Is “Constructive Nationalism” Possible?
No. 1 2009 January/March

The 2008 developments concerning Kosovo, Abkhazia and South
Ossetia have once again demonstrated the obvious conflict between
the principles of the right of nations to self-determination and
the territorial integrity of states. They have also shown how
difficult it is to address the challenges of separatism. The
interest in the phenomenon of nationalism has again increased in
the world. Experts and politicians are trying to define various
types of nationalism and to understand the difference between
ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism, and what potential the
latter type of nationalism has. Obviously, ethnic nationalism is
not gone. But if its manifestations are inevitable, is it possible
to have it acquire liberal, non-violent forms?


Debates about the strength, influence and practical implications
of nationalism have been going on unabated for decades. U.S.
historian Michael Lind in the 1990s described nationalism as the
most powerful force in the world. A decade later, U.S. political
sociologist Michael Mann said that nationalism was far from dead.
Another U.S. historian, Jerry Muller, last year discussed the
persistence of ethnic nationalism (Foreign Affairs, March/April
2008). Back in the 1970s, Elie Kedourie pointed to discrepancies
between what nationalists declared and what they did in practice.
In subsequent decades, this subject was discussed by Ernest Gellner
and Eric Hobsbawm. The matter at hand was, above all, ethnic

Political philosophers distinguish between ethnic and civic
nationalisms. Well-known historian Hans Kohn described the latter
as Western nationalism, similar to that which appeared in France
and Great Britain. It is also known as rational nationalism, based
on loyalty to the state and free self-identification. It is from
this angle that the United States interprets “nation.”

Ethnic, or ethnocultural, nationalism is considered to be
irrational as it appeals to the “call of the blood” and “shared
history,” and is based on loyalty to the people who have a certain
cultural base. This model is called “German” and it is the closest
to Russian ideas of nation and nationalism.

Two circumstances cause one to raise the issue of
ethnonationalism again.

The first one is the growing gap between populist, ideologized
political views and scientific research into nationalism.

The second is a desire to draw public attention again to the
variability of nationalism, which defines society’s attitude to

Nationalism is defined as an ideology where the interests and
values of a nation as a group have priority over other interests
and values. A nation must be as independent as possible; as Gellner
wrote, it seeks to have a “political roof.” In complex,
multi-ethnic states this may mean a desire for autonomy or even
secession. Thus, nationalism is always a political movement aimed
at gaining or retaining political power, and is always a challenge
for the center.

The phenomenon of nationalism is like an iceberg: the greater
part lies hidden beneath the surface. Depending on the social and
political context, the submerged part may surface, exposing its
round or sharp edges. The task of society is to develop such an
attitude to nationalism that would not let the iceberg sink the
unstable ship of a multi-ethnic social system during the transition
to democracy, and upset the fragile balance in the world

The attitude towards nationalism over centuries changed in
cycles. After World War I, new states emerged on the ruins of great
multinational empires of the late 19th century under the banner of
national self-determination. But this positive valence of
nationalism quickly exhausted itself already during the first
postwar decade, even before the coming of fascism, with its
expansionist goals and ensuing consequences – chauvinism, racism
and anti-Semitism.

The end of World War II, the liberation of European nations from
the Nazi occupation and the breakup of overseas colonial empires
gave rise to a new euphoria of self-determination. However, the
liberal tradition of supporting self-determination of nations was
again adjusted due to manifestations of racism and militant
ethnicity. The mistrust of developed democracies towards
nationalistic beliefs strengthened the alliance of nationalism with
leftist anticolonialism.

The emergence of newly independent states on the territory of
the broken-up Soviet Union in the 1990s caused apprehensions among
Western countries, although they provided full support to some of
them. However, ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet territory and
the former Yugoslavia confirmed the ambivalent and dangerous nature
of nationalism.

Since nationalism of the “third wave” in its aggressive
manifestations continues to be an obvious threat at the beginning
of the 21st century, it is important to analyze precisely those of
its types and forms that can be compatible with the transition to a
democratic society.

