Liberal vs non-liberal approaches to minority policies: is there a common ground?

Liberal vs non-liberal approaches to minority policies: is there a common ground?

Alexander Osipov

This text is a part of the publication series based on the results of the expert Seminar “A Century of Minority Rights – Lessons from the Post-Versailles System“, organized by the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies and the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Institute of International Studies (Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University) with the financial support of the Charles University, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in the Czech Republic, and the German Embassy to the Czech Republic.

The mantras of “minority rights are part of human rights” and “minority rights are part of liberal agenda” are barely productive for answering the questions about the placement of minority issues on the map of political thought and action. Quite often minority protection and – broader – diversity policies are considered against the background of dichotomies, such as ‘liberal vs illiberal’, ‘democratic vs authoritarian’, ‘Western’ vs ‘non-Western’ and ‘nationalist vs non-nationalist’. It is directly stated or assumed that minority protection is closely related to progressive and emancipatory trends in human thought, politics and public administration. The history of the 20th century gives numerous reasons for questioning this assumption as well as the relevance of the dichotomies above for minority issues. The 100-years old and recent experiences also provide incentives for elaborating a more nuanced view.

One shall say first that minority rights [1], or minority issues are just one perspective of several to conceptualize ethnic, linguistic or cultural diversity. Briefly, the notion of ‘minorities’ assumes the existence of ‘majority’, and in most contexts, it means nation-state with a core ethnic or cultural group. ‘Minority’ also implies the description of societal heterogeneity in terms of relations between groups and the asymmetry of groups.

This perspective as such does not assume any component of what is conceived as elements of liberal thought – neither individual autonomy nor liberty nor individual dignity. However, the modern interpretations of minority protection in international instruments and international jurisprudence tie minority issues with human rights. In a nutshell, minority rights are currently viewed as comprising the protection of individual equality, the preservation of cultural distinctness, and participation in public affairs. All the three components are compatible with the safeguarding of individual agency and with the respective positive obligations of states and thus can be placed (at least partly) within the human rights agenda. However, minority issues and broader diversity policies in their real manifestations go far beyond the recent normative models and interpretations offered by the European organizations and scholars. A wider view on the multiplicity of minority-related discourses and practices within a broader context, in a longer time span and larger geographic framework, brings about different and more complex conclusions.

At first glance, the so-called Minority Treaties after the First World War fit in what one can call human rights and liberal agenda. The treaties were aimed at social inclusion (the prevention of statelessness and the emergence of first- and second-class citizens of newly independent states), the safeguarding of equal individual civil and political rights regardless of ethnic origin, the creation of favorable conditions for the self-organization of minorities and to some extent an equitable distribution of resources for the maintenance of minority-related institutions. Later on, the Permanent Court of International Justice of the League of Nations went even further by conceptualizing discrimination and the notion of substantive equality that can be achieved only by ensuring the preservation of individual identity and equitable distribution of resources for this purpose [2].

However, the whole picture is not monochromatic. Was the post-Versailles minority system a part of an international human rights agenda? Definitely not, because there was no such agenda at that time. In fact, the Treaties and the League of Nation promoted a policy toolkit designed to prevent political destabilization. Was it aimed at setting regional, save global, standards? No, since it had a geographically limited application concerned only individual countries (to be precise, was imposed on them from the outside) but not the victorious allies and Germany. Were the countries – architects of the post-Versailles minority system observing of minority rights at home – no. Were they adamant and consistent promoters of liberal values? Not exactly – most were colonial powers, and most including the U.S. practiced and defended racial segregation. One should also note that in the early 20th century the ideas of minority rights and national liberation were developed and promoted by left-wing movements which were barely advocates of liberalism. Finally, the post-Versailles minority system as such existed and was somehow (albeit to an unsatisfactory degree) implemented in an authoritarian environment. The point is that the interwar minority protection was in complex and contradictory relationships with liberalism.

On top of this is that the real minority policies were subordinated to the establishment and consolidation of ethnocratic nation-states. Roughly speaking, minority protection regardless of Minority Treaties taken at face value ultimately turned into a trade-off: minorities were allowed to preserve their distinctness in exchange for their loyalty to the ‘host’ ethnonational statehoods [3]. Finally, the weakness of control and implementation mechanisms within the League of Nations went hand in hand with political pragmaticism and double standards [4].

