Countries aren't what they used to be

Multinational states are in serious political trouble. In 1990, Canada, Czechoslovakia, India, the Soviet Union, Sri Lanka and Yugoslavia have all endured political or constitutional crises that have been based on the refusal of some nationality or ethnic group within each country to be bound by the laws of the central government.

The code words "confederation" in parts of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, or "sovereign association" in the Canadian province of Quebec, are little different in spirit and implication from the demands for outright secession by Punjabis and Kashmiris in India, by Tamils in Sri Lanka and by the more radical Slovaks in Czechoslovakia. All imply, indeed require, the dismantling of any central authority that could bind the component parts of what have, until now, been single states.


The crises are serious, with some analysts predicting the breakup of some or all of these countries. Disintegration of any of these states threatens regional stability. At the same time, the increasing likelihood of such collapse forms a contrast to the planned unification of Europe -- a countertrend which may be ominous for the European confederation process.

What threatens each of the troubled multinational states is the rise of resentful ethnic or religious minorities, each of which demands the right to suppress -- or oppress -- the minority groups within its territory.


There has been a surge of competing nationalisms in the past year in part because of the democratization of Eastern Europe. To some extent, the removal of a repressive central government has allowed suppressed ethnic tensions to break to the surface. Also, in newly democratic countries where there is limited history of identification with political parties, appeals to ethnic loyalty are a powerful way to win votes.

Where a group forms a majority in the country, as do Hindus in India or Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, electoral politics is taking on a distinctly intolerant tone of communal supremacy. In countries where dominance is regional, similar attitudes are found at the local level. Indeed, national groups that form a minority at the level of the present multinational state, yet a firm majority in their own area, are among the most intolerant.

The code word for the supremacy of ethnic or national groups is usually "sovereignty," and it is used in the context of the alleged need, and right, of each "nation" (a term that implies ethnicity in much of the world, particularly Europe) to its own independent state.

The resulting demands are often improbable in geopolitical terms. In the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, for example, the interspersed ethnic groups assert demands for sovereignty that would make the political geography of each country resemble a series of Chinese boxes. Thus, within Yugoslavia, Croats demand sovereignty in Croatia, while the majority-Serbian areas of Croatia demand their own sovereignty. Doubtless, there will follow sovereignty demands from the majority-Moslem areas within the majority-Serbian areas within the Croatian area of the multinational Yugoslav state.

Ethnic groups became so intermixed through a variety of historical mechanisms. Serbs were moved into Croatia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, to form a buffer zone near the border. Other movement within large multinational states, such as the Ottoman Empire, came from economic motivations. And, in some cases, borders were adjusted after wars, leaving, for example, large numbers of ethnic Hungarians in Romania.

Geopolitics apart, however, "national sovereignty" is also problematical as a political and social concept. While various international documents recognize the rights of peoples to self-determination, assertion of this right becomes sinister in those many parts of the world where members of more than one community, ethnic group or "nation" (these words overlap) live intermingled.

In these settings, the right to self-determination is used to justify the repression of minorities, those not members of the self-determining group or nation. Local majorities that assert their right to self-determination play the human rights card in an interestingly inconsistent fashion: While complaining that they are oppressed minorities at the level of the larger state with a consequent right to their own sovereign state, they also insist on the right to oppress minorities within their own borders, in the name of defending their "cultural identity" or "national character."

In Yugoslavia, Slovenes have acted to deprive members of the largest minority groups in Slovenia of many political and other rights, Albanians have driven most non-Albanians out of the Kosovo province, and a new constitution for Croatia defines that republic as "the national state of the Croats" and offers scant protection to the large, non-Croat minorities within it.


The stress on national identity, character or culture serves to reverse the classic problem of democratic theory, which has always been seen as that of protecting minorities from the tyranny of a permanent majority. Instead, in those regions in which the primary demand is for sovereignty, national self-determination or independence, the primary problem is being seen as the necessity of ensuring the continued dominance of a national majority in places where there are substantial minority populations.

