Do you feel OK when talking about ethnopolitics?

Do you feel OK when talking about ethnopolitics?

Hopefully, new large conflicts or drastic ethnopolitical shifts are unlikely to happen in Central Europe and Eurasia in a foreseeable future. Perhaps, it is an appropriate time to look back and ask questions about the ways how scholars and analysts have approached ethnopolitics in the region and beyond over the last quarter century. Having worked on ethnopolitical and human rights issues within the former USSR and in Europe since the late 1980s, our expert Dr. Alexander Osipov shares some impressions which he is getting again and again from different, sometimes unexpected places and environments.

Many people engage in ethnopolitics. Many more analyse them or make comments and thus affect the public opinion and decision-making. Within this framework, several steady patterns of thought and speech have been manifesting themselves already over the decades across geographic borders and professional communities. I would regard these habits as highly problematic, because they divert the observer’s vision from empirical reality and lead to the decisions that rather exacerbate then ameliorate the situations they seek to overcome.

In its large part, the core problem is that analysts are captured by the discourses they intend to study; the mind-sets of analysts and practitioners rest on the similar, initially ethno-nationalist postulates.

The problems are not about certain clearly defined theories which one can argue against; rather they are in taken for granted assumptions, steady schemes of thinking and discursive trends. Most of them are elusive and poorly articulated; being, as a rule, unreflective as a silently acceptable background, they are rarely noticeable. There have no identifiable bearers or promoters; no need and reason to concentrate on individual persons or publications – that would be unfair because the said trends are almost everywhere.

Let’s briefly look at the most popular and least visible stereotypical approaches of this kind.

Ethnicities as collective individuals

Groups are perceived by default as cohesive bounded entities and social actors; the problem is that it is not a clearly formulated postulate which can be treated through a critical reconsideration but rather a silent assumption and a steady discursive pattern. Very few people will straightforwardly advocate today the view that ethnicity is a sort of collective organism and a bearer of some invariable cultural or quasi-natural substance. All swear allegiance to social constructivism now; too often, this is a cold comfort since the style of thought remains basically intact. Still too many people are routinely and often unconsciously looking for some ultimate and basic collective agency in most manifestations of ethnic or linguistic divisions, such as the existence of separate institutions or ethnic activism. Still for too many it is too hard to imagine that there is no spherical horse in vacuum, i.e. ‘minorities’ or ‘peoples’ as such but rather a multiplicity of situations involving ethnic or racial categorisations. The problem is that such an approach is the end and not the beginning of the study; it at least implicitly offers the answers instead of raising questions.

‘Identity’ as a driver

The notion of ‘identity’ is genuinely tempting: it looks very academics but offers very simple explanations of complex phenomena. Why have there been weaker anti-communist and anti-Russian moods in Belarus than in Ukraine or Lithuania?Because Belarusians have a lax national identity. Why has the war in Donbas become possible?Because there is a flawed Donbas regional identity. Why did most people in Crimea demonstrate disloyalty to Kyiv in 2014?Because they still bear a Soviet identity. How can one explain the viability of Transnistrian separatist statehood?The Transnistrian regime succeeds in the creation of distinct regional identity. Why are people sceptical about reforms? Why don’t they get rid of communist-era symbols? – Because, it all depends on their identity and all that jazz. In a most sophisticated fashion it sounds like; ‘people experience an identity crisis’. ‘Identity’ (never mind, ‘ethnic’, ‘regional’ or whatsoever political or civil) is viewed as the major determinant and vehicle of human choice and behaviour (it seems that an interest toward such identity issues is a fashion of the day particularly in Ukraine).

The term is highly problematic in itself: it is too strong and thus redundant for the description of human interactions and the ways how people define and position themselves vis-à-vis other people or institutions. Along with this, it can be easily essentialised and regarded as a sort of substance affecting people’s minds. In practical terms, at the best, it becomes a parasite word, and this is what happens to most people. At the worst, it prompts discursive and institutional exclusion of the bearers of unwanted ‘identities’ along with muting questions about the origins of social cleavages and conflicts. Another temptation is the idea to replace the ‘wrong’ ‘identities’ (perceived as a sort of substance) with a ‘right’ one through state-driven repressions and propaganda brain-washing.

