CAIN Web Service

the politics of 'and' in
ethno-nationalist conflicts

Robin Wilson, Democratic Dialogue
September 1999



The politics of negation

Ulrich Beck (1997: vii) opens his The Reinvention of Politics with a discussion of the suggestion by the early Soviet constructivist artist Wassily Kandinsky that if the 19th century was dominated by 'either-or'—separation, specialisation, clarity—the 20th should be devoted to work on 'and'—simultaneity, multiplicity, uncertainty. Beck argues that two late-80s watersheds signal the breakthrough of And: Chernobyl and the fall of the Wall.

Yet the 90s, it has become a commonplace to recognise, have proved to be the decade of recrudescent ethnonationalism (Smith, 1999: 331)—bookended by appalling wars in the Balkans, the like of which Europe has not seen since the second world war. Ethno-nationalist tension has been a recurrent feature of post-communist evolution in east and central Europe, including the former USSR. Sub-Saharan Africa has been criss-crossed by fighters of various ethnic and national origins, mainly arising from the horrific genocide in Rwanda in 1994; in the horn, a futile border war smoulders on between Ethiopia and secessionist Eritrea. The Indian sub-continent has revisited, nuclear-armed, the Indo-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir, while the war of attrition between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers continues. The seizure of Abdullah Ocalan and retreat of the PKK, while holding out real hope of an accommodation between the Kurdish community and the state, could yet prove the occasion for the pursuit of final victory by the state in Turkey's no-compromise culture. A year after the ETA ceasefire in the Basque country, a predictable stand-off on the principle of 'self-determination', between the various strands of Basque nationalism and the Spanish government, remains. Even the settlements of the period, in Israel/Palestine, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Northern Ireland, have fallen well short of their authors' hopes—in terms of the timescale of their implementation (Northern Ireland, the middle-east) or the goal of multi-ethnic political co-existence (Bosnia). And any hope that a multi-ethnic Kosovo might be restored after the NATO victory over Milosevic died on the bridge at Mitrovice (Cullen, 1999).

This sequence of events was not, by any means, widely foreseen. In the late 80s, Eric Hobsbawm delivered a series of lectures on nationalism in Belfast. At the end he concluded (Hobsbawm, 1990: 163, 173) that "while nobody can possibly deny the growing and sometimes dramatic, impact of nationalist, or ethnic politics … [i]t is no longer a major vector of historical development". More embarrassingly still, he claimed that "it was the great achievement of the communist regimes in multinational countries to limit the disastrous effects of nationalism within them"—stressing how at the time of writing there had not been a single fatality in Yugoslavia. Just a few years later, in his survey of the 'short twentieth century', Hobsbawm's tone was quite different. He bemoaned how "the Wilsonian-Leninist 'right to national self-determination' for supposedly homogeneous ethnic-linguistic-cultural 'nations', was patently being reduced to a savage and tragic absurdity as the new millennium approached" (Hobsbawm, 1994: 567).

Yet perhaps this is not, after all, so surprising. For, just as the comforts of 'socialist realist' art were to succeed the challenges of the constructivists, Beck argues (1997: 61-6) that 'the ambivalences of the And' have precisely favoured 'a renaissance of the Either-or', a 'counter-modernity' characterised by 'constructed certitude':

All the concepts that modernity dismantles, unmasks and delegitimates are sacred to counter-modernity; of course this includes 'tradition' and the 'cultivation', that is, invention of it, but also nature, religion, the nation, the distinction between ourselves and 'strangers', we-they identities and hence their extreme intensification, friend-enemy relationships. Violence is the magic wand of resimplification …

Mary Kaldor (1996: 53-54) endorses this claim more specifically:

The new nationalism is a counterproductive project. The main implication of globalisation is that territorial sovereignty is no longer viable. The effort to reclaim power within a particular spatial domain will merely further undermine a group's ability to influence events. This does not mean that the new nationalism will go away. Rather, it is a recipe for new closed-in chaotic statelets with permanently contested borders dependent on continuing violence for survival.