It is worth looking at what was happening east of the post-Versailles settlement area – in Bolshevik Russia and then in the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks were to consolidate their rule in a multi-national and multi-ethnic country. For the accommodation of ethnic diversity, they resorted to the rhetoric, policy measures and institutional settings that had much in common with the ones used within the post-Versailles minority system. The Bolsheviks widely employed the rhetoric of ‘national self-determination’; however, the borders between sub-state ‘national’ territorial entities were ultimately set up, as in Europe, from the outside, by a superior authority. The nation-building within the new Europe included the establishment of new bounded ‘nations’ and ‘minorities’; the Bolsheviks also engaged in similar social engineering and the formation of ethnic entities. The Bolsheviks created an inclusive society and thus promised and really safeguarded the equality of individual social capabilities regardless of ethnicity. Moreover, the protection and promotion of equality included redistributive policies and the equalization of social conditions for different groups [5]. The Soviet rulers practiced institutional settings (voluntary associations, educational and cultural institutions) divided along ethnic and linguistic lines and in the 1920s even provided limited support to collective self-organization on ethnic grounds. The architects of the Versailles system were ready to use such a device as ethnicity-based territorial autonomy (the autonomy of the Ruthene territory was envisaged by the 1919 treaty with Czecho-Slovakia, and the autonomous status of the Åland Islands was achieved by the League of Nations’ involvement in 1921). In the meantime, ethnic territorial autonomy was the backbone of the Bolshevik nationalities policy. To sum up, in post-Versailles Europe and under the Bolsheviks, minority and broader diversity policies appear as a set of policy tools elaborated within a similar vision of nationhood and multiethnicity and used for pragmatic purposes notwithstanding the political regime.

The second period of establishing a minority regime in Europe started after the Cold War. Despite some significant differences with the interwar time, one may get a feeling of déjà vu. First, the renewed framework of minority protection is to a large extent imposed selectively on individual countries from the outside. Minority rights are regarded primarily as part of post-communist transition and provided by the conditionality policies and the exportation of ‘right’ approaches eastwards. Second, minority protection goes hand in hand with the explicit or tacit support of ethno-national statehood and ‘nationalizing’ policies. Respectively, the notion of minority is employed for the exclusion (at least symbolic) of unwanted categories (such as bearers of a lingua franca or putative immigrants) and the division of ‘non-titular’ populations into separate ethnicity-based bounded entities. Besides, one can see numerous examples of double standards and selective opportunistic behavior of the major players with regard to individual groups and situations in larger Europe. In contrast, the sophisticated systems of minority protection (or broader – diversity accommodation) exist under authoritarian regimes, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, that seek to maintain and instrumentalize rather than eliminate ethnic heterogeneity.

The general conclusion would be the same as 80-90 years ago – minority protection is driven by pragmatic considerations rather than abstract liberal values; it is strongly affected by ethnocentric and nationalist worldview and is relatively independent of the political regime. The system of minority protection established after the Cold War in Europe, like its predecessor under the League of Nations, demonstrates deficiencies and contradictions, rests on a loose legitimacy and gradually acquires fragility.

There is one more issue that raises questions about the placement of minority issues, or, to be concise, identity politics within the liberal/illiberal dichotomy. Such approaches as minority rights, non-discrimination, ‘liberal multiculturalism’, ‘post-colonialism’ and ‘national liberation’ that allow framing ethnic and cultural diversity bring about some implications. The latter include the images of collective victimhood (of minorities or other subjugated groups) and respectively the existence of collective culprits (dominant groups). The suggested remedies envisage various forms of redistributive justice, censorship and self-censorship, and the dependence of individual opportunities on the persons ethnic or racial affiliation. Such a perspective has little to do with the fundamentals of liberalism but is closely associated with liberal thought and politics. While presumably ‘liberal’ discourses about diversity are conflict prone (since they generate images of victims and oppressors), authoritarian regimes manage to produce narratives that are non-conflictual, because they mute controversial issues but emphasize equality, recognition of diversity and state-centered solidarity (like in Kazakhstan or Russia). Besides, authoritarian regimes have one more advantage – they can benefit from ‘double standards’ of ‘the West’ in their propaganda.

Instead of clear-cut conclusions I would like to end up with some questions.

  • Shall we regard minority rights/diversity policies as sui generis approaches unrelated to liberal/illiberal dichotomy?
  • Shall we regard minority rights/diversity policies and the related ‘groupism’[6] as a product of modernity (particularly of nationalist worldview) and an epiphenomenon of liberalism?
  • Shall we regard minority rights as an imperfect theoretical and practical framework?
  • Are there remedies for abuse and manipulations with ‘minority rights’ within the theoretical and discursive framework of ‘minorities’?


[1] I use ‘minority rights’ merely as a recognizable cliché here; I don’t assume special or group rights.
[2] In particular: Permanent Court of International Justice. Questions relating to Settlers of German Origin in Poland. PCIJ, Ser. B., No. 6, 1925; Minority Schools in Albania. Greece vs. Albania. Advisory Opinion No. 26. PCIJ, Ser. A./B., No. 64 (1935).
[3] Fink, Carole. 2000. “Minority Rights as an International Question.” Contemporary European History, 9 (3): 385-400, at 388-395; Mazower, Mark. 1997. “Minorities and the League of Nations in Interwar Europe.” Daedalus, 126 (2): 47-63.
[4] Riga, Liliana and James Kennedy. 2009. “Tolerant majorities, loyal minorities and ‘ethnic reversals’: constructing minority rights at Versailles 1919.” Nations and Nationalism15 (3): 461–482.
[5] See: Martin, Terry. 2001. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press; Slezkine, Yuri. 1994. “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism.” Slavic Review53(2): 414–452; Suny, Ronald. 1993. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
[6] Brubaker, Rogers. 2004. Ethnicity without groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Image: Building A of the Palace of Nations (United Nations Office at Geneva), Credit: Moumou82 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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