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From the Archives: Leonid Peisakhin: Eastern European Nation States, Conflicts

In conversation with professor Leonid Peisakhin.

Leonid Peisakhin is Assistant Professor of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi. His interests include political identities, historical legacies, post-conflict reconciliation and politics of Eastern Europe. He studies the effects of the Russian media on voters’ behavior in neighboring countries and persistence of trauma from state-inflicted violence across generations of Crimean Tatars. While his focus is on Eastern Europe, he has also done research in China, India, Lebanon and Guatemala. More on his work can be found here.
Professor Peisakhin, part of your research activities is focused on Eastern Europe. Do you think that this region is being underrepresented in scholarly research?
I think what we’ve been observing over the past 20 to 25 years with regard to the study of Eastern Europe is the reaction to what went on previously. During the Cold War, especially in the U.S. [American] universities and colleges, Eastern Europe received a lot of attention. It was a given that any department would have at least one scholar specialized in the study of Russian, Soviet and communist politics. And it was felt by scholars who worked in other regions, such as the Middle East, Asia and Latin America that Eastern Europe received an unfair amount of attention. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, what happened was that the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and suddenly all positions that existed for study of Eastern Europe disappeared because other regions became more prominent – first Latin America in the 1990s, and in the more recent decade, Asia, especially China and the Middle East. So now with the resurgence of Russia and Putin, there is a greater interest in the study of Russia, and now there are positions once again.
You’ve written about long-lasting legacies of state-inflicted violence upon the Crimean Tatars. Could you talk about the overlap between political science and psychology that’s seems to be of your interest?
What I study are political identities. We can think of that as a topic that is relevant to psychology; it is also a topic that is studied by sociologists and anthropologists. So, that’s a topic that is of interest broadly in the social sciences. Another one of these disputes, of course, in the social sciences is whether psychology is a social science. At our university, the decision was made that psychology is a natural science, but actually many social psychologists and political psychologists would consider this to be a part of the social sciences. The study of identities probably better belongs in the social sciences. What I study is how institutions and institutional pressures shape identities: How your environment, in this case your institutional environment, is going to shape your psychological makeup, and how this psychological makeup is going to be passed across generations. So for example, in my research on the long lasting effects of state violence, in the case of the Crimean Tatars, I look at how the experience of deportation and the institutional experience of being moved by state authorities from one place to another would influence the psychological identity of a population and how that affects the descendants of those who originally had been deported.
Speaking of Crimea, how would you explain the outbreak of the conflict in 21st century Europe?
The states of Eastern Europe are not well established nation-states, with some exceptions like Poland, which has a long history — interrupted — as an independent nation. Countries like Ukraine, Belarus and the Central Asian states are not established nation-states, they have very little national tradition. Ukraine — it’s just a historical fact — has basically not existed within its current boundaries as an independent nation state at all, ever, until 1991. It is not a country with an established national tradition. And so that creates an opportunity for Russia to challenge the legitimacy of Ukrainian national authority, to challenge the very legitimacy of the existence of Ukraine as a nation state. Historically the authorities of the Russian Empire referred to Ukraine as a little Russia. That was the administrative term with the reference to Ukraine, which implies that Ukraine, by definition, it is part of Russian national space. So Ukrainian nationhood is contested, and as a product of the contestation we have the conflict over Crimea. What makes the matter even more complicated [is that] in 1954, First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine by way of celebrating the anniversary of christening, the arrival of Christendom, to Slavic lands. The majority of inhabitants of the peninsula are ethnic Russians. That created an opportunity for Russia and for Putin to challenge the sovereignty of Ukraine over Crimea. Finally, Crimea is of strategic importance. So to make a long story short, because there is a lot of complicated history. Some nation-states in Eastern Europe are relatively young and do not have established history. This creates opportunities for established nation states, or for great powers, or regional powers, like Russia, to interfere in their affairs.
Speaking of these well established nation states, slightly in a wider context of neighborhood, would you say something like that is making these countries uncomfortable with other borders being challenged, because we’re not seeing so much attention being given to the issue politically? At the same time, should challenging the notion of nation state, and challenging the borders of sovereign states so easily, technically evoke some tensions or anxiety?
Why hasn’t the international community done more to challenge Russia’s actions, given that Russia violated the borders of a sovereign state of Ukraine? First of all, the borders of Ukraine, including Crimea, are still internationally recognized. Crimea is not recognized by the United Nations as part of the Russian Federation. So, theoretically speaking, Ukrainian sovereignty is still recognized by international institutions. In reality the situation is obviously quite different, as Crimea is now within the Russian sphere of influence and will likely remain so, barring some unforeseen developments in the immediate future. So, why is that? Well, this has to do with the international architecture. What is the nature of the global order? Who has the authority to adjudicate in the Russia’s dispute with Ukraine? And this is a very tricky question, because legally the United Nations Security Council is the global authority that has the power to adjudicate in these disputes, however, as you know, Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which means it can veto any of its decisions. So the UN Security Council cannot take decisions on this issue.
