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(POMEPS Briefing) Syria’s ongoing existential conflict is arguably related to its nation-building trajectory starting in the beginning of the twentieth century. What can theories of nation-building and state formation tell us about the origins of conflict as well as future of the Syrian state?  

I have recently argued that the way a nation-state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state’s foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group’s external patrons. However, as I admit in the book, my argument does not travel to all states at all times. In particular, it should apply to countries that 1) are driven from a homogenizing imperative, 2) have non-assimilated segments of the population and no caste system in place, 3) have the capacity to directly rule the population, and 4) have a ruling political elite representing a core group with a clear “national type”. In what follows, I explore how my work illuminates some of the challenges of nation-building in the Syrian case.

Arguably, the Syrian government has not been motivated by a homogenizing imperative. In The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and MinoritiesI suggest that the main reason that leaders adopt the “nation-building option” is the reality, or anticipation, of other powers manipulating non-core groups in their state to undermine their stability or annex parts of their territory. This process is particularly conspicuous in situations where the ruling elites perceive their borders to be challenged. While this process worked in Tilly’s account of Europe[1] and fits the pattern I narrate in the interwar Balkans, it does not seem to fit so much the story in Syria. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and after a brief interlude of direct rule by Ibrahim in the mid-19th century, the territories of contemporary Syria were divided up by decree through a series of treaties. Syria was under the French Mandate since 1920 and after a tumultuous history gained independence in 1946. As it is often the case, colonial powers had to rely on local elites coming from specific groups for political and economic control. Syria was no exception and the role of the Alawis and Christian minorities was vital for the French from the beginning of their Mandate. As Wendt and Barnett put it,

“Lacking political legitimacy, the colonial state’s power was always underwritten by the actual or threatened use of force. Significant military resources were typically not available from the centre, however, and since mass mobilization was not viable for an army of occupation, colonial states tended to militarize coopted groups or ethnic minorities. A similar process occurred in colonial bureaucracies, which were staffed by persons with a vested interest in upholding the authority of an alien state. The character of colonial military and bureaucratic development, in other words, was shaped by the security needs of foreign actors and their domestic clients rather than of the mass population.” [2]

As a result of this legacy, as well as the geopolitical situation in the region, this system of choosing a loyal local ethnic group and ruling the rest of the population through it–that has its roots to the French colonial period–was perpetuated. The various military coups following independence until Hafez al-Assad consolidated his rule on the country in 1970 solidified this outcome. The legitimating principle of the Assad regime has not been state-level nationalism. In fact, repression and a carefully constructed network of informants were the basis for legitimacy in Syria for the past four decades—if not longer. To complement this apparatus Lisa Wedeen revealed a cult that the Assad regime—father and son—designed which operated as a disciplinary device. [3] For decades citizens acted as if they revered their leader. “The cult works to enforce obedience, induce complicity, isolate Syrians from one another, and set guidelines for public speech and behavior” as Wedeen put it in 1999.[4]

Another set of conditions for my argument to be applicable is that part of the population has not yet been successfully assimilated and there is no “caste structure” in place since in caste systems assimilation is by definition impossible.[5] Syria is definitely a heterogenous society, but the heterogeneity is more pronounced depending on which cleavage dimension is salient at each historical moment. In terms of ethnicity, about 90% of the population was Arab before the civil war—including about 500,000 Palestinians and up to 1.3 million Iraqi refugees—while there were about 9% Kurds and smaller groups of Armenians, Circassians, and Turkomans. In terms of religion, based on 2005 estimates 74% of the population were Sunni Muslims, Alawis were about 12%, Druze 3%, while there are also some small numbers of other Muslim sects, Christians 10%, about 200 Jews, and Yazidis.[6] Finally, in terms of mother tongue we find the vast majority speaking Arabic, and then Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian being used by the respective non-core groups. Moreover, although this was not a caste system the mode of rule was definitely blocking social mobility and especially political clout for non-Alawis and their close allies and informants. The rule of the Alawi controlled Baath party coupled with the state of emergency that had been in force since 1963 had decisively alienated the Arab Sunni majority. But following the Arab Spring and coupled with past violence, inequalities, and repression that many reportedly felt in Syria, resistance against the regime grew and by now it has turned into a multiparty civil war. The opposition is fragmented but defections from the Assad side have also been plentiful. The lack of any national cohesion is apparent.

