[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Vilmos Ágoston - AUTONOMY - Challenge and/or Solution

Chances of Democracy in the EastCentral European Region, Movement towards Autonomy

by Erika Törzsök

Although the possibilities of choosing political activities are quite limited, they are unpredictable at the same time.
Gabriel A. Almond

I trust it does not sound cynical to use the above quotation as a motto of this essay. We have good reason to think that here and now, in this region, we have a chance to illustrate the truth of this motto quite successfully. That is, although the possibilities of choosing political activities are limited, they are unpredictable at the same time. The postulate I used as a starting point of my reasoning here was that neither the East-Central European countries involved, nor the so-called West was prepared for the breakup of the Soviet Union and the essential political changes after 1989 and neither side had any viable programme.
After 1989, when new political regimes formed and took over power in the region, many people held the belief that all the socio-economic and minority problems of these countries could be solved spontaneously and overnight.
On the contrary, during the past few years it has become very evident that people living in this region are to face an enormously great number of unexpected and unpredictable problems and conflicts. The idea of a united Europe, the unification of the East ant the West cannot be realized in the twinkle of an eye; It is a difficult and long process which requires a lot of effort from both sides. We are bound and determined not only by the present events but also by our remote past. And that is the real core of the problem: which tendency of the European heritage will become stronger and more determining in this region?
Klauss Mann writes about Europe: "Europe has to live with a double postulate to avoid its fall: it has to maintain the awareness of unity, it has to strengthen and deepen the consciousness that Europe is an inseparable unity and, at the same time, it has to keep its variety of styles and traditions alive. Europe means such a precious, but intricate and complicated harmony in which voices of discordance meet in such a way that they do not neutralize each other or themselves."
The question is: what can the political realities of our time achieve with these ideas?
Some say we have arrived close to the end of the last period of the great religious wars and we only have to hold out till the exhaustion of aggression and that we can see some signs pointing us in the direction of a real solution.
One thing seems to be sure: as usual in this region, easy and sweet transition cannot be expected again. We have to face the truth that the fall of communism itself cannot result automatically in the emergence of democratic societies. The interchange between the social structure and the political regime of a given country has to be considered evident and "normal" even in this transitional period of time. Without analysing the recent events in the ex-socialist countries, their economic situation or their social structure I refer the reader to two basic facts:
- After 1989 nationalist tendencies have become stronger
- After 1989 different minorities' struggles for autonomy have strengthened in the region
In the forthcoming passages I would like to confine myself to concentrating on the following problems:

My starting point is as follows: The destabilization of the region is the result of the process of negative modernization taking place in most of the countries involved during the past forty years and not of the efforts or steps taken by minorities. This process involves delayed achievement of a bourgeois type of society, inadequate responses to the challenges of modern times, maintenance of the old, inefficient and unbalanced economic structures, including energy consuming industries, poverty that also includes wasteful spending, financial instability (debts inside and outside the countries), inflation, underdevelopment of the financial systems and practically no reserves. They typically have a very small layer of intellectuals with convertible knowledge, a lack of real commodity production, and a very restricted and out of date structure and range of choice. The level of the economic culture in these countries is very low, their market economy is extremely vulnerable and noncompetitive compared to the West.
Resulting from the facts mentioned above, peoples with various cultural backgrounds suffered from different kinds of problems within the given countries, which represent different models of frustration. Based on these statements I maintain that the minority issue is only "a flower on the hat," not the hat itself. I do not mean to diminish the importance of the question, I only refuse to deal with this problem on purely an emotional level and I would not like to see the dimensions of this question put into a falsely distorted perspective and I am against changing the logical relationship between cause and effect. I must stress, I truly believe, that only democratic changes and tendencies toward liberalization in the economic and social lives of these societies can lead to the resolution of the minority issue, and only the explicit manifestation of the principles of democratic legitimacy and autonomy as political demands can give a real framework for the solution of the minority issue. Therefore, I think it is very harmful to consider the minority question as an issue of utmost importance and give priority to it over everything. It is equally dangerous, of course, if we play down or refuse the importance of the question, since we might misjudge the existing social, economic and cultural tensions and this approach cannot take us any closer to the real solutions either. Minority issue as a tension enhancing factor does not help solve these problems in any way, it only delays the possibility of realizing the actual questions and the proper answers to the real challenges.
These conclusions can be supported by the lessons drawn from most of the previous events in this century. During the past forty years the national interests of every single nation in this region have suffered some injustice in a way and as we know, the foregoing events were determining in this respect as well. Istv'n Bibó writes in his work entitled The Misery of Small States in Eastern Europe:

"The most serious consequences of the confusion in the territorial status and the distortion of the political culture in the East-Central European countries were the tumult and the distortion of the relationship between the nations living in this region. An outsider, an unattached observer might say that the political life of this region is full of petty and inextricable territorial conflicts and every single nation is in constant discord with practically all of its neighbours."