Let’s remember that the U.S. is engaged in a number of ongoing conflicts, in which Russia is an opponent at the moment. Under President [Barack] Obama, the White House and the State Department have made a statement that military adventurism is not going to be a solution to conflicts in the Middle East — conflicts that the United States has started, in most instances. So if it’s not going to be military adventurism, then how do they solve this conflict? They try and solve them through diplomacy. Diplomacy implies that the United States has to try and work with Russia, as they have tried to do in Syria. And so, because the U.S. is trying to work together with Russia as an ally in the future, that has meant that the U.S. decides where to pick the battles with Russia, and the decision will be made not to pick the battle over Crimea, precisely because — this is going to be controversial — I think there is some sympathy in the U.S. to the idea that Ukraine is part of the Russian cultural space. Secondly, there is the complicating factor that the majority of the Crimean population today is actually ethnically Russian, and there are some notions in the U.S. that there has been a fair referendum in Crimea — not the one that took place, where there was a lot of military force present. The majority of the Crimean population would actually choose to be in the Russian Federation. Now, the question should be asked that is it okay to have a referendum and let people decide which country they want to be with?
Do you think that the Ukrainian Government or Ukrainian leadership can offer something to the minority of Ukrainians still living in Crimea?
Well, they have been trying harder with the Crimean Tatars than the Ukrainians living in Crimea. That’s a big question you’re asking, because obviously we have students from Ukraine and Russia on campus and sometimes there can be tensions in these communities, which is understandable given the current situation. But the Ukrainian government has been trying to demonstrate to the Crimean Tatars that the Ukrainian government is much more friendly toward the Crimean Tatars and the Russian government. It was pretty much a political decision that the Ukrainian government made. They have been trying to indicate to the Ukrainians in Crimea that the Ukrainians have the option to be educated in their own language. As a matter of fact, Crimea is a Russian-speaking area and even ethnic Ukrainians living in Crimea speak Russian, and have always spoken Russian through the 1990s into the 2000s. But the education system did function in Ukrainian, with some subjects offered in Russian. They’re also playing up the issue of the rights of the Crimean Tatar community. Crimean Tatars are Muslim and they have their own organization, a council called the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, which has been banned by the Russian Federation. The television channel in Crimea is called ATR, which was disbanded and closed by Russian authorities because it was thought to be anti-Russian government. The Ukrainian government is now saying this constitutes an infringement on the rights of this ethnic community.
Going back to Ukraine, you said that a lot that is going in Crimea can be explained by the state formation of Ukraine. Could you explain, briefly, what this state formation process looked like in the case of Ukraine as opposed to states that have been established much longer, that serve as classic examples of how nations are being formed?
This is a very difficult question, one that requires a class on nation building and formation of states, and so it will be very difficult for me to answer this in a very satisfactory manner in a succinct way, but I will try. Most established nation states were nations before they became states — they had a sense of nationhood that developed organically over a period of time. These were populations that were united by common language or common foundational myths, and at some point, the elites of these communities said, Actually, we are now a well defined nation, we deserve to have our own state and we should exist within certain geographical boundaries.
The story of the young Eastern European nation states is a story of states in search of nations. The populations of these countries did not organically develop a state of nationhood. Rather, statehood was thrust upon these countries in the absence of a nation. The reason this happened is because these countries were part of an empire or component parts of empires. When the empires fell apart at the end of World War I in 1918, at the Versailles Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States, advocated for self determination for ethnic groups to form nations. Thus, people started looking for these nations — where are they? Well, are Romanians a nation? I’m sure Romanians will say that they have been part of a nation for a very long time — but actually it is kind of complicated because Transylvania is very different from, say, Wallachia in the south and Moldova is quite different from Transylvania, for Transylvania had been part of the Austrian empire. Wallachia and Moldova were part of the Ottoman empire, and so had very different civil institutions and religion practices.
The same applies to Ukraine. Ukraine had been divided historically in the Imperial period, between the Austrian and the Russian empires, each having different institutions and different ideas of what it meant to be part of the Ukrainian nation. In fact, the term Ukrainian was very recently born in the late 19th century. That speaks to the fact that these are not mature national communities.
We would now like to talk about migration. How does the collective memory of migration and displacement over the 20th century in Europe now affect the specific attitudes different countries have towards migration and the refugee crisis?
Part of the question has to do with the impacts of migration and forced migration on populations that were affected by these practices. Remember that, for example, in the case of Poland, the whole country had not been deported or forced to migrate but substantial sections or segments of the whole population have gone through the experience. After the end of the Second World War, Germans were pushed out of what is today Western Poland and relocated to the former East Germany. Ukrainians from close to the eastern border with Ukraine were then moved in part to Ukraine and in part to Western Poland, basically moved away from the Polish-Ukrainian border. This is just the case of one country, Poland.