Nation-building cannot be pursued by a failed state that cannot directly rule its population. Assad’s regime clearly did not suffer from this problem. Syria was far from a failed state. In fact, it is a state with high literacy rates– 88% for males and 74%for females. But even if Syrian ruling elites faced the pressures I described above and had the capacity to do so, they would have had a hard time to nation-build. For nation-building to occur, the ruling political elites of the state must represent a core group that is well defined and has a clear criterion of inclusion—a “ national type” in what Eric Hobsbawm called the age of nationalism. In Syria, the closest thing we can find to a constitutive story in Assad’s Syria has to do with a Pan-Arab identity. Particularly, a version of baathist ideology that combines a supranational form of nationalism that calls for the unity of Arabs with anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism and secular socialism.[7] Arab nationalism, a form of unification nationalism,[8] was vital in the struggle for independence—a by-product of British machinations against the Ottoman Empire—as well as the decolonization movement against the French. Thus, the state-level type of nationalism that dominated Europe, did not manage to emerge in much of the Arab Middle East, since such a unification was opposed by multiple great and regional powers. The short experiment of the United Arab Republic that brought Egypt and Syria together in a union between 1958 and 1961 was stillborn but characteristic of the supranational character of the constitutive story that motivated Syrian leadership.  Given this configuration, it is really hard to identify a Syrian constitutive story and this is reflected in the school curriculum that primarily emphasizes anti-Zionist ideas, Pan-Arab ideas, and ironically, Sunni Islam.[9] Thus, while linguistically and ethnically there could be an overwhelming majority constructed–that of Arabs and Arabic–if one had to decide what constitutes the core group in Assad’s Syria, they would most likely suggest that it is the Alawis – together with other minorities – in the exclusion of the Sunni Arab majority.

Despite the well-known arguments that territory is becoming increasingly less important in our globalized world, myriad of territorial disputes, dozens of border changes and the long list of “nations without a state,” or “stateless nations,” point to a more sobering picture. For the past couple of years, several external state and non-state actors are aligning themselves with internal factions or non-core groups in Syria. However, the most powerful regional states Turkey, Iran, and Israel – all non-Arab– are unable to dominate Syria through these local alliances. The USA can be an arbiter of the conflict by intervening with Sunni, which would please Turkey and the Gulf states along with Sunni populations in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt—each for different reasons.  Alternatively, if Iran prevails, Alawis in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia minorities in the Gulf States, and the Shia majority of Iraq would rejoice. But a more cynical point of view, one perhaps best summarized by Ed Luttwak,[10] suggests that the USA—and even Israel —should allow this war to go on since it is in their strategic benefit for the factions to fight each other thus preventing the emergence of a strong and unified Arab state, or a victorious Iran.  A note of caution flows from my work in the Balkans. Shifting alliances in the context of the current multiparty civil war with ample external backing, coupled with the rapid changes in control over territory already have lead and will continue to lead to repeated instances of violent exclusionary policies, since non-core groups that are perceived as enemy-backed, or collaborating with the enemy, are going to be targeted by the respective sides of the conflict.

A version of this essay was first published atThe Political Science of Syria’s War, POMEPS Briefing #22, on December 18, 2013.


[1] Tilly, Charles (ed.). 1975. The Formation of National States in Western Europe.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; Tilly, Charles. 1990. Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell. Tilly, Charles and Wim P. Blockmans (eds.). 1994. Cities and the Rise of States in Europe, AD 1000 to 1800. Boulder: Westview Press.

[2] Wendt, Alexander and Michael Barnett. 1993. “Dependent State Formation and Third World Militarization”,Review of International Studies 19: 321-47, p. 331.

[3] Whitman, Elizabeth. “Stalemate in Syria,” The Nation, April 23, 2012.

[4] Wedeen, Lisa. 1999. Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[5] They involve an “ideology of inferiority for the subordinate groups” and thus an almost fixed ethnic structure that is perceived as natural. For more on hierarchical systems, see Horowitz, Donald. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. University of California Press, pp. 21–32.

[7] It is characteristic that both in 1982 when the regime violently crushed the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama and in mid-March 2011 following the brutal response of the regime to the protests in Daraa, the conflict was attributed to Zionists and Americans intervening in Syrian internal affairs using fifth columns as agents of Western imperialism. See Wedeen 1999 and Seale, Patrick. “The Syrian Time Bomb Forget Libya”, Foreign Policy, March 28, 2011.

[8] Hechter, Michael. 2000. Containing Nationalism. Oxford University Press.

[9] Landis, Joshua M.  2003. “Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism,” presented at the conference onConstructs of Inclusion and Exclusion: Religion and Identity Formation in Middle Eastern School Curricula, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

[10] Luttwak, Edward. “In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins,” The New York Times, August 24, 2013.

A few countries around Europe and the Middle East have been having a harder time forming a government than most. If most Brits got nervous that there was no government formed for a few days following last years’ election, such a scenario sounds like a remote dream for Belgium, Bosnia, Lebanon and Iraq.