While Ignatieff's ethnic-versus-civic, dichotomous representation of nationalism is ideal-typical, the phenomenon we are exploring has been almost everywhere predominantly ethnic, with primarily civic counter-examples such as Scotland (though see McMillan, 1999) relatively exceptional—Northern Ireland's sustained ethnic antagonism is much more typical. As Ignatieff (1994: 5) himself has written, "the key language of our age is ethnic nationalism". By contrast, there are, quite simply, relatively few non-democratised political spaces left around the globe where a 'classical' politics of self-determination can pit an 'oppressed' national group against a colonial/imperialist power in a demand for democratic citizenship. The obvious counter-example, East Timor, in a sense underscores this point since the recent atrocities there were the ultimate product of the second colonisation of the country—by the Indonesians—following the withdrawal by the Portuguese in 1975, as from their African colonies.

Ethnonationalism in that sense is profoundly different. The fault lines it draws are vertical, not horizontal. Its counterpart is not the state (except by proxy) but the Other. Its protagonism is proportionate not to any inequalities its social constituency suffers relative to its comparator/competitor group—as in Northern Ireland, the former may intensify as the latter diminish. Its relationship with violence is at worst an easy one, at best ambivalent. Its relationship with dialogue is at worst of refusal, at best dogmatic. Far from there being an evident settlement in a transfer of power in a democratising direction, these are zero-sum games in which incompatible democratic contentions are advanced from each side. Accepting 'self-determination' demands in such circumstances frequently implies greater violence and certainly a displacement effect on to a newly disgruntled group.

At face value it thus seems possible only to contain, not to counter, the ethno-nationalist challenge—through political institutionalisation which may bring an 'acceptable level of violence', as in Northern Ireland or the Basque country; through establishing an international protectorate, as effectively remains the case in Bosnia, via which violence can be suppressed; or through ex post facto deployment of force, as in Kosovo. Yet this need not be the only conclusion. First of all, theoretically, to say that rationalist philosophies neither predicted nor could stem the rise of ethnic nationalist claims around the globe is not to say that ethnonationalism cannot be rationally understood—including its strongly affective, 'irrational' aspects (Guibernau, 1996).

Hobsbawm's error was hardly a unique one. Within liberal as well as Marxist versions of enlightenment rationalism, ethnonationalism would eventually be swept aside by the march of progress: a universal subject—whether the proletariat or the individual citizen—would take the place of any particularist identities. In this context, it is noteworthy how Northern Ireland used to be routinely described as a 'hangover' of 17th-century religious conflict in Europe; after the horrors of a 90s war between Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims, no one would be so sanguine. Or so you would think: in fact, the historian John Keegan decided that the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina was 'a primitive tribal conflict only anthropologists can understand' (Mazower, 1998: xiv).

As Gray (1995: 129) has argued, what we now find is:

the supreme problem of communities in our time, which is that of finding terms of peaceful coexistence among themselves … Communities make rival claims on territories they inhabit together, they are animated by conflicting narratives and cultural traditions, they renew their identities across the generations by strategies of exclusion and subordination, and so on. The real agenda for political thought … is this agenda of relations among communities having irresolvably conflicting, and sometimes incommensurable claims …

The ethnonationalist answer to the problem is a simple one: render ethnic and territorial boundaries co-terminous, so that the ruled are ruled by rulers of the same ethnic affiliation: 'All Serbs in One State' is its rhetorical expression, 'ethnic cleansing' its practical consequence. With fewer than 200 states in the world—of which perhaps only one quarter are strictly 'nation-states' (Ryan, 1995: 3)—yet perhaps more than 5,000 ethnic groups (Kymlicka, 1995), it is as unrealistic as it is reactionary.

There is no evidence, however, that the problem is likely to diminish. As Kymlicka (1995: 1) writes:

Minorities and majorities increasingly clash over such issues as language rights, regional autonomy, political representation, education curriculum, land claims, immigration and naturalisation policy, even national symbols, such as the choice of national anthem or public holidays. Finding morally defensible and politically viable answers to these issues is the greatest challenge facing democracies today … There are no simple answers or magic formulas to resolve all these questions.

It is such conflicts which have been the source of the now recognised trend by which modern wars are increasingly intra-, rather than inter-state. This has left the international community struggling to adapt, given that the United Nations was established with a view to preventing inter-state wars (Judd, 1998: ix).

