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Nationalism, Populism and Ethnic Conflict Management in Eastern Europe
Course Description

The birthplace of the nation-state and multinational empires, Europe is notable not only for its history of secessionist and irredentist movements, but also for its long history of international conflict management. From the recognition of religious minorities under the Ottoman Empire and the protection of certain groups in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia to the modern interventions of NATO and the European Union in postcommunist Europe, Western governments have a storied history of attempting to resolve the tension between state power and nationalist movements using ethnic partition, military intervention and ethnic power-sharing to the granting of cultural or language rights—all with varying degrees of success. The past century alone has borne witness to three major periods of political upheaval in Eastern Europe. Two of these—the fall of the Habsburg, Ottoman, German and Russian Empires at the end of World War I and the fall of the Soviet, Czechoslovak and Yugoslav socialist ethnofederations at the end of the Cold War—coincided with an upsurge of nationalist movements whose leaders sought to alter state borders or create new ones. After World War I, the victorious Allied Powers redrew the political boundaries of Eastern Europe’s multinational empires and forever altered the fate of its peoples. To prevent ethnic retributions in the wake of this political settlement, the Allied Powers set up a system of minority protection under the League of Nations. In the end, the League failed to prevent the persecution of minorities in Poland, Hungary, Albania, and Romania in the 1920s and 1930s. Populism, then a nascent force in interwar Europe, was quickly diverted into fascism in several East European countries, followed by military revisionism and systemic war.      

Nationalism, populism and ethnic conflict reemerged on the international stage in the 1990s after forty-five years of relative quiescence. In the context of political transition, numerous self-identified nations and groups sought self-determination in response to ethnic fears or economic opportunities—in some cases leading to violence. To ensure the stability of the region and prevent a tidal wave of East European migrants to the West, the US and West European governments worked closely with NATO, the EU, the UN, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to ameliorate sectarian tensions in the region. Today, the UN, EU and NATO continue to search for solutions to ongoing violent conflicts in former Soviet Republics of Ukraine and Georgia as well as the newly independent Balkans states of Kosovo, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and North Macedonia. In recent years, populist movements (combined with ethnonationalism) have produced ethnopopulist governments in Poland, Hungary, Russia, North Macedonia, and Serbia—as popular discontent with the results of neoliberalism and technocratic governance under European institutions roils national societies.

Although we cover conflicts from other parts of the world, we focus primarily on Eastern Europe because the region has long history of nationalism, populism, and ethnic conflict management. We can therefore benefit from examining Europe’s historical record to learn which tools are most likely to succeed in resolving sectarian conflicts—both in the region and beyond. Over twelve weeks, we will examine the successes and failures of Europe’s long history of conflict management to see whether lessons can be drawn from earlier periods of conflict management that can help policy makers today. We also assess the newer threat posed by right-wing populist movements in order to identify what, if anything, can be done to ameliorate conflict associated with populist nationalism. Although the course is focused primarily on Eastern Europe, we continually cast our gaze to comparable cases of conflict management in other parts of the world.

            The course is designed to give students both a theoretical and practical understanding of issues surrounding ethnic conflict management. The course begins with concepts and definitions of minorities, ethnic groups, and nations. We then consider the origins, actors and processes associated with the emergence of both nationalist and ethnic conflict. This is followed by an examination of the history of populism in Eastern Europe and how it has intersected with ethnonationalism. In subsequent weeks, we review the ways in which these movements have shaped states of the region as well as strategies undertaken by the international community to reduce tensions associated with these movements—in both historical and contemporary Europe. Finally, we assess the effectiveness of different strategies of conflict management—including preventive diplomacy and ethnic partition—that are used by policy makers around the world to manage these tensions.

The overriding goal of the course is to give students the tools to evaluate the causes of nationalist, ethnic and populist conflicts in order to prescribe solutions in concrete cases. The aim is to explore the intersection of theory and practice to give students a grounding in the strategies used to manage conflict, as well as an understanding of why one might work better than another in a given case. This experience (intertwining theory and practice) will ideally suggest ways in which future security regimes can be designed to reduce existing conflicts while preventing the outbreak of new ones.




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