed the role of individual cultures in the process of European integration.

The meeting was supported by the European Union and UNESCO. The United Nations has established an international research and policy program called "Management of Social Transformations." It focuses on the government of multicultural and ethnic societies. It also develops and supports international projects in Central and Eastern Europe.

Ali Kazancigal, director of UNESCO division of Social Services in Paris, said that the overwhelming majority of societies today are multiethnic and multicultural but ethnic tensions have become a major source of violent conflicts, outnumbering interstate wars. This is increased by international migration caused by economic factors.

Kazancigal said that while ethnic cultural diversity is not a new phenomenon, over the last twenty years or so the world has been witnessing a marked ethnic and ethno-cultural revival. All over the world there is an increased awareness of individual cultural identity and this applies to both the industrial and the developing countries.

The organizers of the gathering commented on this danger in their assertion that the question of European enlargement must not be restricted to political, economic and legal aspects.

The problems in the wider Europe appear more complex than elsewhere. Stanislav Kirschbaum of York University in Toronto, said that the cultural development of the emerging European states has been complicated by their years under communist rule and the upheaval during their struggle for freedom.

When communism collapsed in Central Europe at the end of the 1980s, Kirschbaum said, each state's democratic process and political culture exhibited the influence of two historical experiences: the development of democracy prior to the Communist takeover it's suppression during communist rule.

Zaresci Rubin, assistant minister in the Macedonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, observed that the social history of the Balkans was one of complex migratory movements. In the case of Macedonia, while the country's society was transformed relatively smoothly after the fall of communist rule, the changes provoked divergences based on religious and national factors. This complicated an agreement on the notion of national identity.

Daniel Celleja, head of the EU Department in charge of cultural issues, said the aim of the gathering was to issue a declaration identifying such key factors influencing society as religion, culture and the media.

Celleja said the European Commission and the European Parliament would be examining that declaration with a view to identifying any practical steps that might be taken. The EU started off with six countries which were very close to each other, but successive enlargement had involved more diverse cultures and in the future it would be even more complicated.

Hanna Suchocka of Poland was long involved in human rights issues before she was, first, prime minister, and now, minister of justice. She was particularly interested in the conference as a forum for discussion of common ideas and problems. By way of example the minister noted the widespread opinion that the media played an essential part in the development of pluralistic societies, particularly in terms of the use of language. She said that, as a prospective member of the European Union, Poland must prepare itself for a more pluralistic society.

Joszef Pal, deputy state secretary for Hungarian culture and heritage, considered that the preservation of individual cultures and heritage within united Europe was a major task. But he also pointed out the danger of individual states being too rooted in their individual identity. He recalled in this context the tension that arose in an earlier attempt at Central and East European integration within the Austro-Hungarian empire.