Yet in a fundamental sense the idea that such intra-state conflicts are not simply the expression of 'ancient hatreds' is a potentially emancipatory one. As Ronen (1997: 100-101) points out, Serb and Croat recourse to the war-time language of Chetnik and Ustashe still begs the question: why was there not violent conflict for the intervening four decades and more? And the answer is Ignatieff's (1999: 7):

Even the long-standing, apparently adamantine antipathies of the ethnic war zones turn out, on closer examination, to be expressions of fear created by the collapse or absence of institutions that enable individuals to form civic identities strong enough to counteract their ethnic allegiances. When individuals live in stable states—even poor ones—they do not need to rush to the protection of the group. It is the disintegration of states, and the Hobbesian fear that results, that produces ethnic fragmentation and war.

Hence the prominent role of paramilitaries, to whom many have turned for security—however reluctantly—in Northern Ireland and ex-Yugoslavia: 'bands of young men … who make a living through violence or threats of violence … and who either base their power on particularistic networks or seek respectability through particularistic claims' (Kaldor, 1996: 52).

In other words, what matters is the process by which such conflicts escalate from day-to-day, manageable tensions to outright antagonism and violence. It is a process characterised, in the political domain, by the collapse of dialogue in favour of fundamentalism. And it is in and through such a process that 'neighbours once ignorant of the very idea that they belong to opposed civilisations begin to think—and hate—in these terms' (Ignatieff, 1999: 36).

By contrast, the substance of a conflict—what is held to fuel the 'ancient hatreds'—is actually largely self-referential. As Ignatieff puts it (1999: 36-37), the definition of a Serb simply becomes someone who is not a Croat, and vice versa: When he pressed a Serb paramilitary in Croatia during the war there, on what made him different from his Croat enemies, all the latter could think of was the cigarettes they smoked! This he understands by reference to Freud's notion of the 'narcissism' of minor differences—that nationalism works up what are otherwise indifferent differences into self-regarding intolerance (Ignatieff, 1999: 51-53). Similarly, in Northern Ireland Frank Wright argues (1987: 141) that 'antagonism is itself before it is any of the interests it has been fashioned to serve'.

Yet if this is so, if ethnonationalist conflict is a matter principally of process, in which substantive issues are relatively inconsequential, then the scope for preventing, de-escalating or even reversing such processes becomes apparent. This, however, with two very important riders. Firstly, precisely because ethnonationalist conflict is so self-referential, like a self-perpetuating flywheel it acquires an inertia very difficult to stem, as Northern Ireland shows all too clearly—'obsolete' sectarian and paramilitary protagonism continuing under what is meant to be a new political dispensation. Secondly, there is a law of entropy at work: it is much easier to set in train what Anthony Giddens (1994: 245) calls 'degenerate spirals of communication' than to reverse them—the labour of Sisyphus that is the recreation of multi-ethnic life in Bosnia-Hercegovina being an obvious example.

Rethinking sovereignty

One of the certain ways to escalate a conflict within a state is to set in motion a zero-sum dynamic counterposing (state) 'sovereignty' to (minority) 'self-determination'. In fact, the second notion is a derivative of the first: secessionist groups seek to establish a sovereign state ruled by 'their own'—the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is a classic instance. This sovereigntist paradigm may be described as the billiard-ball conception of the world: it is an order based on internally homogeneous states, which have impermeable boundaries, and whose character is utterly unaffected by any relations established between them. And one of the first steps to tackling ethnonationalist divisions is a reappraisal of the idea of sovereignty.

Rethinking sovereignty takes place at two levels—the sub-state and the intergovernmental. As to the former, moves towards regional/national devolution/autonomy, under the banner of 'subsidiarity', make possible a revisiting of the possibility of multi-national states, apparently discredited in the past because of their pre-WWI associations with the empires of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs.

A case in point is Catalonia, where, as Montserrat Guibernau (1997) argues, there is a clear contrast between the fundamentalist Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the autonomist Convergence and Unity (CiU) of the Catalan leader, Jordi Pujol. For the ERC, the Catalan nation cannot survive without its own state and the Spanish state cannot contain its component nationalities; for the CiU, on the other hand, it is possible to be a nationalist without seeking independence and nationalities such as Catalonia can live and develop within the framework of larger political institutions (Guibernau, 1997: 109):

The relevance of Pujol's nationalism stems from the assumption that it is possible for a nation to live and develop within a multinational state if this state is genuinely democratic and allows enough space for its nations to feel represented and cultivate their difference. This is an innovative conception which could contribute to the resolution of nationalism in some areas, particularly since it seems politically unviable to suddenly multiple the number of states covering the world.

