Baltic Protest in the Gorbachev Era: Causes, Dynamics, and Consequences

I wrote my dissertation in the mid-1990s on ethno-nationalist mobilization in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the Gorbachev years. In 2008, I met an editor from an academic press who invited me to dust off that dissertation and publish it as a book. After recovering the file from a floppy disk with a disk drive at my town’s public library (seriously), I reformatted and lightly edited the manuscript to ready it for publication.

In the end, I decided not to publish the book after a couple of colleagues whose work I admire took a look at it and said they didn’t think it was quite ready for academic prime time. Still, in hopes that the work might still be useful to other researchers, I’ve gone ahead and posted the lightly revised manuscript on the Web. You can find it here.

Ethno-Nationalism on the Rise

France had a presidential election last weekend, and one of every five voters who went to the polls that day cast a ballot for conservative ethno-nationalist Marine Le Pen. In Greece, the rabidly anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party seems poised to win enough votes to enter parliament for the first time when elections are held on May 6. In Hungary, the Christian nationalist Jobbik movement won 17 percent of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections in 2010 and wound up with 47 seats in the legislature. The list goes on.

Why are ethno-nationalist parties so popular in Europe these days?

In a book published two decades ago that is, unfortunately, quite relevant today, Stanford sociologist Susan Olzak wrote: “Factors that raise levels of competition among race and ethnic groups increase rates of ethnic collective action.” Building on the work of anthropologist Frederik Barth, she goes on to identify four processes as the major instruments of increases in ethnic competition: 1) migration and immigration, 2) economic contraction, 3) dispersion from previously segregated spaces, and 4) rising prosperity for previously disadvantaged groups.

Olzak used competition theory to explain patterns in racial and ethnic protest and violence in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, when waves of immigration intersected with dispersion from ethnic niches and economic contraction to spur local spikes in everything from strikes to lynchings.

Do those conditions sound familiar? If you’ve been paying attention to recent trends of Europe, they should. The rising vote shares for these ethno-nationalist parties are electoral markers of ethnic mobilization in response to competitive pressures intensified by the global financial crisis that began in 2008. According to the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook, Greece’s economy contracted sharply each of the past three years and is expected to decline another 4.7 percent in 2012. France has fared somewhat better, but the 0.2-percent annual growth rate forecast for 2012 is still pretty dismal. Hungary has followed a trajectory similar to France’s, with a 6.8-percent contraction in 2009 and sputtering growth ever since. Of course, immigrant populations are hardly new to these countries, but immigration rates have risen in many parts of Europe in recent decades, and competition theory tells us that populations often respond to a shrinking economy by trying to kick out or close off other racial and ethnic groups.

The same dynamics arguably help explain the surge of the Tea Party movement, whose sympathizers evidently exhibit more racial prejudice than other American conservatives. Like much of Europe, the United States endured a bad recession in 2009, the same year Barack Obama arrived in the White House. It’s hard to imagine a brighter signal of the breakdown of ethnic and racial barriers in the United States than the inauguration of our first black president. Where many of us see a happy sign of social progress, competition theory teaches us to beware a rising risk of ethnic tensions and violence.

As for what is to be done about this alarming rise of exclusionary politics, I think Jack Goldstone got it right in a recent blog post on the causes and consequences of the Great Recession and its manifestations in Europe:

My hope is still that in 2013 or 2014 voters and politicians will give up their blind faith in austerity and other false idols of conservative faith, and start a hard search for policies that will give back growth.  In the 1930s, it took six or seven years for this to happen, and in parts of Europe facism took over first.  Perhaps the most alarming news in the last week is the huge increase in support for and influence of far left and far right parties France and the Netherlands.  Hitler did not become Chancellor of Germany because a majority of people voted for him.  He became Chancellor because just enough people were frightened of a surge of the far left to support his far-right party, and just enough was about a third of the electorate (only about double what France’s far-right National Front Party garnered last week).  There are no signs yet we are headed there, but this is no time for complacency.  Politicians and economists need to get serious about growth policy, not austerity, or more trouble lies ahead.

NB: An initial version of this post included “…in Europe” in the title and said less about the Tea Party, but I revised it to emphasize the generality of this trend. I think we in the U.S. often get stuck in a parochial view of right-wing politics in Europe and fail to see the clear parallels to nativist and racist politics at home.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Burma

Over the past year or so, Burma’s authoritarian government has implemented significant, albeit limited, political reforms. This partial liberalization has won guarded praise from Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s leading dissident who is now set to run for parliament in by-elections this spring, as well as Western governments who support her cause. At the same time, the country’s military has intensified its vicious fight against the autonomy-seeking Kachin people of northern Burma. In its efforts to snuff out that uprising, the Burmese military has “committed serious abuses” against civilians, including killing them, using them as forced labor, and pillaging their homes. And the Kachin conflict is just one of several long-running ethnic insurgencies in Burma, none of which is yet resolved.

