Countries aren't what they used to be

January 06, 1991|By Robert M. Hayden

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.

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