Typically people with a passing knowledge of European history associate the Balkans with radical nationalism. We have very good reason for doing so, considering that the 90’s gave us the largest military conflict in Europe since WWII. Even more than a decade after the last of those wars, if you go on virtually any Youtube video about anything, anywhere in the Balkans, you’re bound to find that the comments section is filled with bitter, long-running debates between the various nationalities of the region. A video about Macedonia will be attacked by Greeks. A video about traditional Greek dances will be attacked with claims that the dance in question actually comes from Turkey, or Albania, or Bulgaria. A video about Serbia will bring up the Srebrenica massacre, while a video about Croatia will bring up the war crimes of Croatian commander Ante Gotovina. In fact the preceding sentences, were they to appear in a Youtube video, would most likely provoke the comment equivalent of the Third Balkan War.
The truth, however, is that radical nationalism, the kind whereby its adherents define themselves by who they are not, the kind which blinds them to all but their national myths and historical rivalries, is by no means limited to the Balkan region. It is in fact quite common throughout Eastern Europe, reaching even into the former Soviet Union. In European Union countries such as Poland, this kind of nationalism is some times dressed up in flowery, liberal terms. Liberal supporters of Evromaidan claim that the real issue is corruption, no rule of law, and economic pressure from Russia, which is also blamed for the former two ills. If you dig deeper though, the real motivation for much of this support is simply, “Because fuck Russia.”
In this video, you can see how long lasting Eastern European hatreds can be, as Polish nationalists attacked the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. Ironically these same nationalists no doubt cheer for the Ukrainian nationalists behind Evromaidan, despite the fact that their own national heroes murdered over 100,000 defenseless Polish civilians, mostly in Volyn and Galicia, in 1943-45. Whereas the Russian Federation, particularly in recent years, has done much to cooperate with Poland in memorializing the victims of the Katyn massacre, Ukrainian nationalists have long been involved in whitewashing the record of the UPA(Ukrainian Insurgent Army), OUN(Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), and its leadership. Techniques of denial range from the mundane, such as using the statements of a handful of Jews to support the illogical conclusion that the nationalists actually saved Jews as opposed to being party to the Holocaust on the Eastern front, to the more fantastical, such as claiming that UPA atrocities were actually carried out by special NKVD teams in disguise, or that the UPA actually waged a significant struggle against the Germans, though the latter never seemed to consider it significant enough to record any battles, nor mount any anti-partisan operations against the UPA, as they routinely did against pro-Soviet partisans. Yet while we will hear the name Katyn in almost any discussion about contemporary Russo-Polish relations, the Volyn massacre is memorialized pretty much only by Poles, and far more quietly. All that matters to some people is that these nationalists today hate Russia, and some Poles(certainly not the majority) hate them too. There is a Yugoslav saying which aptly defines this kind of nationalism, which we see is not at all limited to the Balkans. “It doesn’t matter if my cow dies, as long as my neighbor’s cow is dead too.” This is what I mean when I talk about nationalism blinding people.
This is what politics is like in Eastern Europe, inside and outside of Russia. Looking at the mass demonstrations of 2004’s Orange Revolution and today’s Evromaidan, you are still likely to find the flags of Poland, various Baltic states, Georgia, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria(the separatist Chechen state), or even the United States, which brings particular joy to the Kremlin’s pundits. The reasoning behind this is incredibly childish. You have a beef with Russia, you think your cause is just. Another country has a different beef with Russia, so their cause must be just too. If you’re protesting because your country is supposedly within Russia’s “orbit”, is it just to assert Georgia’s claims over Abkhazia and South Ossetia? You might object and say that Russia is not truly concerned with the self-determination of either territories, and that if recognized independent they would effectively be Russian colonies. I agree wholeheartedly, but they will certainly not be independent at all if they are incorporated into Georgia. The fact that Russia is large and Georgia is small doesn’t make annexation right, if your concern is truly about self-determination. Ukraine is a country which has been internationally recognized as independent since 1991. If these demonstrations are about freeing an already independent nation from foreign influence, how can one support the outright annexation of two territories which made it pretty damned clear that they don’t want to be part of Georgia? You can’t.
The truth is, however, that those who practice this kind of flag-waving mentality don’t care. Russia has a beef with Georgia, so Georgia is good, period. This kind of politics certainly exists in full force in Russia as well. Recently I saw an image from a mini-protest in Moscow expressing solidarity with Evromaidan. It does not seem to have crossed the protesters’ minds that the strongest elements behind Evromaidan don’t want any solidarity with “Moskali”(Ukrainain pejorative for Great Russians), and couldn’t care less as to who sits in the Kremlin. They want Ukraine for the Ukrainians, and they get to define who is Ukrainian. This thought most likely never crossed the demonstrators’ minds. They know that the Kremlin doesn’t like Evromaidan, and they don’t like the Kremlin, so they go with one of history’s worst ideas, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
In case you’re not seeing a pattern here, politics in Eastern Europe basically resembles mindless sports rivalries or internet trolling. What will piss off your opponent? A NATO flag? Let’s get one! The Kremlin is railing against America? Let’s get help from American NGOs and visit with their politicians! This is exactly the kind of behavior that Kremlin ideologues love, because to be sure Russian propaganda generally sucks, quality-wise, and so the more “evidence” which seems to support their American conspiracy narrative, the better.
Choosing sides as though they were football teams may be easy and not require much thought or analysis, but it is totally unprincipled. While the Kremlin’s conspiracy theories may reach infantile levels and they ignore the real roots of problems in Russia and the Former Soviet Union, the truth is that American imperialism is a thing, NATO is an aggressive military alliance, and the European Union is a rising imperialist power which is clearly prepared to respond to protests, particularly united, working class ones, with violence and even regular military troops far more readily than Mr. Yanukovich of Ukraine. Truth be told I’d rather not see American or European imperialism replaced, even regionally, with Russian imperialism, but the truth is that this scenario isn’t realistic now, nor is it in the foreseeable future. Moreover, if we simply assume that the US and EU countries have “democracy” and “rule of law” at home, this does not justify domination of other countries or interference in their politics, even if it isn’t to the extent that the Kremlin’s chicken littles would have us believe.
In regards to opposition in Russia, some might respond with the old proverb that a drowning man will take any hand. That’s why I tend to hate people who respond to deep, strategic questions with proverbs and folk wisdom. Reaching out to the wrong hands played right into the hands of the Kremlin and let them scatter the opposition movement almost entirely peacefully, largely through the passage of populist laws and demands for patriotism in the face of perceived American aggression. This is why the joke that John McCain works for the Kremlin seems so real at times.
In short, I have for a long time said that nationalism is essentially a form of masturbation. It feels good but accomplishes nothing. It is nothing but an individual stealing credit for things he or she never did, and claiming ownership over something that is not theirs. Perhaps the bitterest irony of nationalists, something which makes them seethe with rage, is to remind them that on the other side of the barricade are nationalists of the opposing country, and they are so alike. The Polish nationalist, the Ukrainian Svoboda supporter, and the Russian “Eurasianist” all come from the same mindset, with the same assumptions, and their behavior is virtually identical. Truly they are political clones.