As the Catalan instance shows, the possibilities of subsidiarity are connected to the possibilities of supra-national (or, rather, supra-state) developments, which brings us to look at the future of intergovernmental institutions such as the United Nations. Let us consider first a classic statement of the sovereigntist argument, from a British policy-maker, James Headlam-Morley, recalling discussion of what was to become the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 (Mazower, 1998: 56):

At first there was, so far as I recollect, a proposal that there should be inserted in the League of Nations some general clause giving the League of Nations the right to protect minorities in all countries which were members of the League. This I always most strongly opposed … for it would have involved the right to interfere in the internal constitution of every country in the world. As I pointed out, it would give the League of Nations the right to protect the Chinese in Liverpool, the Roman Catholics in France, the French in Canada, quite apart from the more serious problems, such as the Irish. This point of view was, I think, not seriously opposed by any except the unofficial bodies [today's NGOs] who wished the League of Nations to be a sort of super-state with a general right of guarding democracy and freedom throughout the world … My own view was that any right given to the League of Nations must be quite definite and specific, and based on special treaties entered into because of definite exceptional cases, and that such a right could only be recognised in the case of a new or immature state of Eastern Europe or Western Asia. Even if the denial of such a right elsewhere might lead to injustice and oppression, that was better than to allow anything which would mean the negation of the sovereignty of every state in the world.

The United Nations has survived rather longer, and been rather more effective, than its inter-war predecessor. But article II(vii) of the UN Charter states specifically that the organisation does not have the right to interfere with matters that fall under the 'domestic jurisdiction' of any member state; the latter must consent to, indeed invite, any intervention (Rupesinghe, 1998: 19). This year, the irrelevance of the UN in terms of the Kosovo conflict has only been matched by its impotence, until after the horrid fact, in East Timor. An organisation based on the very principle of sovereign statehood is by definition unable adequately to address intra-state conflicts—even if it did not suffer the appalling resource problems that it does (Thornberry, 1998: 18). The 90s have therefore seen the UN to some extent rivalled by the emergence, greater assertion or redefinition of a range of other intergovernmental organisations: the EU, NATO, the OSCE and the Council of Europe.

The EU has been crucial to the assertion of Catalonia as an autonomous subject, through Mr Pujol's para-diplomacy—including his period of leadership of the Committee of the Regions—and its collaboration with Rhône-Alpes, Baden-Württemberg and Lombardy in the 'Four Motors' project (Loughlin, 1998: 32-33). This is part of a wider process of transformation of the EU in the 90s into a structure of 'multi-level governance' (Jeffery, 1996: 184), defying those who—within a sovereigntist problematic—had only been able to imagine that the future was a Europe of nation-states or a new country called Europe. As Udo Bullman (1996: 11) puts it,

The European Union after Maastricht thus provides the framework for a new and different political order in which authority is scattered and sovereignty shared. In consequence a new type of politics has arisen in which institutions and competences overlap. New modes of exchange and representation have come into existence which emphasise the role of sub-national political arenas as spheres for action and dialogue.

Related to this protagonism of the 'third level' in the European Union has been growing attention to the scope for 'transnational' and 'inter-regional'—not just 'cross-border'—co-operation, especially in the arena of spatial planning, where the union itself is acquiring the competence to act. As Christiansen (1999: 45) contends, albeit at this stage theoretically, 'for the first time the opportunity exists to view the union as an entity without state borders'. This clearly allows of new arrangements, such as on the island of Ireland, where the heimat identities of national minorities can be assuaged without the redrawing of boundaries. It is, however, important to recognise that the post-Amsterdam 'differential integration' in the EU, which will be exacerbated by enlargement—allied to the unintended tendency of measures introduced to permeate borders to generate new ones—is creating what Christiansen (1999: 49) has aptly described as a 'Maze Europe' increasingly impenetrable to its citizens.

Overall, this double movement, above and below the (misnamed) 'nation-state' allows of an exit from the either-or sovereignty dilemma. As the international community's anathema against secession has been progressively shattered—beginning perhaps with the 1971 secession of East from West Pakistan—the international norm on the resolution of ethnoterritorial disputes has been the holding of a plebiscite in the contested area (Guelke, 1998). The obvious difficulty with this approach is that it merely overturns the balance of forces between groups, without doing anything to diminish the underlying 'force field', as Wright (1987) described it. Beyond the billiard-ball paradigm, however, lies a much more fluid set of political possibilities, characterised by degrees of autonomy and transnational competences. But their successful exploitation requires two further reappraisals—in the satisfaction of 'minority rights' and the development of multiple political identities, as discussed below.

