Nationalist patriots can make for a strong competition in politics

Ukrainian political expert Konstantin Bondarenko’s interview about childhood syndrome of nationalism in the countries of post-Soviet space has caused wide discussions, including in the Kazakhstani segment of social networks. Some agree with his opinion that nationalism is a childhood syndrome of nation building that is better to endure during early years, while others are enraged with his interpretation of the very concept.

Today we continue our discussion of the raised problems, but this time with a Kazakhstani expert – general director of Central Asian democracy development fund and a politics PhD Tolgonai Umbetalieva.

– Tolgonai, on practice we see that all post-Soviet countries, in one way or another are “sick” with nationalism. Based on Ukrainian political expert Bondarenko’s opinion, it is not as much a result of the former policies of creating a “soviet man”, as some kind of necessary syndrome that goes with acquiring a national identity. What do you think? Does the state necessarily has to go through nationalistic stage?

The word sickness, despite you putting it in parentheses exemplifies a position, that in my opinion, is dominant in our today’s society. Moreover, it immediately causes a negative reaction, because the word nationalism is usually related to demands for ethnic renaissance of a particular ethnic group. This is further complicated by differing understanding of concepts of nation and nationalism, that themselves cross over with many other, often contradicting categories and concepts. Some examples include such words as, nationalists, Nazis, chauvinists, national-patriots, extremists, radicals and sometimes even fascists, etc. However, in all these accusations we do not see an attempt to understand in which way different members of society and politicians use these terms. In concoction, all of these factors cause a hurricane of emotions. But I would advocate to distance ourselves from such a negative approach.

Let me state right away, that I do not agree with Konstantin Bondarenko’s opinion that nationalism is some kind of required syndrome, that is attached to the process of forming a national identity. It is more of a traditional approach to the concept of nationalism, the kind of approach we are used to. In the meantime, the main question we have to answer about nationalists is what to do with them?

But not all governments approached that question in this manner, turning this issue automatically into a negative one. In most countries, the question was framed differently: How to use nationalism to build a developed country? In most governments, nationalism was viewed as an inherent part of the country, as a certain resources that should be integrated into the state. For example there are liberals, democrats and social-democrats in the country, there are also a part of the state and participate in the development of the country, but nobody is trying to get rid of them. Thus, a question arises: why should nationalism be viewed as a sickness that requires getting rid of? History shows that every state uses their own approach in answering this question. Thus, there is no single idea of nationalism, just as there is no single history of development of nationalism. However, maybe there is a similarity in language used to characterize nationalism – there are views underlining its positive sides and views that talk of negativ ones. That might be the only similarity, but overall I don’t see a common history of nationalism development. It developed differently in each country and logic behind also varied, depending on the state.

– Nationalists really do differ, in Kazakhstan and Ukraine they differ greatly in levels of activity and toughness of their positions, even though you would think they both came out of the same soviet undercoat. Why then, in Ukraine they are one of the major political players, while in Kazakhstan, they are marginalized and not nearly as influential?

I wouldn’t use “disrespectful” definition towards both Ukrainian and Kazakhstani nationalism. Of course both movements have their weak sides, but despite this they don’t allow for some type of hierarchy of these movements. They both have their own pace of development and their own peculiarities and I would like to focus on their commonalities.

I think the commonality between Ukrainian and kazakhstani nationalism is in the fact that they both focus on rethinking of their identities. The identities were formed during Soviet times, precisely within the framework of a “soviet man”, as you have noted. This process of rebuilding of soviet regime and of soviet man, in terms of formation of national identity has started a little earlier in Ukraine than it did in Kazakhstan, but they are both aimed at building independent states and new identities.

Second commonality is understanding of nationalism in its narrow sense as an ethnic aspect and its dominating role. It is in that sense that it is being interpreted in our countries today. Meanwhile, nationalism in its wider and global sense includes all ethnic groups that live in a country, and consider themselves as “one nation”, an certain imagined society. However, this inclusive mechanism doesn’t yet work in our countries, and is usually replaced by the process of exclusion of “others” from nation building efforts. In my opinion, the process of exclusion of others, in their case, Russians, has worked better in Ukraine than it did in Kazakhstan.

