The main interest of your field trip to the meadows of Ukrainian identity building lies in meeting people of and in Ukraine. Is it an occupational disease when I relate my observations to scholarly literature? I’m afraid so – and it’s also an occupational disease to sit in a Poltawa café writing blog entries rather than to enjoy the remarkably colored trees in the sun. Autumn has come.
Strangely enough, I read Francis Fukuyama when preparing for Ukraine. About a generation ago, Fukuyama provoked some 105% of transition scholars – and many more beyond that specific research community – by equaling the “end of history” with liberal democracy. In theoretic terms, I always thought that Fukuyama had a point, even if I felt that he should have invested more in discussing different types of democracies. The main problem, however, was Fukuyama’s weak forecast potential. Not only did many political leaders in the notoriously autocratic continents of the world care less about the theoretic inferiority of their respective regimes. Even worse, we today know that many populations are quite content with their autocratic leaders.
In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Fukuyama now brought up a new argument that will probably provoke controversy. In 24 pages, he presents a short version of a book he is about to publish; his article is titled „Against Identity Politics“. With a certain focus on the United States, Fukuyama complains about the triumph of identity politics. He does not put into question the right of certain groups to bring up identity issues, as is the case in most of the critical literature on identity politics. In contrast, he salutes the demands of ethnic minorities, women, and indeed all marginalized groups as “both understandable and necessary” (99). His skepticism is on a different level. In a nutshell, Fukuyama is afraid that the ground for democratic compromise is significantly reduced if societies define themselves as “an ever-widening circle of marginalized minorities” (99).
This has become so, Fukuyama argues, because identity politics “as practiced by the left” (…) “has stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right” (101). This has happened up to a point where even millionaires like Donald Trump can serve as symbols for the alleged deprivation of American white men – who may have lost some of their relative supremacy in the US, but who still on average belong to the privileged part of the country. The results of the overall fallback on group identities are “endless fragmentation” (113) and a complete polarization of politics.
In order to get back to less polarized democracies, Fukuyama proposes a more unified future of democratic life by means of civic assimilation. With this, he means to (re-)establish national democracies whose populations are able to oversee common matters in order to escape over-fragmentation. Instead, he aims for people that “can imagine their countries as better places that support increasing diversity yet that also embrace a vision for how diversity can serve common ends and support liberal democracy rather than undermine it” (114).
It is not hard to predict that Fukuyama’s book will be heavily criticized, as happens with any piece or author that takes a skeptical position towards leftist identity politics. Be that as it may, I want to argue that Fukuyama has a point when we turn our attention to a case which he probably did not think about in the first place: contemporary Ukraine.
For decades, the latent friction between the russophone and ukrainophone populations has not led to open conflict. Wherever our groups traveled, people would tell us that they tolerate each others’ language preferences. The famous article 10 of the Constitution of 1996 showed a lot of good will, stating Ukrainian as the state language and guaranteeing the “free development, use, and protection of Russian and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine”. The language policy, although always an object of discussion, symbolized a general path of reconciliation in a country with exceptional problems in the social and economic spheres.
After Euromaidan, however, this balance has been more and more endangered by Ukrainian political authorities. Particular issues have arisen in language, education, and memory policies. Steps are taken to sideline persons who do not share ethno-ideological nationalist Ukrainian beliefs.
Of course, experts know the examples, but they are worth being repeated. With regard to language policy, several steps have been taken to make it harder for the non-russophone population to use their native language. School education now needs to be completely in Ukrainian, but the new language law also concerns universities, in particular in the Ukrainian east and its long russophone tradition. Teaching and writing in Ukrainian, however, is not the only issue. During our field trip to Charkiw and Poltawa, scholars have admitted in private talks that they are careful in including Russian books into their syllabi as they might get problems from nationalist deans or university rectors. Self-censorship has started, which I see as troubling.
Another field where Ukrainian politicians and intellectuals work at denying others the right to speak is decommunization policy. Four laws have been enacted to eradicate the Communist past from Ukrainian past. The notorious Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance has employed in several activities to defend war crimes committed by Ukrainians during Nazi and Soviet occupation. It is headed by Volodymyr Viatrovych who has published contentious books which are widely judged as lacking academic value. The most recent coup of Ukrainian memory politics is the introduction of an army oath that has been used during World War II by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists which committed war crimes mainly against Poles and Jews.
