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East European Perspectives: June 25, 2003

25 June 2003, Volume 5, Number 13


By Taras Kuzio

After the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the USSR in 1991, large numbers of Serbs and Russians, the core nations in each state, were left outside the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY, consisting of Serbia and Montenegro) and the Russian Federation. Twenty-five percent of Serbs were left outside the FRY, the first time this had happened since the first Yugoslav state had been created after World War I (Sekelj, 2000).

The 1974 Yugoslav Constitution upgraded Serbs to a second titular nationality in Croatia due to the large size of the Serbian minority. In May 1990, after the victory of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Community, this status was downgraded to that of a minority. The 1976 Soviet Constitution did not give Russians titular status in any non-Soviet republic. Demand for titular status has been raised in the post-Soviet era, but it was only de facto given to Russians in Belarus after the election of Sovietophile Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 1994. As with Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, Russians find it difficult to accept the status of a national minority in the non-Russian successor states.

Twenty-five million Russians (17 percent of the total number in the former USSR, according to the 1989 census) were residents of non-Russian former Soviet states after 1992 (Harris, 1993). Russian minorities are particularly large in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Moldova, and the two Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia. According to the 1989 Soviet census, nearly half of the Russian minority outside the Russian Federation lived in Ukraine (12 million, or 22 percent of Ukraine's population).

In addition, both the FRY and the Russian Federation themselves have large minorities. Within Serbia, one-third of the population comprises minorities, the largest being in Kosova, where Albanians account for 80 percent of the population. In the Russian Federation, Russians account for 82 percent of inhabitants. Autonomous republics for minority groups were only created in Serbia and in the Russian SFSR. This created resentment in Serbia, where ethnic nationalism was and remains strong, but less so in the Russian SFSR or the post-Soviet Russian Federation, where state and imperial-great-power nationalism is more predominant.

The main thesis of this paper is that the ethnic mobilization of Serbs and the passivity of Russians in the late 1980s and early 1990s was due to the way in which their identities were defined. Serb identity is grounded in ethnic terms, and there is a strong link to Serb minorities living outside Serbia. Russian identity is defined in statist ways because Russian identity was always based on an imperial or great power state.

A Theoretical Framework And Outline Of Main Thesis
1. ETHNIC and STATE NATIONALISM: The main distinction between the Serbian and Russian cases of mobilization and passivity respectively lies in the different mobilizational capacities of ethnic (Serbian) and statist and great power-imperial (Russian) nationalism.

There is little requirement to prove the existence of ethnic nationalism. One has to only look at the wide range of recent ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, Transcaucasus, Chechnya, Rwanda, Kashmir, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, and East Timor. Ethnic nationalism is invariably seen in a negative light because it is usually violent and hostile to other ethnic groups.

But this (in many ways well deserved) stereotype tells just a small part of the story. Ethnic nationalism can be differentiated into "defensive" and "aggressive" types. Ethnic nationalism is not always violent, as one can see in Wales, Scotland, France's Brittany, and Spain's Catalonia. It can be sometimes defensive in support of repressed language and culture, as in Wales, China's Tibet, or in the non-Russian republics of the former USSR such as Ukraine and the three Baltic states.

In other cases, nationalists see violence as their only recourse, as in the Spanish Basque region, Albanians in Macedonia, and in France's Corsica. In yet other regions, nationalists oppose internationally recognized occupations (e.g., Western Sahara against Morocco and East Timor against Indonesia), which are perceived by the local population as illegal despite this recognition (e.g., Russia's Chechnya, Serbia's Kosova) or racist and/or ethnic injustice (apartheid South Africa, Native Indians in Mexico, Abkhaz and Ossetians in Georgia).

There is therefore a wide range of ethnic nationalisms. Most observers would condemn Serbian and Croatian ethnic nationalism with their accompanying features of violence and ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. Yet many would not necessarily do likewise in the other examples of ethnic nationalism cited above, such as in Wales, Brittany, or East Timor.

