The Ambiguity of Nationalism in East Central Europe

Application deadline: 
June 17, 2020

Dr. Valeria Korablyova, Prague Civil Society Centre Fellow explains her project and research proposal:

The starting point for my research is the gap between interpretations of the Maidan in Ukraine and abroad, especially concerning the rise of Ukrainian nationalism.

Claims that the Maidan was supposedly a right-wing coup d’etat which gave way to a xenophobic government seemed absurd to Ukrainians, yet were disseminated in Western media. I am inclined to see these as more than a success of Russian propaganda. Systemic misreading of Ukrainian events is due to the post-colonial attitude to the country, where local specificity is neglected, and indigenous voices are largely muted. Indeed, either Western epistemological and political patterns are applied to the analysis with any divergence assessed as flaws, or the Russian stance on the issue is reckoned trustworthy. In any case, Ukraine’s agency and sovereignty are not recognized.

Within this context, the distinction between aggressive and defensive types of nationalism, as suggested by Ewa M. Thompson, stands as a fruitful tool. The scholar argues that small and middle-sized nations under threat to their existence, due to natural disasters or expansionist neighbours, usually enforce national rhetoric, which is aimed at survival, not aggression.

However, this distinction is tricky, as aggressors often involve the rhetoric of victimhood and claim a need for defence, as in the cases of Nazi Germany or Putin’s Russia. Besides, defensive nationalism can easily transform itself into aggressive nationalism, as can be observed in contemporary Visegrad countries. That is why Thompson’s distinction has to be coupled with other criteria, like inclusion-exclusion, ethnocentrism, and ideological orientations (future-oriented vs. revisionist, for instance).

Another point that must be taken into consideration concerns the ideological ambiguity of nationalism. After the French Revolution, nationalism was located in the left part of the ideological spectrum with the values of emancipation. Only later, after a disastrous war with Prussia, did it travel to the right and align itself with the values of tradition. In this regard, the post-Maidan situation in Ukraine is similar to the French situation after 1789: national sentiments affirmed the political sovereignty of the people, as opposed to the monarch, while the former was interpreted not ethnically but politically, (i.e. inclusively).

Counter to this, contemporary Russia presents aggressive imperialism under the guise of xenophobic nationalism. It also supports right-wing parties throughout Europe, articulated as an ‘alternative’, non-liberal Europe, or a ‘right-wing International.’ Undoubtedly, these parties have emerged and started flourishing for a number of other reasons, yet the prospected alliance spawns a de-modernisation threat: away from universal values to the order of force and to new conflicting parochialisms.

Upon exposing these nodal points, my research would proceed with a hypothesis that Central Europe is an important case, where both types of nationalism can be traced. Moreover, the trajectory of post-1989 developments in the Visegrad countries can arguably be described as moving from defensive nationalism to a universal Central European identity, and then backsliding to aggressive nationalism.

This story stands as a lesson and a warning for post-Soviet countries, particularly Ukraine. Its study is therefore crucial for discussions of the future of East Central Europe and of united Europe in general.

The project also aims to overcome the post-colonial attitude towards Ukraine and, more broadly, towards the region. I hope to reveal how Ukraine is being permanently deprived of its own voice and geopolitical agency, with irrelevant frameworks and explanatory models being imposed from the outside. This task implies exposing false assumptions and suggesting theoretical alternatives, particularly concerning the issue of nationalism.

Such a goal not only might change the power balance in the hybrid war with Russia but also might contribute to the reinvigoration of the EU project against the current crisis.

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