Many Ukrainians, especially from the nationalist camp, have argued that these policies are more problematic in the eyes of Western observers than in Ukraine itself. And there is a point. The status of the Russian language, for example, seems to be important to only one percent of the Ukrainian population. These observations do not fall in line with our experiences during the last days, but we only have scattered and very partial evidence.
Also, there is a general lack of mutual trust in Ukraine, but the attitude of the Ukrainian population towards Russia stays surprisingly high at 40%. The will for reconciliation is even higher on the interpersonal level. 67% of the Ukrainians hold a positive attitude toward Russians. Attitudes towards Russians in Russia and russophone Ukrainians within Ukraine therefore seem to be much higher than approval rates of all Ukrainian politicians. This includes President Poroshenko whose approval rate has dropped from 63% in April 2014 to 14% in December 2017.
The way in which the russophone population is step by step deprived of its cultural rights opens the door wide open for feelings of non-recognition – and they are the core reason for oppressed groups to engage in identity politics. The civic patriotism of all parts of the Ukrainian population that we could witness after the events of 2014 cannot be held up if a part of these patriotic citizens is systematically alienated. It is hard to imagine that the russophone population of Ukraine „can imagine their countries as better places“ (this was Fukuyama’s phrase) with this sort of language and memory politics. Winter is coming.
While Fukuyama’s analysis seems appropriate, his focus on assimilation is somewhat inappropriate if we look at states with a multinational configuration. It is neither realistic nor normatively acceptable to propose that the russophone population of Ukraine simply „assimilates“ – as Fukuyama has proposed – with its ukrainophone counterpart. This also accounts for civic aspects of belonging. Many Ukrainians have family ties to Russia which makes them subject to two different legal spheres – think of family relationships and, for example, norms of heritage. We therefore need to enrich Fukuyama’s argument by an approach that is aware of multinational states that allow for assimilation in multinational contexts.
Such an approach exists. More than twenty years ago, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan presented a study titled „Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation.“ In their book, they established statehood as a key variable for democratic consolidation: “modern democratic governance is inevitably linked to stateness” (28). If democratizing states have a multinational character, they face serious pitfalls for the development of democracy. There is no doubt that Ukraine is a multinational state.
Linz and Stepan distinguish between different degrees of multinationalism. If nations are characterized by “extensive cultural diversity” (36), there are three possible constellations for cultural minorities. Their will for political representation can be (a) “not awakened”, which offers a potential for democratic consolidation. National minorities can also be (b) “awakened” or (c) “awakened and militant”. The worst constellation for democratic consolidation, of course, is the existence of militant non-titular nations – type (c). Militant minorities often have demands that cannot even be met by far-reaching forms of autonomy, for example fiscal federalism. Instead, secession would be a typical scenario. If the multinational titular state does not agree with this, democratic breakdown is almost inevitable.
The worrying thing, now, are different mechanisms in democracies and non-democracies. While autocracies are able to remain within the different types, heterogeneous democracies have a tendency to wander from type (a) to (b) to (c) if the adequate institutional provisions are not established.
Potentially because of their own socialization in autocratic regimes, the current nationalists seem to assume that the russophones will simply swallow their degradation. But Ukraine is a democracy which offers rights to all of their citizens, including russophones. In the years of 1991-2014, Ukraine had difficulties to stabilize despite the existence of certain forms of language and cultural autonomy. After Russia has annexed Crima and, in addition, started a non-declared war in the Donbas, the potential of internal ethnic destabilization has become bigger, not smaller. What is needed are more institutions of cultural self-determination, not less.
In the USA as well as in many countries of Western and Central Europe, identity politics have been major driving forces for the strengthening of minority rights. To me, it does not seem very probable that Ukrainian democracy can escape the temptations of identity politics forever. In Ukraine, identity politics have been brought up by actors of the nationalist right. The danger is that the Russophone population will answer the blow.
Once Russian and other minorities will feel their discrimination, they are likely to awaken as a political force. This leads to bleak consolidation prospects. The molding of ethnic Russian parties might be one scenario, leaning against supportive forces in the Russian motherland another one. There can be little doubt that various actors in Russian politics are only waiting for calls to secure the cultural rights of their brethren in a place which bears the name Little Russia (malorossiya) in Russian understanding.
If Juan Linz, Alfred Stepan, and Francis Fukuyama still had the possibility to meet, they would quickly come to one conclusion: the ethno-nationalism of the current political majority of Ukraine is a textbook scenario for destabilization, deconsolidation, and in the end possibly for a break-up of Ukraine.