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Resilient Minorities in Interstate Relations: Hungarians, Poles, and Russians in Central and Eastern Europe

The decade of the 1990s in Europe was characterized by optimism about the power of Europeanization to transform nationalism. Those hopes have not materialized. Nationalism has remained a “low-hanging fruit” for political mobilization in new and old democracies alike.  Governments across the continent have performed poorly on social integration. As an expression of disappointments, “old school” nationalism has flared up in societies across Europe, following a familiar script: blaming internal and external “others” for economic and social issues. Governments use majoritarian nationalism to regain or construct legitimacy. If majoritarian nationalism is here to stay, however, so is minority resistance to it. Old and new ethno-cultural minority populations around the world find ways to resist majoritarian ideologies, and many develop their own versions of minority nationalism. There is an urgent need for the scholarly community to find useful answers to the question of how minority mobilization under such conditions can be channelled into peacefully sustainable forms of democratic contestation.  This is the question addressed in the book.

The question of what enables peaceful minority contestation is substantively different from the question of how state-minority conflict can be eliminated.  Both minorities and conflict are fundamental aspects of social life, and minority contestation is a necessary feature of democratic government. Every society includes “old” and “new” ethno-cultural minorities, members of which are invested in maintaining ethno-cultural distinctness. Minorities are key participants in fundamental debates about democratic government: about the meaning of democratic sovereignty; citizenship; equal protection; social solidarity. Minority contestation contributes to a society’s ability to question hegemonic ideologies and to hold governments accountable. Although the general significance of contestation in democratic society is widely acknowledged, the role of democratic minority contestation is less well-understood. Minority political agency is more often viewed as a threat to social cohesion than as a driver of democratic development. Yet comparative evidence reveals that members of ethnic, racial, or religious minorities are generally more likely than majority members to become alienated from democratic institutions. There is increasing evidence also that the absence of democratic political agency can result in non-democratic forms of activism, including acts of violence.

Clearly, we need a better understanding about the question of what it takes for minorities to construct peaceful and democratic forms of political agency.  Answering that question requires research not only about institutions designed for minorities; but also about how minorities become democratic political agents. There is a rich literature about minority mobilization, particularly in the context of violent conflicts, revolutions and regime changes, and extra-institutional forms of contention, such as public protest. The question of how minority actors construct institutionalized forms of democratic agency in “ordinary” settings in the context of peaceful conflict in majoritarian states, however, remains under-explored. The literature on immigrant social capital provides important clues about those types of institutions and networks that help ethnic and racial minorities to develop political agency.  This book pushes the boundary further by offering an empirically-derived theory about resilient minorities under conditions of structural disadvantage.  Resilient ethno-cultural minorities have a capacity to engage in democratic forms of contestation, instead of alienation or exit from democracy. They are not just recipients of policies and resources designed for them but participants in policy design and implementation, and they have the capacity to hold political elites accountable.  Members of such minorities challenge marginalization and resist control or manipulation from multiple directions – not only in relation to nationalizing state centers, but also in relation to external actors, as well as “their own” minority political elites. The book explores the conditions under which such minority resilience might be achieved.

Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) provides an excellent laboratory for this exploration.  In that region, potential state-minority conflict was in the forefront of security concerns at the beginning of the great institutional transformation that began in 1989-91 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, and continued with the accession of ten CEE states to the European Union between 2004-2007. All states in this region adopted centralized “nation-state” designs, with associated strategies of majoritarian nation-building – including language and education policies, and territorial-administrative structures, which allow for significant state control over minority populations. Most of these states incorporate sizable ethno-cultural minorities that challenge majoritarian nationalism and engage in cross-border relations with kin-state actors in the neighborhood. Such minorities are easily seen as “tough cases” for peacefully sustainable contestation. Yet an overarching characteristic of minority contestation in this region is that they have unfolded peacefully and democratically for over twenty-five years.

The book explores minority contestation involving six ethno-linguistic minorities in Central and Eastern Europe: Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia; Poles in Lithuania; and Russophones in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These minorities live in centralized states that have been part of the European Union for over a decade, with borders that have shifted back-and-forth within the lifetime of three recent generations; and they have activist kin-states in the region. Against that backdrop, the very idea of minority contestation can be suspect.  Yet these minorities have challenged majoritarian strategies of nation-building peacefully (with only isolated instances of violence) in the framework of democratic institutions, since the beginning of the 1990s. I have conducted extensive research about these contestations between 2009-2017, employing qualitative methodology, including multiple field trips to each research site, as well as to the European Parliament in Brussels. A large part of the research was funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for my project titled “The Cohabitation of Nationalism and Transnational Integration in Europe.” The conceptual framework is built from a combination of institutionalist and rationalist concepts. The comparative analysis employs qualitative methods: process tracing, discourse analysis, and Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA).