The rise of the new populists

Forgotten lessons from the laboratory of European nationalism

By Robert Wilton

The House of Culture – a crude block of cream plaster and red tile, lost in a suburb of Kosovo’s capital Prishtina, like an early attempt with Lego long hidden in an attic – is an unlikely monument to European chaos. Here in April 1987 a communist party official named Slobodan Milošević was sent to placate a crowd of Serbs protesting about perceived discrimination.

Instead he stoked and rode their anger, and his provocation became the symbolic moment when politics in multi-ethnic Yugoslavia became explicitly about ethnic rivalry. His sponsors and supporters in the media, politics, business and academia contributed their distinct fuel to the fire.

Yugoslavia’s Croats and the Serbs – the two largest ethnic groups – both convinced themselves that they were being oppressed, and local acts of defiance became obnoxious self-defence, which became offence, which became a decade-long collapse that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and introduced the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ to the European public.

You need only cross the roundabout from the House of Culture to get to the city’s main railway station. It was here in spring 1999, that vast numbers of ethnic Albanians, those who had survived the massacres and the mass rapes, were forced onto trains for deportation.

The nationalism conjured and exploited by Milošević had the thinnest basis in truth. The real roots of Serbian discomfort were in Yugoslavia’s prolonged economic difficulties following the global recession of the 1970s: but that’s not as powerful a slogan to use on a grumpy crowd. Whether or not it was true was irrelevant; it felt true to people at that moment.

Better yet: people could be made to feel that it was true. (In the same way, data would suggest Britain is not in truth being swamped by immigrants; but you might feel it is, even if – or precisely because – you’ve never seen an immigrant and only know what the papers tell you about their numerousness and criminality). And we live in an age when what is factual has been subordinated to what is felt.

“Their statements had to have at least a shaky foundation in truth, and they were at least assertions of truth.”

Politics now bypasses – or never reaches – the front, reasoning parts of the brain: it is an onslaught of literally irrational images targeting the more primitive core of our brains, the part where instinctive defensive responses are triggered against perceived threats emotional as much as physical, its icon a leader whose brain knows only the animalistic instinctual response.

When I first started working in Albanian politics, I was bewildered by the political language. Back in the UK, politicians might be offensive about each other, propagandising, scandalising, misrepresenting; but their statements had to have at least a shaky foundation in truth, and they were at least assertions of truth.

In Albanian politics, I found, truth was irrelevant: politicians would accuse each other of absolutely anything – corruption, murder, paedophilia – not because it was true, not because they believed it was true, and not because they expected anyone else to believe it was true; their accusations were offensive noise only, a rhetoric born of the communist show-trials, intended to destroy character and rally the crowd.

Of course, I thought that I and those like me were helping to bring Euro-Atlantic democratic values to Albania; it turned out that the anti-democratic values were growing across Europe and the Atlantic instead.

“The Balkans have always been the laboratory of European ideas about nationalism.”

Milošević’s Serb nationalism was a grotesque failure for his people. They have watched their state become successively smaller. Of the seven countries that emerged from Yugoslavia, four are in NATO, and two are already in the EU while the others are in the queue; only Serbia remains in a stubborn limbo, propped up by Russian arms, investment and Orthodox Church fraternity, while the young look westwards and wonder what their parents got them into. Milošević himself died in a cell in the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.

The Balkans have always been the laboratory of European ideas about nationalism. The first German theorists about nation, in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, found their purest examples of the link between folk and culture and identity in south-eastern Europe. The wars of the 90s seemed to show that nationalism was some peculiar folk tradition of the region, like home-made firewater or the belief fresh air is bad for you.

Not only does this misrepresent the peoples of the Balkans who – despite enduring poverty, external meddling and political impermanence – have spent a remarkable preponderance of the last millennium not killing each other; it is also misguidedly complacent about the rest of Europe.

The Balkans have always been the laboratory of European ideas about nationalism. The first German theorists about nation, in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, found their purest examples of the link between folk and culture and identity in south-eastern Europe. The wars of the 90s seemed to show that nationalism was some peculiar folk tradition of the region, like home-made firewater or the belief fresh air is bad for you.

Poland’s President Duda has just won re-election with a campaign ‘marked by homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric’, according to international monitors. Earlier this year Hungary’s government marked the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon with a monument representing the ‘Greater Hungary’ which the Treaty carved up after the First World War.

Hungary’s Orbán – exclusively Christian, obnoxiously patriarchal (women get life exemption from tax if they produce four babies), explicitly anti-liberal and aggressively anti-immigrant (he completed his wall) – has been celebrated by conservative writers in America and elsewhere.

The dominance of Duda in Poland and Orbán in Hungary has been built on a weakening of the democratic elements – courts, media, parliamentary scrutiny, free elections – that might restrict them. That weakening has been part of the deal for voters more nation, less democracy – and voters, predominantly the older and more conservative, have bought it.

Nationalism is not something exclusive to south-eastern Europe, some genetic trait peculiar to Slavs and Illyrians, something in the air or the water. It was and is a political response, playing on an emotional response, to perceived circumstances. (To avoid a mischievous and dangerous conflation of two very different ideas: patriotism is a reaction to your own country and perceived identity; nationalism is a reaction against another.

“The kind of populist xenophobia that kindled violence in the Balkans is now commonplace among politicians and media in the UK and US.”

I can feel patriotic about Her Majesty the Queen, Cheddar cheese, cricket, proper beer, Rule Britannia, whatever, without ever having met or formed any opinion of the King of Thailand, Camembert, baseball, watery foreign lagers or Deutschland Uber Alles.

But I can feel nationalistic only against something or someone else: nationalism is essentially negative. And as Europe more widely, after half a century of relative stability, once again feels uneasy about its finances and its identities, so arises nationalism: to explain our woes, to stroke our discomforts, to stimulate readers and voters.

The kind of populist xenophobia that kindled violence in the Balkans is now commonplace among politicians and media in the UK and US. The same attacks on democratic protections, which in Eastern Europe are reinforcing nationalism and drawing unprecedented EU criticism, have been seen in dozens of little steps in London and Washington: courts ignored, institutions over-ridden, processes of transparency or scrutiny or appeal short-circuited, senior public servants forced out.

The Balkans didn’t invent nationalism. But the region shows most starkly what nationalism looks like, when cultivated as it is increasingly being cultivated in the west.

It looks like politicians aligning themselves with racist protestors, rather than leading them to something more constructive. It looks like communities being demonised and rejected. It looks like the hollowing of democratic systems. It looks like countries are becoming weaker, not stronger. The gloomy crumbling house of culture outside Prishtina isn’t a memorial, but a message.

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