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East European Perspectives: June 26, 2002

26 June 2002, Volume 4, Number 13


(Part 1)

By Ann E. Robertson

The collapse of the communist federations between September 1991 and December 1992 produced 22 new states. The last time the international community experienced such a burst of new members was 1960, when 17 states emerged from decisions by France, Britain, Belgium, and the Netherlands to dissolve their respective colonial empires. Oddly, the postcolonial world has not contributed much to postcommunist studies, despite their common problems. Martin Doornbos could easily have been describing the postcommunist states when he noted: "Questions about state power and capacity, and about national identity and unity, have together largely defined the debate about the nature and role of the post-colonial African state" (1990, p. 180). Like the postcolonial states, the postcommunist states face multiple simultaneous transformations.

All states must satisfy the four criteria established by the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, but new states face several unique challenges. For example, new states need citizens. The Montevideo criteria require that states have inhabitants to hold the new passports, staff the new government, and defend the new borders. Typically, the initial citizenry is defined on a territorial basis: Anyone and everyone living within the new state's borders becomes a citizen (see Brubaker, 1992b). With decolonization, there was no individual choice�passports were automatically replaced.

Citizenship raises the issues of nation and nationalism -- i.e., who may be a member of this new institution. As long as popular sovereignty continues to be the dominant paradigm in the state system, new states must clearly identify who "the people" are --one specific ethnic group or everyone living in a defined territory. Writing about the postcommunist new states, Rogers Brubaker has noted, "Questions of citizenship and nationhood, broadly understood, are among the core aspects of statehood that remain unsettled and vigorously contested" (1996, p. 43). Preferably, the inhabitants will see themselves as part of a collective. Some level of group solidarity is a prerequisite to social or political mobilization, which in turn is fundamental to democracy (see Roeder, 1999; Rustow, 1970). This common link, recognition not only of a common past but also of a common future, is conceptualized as "the nation."

The concepts "state" and "nation" are often used interchangeably, but they represent separate phenomena. Both are subjective terms, but "nation" has its roots in ethnicity and anthropology while "state" refers to a territorial unit of political organization. Nations are categories of analysis, "imagined communities" (Anderson, 1991), while states are international legal personalities. A nation is a bounded citizenry, a group of people with a shared identity, based on some combination of language, history, culture, religion, symbols, institutions, and -- perhaps -- ethnicity. Nationalism advocates making the state and national units congruent (see, e.g. Gellner 1983, Kaiser, 1994). Patriotism is loyalty to the political body, irrespective of an individual's membership in a dominant ethnic group.

New states often must construct new nations. At times, group identity precedes statehood, such as Israel; other times, the polity arrived first. Massimo d'Azeglio's famous "We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians" statement remains often quoted for good reason. It accurately describes the dilemma of most African postcolonial states, whose borders were determined by administrative convenience of the metropolitan state, not actual population distribution (Herbst 1992; 1989). Rogers Brubaker (1996) captures this phenomenon as "nationalizing nationalism," namely, where new states must create their own "nation." As Ron Suny explains, "Nations are neither natural nor primordial, but the result of hard constitutive intellectual and political work of elites and masses" (1995, p. 188).

Nation building is an ongoing and contested project that can be assisted or complicated by a simultaneous process of state building. As Eric Hobsbawm writes, "The mere setting up of a state is not sufficient in itself to create a nation" (1990, p. 78). National education and military service have historically helped build nations. In the 20th century, leaders of new states generally adopted a four-pronged strategy: establishing an official nationalism, delineating citizenship criteria, specifying an official state language, and adopting state symbols.

The European postcommunist states have longer national traditions than most postcolonial states, but in many cases they have very little -- if any -- experience with independence in the 20th century. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were independent between the two world wars; Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine enjoyed a few years between the Russian Revolution and their incorporation into the USSR. Belarus had only a few months of sovereignty in 1918. Russia, of course, had independent status prior to the creation of the USSR. Croatia and Slovakia were briefly Nazi puppet states from 1941 until 1945 and 1939 to 1944, respectively. But as the postwar generation ages, direct memories of 1918 Armenia or 1930s Latvia are being replaced by the collective, and somewhat selective, memory of diasporas.

