303. Lessons Learned: from Nationalism to State Building after Communism

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is Chair of the Romanian Academic Society in Bucharest. She spoke at an EES noon discussion on September 8, 2004. The following is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report 303

The latest challenges to a world order based on liberalism seem to render the Communist and post-Communist experiences obsolete. Some believe that Communism was so exceptional that, at the end of day, its lessons can teach us little. But I disagree. An enormous wealth of experience can be gained from the communist experiment, its rise, its reign and its fall. Perhaps the most important one is in the field of state and nation building, since no regime before communism had both the drive and the coercive power to impose institutions upon people that were so far from the organic development of both the state and the nation. Although the initial conditions for transformation vary greatly, some clear lessons do emerge out of a comparison between the successful and unsuccessful state-building projects in postcommunist Europe.

First, in light of the East European experience, it is clear that successful transformations cannot succeed without strong states. Only a strong state can successfully manage multiethnic communities. So far, only nation states have succeeded in the European integration project. The first eight Central European countries that became EU members in 2004 were all nation states, as are Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, which will follow suit shortly. The EU clearly avoided admitting countries with ethnic problems, and thus contributed to this outcome. Of course, successful countries, such as the Baltic states, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, had their share of ethnic cohabitation problems during their transitions. So it becomes clear that states that succeeded were those that were able to give a clear answer to the fundamental question of who is a member of the political community in the postcommunist state.

Furthermore, a weak state cannot be a fair state. Achieving a reasonably strong state may require, as in the Baltic states, a period of consolidation with the clear goal of producing such states. Some of the less-than-democratic institutional tools used during this period of consolidation may be given up later, when the state becomes strong enough.

The effect of weak states can be seen in popular reactions to state building. While considerable repatriation has occurred in the Baltic states, in Albania, Moldova and Ukraine citizens are fleeing their failed states en masse. This is not the usual exodus from poor to rich countries, but the tacit desertion of nearly-failed states. Interpreting this quiet disaster simply as a lack of economic success would be a mistake. When a country's entire active workforce would leave if given the opportunity, we are dealing with state failure, including the failure to achieve national mobilization around a common project. It is a vicious cycle: failed states create hopeless societies, which become sponsors of state failure.

National political elites are responsible for managing state building, but considerable international assistance and intervention in constitutional matters has also occurred in postcommunist Europe. The role of international assistance has been important in some countries, for better or worse. The main question for assistance programs is how to assist state consolidation and the enforcement of minority rights at the same time, not how to reorganize the state to ensure the protection of various cultural groups' rights. Power sharing without rights enforcement is not helpful. Worse, it creates nonfunctional states. This is merely saying that you need to have some power to share. Successful transitions and fair states need strong implementation capacity. Adoption of Council of Europe charters on minorities does not help in countries where people feel safe only when they have enough money to hire private security.

Lesson number two pertains to institutions. Postcommunist Europe's success stories are those in which the state itself was not challenged. What worked in postcommunist Europe were formulas that made unitary states more inclusive and more accountable, through the adoption of international legal standards on minorities, strong external conditionality to ensure that these laws were implemented and national cooperative politics. This is the package that has produced successful states and fair political societies. Representation of minorities through proportional electoral systems and reserved seats for smaller groups in national parliaments have also worked well. In Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, the largest parties of ethnic minorities have become consistant participants in government coalitions.

By contrast, ethnofederalism proved to be a poor institutional structure for conflict prevention or containment because it aggravates ethnic tensions, fosters ethnic polarization and multiplies institutional weapons for ethnic entrepreneurs. Evidence shows that ethnofederalism increased the likelihood of both ethnoconstitutional conflict and violence. Ethnofederalism remains an indispensable cease-fire strategy, but this does not mean that successful state building will follow.

Although nobody agrees vociferously with population exchanges and the redrawing of borders, successful peace brokering takes advantage of these processes, initiated during war. The conflict in Kosovo was solved the same way conflicts were resolved in Croatia and Slovenia—by the creation of a completely separate government structure. Once in place, institutions tend to stick if they provide incentives for certain groups to maintain them. Thus, ceasefire institutions usually turn into permanent institutions. This makes Kosovo's eventual confederation with Serbia nearly impossible. Institutions have their own logic, and the logic of Kosovo's government structures fosters independence, not confederalization. This sad conclusion does not rule out the case for federalism based on grounds other than territorial ethnic concentration, but the fact remains that none of the postcommunist countries with a successful democratic transition is a federal state.

The regional experience also shows another important lesson. Any institution emerging from local bargaining works far better than externally-crafted institutions. Where the development was organic—in unitary states—proportional systems and external conditionality have helped make ethnic bargaining a permanent component of the political process. In Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, this installed minorities in the kingmaker's seat. Gains for minorities in such countries may seem minor compared to what Albanians in Macedonia won through one rebellion, but unlike in Macedonia, such gains are completely accepted by the society and therefore more sustainable.

Lesson number three is on grassroots nationalism. Comparative survey data shows that nationalistic attitudes are widespread in postcommunist countries. Romanians and Hungarians are no less nationalistic than Serbs or Croats. Nevertheless, Central Europe, Romania and Bulgaria managed to remain unscathed by it. What differed were circumstances—not attitudes—which explain the very different outcomes within the region.

Manipulation of nationalism requires great skill. But it should not be only the ethnic entrepreneurs who learn its practice. Survey data shows that fear—not simply intolerance—is what mobilizes ethnic division and turns banal nationalism into actual votes for radical nationalists. Therefore, nationalists must manipulate threat calculations in order to gain electoral success. But threat can be manipulated from both directions, and reducing the perception of threat should be the policy priority of the international community wherever a conflict buds, prior to even addressing the ‘real' grounds of conflict or passing a judgment on who is right or wrong.