Ethnic nationalism has great mobilizational capacity, something that is not true of state nationalism (Neuberger, 2001, p. 399). Territorially based identities have less capacity to mobilize ethnic groups because of cross-cutting cleavages and the lack of group solidarity; Dawson (1996, p. 24) therefore concludes in her discussion of nationalism in the late Soviet era that:

"Thus, while available for possible mobilization, territorial group identities are not expected to form nearly as potent a base for the social movement emerging in the late Soviet period as national and ethnic identity."

The different mobilization capacities of ethnic and state nationalisms explain why Serbs could mobilize and Russians did not. Only Serbian nationalism is ethnically driven, while the latter is statist and territorial, deriving its legitimacy from the tsarist empire and/or USSR as imperial states and "great powers."

2. ETHNO-CULTURAL RESOURCES AND MOBILIZATION: Ethno-cultural resources are required for the successful mobilization of populations. Theories of mobilization and civic action see the need for a common identity, group solidarity, trust, and cultural and intellectual resources:

"Moreover, for the collective actor to be able to calculate the costs and benefits of collective action and act on strategy, his identity must be established. The process of the creation of identity occurs through collective interaction itself, within and between groups" (Cohen, 1985, p. 692).

These ethno-cultural factors were present among Serbs but not among Russians. "Resources," such as ethno-cultural factors, therefore facilitated mobilization for Serbs but not for Russians. Russian minorities were primarily working class in nature who had been sent to industrialize the non-Russian regions of the former USSR. They had little, if any, cultural intelligentsia to assist in their mobilization (Smith, 1999, p. 501). Political entrepreneurs need the cultural intelligentsia to mobilize the minorities along ethnic lines.

Unlike in the Serb case, there was little group solidarity between Russians living in the Russian RSFSR and external Russian minorities. Russian minorities also lacked an external patron who was willing to violently act in their support, unlike the Serbs (Smith and Wilson, 1997, pp. 853-854, 861).

The most successful manner in which mobilization occurs is based on national identity, as we have seen in the high activity of Serbs and the passivity of Russians. Where countries or regions were recently annexed to the USSR, memory of pre-Soviet civic activity is still alive. This can be built upon to revive pre-Soviet civil society, which also leads to higher civic mobilization (Abdelal, 2002). A comparative study of Galicia in Ukraine and Transylvania in Romania concluded that "[h]istorical legacies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire have left a lasting impression" on the two regions (Roper and Fesnic, 2003, p. 129). On the other hand, all of Russia has been part of the USSR from its inception.

Different regions of the USSR and within republics inherited differing levels of social capital. In Ukraine, for example, western regions have higher social capital, greater trust, and therefore greater involvement in civil society (Aberg, 2000). The Ukrainian Popular Movement (Rukh), which propelled Ukraine to independence and has been dominant in western Ukraine since 1990, is the "most rooted in independent civil society" (Birch, 2000, p. 1034). Ukraine has different levels of civic participation in civic activity, with higher rates in the west than in the east. Based on these findings, Ukrainian analyst Yuriy Akymenko concluded that "the western region upholds its reputation as the most active and radicalized" ("Zerkalo nedeli/Tzerkalo tyzhnia," 2 November 2002). The weakness of Russian mobilization and passivity is encountered in the russified regions of the former USSR, such as eastern Ukraine (Beissinger, 1997, p. 163, Beissinger, 2002, p. 122). The greater the russification of a region, the more the identity of the russified population is grounded in territorial, and not in ethno-cultural markers. "Thus, processes of linguistic assimilation exert a marked effect on elite behavior by reducing the will and capacity of such elites to engage in contentious nationalistic acts" (Beissinger, 2002, p. 117).

In the Crimea, the only region of Ukraine with a Russian majority, Russian nationalism proved short-lived and weak. Russian separatism remained confined to 1990-91, when it successfully agitated in favor of upgrading the "oblast" to an autonomous republic, and 1994-95, during the Crimean presidential elections won by the separatist Yuriy Meshkov. By March 1995, the Crimean presidency had been abolished, and since then Russian separatists in the Crimea have been totally marginalized.

