#02 - Nationalism in Central Europe, the Balkans and the Soviet Union: a threat to the whole region

Dec 1991


Over the past few years, a tide of nationalist tensions has been rising throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, claiming already thousands of victims - a tide which is reminiscent of the early decades of the 20th century, if not of more ancient times.

Throughout this region, every country has experienced, not just rising nationalist demonstrations, but at least some form of physical confrontation between nationalities, often in the shape of outright pogroms against one national minority or another. In a few cases these confrontations have taken the form of a creeping civil war, like in Azerbaïdjan. While Yugoslavia has been engulfed in an open civil war already nearly six months old, with no sign of a predictable settlement within the near future, rather the opposite.

It seems as if every time a national minority puts up a fresh claim to independence, half a dozen others are woken up. Thus, for instance, in Yugoslavia, Slovenia was first to rise, soon followed by Croatia, while Serbian nationalism was being whipped up. And now, in the middle of a full-blown civil war between the intertwined Croatian and Serbian populations, Bosnia seems about to become the third belligerent. Similarly in Georgia, the re-emergence of Georgian nationalism seems to have triggered that of the Abkhazians and of the South-Ossetians, although without this going beyond limited but bloody clashes, so far. But what of tomorrow?

These confrontations no longer seem to remain within the existing state borders. The collapse of the Soviet Union as a working federation is now historical facts. But will the redrawing of state borders be limited to the Soviet Union? The destruction of the Yugoslav Federation can only stoke up predatory instincts amongst neighbouring nationalists. Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey can each lay historical claims to parts of Macedonia. The Turkish president claims to protect the interests of all Muslims in the region. (Bosnia Herzegovina's population is at least 25% Muslim.) Hungarian politicians are keeping a close eye on the ethnic Hungarians of Vojvodina and Italy also has historic claims on Trieste and the Adriatic coastline. And Yugoslavia is only the most prominent of many other similar situations. Similar points could be made about most of the existing states in the region.

What is now being put in question is the entire political organisation of the region as it was shaped by both the first and second world wars. And as, in the capitalist world, state borders are seldom put in question peacefully, this could imply a whole period of wars similar to the current one in Yugoslavia, if not on a much larger scale. Without being pessimistic, we have to bear in mind the fact that WWI was triggered by nationalist confrontations in Yugoslavia. Of course, this was only a pretext for the major powers to settle their rivalries. But, however concealed they may be today, the rivalries between the rich countries are more acute than ever. The world crisis together with a permanent state of war in this part of Europe could be the ingredients of a new Sarajevo-style crisis. This is how serious the potential threat raised by the current nationalist tide in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is today.

The first question for us is to try to understand the roots of this situation. One explanation seems rather tempting at face value - that everything flows from the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is what the media is filled with. But how much mileage can it contain bearing in mind that the current crisis in Yugoslavia started back in 1980 with Tito's death? While the collapse of the Soviet regime and of the Soviet Union's dominance over Eastern Europe was undoubtedly a factor, and an important one, in the present developments, it was only one factor among others. Whereas probably the most important factor of all has to do with the consequences of over a century of rivalries between the major powers over this region. This will be our first point. Then we will show that, within this framework inherited from the past, the current developments come as a result of the attempts of the privileged in the region to protect themselves against the world crisis using capitalist methods. Finally, we will try to consider the situation with the eyes of revolutionary communists whose aim is not just to explain what is happening but primarily to influence the course of events.

The bourgeois revolution fails in Central Europe and the Balkans

The growth of European nationalism dates principally from the French revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. But already, even before this time, there were sharp differences in Europe. Western and Northern Europe was mainly dominated by absolute monarchies, whose wealth had grown considerably over the centuries, mainly through the plunder of distant countries. These were relatively stable societies, with a growing internal market which sustained the development of a large urban middle-class and had already evened out many of the local and regional particularisms inherited from feudal times. Central and Eastern Europe, on the other hand, was divided between three empires which retained most features of the Middle-Ages: the catholic Austro-Hungarian empire, run by the Habsburg dynasty; the christian orthodox empire of the Russian tsar; and the muslim Ottoman empire based on the sultans of Constantinople. These were all strong military states, entirely dependent on the over-exploitation of serfs, whose social organisation had hardly changed over the previous four centuries. Being unable to provide economic incentives to the peoples they dominated, they could only keep their empires intact through the use of bare force. Instead of regional differences being reduced by growing exchanges and intermixing of population, they were strengthened by the empires resorting to systematic repression and setting national minorities against national minorities.

After 1789, at one stroke, feudalism in the foremost country in Europe, France, was removed and replaced by the power of the rising urban middle class or bourgeoisie, opening up a new era of economic development and therefore of progress for civilisation. With the wars of Napoleon following hard on its heels, the ideals of the revolutionary bourgeoisie were spread, albeit extremely unevenly throughout the length and breadth of Europe.

In a Europe which had been dominated for centuries by the concerns of royal dynasties and where a whole people such as the Poles could be parcelled out between the Russian Tsar, the Austrian emperor and the King of Prussia, nationalism or a sense of belonging as a result of a common language and shared customs became a focus for rebellion. In particular there were stirrings in the hearts of the Germans and the Italians, both of which peoples were to achieve nation status in the second half of the nineteenth century - though only after a series of wars.

In 1848 there were revolutions all over Germany and the Austrian Empire which were sparked off by the February revolution in Paris. On the streets of Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Milan and Venice there were massive confrontations between workers and intellectuals on the one hand and the forces of the state on the other. The revolutionaries demanded the end of absolutism. They demanded democracy and national recognition through the setting up of legislative assemblies.

But these demands were either drowned in a hail of rifle fire or only acceded to in a distorted kind of way. True, the peasants were emancipated in parts of the region. But the hopes entertained by revolutionaries such as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels that a general settling of accounts could remove the undemocratic monarchies in Prussia and Austria; that bourgeois democratic states on the French model could be set up in Germany and Poland; and that ultimately the tsarist autocracy could be crushed, failed to materialise.