It took Iraq around nine months to form a government following parliamentary elections in March 2010, Lebanon had a change of premier in January, but the new premier Najib Mikati only was able to form a new cabinet a few days ago (based on support from Hizbollah and its allies). Belgium is “celebrating” a year since the parliament elections without a government and Bosnia is slowly catching up (emphasis on slowly) with Belgium, having held elections in October 2010 and only a few days ago the three member state presidency held a straw poll who might be the best candidate for the post—it looks likely that the government will not be formed before the fall. Of course, all four countries share a key feature: They are power-sharing systems, which require coalitions of the unwilling. Coalitions are between parties which have campaign against one another and which have often antagonistic views over the future of the country, not to mention its policies. Thus, coalitions are not based on securing “just” a majority, but rather on including parties representing the often deep divisions in society. With fractious and unstable party systems, forming a government is not an easy task.

It might be tempting to conclude that power sharing system which allocate power to parties claiming to represent these different ethnic, linguistic or religious groups should be done away with. Simple majority rule is, however, no alternative in the three countries. In Lebanon, Hizbollah would be able to take over the country, in Belgium Flemish nationalists would be able to dismantle the state with not consideration of the Walloon community, in Bosnia, a Bosniak parties might govern over a state that can’t govern of half of it, the Serb Republic (or alternatively, a Croat-Serb coalition would dominate at the expense of the largest population group), etc. A different alternative is the system used in Northern Ireland. Instead of lengthy coalition negotiations between parties which in all probability anyhow have to end up in government with each other, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 just does away with complicated government formation altogether. Here the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are elected by a double majority of both unionists and nationalists, all subsequent ministers are chosen by the D’Hondt system, which allows parties to pick ministerial posts according to their size and means that there is no need for negation between parties and all have a stake in the government. Of course, this also means that no party will be in opposition, but voting largely determines the dominance in the executive, rather than who is represented at all.

If such a solution is not possible, the question arises, does one really need a government? In Belgium, there have been protests in favor of any government (probably a first in history), a senator calling for a sex strike of the wives of Belgian’s politicians and the initiative G1000 which seeks to bring together 1000 citizens to demonstrate than in a few days of popular debate more feasible solutions and compromises can be found than after more than a year of talks among parties. Despite all the civic activism for a government, Belgium managed to hold the EU presidency, reduce its budget deficit and generally have a working country with only a caretaker government. The others’ are less lucky. Without a proper government and a budget, Bosnia was unable to draw further loans from IMF, is unable to move forward with EU integration, whereas Lebanon and Iraq were similarly paralyzed without a fully acting government. The secret to Belgium’s ‘non-governmental’ success despite its difficulties is simple, it is called the European Union and its regions and communities to which many powers are devolved. Granted, the EU lacks clear decision making structures and much of what one would expect from a government, but the Belgium experience demonstrates that it can be a crucial proxy for having a government. Monetary policy, no need. Foreign and security policy, not a big deal for a small EU member. Most laws and regulations come from the EU. What is not done by the EU in terms of everyday life is organized by the regions or communities. This leaves Belgium in the absence of a legitimate government much less exposed than Lebanon, Bosnia or Iraq. Now, of course, the problem is that some ethnic, linguistic or religious parties actually want to demonstrate just that—namely that the state is unnecessary. If citizens don’t feel the pinch of having a government, they might become less attached to the state. This is of course a fundamental dilemma, who much government does there need to be to make it worthwhile for citizens to have a state and what is the maximum of government and state some citizens can take before they support some alternative. Whatever the specific answer maybe, there are times when a country can work, even if there is no government.

Florian Bieber is a professor for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz.

In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence; on July 22nd, the International Court of justice ruled that its declaration was legal. In many parts of the West, especially in Washington, this news was greeted with applause. Reading the Kosovo Declaration of Independence, however, one is amazed at the ability of politicians and pundits to compare it to the American Declaration. Joe Biden even goes so far as to compare the Kosovo Prime Minister to George Washington.

In many ways, the situation of the colonies is analogous to the one in Kosovo. The colonies were stuck between the influence of France and Britain, just as Kosovo is caught between Russia—Serbia’s protector—and the United States. And, the colonies were aware that dissolving their ties to Britain risked igniting separations throughout the world, just as the Kosovo declaration might be a precedent for such declarations elsewhere.

Yet, the way in which America declared independence is drastically different from Kosovo. The Kosovo declaration is short, addresses specific United Nations plans for the composition of government, and thanks NATO for its past help.  What’s notable is what’s missing: unlike the American Declaration of Independence, it does not justify its secession.

The signers of the American declaration, aware of the danger that secession would cause, explained that“Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” But, given the specific abuses of the King, it is the colonies’ “right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Instead of justifying secession through an appeal to right, the Kosovo declaration narrowly and legalistically justifies its special status. When the American declaration lists twenty-six specific and irrefutable grievances with England; the Kosovo declaration provides no grievance whatsoever. The American declaration is couched in a sophisticated moral and political theory in order to show that any individual can endorse its conclusions; the Kosovo declaration is couched in narrow legalisms designed to provide political cover for the western powers that recognize it.