There are also new states wanting to be born from second-tier federal structures such as Kosovo, Transdniester, and Chechnya. Other successor states, most notably Macedonia, Bosnia, and parts of Central Asia, must defend their "nation" as being more than a community imagined by communist authorities. While Latvia, Estonia, Armenia, and even Croatia can invoke memories of past statehood and argue for regaining their independence, what is to become of peoples and lands always controlled by outsiders? As Anthony D. Smith notes, "The history-less are destiny-less, and this becomes the central dilemma of state-making and nation-building today" (1986, p. 244). Indeed, nation building is an arduous task.

This article explores whether past statehood influences the type of "nationalizing nationalism" that new states adopt by focusing mainly on the Soviet and Yugoslav successor states. Does a history of independence -- no matter how brief -- produce a distinctive form of nationalism? Hans Kohn (1945) argued that the sequence of events determines the form nationalism takes: If the state precedes the nation, civic nationalism prevails; if the nation precedes the state, ethnic nationalism results. However, state rebirth may change this equation. Reborn states may be more likely to adopt narrow definitions of the nation; namely, constituting it exclusively on the grounds of the old state. New states, in contrast, might be more expansive in welcoming peoples to their new state-building endeavors.

Does the Form of Nationalism Matter?
Nationalizing nationalism may take an ethnic or civic orientation. In predominantly homogeneous states, ethnicity and nationalism may become synonymous. But rarely will a new state be ethnically homogeneous; more likely, minority groups will be present, and their relation to the state must be defined soon. Is the new state the "property" of a core ethnic group, or is it the home of several groups that reside in the same territory? Will one core group dominate the life of the state, or will the rights of minorities be explicitly protected? Will minority groups be enfranchised, marginalized, or eliminated?

The fundamental question of official state ideology needs resolution at the outset, because this configuration will influence the government's ability to mobilize popular support. Multiethnic states are more likely to adopt civic nationalism, while more homogeneous states may adopt an ethnic definition of citizenship (Smith, 1991, pp. 37-42). Multiethnic states may either promote assimilation through conglomeration identities or create divided cultural zones, such as in consociational states (Laitin, 1998). Each of these three potential configurations -- homogeneous, inclusive multiethnic, exclusive multiethnic -- has its own specific strengths and weaknesses. In Considerations on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill argued that a state consisting of two distinct peoples artificially joined together, such as Austria and Hungary, is inherently unstable. Groups will be played off one another, thwarting democracy. There is also the possibility of ethnic outbidding as groups compete to be the most "ethnic," (Horowitz 1985). While national exclusivity may build strong states, it will not necessarily produce democracy (Dawisha, 1997, p. 45). Resolving this stateness question -- namely, who are the appropriate members of the polity -- is a precondition to democracy (see Linz and Stepan, 1996).

It is worth reemphasizing that new states, new nationalizing states, do not have to be democracies. While democracy is rapidly becoming the preferred regime type in the 21st century (see Franck, 1992), it is neither mandatory nor inevitable. Postcolonial Africa shows that one-party rule and dictatorship are common forms of governance for new states. Ardent state-supported nation building and nationalism may, in fact, serve to distract people from autocracy or civil problems (see Kolsto, 2000). Scholars of the communist experience in particular should remember that strong nationalist and ritualistic displays may indicate poor state legitimacy.

Characterizing Nationalism
Nation-construction has four components: establishing an official nationalism, delineating citizenship criteria, designating an official language, and adopting state symbols. The process of defining each of these elements clearly shows which groups are included in state life -- and which are excluded.

STATE MYTHOLOGY. States need a "national mythology" to unify the population. Whether it is "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality," or "Libert�, Egalit�, Fraternit�," state mythology and its accompanying symbols provide an immediate snapshot of the state, its purpose, its people, and its future (Geertz, 1980). The greater the identity vacuum, the greater the need to establish historical roots.

Consequently, national history is often invented or selectively remembered to create a glorious past. Long before Benedict Anderson wrote of the importance of the census, the map, and the museum to creating a common identity, Immanuel Wallerstein (1961) noted how postcolonial African leaders launched archaeological digs, built museums, celebrated cultural festivals, revised textbooks, and created national media, rather than investing in education or health care.

CITIZENSHIP CRITERIA. Citizenship clearly delimits who is "in" and who is "out" of a polity (Brubaker, 1992a, p. 23). Often the duties of citizenship, at least for males, include military service. Citizenship thus becomes, in Stephen Krasner's words, "a powerful source of identity...powerful enough to make many subject themselves to the dangers of violent death" (1988, pp. 74-75). This stringent degree of loyalty makes dual citizenship problematic; how can one person fight for two armies, which may even be opponents?

