Racializing Politics: We don’t say “Slav” Democracy troubled in Ukraine, why Talk about “Arab” Failures?

The troubles that Ukraine is having (and that Russia and the former Yugoslavia also had) in its post-Soviet politics, with a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy and between a Moscow orientation versus a Brussels one, are very similar to the difficulties that have beset many countries of the Arab world in the past few years.

It is striking to me that we typically don’t speak of these difficulties as those of “Slavs” or of the “Slavic world.” In English we now tend to speak of eastern Europe, using a geographical term. Russians, Ukrainians and Serbs, Bosnians and Croats, all speak “Slavic” languages and in past decades it was in fact not uncommon to speak of them as Slavs. (This is still done in the Russian press to some extent). Robert Vitalis at the University of Pennsylvania argues that racial categories were key, not incidental, to most political science analysis in the US in the first half of the twentieth century.

But nowadays most journalism on eastern Europe is more sophisticated than that. This Euronews article analyzes Ukraine’s divisions as generational and regional. Thus, youth under 30 overwhelmingly favor joining the European Union whereas their elders who can still remember the Soviet Union often still look toward Moscow. Those in the west of the country favor Europe, those in the east favor Russia.

Some journalists take a third tack, looking at the economy. This IBT piece identifies key problems in the Ukrainian economy — including low foreign direct investment rates, high unemployment, especially for college graduates, a bloated service sector, dependence on imported fuel, etc. (Since Ukraine gets its natural gas from Russia, that gives Putin leverage over Kyiv.)

Another tendency in the Western press is to foreground religious identity and to imagine that people in the Middle East are acting out of “age-old hatreds.” Whenever we historians have looked into supposed age-old hatreds, we have found that most often people have gotten along fine for decades. Economic struggles are more important than sectarian ones in Syria, but they overlap in ways that makes it easy to mistake religious markers of identity as the important ones when it is social class that is at issue.

Imagining that Egypt’s problems go back to its Mamluk sultans or to Islamic Caliphs is not very useful. Seeing the ways in which its problems are common to a post-Soviet world economy is much more salient.

Ukraine’s economy sounds to me a very great deal like Egypt’s. Both have a socialist background, though Egypt’s state probably only ever absorbed about half the economy, whereas in Ukraine the state was probably 95% in the Soviet period. Still, both of them have struggled toward a greater marketization of the economy, with all the inequities that process entails. Both have high unemployment, especially for college-educated youth. Both depend on foreign hydrocarbon states (Russia for Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for Egypt), and those rentier patrons in both cases are pushing authoritarian policies because they are threatened by democracy and don’t want it breaking out nearby lest it spread to them.

One big difference is that the Ukraine is in demographic decline, with few young people coming up and a danger of rapid greying. Egypt since its revolution has gone back to very large birth rates.

Western analyses of the Middle East often racializes the analysis (implicitly asking ‘what is wrong with those Arabs?’) But few would nowadays ask ‘what is wrong with those Slavs?’ Racializing is always essentialist and always wrong. While there are differences of culture and history among peoples that cause them to play different language games, these differences have nothing to do with biological traits or kinship.

Good social analysis does look at generational differences, at geographical ones, at economic problems. These analytical tools are non-essentialist, since the considerations involved change over time and allow for people with a language in common still to differ from one another in other respects. This analysis avoids the fallacy of national character.

I’m not arguing that it is necessary to stop speaking of Arabs or the Arab world. The latter has an institutional framework in the Arab League, which groups 21 mostly Arabic-speaking countries plus, for some strange reason, Somalia. But to generalize about “Arabs,” as is still common in the Western press, is to racialize a linguistic category. Moroccans and Kuwaitis don’t actually have much in common except their use of Arabic. Their spoken dialects are barely mutually comprehensible. Kuwait is a small highly urban and literate prosperous city-state of 3.2 million people (a little more populous than Lithuania). Morocco is a still largely rural society of 32 million with a still-high rate of illiteracy, a little less populous than Poland. Their social structures, economies and ecologies are completely different. They aren’t the same “race.”

There anyway are no “races” in the Romantic 19th century sense of a relatively unmixed kinship group with a set of shared character traits and long residence on a particular territory. In fact, all human groups are very extensively intermixed with others, and groups have moved around a great deal.

So comparing Egypt to the Ukraine may be more useful than comparing Egypt to Tunisia, and obviously the latter two haven’t had similar political outcomes.

