Nationalism After Communism: Lessons Learned
September 9, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES informal discussion with Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Chair, Romanian Academic Society, Bucharest

At the first EES Noon Discussion of the year, Alina Pippidi, Chair of the Romanian Academic Society (an independent think tank in Romania), assessed the postcommunist experience with nationalism, offering several lessons learned. Her study was one of several published in an edited volume by Central European University Press in 2004. In reviewing attitudes about nationalism in postcommunist Europe, Pippidi found that nationalist attitudes were generally strong throughout the region. Of course, not every postcommunist country had problems with ethnic conflict, such as those experienced in most of the former Yugoslavia. So how could this discrepancy be resolved? Pippidi attempted to address this question from an institutional perspective. She asserted that in order for state building to occur, the nation must be delimited. In countries where there was a clear national majority, ethnic conflict was not a problem while others, such as Serbia where the titular majority was only at 63 percent, had greater difficulty in delimiting their state.

Pippidi offered seven lessons on the experience of nationalism throughout the region. The first is that fear, not intolerance, sparks nationalist mobilization. The threats that give rise to such fears may differ from country to country, but fear is the greatest determinant of ethnic nationalism throughout the region. This fear may or may not be linked with the security of the nation, but it certainly helps avoid conflict if there is little risk of state dissolution. This leads to the second lesson, which is that unitary states have done much better than ethno-federal states. Where power is shared by several ethnic groups, state power becomes extremely weak, and weak states have a hard time being fair. Pippidi also distinguished between borders that are managed and those that are sanctified, as they have become in Kosovo. In the latter case, deeming certain borders to be sacred often leads to ethnic conflict.

The third lesson is that the wrong types of institutions tend to create incentives for separation and conflict. Institutions that emerge at the local level, and those that are shaped by bargaining by ethnic groups are superior to those that are installed from above. Pippidi warns against installing "temporary" institutions, such as those set up by the international community in areas of ethnic conflict, which tend to stick despite their ineffectiveness or unsuitability.

The next lesson is that nationalism follows the failure of politics. That is, people tend to vote for nationalists when they cannot discern a difference between parties on the right and left of the spectrum. In postcommunist Europe, where political parties were not well established and the party systems were unstable, the promise of EU enlargement effectively weakened nationalist tendencies, by offering an alternative.

Fifth, no institutions (a constitution, legislation, interethnic cooperation) should be initiated as long as external sponsorship of an ethnic conflict continues. In countries such as Moldova, where Russia continues to arm certain groups, no amount of international assistance to resolve the country's ethnic conflict will be effective until Russian support is curtailed. The Sixth lesson is that minority problems can be successfully worked out only when governance is strong. Finally, the seventh lesson is that external conditionality works to help stem violent nationalism only when three conditions are met: all international players agree on when it is to be done, there is a sizable carrot offered to the conflicting groups and all local elites can be co-opted.

While Pippidi realizes that there is a great deal of unfinished business in Eastern Europe pertaining to nationalism, residual communist attitudes are beginning to decrease through considerable relearning and socialization. One sign of success is that the majority of people now vote for mainstream popular parties, rather than the radical parties that are often highlighted by the press.