2 August 2013

The Need for Satisfied National Minorities

It is both a revelation and a delight to read such an unorthodox essay as Roger Scruton’s “The Need for Nations”. The author is absolutely right to point out that “nation states […] alone inspire the obedience of the European people, and without them there is no way that the machinery of the Union can act. […] National loyalty marginalises loyalties of family, tribe and faith, and places before the citizen’s eyes, as the focus of his patriotic feeling, not a person or a group but a country. This country is defined by a territory, and by the history, culture and law that have made that territory ours. It is the emergence of territory from behind religion, tribe and dynasty that characterises the nationalist art and literature of the 19th century…” The uncommon view that the European Union cannot supplant national loyalties by a supranational “European” loyalty is fully supported by the recent financial crisis and its aftermath.

The national idea (“nationalism”) became the dominant ideology of the 19th century, and in the 20th it led to the break-up of the multinational Russian, Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. But the new countries emerging out of the ruins of the Empires were a far cry from being genuine nation states. The ethnic mixture of Central and South-Eastern Europe precluded the drawing of ethnic borders.(1)Strategic and economic considerations awarding some and punishing other nations loaded almost all the new states with millions of unhappy and hostile national minorities. Those minorities made up almost a third of the population of the territory between the Germans and the Russians. Hitler and Stalin managed to reduce their proportion considerably by murder and mass expulsions (called transfers) to about 10 per cent of the overall population. Then in the 1990s the artificial Yugoslav, Soviet and Czechoslovak federations broke up – the first amid a horrible war, the two others surprisingly peacefully. But even that did not lead to more homogeneous states, commanding the loyalty and dedication of all the citizens. On the contrary, in the Balkans and in the post-Soviet space millions of new national minorities were created. 25 million Russians found themselves outside the borders of the Russian Federation (which continued to include millions of non-Russians), while hundreds of thousands of Albanians, Serbs, Croats and Romanians are minorities in the successor states of Yugoslavia. The new political map did not ease the situation (and mistreatment) of 2.5 million Hungarians cut off from their native land by the 1920 “Bad Treaty That Won’t Go Away” (the title of an essay by the renowned concert pianist Bálint Vázsonyi), neither that of the Poles in Lithuania and Belarus. German, Lithuanian, Slovak, Bulgarian, Greek, Turkish and other national minorities add to the complexity of the issue. (Some of the minorities passed from one citizenship to another several times in one lifetime.)

Here I do not want to raise the infinite problems presented by the “new”, predominantly non-European minorities who have inundated Western Europe in the last fifty years. My concern is the equally serious issue of the autochthonous “historical” or “national” minorities in the formerly communist-dominated countries, in the new members of the European Union. The media and the political leaders pay very little attention to their disadvantageous position, to the denial of the modest rights internal and international legislation provides them, and to the many tensions and conflicts resulting from the intolerance of the majority national group. It is high time to realise that in most multiethnic countries, and in Central and Eastern Europe particularly, ethnicity, religion and language are the source of primary loyalty, and they are the basis of the nations. The fashionable western ideal, an integrated multiethnic society where the majority national group does not aim at undermining the position and reducing the size of the national minorities, has no appeal here, at least not to the majority national group. In the eastern half of Europe the State has traditionally not been neutral in matters concerning language and culture, it rather served as a tool for the harassment of the national minorities, in the futile hope that the ethnically heterogeneous population can be “homogenised”, assimilated, and thus the nominal nation states can become real nation states. These countries are not melting pots; the present national minorities emerged not by people crossing borders but by borders crossing people. Attempts to turn this region into a melting pot can transform it into a powder keg, as older and most recent history amply testifies.

