Despite a Flemish separatist party's victory at the Belgian polls two weeks ago, the state won't be dismantled anytime soon.
However, the separatists' success does testify once again to the fragility of attempts to establish and perpetuate binational states in Europe, and of binationalism as an alterative to the modern nation state.
Multinationalism received its harshest blow in the 1990s. During that decade, in the wake of the collapse of Eastern Europe's Communist regimes and the process of democratization there, the world saw many multinational states in that region fall down like dominoes: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
Formally, the Soviet Union was a federation of 15 republics, each of them "national in form and socialist in content," as Soviet jargon had it. In reality, the federal framework was a thin cover for the central control of the Soviet regime in Moscow, just as "proletarian internationalism" was a front for an attempt to preserve the czarist imperial framework by giving it ostensibly Marxist legitimization.
At the start of perestroika, during then-Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev's term, it was nationalist movements in some of the Soviet republics - Lithuania, Estonia and Georgia - that saw democratization and liberalization as a basis for realizing their demands for self-determination.
In the democratic elections held with Gorbachev's blessing, nationalist movements won majorities in those republics. They embarked on a process of disengagement, which ultimately brought about the breakup of the Soviet Union and the granting of independence to the 15 national republics. The republics' disengagement process was accompanied by the demand by Boris Yeltsin - Gorbachev's adversary - to establish Russia's independence as the replacement for the Soviet straightjacket.
In some of the former republics, the process has not been completed. Russia is still facing the Chechen national resistance movement, which has some particularly violent members, and is fed in part by Muslim fundamentalism. The Georgian-Russian war stemmed from the attempts by two small nations - the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians - to break off from Georgia.
Despite more than 70 years of universalist Communist ideology, which entailed far-reaching processes of Russification, the national identity of tens of millions of Soviet citizens remained strong. The immigration of a million Jews from territories of the former Soviet Union is also connected to the strength of national consciousness in those places.
In Czechoslovakia, post-Communist democratization was accompanied by the strengthening of national awareness in each of the two constituent parts of that state. This process was especially strong among the Slovaks, who since the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, felt discriminated against by the Czechs. The breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993 was, in fact, the second divorce between the Czechs and the Slovaks.
In 1938, Hitler and the Nazis were aided by the mostly Fascist Slovak nationalist movement, and created an independent Slovak state. The old joke that "the only Czechoslovakians were the Jews" - all the rest were Czechs or Slovaks - only demonstrated the historical truth: The separate national consciousnesses were stronger than the imaginary idea of a united "Czechoslovakian" people.
It must be said to the credit of the Czechs and the Slovaks that their divorce in 1993 was a velvet separation. Part of this has to do with the historical political culture of the two nations, which is fundamentally peaceful. Another part has to do with the fact that the ethnic border between the two nations is clear and there are no minorities of one group inside the other group's territory.
Today relations between the countries are better than they were when the two groups were squabbling with each other in a single state.
Breaking up is hard to do
The reality in Yugoslavia was more complex and violent, and the situation has still not completely stabilized. The united Yugoslav state was first established in 1918. It was characterized by Serb hegemony over the other nations, as the Serbs had been on the winning side in World War I. When the king of Serbia became the king of the united Yugoslavia, an opening was created for a Croatian resistance movement, which had violent elements.
This violence spilled over into the parliament and reached its peak in the assassination of King Alexander in 1934 by Croatian separatists.
Under the pressure of the Nazi onslaught, in 1941 the Yugoslavian state broke up: Croatia won independence under Nazi-Fascist auspices, Serbia was under German occupation and controlled by a puppet government, Slovenia was annexed to the German Reich, Kosovo was annexed to Albania under Italian control and other areas were annexed to Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy.
The partisans, led by Tito, proved successful in reunifying Yugoslavia, mainly because in this terrible and tragic reality they were the only ones calling for reunification under the banner of Communist internationalism.
This was an attractive idea. As long as Tito was alive, the renewed Yugoslavia succeeded where the first Yugoslavia had failed. It was not only Tito's personality and the partisans' heroic heritage that created a legitimate uniting adhesive, but also the sophisticated divide-and-rule policy Tito himself pursued, which neutralized the various nationalist groups within a complex and balanced federalist structure.