These statements seem to be just as true in our days as well, even if this struggle ceases for a while from time to time. Since the basic conflicts are unsettled, wars are breaking out again and again in this region.
After the First World War there emerged a real chance to solve these difficulties, that is, according to the principle of peoples' right for self-determination. Bibó writes the following about this:
"The real question does not concern the origin of this right. Neither does it matter what kind of moral arguments we use to defend our standpoint. The only adequate question is whether this right is suitable for making peace in the region or not. It is quite evident at once that this principle is seeking for a proper solution to the confused East-Central European situation. We have mentioned before that the whole territorial confusion of the region stems from the fact that the different nations in this region have become a conglomeration of people using the same language. Therefore, if they wanted to separate these nations in a distinctive way, they had to resort to the principle of linguistic borders and not that of historical borders. The meaning of the right for self-determination would have been to help in reaching a more reasonable arrangement in order to avoid the typical East-Central European situation in which groups of people belong to a historical community that does not correspond to that of their nation. Peoples' right for self-determination would have served as a principle to manifest these transformations in their national affiliation. Unfortunately "peace makers" in 1919 were not able to use this principle, which they accepted in theory in a consequent way and fix the borders in East-Central Europe for the forthcoming centuries. The principle of peoples' right for self-determination was not clearly adjusted to the requirements of the special problems in this region for the solution of which it was meant to be used. And since peace makers felt it a burden upon themselves anyway to use the right for self-determination consequently in every respect and everywhere, they were too happy to give it up. Disregarding these principles had its own consequences and contributed a lot to the development of the policy of aggression in Germany and, as a result, to the emergence of Hitler's type of fascism. On the other hand, the latter referred to the principle of self-determination only as a pretext for covering a maniacal, power-oriented policy, which discredited the whole idea in the end."
After the Second World War it was almost forbidden or at least of no use even mentioning this principle for a long time. As we all know, these badly and inconsequently used principles and the "ill-made" peace treaties led our countries to the dead-lock of fierce hostility and blind nationalism. Regarding only the interests and political will of the superpowers, which cover and ignore all the differences in East-Central Europe and which take only the interests and the requirements of the Western European social development into consideration, we cannot understand the situation in this region and cannot find real solutions to our special problems. Remembering the difficulties and the conflicts resulting from the disintegration of the big colonial empires, the West still does not think it advisable and desirable to apply the principle of self-determination in the East-Central European region in an emphatic way. International organizations, especially the members involved are suspicious even today when the principle of the right for self-determination is mentioned. Their attitude is very similar concerning the question of autonomy. Their logic is the following: autonomy equals separatism, separatism leads to secession and causes wars. These notions are perpetually fixed with these labels.
For us here in East-Central Europe, it is quite strange that the viewpoint of the new, Western type of regimes is very close in this respect to that of the ex-communist regimes, which categorically refused all movements towards autonomy saying that it was against the principle of the Bolshevik notion of equality. We have always believed here in this region that it was a specific and inherent characteristic of Bolshevik ideology to refuse any kind of difference, and at the same time any sign of autonomy in the name of equality and in the spirit of uniformity. For these regimes autonomy was equal with independence, which meant decisions independent of central authorities and total lack of control, which were absolutely unacceptable and unbearable for these central powers, because these movements and transitions could have blown up the framework of the whole political structure built on Bolshevism.
However reluctantly we did it, we had to realize after a while that all the different concepts of autonomy conceived in this region after 1989 induced suspicion and uncertainty in the political elite of the newly formed democratic regimes, and most of the time - though not always and not everywhere - international organizations took the same stand on the issue.