Instead, the unification of Germany was accomplished by the autocratic Count Bismarck, the man of "Blood and Iron" and representative of the Prussian military caste, not by any German equivalents of Robespierre and the Jacobins backed up by the revolutionary masses. Not only was the rising German bourgeoisie deprived of its revolutionary spirit, it was also deprived of part of its potential territory, which remained under Austro-Hungarian domination.

But the outcome of this period was comparatively much worse for the people of Central and Eastern Europe. The three old empires managed to survive the national uprisings which took place throughout the region. The bourgeoisie, where it existed at all, proved too weak to even shake the medieval empires. As to the local land-owning classes in the subject nations, despite the weak claims to political independence they had voiced in Poland and Hungary for instance, they were much too frightened of potential peasant uprisings to do without the military protection of the empires. Economic stagnation for the whole region resulted. While the Western European bourgeoisie was frantically developping its market and economic power, the embryonic bourgeoisie in the rest of Europe remained under the yoke of a land-owning aristocracy. While Western trade was penetrating deeper and deeper into Central and Eastern Europe, drawing profits from its backwardness, the development gap between the two Europes went on growing.

The subsequent development of Central and South Eastern Europe was dominated by the continuous rivalry between the three empires on the one hand and by the economic and political rivalry between the now leading capitalist powers, Britain and France on the other hand. The latter used their military weight to keep the third empire in the region, the Ottoman Empire, alive long after it had reached the point of collapse. Their aim was to contain the expansion of the other two empires. In the half century before 1914 there were constant wars and uprisings in the area (which became known as the Balkans) as local rulers tried to carve out areas for themselves. But a unified nationalist movement never materialised. It is from this period that a new word enters the English language, "balkanise" meaning divide and rule mutually antagonistic small states through permanent wars. Of course British and French capital operated freely for the benefit of shareholders in London and Paris.

Eventually Britain abandoned Turkey. By 1900 German industrial and military strength was seen as the biggest threat to Britain's empire. Britain's policy of hostility to Russia was reversed. Into this space crept the separate states of Bulgaria, Rumania, Serbia and even tiny Montenegro and Albania. (The creation of these last two was intended by the imperialists to prevent Serbia becoming any kind of regional power). Of course all of these countries were mainly remarkable for their poverty. Their populations became the victims of the warmongering ambitions of their rulers. The resulting Balkan wars which unleashed the full horrors of 20th century warfare in Europe were also the prologue to WW1.

As to the Czarist empire, it was an even larger and more varied patchwork of ethnic minorities, language groups, religious traditions and social structures. The Czarist regime kept it together through a combination of repression, national opression and an omnipresent state bureaucracy. Not unlike the British empire in the same period, the tsar had a policy of buying out the goodwill of the local privileged by protecting them against peasants' uprisings and entrusting them with minor positions in his state machinery.

Unlike Eastern Europe, the tsarist regime remained largely untouched by the political turmoil triggered by the European wars and the Western European revolutions. Over centuries of relative stability, the duchy of Moscovy had expanded to cover a huge territory comprising a relatively homogeneous Russian-speaking population, thereby providing the Czarist empire with a relatively stable national basis.

This did not mean, however, that the Czarist regime had solved the national question any more than its European counterparts. Population figures in 1914 speak for themselves: out of a total 140 millions, the future Soviet Union territory comprised 75 millions Russians, 30 millions Ukrainians, 4.5 millions Bielorussians and 30 millions other non-slav peoples, split into well over a hundred language groups. Besides, what the Czarist empire did share with most of Eastern Europe, was the backwardness of its social structures and the utter deprivation of its peasantry. In some parts it was even so backward that over 8 millions people were still living in tribes.

WWI: the major powers share the spoils.

World War I marked a decisive defeat for Germany and its chief ally Austria-Hungary. The USA, along with Britain and France, dictated the peace terms in the treaty of Versailles. Under the disguise of allowing the self-determination of peoples, their intention was to prevent another rise of Germany and a repetition of the German-Austrian alliance. Thus Germany was to be handicapped by the payment of reparations which should have run into the 1980s. And the map of the Balkans was redrawn to complete the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary.... and thereby reopen the door for Anglo-French economic domination in the region. In the process, totally arbitrary borders were drawn, in a way not dissimilar to what was done in the Middle-East during the same period. They made no sense whatsoever, whether from an economic or an ethnic point of view. Some of their weirdest features, specially in Poland and Czechoslovakia, had mostly to do with the plans of Western mining companies. But overall the only rationale behind these new borders was to make the new states, and therefore the whole region, easyly controllable by Western European powers, while allowing Britain and France to share the spoils.

Thus a rump state of Austria was set up shorn of the Habsburg monarchy and the Tyrol was handed over as victor's spoil to the Italians. Being on the losing side, it was of course prevented from joining Germany. Hungary also became an independent state but lost Transylvania to Rumania, Croatia and Slavonia to the South Slav state of Yugoslavia and another region to the newly formed multi-national state of Czecho-slovakia. The two principal peoples of Yugoslavia, the Croats and the Serbs, though speaking broadly the same language, had different religions (Croats = Catholic, Serbs = Orthodox), the result of their having formed parts of the rival Austrian and Turkish empires for the previous 500 years. This also meant that they had a long history of fighting on opposite sides.

The victorious powers claimed the treaty of Versailles was all about setting up viable, democratically-run states. How impossible this was is shown by their histories during the inter-war years. Parliamentary democracy remained still-born in most cases. In those countries which were monarchies (as was the case in Yugoslavia, Rumania and Bulgaria) the kings made themselves into dictators. In Hungary and Poland military leaders (Admiral Horthy in Hungary and Marshal Pilsudski in Poland) fulfilled the same role. Without exception these were regimes which used violence and repression.

Only Czechoslovakia, the most industrialised of the Central European countries, was run by a parliamentary regime albeit of a rather authoritarian kind. But ethnic divisions and border quarrels with Poland and Hungary weakened the country even before the depression. And when Hitler's victory in Germany resulted in German territorial claims over the German speaking Sudeten region, the hatred of the Sudetens for the arrogance and greed of the Czek bourgeoisie gave credit to Hitler's demagogy.

