The Danger of Ethnic Homogeneity

Judging by the mood in Tbilisi just before and after the war, it is clear that Georgian and Russian societies are remarkably similar. In both countries, we see the desire to rally the people around the state regardless of their leaders' faults and mistakes. They both also believe that the state should hold onto its separatist territories at all costs.

Look at the parallels between Chechnya and South Ossetia. The Kremlin used force and widespread destruction as justifiable measures in the Chechen war, and Georgia considered the bombing of South Ossetian towns as a just punishment for the republic's rebellion.

But there is one fundamental difference between public opinion in Georgia and Russia. In Georgia, nationalism is pervasive, and the few who might feel differently are careful to remain silent. In Russia, dissenting voices can always be heard, even when patriotic fervor reaches unprecedented levels.

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In contrast, when a small state dominated by a single ethnic group whips up nationalistic sentiment, it has an amazing power to mobilize the entire community in support of a single idea or belief, leaving almost no room for criticism. During the Soviet era, the Moscow intelligentsia took a patronizing pleasure in the ethnic solidarity among people from the Baltic states -- particularly when it was compared to the lack of unification among ethnic Russians. Many Russians admired the Baltic song festivals, in which thousands of people lined up in long columns. But the scenes always made me uneasy because of their striking resemblance to the mass rallies of Hitler's Third Reich.

Georgia is far from being the only former Soviet republic with a uniform public opinion. You would have trouble finding anyone in Armenia who could understand Azerbaijan's position regarding the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many contemporary Turkish intellectuals would willingly risk going to jail for stating that almost 100 years ago, a genocide of Armenian citizens did, in fact, occur on Turkish soil, even though the Turkish government denies it. But I do not know of a single Armenian intellectual who has ever written anything that treats Turkish history and culture with respect.

Every year, many young Israelis refuse military duty in the occupied territories and activists from Israel's political left speak out for the rights of Palestinians. Yet decisions by the authorities in Estonia and Lithuania designed to offend the feelings of their Russian minorities, such as moving the Bronze Soldier monument in Tallinn and prohibiting Soviet symbols in Vilnius, did not provoke the slightest protest among any Estonians and Lithuanians, even among the most liberal of them. Causing divisions among people along ethnic lines is by no means a sign of pluralism.

Paradoxically, the split in Russian public opinion between supporters and opponents of the country's imperial traditions is far more similar to public sentiment in Western Europe than to many countries on Russia's borders. It is inevitable that Russia's "post-imperial" consciousness evokes criticism, discussion and reflection in society. The same is largely true in Ukraine with its sharp division between the Ukrainian majority and the substantial Russian minority.

Russians can portray themselves as either victims or aggressors. They can take pride in their history or be ashamed of it. We experience conflicting emotions regarding both our past and our present. We are free to argue about our country's future course. These are all characteristics of a healthy society that, having once fallen ill with the disease of nationalism, is now likely to recover.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said with any certainty regarding the ethnically homogeneous former Soviet republics.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.