In the Crimea, pro-Russian separatists were opposed by "centrists" who hailed from the higher-level communist "nomenklatura" and the Communists. Former Communists became pro-Ukrainian "centrists" -- not Ukrainian or Russian nationalists -- again making this dissimilar to Serbia and Yugoslavia. Those who remained Communists, always the largest party in the Crimea, oppose separatism and agitate for Ukraine as part of a revived USSR or Ukraine's membership of the Russia-Belarus Union.

Ironically, the only permanent ethnic nationalist mobilization in the Crimea is not by Russians but by Tatars, who began to return to the peninsula in the late 1980s. Only Tatars (not Russians) are able to mobilize large crowds in that region.

3. NATIONAL IDENTITY AND DEMOCRATIZATION: Although "aggressive" ethnic nationalism of the type that engulfed Yugoslavia in the early 1990s is undoubtedly a negative phenomenon, the same cannot be said of national identity. A robust national identity will help strengthen civil society (Shils, 1995).

Nationalism and the fate of the Serbian minority outside Serbia dominated the agenda of most Serbian political parties until the late 1990s. It allowed Slobodan Milosevic and his Socialist Party (SPS) to stay in power by riding the nationalist wave and aligning themselves with "loyal nationalist" Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party ([SRS] Gordy, 1999, p. 46, Bugajski, 1995, p. 149). Seselj's "Cetnik" paramilitaries competed with Vuk Draskovic's "opposition nationalist" Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) for the right to lead the revival and rehabilitation of the Cetnik movement. They, as well as Zoran Djindjic's Democratic Party (DS) and Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), initially supported paramilitary activity in defense of Serb minorities in Bosnia and Croatia (Gordy, 1999, p. 50).

Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democrats have always played a similar role to Seselj's Radicals, as "loyal nationalists" in the Russian Federation. Except that Zhirinovskii, for all his eccentricities, has never organized paramilitaries to defend Russian minorities in the non-Russian republics of the former USSR.

By 2000, the mobilization capacity of Serbs was channeled away from ethnic nationalism toward support for democratic change and opposition to the Milosevic regime. Nearly 1 million Serbs entered Belgrade in October 2000 to support Kostunica's victory in the first Yugoslav presidential elections and to oppose Milosevic's clumsy attempt at election fraud in claiming victory. The large size of this mobilization in favor of democratic change built on many earlier large opposition demonstrations in Belgrade in June 1990 (70,000), March 1991 (500,000), November 1996 (200,000), January 1997 (500,000), and February 1997 (150,000) (Thomas, 1999, pp. 288, 423, 432).

Such large-scale Serbian mobilization (i.e., BOTH ethnic nationalist and democratic) could not have taken place without group solidarity throughout the country and among all levels of Serbs. It again showed that national identity can be mobilized in support of EITHER nationalism or democratization. Nationalist demonstrations in the Russian SFSR were always rare.Those by the Russian democratic movement allied to Yeltsin were confined to the cities of Moscow and Leningrad. Unlike national democratic popular fronts in the non-Russian republics of the former USSR, the Russian democratic movement never succeeded in creating a popular front that encompassed the entire republic.

Consequently, demonstrations since 1992 in the Russian Federation have been very small, with the largest organized by the Communist Party. In areas populated by Russian minorities, there has been near total passivity. The main reason rests in the weakness of Russian national (i.e., ethnic) identity and the amorphous identity of Russophones (Wilson, 1998, p. 135).

Passivity among Russians and Russophones in Ukraine has weakened the antipresidential opposition movement and made it easier for the authorities to treat eastern Ukraine as their base of support. Two Donbas "oblasts" and the city of Sevastopol were the only regions where Viktor Yushchenko's reformist Our Ukraine bloc failed to cross the 4 percent threshold in the half of deputies elected proportionally in the 2002 parliamentary elections. The pro-presidential For a United Ukraine bloc came first in only one region -- Donetsk -- while failing to cross the 4 percent threshold in Galicia and the city of Kyiv.