Fundamentally the problems in each of these countries were the same. They were backward agrarian countries incapable of competing with the major industrial powers. A glance at some statistics from Yugoslavia, certainly not the most backward of these countries, gives an idea of the problems they faced. In 1938 the income per capita was less than one-fifth that of Germans; 75% of the population were still peasants and nearly 50% of the population was illiterate!

Olivia Manning's novel the "Balkan Trilogy" describes the backwardness and poverty of the Rumanian peasantry who were to be found right in the heart of the capital, Bucharest. Peasants laden with melons and aubergines would station themselves in the capital's largest park and not move until they had sold their produce for a pittance. Shunned for the most part by the city dwellers (themselves only one generation removed from the soil), they were forbidden entry into all but the meanest of cafes. The educated layers in Bucharest were meanwhile so few in number that it was considered perfectly normal for a young English lecturer at the university to be sitting on the next table to the Minister of the Interior when he visited a restaurant....

These countries were the Third World of Europe. There was no way they could have afforded both a parliamentary democracy and social stability, even less so after the economic crisis of the late 20's. Besides, these states were utterly unviable from an ethnic point of view. The carving out of their borders by the victors of WWI had created so many potential tensions between national minorities which were forced to live together without having chosen to while being divided between two, three or four countries sometimes, that a military dictatorship was probably the only way for many of these countries to prevent people's deprivation from resulting in permanent confrontations between nationalities.

The October Revolution and the national question

In the Czarist empire, the consequences of WWI were rather different. For one thing because the tsarist empire collapsed as a result of the February 1917 revolution. For another, because the proletariat took over power in October 1917.

But the proletarian revolution was largely a Western Russian event. With a few exceptions, such as Baku in Azerbaidjan or Kharkov in Ukraine, there were few industries elsewhere, and therefore hardly any working class. As a result, while the February revolution had created a political vacuum throughout the empire by destroying the apparent invincibility of the Czarist repressive machinery, the October revolution failed to fill this vacuum in most of the former empire. So that by the end of 1918, the territory controlled by the new workers' state was not much larger than the medieval duchy of Moscovy. In some areas, like Ukraine and Georgia, nationalist bourgeois governments had been set up. The Ottoman empire was trying to take over Azerbaidjan and Armenia. In other regions, local feudal lords were trying to set up their own local power.

After October, many in the Bolshevik party had argued that the new proletarian state only had to invade the rest of the Czarist empire and declare the dictatorship of the proletariat everywhere. Lenin took quite an opposite line, which was to become the Bolsheviks' policy. He argued that social changes could not be imposed on the oppressed populations of the former empire, that these populations had to be won over to the side of the proletariat and to join ranks with it consciously, as a result of their own choice, on the basis of their own aspirations and mobilisation. And if, for the time being, as a result of the backlog of hatred accumulated by the tsarist oppression, they aspired to have a separate existence, so be it. Recognising this right was the first step toward winning them over to the proletarian revolution.

Replying to his critics within the Bolshevik party, Lenin wrote at the time: "They tell us that Russia will be partitioned, will fall apart into separate republics, but we have no reason to fear this. However many independent republics there may be, we shall not be afraid. What is important for us is not where the state frontier passes, but that the union of workers of all nations shall be preserved for the struggle with the bourgeoisie of whatever nation." This summarised the policy he was arguing for. The problem was to get the poor masses to fight against their exploiters and, through this fight, to come to measure their strength and recognise the need to take power and to ally themselves with the new proletarian state. The only thing that mattered was the unity of the poor classes, across national divisions. And this unity could only be achieved on the basis of a voluntary choice.

Thus, one of the first steps taken by the revolutionary regime was the Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia, on 15 November 1917, which recognised the right for all peoples formerly oppressed by the tsarist empire to separate if they so wished. One month later the Third All-Russian Soviet conference re-affirmed the right of people to self-determination and the right of people to "decide whether to participate or not and to what extent in all federal institutions including the federal government".

This offer of independence was immediately seized by the nationalist leaders of Finland, Poland and the Baltic states, who were to remain outside the future Soviet Union, but also by those of Ukraine and Georgia. Meanwhile, throughout the future Soviet Union, and regardless of their national feelings, the poor peasants were taking to the letter another call issued by the new proletarian state which said "the land belongs to those who toil it", and initiating a land reform in their own way.

In the civil war which followed, involving a massive military intervention by the coalition of all the major capitalist countries, Lenin's policy turned out to be a decisive element. Everywhere the local nationalist bourgeois forces proved to be too weak to fight on their own. Either they rushed for Western military help or they welcome the tsarist generals and their white armies. In either case, the poor peasants were soon faced with ruthless repression and any expropriation of the big landowners they had started to implement was reversed. In the process they came to realise that, after all, despite their Russian base, the Bolsheviks and the proletarian state were their only allies. And the subsequent victories of the Red Army over the whites and the Western intervention, were not just the result of its fighting spirit. It was also due to the fact that the poor peasantry no longer supported the whites, when they did not organise guerillas against them.

After the end of the civil war, the Soviet Union was set up as a federation of republics whose relationships were based on mutually agreed treaties, all of which made provisions for the protection of national rights. But what really made up the "cement" between the various components of the new federation, was the social transformations which had been achieved, the expropriation of the private landlords.

The subsequent degeneration of the workers' state and Stalin's victory were to reverse these gains. Already, in 1921, Stalin had been blamed by the Bolshevik leadership for his heavy-handed methods in Georgia, where he had staged a military coup without taking any account of the national feelings of the population. This attitude became the rule rather than the exception under his regime. All the more so as, fearing any potential build up of organised opposition to his dictatorship, Stalin proved always extremely suspicious of any claim to national difference. As a result, many of the rights gained by the nationalities before 1924, were reversed one after the other in the following years, in particular the right to learn and speak national languages, thereby reviving the old nationalist bourgeois ideas which had been made obsolete by the revolution.

