Events

Minorities and Tolerance in Central and Eastern Europe and the NIS

April 24, 2001 // 12:00am

The conference attempted to examine the role of national and shared minorities and their impact on security and stability in Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States (NIS) by focusing on the tolerance aspect of this important, yet often contentious issue. Within this context, the panelists provided in-depth coverage of: existing minority rights and actual levels of implementation; the effect that diaspora and shared minorities have on regional cooperation; and the impact of international organizations like the OSCE and the EU on implementation and tolerance levels. The event concluded with a session seeking to propose strategies for deflecting ethnic hatred by focusing on lessons learned from Chechnya and a broad-brush look at what has worked in international efforts for conflict prevention.

The first panel laid the legal groundwork and provided the general background for the ensuing discussions on the various complex issues of minority rights and tolerance levels in the region. Stephen Deets briefly described the existing legal framework in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and concluded that "things are better than expected" – the existing constitutions are based on a liberal-democratic framework and outline the basic tenets of rights and responsibilities of the state and its citizens, allotting basic civic rights to minorities. The problematic areas remain the language issue and ensuring adequate representation of minorities in the government; here, the record is mixed throughout the region. Wolfgang Danspeckgruber emphasized that the real problem lies in the level of political implementation of the often generous laws and the governments’ capability and capacity to enforce international norms and agreements. He credits the role of the EU, especially in its unofficial dimension (i.e., conditionality-tied aid), in enforcing implementation of and respect for minority rights. Speaking on the internationally recognized norm of the inviolability of boundaries, Danspeckgruber emphasized that boundaries will remain inviolable only if the international community is ready to enforce and protect minority rights.

Focusing on cross-border or shared minorities, the diaspora, and migrants and/or refugees the second panel underlined the importance of history and finding a national identity for the newborn countries of this region and cautioned against the pushing of a single, rigidly-defined model of democracy and integration by external actors. As all panelists declared, democracy is not automatic nor does it provide an immediate and ready answer for reconciliation and inclusion. The panelists acknowledged that basic regional cooperation (economic and cultural) and dialogue is a first step forward toward achieving tolerance and respect for minority rights but pointed out that, as Lyudmila Haratyunyan emphasized, for some countries, especially in the NIS in countries like Armenia, with long and recent histories of tragedies and war even this minimal cooperation is not yet possible. Focusing on the Roma, Hungarian and Albanian minorities and their various aspirations ranging from socio-economic equality to territorial/political autonomy to separation and independence respectively, Janusz Bugajski also pointed out a contradictory pattern and obstacle to integration and state-building: as minorities increase their capacity to self-organize and agitate for their rights on the international arena, the mother country is increasingly defensive, resentful and resistant to tolerance, stereotyping its ethnic minorities and transient migrants alike as "outsiders" threatening national identity.

Nevertheless, as the third panel examining the impact of international actors on respect for minority rights demonstrated, the dream of "joining Europe" acts as a strong carrot pushing some of the required reforms and tolerance measures forward. Fraser Cameron emphasized the remarkable success story of the EU, especially when speaking in a united voice and in its unofficial dimension through condionality measures, in getting international norms implemented and respected by the applicant countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Erika Schlager emphasized the role and success of the High Commissioner on Minorities, Max Van der Stoel, in promoting dialogue and discussion in the region. While recognizing that the intrusiveness and impact of the EU and other international actors is unprecedented, Arthur Helton pointed out that the international community still lacks adequate mechanisms for dealing with the minority issue on a regional basis, especially in dealing with countries of the NIS that are outside of the "European dream."

The concluding panel attempted to draw up some strategies for dealing with minorities and deflect further potential conflicts. William Smirnov pleaded for a deeper search and understanding of the roots of explosive conflicts like Chechnya and urged real dialogue and compromise. He believes the international community has an important part to play in forcing through a compromise and helping to ease stereotypes and suspicions that all Russians and Chechens are extremists. In a controversial statement that questioned the very purpose and goal of the conference however, Jane Holl Lute argued that violent conflicts like the Chechen or Kosovo cases are not caused by ethnic, religious or cultural differences but by individual leaders. She would rather define these cases as "instances of lawlessness." What really matters, Holl Lute argued, are the pragmatics of prevention. To that end she suggested the following measures: 1) preventing the outbreak of violence through dialogue and the existence of a representative government; 2) preventing the spread of violence by militarily and economically (not diplomatically or politically) isolating the case; and 3) preventing the recurrence of violence by creating a space for outsiders and issuing a "magnanimous peace," though she did not define precisely what this would entail or the role tolerance (if any) plays in this model.

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