4. WEAK AND STRONG ETHNIC NATIONALISM: Ethnic mobilization mainly took place among Serbs and the Serbian diaspora in Yugoslavia because Serbian -- unlike Russian - identity is defined in ethnic terms. The Serbian minorities outside Serbia were, and are, seen as an inseparable part of the Serbian nation. The Yugoslav state was a guarantor that all Serbs, whether inside Serbia or as minorities in other republics, lived within the same state. It meant that the Serbian question was "resolved" (Pavlowitch, 2002, p. 133). Within the first interwar Yugoslav state, the distinction between "Serbia" and "Yugoslavia" was far more blurred than in postwar Yugoslavia, especially after the 1974 constitution, which turned it into a confederation.

Once Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991-92, the fate of Serbian minorities became a burning issue for all Serbian political groups, dominating the political landscape until the late 1990s. This was due to the fact that nationalism had a "deep resonance in the Serb and the Balkan body politic" and Serbian ethnic nationalism was "deeply rooted in Serbian political culture" (Cohen, 1997, p. 245). Indeed, "[t]he opposition parties ended up competing to prove their patriotism among themselves and within the government, even if the shades of patriotism differed" (Pavlowitch, 2002, p. 203).

Reform (democratization and market economic transformation) was not the priority issue for Serbs, unlike for Russian or non-Russian national democrats. No social strata was interested in, or ideologically prepared to prioritize, reforms in Serbia until after 2000 (Sekelj, 2000, p. 58). The fate of the Serbian minority stranded outside Serbia after the disintegration of Yugoslavia united disparate political groups -- from the Socialists and loyal nationalist Radicals (SRS), to the nationalist and democratic opposition SPO, DS, and DSS. The potential for a reformist agenda to take over from nationalism only began to appear in 1996-97 (Sekelj, 2000, pp. 96-97).

In the late Soviet era, when non-Russians were mobilizing large numbers in defense of sovereignty and independence, Russian ethnic mobilization proved to be weak (Lieven, 1999). As Beissinger argues (2002, p. 400), "mass violent mobilization did not become a major element of the mobilizational repertoire of Russians in the non-Russian republics until after the demise of the USSR, and even here, was almost entirely confined to Moldova." The only recorded case of mobilization that included Russians occurred in the Transdniester region of Moldova, the bulk of which constituted the Moldovan Autonomous SSR in the Ukrainian SSR during the interwar period. But here mobilization was not ethnic Russian but an amalgam of Russian-speaking, Soviet, and pan Eastern Slavic ideology directed against Romanian nationalism. The Krajina separatist revolt in Croatia was very different, as it was based on Serbian ethnic nationalism (Perica, 2002, p. 153).

Thus a lack of a Russian identity grounded in ethnic terms (unlike in Serbia) inhibited Russian mobilization along ethnic nationalist lines. As mentioned above, Russian identity is instead grounded in statist -- not ethnic -- terms because the state had always been either an empire or a superpower. Only in the post-Soviet era was the "state" understood as the Russian Federation. Russia's domination of the CIS has majority consensus because it is serves to demonstrate that Russia continues to be a "great power" (Urban, 1994, p. 765). There is still a lack of demarcated borders between Russia and the former Soviet republics, which has continued to blur the differences between "Russia," the CIS, and the "Near Abroad."

Russian dissidents did not clamor for an independent state in the former USSR (unlike most non-Russians). Neither did Serbian opposition groups, but the reasons were different, as they saw a Yugoslav state as the only manner in which to unify all Serbs within one state. The diaspora question was not an issue for Russians. Mobilization by Russian speakers in the Baltic states and Moldova "did not find a major following within the RSFSR proper" (Beissinger, 2002, p. 395). In the Soviet era, Russian dissidents either wanted to democratize the USSR or transform it into a more Russian state.

In the late- and post-Soviet eras, the political struggle within the Russian SFSR was also between Russian democrats (best personified by Boris Yeltsin, who was elected as Russian SFSR president in 1990) and Russian nationalists, who were a combination of national Bolsheviks, Stalinists, and imperialists (i.e., Soviet -- not Russian -- statists). Mikhail Gorbachev was caught in the middle of these two warring groups.