WWII: The spheres of influence are redefined.

The start of WW2 gave a new boost to nationalist feelings in the region. It is impossible to detail here what happened in each different country. But what can be said is that, in the face of the threat of the German invasion, the old nationalist forces more or less collapsed and ceased to represent existing national feelings.

As the invasion proceeded, many nationalist leaders saw the German occupation as an opportunity for them to gain the recognition they had failed to gain so far from the major powers by offering their help to the German army. While, in the countries which were not threatened by Germany, because their regimes were friendly to Hitler, like Hungary, other nationalist leaders turned to Germany hoping that Hitler might put pressure on the existing regimes. In the end, these nationalist leaders appeared as sharing the responsibility for the increased hardships experienced by ordinary people, either due to military occupation, or due to economic plunder by Germany. By contrast, the CP's appeared as the only ones to put up any resistance against the German and Italian armies and their local puppets. In a way, the CP's were thus seen as more effective nationalists than the traditional nationalist leaders. And indeed, they often were.

In Yugoslavia, for instance, the Croatian nationalists had set up the pro-German Ustachi regime, while a similar regime had been set up by the mainstream of Serbian nationalists. This opened a space for the Yugoslavian CP, one of the leaders of which was Tito (a Croatian), to appear and act as the only force capable of bringing all classes together to oppose the invaders. And because of its history, being relatively free from nationalist minority pressures, the CP was able also to develop a policy which embraced the whole of Yugoslavia. Their policy was in line with Stalin's "popular front" strategy, which aimed at mobilising the working class to support bourgeois democracy under the guise of fighting against "fascism".

Another example was provided by the Ukraine. In preparation for Ukraine's invasion, Hitler set up a Ukrainian Army under the former Ukrainian White General, Vlasov. The main bulk of the officers in this army were part of the old landlord class dating back to the pre-revolutionary days. The Ukrainian peasants saw this as a threat to their dearly-won possession of the land, Hitler's strategy backfired, and this pushed the Ukrainian peasantry to close ranks around the Soviet Union and organise rural guerillas behind German lines, which severely reduced supplies to the front.

With the defeat of Germany, Eastern Europe was left in shambles. The collapse or absence of state power in most Eastern Europe countries left the way open for the populations to claim their revenge. In all these countries, both the ruling classes in power and the nationalist forces in opposition were largely discredited. The situation was potentially explosive. And what if the poor population of the region started looking for another perspective, just like after WWI in the Czarist empire, only this time with national divisions being a lesser obstacle than at any point in the past?

It was to this threat that the Imperialist countries and the USSR applied themselves. At Yalta and Potsdam, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met to work out ways of pre-empting any risk of a post-war revolutionary crisis similar to that of 1917-1919.

The USSR and its Red Army were entrusted with the job of sorting out the problem in most of Eastern Europe while Britain and the USA were taking care of Southern and Western Europe. The main concern of the bureaucracy was to stifle any social unrest and certainly not to set up viable countries with homogeneous nationalities. On the contrary, the fact that the nationalities were split, right left and centre, by the existing borders rather fitted the aims of the Soviet bureaucracy, and those of Imperialism! In fact only two border changes were allowed by the Potsdam agreement: one involved shifting Poland westwards at the expense of Germany and to the benefit of the USSR and the other involved Bessarabia, so far a Rumanian province, becoming part of Ukraine. As to the others countries Stalin stuck to the letter to the borders established after WWI.

The first aim of the allies, was to fill the existing political vacuum by re-establishing bourgeois state machineries. And in order to do so, the red Army called back into office the old politicians of the inter-war period, many of whom were closely associated with the pre-war nationalist currents, as well as the old police and army. Not surprisingly, when in 1947 the USA offered Marshall Aid, many of these politicians tried to seize the opportunity thereby threatening Soviet dominance.

This led to a clampdown by the USSR and the setting up of new regimes which had a larger proportion of CP members but were based on the same middle class. In the case of Poland, Rumania and Hungary, the CP's incorporated part of the old peasants' parties. Where the CP's lacked a social basis and appeared too dependent on the Red Army, they often resorted to nationalist demagogy. In Poland, the CP zealously organised the displacement of the German population from the new western territories and their replacement with Poles. In Czecoslovakia, the Slovak stalinists proved particularly ruthless in chasing out tens of thousands of Hungarians, accusing them of collaboration with the German army.

In Yugoslavia, things took a different turn. Tito was not threatened by the Red Army at home. His regime could rely, for the time being, on a wide popular support due to his victory over the German army. He took step to enlarge Yugoslavia and turn it into a federation of Balkan states which would have included Bulgaria, Albania and Rumania (the initial project even included Greece, but this soon ceased to be an option due to British intervention in Greece). Stalin saw it as a challenge to the authority of the USSR, which it certainly was, and broke off with Tito in 1948. This episode certainly helped to reinforce Tito's prestige at home and to strengthen the newly-born Yugoslav national feelings, at least for a few years.

Meanwhile, in the USSR, the bureaucracy was tightening the screw again - a process which had in fact started with the first successes of the Red Army against the German troops. The war period had upset the bureaucracy's control over the population. Tens of millions of soldiers had been shifted around according to the requirements of the war effort. Restoring discipline among them and putting them back to work was not an easy task. Specially as many ex-soldiers wanted some form of reward for the hardships they had suffered during the war, and in any case not a return to their pre-war social conditions. This was even more the case in the regions which had been occupied by the German army - Bielorussia, Georgia, Ukraine, Crimea, in particular - where the bureaucracy's state machinery had been dismantled, or sometimes taken over, by the occupying army.

Building up on wartime spirit, the bureaucracy resorted to whipping up Great-Russian nationalism. It was a farce. All of a sudden the world was told that everything, from new ideas to scientific discoveries had been pioneered by some obscure Russian hero. But behind the farce was the bureaucracy's concern to counter the potential threat of social unrest emerging in the republics and among national minorities. As a pre-emptive strike, the whole population of the previously occupied areas was declared suspect. Extensive purges were conducted in the party, the state machinery and the economic apparatus. A majority of the existing cadres were purged and replaced with Russian nationals, partly out of defiance towards local people but often simply due to the fact that the purges were so extensive that there was hardly any qualified local candidates left.