The problem of the compatibility of democratic transition and
nationalism is not new, but this does not make it less difficult.
Recognized experts in the field of democratic transition viewed
domestic unity and a stable common identity of citizens as crucial
conditions for the success of democratization. And vice versa,
ethnonational differences leading to various forms of nationalism
and the growth of national movements are viewed as an obstacle to
democracy in society.

Ethnonational problems and nationalist aspirations remain in
developed democracies as well (for example, the Basque Country in
Spain, Corsica in France, Quebec in Canada, Northern Ireland and
Scotland in the UK, and Flemings and Walloons in Belgium). However,
experts point out the readiness of the majority of the population
of those countries to cope with emerging difficulties by nonviolent
means and through democratic institutions. But even in such
circumstances, acute forms of ethnonationalism, brought about by
unsolved problems of national and territorial unity and identity,
are incompatible with democracy.

This conclusion is logical from the point of view of
democratization. But it remains debatable from the position of
nationalism. A free expression of the will of the people is
possible only in a democratic society, and ethnic leaders do not
always use democratic procedures with good intentions. It was not
accidental that the leaders of ethnic movements in the Soviet Union
(for example, the leaders of the Popular Front in Estonia or
Sajudis in Lithuania) demanded first of all more democracy in the

A group of researchers, led by U.S. scientist Tedd Gurr, made
cross-national studies and concluded that ethnic groups in
democratizing societies receive significant opportunities for
political mobilization. The problem is that developing democracies
do not yet have a stabilizing resource – the traditions of dialogue
and lengthy negotiations, the required level of tolerance, and
effective institutional mechanisms for achieving inter-group
accord, which are used by states with a longer democratic

In these conditions, of paramount importance are three
theoretical and methodological principles, which have proven

First, nationalism should be considered in a
historical perspective, taking account of the difference between,
for example, nationalism of the 18th century and that of today and
of the fact that each specific type of nationalism can transform
into another type. Hans Kohn successfully demonstrated this
approach in studying Europe. He came to the conclusion that the
history of nationalism was a constant degeneration of rationality
into madness, which manifested itself most vividly in National
Socialism, with its wars, violence and messianic

Second, Kohn also showed in his study how
important a comparative, cross-cultural principle is for analyzing
nationalism. It makes sense to compare the following two
understandings of “nation” established over the last two centuries:
the “French” one which stems from the idea of a free community of
citizens of a state based on political choice, and the “German” one
based on culture and common origin.

But even these long-established forms are changing. Anthony
Smith, who took a more global view on the phenomenon of nationalism
than the Europocentric Kohn, refrained from drawing a sharp
opposition between “Western” (civic) and “Eastern” (ethnocultural)
types of nationalism. After all, both models have a cultural and a
territorial basis. Rogers Brubaker wrote in the 1990s that the
ethnic and civic models of nationalism not only overlap, but they
can even change their meaning to the opposite over time.

And third, even those scholars who openly hold
constructivist positions (if they are not biased experts) recognize
the importance of the context, as, for example, Ronald Suny does
[constructivists and, in particular, instrumentalists view
ethnicity as a mental construct created by the individual himself –
Ed.]. Nationalism achieves more success where there has formerly
been a territorial, linguistic or cultural commonality and a common
historical memory, which is used as starting material for an
intellectual nationalist project. The experience of the Scottish,
Basque, Estonian and Lithuanian nationalism confirms this

It is the social and economic context that determines the
development of the nationalist discourse, and nationalist policies
and practices. Scholars and politicians holding constructivist and
instrumentalist positions attach key importance to the elites’
efforts to interpret the notion of “nation” and shape national
identity. But how big is the resource of the intellectual power of
the elite which expresses and shapes the ideas of nationalism? And
how ready are various social groups and the entire population to
support its ideas? This depends on the state of society. One should
take into account the level of economic development, the political
structure of the state, social and cultural factors, including the
dominant norms and values in society, the degree of trust toward
political institutions, the sense of citizenship and mutual
understanding of citizens, the degree of awareness of the unity of
the state, and other factors.


The study of inter-ethnic relations in the Soviet and
post-Soviet space has revealed six types of nationalism.

Classic nationalism is the one where all cultural considerations
– the need for an official language, preservation of a nation’s
normative and artistic culture – as well as historical,
geopolitical and economic arguments are subordinated to the goal of
broadening state autonomy and later independence (secession). This
type of nationalism was mostly widely spread in the Baltic
republics, where nationalists used an entire range of arguments –
from criticizing the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact to demanding control
over the use of natural resources to seeking economic autonomy.

The dominating elites in autonomous republics within the Russian
Federation embraced a different ideology and pursued a different
policy. Not a single of these republics – be it Tatarstan,
Bashkiria, Yakutia or Tuva (except Chechnya) – ever raised the
issue of their full independence from Russia. They only spoke about
“divided sovereignty,” implying that some of their powers could be
delegated to the federal center. Some of the republics asked for
more rights in the financial, economic, cultural and political
spheres, while others sought control over their own natural
resources and their culture. Claims to extended rights were the
loudest in Tatarstan in 1990-1993. This type of nationalism can be
called parity nationalism.

The ideology and political practices of autonomous republics
were centered on the separation of powers between them and the
federal center. It was implied that coexisting ethnic groups (for
example, Tatars and Russians in Tatarstan) would enjoy equal
rights, which was manifested in the legislative recognition of two
official languages, concurrent discourses of the republics’
political leadership, and in dominant social practices.

In some republics, for example Bashkortostan and Yakutia, the
focus in ideology and politics was made on the economy and culture,
yet priority was given to ideas that were in line with economic

In Karelia and Komi, where the titular nations were ethnic
minorities, the efforts largely focused on the support for their
cultural identity and languages. This corresponds to the ideas of
cultural nationalism.

In other republics, particularly in North Ossetia and
Ingushetia, ideas of protection dominated: protection of one’s
territory, influence over this terrotory, and the return of
previously lost lands. Volga Germans, for example, tried to restore
their autonomous republic in the Volga Region, while the Ingush
sought to move the administrative border between Ingushetia and
North Ossetia and to incorporate the Ingush-populated Prigorodny
District of North Ossetia into their republic.

The ideas of protection nationalism were also embraced by the
ideologists of Russian nationalism – the protection of the ecology
of Lake Baikal; the protection of Russian villages by “village
prose” writers; and the protection of the peasantry, which had lost
its most active part – kulaks (the more successful and efficient
farmers), who were dispossessed and executed or resettled to
unpopulated areas in the 1930s.

In the post-Soviet territory, attempts were made to implement
the ideas of modernization nationalism. In the late 1980s, when
people in the Baltic republics linked hands in the Baltic Chain,
which stretched from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius, Moldovans
remembered about their kinship with Romanians; Armenia launched a
war for Nagorno-Karabakh; while young reformers at the heart of
Russia lamented the outflow of funds from Russian regions to other
Soviet republics. They believed that successful efforts to
modernize and bring more democracy to Russia would motivate
independence-minded republics to join the Russian Federation.

Regional leaders, too, cited modernization as an argument for
autonomy – for example, in Tatarstan where the authorities feared a
return of Communists to power in Moscow in 1993. The ideas of
private land ownership and public investment cannot be implemented
by restoring the former regime. Modernization nationalism usually
appears in better developed regions in multi-ethnic states (for
example, Russia of the late 1980s-early 1990s, compared with most
of the other former Soviet republics; Tatarstan, compared with less
developed regions of Russia; or Catalonia, compared with other
provinces of Spain).


Nationalism cannot be understood in isolation from the state.
Nationalism is always an attempt to legitimize ideologically the
seizure of control over the state. At the same time, it is also a
reaction to excessive state interference felt by ethnic

It is quite natural for the federal center in a multi-ethnic
state to seek to homogenize the population in order to prevent
nationalism from evolving into separatist movements. However, in
spite of the good intentions, the shaping of the sense of community
very often turns, at best, into a function of the bureaucratic
machine enforcing unification and assimilation. And it is for this
reason that such attempts are rejected or criticized by

Opposition to these attempts does not necessarily come from
ethnic minorities. The unification tendency may not be to the
liking of ethnic Russians in certain regions where they make the
majority of the population. For example, in North-West Russia, in
the Urals and in the Southern Federal District one can often hear
people say: “The Center does not know what we feel” or “The Center
does not take into consideration our interests, and this prevents
the building of a civic nation and the unity in the country.” In
regions populated by other ethnic groups, such sentiments are
acquiring an ethnic tint.

Thing like that take place in other countries, as well,
including those with long-standing and strong democratic
traditions. Belgium, Canada and Switzerland have not avoided the
tendencies of ethnic nationalism. John Breuilly has shown in his
works that nationalism can be a product and a consequence of state
nation-building. Failures of such experiments bring about the
opposite result – increasingly manifest outbreaks of ethnic

Daniele Conversi explains that an excess of overly zealous
centralism often caused a homeostatic reaction, which in turn gave
rise to strong nationalist movements in the periphery. Tedd Gurr
also wrote about nationalist growth accompanying state efforts to
achieve ethnic homogenization of society. In Spain, for example,
the government’s actions caused ethnic minorities to mobilize and
brought about the rise of the Basque and Catalan nationalism,
imparting a political tint to the cultural markers of these ethnic

The reaction of the Russian and Ukrainian minorities in Moldova
to the Moldovan government’s discriminatory policy towards the
Russian and Ukrainian languages in the early 1990s was bitter, as
well. A similar situation took place in South Ossetia and Abkhazia
in the late 1980s-early 1990s as a reaction to the policy of
Georgia. Another controversy involved the decision by the State
Duma of the Russian Federation to prohibit the replacement of the
Cyrillic script with the Latin alphabet for the Tatar written
language. The decision caused protests among Tatar

In the majority of ethnic movements in the post-Soviet space,
political frictions over the status of languages have undoubtedly
played a mobilizing role. The status of a language is becoming a
social resource in modern society; therefore, the ideologists of
ethnonationalism assign as much importance to it as they do to the
struggle for other resources – natural or political. In general,
ideologists build ethnic – mostly culturally marked – boundaries in
conflicts over various resources.

Other interests may also serve as the reason for this kind of
demarcation. For example, for ethnic Russians who live in other
ethnic territories of the Russian Federation, the divider is access
to participation in regional power. It has become a mechanism of
social categorization and comparison, and in some cases, a
mechanism of contraposition between ethnic groups.

Psychologists believe that the fewer differences between
contacting ethnic groups, the stronger their claims based on these
differences. Perhaps, this is why industrialization, urbanization
and globalization have not erased ethnic boundaries completely, as
was predicted in the times of Max Weber and Karl Marx and by
contemporary theorists of globalization. Thomas Friedman patently
shows this in his book The World Is Flat, where he analyzes new
“silicon valleys.”


Nationalism still embodies the categorization of oneself and
“others.” But this does not imply that the differences are due to
an irreconcilable antagonism. Several types of nationalism can
peacefully coexist within one state. The very recognition of the
fact that nationalism can be different suggests that some of its
types and forms can, under certain circumstances and to a greater
or lesser degree, be combined with liberalism and democracy.

The most important of these conditions lie in the field of
political ethics. A mere desire of ethnic leaders is not enough to
manipulate the masses. The experience of one person may prove to be
insufficient, but the experience of many people can teach a lot.
And then the ideologists of nationalism themselves start looking
for ways to avoid violence and antagonism.