These seemingly schizophrenic responses to popular demands for reform–releasing prisoners one minute, literally smashing villages the next–has a lot of people wondering: Which of these approaches shows us the real Burmese government? Is the country being run by budding democrats who haven’t quite figured out how break their atrocious habits in the north, or is it being run by tyrannical genocidaires who are using piecemeal reforms as a tactic to trick the rest of the world into ending painful sanctions? In a post on his always-thoughtful Securing Rights blog, Georgetown University student Daniel Solomon put it this way:

The release of Burma’s political prisoners is a symbolically significant effort, essential to effective political reconciliation between Burma’s civilian government and the pro-democracy opposition. However, the real challenge to Burma’s democratization will stem from the regime’s effort to negotiate a political settlement with Burma’s ethnic minority groups. The Karen conflict is a microcosm of a wider issue–Burma’s central government, interested in consolidating political authority and access to the border regions’ natural resource wealth, prefers a Naypyidaw-based, centralized government, while minority opposition groups prefer a federalized system.

From that passage, I inferred that Dan sees the ethnic wars in northern Burma as more fundamental to the country’s future than its constitutional changes, and therefore the government’s counterinsurgency efforts as somehow more revealing of its true nature. That order of priority was echoed in a recent tweet from former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who linked to the New York Times story on the Kachin war with this commentary: “New military action against the Kachin reminds how far Burma has to go to achieve genuine reform. Not there yet.” Meanwhile, Burmese journalist Zin Linn noted for the Asian Correspondent that President Thein Sein had twice instructed the military commander-in-chief to stop the Kachin offensive, but those instructions have apparently been ignored. From that fact, he concluded that the president’s commands are a “deceitful tactic,” “worthless statements intended to satisfy the international community” so it will lift long-standing sanctions.

I wonder, though, if attempts to view these two streams of behavior through a single lens obscure more than they clarify. Burma’s reform process will inevitably be multidimensional, because governance is multidimensional. Democratization lies on one dimension, centralization lies on another, and ethno-nationalism arguably on yet another. Democratization is about the expansion of a government’s accountability to its citizens. Democratic states vary widely in the extent to which they centralize power, from the genuine federalism of the United States to the highly centralized administration of the French Republic, and one end of that spectrum is not obviously more liberal or democratic than the other. Existing democracies also vary widely in the extent to which they recognize ethnic “communities” as rights-bearing groups and provide legal opportunities to advance demands for national self-determination. These three dimensions are interrelated in their concern for popular sovereignty, but they do not and need not move in lock step.

If that’s right, then I’m not sure it’s helpful to presume that decentralization represents the only just and liberal outcome to Burma’s ethnic wars. Without question, it is deeply illiberal to respond to demands for autonomy or even independence with mass atrocities, where punishment is collective, disproportionate, and indiscriminate. It is not inherently illiberal, however, to reject demands for decentralization or autonomy, and it is arguably more liberal in the classical sense of that word to reject attempts to link citizenship to ethnicity than it is to accept them.

I also agree that it’s reasonable to look to the government’s treatment of the communities entangled in these insurgencies for clues to that government’s direction and intentions. That said, I don’t think it is sensible or even particularly helpful to presume that both streams of behavior flow from a single “character,” or even a common strategy.

What if these seemingly contradictory tracks are the twin results a house divided? It’s quite possible that actions on these different fronts are being led by different factions within the Burmese government. Maybe civilian leaders intent on liberalization are driving reforms at the center while military leaders committed to maintaining the country’s territorial integrity retain control over counterinsurgency. Maybe civilian and military elites have both split into “soft-liner” and “hard-liner” camps, and the two are wrestling for control while we scratch our heads over their seemingly incoherent behavior. I don’t know which of these is true, and I get the sense that very few people do. Based on my knowledge of other reformist episodes in recent history, however, either of these scenarios seems more plausible to me than a narrative in which a ruthless and unified cadre outfoxes the world.

This question isn’t academic. On the one hand, foreign governments and international activists have every right and reason to demand that Burmese forces immediately stop committing atrocities. On the other hand, if the Burmese government is internally divided, then conditioning rewards for political reform on specific responses to the country’s ethnic insurgencies could push liberalizers into a confrontation with their internal rivals before they’re strong enough to win that fight. If soft-liners are competing with hard-liners for the upper hand in this process, they will gain powerful allies over the next several months as political parties and civic groups mobilize in response to reforms at the center and even, hopefully, win seats in parliament. I don’t see any simple answers to this moral dilemma, but I do believe we’ll grope our way toward more effective responses by avoiding policies that tightly link conditions on the two dimensions and the assumptions of organizational and strategic coherence on which those policies would be based.

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