However, just like before the outbreak of the war, the peak of the purges was reached with the mass displacement of whole national minorities. In Crimea, 2OO,000 Tatars were forcefully deported to Uzbekistan while Crimea was integrated in Ukraine. And in Chechen-Ingushetia, along the northern border of Georgia, 400,000 Chechen were deported to central Asia. These were only two of the seven national minorities deported by Stalin during the war period.

Nationalism kept alive by poverty and dictatorship

Beyond these differences, the whole region was to share the same poverty, the same rationing, and... the same kind of dictatorship, under Stalin's stooges in Warsaw or Prague as much as under Tito in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia suffered the fate of all Third World countries subjected to the world capitalist market, with the additional difficulty of having to face, at least up to the early 60's, the refusal of all Western financial institutions to provide any loan. The countries which remained within the Soviet block hardly benefited from it. Their economic relations were mostly with the USSR. There was hardly any attempt at working out a division of labour in terms of production between Eastern Europe countries that would have made their belonging to the Soviet block a distinct advantage. On the contrary, their economies remained tighly separate and it is only over the past decade that economic exchanges within Eastern Europe have increased. All in all, all Eastern Europe countries, with to an extent the exception of East Germany, remained backward countries.

On this background of poverty and in the absence of any class-based political opposition, the only focus for organisation of discontent with the regime were rather naturally the "old nationalisms". All the more so as the regimes, all too often, were quick to whip up feelings against minorities, or against the neighbouring countries, as a means to divert the attention of the population from their poverty.

On the other hand, as a result of the dominant position of the USSR, local national feelings were often overshadowed by anti-Soviet feelings. Thus, for instance, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, a section of the ruling layer initiated and took the head of a movement against the Soviet Union which claimed to maintain the country's so-called "socialist model". This was of course pure demagogy. By whipping up anti-Russian feelings, the real aim of Dubcek and his associates was to bring Czechoslovakia back into the western capitalist market by freeing itself from the Soviet orbit. In the process, the old antagonisms between the Czechs and the Slovaks seemed to momentarily disappear. But as we can see today this was but a temporary truce.

This was just as much the case in the USSR, in fact. Here national based cliques were used by the state leaderships in the various struggles for power which followed Stalin's death. Under Brezhnev, the build up of full-blown nationalist hierarchies were encouraged in some republics, particularly in Khazakhstan and Azerbadjan, and became important pillars of Brezhnev's own personal power. As a result, as early as the '70's, some leaders in these republics began to voice territorial claims over neighbouring regions.

Under the condition of dictatorship, it is not surprising that national identity should emerge as the "cement" between opponents to oppressive regimes. When no political propaganda, no circulation of ideas, are possible; when, in addition, no class-based politics and perspective are being offered, a common language, or common ethnic roots, provides a natural common ground and may seem to have a broader appeal for those who want to fight the dictatorship. Thus the anti-Stalinist movement in the Ukraine took a nationalist form under the leadership of Grigorenko in the late 60's. Grigorenko did not see himself as a Ukrainian nationalist. His language and objectives were closer to left social democracy, even using the Russian Revolution as reference. But as he explained himself, the "specificity" of the Ukrainian tradition, seemed to him the only starting point in a situation where no political expression was allowed or tolerated. Which of course only ended up re-inforcing an even re-vamping the old Ukrainian nationalism at the expense of the socialist-minded orientation promoted by Grigorenko and his comrades.

So, while during all that period spanning from WW2 to the present day, anti-Russian or anti-Soviet feelings appeared on the forefront of the opposition in Eastern Europe and the USSR, all sorts of nationalist currents remained active underground. They were one of the vehicles through which people expressed their opposition to the dictatorship. But also, occasionaly, an instrument in the hands of warring factions among the ruling layers. And it was inevitable that at some stage these underground currents should re-surface.

The re-emergence of nationalism in Eastern Europe...

Undoubtedly the collapse of the dominance of the USSR over Eastern Europe, has opened up a new era, in which all the tensions which had been previously concealed in various ways have been brought to the fore almost simultaneously.

Far from solving the economic problems experienced by the former People's Democracies, it has made them worse. The Soviet market used to absorb much of the Eastern Europe's industrial production. This came to an end the day Eastern European governments started demanding payment in hard currency. Why should Soviet companies carry on buying these low-quality products when they could get better ones at comparable prices in the West? Likewise the cheap raw materials, particularly petrol, coal and gas, that used to be imported in large quantities from the Soviet Union, ceased to be available. Whether because of the collapse of oil production in the Soviet Union or because of the Soviet demand that oil should be paid in hard currencies, Soviet oil exports to Eastern European countries have been slashed by two-thirds over the past two years. These two factors account for most of the drastic collapse of Eastern Europe's production since the fall of the Berlin wall: 60% in Rumania, over 30% in Poland, more than 20% in the relatively better-off Hungary.

Intervening at a time when the world economic crisis has narrowed down the world market, the cost was enormous. Inflation has gone up to south-American style rates, reaching over 1400% a year in Yugoslavia and over 600% in Poland. Soon followed by unemployment rising, according to official figures, to 11% in Poland this year and nearly 14% in Yugoslavia last December.

All of a sudden, the Eastern European populations have been confronted directly with the drastic pressures of the world market. Instead of the capitalist affluence promised by their pro-capitalist politicians, the former People's Democracies found themselves in the position of many Third World countries. There are no shanty-towns yet, although some working-class districts of Rumania already fit this description. But there are extensive slum districts in which unemployment together with the lack of social benefits are already taking a heavy toll.

And this time, there is no way the new regimes can point to the USSR as being the culprit. They can blame the previous regimes, but for how long? Take the recent general election in Poland, with no party, not even those supporting the acting Prime minister or Walesa, managing to get more than 13% of the vote. Taking the low turn out into account, this means that no political party in Poland is able to secure the support of more than 5.2% of the electorate! Which probably goes a long way to showing the disenchantment of the Polish electorate for their politicians.

