The Racist Paradox and the Failure of Minority Policies in Central and East Europe since 1989

January 28, 2009 // 11:00am12:00pm

The economic, political, social, and moral transformation in Central and East Europe remains unparalleled in terms of the depth of the reforms and the speed with which they were carried out. Among these reforms, these countries adopted European minority rights standards (as determined by the Council of Europe) in order to become European Union members. Nevertheless, although legal norms have been adopted to the highest degree, Michal Vasecka argued that minorities throughout Central and East Europe do not enjoy equal status with the titular nation and are not integrated socially or politically. Minority policies, Vasecka asserted, have failed, and it is important to address this failure in order to stem growing nationalism in these states.

Vasecka traced the roots of this failure to Central Europe's 19th century understanding of the nation, in which ethnicity alone defined the ‘core group' within these nations. As a result, ‘out groups' (such as national minorities) can never hope to be full members of the ‘core group.' Historically, this has caused problems, not only for national minorities within a country's borders, but also for neighboring states where co-ethnics reside. A recent attempt by the Hungarian government to bestow social rights on Hungarians living outside its borders was ultimately voted down in a referendum. Nevertheless, the fact that the issue entered the highest levels of political discourse gives credence to Vasecka's concerns: ultimately, Central Europeans prioritize non-citizens to citizens of different ethnicity.

The failure of minority policies to achieve true integration within Central European societies is due to structural problems inherent to the policies, which can be explained by the racist paradox: By adopting minority rights norms, the cohesion of society is threatened, which destroys people's blood-based image of their nation. Perhaps because of this paradox, minority rights policies throughout Central Europe have focused on socio-economic rights, rather than on political or cultural rights. Moreover, the European Union has been very weak in helping to address the problem because minority rights policy is a deeply contentious issue among the 27 member states, whose strategies differ significantly.

Continuing current policies in Central and East Europe would be counterproductive because inter-ethnic relations are suffering as a result. Vasecka cited current survey data in Slovakia which indicate that young Slovaks are less tolerant of minorities than their parents. In order to avoid further polarization between core and out groups, states need to better define short-term and long-term goals of minority policies, with a focus on recreating national identities in the region. Rather than continue the debate regarding the cultural definition of the nation, it is crucial to work towards creating a legal, political, and post-national citizenship in these countries.

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

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