There can be no doubt, however, that such benign outcomes to ethnonationalist conflicts will not everywhere result. And if states do disintegrate then an external Sovereign, in the Hobbesian sense, is required to prevent the (ethnonationalist) war of all against all. In the European theatre, NATO has clearly emerged as the nearest thing to a Sovereign to hand. While many hoped that the fall of the Wall would issue in the dissolution of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the collapse of the former Soviet bloc left NATO as the only show in town. It has since struggled to redefine its 'strategic concept' and it emerged as the protagonist in the Kosovo war largely by default. Nor was it able to stop the horror of ethnic cleansing that the Serbian leadership's 'Operation Horseshoe' envisaged; nor, either, after the return of the refugees to stem significantly the tide of reprisals. But until such times as the UN is put on a more genuinely supranational footing—not the victim of great-power vetoes—and the resources it needs are provided for it, in Europe NATO is going to be a key player. Its role will be to provide the security underpinning for other organisations, including the UN and NGOs, to play their roles in addressing conflict. As a NATO representative put it (Wilson, 1998: 87), 'If the bridges are mined or destroyed, you can't bring people together.'

A further important development in this regard is the gradual emergence of the International Criminal Court, building on the ad hoc experiences of the tribunals in Arusha and the Hague—and it is noteworthy how the NATO intervention against Serbia in Kosovo appears to have emboldened the tribunal on ex-Yugoslavia to indict Slobodan Milosevic. It is true that the purview of the ICC—the degree to which it will undermine the sovereignty problematic—has been significantly weakened by the US stance during the negotiations on the court. But, nevertheless, as the convenor of the NGO coalition in support of the court argues (Race, 1999: 1), 'The globalisation of justice, led largely by the historic ICC process, is an amazing development in international affairs, and an antidote to so many other dark and dangerous global forces.'

Minority rights

Giddens (1994: 85) has persuasively argued that the biggest threat to today's world is fundamentalism—a reaction to globalisation, 'detraditionalisation' and cultural interchange which can be described as the defence of tradition in a traditional way. It is thus a refusal of reflexivity. Ethnonationalism is in that sense a continuing embodiment of Bismarck's invocation to the Volk (Connor, 1994: 198): 'Germans, think with your blood.'

It is also, as indicated earlier, a refusal of dialogue. Yet, if dialogue is essentially the means by which democracy can act as a substitute for violence, the consequences can evidently be disastrous. As Guibernau (1996: 144) writes, 'The current proliferation of struggles for self-determination in several parts of the world indicates that the desire of nation-states to present themselves as democratic does not necessarily result in the adoption of a dialogic attitude towards the national minorities they contain.' Such struggles have proved most intense and difficult to resolve in situations, such as in large areas of central and eastern Europe, where the fraught relationship between 'newly nationalising states' and 'national minorities' is compounded by the existence of an external 'homeland' to which the latter can be ethnoculturally deemed to belong and whose own nationalism adds a further complexifying dimension (Brubaker, 1996: 4-6).

The collapse of the Ottoman, Tsarist and Habsburg empires served up a vast array of minority-rights claims for the nascent League of Nations, some dealt with more successfully than others. But Hitler's exploitation of the plight of the Sudeten Germans and, in the post-war years, the focus of the UN on the 'self-determination' of 'colonial peoples' meant minority questions were to be marginalised during the cold war (Ronen, 1997: 70). The decades-long process of elaborating what was to become the 1992 UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National, Religious and Ethnic Minorities (Eide, 1993) was telling (Hannum, 1992).

But the practical challenges issuing from the end of the cold war were evident as soon as the three Baltic states sought to break away from the old USSR—with the obviously problematic consequences of citizenship arrangements for the new states, geared to the 'reawakening' of national identity, tending to alienate Russian speakers (Zaagman, 1999). As the explanatory report accompanying the 1995 Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities puts it (Troebst, 1998: 11), when the heads of state and government of the member states met in Vienna in October 1993, 'it was agreed that the national minorities which the upheavals of history have established in Europe had to be protected and respected as a contribution to peace and stability'. Key provisions of the framework convention are non-discrimination and promotion of equality; preservation of identity and promotion of tolerance and mutual understanding; protection of language rights, including in education and the media; 'effective participation' in public life; and freedom of contacts across frontiers plus encouragement of bilateral agreements.