In such a desperate situation, the ruling class and their politicians can prove to be prepared to use the crudest demagogy in order to divert the attention of the population away from their poverty.

This is the logic behind the anti-semitic accents of many Polish politicians, including Walesa himself. Just as it is the logic behind the rise of anti-immigrant demonstrations in the former Eastern Germany - because in East-Germany too, behind the spontaneous flare of anger among disorientated working class youth, there are politicians trying to whip up nationalist and racist prejudices to divert the attention of young workers away from their increasing deprivation. But in some other countries, the phenomenon is already far more advanced.

Rumania, for instance, has become a battlefield between Hungarian ethnic politicians who demand the separation of Transylvania from Rumania and its reintegration into Hungary, and Rumanian nationalists. A new fascist-type organisation was set up in February 1990, "Vatra Romaneasca" (Rumanian home). Its programme is summarised in 2 points: the deportation of the 2 million Hungarians and of the 2 million Gypsies living in Rumania; the setting up of a "Greater Rumania" which, besides present day Rumania, would include the former Soviet Union republic of Moldavia, together with Ukrainian provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovin. This could be just the program of yet another sect of nutcases, if it was not for the fact that "Vatra Romaneasca" has a daily paper whose circulation is over 500,000 and that its gangs of uniformed armed thugs are more and more frequently seen going on the rampage in the streets of Timisoara.

In Hungary, despite its continuing but shrinking relative prosperity, some nationalist groups represented in Parliament have taken anti-Gypsy demagogy. And the government itself, bowing to the pressure of the nationalist groups, is whipping up nationalist feelings and promotes more and more the idea of a Greater Hungary which would integrate the Yugoslavian Vojvodina and the Rumanian Transylvania.

Even the most westernised of all Eastern Europe countries, Czechoslovakia, is contaminated. More and more politicians are now agitating in favour of this country being turned into a federation, not just between the Slovaks and the Czechs, but with separate states as well for the Bohemians and the Moravians. Behind this apparent federative approach lie much more complex aims and rivalries. And it would seem that this could quickly lead to a break-up of Czechoslovakia as we know it, which would probably involve a bitter struggle for the industrial basis and natural resources of the country, a struggle which, in a situation where national minorities are tightly intertwined, could lead in turn to Yugoslav-style confrontations.

... And in the Soviet Union

As to the USSR itself, the bloody confrontation between Armenians and Azeris over Nogorno-Karabakh was the first glaring example of what was in store. Nogorno-Karabakh is an Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaïdjan which won its status as an autonomous territory back in 1923. Despite problems occuring on and off over the decades between Armenia and Azerbaïdjan, the arrangement worked out for almost 70 years. If only because it was based on the close complementarity of the two republics' economies - Azerbaïdjan having the natural resources and manpower needed to operate Armenia's manufacturing industry. What broke up the status quo was the growing arrogance of the clique in power in Azerbaïdjan, a long-standing pillar of Brezhnev's power, and its claims over a bigger share of Armenia's industrial proceeds. The Azeri leadership tried to use Nogorno-Karabakh to put pressure on the Armenian republic. But this move quickly backfired with the emergence of a militant nationalist Armenian guerilla in Nogorno-Karabakh in the end of 1987. From this point the republic leaders on both sides kept upping the stakes for fear of being thrown out by more radical nationalist politicians. This led to the Soumgait anti-Armenian pogroms in February 1988 and to the massive intervention of the KGB forces who forcefully deported tens of thousands Armenians from the main Azeri towns. Two years later a new wave of anti-Armenian pogroms in Bakou led to another Soviet military intervention, which again failed to sort out anything. The conflict, which has already claimed several thousand deaths, has still to be solved, despite several attempted mediation engineered by Yeltsin who obviously feared a full scale confrontation. On both sides, tens of thousands of people, youth in particular, are now militarily organised in nationalist militias whose leaders could well get out of hand at some point. A fact worth noting is that in a recent industrial strike in Erevan, it was the National Armenian Movement militia which moved in to prevent the occupation of the plant by the strikers.

Other conflicts have developed. Sometimes initiated by the leaderships of some of the republics. The case of the Baltic states is best known. But there is also Georgia's grandiose "go-it-alone" policy and the Moldavian leadership's moves towards unification with Rumania. Others have been initiatied by national minorities often oppressed by other national minorities, like the Ossetian minority in Georgia.

Dozens of national minorities have declared independence, whether in the Republics or in Russia itself. Some were just ignored by central governments, like the independence of the Georgian province of Abkhaz. Some were met with immediate repression, like the Chechen-Ingushetia rebellion earlier this month, which ironically was led by a general Dudayev who had been in command of the Soviet Interior Ministry troops' intervention against the Baltic state nationalists two years before. This time, however, the Russian government reacted rather sharply - no doubt because of the huge oil reserves which exist in this autonomous republic. Most of these conflicts have not reached the point of an open civil war like between the Armenians and the Azeris. But the possibility of similar developments, or worse, cannot be ruled out.

The material basis of these national tensions in the Soviet Union is pretty much the same as in Eastern Europe: drastic economic difficulties due, in the Soviet Union, to the disruption of the Union's economic machinery caused by millions of aspiring capitalists within the bureaucracy.

But there is also an additional factor, probably even stronger in the Soviet Union than anywhere in Eastern Europe, and that is the ruthless fight for power which is taking place all over the Union, and at every level, among the privileged of the regime. Today, as far as they are concerned, positions are open for taking, but there is no knowing what tomorrow will be made of. So, from top to bottom of the bureaucracy, millions of individuals who happen to be in a position of authority, are desperately trying to make their position safe and, if possible, to improve it. And if it so happens that whipping up nationalist feelings locally can help them in any way, they are quite prepared to turn into nationalist leaders, that is for those who have not yet chosen that road a long time ago. As a result, every republic, every autonomous territory, every ethnic minority, becomes a stake in the fight between warring factions in the bureaucracy, and a potential springboard to seize power.