These are no minor differences. Jefferson thought it right that a declaration of independence makes claims on the conscience of the world, outlining the case for independence, enshrining it in a single compelling statement: “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”  The Kosovo declaration skirts debate, does not make a case for powers to recognize or support it, and represents an international system in which power, not conscience, rules. The American declaration sparked a global debate over the rights of peoples; the Kosovo declaration is sparking a trivial debate over the right interpretation of a UN Security Council Resolution.

In light of the NATO involvement in the Balkans during the late 1990s, the U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence is not surprising. Historically, the U.S. has traditionally backed self-determination movements and independence through de facto recognition. The U.S. supported the French declaration of Independence in 1793, the Greek in the early 19th century—and many more—under the Monroe Doctrine. But this principled position of the U.S. did not last. In the last century, the U.S. has refused to recognize de facto states in Central and Latin America in order to discourage potential rebels and delegitimize Communist regimes. For different reasons, the U.S. did not recognize conquests made by the Fascist Italy and Germany as well as by Stalin before and during WWII. Today, the U.S. refuses to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia but intensely supports Kosovo’s independence. In other words, over time principled foreign policy soon enough gave way to Realpolitik and pragmatism.

In 1953, President Eisenhower declared that “Any nation’s right to a form of government and an economic system of its choosing is inalienable. Any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.” Unfortunately, today’s rhetoric does not match reality. Russia and the United States accuse each other of manufacturing independence movements and then guaranteeing their security until de facto independence is secured. Russia accuses of the U.S. of doing this in Kosovo and the U.S. returns the “favor” in the cases of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Our point is not that Albanians in Kosovo have no case to make; but that they have not made their case. The misplaced and even dangerous triumphalism with which western media greeted the ICJ ruling sends the wrong message to aspiring secessionists. The Kosovo declaration addresses narrow international rules and wide channels of power; it does not address the universal conscience of the world. No one can endorse the document because there is nothing to endorse: no cause, no claim, and no challenge to the Serbian government. If the American declaration of independence was the beginning of the growth of an international community that supports self-determination and democratization, the Kosovo declaration represents the failure of the international community to move beyond power politics, disguising Realpolitik with international law. Is this the international system we aspire to?

Eric Grynaviski and Harris Mylonas are Assistant Professors of Political Science at the George Washington University. This article first appeared on the blog of the The Utopian on November 30, 2010.


The citizens of Latvia went to the polls on October 2nd, to cast their ballots in the 10th Parliamentary elections of Latvia.  The results reconfirm the importance of language in identity politics of the country and inter-party contestation, as the election results were split between the two linguistically defined political parties – the Russian speaking Harmony Center, and the Latvian speaking Unity party alliance.   The Unity block, consisting of a conglomerate of Latvian parties, received 33 seats in the new Parliament, or 31 percent of the popular vote.  While the Harmony Center party, identified as the Russian language party, received 29 seats in the new Parliament, or 26 percent of the popular vote.

The municipal elections of 2009 had already established that the Russian language party, Harmony Center, had the electoral support to secure the important post of the Mayor of Riga.  For the first time in history the Mayor of Riga, Nils Usakovs, was of Russian descent and from a Russian language party.  Furthermore, the first year of this term progressed without significant scandal and with modest increases in his popularity.

Building on the municipal success, leading up to the Parliamentary election, there was speculation that potentially Unity and Harmony Center could form the majority coalition in the government.  Several politicians and government representatives went on the record to say that it would only be fair and about time that the government coalition represented both linguistic groups.  The most notable of these comments came from the head of the Constitution Protection Bureau – Janis Kazocins.  In expressing his private opinion, Mr. Kazocins stated that he believed systematic exclusion of the parties identified as representing the Russian speaking population from active participation in the decision making process of the Latvian government was dangerous and unfair.

It is interesting to note, that the latest election coincided with the most recent draft of the Society Integration Policy Guidelines 2011-1017, developed by the Ministry of Justice.  The document uses integration principles, defined as a two way process based on mutual understanding and cooperation between the majority and minority in society, as the theoretical basis.  The goal of integration, as stated by the document, is a consolidated society supporting Latvia’s democratic development.  The need to build common trust and promote mutual respect within the society is also mentioned as an important goal.

Arguably, the best example of integration and a solid showing of support from the government for its own initiative of Integration Policy would be integration at the government level.  The simple fact that Harmony Center was even considered a potential coalition member in the Latvian government, something that would have seemed unfathomable only a few short years ago, gave reason for hope that integration was happening at the highest levels.  A coalition consisting of both linguistic parties, representing both populations, and working toward a common goal with partners that have proven themselves to be capable and professional at the municipal level, seemed like the ideal solution to finally bridging the gap between the two sizable linguistically defined groups and as a means to build trust and mutual respect.