In mature states, individuals may become citizens through descent, place of birth, and naturalization. But the issue becomes more complicated in new states. New states must constitute their initial citizenry, and the criteria selected will ultimately affect many other dimensions of state life, including cultural and education policy, and even international relations (Barrington, 1995). Drafting citizenship guidelines for new states may provide the opportunity to pick and choose among the resident population. Narrow criteria, such as ethnicity, language proficiency, or length of residence, can eliminate unwanted candidates and settle historical grievances. Interwar Poland, a newly reconstituted state, and Czechoslovakia, a new state, exerted a tremendous amount of effort to dilute the influence of other groups, particularly Germans. Wholesale population exchanges have occurred when new states opted to eliminate entire groups viewed as undesirable. At least 15 million people were forcibly relocated -- and hundreds of thousands killed --when Pakistan was carved out of India; and some 700,000 Palestinians were evicted to make room for Jewish citizens of the new state of Israel. Denial of a new form of citizenship for longtime residents can have serious psychological effects and create resentment against the new state.

New states may also create "stateless" people, individuals disenfranchised by their current place of residence or futilely claiming citizenship in a state that no longer exists. The rules may also extend citizenship to nonresidents, such as Israel potentially does for diaspora Jews, or deny specific groups wholesale, such as the Roma in the early years of the Czech Republic (Siklova and Miklusakova, 1998; Schaeffer, 1999). While some disenfranchised persons may emigrate, others may remain and agitate for their rights.

LANGUAGE POLICY. States do not necessarily need an official language; the United States has never adopted one. But language remains a powerful form of identity. The postcolonial states of Africa and Asia often adopted a dual language policy. The language of colonial administration is retained for convenience while indigenous languages are promoted to equal status. The Soviet Union has a strong legacy of mandated language: While non-Russians had to learn Russian, ethnic Russians did not have to know other languages. Russians living in Estonia, for example, had little need to learn Estonian. As a result, many of the new postcommunist states promoted the titular languages in an effort to save them from possible extinction. Unlike postcolonial Africa and Asia, monolingual administrators remain; Russia is not a neutral language as English or French can be. In the post-Soviet context, language laws may be used more to exclude the Russians than to celebrate the nation.

STATE SYMBOLS. Creating state insignia such as flags, coats of arms, and national anthems involves searching among available symbols or inventing new ones to publicly -- and quite literally -- stamp ownership. Symbols confer status and legitimacy on the specifically referenced groups. According to Murray Edelman, persons excluded from the emotional life of a state experience "despairing noninvolvement" that creates a mass restiveness that may lead to separatism (1964, pp. 167, 181). The continuing controversy over the Confederate flag's appearance on the Mississippi and Georgia state flags further confirms the strong emotions that go into using or disusing an historical emblem. As Russian political scientist Sergei Markov notes: "Symbols [bring] people of a country together, uniting them with each other, with their state, and also with the past and future generations. These symbols remind people of their responsibility before the country, before its past and its future" (2000).

The value individuals place on such symbolism was particularly evident at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics. Coming just weeks after the collapse of the USSR, sports leaders had to scramble to find an acceptable way to accommodate the powerful Soviet sports machine. The compromise solution, a mix-match of uniforms, the Olympic flag, and the Olympic hymn, left many athletes feeling hollow. That other Olympians viewed the FSU "Unified Team" with pity was infuriating: "You would think we were charity cases. It's hard to swallow," complained Unified Team captain Nikolai Russak (quoted in Phillips, 1992). Meanwhile, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, and Slovenia delighted in marching under their own flags, while at least one Russian bobsled team quietly painted the imperial double-headed eagle on its sled ("The New York Times," 2 February 1992). As Russia struggled to select lyrics for its anthem, its gold medalists in Barcelona, Atlanta, Lillehammer, Sydney, and Nagano were left to hum along to an unpopular melody picked by Yeltsin.

With their diverse past, Americans had to unite around a common future. The Founding Fathers turned to ancient Rome for historical references. Classical architecture, the spread-eagle emblem, and the toga-clad goddess of liberty motifs all invoked the memory of Roman democracy (O'Leary, 1999; Lasswell, 1979). Indeed, until the Civil War, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were the only "homegrown" American icons. And even Washington proved controversial: Southerners campaigned to keep his remains in Virginia, not the District of Columbia. July Fourth was the first truly national holiday, but it was celebrated according to local customs.

Leaders of the Soviet and Yugoslav successor states did not embrace neutral, inclusive symbols or policies. They did not start with a clean slate. Rather they drew upon their distant and not-so-distant pasts, adopting and adapting the nationalist components at hand. Surveying the nation-building programs of the postcommunist federations suggests four broad trends.