Since the majority can retain political dominance, the threat to a majority often comes in the "cultural" area. The amorphous, malleable concept of "culture" provides the rationale and the motivating power for an anti-democratic politics of intolerance, in which the primary task is seen as preserving the autonomy (often phrased as the "purity") of the majority culture from the influence (often phrased as the "contamination") of the minority.

This kind of formulation is anthropological nonsense; no culture can be defined in terms of any "pure" essence or identity, and to assert such a definition in any particular case is to skirt close to racism. At the same time, however, the asserted need to protect the silent majority from the supposedly contaminating minority is, as North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms' strategists can attest, a powerful message in electoral politics.

Such has been the case in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese majoritarian politicians, by first removing constitutional and legal protection for Sri Lanka's Tamils that had been left by the British colonial regime and then actively discriminating against Tamils, ultimately provoked the struggle for a separate Tamil state.

And such may be the case in the newly democratic Croatia in Yugoslavia, where the Croatian Democratic Union government, elected in the spring of 1990, has based much of its appeal on an anti-Serbian platform that has alienated the more than 60,000 Serbs who are a large majority in some areas of Croatia. Serbs in Croatia are arming themselves, and Serbian leaders there talk openly of secession from Croatia if Croatia secedes from Yugoslavia.

We are thus left with a political conundrum: In a multinational polity in which one group forms a majority, an appeal to that majority based on a campaign against the most substantial minorities may well succeed. At the same time, however, such a majoritarian appeal lessens the legitimacy of the state structure for the minority, which may resist the state and even try to secede from it.


In such political circumstances, and barring a "final solution," the likely outcome is a state of chronic unrest, perhaps civil war, perhaps partition. But partition offers little hope of a solution, either, as the experience of India and Pakistan (carved out from majority-Moslem areas of majority-Hindu India) shows. The states created after partition are likely each to be oppressive of the minorities within their borders.

Solutions to this conundrum may be sought in the creation of multinational political entities that seem to preserve the autonomy of each component nation, yet also protect the rights of members of minorities and, further, to provide mechanisms for the attainment and enforcement of group decisions. In this regard, the Europe proposed for 1992 may be seen as having the best chance for success. Nevertheless, the current problems of multinational states, as well as long-established elements of European political and social thought, provide reason for doubt.

The logic of national sovereignty in fact precludes the existence of a multinational state. If each (ethnic) nationality is sovereign within its own state, then those who are not members of that nationality (even though they may be citizens of that state) can be deprived of political rights. Further, if each ethnic group is sovereign, it cannot be bound by any higher political institutions, such as those of a central, federal government.

This problem may become acute in Western Europe if political leaders see electoral success in running against, for example, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany, "blacks" in Britain, or Jews even in those countries which no longer have very many. Thus, race or ethnic divisions may become problems even within the progressive states of Europe and could cause problems within the European Community if, for example, one or more states begin to discriminate against minorities, either its own citizens or those of other states.

The more likely source of trouble for the European Community, however, may be the power of the xenophobia incited by internal nationalistic politics to disrupt relations not within countries but between countries that are part of the community. Inevitably, some members of the EC will fare less well economically than others. In such cases, there will always be the temptation for the leaders of the less prosperous states to blame their relative poverty on "exploitation" by those states that are better off.

Conversely, in a time of general economic decline, the richer members of the community may complain that they would be fine if they were not being dragged down by the poorer ones. Both arguments have been used, with great political success, in different parts of Yugoslavia in the past few years.


While "Europe" and "the West" are now code phrases for liberal market economies, it should not be forgotten that nationalism, based on ethnic distinctions, was the most powerful force in modern European politics through the first half of this century. The threatened collapse of the various post-war or post-colonial experiments in multinational states, whether single-party socialist or multi-party democratic, may serve as a warning to Europe that the ideology of nationalism can still destroy European states through the political mobilization of resentful national groups.

Robert Hayden, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, has done extensive field work in Yugoslavia and India.