This situation is not confined to Europe, in fact most of the states of Asia and Africa are also multinational, and the serious mistreatment and oppression of the various ethnic and religious minorities is all too common. But States which try to build a centralising system are experiencing an upsurge of separatist movements. Nigeria, Congo and Sri Lanka are only some of the most obvious examples. In Afghanistan, “nation building” is hardly possible, because there is no such thing as an Afghan nation, there are only Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara etc. tribal territories (usually overlapping), with co-nationals living in the neighbouring states. On the other hand India, South Africa, Kenya, even Pakistan are more promising cases, mainly on account of the fact that those states recognise the separate identities of the various regions, historical provinces and national groups. Which direction Myanmar (Burma) will take is still uncertain. But it can be safely stated that one of the key problems facing the world is finding a way for the harmonious coexistence and collaboration of the many national/ethnic/religious groups living together in one state. As a most important Resolution of the Council of Europe states, “Most of the present conflicts can often be traced to the dichotomy between the principle of the indivisibility of states and the principle of identity, and are rooted in tensions between states and minority groups which demand the right to preserve their identities.”(2) It is a sad symptom of present-day Europe that no action was taken in connection with that Resolution; it has remained a dead letter. I hope to show in a forthcoming essay that the lot of millions of national minorities in Central and Eastern Europe is unacceptable and continues to threaten the stability of Europe. (The European Stability Pact of 1995 was well meant but it had no effect whatsoever.)

Despite the present relatively low prestige of the European Union it is the most important achievement of the second half of the 20th century. It should be improved, not discarded. It speaks so much about values, why is it dumb on the rights of the national minorities? It has many thousand pages of rules and regulations, but there is not even talk about expanding them towards minority rights. The EU is not dumb on Roma rights, that is fine, but ending discrimination and intolerance towards the national minorities is far easier than lifting millions of Roma from poverty and ignorance. If the EU politely passes the issue to the OSCE or the Council of Europe then we face the familiar problem of lack of means for enforcing the existing – admittedly rather mild – conventions and recommendations.

European integration, the spirit of tolerance and the adoption of binding conventions promised a solution, or at least a serious alleviation to the problem of the national minorities. Reconciliation between old adversaries, the gradual “spiritualisation” of international borders in Europe, the free movement of people in addition to capital and goods became a reality in the Common Market. It was a perspective that inspired many who lived on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

After the collapse of communism the EU and NATO had great influence over all the countries that aspired for membership in those organisations. That influence could have been used to induce governments to guarantee the rights and interests of the national minorities through decentralisation or “devolution”. European integration was envisaged to go hand-in-hand with regionalism. But apparently a Hungarian region in Romania and in Slovakia is still anathema for the majority people.

One thing is certain I am afraid. The issue of the national and ethnic minorities is a time bomb which threatens to explode. A preventive solution must be found, combining national legislation and enlightened practice with international action like the codification of rights, monitoring their observance and a mechanism of enforcement. Minorities need guarantees for a decent life and a future. Individual minority rights are not enough. It is often argued that there is no such thing as collective rights or group rights for minorities. Although both the UN (in Article 27 in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the Council of Europe (most explicitly in the 1993 Recommendation 1201 of its Parliamentary Assembly) speaks of rights that could be exercised “in community with others in their group” and states that local self-government is desirable, most European countries do not endorse the idea. But no one denies that xenophobia and racial discrimination exist. Those prejudices are seldom directed at an individual but rather at people as the member(s) of a particular ethnic or religious group or community. If the denial of rights takes place on a collective basis, then positive legal guarantees should be also available for a whole community.

The future EU should indeed be built on nations and on states with satisfied national minorities.

1 Two contemporary experts’ testimony: “the various nationalities of Central Europe are so interlocked, and their racial frontiers are so unsuitable as the frontiers of really independent sovereign states…” Memorandum by L.S. Amery, “The Austro-Hungarian Problem”, 20 October 1918. Public Record Office (London), Foreign Office, 371/3136/17223; “The Commission is forced to the conclusion that the frontiers proposed are unsatisfactory as the international boundaries of sovereign states. It has been found impossible to discover such lines, which would be at the same time just and practical.” Charles Seymour, “Epitome of Reports on Just and Practical Boundaries Within Austria-Hungary for Czecho-Slovaks, Jugo-Slavs, Rumanians, Poles, Ruthenians, Magyars”, undated [around the end of 1918], National Archives (Washington), RG 256. Inquiry Doc. 514.

2 Resolution 1334 (2003). Positive experiences of autonomous regions as a source of inspiration for conflict resolution in Europe. http://assembly.coe.int/Main.asp?link=/Documents/AdoptedText/ta0/ERES1334.htm

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