Two weeks after the elections, the leader of Unity block Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis did issue an invitation to Harmony Center and the right-wing nationalist coalition Visu Latvijai!/TB/LNNK to take part in the government negotiations.  However, the promising government coalition consisting of both linguistic groups collapsed even before negotiation talks really had a chance to begin.  The main issue that proved to be of contention was history.   The Unity block, tasked with forming the government coalition, sent the four potential cooperation partners (three returning from the existing government coalition and Harmony Center) a draft document titled “Cooperation Agreement about Promotion of National Unity and Growth” to be used as the basis of the coalition negotiations.  The document sought agreement from the potential coalition partners on a wide variety of issues, including the recognition of Latvian as the only state language, and a unified view of historical events, including the admission of Latvian occupation in the 1940’s.

Harmony Center expressed willingness to negotiate, but without predefined points of agreement.  Unity reconfirmed that it believed the future coalition partners had to be of agreement on these fundamental facts and refused to start negotiations from a blank slate.  On the morning of October 19th, Harmony Center confirmed that it would not be continuing the government coalition negotiations on these terms stating that their voters, who had entrusted 29 Parliamentary seats to Harmony Center, did not need to be put under such scrutiny.  On the TV show “100.pants” Nils Usakovs was directly asked if Harmony Center would be willing to recognize the Latvian occupation fact to which he replied that he was not a historian and could not define if the events of the 1940’s were incorporation, occupation or annexation.

On October 21st, Nils Usakovs issued an open letter to the Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis stating that in these difficult economic times the people were looking to the elected leaders to solve the country’s pressing problems, not concentrate on political and ethnic nuances.  In expressing grievance with the negotiation process, the letter stated that the electorate of Harmony Center are just as entitled to have a say in the government as any other Latvian citizens, and that it is unfair and against democratic principles to segregate people into “right” and “wrong” citizens.  The letter also implied that it is unreasonable to expect Harmony Center voters, Latvian citizens, to blame themselves and apologize for the events that took place under a different regime in the 1940’s.

The recent political negotiations, concentrating on the long ago historic events of the 1940’s, have brought to light the fact that history and its interpretation, not just language, is still a defining issue for both groups.  If we take politicians to be representatives of the electorate, and their actions as prompted or constrained by their voters, then we see that there is still a lack of political will from both sides to see eye to eye on these fundamental identity issues.  Any talk of integration, of building mutual trust and social cohesion, will fundamentally be futile as long as history remains a divisive issue.  Usakovs can urge the government in his open letter that the key priorities of the country are now economic development, growth, unemployment and social issue resolution, to be resolved by a united and professional coalition putting ethnic issues aside, but the lack of trust stemming from in-group/out-group identification based on history will forestall any cooperative efforts.

For a more detailed analysis of integration achievements, failures, and challenges in Latvia, please see the University of Latvia Faculty of Social Sciences Integration Audit.

Ieva Gruzina, PhD candidate at the University of Latvia Faculty of Social Sciences

Fans of football and Balkan experts know all too well that football hooliganism and violent riots have been a regular feature of Serbian football in recent years.  Last Sunday, a highly combustible mixture of extreme nationalist organizations and football hooligans rioted on the occasion of the Gay Pride parade in Belgrade, putting waste to sections of the city and injuring hundreds.  Two days later, the same extremist groups convened in the football stadium in Genoa, creating so much havoc that the referee cancelled the match between Italy and Serbia after only a few minutes of play.  The Serbian Football Association must now wait and see whether they will be disqualified from further participation in the qualifications for the 2012 European football championship, or whether they will receive milder punishment.  Whatever the outcome, the events of the past week have provoked an unprecedented outcry in the Serbian media.  From the liberal news weekly Vreme to the right-wing tabloid Kurir at the opposite end of the journalistic spectrum, journalists have deplored the “terror” and “disgrace” caused by hooligans.  When even Kurir – a newspaper usually fond of fanning the flames of homophobia – writes that hooligans are causing “the death of Serbia,” something is stirring – almost ten years to the day after the ouster of Slobodan Milošević.

Let us take a quick look at the two events.  Serbia was under enormous pressure from the EU and the US to ensure that the Gay Pride parade could be held successfully.  Only a year ago, the Serbian authorities had essentially capitulated in the face of threats of physical violence against the Gay Pride parade.   After the authorities told the organizers of the parade that they could not guarantee their security and asked them to move the parade away from the city centre, the organizers decided to cancel the event.  This led to some discussion of bans against extremist organizations and tougher jail sentences against hooligans, but very little came of this.  This year Western embassies had sent a clear message to Belgrade that they had to do better, and the EU Ambassador in Serbia declared that he would attend the event.  5,600 police officers and the entire staff of the civilian intelligence agency were put on duty on Sunday in order to protect the estimated 1,000 participants in the Gay Pride parade against an army of an estimated 6,000 hooligans.  While the massive security presence ensured that the parade was held without significant injuries to the participants, the material damage to the city was significant, and over 100 police officers were treated for injuries.  On Monday and Tuesday, the local spokesperson for the EU and visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both complimented the Serbian authorities on a job well done.