Symbols Do Matter
At first glance, symbols might seem a minor, even superfluous, issue. But a closer look reveals that symbols do matter. People literally need a flag around which to rally. The aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks provides ample evidence of this apparent necessity. Overnight, American flags sprouted from windows, buildings, cars, and lapels. The controversy, indeed the need, to include a tattered U.S. flag from the World Trade Center in the Salt Lake City Olympics opening ceremony further confirms the value of symbols to patriotism and collective national memory.

Symbols evoke an emotional response and can serve as a focal point for popular mobilization. The Baltic national movements of the perestroika era featured the interwar state flags long banned by the Soviet government. They drew on traditional songs, key dates in the conflict with Moscow, and used historic monuments as meeting places, such as the Freedom Monument in downtown Riga. On 23 August 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, some 2 million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians formed a human chain spanning the 400 miles from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius. Following this successful symbolic display of Baltic solidarity, 500,000 Ukrainians staged a similar event on 21 January 1990.

Symbols can also provoke strong negative reactions, particularly when they ostracize a particular group. The Croatian "sahovnica," the red and white checkerboard emblazoned on the new insignia of state, provoked an extreme reaction among Serbs who associated the emblem with the Ustashe forces that killed thousands of Serbs during World War II. They tore down flags, posters, and other items bearing the checkerboard that had come to replace the inclusive connotations of the communist red star. "Serbs in Croatia view the red star not just as a communist symbol," explains Misha Glenny, "but as a sign legitimizing their equal status with Croatians, and they believed that the ubiquitous presence of the sahovnica underlines that loss of equality" (1993, p. 92). Russia spent most of the 1990s without an official flag, as politicians and citizens could not agree on whether the Soviet hammer and sickle and national anthem commemorated Stalin's bloodthirsty totalitarian regime or the great USSR of World War II, Yurii Gagarin, and Olympic glory ("Rossiskaia gazeta," 6 December 2000).

Symbols provide a snapshot of the people they represent. Turkmenistan's flag represents the five main Turkmen clans by depicting their characteristic carpet designs. Interestingly, the flag recognizes and reinforces the segmented structure of Turkmen society; there is no common unifying symbol (Ochs, 1997, p. 317). In 1997, a wreath of olive leaves was added to the flag to commemorate Turkmenistan's official policy of neutrality. Turkmenistan, then, would like to appear as a diverse, peaceful state with a rich cultural heritage, not the institution for glorifying its president that it actually is.

Governments that cannot meet their citizens' material needs may try to distract them with spiritual offerings. In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered a return to Soviet-era symbols to emphasize his communist policies and desire to reunite with Russia. His opponents regularly display the now-banned, red and white national flag in their demonstrations. In June 1995, some 300 students took their anger to Lukashenka's residence, where they flushed one of the Soviet-style flags down a toilet (see "The Prague Post," 7 June 1995).

Independent Bosnia-Herzegovina was unable to design a flag amenable to all ethnic groups. On 4 May 1992, a provisional flag was adopted, using a blue shield with a white stripe and six fleurs-de-lis. Following the 1995 Dayton peace accord, a new flag was sought, as the Bosnian Serb and Croat communities associated the blue shield with the Bosnian Muslims. When the Bosnian parliament was unable to reach a consensus on the new flag design, the international community's high representative imposed a solution. Working with a deadline of the February 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games, High Representative Carlos Westendorp made the choice three days ahead of the Olympic opening ceremony. His one concession to the parliamentary debates was to accept the recommendation to change the background from the proposed light "United Nations" blue to a darker "European Union" blue (Poels 1998; Hayden 2000). Unintentionally, the new Bosnian flag is a highly appropriate motif -- it represents not the sovereign people of Bosnia but the preferences of an international guardian.

It was no coincidence that President Vladimir Putin suddenly sought to resolve the design of the Russian flag following setbacks in Chechnya, the Ostankino fire, and the "Kursk" submarine disaster. After simmering for a decade, Putin suddenly embraced the issue in December 2000 to distract the public. The debate over state insignia reflected Russians' contradictory attitude toward their history. The imperial era offers the tricolor flag and the double-headed eagle, Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky, yet that same regime was discredited as a "prison of peoples" and autocratic monarchy. But Soviet symbols send a mixed message. World War II was fought under the red hammer-and-sickle flag, while Yurii Gagarin and thousands of Olympians were serenaded with the Soviet national anthem set to the Aleksandrov melody. Yet this was the same regime of the Gulag and Stalin's terror ("Rossiiskaia gazeta," 6 December 2000).

Boris Yeltsin had designated state insignia by presidential decree in 1993 because parliament appeared too divided to resolve the problem. Yeltsin selected the tricolor flag, the imperial double-headed eagle, and the melody of Glinka's "Patriotic Song." Despite a national songwriting contest, consensus was never reached on lyrics for the national anthem. Putin revived the Soviet-era anthem by Aleksandr Aleksandrov, "Unbreakable Union," but called for new lyrics to replace words originally written for Stalin in 1943. This decision was denounced by liberals such as Boris Nemtsov, who argued that, "For many people, this is not the state anthem; for many people it is a Communist anthem, Stalin's anthem" (quoted in "The Washington Post," 5 December 2000). Even Yeltsin issued a rare public criticism of Putin concerning the anthem decision (Reuters 7 December 2000; ITAR-TASS 7 December 2000).

The Czech Republic struggled to find a name and battled with Slovakia over use of Czechoslovakia's state symbols. Though it lost economically in the divorce, Slovakia did come away with a recognizable name. "Czech Republic" still does not roll easily off the tongue, and dropping the word "republic" -- as most countries do for their informal name -- leaves only a lonely adjective. The official English translation proposed just prior to the split, "Czechia," never quite caught on ("Svobodne slovo," 21 December 1992). After one of its correspondents discussed the issue with Czech President Vaclav Havel, the London "Sunday Times" held a contest to pick a new name: "Vaclavia" was declared the winner (see 11 July 1993; 1 August 1993).

Czech leaders provoked criticism when they claimed the Czechoslovak flag for their new state. In the course of ratifying the complex of treaties relating to the division, at the last minute the Slovak parliament had tacked on a rider that prohibited either republic from using Czechoslovak state symbols for their independent states (CSTK, 17 November 1992). Within days, the Czech Assembly voted unanimously to adopt the Czechoslovak flag for its own, partly out of spite over Slovakia's rush to divorce. Jirina Pavlikova, chairwoman of the Czech parliament's Heraldic Commission, pointed out that in no way did this mean it was claiming to be the exclusive heir of Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, as Havel later stressed, the Slovaks had already renounced their claim to the flag when Bratislava adopted its own standard in September (CSTK, 17 December 1992; CTK 17 December 1992). Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus hastened to add, "The Czech flag will differ from the current Czechoslovak one by the hue of the blue and the length of the wedge" (Reuters, 10 and 17 December 1992). Outraged, Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar even called on Prague to financially compensate Bratislava for use of the flag (Slovak Radio, 9 April 1993).

Macedonia provides vivid examples of the impact of symbols. Greece claimed exclusive use of the name "Macedonia" as well as the Star of Vergina design that Skopje selected for its new flag. "The world's press tended to treat this as a comic issue," recalls envoy Richard Holbrooke. "But to the two countries, the name and the flag of the new country were serious, and Washington and Western Europe feared the tiny landlocked country would be the next flash point in the Balkans" (1999, p. 122). The 16-pointed-star motif appears on the tomb of Philip of Macedon, father of the Greek hero, Alexander the Great. Officials in Athens protested the legal ownership of the name "Macedonia," claiming the name implies designs on the northern Greek province of the same name. As a result, the country with its capital in Skopje has operated for years with the cumbersome name, "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" -- FYROM for short. Skopje eventually agreed to rework the flag, and Greece finally recognized Macedonia on 13 September 1995.

Macedonia has also experienced domestic crises over flags. Tensions flared in the majority-Albanian town, Gostivar, when local officials displayed the Albanian flag over city hall in 1997. The action violated a Macedonian law that stated flying the Albanian flag was legal only on official holidays and only when accompanied by the Macedonian flag. When local police tried to remove the flag, a riot ensued. Three people died, over 200 were injured, and Mayor Rufi Osmani was sentenced to seven years in prison. As Tetovo Mayor Demiri Alajdin explained, "What happened with the flag is symbolic of all the problems between Albanians and Macedonians. It is part of a systematic policy of pressure" (Quoted in "The Washington Post," 16 March 1998). Wider usage of the Albanian flag is part of the 2001 Ohrid agreement to broaden Albanian rights.

(The author is managing editor of "Problems of Post-Communism" and adjunct professor of international relations at the George Washington University.)


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