Russian democrats and Yeltsin forged alliances with their non-Russian counterparts (Beissinger, 2002, p. 389) -- again, something not attempted by Serbs with other former Yugoslav republics. Nevertheless, although Russian democrats were anticommunists in the same manner as non-Russian national democrats, they differed from them in that Russian democrats were never nationalists (Beissinger, 2002, p. 389).

Russian democratic mobilization remained confined to urban centers such as Moscow and Leningrad (Beissinger, 2002, p. 396), whereas the non-Russians were more broadly based throughout their republics. The Russian democrats defined themselves as in opposition to the Soviet regime, while non-Russian national democrats defined themselves in opposition to the Soviet state (Beissinger, 2002, p. 401).

In the non-Russian republics, the main competition consisted of a struggle between hard-line "imperial communists," "national communists" (some of whom, as in Central Europe, became social democrats), and national democrats (often drawing on the Soviet-era dissident movement). In neither the Russian SFSR nor the non-Russian republics did former Communists turn into ethnic nationalists, a picture very different from Yugoslavia. Indeed, in the Russian SFSR, "nationalist-conservatives failed to generate a countertide of their own" (Beissinger, 2002, p. 399).

In June 1990, the declaration of Russian SFSR sovereignty began the distancing of "Russia" from the USSR through an overwhelming parliamentary vote of 907 to 13. The Russian SFSR only then began to create its own republican institutions, which were supplemented after the failed August 1991 coup, when Yeltsin's Russia took over Soviet institutions. In Gorbachev's March 1991 referendum, only 54 percent of Russians backed a "revived federation," one of the lowest levels of support in the USSR.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), created in 1990, was immediately taken over by conservative nationalists and Stalinists hostile to both Yeltsin and Russian democrats, on the one hand, and to Gorbachev, on the other hand. If the Russian SFSR had always possessed its own separate institutions, like Serbia, events in the USSR might have taken a different path, with the KPRF attempting to mobilize support far earlier for a return to pre-Gorbachev policies. This they could only do in 1990-91, as during the August 1991 coup. But by then disintegration had gone too far and the coup failed.

In 1990-91, Russians, unlike Serbs in Yugoslavia, did not come to the defense of the USSR. The Russian statist-nationalist camp had been morally defeated by the failure of the 1991 August coup and republican communist parties were banned in the Russian SFSR, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Yeltsin acquiesced in the disintegration of the USSR together with Ukrainian and Belarusian leaders and its conversion into a CIS as a vehicle for a "civilized divorce" (Kuzio, 1999).

While not defending the USSR, the Russian SFSR did not declare independence from it either (the only Soviet republic not to do so). There is "little evidence that Yeltsin advocated Russian statehood outside of a revamped USSR" (Beissinger, 2002, p. 411). Unlike Milosevic, Yeltsin did not mobilize Russians for a "Greater Russia" that would have incorporated Narva (Estonia), eastern Ukraine and the Crimea (Ukraine), and northern Kazakhstan. Although the Crimea and the city of Sevastopol were contested between Russia and Ukraine until 1997-99, this did not lead to violence. Ostensibly this could have been possible with the presence of the Black Sea Fleet loyal to Russia.

Serbian And Russian National Identities
The scale of the ethnic mobilization of Serbs in Yugoslavia and the FRY was not repeated elsewhere in postcommunist Europe. The large Hungarian minorities did receive attention from the democratic and populist opposition in Hungary. But ethnic mobilization by Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia, the Vojvodina province of the FRY, or Ukraine did not lead to ethnic violence except for sporadic incidents like that in the Romanian town of Targu-Mures in 1990 (Hall, 2003).

The tsarist and Soviet multi-national empires thwarted the development of ethnic Russian identity and national consciousness. Russians have felt more comfortable as part of a Russian-speaking group defined as "compatriots."

The Russian Foreign Ministry and other state institutions, as well as most Russian political parties, speak in defense of "compatriots," not of Russians per se. "Compatriots" refers to Russian speakers living in the non-Russian republics of the former USSR and includes anybody who feels an affinity to Russian language and culture. As part of this concern for the wider Russian-speaking population, promotion of Russian as a second state language has been a long-term Russian policy in the CIS. This policy has been successful in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrkgyzstan, with Moldova likely to follow suit.