Neither of these documents has a justiciable character: the UN declaration is precisely that and, while the Vienna meeting did envisage that a protocol would be drafted complementing the European Convention on Human Rights, this has never been done—France led the resistance, the whole idea of minority rights being alien to its assimilationist concept of la nation (Wilson, 1998: 46). This, moreover, is one of only a number of flaws from which the convention suffers: the wording is vague and the monitoring mechanism weak. As Stefan Troebst (1998: 11) sums it up, the convention 'resembles a net which is not only very wide-meshed but contains a great number of large holes'. But the importance of the declaration and the framework convention is that they breach the traditional jurisprudence of rights which attaches rights only to universal, abstract citizens. They do not introduce particularist rights: after all, they set new universal standards for their member states. What they do is to begin to construct the notion that, above the floor of universal rights to which all citizens are entitled, each citizen is also entitled to specific expression of the universal rights they enjoy as members of particular groups.

Moreover, some concrete progress can be identified in the work of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a product largely of the reinvention of the CSCE after the fall of the Wall. At their Helsinki meeting in 1992, given their failure to stop the ethnic wars in Yugoslavia and the Caucasus, the OSCE states established the post of high commissioner on national minorities, occupied ever since by Max van der Stoel, a former Dutch foreign minister. While the commissioner can not investigate individual complaints, or address conflicts that have already become violent, he can engage at an early stage in preventive diplomacy. His aim has been to encourage 'structured dialogue' between the states and minorities concerned, with the hope that they develop solutions of their own. In the Baltic states, for example, he appears to have had some success in persuading the Estonian government in particular of the need to address the concerns of the Russian-speakers about the naturalisation process and the status of aliens (Zaagman, 1999: 16, 51).

It should be stressed that 'minority rights' is now in many ways a misnomer for what would be better described as equality of citizenship. For the notion conveys a sense of homogeneous blocs, and appears to beg the question of what rights individual members of minorities (or indeed majorities) have to dissent from a collectively-perceived position. In fact, none of the emergent international jurisprudence on minority rights is presented in that way. The UN declaration and the Council of Europe convention are very careful to refer to 'persons belonging' to minorities: the person, not the group, represents the legal subject, even though exercise of such rights 'in community with others' is endorsed.

Moreover, the framework convention makes clear that individuals have the right not to be treated as belonging to a national minority. This is a very important principle, to defend the rights of those who, owing to the balance of power within any minority, may otherwise lose out. Nira Yuval-Davis (1998) warns that such a constructed 'group voice … can in actuality collude with fundamentalist leaderships who claim to represent the true "essence" of their collectivity's culture and religion, and who have high on their agenda the control of women and their behaviour—as campaigns like the forceful veiling of women by Muslim fundamentalists and the major anti-abortion campaigns by Christian fundamentalists demonstrate'.

In addition, the notion of 'minority rights' tends to convey, at least to some degree, offsetting arrangements granted to a minority only partially to compensate for their loss of the zero-sum sovereignty game. Now the foregoing comments on sovereignty and the succeeding remarks on identity challenge this assumption. But, further, Attracta Ingram (1994) has persuasively argued that rights should be conceived as derived, not from the self-ownership of property but from the value of individual autonomy—from the capacity of all moral persons for self-government. This must include a capacity to make reasoned judgments about one's own particular projects, and so reasoned engagement with those of others. But if such dialogue is to be based on reason—rather than power or appeals to tradition—all individuals must have equal entitlements to citizenship, such as in terms of freedom of expression, and all must stand in a relationship one to another of mutuality and interdependence. Linked to the above argument that 'minority rights' are still individualised, this makes clear that, whatever the relative sizes of minority and majority, the precise basket of rights applying in any particular polity should be derived through what Ingram, following Habermas, calls 'ideal discourse' between such equal citizens.