Yet was this really a successful operation? As Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs Ivica Dačić admitted in a television debate on Monday, the riots were hardly a surprise.  Anyone with an internet connection and proficiency in Serbian could easily have spotted the chatter on extremist forums and bulletin boards in the weeks leading up to the event.  So why were preventative measures not implemented, for example by stopping the massive influx of young men from other regions of Serbia to Belgrade in the days before the parade?  After all, police reports after the event indicated that 60% of the rioters came from the provinces, and the hooligans worked efficiently in well-organized teams to attack specific institutions and symbols (including a mobile mammography station).   All of this was in large part a predictable replay of the February 2008 riots in Belgrade after Kosovo declared its independence.  Dačić passed the buck to the Ministry of Justice instead, claiming that the police could not ban such organizations and their plans.  Nor did Dačić bother to conceal his anger at the EU for forcing Serbia to permit the Gay Pride parade.   Dubravka Filipovski, the vice-president of the centre-right New Serbia party, used the same interview to criticize the government for not banning the Gay Pride Parade in order to prevent unrest.  Instead, she accused the government of trying to find excuses to ban right-wing organizations.

On Tuesday evening, Serbia and Italy met in Genoa for a qualifying match for the 2012 European football championship.  And, once again, the premeditated intentions of the hooligans had been clearly announced online.  Already before the match began, hundreds of young Serbs were marauding through the streets of the city.  The hapless goalkeeper for the national side, Vladimir Stojković, who had switched earlier in the year from the club Red Star to archrival Partisan, was very nearly lynched by the hooligans and is now protected by bodyguards.  In the stadium, Serbian fans threw flares onto the field, climbed onto security railings and vandalized stadium infrastructure.  The Italian police arrested dozens of Serbian fans, including Ivan Bogdanov, one of the alleged leaders of the hooligans.  It quickly emerged that Bogdanov had also been one of those who attacked the US Embassy in Belgrade in February 2008.  Even as the Serbian ambassador in Italy and the Serbian foreign minister issued an official apology to Italy, Dačić and others in Serbia accused the Italian authorities of failing to prevent Serbian fans from entering the stadium with various weapons and flares.  The real question is why hooligans who have repeatedly been arrested and prosecuted for violent acts continue to be able to free to roam the streets and stadiums of Serbia – and to travel abroad to football matches.  Precisely this topic – the impunity of hooligans – was painstakingly covered by the television station B92 last year in an excellent documentary on the impotence and lethargy of the Serbian state in its struggle against hooliganism.  Brankica Stanković, the producer of the program, demonstrated that the Serbian judiciary was both incapable and unwilling to punish even serious repeat offenders.   For her pains, Stanković was threatened repeatedly by extremist hooligan organizations and had to receive police protection.

We have seen outbreaks of violence related to so-called patriotic organizations and football hooliganism before in Serbia.  Some of these have been more violent than the past week’s riots, for example in September 2009 when a young fan of FC Toulouse, Brice Taton, was killed in Belgrade by hooligans.  Such violence has not been restricted to foreigners unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.   As I showed in an article published in Nationalities Papers, a considerable number of Serb football fans and even managers of Serbian football clubs have been killed since 1991.  Yet with the partial exception of the brief period following the 2003 assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić, the state has rarely acted decisively.  Put simply, there is a tangled nexus of organized crime, political opposition to modernization and EU membership, and football hooliganism, and one cannot attack one aspect of this without tackling them all.  All of this can be easily traced back to the early 1990s, when the Miloševć regime let figures such as Željko Ražnatović “Arkan” use football fan clubs as recruiting bases for paramilitary organizations.  An entire generation of young Serbian men grew up in “culture of violence,” and Eric Gordy demonstrated that alternatives to this culture were systematically destroyed.  (This was most memorably depicted in Srđan Dragojević’s 1998 film “Rane.”)

