Federica Prina, June 2017

The transition from Communist to post-Communist states in Eastern Europe was accompanied by fears of inter-ethnic strife: the wars in the Balkans and Chechnya (as well as the lesser-known conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Transnistria) did not augur well for a region at the cross-roads of history. In particular, the suddenness and vehemence of the Yugoslav wars led to concerns of a possible domino effect across Eastern Europe. Ultimately inter-ethnic intolerance has been less common than people might have thought in the early 1990s, while instances of armed conflict have been (fortunately) relatively infrequent. Yet recent events in Ukraine bear witness to the fact that ethnicity can be manipulated for political ends, in a manner that often resonates with people with a history of discontent vis-à-vis other ethnic groups.

If in the 1990s ‘the West’ feared the ‘Balkanisation’ of Eastern Europe, post-Communist societies were alarmed at the political uncertainty created by a sudden power vacuum. Local grievances were at last free to come to the surface and translate into ethno-political mobilisation. What strategies could lead to better chances for peace and stability?

It is in this context that national cultural autonomy (NCA) was judged to be a viable option in some post-Communist countries. The idea of NCA had been developed at another significant historical junction: the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is based on the ‘personality principle’, the brainchild of Austro Marxists Karl Renner and Otto Bauer. The notion was opposed to the ‘territoriality principle’, by which the rights of members of particular ethnicities could be upheld only in ‘their own’, designated regions. What about persons belonging to same ethnicity yet located outside such territories? As Renner argued in 1899:

[F]or the Czech worker who is forced to migrate […] by the laws of supply and demand – and there are many of them – it is of the greatest importance to be able to establish Czech educational associations and to claim legal protection […] from his own nation […]. [I]t would also be a matter of importance for the German officer garrisoned in a Galician town to be able to demand of his nation, to whose burdens he contributes, the provision of German school lessons for his children.  

According to the NCA model, an ethnic group’s cultural rights would not be enjoyed only in specific regions, where the group constituted a numerical majority, but anywhere in the state. Arrangements would be made at the ‘micro-level’, in the shape of national councils consisting of members of particular ethnic groups. Cultural rights would be satisfied though the autonomous management of schools and local administration, which would operate in local languages. In order to formalise membership of a particular nation, individuals would add their names to ethnic registers, on the basis of self-identification. Funds paid in taxes would then be channelled to the sustenance of the taxpayers’ local administration, schools and cultural programmes. This way, individuals could opt to be full members of a particular nation regardless of location, in the same way that religious denominations unite all their members no matter where they reside. Ethnic communities outside ‘their’ territories would no longer be ‘minorities’ in a situation of inferiority and vulnerability, as they would manage independently their own affairs in the cultural sphere. The state would, instead, be responsible for non-cultural (political and largely ethnicity-neutral) matters, including defence and economic policies. Thus, the separation of ‘the cultural’ from ‘the political’ was seen as key to the resolution of inter-ethnic tensions.

Unusual though these ideas may seem today, in the context of recent debates on multiculturalism, the NCA model has raised the interest of many: could it be an alternative to the ‘nation-state’? Indeed, the concept of the ‘nation-state’ has come under attack, as it implies a convergence of political and ethnic boundaries, which has historically been a rarity, if not a utopia. With the increase in opportunities to travel and to be connected with multiple communities, particularly through social media, the one-nation-one-state formula appears increasingly obsolete.

The principle of NCA had been proposed by the Austro-Marxists shortly before another upheaval in European politics: the Bolshevik revolution. The Bolsheviks (and other political forces before the Bolsheviks prevailed) needed to think of solutions to the ‘national question’: how to come to terms with the ethnic mosaic in the territory that later became the Soviet Union? Yet the NCA model was ultimately set aside by Lenin, on the grounds that it would create multiple ruptures within the proletariat, by dividing it along ethnic lines. By contrast, Estonia adopted a law on NCA in 1925, during an interlude of independence (1920-1940) before its annexation by the Soviet Union. This law has been regarded as highly progressive, yet it was short-lived and did not survive the Soviet takeover.

With the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the NCA model, surprisingly enough, was rediscovered in Eastern Europe, as a strategy for the management of ethnic diversity in the post-Communist context. Laws on NCA were adopted in Hungary (1993), Estonia (1993), Russia (1996), and Serbia (2009). Let’s take a closer look at first three cases, which have had over two decades of experimentation with NCA.  

In Russia hundreds of national cultural autonomies (NCAs) have been established since 1996, at the local, regional, and, in some cases, the federal level. This has not caused the disintegration of Russia’s ethnic federalism: ethnic republics continue to exist, while NCAs are created by non-titular groups, or by representatives of titular groups who however reside outside ‘their own’ territory (e.g. Tatar communities outside the Republic of Tatarstan, one of the regions of the Russian Federation). Effectively any group of persons declaring to represent a minority, no matter how small, in a particular area, can register an NCA, and engage in cultural (yet apolitical) activities. In Hungary the legislation enables the creation of nationality self-governments (NSGs) in a settlement where at least 25 people have declared to belong to one of the recognised nationalities. Members of NSGs are established through democratic elections held at the same time as local elections. NSGs are established at three levels: local settlement, regional and national levels. In Estonia NCAs have been established by only Ingrian Finnish and Swedish minorities. The adoption of the NCA law in Estonia has been presented as the reintroduction of the model of the liberal 1925 NCA law – linking it to a historical legacy that had been interrupted by Soviet intervention.

Clearly, the three countries have highly different, and distinctive, features: Russia’s enormous size combined with extremely high levels of heterogeneity (official figures indicate over 170 ethnic groups, including indigenous peoples); Hungary’s numerous co-ethnics outside the country; and Estonia’s presence of a substantial number of ethnic Russians and other Russophone minorities, but with a twist: ethnic Russians are not associated to a position of vulnerability often common to numerical minorities, but in the eyes of many Estonians still represent former colonisers. Meanwhile, the Russian language in Estonia is far from being marginal, and spoken by a small minority.