Collective agency

Politicians, analysts, journalist who comment on Eastern European or Eurasian ethnopolitics, as a rule, lack an adequate language to describe collective subjectivity. It opens up way to two still prevailing explanatory patterns which tend either to ‘methodological democratism’ or ‘methodological conspirology’. Big groups are

  • either addressed by default as collective individuals per se in terms of ‘peoples’ or ‘communities’, or
  • populaces are regarded as objects of external manipulations, for example, as passive consumers and victims of propaganda.

Again, one can hardly talk about clearly delineated conceptions.

An aggravating circumstance is the selective recognition of agency, or, in other words, the separation of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ social categories done on ethno-nationalist grounds. It looks, for example, as that ‘voices’ on behalf of fully-fledged ethno-nations or ‘indigenous peoples’ are undoubtedly acknowledged and listened to (‘Maidan as a will of Ukrainian people’) while recent ‘migrants’, Russian-speaking populations or unrecognised minorities must be speechless in principle as ‘artificial creatures’ or ‘foreign puppets’. Such contrasting attitudes often spill over from nationalist publicism to academic texts. The problem is not only about ethnicity; speculations about ‘civic’ or ‘political’ nation or ‘identity’ might be symptoms of the same decease.

Are the questions like “is the population of Donbas or Crimea really in favour or against the secession from Ukraine?” relevant? No, they are not. The correct questions and answers are located in some other space. A more accurate approach would start up with the recognition that there is no entity behind the word ‘population’; ‘population will’ is a misnomer for a multiplicity and a constellation of individual actions or (in most part) inactions; human deeds are unthinkable separately of the given context and time; and that there is no ‘real’ that can be contraposed to ‘unreal’ since only publicly voiced and acknowledged interpretations matter. Then there should follow a sophisticated examination of how social relations, traditionally depicted as collective will, interests and agency, are constructed and institutionalized. People do or omit myriads of acts for a variety of reasons with different motives; the final outcome is subject to interpretations which generate summaries labelled as ‘collective will’. The resultant embraces opinion polls, voting patterns, mass- and social media, networking, clienteles, fights over naming and categorizations, public narratives and so forth as processes that manufacture collective agencies rather than display them. Human beings ultimately build up their lives; they do it collectively; they have subjectivity, they construct collective agency, and for its analysis both notions of ‘peoplehood’ and ‘external manipulators’ are redundant. The otherwise means analytical failures, cleft societies and temptations to employ the principle of collective responsibility.

Normative vs descriptive

The next issue is a conscious or unconscious confusion of the descriptive (and/or analytical) and normative approaches. Certain questionable notions, approaches and principles are taken for granted as common values; being thus immune to criticism they also start to serve as interpretative tools. A certain normative construction (a fashionable philosophical theory or a legal instrument) is uncritically employed as an explanatory scheme; nowadays ‘liberal multiculturalism’ (most often in Will Kymlicka’s version) and international human rights instruments are beyond competition in this capacity.

Human thought seems to stop at certain notions central to the modern liberal-democratic worldview, such as popular sovereignty, democratic participation, ‘identity claims’, egalitarianism and the rejection of suppression. Such magic words as ‘popular opinion’, ‘people’s interest’, and ‘popular concerns over collective identity’ demonstrate really a paralysing effect. The clearest examples are creeping evolution of ‘the right to self-determination’ and the preservation of ‘distinct [ethnic] cultures’ into a fetish. Analytical impotence is camouflaged but barely cured by the following moralising discourses and/or emotions’ race.

The need not to conflate the empirical and the normative is only one part of the story; another one is the merits of what many regard as normative ideals. What else do we miss after Crimea to make sure that self-determination has no normative value and that in practice there cannot be anything other than claim-making, political manipulations and arbitrariness? Two words are enough to resolve the theoretic controversies around ‘self-determination’, and these are ‘fictitious norm’.

What are the rational reasons to acknowledge distinct ‘identities’ or ‘cultures’ a common value rather than a possible ground for albeit legitimate, but particularistic interests and claims among many others? What are the reasons to preserve them by all means while no one can formulate what it is?

The West as a benchmark?

It is a typical for many (perhaps most) analysts and practitioners to regard the ideas of diversity governance promoted by Western liberal democracies as a normative ideal. I don’t intend to question the value of ‘Europeanization’ in general, or, precisely, of the interpretations of international human right instruments and of the national minority policies advanced by the European organizations. My point is that these ideas are taken uncritically, this is common for most theorists and practitioners dealing with post-communist ethnopolitics, and no one wins anything from this admiring indifference.

