Radical nationalism has long been a state ideology in some of the countries that once comprised the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.
The ideology of the radical right is becoming increasingly popular across Europe. In the West, one key reason is the rapid change in the demographic picture as a result of growing migration in recent years as well as an increased terrorist threat from Islamic extremism. While there is no complete disenchantment with democracy or in the principles of respect for the rights of minorities, a willingness to refuse immigrants liberal freedoms in order to preserve the traditional cultural image of European cities is becoming discernible.
This has led to the emergence of two centripetal tendencies. First, radical-right parties, seeing the possibility of significantly consolidating their positions, began to correct their extremist image; many have become less chauvinistic, more pro-Jewish and less homophobic. On the other hand, traditional center-right parties, seeing new tendencies in voters’ moods, have started to move toward radical-right positions. Thus, in Western Europe, there is a dangerous process of rapprochement between radical-right parties and center-right parties. The latter, now playing on the radical-right field, are forced to drift toward extremist positions.
The situation is even worse in some of the former Soviet Union (FSU) republics. There, the movement is in one direction: The center-right, being in power, has been moving into the radical-right field, with the latter seeming disinterested in shifting toward the center.
Why are radical-right parties from FSU countries, as well as some that once comprised the Eastern Bloc, not seeking to correct their image, in contrast to their Western European counterparts? One answer is that there is no need. Radical nationalism has long been a state ideology in some of these countries, and voting has often been along ethnic lines. Accordingly, to get more votes from the ethnic majority, populist parties need to be more radical toward ethnic minorities.
THE NEW NON-SOVIET MAN
How did this happen? For many residents of the former Soviet republics, the collapse of the USSR was not an obvious political necessity. It was important for the political leadership of the newly independent states — at this point mostly the functionaries of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party — to justify the need for independence. It is no wonder that the second president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, titled his 2003 book Ukraine Is Not Russia. In it, he tries to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union, still ambiguously perceived in Ukraine at the time, and the emergence of Ukraine as an independent state. “We have a task on the agenda … to create an Ukrainian,” Kuchma stated during the book launch. “The danger of not returning to one’s Ukrainianness is relevant for millions of Ukrainian citizens.”
Yet the only sure way to “create an Ukrainian” on account of the development of “Ukrainism” and Ukrainian culture — especially in the fields of education, media and government service — was at the expense of “Russianness” and Russian culture, which remains widespread in the central and eastern parts of Ukraine. The same situation can be seen in other countries, like the Baltic states and Moldova. These newly independent countries needed national heroes unrelated to either Russian or Soviet history. Given that the peoples that have become absorbed into the Soviet empire have intermingled with Russians for many centuries, they now had to take inspiration from those who fought against Russian and Soviet authority.
In Ukraine, this meant the Nazi collaborators from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, who were responsible for the Volyn massacre of the Poles in 1943, and before that have actively participated in the murders of Ukrainian Jews in the wake of Operation Barbarossa. Similar “heroes” were found among the Waffen-SS veterans in Latvia, Estonia and elsewhere. Venturing further west, the same can be said of the Romanian Marshal Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s ally in World War II.
Building up this new national narrative in the 1990s post-Soviet space meant reducing the use of minority languages, destruction of educational systems for national minorities, displacement of representatives of minorities from the governmental structures (due to insufficient knowledge of the state language, for example), deployment of nationalist propaganda and a revisionism of Second World War history. This process took place across practically the entirety of the former USSR, which undoubtedly contributed to the growth of radical-right movements. Thus, the radical right in these countries found itself in a favorable environment, one created over the last 25 years. Today, many are represented in national parliaments.
Moreover, it seems that large political parties — senior partners in ruling coalitions — are afraid to confront right-wing radicals because they are afraid to lose the support of their electorate, which increasingly votes on ethnic grounds. For instance, in Latvia, the National Alliance has been part of the ruling coalition for seven years. Its current goal is to bring to an end to the policy of assimilating national minorities. In September 2017, the party demanded that bilingual education in national minorities secondary schools be eliminated.
Surprisingly, not just the center-right parties in the ruling coalition, but also opposition parties across the country, supported this initiative. The new bill, now being discussed in the Latvian Seimas, even includes a ban on the existence of private Russian schools, since, technically, Russian is not an EU language. This directly contradicts the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as well as the Hague Recommendations on the Rights of National Minorities for Education. The result has been sharply aggravated interethnic confrontation in Latvia.
In Ukraine, ruling parties have appropriated a nationalist Russophobic agenda and are actively engaged in promoting Ukrainian language and culture at the expense of minority groups. An Ukrainian law prohibiting all education in languages used by national minorities was adopted on September 28, 2017, with the active participation of the ruling coalition. This also completely contradicts Ukraine’s obligations under the Framework Convention for the Protection of Minorities as well as on the European Charter for Regional Languages. It affects all ethnic minorities in Ukraine, like the Transcarpathian Hungarians, who do not speak Ukrainian or Russian well. The law has led to international disputes, with the Hungarian government promising to block all “European initiatives” from Kiev. Despite this tension, international organizations have remained silent.
Working in close contact with the ruling majority, radical-right parties in Eastern Europe have no need to hide their activity. Thus, the adoption of new laws on education are designed to solve two tasks: “To annoy Putin” and to assimilate Russian-speaking children. Most likely neither goal will be achieved.
Yet we can be assured that interethnic tension will increase as a result, and that the competitiveness of representatives in the Russian linguistic minority in the labor market will drop as a result of the educational levels of Russian children being lower than that of their peers. Also, such laws will necessarily affect the results of the parliamentary elections to be held next year both in Latvia and Ukraine, where once more voters will be expected to vote along ethnic lines. Russia’s position in these countries may in fact be strengthened as the Russian linguistic minority will turn more toward Russia, which will doubtlessly use this situation for its political interests. In this way, an interethnic quagmire could quickly escalate.
Professor Valery Engel is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and President of the European Centre for Democracy Development. See his profile at:
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