Multiple identities

'If you ask me what is my native country,' wrote the playwright Odon von Horvath, 'I answer: I was borne in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Pressburg, Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport; but I have no fatherland. I am a very typical mix of old Austria-Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech; my country is Hungary, my mother tongue is German.' (Mazower, 1998: 43)

Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz (1999: 221-223) contends that an individual's identity is best understood as comprised of various overlapping 'canopies' or 'worlds' which, together, 'express the richness of our being' and are the product of 'a lifelong process of developing varying options and claims'. Notably, 'ethnic' and 'national identities' need not coincide. But for some, identity is reduced to an idée fixe expressed in one 'chosen trauma' (such as the Battle of Kosovo Plain) or 'chosen triumph' (such as the Battle of the Boyne). The consequence of this is a 'totalism' incompatible with pluralism, and which requires the demonisation of alternative identity elements—and, in extremis, the physical destruction of those who embody them through 'ethnic cleansing'.

Walker Connor argues (1994: 42, 48) that key to the transition from A N Other ethnic group to 'nationhood' is a sense on the part of its members that they are 'unique in a most vital sense'. But this is not simply a sense of 'we'-hood. It is rather of us-hood: 'The conception of being unique or different requires a referent, that is, the idea of "us" requires "them".' According to Smith (1999), this becomes possible because the affective aspect of nationalism is often rooted in an idea of a 'national mission and destiny', based on a belief in 'ethnic election' which confers on the chosen 'a sense of their moral superiority over outsiders'. Guibernau (1996: 90) concurs: 'The "other" is not someone who makes us aware of our own particularities, someone we can learn from, respect, live with and take as a point of reference in the construction of our own identity. This nationalism sees in the "other" a potential or factual enemy, but above all someone inferior.'

Ericksen (1993: 157-158) points towards an alternative with his argument that identity need not be conceived in such a 'digital', either-or way, in which someone is a member of X group or they are not; rather it can be 'analogic', in which someone can be somewhat X. Most importantly, as a result, 'People may be a bit of this and a bit of that.' Catalonia again provides a benign example. Identity research by Moreno et al (1998) finds a very even distribution in Catalonia of degrees of 'Spanish-ness' or 'Catalan-ness', with the largest group of respondents defining themselves as 'as much Catalan as Spanish'. They point out that Catalan nationalism has always avoided limiting its horizon to the regional/national but has sought to influence Spanish politics. One third of Catalonia residents are immigrants, mainly from elsewhere in Spain, yet: 'Both collectivities seem to be interwoven in various degrees and manifestations. Integration and tolerance are among the main features present in Catalonia's social life.'

Müller-Fahrenholz' emphasis on identity as a diachronic sedimentation adds a further, individual-biographical dimension. Schleswig-Holstein offers in this regard a benign instance. Jørgen Kühl (1998: 37) contends: 'It is a fact that, for many people North and South of the border, the individual choice of identity has never been a final or irreversible process. People in the Danish-German border region actually do join or leave the minorities—not only in theory, but in daily practice.' The author used to have a UK passport, whereas now he bears an Irish one; no great degree of Angst was involved in the decision.

Such a recognition of the labile nature of identity, of the interdependence of identities, and of the extent of individual variation within perceived 'communities' is essential in the construction of workable political arrangements for the resolution of ethno-nationalist conflicts. Matters are difficult enough where such communities are, for the most part, geographically separated and so two-state (as in the middle-east) or autonomy-based (as in south-eastern Turkey) solutions are at least in theory viable. Where co-existence is unavoidable, however—as in Northern Ireland or Bosnia-Hercegovina—shared governance is essential.

The evidence of recent years of the fate of 'consociationalism' is not encouraging in this regard. Belgium is clearly a state on the edge of break-up, amidst ever-growing Walloon-Fleming tension and a general political culture of méfiance. Switzerland's continuing success rests on its perhaps unique combination of cantonisation by language-group and tempering, cross-cutting religious cleavages. Lebanon remains viable only under Syrian tutelage. And the problems of securing multi-ethnic administration in Northern Ireland and Bosnia need little elaboration.

Yet consociationalism has been premised on a pillarised conception of society, in which far from being labile, interdependent or subject to individual choice, identities are perceived in an essentialist fashion, separation is preferred to integration, and politics is perceived as a process confined to élite deal-makers best subject to minimum popular pressure. It is quite simply out of date in less deferential and more differentiated times. In that sense, consociationalism is like black-and-white television in an age of colour: it was a big advance over radio but it represents obsolescent political technology today. The goal must be to set in train political arrangements which guarantee equality of political citizenship and allow expression of diverse identities, while allowing a collective political subject to emerge to act on this new international stage.