The problem of the compatibility of nationalism with liberal
values came into the limelight after the publication of Michael
Lind’s article “In Defense of Liberal Nationalism” (Foreign
Affairs, May/June 1994). Lind argues that “prejudice against
nationalism, even liberal, democratic, constitutional nationalism,
is a mistake.” This prejudice results in “reflexive support for
multinational political entities, especially despotic ones.” The
perception of nationalism as an outdated phenomenon from the
archaic past is a prejudice that does not conform to political
practices. Not all cases of separatism are bad, and the policy of
supporting the integrity of multinational states by all means is
not always good.

Similarly, the secession of one or even several nations does not
mean that every multinational state is ready to collapse like a
house of cards. At the same time, the multi-ethnic nature of a
state is not an insurmountable obstacle to the state’s
democratization. It is only important to work out a mechanism to
separate powers between ethnic groups. Lind cites Belgium, Canada
and Switzerland as successful examples. He does not think one
should be afraid of superpowerful multinational states, like the
former Soviet Union or modern Russia – provided, of course, such
states are built on a voluntary basis. Lind argues that nationalism
is quite compatible with liberal values, if two essential
conditions are met – the possibility of a free choice by a person
of his/her nationality, and the ensuring of the rights of cultural
minorities through peaceful means.

The interest in the compatibility of nationalism with liberal
values – an ideological nonsense only recently – is growing before
our eyes. And this is not accidental. Ethnic cleansings, aggressive
separatism, and declarations of self-determination – all these
problems faced by the West today have to be addressed not overseas
but in its own or neighboring states. Russia also has to look for
answers to external and internal challenges of nationalism, which
are becoming ever more powerful and diverse. The matter at hand is
not only the position of the Russian leadership on the status of
Kosovo or Abkhazia, but also the situation that has taken shape in
Russian regions, as well as the ability of various ethnic groups to
realize their community, and their readiness to implement their
interests through non-violent means.

The Nation and Nationalism journal held a discussion following
the publication of the book “On Nationality” by David Miller.
Miller disputes the belief that nationalism is the ideology of
rightwing forces that support authoritarian regimes and that are
hostile to liberalism and democracy. He defines liberal nationalism
as a combination of social democracy inside a country and an
exceptionally liberal doctrine of formal equality in the
international arena.

Brendan O’Leary, who participated in the discussion, emphasized
the need to apply liberal standards toward minorities. Indeed,
peoples that have gained sovereignty in newly independent states
often themselves do not respect the rights of minorities – examples
of that can be found in post-Soviet countries as well. O’Leary
holds that liberal public opinion should seek the introduction of
procedures and precautions to guarantee the collective rights of
minorities and individual human rights. Unfortunately, his
recommendations resemble advice to an enlightened public opinion
whereas newly independent states exhibit a deplorable absence of
relevant traditions, institutions and agreed political procedures
for implementing the proposed measures.


The analysis of the theory of nationalism suggests that liberal
nationalism is possible if the following conditions are met:

  • statehood is declared on behalf of all citizens living in the
    given territory, or on behalf of the nation understood as a
    community of people living in that territory;
  • the state has a liberal-democratic system which ensures the
    supremacy of law, universal suffrage, a representative system of
    government, elective government as a form of implementation of the
    principle of representation, and the separation of powers between
    the legislative, executive and judicial branches;
  • the state ensures political and legal equality of its citizens,
    including the right to be elected to public office;
  • the state allows pluralism and freedom of political activity,
    the freedom of speech, and the right to formulate and advocate
    political alternatives; the possibility of internal differences in
    discussing values, ideals – including national, ethnic, cultural
    and linguistic ones –and the essence of the community and its
    boundaries in a manner that is acceptable to the parties involved
    in the discussions and that is void of extremism and violence;
  • there are political institutions that ensure cultural diversity
    and minority rights;
  • the state ensures the free right of the individual to choose
    his/her nationality.