After Tito's death in 1980 and in the wake of the processes of democratization that began at the end of that decade, nationalist parties proved popular in the first free elections held in the various republics. Croats, Serbs and Kosovars all had leading nationalist movements. The tri-national reality in Bosnia alone also demanded a solution of its own.
Thus, Yugoslavia fell apart for the second time - and is still dealing with the fallout. Kosovo has won independence but Serbia does not recognize it, and the attempt to establish a binational and multi-religious state in Bosnia (a kind of Yugoslavia in miniature ) is limping. It too may break up into its national components.
However, recently rapprochement processes have begun between Serbia and Croatia, which are marching shoulder to shoulder, in impressive cooperation, toward joining the European Union.
This historical review - which does not at all do justice to the exceedingly complicated reality - shows that attempts to establish multinational entities shatter in the face of nationalism. Beyond that, when crises occur - and it makes no difference whether it is Nazi pressure in the 1930s or the democratization processes that undermined the totalitarian order in the 1990s - these multinational frameworks cannot sustain themselves.
Nationalist ideology has deep roots in the social consciousness of these groups. The assertion that the reason for the breakup is only manipulation by extremist leaders like Croatia's Franjo Tudjman or Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic (as some claimed during Yugoslavia's second breakup ) is based on a mistaken assumption. It ignores the fact that the manipulations by such leaders succeeded because they reflected deeply popular approaches, sometimes buried and sometimes open, that already existed in the consciousness of Serbs or Croats (or Czechs or Slovaks or Ukrainians or Georgians ).
An Israeli lesson
What has happened in Belgium shows that in Western Europe, too, national consciousness is strong. Ostensibly there is a paradox here: At a time when Europe is moving toward political unification (beyond the economic unification of a common currency ) separatist movements are flourishing. In the U.K., Scotland and Wales have gained differing degrees of autonomy in the shape of local parliaments and governments of their own, and it is definitely possible that Scotland is heading for sovereignty and disengagement from England.
In Spain the violent Basque nationalist movement has made headlines for years, but even the moderate Basque parties, like the Catalonian parties, are leading their regions beyond the broad autonomy within democratic Spain toward self-determination. Within this there are also voices demanding independence and disengagement from the historical Castilian hegemony over the Spanish state.
Another process, which has problematic aspects because of the country's Fascist heritage, is occurring in northern Italy, where the anti-immigrant Northern League is popular. The attempt in Cyprus to establish a joint Greek and Turkish state has also not worked out well.
From all these examples a general lesson emerges, specifically for Israel. The general conclusion is that contrary to predictions of the death and disappearance of nationalism - commonly voiced among leftists and theorists in countries like France, England and Germany - national consciousness has not disappeared. Because of the way nationalism became extreme during the Nazi and Fascist period, movements have often gotten a bad rap.
However, it seems that in the end the desire not to be subordinated to foreign rule, to find a place in the sun for your culture, language and history and to "feel at home" are all major elements in the human experience. Anyone who holds dear the ideas of progress and enlightenment cannot ignore this.
The Israeli angle is clear as well: In light of the difficulties the idea of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel is encountering, here and there voices are calling for consideration of a binational solution, in which Jews and Palestinians will live together under a single regime. If we leave aside for the moment a number of troublesome questions (Under which flag? What will this state's national holidays be? What will be its national anthem? Will the mufti and David Ben-Gurion co-star in its textbooks? ), the European experience shows that binationalism is a story of failure, which in many cases (Cyprus, Yugoslavia ) has ended in violence.
If Czechs and Slovaks, Flemings and Walloons, who never fought each other but have different cultures and different historical memories, can't live in one country, then one has to be blind, ignorant, thoroughly insensitive or all three to think that Jews and Palestinians, who have been clutching each other's throats for more than a century, will be able to solve their problems and maintain a democratic life after being thrown into a single political cauldron. What has happened in Belgium has implications reaching far beyond its borders.
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