The nationalist dead end

But are all these Soviet and Eastern European politicians choosing consciously to risk an open war like in Yugoslavia, if not worse? Probably not. But were the Serbian and Croatian nationalist leaders bent on preparing the present conflict, in which there can be only losers? Highly unlikely.

The point is that whipping up nationalist feelings has its own logic. Once the tide is unleashed, the nationalist leaders are faced with only two possibilities: either go along with the tide and ride it, or be wiped away and replaced by more "radical" nationalists. So, in Yugoslavia, Milosevic has to go to the bitter end for fear of being replaced by a military coup if not by the "White Eagles".

Of course not all of these nationalist movements have to end up in a bloodshed, although the more numerous they are the greater the threat of an overall conflagration. But even if they were to avoid bloodshed, what do these nationalist leaders have to offer to the populations?

Take the richest of the former Soviet republics, the Baltic states. Their hope is clearly to re-integrate the German-Scandinavian regional market which they were part of before WWII and in which they can aspire to play the role of intermediary with the Soviet market. But can they? Is there space for them?

The present difficulties of capitalist Finland, which used to play exactly this role up to 1989, can only cast many doubts as to such a possibility. In less than two years, Finland's production has gone down by over 30%, most of which is due to the breakup of the complex bartering system which existed between Finland and the USSR, whereby the Soviet Union bought Finnish industrial products with raw materials and energy. The disruption of the Soviet production apparatus and its desperate search for hard currencies have brought this system to an end. Finland has tried to find new markets, particularly for its almost brand new heavy metal industry. To no avail. The world market is already saturated and above all tightly controlled by the major imperialist powers.

So the chances of the Baltic states, with a much more modest and obsolete productive capacity, appear rather slim. Economic asphyxy is a real threat for these states, even more so than for Finland. Unless they can cut down production costs, in other words the standards of living of their working class, to such an extent as to appear as attractive to Western investors as, say South-Korea or the Philippines. And even then, there is no guarantee: the attempts made in that direction by countries like Portugal or Ireland have been resounding failures. Western capitalists tend to be more choosy about the social environment in which they invest their money than nationalist leaders usually expect, even more so in the context of today's deepening world crisis.

The Baltic nationalists' promises of a new Eden are therefore more likely to turn into the nightmare of empoverishment. And the majority of the Baltic population stand to reach, rather too late, the bitter conclusion that if there was a Lithuanian or Latvian way to prosperity, it was only meant to benefit the very narrow layer of privileged who managed to be in the right positions at the right time. And that, as to the rest of the population, the Baltic dream looks rather similar to the old Soviet nightmare, if not much worse.

But if the relatively well-off Baltic states cannot rise out of poverty on their own steam, what of the much poorer Russian republics like Georgia or Azerbaidjan, what of still half-rural countries like Rumania or Bulgaria. What their nationalist rulers have in store for them is rather like, at best, the same old poverty, and at worst, a return to the beginning of this century. Not to mention the crazy dreams of independant micro-states, whether Croatian, Albanian, Ossetian, or otherwise.

The harsh reality of the imperialist epoch, particularly at a time when it is plunging deeper and deeper into a world crisis, is that it leaves no space for the development of any smaller independent economy. And those who take the risk can only end up joining the ranks of the Third World, that of the slaves of capital.

For a proletarian policy

In today's conditions, there is little to change to Lenin's approach to the national question. Hence, however reactionary and detrimental in the short as in the long run, separation can be, there can be no question of denying this right to the ethnic and national minorities of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Because, for us, to use Lenin's words once again, what is important is that "the union of workers of all nationas hall be preserved for the struggle with the bourgeoisie of whatever nation".

But at the same time, the duty of communists is to express the interests of the working class as a whole, including of those workers who belong to national minorities. And it is the duty of revolutionaries to warn these workers against the traps which their nationalist leaders are laying under their feet. It is our duty to try to convince these workers that they have more in common with their fellow workers, regardless of which language they speak, than with nationalist leaders whose only aspiration is to become their only exploiters.

And it is our duty to warn workers against the reactionary nature of all nationalist movements in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Reactionary in the sense that nationalism can only push the working classes and the poor populations of this region further down the road of poverty and exploitation. In the sense that none of these nationalist movements are classless, despite what they claim. On the contrary they are a device for sections of the privileged to increase their privileges; they are the expression of the frustration of intellectuals, businessmen, professionals, functionaries who dream of having more than just a share of the cake, who want to have their own cake, and who feel confident that they can always increase the size of the cake given the chance, on the backs of the exploited that is.

The exploiters are prepared to play the card of independence simply because they know that even if it narrows down the economy on which they live, they can always step up the exploitation of the working masses to make up for the losses. Not so for the working class. Having no-one to exploit, workers cannot have any interest in narrowing down their economic environment, in giving up access to sources of energy, of raw material and other social wealth.

No, there can be nothing progressive in carving out new smaller and even less viable states and borders, just for the sake of knowing that your exploiters, at least, speak the same language as you do! Nor can there be anything progressive in setting up a Greater Rumania, a Greater Hungary or a Greater Albania. Such states have never existed in the past. Putting them together today, would not be any less artificial or any more viable than maintaining the existing "patchwork" states.

However, where national oppression has been a long-standing and painful burden suffered by whole populations, like is the case of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria or the Gypsies in Hungary and Rumania, for instance, the backlog of resentment may be too severe and separation may be considered an absolute necessity by all classes in these minorities, including among workers. In such cases, the least communists can do is to recognise their right to separation but saying at the same time to the workers concerned: declare your independence from those who have been your oppressors as a national group, but do not give up fighting for your independence against those who have been and will carry on being your oppressors as workers!

And this is not because we think that national minorities should swallow their pride and past humiliations for the sake of the interests of humanity as a whole. On the contrary, if we take this stand and if we insist that social oppressions should be seen as the main target, rather than national oppressions, it is because we know, as history has tought us time and time again in the past, that the most radical nationalists often turn out to be the most vicious national chauvinists. The fact that such a celebrated radical nationalist as Georgia's president Ghamsakurdia has his hands stained with the blood of the South Ossetian minorities is not a coincidence.