Comparative surveys on nationalist attitudes have lessons to teach on the importance of politics as well. Nationalism becomes dangerous when both politics and policy fail. Nationalism is preceded by a perceived drop in political choice, even if it is later used to subvert political choice. Where choice exists, grassroots nationalism is not powerful enough to compete. Invited to join Europe in 2004, both Slovakia and Hungary may retain nationalistic publics and politicians, but their importance is bound to decrease. If Romania and Bulgaria manage to stay on the course of European integration they are likely to follow the same path. In the Balkans, however, the acute discontent with politics and weak political parties make the future uncertain. In other words, the belief that politics work and the state can deliver public goods is not widely held in these countries. And as long as it is not, a wide spectrum of discourses—ranging from populism to nationalism—will continue to appeal to the population. Their importance will vary with the perceived threat to the state.

The reaction of most people to violence and ethnic war (including those with strongly nationalist attitudes) is often relatively limited and manifested in a vote for nationalists in elections or referenda. Most people would not commit any act of violence. But within any society, groups exist which feel dispossessed and are aware of the opportunities for thriving on the spoils of ethnic war and are ready to commit atrocities to get their share. Specific circumstances empower such groups and should be avoided. The marginal and criminal groups that profit from the spoils of ethnic war are not likely to be influenced by our lessons of deconstructivism, as their interest in history is minimal. They are interested in gains and stalk the collapse of central authority in an attempt to step in. To defeat nationalism one must manipulate contexts (from the political agenda to the political alternative), rather than popular attitudes, and increase available choices. Many East European nationalists, including Milosevic voters, can recognize a good political choice when offered one. In comparison with more profitable alternatives, such as a clear path to European integration, nationalism is weak.

Lesson number four is on governance. As it turns out, unlike challenges to the state structure, minority problems can be successfully worked out in strong states that gradually become more democratic. But it requires work and skill. The communist legacy consists of institutions that are entirely deprived of built-in accountability systems. Reforms cannot immediately dismantle the hierarchical bureaucratic structure of communist-era administrations or law-enforcement agencies, which see the citizen as a looter rather than a consumer of public goods, and the minority citizen almost as a criminal. Elections produce more politicians, already seen as parasites, and more talk. Policies and resources necessary to increase horizontal accountability are desperately lacking. A careful reader of survey data from the region cannot but grasp that while overall distrust in national representatives has endured throughout the region, trust in directly elected executives, such as mayors, has increased wherever decentralization policies have endowed local governments with the real means to run their communities. Thus, decentralization and vertical accountability work. For a unitary state to function properly, it must be decentralized to endow locally-elected leaders with the means to satisfy their voters.

This is the best strategy to contain political discontent. It is also the best policy for minorities as it creates smaller units, which are more ethnically homogenous and therefore politically cohesive, with more power to solve their accountability problem. The more a community has a say in how its schools, police and municipal services function, the less often ethnic entrepreneurs will find followers to challenge the central government and seek radical solutions. The existence of medium-size units of local government also means that more cooperation is needed among these units to pursue development strategies. A sound approach assumes a policy of local, not regional development, of small-scale local executive bodies and councils, rather than regional parliaments, endowed with broad legislative powers. Accountability must first work in these smaller units to spill over to larger ones. In other words, what benefits minorities most are not only special policies, such as affirmative action, but the gradual and significant improvement in government accountability.

The last lesson of postcommunist Europe is on the external environment. The region has seen some terrible wars, but it has also seen successful conflict resolution. This was brought about in some special circumstances worth noting. First, it was only after the international community unified its position that its efforts at peace brokering eventually worked. Second, it needed a carrot (EU integration) at least as large as the stick (NATO intervention) to bring peace to the Balkans. Moreover, wherever the accession to Europe seems a realistic prospect, and even where it is not yet so, European policies override ethnic and nationalist ones in terms of public sympathy and win the support of political elites from almost all political parties. Integration remains the major incentive for peace and development, even if the promise of integration cannot by itself solve many of the problems these countries face. It is hard to build and maintain constituencies for economic reform after years of hardship: it is far easier to build constituencies for Europe. And the latter can successfully substitute for the former, as some countries from the first enlargement wave have successfully proved. Third, only when elites become fully coopted does peace become sustainable. And fourth, which should have been first, the success of international assistance in some countries was severely limited by the failure to address a core problem: sponsorship of the conflict by diasporas and neighboring countries. Russia did not arm the Russian minorities in the Baltic states, but it did allow the arming of them in Moldova and Georgia. The former are now EU members, while the latter are bordering on state failure. No constitutional arrangement, regardless of how equitable, can prevent ethnic conflict if external sponsorship continues, rebels infiltrate borders, arms are brought in and signals are sent by powerful neighbors to their kin in the disputed states that they should not let the matter rest.

There has been considerable revisionism in recent years regarding multinational European empires. Triggered by the well-grounded antipathy toward small would-be nation states, or "Ruritanias," as Ernest Gellner called them. This new view espouses the idea that non-democratic empires were better at managing multiethnicity than the present democratic multiethnic nation-states. But this is like saying that there is less chance for crime in a prison than outside it. This attitude is misleading on two accounts. First, it blurs the main cause of today's ethnic problems, specifically, the demography and borders created precisely by imperial ethnic engineering (communism included). Second, it suggests that small nation-states cannot evolve from a predominantly ethnic nationalism to a predominantly civic one. But the Central European example shows that this is possible. Before rewriting history to make it politically correct for ethnic groups, restating its essentials accurately for policy makers seems an urgent task.



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