This week’s public outcry in Serbia against the “culture of violence” is greater than anything I can recall seeing in the last two decades.  But will this time finally be different?  The complete saturation of the Serbian media with outrage after the events of Sunday and Tuesday give reason for very cautious optimism.  I would like to highlight briefly two extraordinary statements made in the wake of the recent violence.  First, the former football star Savo Milošević called the events in Genoa “one of the darkest days in the history of Serbian football.”  He went on to state that “These are matters which the state should have controlled.  Unfortunately the state has for the past 20 years stood on the sidelines regarding sport.  The state institutions that are responsible for our sport have their responsibility, because no one can tell me that these people cannot be controlled or held under observation.  There were also indications that something could happen in Italy.  All this was known by certain persons.  Why the state does not react, why such things must happen before anyone reacts, I really do not know.  I know that sports has been left for last in this kind of reorganization in our state.  …  Once again we will pay a high price because of our inertia, our disinterest, our lack of will to grab the problems by the root.”  Milošević particularly emphasized that the hooligans were the symptom of a much wider problem, a theme also treated elsewhere.

The other strong statement emphasizing the complicated and structural nature of the problem came from Bruno Vekarić, Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor.  In a strongly worded article, Vekarić began by citing     Zoran Đinđić’s statement that “there are weeds in every state, only in Serbia the weeds are watered.”  Retracing the riots of recent years against homosexuals, the independence of Kosovo and the arrest of Radovan Karadžić, Vekarić argued that these matters are only nominal excuses for hooligans and their institutional supporters.  In unusually direct terms, he specifically criticized former prime minister Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia and ultra-conservative members of the Serbian Orthodox clergy for fanning the flames of hatred.   Vekarić concluded by stating that the unrest in Serbia “showed that our society is seriously ill,” and arguing that the country’s prosecutorial organs and judiciary now had to treat this problem, and hence to pass a test that they had failed for years.  (Although it is remarkable, Vekarić’s article contradicted arguments that he had himself used in earlier years to explain why the Serbian state could not risk provoking the ire of the street by arresting fugitive war criminals wanted by The Hague.)

Much still needs to change in Serbia, and the rule of law continues to be tenuous.  The judiciary must be reformed thoroughly, in particular in order to remove judges sympathetic to hooliganism and to ensure that violent repeat offenders cannot abuse the system by appealing their cases ad absurdum while continuing to commit new offences.  For over one year now, the Constitutional Court of Serbia has postponed deliberations on a proposed ban of 14 extremist organizations, and those who have committed violent acts have enjoyed virtual impunity.  Representatives of extreme fan clubs that have provoked violent incidents must not only be banned from stadiums, but must also be expelled from the executive boards of Serbian football clubs, where many of them continue to sit.   State officials and football club officials must stop blaming each other for the problems and instead act resolutely together to eliminate hooliganism.

A couple of conspiracy theories are making the rounds after this week’s events.  According to one, extremist organizations receive generous funding from the illegal narcotics trade and/or Serbian tycoons who have a vested interested in preventing Serbia from joining the European Union.  And, indeed, many ordinary Serbs have wondered how hundreds of young men from a poor country can afford to travel abroad to attend football matches.  Serbian financial and judicial authorities must investigate this problem and act accordingly.  However, an obvious reason explains the reluctance of the authorities to do this.  It is virtually inevitable that such investigations will reveal that some of the very same donors who finance extremists are also bankrolling some of the major political parties in Serbia.  In the eyes of liberal Serbs, the very same political forces who support Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić and who were involved in the assassination of Đinđić are also engaged in supporting “patriotic” organizations and their hooligan allies.

Serbian officials have again (as in 2008 and 2009) announced their intention to prosecute and ban extremist organizations.   In terms of combating the narrow problem of hooliganism, Serbian and international officials agree that England has shown the way.  Let us be frank: this is not about eliminating hooliganism entirely.  No European country has managed this feat, as events in England, Denmark, Germany and elsewhere regularly show.  This is about showing that the state will not tolerate large-scale hooliganism masquerading under the banner of patriotism and challenging the authority of the state.

One thing remains clear after this past week.  Serbia’s authorities cannot dawdle and yet again postpone action.  Their next test is right around the corner, when Partisan and Red Star (the most highly fined club in European football) meet in Belgrade on 23 October for the latest round of what Serb football fans call the “eternal derby.”  (According to Minister Dačić, the police already spends up to 500,000 Euros per derby match on security.)  For the sake of all who truly love both football and Serbia, let us hope that only the derby is eternal – and that pervasive, violent hooliganism will finally been defeated.

Christian Axboe Nielsen, Assistant Professor of Southeast European Studies, University of Aarhus

There’s an everlasting link between soccer and stereotypical thinking about national identities.  This was widely in evidence once again during these last few weeks of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Examples range from the South African newspaper Sowetan suggesting that German international player Bastian Schweinsteiger has the “fearsome aura of Adolf Hitler” to the German Der Spiegel being overjoyed about the positive headlines about Germany in the English press. According to some English papers Germany had won the “Sympathy World Cup” and the team had created a new and positive image of the German people.