Simply because ruling layers, whose privileges are based on social oppression, on the exploitation of the working masses, always seek other means of consolidating and increasing their privileges - and national oppression is one of these means, because it divides the ranks of the exploited and provides a justification for stepping up the exploitation of at least one section of the population. Whereas, as was shown in the early years of the Russian revolution, the sort of proletarian democracy that was implemented by the Russian soviets, would be a barrier against all form of privileges, whether social privileges or privileges based on national or linguistic status. It would be the best guarantee that the right of all people to self-determination is upheld.

National-based bourgeois democracies, even more so dictatorships, can only lead to increased isolation, for the sake of maintaining the privileges of their respective national ruling layers. Whereas there would be nothing to prevent a proletarian democracy which has no privileges to protect, from seeking to establish democratic relations with other peoples, other nations, thereby opening the way for the establishment of a federation of peoples, based on their own free choice, which would provide the large-scale economic framework needed to escape the poverty trap.

This is why only the proletariat, by taking power into its own hands, can solve the national question in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Only the proletarian revolution, by opening the way to a free socialist federation of peoples in the region, can end once and for all the permanent bloody conflict that has been looming for over a century.

Of course, seeing the present events in Yugoslavia can lead people to think that this is all pie in the sky. But did it seem any less pie in the sky, when the Russian Bolsheviks argued these same points, back in 1916, in the middle of a world war in which whole working classes were being thrown at each other's throats, both in the rich Western countries and in backward Eastern Europe and Russia? If anything, many people must have thought at the time, with much more reasons than today, that the Bolsheviks were day-dreamers. And yet, one year later their dream became true.

True, there are no Bolsheviks anywhere today. But there may be tomorrow. In any case that is what we are aiming at. And in the meantime, or rather in the process of achieving this aim, there need to be people thinking in terms of a proletarian perspective in all this bloody mess which seems flooded with reactionary ideas. And this is the point of view that we can and should take in front of these events.

Rewriting history is an impossible and pointless task, even more so without having the full knowledge of the situation. So we will not pretend that we know what policy could have successfully prevented the present dead end in the region.

But take Yugoslavia. It only takes to listen to immigrant Yugoslav workers living in Western Europe to understand that there were possibilities and to imagine the broad lines of what could have a revolutionary proletarian policy not very long ago. For instance, many of them would tell you enthusiastically how impressed they were by the huge wave of strikes that spread throughout the country in 1988-90. Could these strikes have been so effective and so militant without the active participation of workers belonging to all nationalities? Where did the strength of the working class lie at the time, if not in the fact that they did not allow national divisions, or any other divisions for that matter, to split their ranks? And where did today's nationalist leaders, both Serb and Croatian, stand at the time? If not on the other side of the barricade, with the bosses, the police and the state which they were all part of. Is the memory of these events already lost? Have workers already forgotten who their real allies and enemies at the time? It is doubtful. Just as doubtful as the nationalist enthusiasm which, according to Western journalists, spans over all classes in the country. What, for instance, could attract Serbian workers in the same camp as the "White Eagles" whose royalist elements were notoriously busy trying to break their strikes at the time?

There is no shortage of such arguments which must have been in the back of the minds of many Yugoslav workers while they were seeing this crazy nationalist tide rising. Was it then impossible to raise these arguments in order to regroup those workers who were not prepared to buy the nationalist lies? Was it impossible to try to open up another perspective, by exposing the mirages of affluence floated around by the nationalists, by countering them with the objective of a united Yugoslavia, where all communities would have had equal rights, but free of all the parasites who have plagued its economy for so long and under the collective control of its working population?

And when it came to the first nationalist gang operations against isolated villages, was it impossible to protect these villages from the nationalist thugs by organising democratic armed militias, under the control of the villages' inhabitants, which would have brought together all the communities. Certainly that would have re-inforced the links between the communities and probably it would have led the thugs to think twice before trying their luck again.

Was such a policy practicable? Would it have been successful in rallying the ranks of workers and in opposing the nationalist drive? It is impossible to say since it was not tried to our knowledge. But what we can say is that it would have been worth trying such a policy clearly based on the defence of the unity and collective interests of the working class against the nationalist demagogues. Of course, implementing such a policy would have required the existence of a revolutionary communist organisation with already at least a certain amount of political experience and a good deal of political and physical courage.

Likewise in the Russian republics or autonomous regions which seem now dominated by bourgeois forces bent on using national resentment to establish their own power against that of the rest of the former Soviet Union. Would it be impossible, even more so today than yesterday, to argue that democracy, and democracy for nationalities, do not require a return to the sort of fundamentalist, often religious, backwardness advocated by the nationalists. That rather than being a step back in the past, it can be a step forward to the future. That all privileges must be scrapped first, particularly those of the old bureaucrats who call themselves nationalists today. That what must be prevented is the establishment of new privileges through the attempt of would-be capitalists to take over for their own benefit the state industries and agricultural farms built and developped by the working masses throughout the union. That there is nothing contradictory in opposing all national privileges while, at the same time, making the best of the huge existing Soviet production machinery for the benefit of all nationalities by freeing it of the permanent plunder of the bureaucracy. That on the contrary, the latter is a prerequisite for the former, in particular because it would provide a viable basis for the political independence of the nationalities wishing to gain it.

As these two examples show, what is lacking today is not possible proletarian policies, opening up the perspective of a new future, but people, militants, organisations, to fight for such policies. But no doubt, there will be at some point. Simply because, despite all the reactionary nonsense spread nowadays by the bourgeois media, here as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, more than ever the proletariat holds in its hands the key to the future of humanity; more than ever it is the only force in society, either there or here, capable of opposing the perspective of a rational future to the repelling capitalist prospect of irrational and bloody confrontations. And while the re-emergence of nationalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is a temporary setback, it can only make the proletarian revolution stand out even more as the only possible option for society.