Nationalists in the Balkans and Central Europe: Ideologues or populists?

(A talk given at “The Balkans/Central Europe Leaders: Exploring Patterns of Leadership and Prospects for Democratic Development,” organized by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. State Department and the CIA, April 13, 2005)

In light of European history in the 20th century, nationalism is a dirty word in Europe. This sometimes leads to sweeping generalizations, whose authors use the label of nationalism to describe wide-ranging types of political behavior, some of which have little or nothing to do with the kind of nationalism that, for example, served as the ideological underpinning of Nazi ideology, fascism, or ethnic cleansing in the Balkans after the fall of Communism.

Mild versions of nationalism—for example, various forms of civic patriotism—can in fact motivate political elites and citizens of various nation-states to achieve objectives that they would not be able to achieve otherwise. Even various forms of ethnic nationalism can serve as productive forces in nation-building, as long as they are not politically misused. In fact, many political scientists argue that the nation-state, held together by benign forms of nationalism or civic patriotism, is the only known institutional framework in which modern democracy has been able to flourish.

At the same time, it is clear that Europe, even as it gradually unifies in the framework of the European Union, is far from being free of less benign forms of nationalism. Various forms of potentially destructive nationalism can be divided into roughly four categories: anti-immigration xenophobia that is now common in some West-European countries; the ideology of exceptionalism that may hinder rational decision-making, especially in international affairs; defensive nationalism provoked by supranational integration and the process of globalization; and the “old type” of virulent, tribal nationalism that in contemporary Europe can result in new types of fascism.
There is also one specific category of nationalism that deserves to be listed separately because it is more a technique of using nationalism than an ideology. We could call it “utilitarian” nationalism—that is nationalism that used as an instrument to slow down, for example, the process of European integration. Some politicians in East Central Europe use nationalism to isolate their countries from integration processes that could bring more transparency and EU standards into the economies of their countries. They mainly do so to maintain what could be described as a “legal twilight zone”, in which some powerful economic groups prefer to operate.

If we focus on the Balkans and Central Europe, it is clear that since the fall of Communism, those two regions have experienced different kinds of nationalism than Western Europe, which increasingly struggles with various forms of anti-immigration xenophobia and whose diminishing influence in international affairs in a unipolar world which is dominated by the US as the sole superpower has provoked the rise of various forms of either national exceptionalism (France) or European exceptionalism.

Xenophobic reactions to immigration in some West European states are mainly driven by the fact that in light of Europe’s inability to absorb and integrate immigrants as effectively as, for example, the US, many West Europeans feel that their national cultures are threatened by the continuing influx of immigrants–from Islamic countries, in particular. Feelings of insecurity are then skillfully used, or misused, by far-right populists.

In reaction to Europe’s diminishing role in the world affairs, some prominent European politicians and social thinkers have formulated the ideology of European exceptionalism, which is, in fact, a brand of (pan-European) nationalism. In this ideology, Europe, taught by its history, is supposedly a peace-loving entity that relies more on negotiations and soft power than the use of force and which respects international law. It is allegedly a post-modern culture that functions on the principle of permanent discussion and prefers horizontal networks to strictly hierarchical decision-making processes. Much of this ideology of pan-European exceptionalism is driven by former world powers, such as France or Germany, that use it justify their international behavior.

Extreme-right and post-fascist parties, whose rising popularity caused alarm across Western Europe a few years ago, seem to be fading in that part of Europe, and are being replaced by the kinds of nationalist forces described above. At the same time, however, the costs of weakening extreme-right, nationalist, and post-fascist parties have been high because mainstream political forces were forced to adopt some of the extreme right’s vocabulary and agenda. Anti-immigration sentiments, greater skepticism toward European integration, or, for example, anti-Semitism masked as criticism of Israel’s policies, have been embraced by many mainstream European politicians and parties.

Extremist parties have also been marginalized owing to their weak position in pan-European politics. Voters in Italy, France, the Netherlands, or Austria — the countries in which post-fascist or extreme-right parties incited the greatest concerns —gradually realized that extremist parties were allowed by mainstream democratic forces in Europe to have only limited influence in European politics, extremists remaining rarities of sorts in the European Parliament and other EU institutions.

However, while Europe’s West has managed to bring the more virulent forms of nationalism under control, albeit at high costs, Europe’s east has seen a revival of extreme-right and fascist sentiments. In general, in Central Europe and the Balkans, we witness different kinds of nationalism than in Europe’s western parts. The causes of xenophobic radicalism in Europe’s east have to do either with traditional tribal nationalism or with defensive nationalism that is a reaction to the overwhelming pressures of globalization and very quick modernization.