Interestingly, both Ukrainian and Egyptian demonstrators speak of going to the public square, using the same word, “maidan.” Why is Kyiv’s square called a ‘maidan’? Likely because the city was part of the realm of the Mongol Golden Horde, which under Uzbeg (Oz-Beg) in the 1300s adopted Islam, bringing some Arabic and Persian words in. The world is smaller than it seems.


Related video:

Reuters reports, “Ukraine government, opposition agree to a truce”

33 Responses

  1. At this point in time it would not surprise me if more than 50% of the population of people living in countries that are currently part of the EU thought that the EU itself was a bad idea.
    Those western oriented Ukrainians must be totally out of touch with what is going on in the EU. For the life in me I can not figure out why they think that if their country became part of the EU they would end up living like Germans and not as Greeks.

    • It’s no longer primarily about the EU, but about trying to outs an unpopular and violent government controlled by a foreign power.

      • So they can replace the current foreign controlled Govt. (Russia) you describe with another foreign controlled Govt. (EU/USA)? Do you really consider that progress? The west cares about the Ukraine because of the “Grand Game” as described by Zbigniew Brezinski. The quality of life most likely will not improve under the control of Western ideologues, just look at the era under Yulia and Victor. What happens the next time the majority of Ukrainians chose to align with Russia? Will violent revolution still be okay by Western values? Or is this just another “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy? Geography matters.

    • “For the life in me I can not figure out why they think that if their country became part of the EU they would end up living like Germans and not as Greeks.”

      If they were to become a member of the EU, whether they lived like Germans or like Greeks would depend largely on whether or not they ran a disciplined economy: foregoing a bloated, overpaid state bureaucracy; foregoing subsidies; the government collecting, and the public paying the full amount of taxes owed; etc.

      • Indeed. It wasn’t the EU that did for Greece. It was joining the Euro common currency, when the Greek economy was not robust enough to do so.

      • When you have a large number of people who are poor now and want to live like Germans, not in 30 or 40 years but tommorrow, what are the chances that the new rulers, no matter who they are, are going to things the way that they should be done, which is how Warren Mosler, Michael Hudson and Marshall Auerback would do them?

  2. Good question, why do we call it “Arab” failures? Nations fail because of bad leadership, poor policies, or the inability of it’s citizens to put aside all differences for a common goal. Some even have begun because of instigation and interference by other nations. Millions have been poured into anti Islamic campaigns, so labeling any conflict into “Arab” or Islamic nations failures, plays into the hands of these anti Muslims bigots, and the media, also has to take for blame for labeling it as such. Do we ever hear the military occupation of the Palestinians as a Jewish occupation, or the now two infamous and failed wars by the US on Afghanistan and Iraq as White/Christian led wars?
    Perhaps the Arabs being semites, should also start accusing the name callers, anti semitic. Or has someone else trade marked those words exclusively for themselves?

  3. I understand that in this kind of article it is impossible to mention more than just a bit about a particular country. All the same, in the case of Kuwait for example, to say only that it is prosperous with a population of 3.2 million seems to me not the most accurate characterization. I have understood that less than half the population has Kuwaiti citizenship, and that non citizens have few rights and probably a precarious life. Is that true?

    James, a faithful reader.

  4. it’s because “Arab” is code-word for “Muslim” even though many Arabs aren’t Muslim. Those crazzzzyyyy Muslims…

  5. Marcellus Shale

    Interestingly,Putin’s white Russian contempt for both Slavic and Islamic “inferiors” is commonality that defines the difference.

  6. Here’s one reason. A number of Slavic nations like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia have functioning democratic systems with relative free and transparent elections where power changes hands peacefully and Croatia and Bulgaria aren’t too far behind.

    How many Arabic speaking countries can say the same?

  7. The reduction of the Syrian conflict into a narrative of eternal Shiite/Sunni warfare is another example of this tendency.

    But I’m old enough remember, back in the 1990s, that the argument “Those people have been killing each other for centuries” was very popular among Americans who opposed intervention in the ugly break-up of Yugoslavia. The ethnic hatred, so conveniently and suddenly whipped up by Milosevic and his Croatian counterpart when it served a political-strategic purpose, was just assumed to be “what those people do.”

    Perhaps it’s the experience of two decades of democracy in the Slavic world that changed American perceptions.