What does the experience of NCA in these countries tell us? First, the establishment of ethnic institutions bears witness to the importance of ethnicity in these societies, and the essentialist reading of it. This essentialism originates from German Romanticism and its approach to the nation, characterised by a primordial link between the individual and the group to which s/he belongs, and the group’s underlying (fixed) traits. Such views were reinforced during the Soviet period by, among other things, the recording in one’s passport of one’s ethnicity (natsional’nost’), crystallising an exclusivist type of ethnic identity: the passport could record only one ethnicity - in the same way that the NCA model foresees each individual choosing one form of ethnic belonging. Thus, on the one hand, the NCA laws of the 1990s uphold the liberal principle of ethnic belonging on the basis of self-identification, and thus free choice as to whether one is a member (or not) of a particular ethnic group. On the other, there is a residual primordialism, apparent, for example, when public debates in Hungary refer to ‘blood brothers’ to indicate co-ethnics. The laws also do not foresee options for multiple ethnic affiliations. The emphasis on the (ethnic) group leads to effectively its taking precedence over the individual, often with assumptions of common traits, uniting group’s members. This ‘groupism’, in turn, reinforces the view of groups as internally homogeneous collectives.

Second, NCA revitalises a discourse of equality for all groups – although this has taken up different meanings in the three countries. In Russia it is consistent with the principle of self-determination espoused by the Soviets, in the sense that no nationalities may be repressed by other ethnic groups, and that all can (and should) develop to become constituent members of society. In Hungary, by contrast, the concept of equality has been synonymous with the notion of historical justice for all, by reversing the anti-democratic legacy of Communism. This approach further places an emphasis on Hungarian co-ethnics in neighbouring countries0, who ought not to be denied the rights to which they are entitled as members of the Hungarian nation (this raises the question as to for whom the NCA law was adopted: Hungary’s minorities, or Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries?). In Estonia equality has represented a reaction to Sovietisation, itself strongly associated with Russification.

Third, the introduction NCA indicates a drive for the state to streamline interaction with minority organisations – rather than dealing with multiple institutions. The one-institution-one-minority mode of inter-ethnic relations is consistent with an esseatialist/groupist approach to ethnicity. And, while streamlining debates might bring more efficiency to the negotiating table, it raises issues of internal democracy, if the interaction between the state and ‘the minority’ is monopolised by ethnic entrepreneurs - who may seek to become involved in these processes for personal, opportunistic reasons.

Fourth, the NCA system in the three cases denotes a depoliticisation of ethnic identity, by confining the rights of national minorities to the cultural sphere. In practice, political rights largely remain an asset of the majority: this is the case in Russia and Estonia, but also so in Hungary, despite the fact that the formation of nationality self-governments ostensibly involves a political process. The three cases present similarities in the form of a largely descriptive, rather than substantive, form of representation in state institutions. Descriptive representation is based on the assumption that members of a national minority will automatically be in a position to represent the rest of the group on the grounds of their having the same ethnic background. As a consequence, representatives of ethnic minority groups may be involved in political processes and/or consultation, but they do not necessarily act to advance minority interests and rights.

Fifth, restrictions around the political role of NCA and minority institutions suggest that these mechanisms can effectively be employed as an instrument for the (top-down) management of (troublesome) diversity, when ethnic heterogeneity is seen as impairing state-building or state consolidation. Indeed, NCA has been (re-)introduced in the three countries in a securitised context, and, as noted, effectively treated as an antidote to instability. In Russia it has been embraced amidst fears of state dismemberment that may have derived from the multiplication of Chechen scenarios. In the case of Estonia, a securitised discourse serves the purpose of breaking up a substantial Russophone population into smaller ethnic groups (while ethnic Russians have been unable to establish a Russian NCAs). Securitisation is also present in the Hungarian debate, although here the object is not the Hungarian state, but Hungarian communities outside Hungary. This last point reveals a difference between the Russian and Hungarian cases: while Russian-speakers in the post-Soviet space might have acquired, under Putin, a significant role in facilitating Russia’s geopolitical pursuits in the near abroad, the main concern in the 1990s was instability within the newly-formed Russian Federation.

The foregoing explains the existing reservations relating to the dubious effectiveness of NCA mechanisms. They have at times been rejected as inadequate by persons belonging to minorities themselves - for different reasons. In Hungary members of the Roma minority have pointed to the fact that a mechanism focusing on cultural rights cannot resolve issues linked to their discrimination and marginalisation, as NCA is not part of a broader strategy for social integration. Also in Hungary, the Jewish community has rejected the ethnic understanding of Jewishness, and the group’s classification as a national minority. In Estonia many ethnic Russians have dismissed NCA as inadequate, given that it can only benefit citizens: many Russians in Estonia have not acquired Estonian citizenship, while they are also not generally regarded as a national minority (as many Estonians see it, how can their former occupiers be treated as a vulnerable group in need of protection?). That of ‘national minority’ is also a label rejected by Estonia’s Russians themselves, who wish to have an equal voice in the state-building process. Finally, in Russia, while the introduction of (non-territorial) NCA has not resulted in the abolition of existing territorial arrangements, the trend since the 2000s has been one of centralisation and cultural standardisation. This has implied an erosion of the rights of (territorial and non-territorial) ethnic institutions.

The jury is still out. The question remains whether NCAs can genuinely assist national minorities in promoting their rights in the post-Communist space (and beyond), or whether they are fighting a hopeless battle - being ill-equipped to resist their governments’ resolve to squeeze diverse societies into the nation-state mould.