Talk of the Nation: Language and Conflict in Romania and Slovakia
October 8, 2008

Staff-prepared summary of the seminar with Zsuzsa Csergo, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Queen's University

Over the last two decades, postcommunist Eastern Europe has seen the rise of both nationalism and democracy. Zsuzsa Csergo's recent book presents arguments and lessons that have emerged from a careful study of ethnic minority-majority relations in Romania and Slovakia. Primarily, she attempted to answer the question: does democratization make nationalism less contentious?
Latent nationalism emerged throughout Eastern Europe because the state borders that were erected since the end of the 19th century had cut various ethnic groups out of their titular nations. Inter-ethnic hatreds stemming from Europe's long history of inter-ethnic war were controlled during the communist period by imposing strict state control of individual behavior as well as through ideology-driven propaganda. As ethnic identification and calls for self-determination became a vehicle for overthrowing communism, new nations emerged in the postcommunist period and reignited nationalism.
Csergo's research focused on political groups that organized around a certain ethnicity and the progress of state-building in postcommunist states. She views these ethnic groups as political categories, since ethnic groups became active in democratic contestation very early on in the postcommunist period. She also uses the pre-existing majority-minority dichotomy that exists in any nation-state (the titular nation is the majority) which helps to define the relevant groups.
To test the extent of nationalism, Csergo focused on state language policies (as an indicator of the majority's disposition towards accommodating a minority) as well as an ethnic minority group's territorial claims (as an indicator of how attached an ethnic group is to secessionist goals). Csergo found that as democratization proceeds, nationalism does not necessarily diminish. In Slovakia, as state actors came closer to negotiating the rules by which citizens would be governed, language laws became entangled with issues of state sovereignty and the state's control over its territory. In Romania, by contrast, leaders relied on nationalism to unify the state in support of their reforms. In both cases, as democratization progressed, ethnic relations were adversely affected.
In both countries, illiberal policies were eventually reversed. Csergo's findings indicate that, rather than being a result of the European Union's conditionality in the region, this policy reversal was home grown and resulted from liberal-thinking leaders on the ground. In the end, however, territoriality of nationalism has not decreased, which is evident from the fact that with stronger democratic states in place, ethnic minorities no longer engage in debates of territorial division. However, research clearly points to slow but steady progress in the willingness of the majority to accommodate minority languages as democracy is strengthened.

Martin Sletzinger, Director, East European Studies, 202-691-4000