Accepting the argument that "the history of Yugoslavia is only the history of a continuous postponing of disintegration already written into its history right at the beginning," we can also say that the history of the country may show that the emergence of regional autonomies developing during the process of liberalization could have ceased the tensions originating from its status as an "unaccomplished state" and from the failure to form a nation-state.
Nowadays the different states in the East-Central European region represent different opportunities for a transition to democratic legitimacy. In most of the countries the lack of democratic legitimacy and its consequences push political powers in the direction of nationalistic tendencies.
If democratic legitimacy and the real values of the European civilization - economic prosperity, political and human rights - can manifest themselves and can serve as a framework for society then the demand for independence and various forms of autonomy are to be considered acceptable and a normal political practice. This kind of policy would lessen the pains and troubles resulting from the lack of a political balance and society would not be so vulnerable to political hysteria. The absence or the delayed achievement of a bourgeois type of society and the problems of modernization cannot serve as a pretext to avoid the problems of developing a democratic society.
"Democracy in a way is a system of rules controlling the self-government of society, the main function of which is to lay down the basic rules and regulations and the scope of possibilities determining the relationship of the groups and individuals in society to power. Democracy is based on a free co-operation of independent individuals and on the rational acceptance of the rules controlling it. On the contrary, nation is an organic community based on shared emotions and wills, which determines its members' culture, way of thinking, loyalties within and outside the given community and their relationship with other national communities. Within the boundaries of a nation individual autonomies organize themselves to be a collective will and they struggle to manifest themselves as collective independence and sovereignty. Therefore, democracy and nationhood are principles that can be connected but never substituted with each other", writes Péter Hanák in his introduction to the work of Oscar Jaszi entitled Disintegration of the Habsburg Monarchy.
But in this region new issues cover the old perspectives. Yugoslavia can serve as an extreme example. While "the territory called Yugoslavia was torn apart and ruled by ethnic oligarchies in a feudal way, ... the processes of liberalization were suppressed and the main principles ruling the country were those of a functional distribution of Bolshevik power. In the sixties, when there emerged a possibility to respond to the existing problems in an alternative way, political powers fearing that they would give way to a self-inducing process, judged the dangers of liberalization more serious than those of nationalism, which they thought would be easier to control.... In the seventies and eighties the practice of nationalism was a privilege of the national Bolshevik parties which actually served, as they hoped, to keep a "subdued" and "tamed" nationalism under control within the labyrinth of the party organizations ... and not to let the ghost out of the bottle poisoning the uncontrolled part of society. As a result, instead of regionalism, tendencies towards developing a strong national state have become more determining since the seventies. Only in Serbia, the largest republic, have they succeeded in forming two quasi independent autonomies as a result of fierce arguments within the party: Voivodina and Kosovo, where the local party oligarchies gained power... (Alpár Losonczi Déja vu on the Balkans)
Today it is quite evident, especially from East-Central Europe, that with the help of the principles of liberalization and autonomy the war could have been avoided.
The question still stands: Why, even after all these events, are several elite political groups in our region suspicious when the issue of autonomy is to be discussed.

Nineteenth century traditions do not seem to help a lot in solving the problem since the ideal of a homogenous type of nation-state cannot be followed in the present situation. It is almost impossible to establish the same number of small states as the number of different ethnic groups that live in this region, not to mention the nationalities living geographically scattered and interspersed. Neither can any version of a Bolshevik type of solution be a real answer to these challenges since they only sweep the problems under the carpet pretending no conflicts exist. This method did not work anywhere, both in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union it proved to be completely useless and inefficient.
What other possibilities are there? Let's examine the real cause and effect relationship first.
Is it the case that the post-socialist countries of the region are poor, their economic and social structures are underdeveloped, they lack a sufficient amount of capital and the institutions of democracy and a constitutional state are not working efficiently because they have substantial minorities? I think the answer is clearly and unambiguously negative. Then we have to raise the question: will tendencies toward assimilation or ethnic purges solve the real issues of these countries? The answer is again negative of course.
In that case we should not give ourselves to a complete inertia and let events move in this direction. I trust it is evident for everybody that these countries are in this situation because of their delayed achievement of a bourgeois type of society, because they are in different stages of economic, historical, political and cultural development, and not because of their minorities. The inertia and immobility, the rigidity and inflexibility of the past forty years had their own effect on our recent history and our recent possibilities.
The principle of territorial integrity is another question that is in close connection with the issue. What is the rationale for equating territorial integrity with a unitary or centralized form of government? Our experiences here in East-Central Europe prove it clearly that a government's emphasis on territorial integrity is merely a smokescreen to cover up its unwillingness to share political power. Hurst Hannum writes in his book entitled Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination, published in Philadelphia in 1990 that:

"federal or consociational states, or those in which substantial powers have been devolved to local governments are [not] any less sovereign or stable than unitary states: in fact, the reverse may be true".

He continues:
"Territory can be seen as a primary guarantor of two fundamental human needs, identity and security."