Serbia, like the three Baltic states, had a period of independent statehood prior to becoming part of a larger multinational state, thus making possible the emergence of a sense of national identity prior to the emergence of the multinational state framework. Serbia was first autonomous and then an independent state from 1878 until 1918. The interwar Yugoslav state was seen as a "Greater Serbia," particularly after the 1930s (Anzulovic, 1999, p. 89). Similar nationalizing pressures on minorities took place in other Eastern European states, such as Poland, at that time.

The Serbian national identity was nurtured by centuries of occupation by the Turkish Ottoman Muslim "other." To the north and west of Serbia lay the Bosnian Muslim and the Croatian Catholic "others." To the east lay the non-Slavic Hungarians and the Orthodox Bulgarians, with whom Serbia had been in conflict over the identity of Macedonians. Were Macedonians "Southern Serbs" (the Serbian perspective) confused Bulgarians (the Bulgarian viewpoint) or Slavic-speaking Greeks (the Greek position)? These three viewpoints were, and continue to be, popular across the entire political spectrum in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece.

The Russian Federation has to undergo the most traumatic of post-Soviet transitions. Unlike in Western Europe, Muscovy and later Russia did not forge a nation-state before it created an empire. This lack of a Russian ethnic nation was not rectified in either the tsarist or Soviet empires, where both regimes deliberately subsumed the Russian identity within that of the empire of the superpower as a whole.

Contrary to the view of many Western specialists, therefore, Russia did not inherit a robust ethnic identity from the former USSR. The Russian identity is instead territorially bounded, because it has always been linked to imperial territory (i.e., the tsarist or Soviet empire's), not to an ethnic homeland.

In the former USSR, the Russian SFSR was the only republic that was not promoted as a homeland for Russians, because the USSR itself was perceived as a Russian homeland. The Russians had only one homeland -- USSR -- until the election of Yeltsin in 1990. In contrast, non-Russians had two homelands: their republics and the USSR.

Rowley (2000, p. 23) is persuaded that the fact "[t]hat Russians expressed their national consciousness through the discourse of imperialism rather than the discourse of nationalism has far-reaching implications for both Russian history and nationalism theory." The ideology that pervaded the Russian political discourse in the tsarist empire therefore "ruled out nationalism." Russian patriots supported the tsarist or Soviet empires rather than attempt to carve out a separate Russian nation-state. Unlike Turkish nationalist Kemal Ataturk, who carved out a Turkish nation-state from the Ottoman Empire, the Whites, led politically by the Constitutional Democrats, opted in favor of empire -- not a Russian nation-state.

The past has thus imparted a confused legacy on the Russians. First, Russian and Soviet identities overlap. Opinion polls show that fewer than 50 percent of Russians perceive the Russian Federation as being their homeland (Tishkov, 1996, p. 18, McAuley, 1997, p. 300). Second, the disintegration of the USSR brought into the open a Russian identity crisis. In the Tatar, Tuva, and Sakha autonomous republics of the Russian Federation, the proportion of Russians who agreed with the statement "I never forget I am Russian" varied between 21.5 percent and 27.2 percent, as compared to 50.5-71.5 percent for the titular minority groups when asked a similar question about their ethnic groups (Simonsen, 1999, p. 1077). Only two-thirds of all Russians consider themselves to be even "Slavs," while 22 percent deny this ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 July 2001). Third, lacking a robust ethnic identity, the 25 million-strong Russian diaspora could not be mobilized in defense of a "Greater Russia" or against their host "nationalizing states" because Russian ethnic nationalism is weak. In the tsarist empire and in the USSR, there was no distinction between the periphery and the metropolis, and ethnic Russian identity was not encouraged. In both states, Russian identity was subsumed under a broader imperial or pan-Soviet identity. Such a merging of Russian and Soviet identities "was not true of the other republics" (McAuley, 1997, p. 16).

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


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