Nationalism Poses A Test for Europe - East and West

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THANKS to television, Europeans generally have been reminded by the Serbs' war on Bosnia of the worst that nationalism can do. Less noticed has been the development of nationalism elsewhere, particularly in west European states where people have thought, "It can't happen here."

In a recent symposium entitled, "Nationalismus - Nein Danke!" or "Nationalism - No Thank You," academics, writers, and politicians from Austria and some of its neighbors debated the growth of nationalism in the post-cold-war period. Their immediate concern was the activity of extreme right-wing parties and groups in their own central European area.

As conference participants noted, events of the past year have amply demonstrated the potential dangers to the West and East.

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The reappearance of racism and a neo-Nazi movement in Germany was perhaps not so surprising, given the past. But now it has spread all over Western Europe. France, Italy, Spain, and even some of the neutral states, Sweden and Austria, have all experienced ugly outbreaks of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

In Eastern Europe, events moved rapidly from revolution in 1989 to the complete unraveling of the region's geopolitical re-arrangement that emerged after World War II. The end of the cold war - and the turmoil in the former communist world since - opened the door to a host of history's old ethnic-territorial disputes which, for better or worse, under the Communists were dormant for years.

Nationalist demagogues quickly used the new democratic institutions to capitalize on the difficulties of starting a new economic system. The first victim was Czechoslovakia. For 70 years, it had been the most stable unit in central-eastern Europe. But last year, Slovak nationalists, while being a minority, forced a Jan. 1 split with the Czech lands.

For a while, Western Europe looked immune. But as refugees from Eastern Europe fled economic distress and sometimes war at home, the West became increasingly vulnerable.

In all the big Western states, public dissatisfaction with government mounted, and the tide of refugees from Eastern Europe made fertile ground for the right.

Nationalists have managed to fan exaggerated public resentment to "aliens," for example, as a major contributor to fast-rising unemployment. Such claims helped the right win votes in France, as earlier in Austria in 1992, and may make gains in German parliamentary elections in 1994.

This resurgent nationalism should not be underrated, but nonetheless needs to be kept in perspective. Its extremes may only be momentarily counter-productive. There have been massive protests against "racism" by a broad public spectrum in most West European countries, notably in Germany and Austria.

The latter is still dogged by past ambivalence to Nazism. Nonetheless, an effort by the extreme rightist leader Jorg Haider to mobilize national support for a constitutional ban on immigration turned out to be a flop in the past few months.

And the elections in Germany's Hesse state showed electors deserting both government and main opposition parties by not voting at all. Because of apathy, the right gained in their percentage of seats in the state parliament, but did not win new voters.

For the West, nationalism anywhere has a lesson, such as that in Eastern Europe in recent years and now in Russia. Meaningful, concrete Western backing - not mere approval - will help strengthen new democratic governments against nationalist challenges and so give them a stability as important to the West in its quest for a united Europe as to themselves.

The West, however, seems more concerned to turn back the asylum-seekers. This in turn is leading central Europeans to combine in devising their own new "iron curtain" to prevent themselves being made the West's refugee "dumping" ground. In the current climate, only the nationalists can benefit.

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