In the post-communist countries two questions remain basically neglected. Do the international instruments and international involvement geared towards amelioration of ethnopolitics, hit the mark? Do they generate unanticipated side effects? Let us put aside deliberate abuse and flawed implementation; it is more important to look at the normative underpinnings and the guidelines they provide.

The answer to the first question must be to a large extend negative. First, minority protection has little if anything to do with social disparities and with nationalist narratives, which are the most controversial things in the post-Soviet space and the core elements of ‘nationalizing’ policies. Social mobility depends on the general configuration of institutions and the fact that all post-Soviet countries can be defined as societies of ‘limited entry’ advantaging or disadvantaging people according to their inclusion into patronage mechanisms and clienteles. The freedom of running ethnic NGOs or a room for schools or cultural institutions practicing marginalized languages have little to add here.

National narratives, particularly promoted by the governments, may at least symbolically exclude ‘non-titular’ ethnicities by portraying ‘non-natives’ blatantly or in some covert way as unreliable citizens, beneficiaries of the past alien rule or agents of foreign adversary influence. Does ethnic nationalism, even though it alienates people and provokes conflicts, contradict international instruments? Obviously not, unless it amounts to blatant hate speech and ethnic cleansings; but even if this is so international organizations have no leverage to affect the behaviour of national governments.

Anti-discrimination laws even if they enable individuals to file individual complaints cannot affect general social stratification and segmentation; moreover, social mobility at large does not result from disparate treatment of individuals or adverse impact of certain rules. Besides, protective measures and positive action in theory can at best mitigate but not reverse social disproportions.

Last, the European institutions have nothing to say about overcoming so-called past wrong-doings and imperial legacies while these ‘rectification’ of demographic or linguistic situation in fact means exclusionary and repressive policies. On the contrary, the European organisations in fact demonstrated tolerance to ‘national consolidation’ and ‘integration policy’ amounting to the exclusion or marginalisation of non-core groups, particularly through language laws.

The second question is concerns some long run effects, still barely visible; primarily they are about the empowerment of ethno-nationalism. The relevant international instruments as such are generally sterile and set up very broad conceptual frameworks which can accommodate a multiplicity of practices. Most important are the related public discussions and the mainstream interpretations.

The major modern ways to frame ethnic diversity, such as varieties of nationalism, anti-discrimination, minority protection, ideas labelled as multiculturalism, and related normative approaches where they exist ultimately generate discourses of relations between groups as such; then follow the images of group victimhood and persistent ethnic or cultural embeddedness of individuals. In other words, discussions about discrimination lead to the interpretation of correlations between social positions and ascriptive characteristics (like ethnicity, race or ‘culture’) as structural inequalities between dominant and subordinate classes. Likewise, debates on minority protection lead to portraying minorities as inevitable victims of an unjust social order and of the malignant external force labelled as ‘majority’. Reversely, majority ethno-nationalism (particularly in post-communist states) rests on the same logic and vocabulary. All these strands ultimately lead people to the conclusion that ‘subordinate groups’ exist as distinct social entities, and that they are by definition victims of oppression. The implications are the ‘victims’ are not obliged to be loyal to the normative order they don’t like, and that the rights of the oppressed are above the rights of the ‘oppressor’.

One can hardly prove a causal link, but may legitimately assume that the very logic embedded in current discourses about minorities, cultural diversity and non-discrimination ultimately equips ethnic nationalism with argument and external moral support. Ethno-nationalist spokespersons have mastered all implications of the word ‘privilege’ assuming that minorities in their countries (like ‘whites’ in North America) illegitimately enjoy structural advantages that are to be lifted.

In my view, still there is a need for a more accurate understanding of ethnopolitics everywhere, including the post-communist countries. The major hindrances are inside us – all those who address this thematic area; they are in our lack of reflection, mental inertia and leniency towards inaccurate professional language.

Substantively, the major problems are about the obsession with collective entities to the detriment of analysing situations and processes; it entails inter alia unconscious and implicit reification of ethnicity and ‘identity’. Such a vision persists in mental background and discourses and distorts analytical perspectives since it imposes explanatory schemes at the very outset. The homework also compels a reflection on the confusion of descriptive and normative approaches. Decoupling descriptive models from normative ideals also requires questioning the most popular normative ideals as well. We all win if some taken for granted notions and assumptions such as group self-determination, the need to preserve cultures and ‘identities’ and remedying past wrongdoings are critically revised. A critical revisit of such sacred cows as ‘European standards’ would be beneficial for all as well.

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