And, as he writes, most of the time
"...it is gross violations of human rights that commonly create a minority's need, which may not be present in earlier stages of a conflict, for a specific territorial base or homeland".

That is why - to avoid the development of these conflicts - it is important to emphasize that
"the creation of representative local government structures is fundamental to most demands for autonomy".

He also examines what guidance may be found in international legal principles towards identifying a core of values which might be included in a "right to autonomy" and argues that

"self-determination may be exercised by a people in any manner it freely chooses, from full integration with an existing state to total independence. ... Many new actors - from individuals to transnational corporations to sub-state and inter-state entities - have acquired varying degrees of international personality, and [he adds] international law is developing, if with some hesitation, sufficient flexibility to accommodate them".

He also finds it important that:
"where demands for autonomy and self-determination are asserted as a matter of right, they are often founded on the illegitimacy of the government or the state itself".
After 1989 there were free general elections in almost all of the states in the region. Nevertheless, even if we examine only one, though a very important factor, namely the question of separation of powers, we must see that this principle for example, which is of vital importance in a democratic society is far from being applied or respected according to its importance - though in different ways and different degrees - and in some countries even its grounds are questioned. And then we have not even mentioned the informal political sub-structures, the parties, different interest groups, the media, etc. The working of Western type democracies show that these elements all have their own functions in a subtly built-up, well-differentiated and well-organized system and the way they work is just as important and determining from the point of view of the operation of the system as distribution of power itself. Where political parties and different interest groups do not form well-differentiated, autonomous sub-systems and where the autonomy of the media is little or uncertain, then the system itself becomes instable. When the system is instable, all the means aiming at solving the minority issue, economic, organizational and cultural autonomies, self-government, etc. will become and remain alien bodies in the system and will only enhance frustration and cause more conflicts.

Where are the possibilities to break out of this situation? What are the conditions that are conducive to cooperation between the elite and the stable non elite support and that make the situation of different groups within society manageable? According to Arend Lijphart the following factors appear to be particularly important in this respect:

It is inevitable to ask the question: Where are we in this respect?
Our future depends on how much the different political powers in the region can get over the old-fashioned idea of a homogenous and paternalist national state and how much they can understand and accept - in their own interests - the necessity and the importance of supporting the development of various types of autonomies. There is no other way, since these autonomies are necessary pre-conditions for a healthy economic and social development without which it is impossible to move towards modernization or build up a stable power with efficient legislative, executive and juridical authorities.
Today, most of the minorities in the region, are forced into a position where they have to feel the threat of total assimilation or where they get involved in different aggressive, nationalist feelings, either as aggressors or victims. If they are lucky enough, they will not be the followers of the Basque, the Catalonian or the Irish methods and will not get involved in a tragedy like the one in Yugoslavia. But to avoid all these dangers, we have to understand that the only possibility for us is to recognize our common interests, and to cooperate and consociate.
To realize these possibilities means a very difficult and long process during which minorities and majorities have to make consensus day by day; it is not enough to accept these ideas, they have to become real and they have to be incorporated in political will and reality. Even if both sides have a positive approach to this question and both really wish to solve this problem, it needs long and patient cooperation based on consequent work and mutual understanding for decades. It is not impossible; nowadays we can see some examples of this. For instance, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems to find a way in establishing an autonomous Palestinian territory. But we can also think of the Spanish model or the case of South Tyrol, etc. It required decades to resolve these cases as well.
To summarize, I think that, although, movements towards autonomy in this region sometimes, depending on the state and stage of democracy in a given country, seem to be alien to the whole political and social system, on the whole, these tendencies are to the advantage of society and change social development in a positive way. Most of the time the local "majority" society seems to be over-suspicious when minority groups are talking about self-government and autonomy. We can relieve these tensions and prevent civil wars in the region only if we approach these questions in an open-minded and very differentiated way, trying to learn and understand all the viewpoints and the interests behind them and endeavour to conceive the real content of these tendencies, fighting against our suspicion- and fear-driven prejudices. On the other hand, we have a great task ahead of us: it would be urgent to devise the typology of the movements towards autonomy in this region; it could be a great help in the work of international organizations and other forums.
I would like to end with the same motto I started my essay with, but in a modified version. In this transitional period of time, in the changing societies of East-Central Europe "the possibilities of choosing political activities are limited," therefore we have to be open to all the possible solutions that have proved their positive effect on social development during history. Movements towards autonomy seem to be one of these.

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Vilmos Ágoston - AUTONOMY - Challenge and/or Solution