Is “Constructive Nationalism” Possible?

8 march 2009

Leokadia Drobizheva

Resume: 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.

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 nationalism.

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 it.

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 community.

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 country.

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 history.

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

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 authoritarianism.

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 conclusion.

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 nationalism.

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 minorities.

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 citizens.

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 nationalism.

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 groups.

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 intellectuals.

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 succeed.

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 community.

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 situations.

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.

Last updated 8 march 2009, 14:59

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