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Nationalism Unleashed | The Nation

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Nationalism Unleashed

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We Hungarians entered NATO on March 12. Less than two weeks later, as NATO members, we provided free air lanes for military planes to Yugoslavia, and now we must identify ourselves with a war against a neighboring country. To make my position clear: I was in favor of Hungary joining NATO, and I'm glad NATO will protect us against external enemies, though as far as I know, no one intended to attack my country.

About the Author

George Konrad
George Konrad is Hungary's pre-eminent essayist and novelist. His novel The Stone Dial will be published by Harcourt...

Two years ago, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against Milosevic in Belgrade's Republic Square, demanding lawful, pluralist democracy. I was invited to speak to the students and was surrounded by intelligent, enthusiastic faces and clever slogans on billboards. Today, in this same square, perhaps the same people are demonstrating against NATO aggression.

The West's actions in Yugoslavia reflect not merely the arrogance of power but a fundamental misunderstanding of the Balkans. European union is certainly the child of enlightenment, but experience indicates that an anti-integrative, or even disintegrative, romanticism must appear in opposition to such a tendency.

If we look to the Balkans, we see this romanticism in operation as the ideology of the homogeneous nation-state. Following the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination in 1989, armed struggle on the basis of nationality or ethnicity did not take place in the zone between Poland and Bulgaria, at least partly because the democratic movements chose to follow the path of nonviolent self-liberation.

In Yugoslavia, the member states considered themselves homogeneous nations, though clearly they were not. This process resulted in the violent severing of many real bonds, but Western public opinion held that far off in the Balkans the establishment of new borders (and the torments that resulted from them) was a station in the development of democracy. Clearly, the partition of Belgium in consequence of the Flemish-Walloon conflict would be something to avoid, yet the West was glad to see Yugoslavia cut into parts.

The West considered the former Yugoslavia an artificial creation, despite twenty-one nationalities having lived there together over many years without ethnic civil war and despite Yugoslavia having been able to protect its sovereignty against the Soviet Union without outside help, as it had resisted Hitler's Germany. The West forgot about the 1 million war dead, the executions on both sides and the memories of that as a cultural legacy. It forgot that the collapse of a federal state with its restraining framework would make ethnicity the chief principle of orientation for individuals. On land where the population is mixed, however, the principle turns neighbors who have lived together in peace into enemies.

As separatism was legitimized, recognized, even guaranteed by the international community, newly independent member republics began working with all their strength on the ethnic homogenization of their own national consciousnesses, forging it through blood relations and strengthening it with religion. At the same time, they began to feel that members of other ethnicities were foreign bodies in the new nation. "Ethnic cleansing" originated from this furor of self-homogenization.

The West recognizes, protects and maintains by force of arms a Bosnia made up of three republics, three nationalities: an entity no less artificial than Yugoslavia was. The West recognized ethnic nationalism and helped it to victory, opening the door to the violent expulsions. By giving top priority to national self-determination and rejecting on principle the federation inherited from the Communist era, the West made individual human rights and lawful, democratic autonomy for cultural minorities subservient to nationalist hysteria.

The decisions have had extremely hard consequences. In the absence of negotiated agreements on separation, armed violence decides issues. If we look at the number killed, the strongest Yugoslav nation, the Serbian, has been the most violent, followed by the others in exact proportion to their demographic numbers. On this basis, the presidents of Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia can all be considered war criminals.

The West preferred to see one kind of violence as more evil than another and to blame its own mistake--an ill-considered policy through the nineties--on Milosevic, now the chief villain. A negative mythology was created not only for him but for the entire Serbian people and, more recently, all of Yugoslavia.

When Milosevic's power was on the rise, he terminated the autonomy of the most developed region within the Serbian Republic, Vojvodina, and the least developed, majority-Albanian Kosovo. Both actions were grave violations of democracy. In Vojvodina, people are trying to use political instruments to restore political autonomy. In Kosovo, after peaceful resistance achieved much success but did not resolve the problem, the radical wing of Albanian nationalism turned to guerrilla warfare and designated complete secession as the goal. Western politicians legitimized the Albanian underground guerrilla organization.

Montenegro, which turned away from Milosevic, is now being bombed back toward him. The offended Yugoslav nation is being rallied around the nationalist chief. Western politicians believe they act against him, but they act for him: The West has walked into the trap. He will suffer nothing, and, as a democratically elected leader, his position will be strengthened. It seems NATO leaders understand the psychology of bombers but not the bombed. Their leaders see only other leaders--not the dead and wounded.

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