– One of the common traits of nationalist forces, especially radical ones, is their hatred of another nation and its language. In both Ukraine and Kazakhstan it is Russians and Russian language, in Russia itself, it is USA, Ukraine, North Caucasus, etc. Why does that happen and is it inevitable?

This is more likely related to the fact that nation-building is viewed as a final goal, and thus questions come up: “Why we still haven’t created such a state? Who’s to blame for that? While, in the nationalism of a global kind, a question is posed differently: “How can we include all citizens (ethnic groups, different social classes) in the development process? Thus in a more global sense, nationalism is viewed more of a requirement of moving to the next stage.

Today, on the post-Soviet space, it is the titular nation that is in the forefront of nationalistic ideas. Russians in Russia, Ukrainians in Ukraine, etc. It is titular nations, their interests and their needs that are placed first, since for many years they were put into the periphery. Thus, they ask questions such as: Why we still haven’t become a full-fledged nation, and who is to blame for that? And there are always culprits, that have to take the blame for that.

– Can a nationalism be formative rather than destructive? How may that apply with regards to our country?

Ideally, nationalism has to be a creative force. Nationalism can take a positive turn, if it integrates everyone in itself. In other words, when the word nation stops meaning a single ethnic group, and starts including citizens of all ethnic groups. As far as Kazakhstan is concerned, one of the options is possible, which is a cooperative discussion between all active citizens and political leaders of the possible ways of developing Kazakhstan as a nation-state.

For starters, we need define our terminology and concepts, so that everyone is one the same page. Maybe the discussion has to center around the questions such as: “Are there controversies and obstacles between ethnic groups? How much do interests of Kazakhs differ from interests of other ethnic groups, on the matters of development of the country? Is there a possibility for compromise on the toughest and most sensitive topics?”

There is an interesting rule in politics that might have been forgotten today. Politics is an art of engaging others with your interests and goals. To reshape this question, one might ask – can Kazakh interest other ethnicities with their propositions?

– But why are nationalist parties and groups in today’s Ukraine are important players on the political arena, while in Kazakhstan they are not? Is it because president and the government in Kazakhstan are able to hold nationalists down, while in Ukraine they can’t?

This question may be viewed from a different standpoint. For example, Ukraine’s government may view nationalist parties as a political force, reflecting the interests of a certain portion of the population. This is why political elite has to make due with them. Consider their interests and not ignore them. This is why what’s happening in Ukraine, should not necessarily be viewed as a weak government, that cannot hold down certain forces.

In Kazakhstan, on the other hand, national-patriots do not have the right to participate in a competition for power. This is why they fight for certain goals, they loudly announce their presence but they still didn’t voice their intention of running for power. If the government will consider their interests and include them in their governmental programs, there will be not political confrontation between them. It is important for national-democrats today, that their ideas come to life, but it’s not as important, who will make these ideas come to life.

One of the reasons for such an approach, is that it is difficult for them to get institutional representation for their ideas today. There are too many obstacles to register a party of any kind. Even though it is national-patriots that can make for a real competition today. It is for this reason that the ruling powers try to build relations with them, without politicizing them or turning them into competitors.

– And what would you say are perspectives of the nationalists and nationalist political forces? Will they manage to come to power? IF yes, how will it happen: will it be something civic, or a thing resembling the actions of German, Italian, Spanish and Balkan nationalists on the eve of WWII, or god forbid their actions during it?

I understand your anxiety, since there are a lot of conversations going around, using terms such as “fascists”, “extremists”, “nationalists” etc., i.e. using a “violent language”. In Kazakhstani discourse, terms “vatniks” “soviets” are more common. Even though the discussions themselves are just as emotional, but the language if violence, hasn’t gotten such a wide usage, which in itself is a reflection of the state of society and those political forces that participate in the discourse.

Overall, national-patriotic parties may come to power. Of course the radical wing has the least chance of getting to power. Such forces didn’t receive public support before. We see that society, overall is very cautious of radical elements. The more “civilized wing” to use your terminology, has better chances. Thus there won’t be a repeat of the events that took place in Europe before WWII. At least, today, it looks like very unrealistic.

– Thank you for the interview.


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