In some cases the two causes combine to create an explosive mix. The electoral successes of the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seslj or Russian nationalist parties in 2003, as well as the strong position of Vadim Tudor’s Greater Romania Party in Romania, have been caused mainly by a combination of rabid nationalism and the pressures of modernization.

Those countries, with some delay, follow in the footsteps of some postcommunist nations in Central Europe, where nationalist/populist parties, such as the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia of Vladimir Meciar, retarded democratization and market reform a decade ago. As in Western Europe, in most postcommunist countries that became EU members in May 2004, both political radicalism and nationalism have been politically neutralized at the cost of being to some extent embraced by mainstream political parties.

Milder versions of nationalist, euroskeptical, or xenophobic slogans can now be heard from political parties such as the Czech Republic’s Civic Democrats or Hungary’s Fidesz, the largest opposition forces in those countries. In other words, both the language and the agenda that originally belonged to extreme-right parties have been appropriated by the political mainstream.

This also provides a partial answer to the question posed in the title of this talk: “Nationalists in the Balkans and Central Europe: Ideologues or Populists?” Some nationalist sentiments in Central Europe and the Balkans are clearly artificially engineered by political populists, such Czech President Vaclav Klaus. Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia and Victor Orban in Hungary also use nationalist themes in a utilitarian way: they appeal to average people’s fears of the supposedly unpredictable effects of supranational integration, globalization, or cultural dominance by bigger nations.

All of them are, of course, to some extent also ideologues, who strongly believe in the role of nation states and their cultures—pretty much in the mold of the Herderian romantic notion of national cultures prevalent in 19th century. However, they need to be distinguished from rabid nationalists, who thrive on atavistic passions—offensive, aggressive nationalism, if you will. People such as Vadim Tudor, Vojislav Seslj, Andrzej Lepper or Vladimir Zhirinovski are basically neo-fascists, who would represent a clear danger to their countries and neighboring states, should they ever become politically dominant.

We can see various versions of mild nationalism across Eastern Europe, but Russia, Serbia, and Romania, in particular, may have a more difficult road ahead. First, unlike the postcommunist countries of Central Europe, they do not have Western political and philosophical traditions. Close ties between the state and their Orthodox churches forged state religions that have helped to create a strong sense of national messianism. In other words, nationalists in Russia, Serbia, or Romania are able to draw on widespread beliefs that their nations have special historical missions.

Second, because the role of the state has traditionally been very strong – while the democratic separation of powers and attempts to introduce the rule of law are relatively new developments — corporatist tendencies that characterized, for example, Italian fascism in the 1930’s remain potent in those countries. Finally, globalization, the pressures arising from market reform, modernization of institutions, and other new phenomena, have disoriented those societies.

A strong sense of a historical mission, combined with social and economic problems caused by reforms and external pressures, as well as a weakening of those countries’ international status, represent an explosive mix that plays into the hands of radicals. So it is possible that the rise of post-fascist tendencies, nationalism, and political extremism may not be temporary, as in Central Europe, or marginal phenomena witnessed recently in Western Europe.

But important differences between Russia, Serbia, and Romania should be noted. The last of the three countries is a candidate for EU membership in 2007. The process of accession has definitely had moderating effects on Romanian politics.

Romania’s 2 million ethnic Hungarians, the main political targets of Romanian nationalists, represent a bridge to the EU, because Hungary became a member of the EU three years before Romania. Transylvania, where ethnic Hungarians mainly live, is also Romania’s cultural bridge to the West, as this part of today’s Romania belonged for centuries to the Hapsburg Empire. The hope of EU membership gives mainstream Romanian politicians and the Romanian public strong incentives not to succumb to nationalist sentiments.

Serbia and Russia may be more difficult cases, as the national pride of both — for different reasons — has been wounded. While Russia has almost completely lost its superpower status, Serbia was seriously humiliated by NATO in 1999, and many Serbs feel humiliated by ongoing trials of their former leaders at the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague.

The incentives which the international community, especially the EU, can offer and which might moderate politics in those two countries are relatively scarce. Moreover, the experiences of average Russians with liberal economic and political reforms after the fall of communism have been rather negative. While most Russians seem to realize their country can no longer be “salvaged” by the Communists, many seem to be betting on semi-authoritarian rule and national revival stemming from traditional Russian values. That, however, has always been a dangerous combination.

The Balkans/Central Europe Leaders: Exploring Patterns of Leadership and Prospects for Democratic Development – The Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. State Department and the CIA, Washington. D.C. – 13. 4. 2005


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