Most of these principles are characteristic of developed, or
consolidated, democracies. This is actually the ideal. Trying to
formulate such an ideal for all times and for all nations would
mean falling into a dangerous illusion. Democracy is a process of
the development, expansion and renewal of ideas, principles,
institutions and procedures. Liberal nationalism can also be
renewed in principles, institutions and procedures, while remaining
the goal that nationally oriented social forces, leaders and
authorities seek to achieve, although they do not always

Democracy per se does not guarantee the achievement of many
goals, among them general welfare, peace, and the solution of
ethnonational problems. Yet it makes sense to focus on the
discussion of conditions under which nations would prefer their
self-determination not as secession but in the form of various
types of autonomies, and when nationalism (in the case of Russia
this is largely ethnonational separatism) could be channeled into a
liberal course.

Such conditions can be objective and subjective. Objective
conditions, which enhance readiness for liberal forms of
nationalism, include the following aspects.

The first one is the ethnic composition of a
given territory. The smaller the proportion of the titular
nationality, the more it must reckon with the will of the other
part of the population, think of ensuring support from it,
liberalize its ethnic policy, and proclaim goals and tasks, whose
achievement would guarantee the unity of the entire multi-ethnic

The second one is the territorial position. If
a region or a self-determining ethnic group has no external
borders, it is difficult for it to set the goal of secession or
radical separatism. All former Soviet republics that have become
independent, as well as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Chechnya, had
external borders. The absence of such borders imposes limitations
on separatism and stimulates the search for peaceful solutions.
This does not mean that liberal nationalism, for example in
Chechnya, is doomed; it only means that in Tatarstan, for example,
it has more chances, and that over time Tatarstan can become a
model for others.

The third aspect is the resources of a
self-determining group and the level of its modernization. The
matter at hand is not just material resources that ensure the
group’s economic self-reliance, but also intellectual ones. The
larger the number of intellectuals and competent people in the
group who are familiar with the international experience and
international approaches to the solution of ethnonational problems,
the greater the chances for negotiations conducted with account
taken of the interests of the parties involved. The composition of
the political elite and the level of its professional training are
of particular importance in this respect. It was much easier for
Estonians, for example, to find liberal solutions to ethnic
problems than it was for Moldovans. Tatars have more opportunities
in this regard than, for example, Chechens or Tuvinians.

The possibility of liberal nationalism also depends on internal
and external subjective factors.

First, the greater the legitimacy and stability
of the central government and the greater its cohesion and
organization, the less chance the regions have to play on
differences in the government and to lead things to ultimatums in
interaction with it. At the same time, it is easier for them to
agree on the separation of powers and areas of jurisdiction.

Second, much importance is attached to the
level of development of democratic organizations in a state which
ensure the participation of representatives of ethnic groups in the
government and a voice for them in the mass media, and to the
presence of stable state mechanisms for managing conflict

Third, one should not expect the liberalization
of ethnonationalism or the weakening of separatism, if there is an
escalation of chauvinistic nationalism in the state and if national
resources are distributed arbitrarily.

Fourth, one should always bear in mind that an
excessive number of educated people impedes their career
development and causes the discontented ones to lay emphasis on
cultural claims. Nationalism becomes a safety-valve for
frustration, while absence of demand for intellectuals develops
into a riot of fringe intellectuals. Therefore, success in
stabilizing the escalation of ethnonationalism goes to those
regional leaders in Russia who seek to integrate potential and
non-extremist ideologists of nationalism into government structures
or to use them in some other way. Tatarstan and Yakutia are
examples of successful attempts to extinguish ethnic extremism in
such a way.

Fifth, external influence is becoming
increasingly important. Hopes for international public support or,
on the contrary, international protests adjust the behavior of
leaders in (potentially) separatist territories and in the center.
There is a more reliable way to settle conflicts than a show of
strength: a clear formulation by the international community of its
position on such issues as possible forms of self-determination;
the attitude to the Helsinki principles, extremism and terrorism;
and the involvement of politicians, public figures and scientists
in the solution of ethnic problems and in efforts to ensure
peaceful coexistence among people of different ethnicity.

Naturally, the aforementioned conditions for the emergence of
liberal forms of nationalism are not always present. And even their
presence does not guarantee the achievement of the desired goals.
Nevertheless, they create and broaden possibilities for liberal
nationalism and the prevention of violence.