There was also forced movement of ethnic Germans from former Czechoslovakia, for instance. There were ethnicity-based mass deportations in the Soviet Union under Stalin. So the effect of these forced migrations on these populations that actually experienced such forced migrations is one of trauma. What I find in my research is that people who experienced forced migrations are – and this is generally the finding in the literature – less likely to be trusting of outsiders. They are more likely to build their social network within their own ethnic group. They are more likely to engage in politics actively, to engage in protests, for example, so more likely to be prone to violence. That affects those who have directly experienced state-sponsored violence.
There is another question, and that is, generally speaking, the attitude towards migrants today in Eastern Europe. We all know that the attitude towards migrants today in Eastern and Central Europe is appallingly bad and very intolerant. And the question arises as to why this is. It is an especially interesting question in the context of Hungary, as it happens, because Hungary has a very permissive ethnic policy. Hungary actually positions itself as a multi-ethnic state that recognizes the rights of ethnic minorities. And the reason Hungary does that is because it strengthens an example of treating minorities with respect to the neighboring countries that have ethnic Hungarians living in their territories. But in fact, it is the case that – this is going to be very strong, but former Communist countries are quite xenophobic. This is paradoxical because Communism is about internationalism, right? It is about the workers of the world united, a particular class of people coming together. So ethnicities shouldn’t, in principle, matter. National belongings shouldn’t matter. But, nonetheless, these countries are extremely xenophobic. Why? I think the answer is that these countries are very homogeneous, or dominated by a large ethnic group. The people are just not used to seeing outsiders. A black person or an Asian person in Russia, Ukraine, Hungary or the Czech Republic is kind of scary. They challenge the status quo. Who are those people? We don’t have people like that in our society. What right do they have to be here? Are they trying to corrupt our traditional values, whatever those may be? So, the problem with these societies is that they are not very outward-looking or multi-cultural.
Historically they didn’t have a lot of exposure to outsiders; these societies were homogenous, and that fact that that they dominated via ethnic majorities was already the case before the Second World War. What the Soviet Union did within the Communist Bloc was to start unmixing people. For example, by deporting ethnic Germans from Poland, the Soviet Union made Poland into a more ethnically homogenous state – the other big minority group was taken out. Let’s remember that the Jews who lived in Poland before the war were largely murdered while those who survived were left to go to Israel of their own volition. That’s another example of such unmixing. So, what happened in the immediate aftermath of the Second World war is a lot of this kind of unmixing. Lots of the other ethnic, religious and cultural groups were taken out and moved out to be together with their own group. This unmixing of peoples produced a more homogenous society that had already been there historically. And that then translates to the kind of intolerance towards the migrants that we are currently observing, in my view.
Actually according to your experience, you know, going from Eastern Europe to the MENA region, how has that transition affected your research agenda? Are you able to draw any parallels between your experiences in Eastern Europe and here?
Well, I think it has opened up interesting research opportunities. I study political agency in general and this question of nation-building is something that’s been very interesting in the region, because the UAE itself is going through this very process. We spent some time talking about young nations and how a nation comes about. The UAE is an example of a state that doesn’t actually have a nation. The UAE was created as a state with certain boundaries by the British and by the international community. Now, they have to build a nation within these boundaries and make sense of the ideal of what it means to be a nation.
The UAE is going through the process of mandatory military service, educational programs and creating national symbols in the context of a community where the citizens make up such a tiny proportion of population. It is a real challenge. So, the questions we have discussed with regard to Eastern Europe apply to the Middle Eastern region as well. More practically, I am doing a project at the moment on identities of Lebanon. This is in Beirut, and I am looking at corporations and sectarian corporations, trying to better understand how one can incentivize the Sunnis and the Shias to work together. We know there is a sectarian divide between them. This is a big problem in the region and has to do with the ways that the Sunni and the Shia identities have been recently changing over the past two decades. So what I am trying to do is to figure out how we could get these groups to cooperate. This is connected to my other research interests that are more focused on Eastern Europe and have to do with identities and how they are changed and created.
Do you see apparent patterns of states and institutions in terms of this identity creation in Lebanon as you are working on the project right now?
I think there is some potential. The Lebanese situation is complicated because it has to do with the fact that there are external actors involved in trying to make the conflict worse and strengthen the sectarian strife. We are talking, obviously, about Saudi Arabia and Iran as representatives of the Sunni and the Shia sects in a situation where a lot of financial and military backing for Lebanon comes from the outside, from these two great regional powers. So it is difficult for Lebanese authorities to do something against this external pressure. For example, the construction of the common Lebanese national identity, a project that was tried after the end of the civil war in 1995 in Lebanon, was a controversial issue. It is very difficult for the Lebanese government to try and work toward that. So can it be done in principle? Can a Lebanese national identity be created? We can replace the word Lebanese with Libyan, Syrian, Iraqi, any Middle Eastern country that has sectarian problems. The answer is yes, for sure. States can engage in educational activities that can create a common national identity and surpass sectarian differences. But it is very, very difficult to say how it works.
Anna Serobyan is a contributing writer. Email her and the Research Desk at
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