Now the World Cup reached its concluding climax with the final game between Spain and the Netherlands. This is a good opportunity for reflecting briefly on the strange but strong connection between football and ‘the nation’, or, in this case, between the world’s most popular sports event and nationalism. Especially in Germany (which is the focus of my contribution here), these phenomena have been so closely tied up with each other for such a long time that their relationship can now perhaps best be compared to a long but nevertheless functional marriage. In their teenage years they helped each other to become ingrained in the hearts of the Germans. Later, in 1954, after Germans for years had grappled with their shame over the crimes of the fascists during WW II, Germany’s World Cup victory provided their first real opportunity for linking national identity again with positive emotions. In the following decades football was the only societal context that allowed for the safe expression of intense feelings of nationhood. In most other contexts this was still frowned upon.

The importance of football for German nationhood became even clearer in the context of European unification and globalisation, which are processes that seem to have diminished the power of the nation-state. The 2006 World Cup, hosted by Germany, managed what generations of conservative policymakers had failed to achieve: it lifted the ban on patriotism. In a coup de main, it abolished the long existing taboo on displaying patriotic emotions. The notion of “German pride” became disconnected from the far right and entered mainstream discourse. Rather surprisingly, however, this did not lead to much euphoria among German far right politicians. These far right protagonists could not (or would not) identify with a German team that included players who came from immigrant families.

In 2010, too, the German team included such players. In fact, although in earlier times German teams had often included players with a family history in Turkey, Poland, or even Ghana or Brazil, the strategy of inclusion was never as apparent as in the 2010 squad, which included, in the starting eleven against Spain on Wednesday, six players whose parents had not been born in Germany. Some say that Mesut Özil has had a stronger effect on the integration of the Turkish population in Germany than most policy-making strategies so far. However, research about the effects of the composition of the World Cup team on attitudes towards minorities in Germany have led to contradictory conclusions. In 2007 Norbert Kersting, for example, examined representative data from a pre/post-World Cup census and concluded that xenophobia in Germany had indeed been reduced. Wilhelm Heitmeyer and his team, on the other hand, showed that the 2006 World Cup had led to a rise in what he calls “group based enmity”. They concluded that even if things had been framed in positive, non-exclusive terms, for many viewers the World Cup still had been about “us” against “the others”.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa has revealed yet another dimension of the Janus-faced character of football. Observers argue that it has intensified economic inequality and racial gaps in society. There are many poor, unemployed South Africans who have hardly had any profit from the World Cup. In fact, they have lost: hospitals have turned into media centres and huge amounts of the state’s budget have been spent on stadiums and infrastructure. This is money that hasn’t served to educate or feed or nurse anyone in the lower classes of the country.

Yet most people I spoke to during my recent visit in South Africa were euphoric about the World Cup. Yesterday’s edition of the Sowetan, which in pre-democracy times was one of the most important anti-apartheid newspapers, summarized the matter as follows: “What a glorious 31 days it has been!… Not even the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections were as electrifying. Important and epoch-making as both these events were, they were not as unifying as this World Cup seems to have been.” We can only hope that the end of the World Cup in South Africa won’t be marred by a rise in the number of xenophobic assaults against migrants from other African countries, as some have predicted.

In sum, one could perhaps say that the ambiguity of football is a familiar one: many things in life can be good as well as bad. But in the case of football, when it’s good, it’s also a lot of fun.

Sven Ismer is a research collaborator at the Freie Universität BerlinThe Cognitive and Affective Sociology Network.

In recent years, it might have seemed that nationalism and ethnic conflict is a phenomena of the 1990s. The headlines of the 2000s have been dominated by terrorism and other themes. It is of course no secret that nationalism remains a potent force and that ethnic and national identity continue to shape politics in many, if not most, countries around the world.

The relevance of discussing and understanding nationalism can be understood when looking at three separate events around the world:

Since last week, violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz has escalated in the southern region of Kyrgysztan of Osh. Linked to the overthrow of the increasingly authoritarian President Bakiyev in April, the violence has regional implications, involving three Central Asian countries.

Move to Belgium, here on Sunday the New Flemish Alliance won most seats in parliament on a secessionist platform. Thus, Belgium’s survival remains increasingly in doubt.

Finally, in Slovakia election a day early did not reward the nationalist and populist parties which had sought to exploit recent changes to the Hungarian citizenship law that would open access to citizenship to Hugarians living in Slovakia (and elsewhere).

Understanding these events is crucial not just for scholars of particular countries, but also for understanding broader trends and regional dynamics. This blog seeks to provide timely commentary and analysis on events like these. Scholars and analysts associated with the Association for the Study of Nationalities will contribute their postings and we encourage a debate on the topics and postings on the topic of nationalism and ethnic conflict.  For more more in depth analysis, see the journals of the ASN, Nationalities Papers and Ethnopolitics.

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