Giddens' (1994: 15-17) notion of 'dialogic democracy' encapsulates a broader and less rigid perspective. Instead of pillars either pressing against each other with equal and opposite force or, worse, repelling each other like like poles of a magnet, we have individual citizens—not confined to the political sphere—engaging in a process of mutual understanding and trust-building. Of course, it is not easy, and the retreat from dialogue to fundamentalism is always possible, but it can work: the all-too-brief coalition between Brian Faulkner and Gerry Fitt in Northern Ireland in 1974 was a remarkable testimony to the substitutive power of dialogue.

Giddens is right to focus on this cultural dimension of politics: the evidence is scant that one can safely establish such institutions in the hope that the requisite cultural change to make them work will follow, as the fate of the Belfast agreement indicates. But clearly there must be rules that reassure minorities that, in the political arena, the force of argument rather than the force of numbers will prevail. Agreement that the shared polity is a sui generis entity which has transcended the zero-sum sovereignty game—perhaps through a written constitution—can defuse the underlying tension which expresses itself in endless ethnonationalist attrition. Equality-of-citizenship provisions—perhaps expressed in a bill of rights—can assuage fears of majority domination while stemming minority demands for secession. And democratic procedures—perhaps a weighted-majority requirement for controversial legislation—can militate in favour of dialogic political relationships as the alternative to endless deadlock.

But the neutrality of the state itself should be protected: a democratic society is one in which any citizen, working in association with others, may seek to paint any political colour—not just orange or green, for example—on the palette which the state represents. Specific identities should not be referred to in defining weighted majorities, governments should be voluntary coalitions able to command weighted-majority support, and the symbols of the state should be civic rather than ethno-national. The state can thus be at once multi-national and non-national (Cassese, 1995: 365).


In this paper, I have sought to outline what could be described as a broadly 'progressive' strategy for addressing today's ethnonationalist conflicts. The elements of it have emerged in a number of intellectual innovations in the past decade. New distributions of power, new provisions for equality of citizenship, and new democratic arrangements allow of an exit from the contradiction, which has defined the 20th-century order, between 'sovereignty' and 'self-determination'.

But it is also clear that actual policy is generally far from so advanced. The UN, still wedded by its members in large measure to the national-sovereignty problematic, has proved disastrously incapable of filling the Hobbesian Sovereign role so tragically missing in Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor, when that was needed. Moreover, the international community, as it has sought to establish political settlements for ethnonationalist conflicts, has mostly groped forward with a Realpolitik based on the existing balance of forces. This has tended to have a freezing effect on intercommunal relationships—the Dayton agreement being an extreme example—when what is necessary is to free them up, so that such accords (the Belfast agreement being another) can be implemented effectively. Establishing solid and dynamic settlements, and providing more adequate policy responses to new eruptions of ethnonationalist conflict, requires more profound and coherent interventions.

As we face the turn of the millennium, fin-de-siècle pessimism may be understandable. Yet there are some reasons, if not to be cheerful, for believing that we are at least better placed in the new century to address the challenges of ethnonationalism. While anticipations of a 'new world order' in the aftermath of the Wall proved overblown, elements of the international community—inter-governmental organisations, non-governmental organisations and associated policy-makers and academics—have begun to evolve a new paradigm, in which the international scene is occupied by a differentiated range of sub- and supra- as well as state actors, in which the last no longer have hard and opaque boundaries. It is best conceived as a web of interrelationships between overlapping nodal points, the constraints being international human-rights conventions, international legal jurisdiction (including ad hoc tribunals and the International Criminal Court), and, ultimately, the threat of collective military action to humanitarian purposes. It is, it must be stressed, an architecture which is much more developed for Europe than elsewhere in the world.

There is some evidence that the wave of ethnonationalist violence may be on the ebb: wars in general are now declining in numbers (Rupesinghe, 1998: 3). And globalisation, as Guibernau (1996: 129) argues, sets in train a moral imperative, implying as it does 'an awareness that the whole of humanity has to face a set of common problems that cannot be solved individually'. Whether this is matched by the political will to do so is, of course, another matter. We are a long way from being able to speak, in terms that are not very thin, of a transnational civil society, and the perils of intergovernmental co-ordination are evident enough.

Yet if not, the 'great lesson of the Yugoslav wars' drawn by Silber and Little (1995: 388) will remain valid—'that in the post-Cold War world there is no collective security, no international will to protect the weak against the strong, … that to win freedom and security for one's people requires neither a sound argument nor a good cause but a big army'.



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