    • Actually, the Slavic World is much larger than the components of the former Yugoslavia. What people were referring to in the 1990s regarding a history of “killing each other” was specifically the Balkans.

      In fact, ethnic and religious strife, killing, and cleansing does have a long history in the Balkans: Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria, experienced ethnic strife, violence, and killing during the Second Balkan War in 1913 that could have been taken from the headlines of the 1990s.

      In 1913, with the outbreak of the Second Balkan War, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace established an international commission to establish the facts in the conflict. The noted diplomat and historian George F. Kennan describes the commission’s report and compares the Balkan crises of 1913 and the 1990s in his article, “The Balkan Crises in 1913 and 1993,” originally published in the New York Review of Books, edition of July 15, 1993. The affected peoples were not living in idyllic harmony in 1913, any more than they were in 1993. It was Marshall Tito (a Croat, by the way) who kept the lid on the disparate ethnic, religious, and national groups, and he did it with an iron fist. Without the iron fist, the place fell apart.

      • “Actually, the Slavic World is much larger than the components of the former Yugoslavia. What people were referring to in the 1990s regarding a history of “killing each other” was specifically the Balkans.”

        Nonetheless, the quasi-racist assumption that “those people” are just eternally violent was applied to Slavic peoples just a few years ago, and is not something unique to how we discuss Arabs.

        In fact, ethnic and religious strife, killing, and cleansing does have a long history in the Balkans

        Bill, ethnic and religious strife, killing, and cleansing has a long history everywhere. You bring up World Wars I and II as examples…okay, so why don’t we hear that old trope applied to France and Germany, who did a great deal more killing than anyone in the Balkans in both of those wars?

        • “Bill, ethnic and religious strife, killing, and cleansing has a long history everywhere. You bring up World Wars I and II as examples…okay, so why don’t we hear that old trope applied to France and Germany, who did a great deal more killing than anyone in the Balkans in both of those wars?”

          Pay attention to what I wrote, Joe. Nowhere in my comment did I bring up World Wars I and II as examples. I specifically referred to the Second Balkan War of 1913. And I kept my comment specific to the Balkans because I was responding to your posting regarding the “Slavic World,” although in referring to the 1990s, you must have meant the Balkans, since it was in the Balkans, not the wider Slavic World, where the ethnic strife, killing, and cleansing occurred.

        • You’re going to pretend that the Balkan crisis of 1913 has nothing to do with World War One?

          Are you trying to make some kind of point, or just playing the I Was Right On The Internet game?

          I’m going to ask you again: why, when we have the examples of World Wars One and Two, do we not hear the same tropes about “those people have been killing each other for centuries” applied to the Germans and French?

        • Nice try, Joe. But your shift from suggesting I used World Wars I and II as examples to finessing it as if you had asked the question originally is too transparent. Now, back to the issue at hand, the Balkans.

          The Balkan War of 1913 was a discrete historical event that I used to follow up on your original comment about the Slavic World (which I took to mean the Balkans of the 1990s).. I used it as an example of much ethnic bloodletting and cleansing in itself. That is a fact that was brought out in spades by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Commission’s report in 1913, to which I referred in my comment.

          That the Balkan conflicts were part of the mix that went into the start of World War I is common knowledge. But we weren’t discussing the origins of World War I; the discussion centered on ethnic strife, killings and cleansing in the Balkans. I prefer to stay on topic.

  8. Steve Lerman

    About 40% of the country identifies with Poland and Western civilization and another 40% identifies with Russian. A clash of civilizations?

    • The division between those who want to throw their lot in with the West and those who want to throw their lot in with the Russians follows the religious demarcation line between the Uniate western part of the country (which recognizes the Vatican and Pope as supreme, but practices the Orthodox faith) and the Eastern Orthodox eastern part of the country.

  9. The overnight truce between protesters and the Ukrainian government has been broken, and the violence has ratcheted up. Can Senator Mcain’s call for the US to establish a “No-Fly” zone be far behind?

    • I’d like to be able to say that’s a terrible thing to say about John McCain, but then again, remember Georgia.

      That guy is just nuts.

  10. It’s also strange in the case of the Ukraine that the divisions are also along age lines just as they may have played a factor in the Arab world. The youth of the Ukraine seem to think the EU has the solution to youth unemployment when it’s at catastrophic levels just about everywhere but especially Spain and Greece.

    • Being governed like the EU countries would clearly be an improvement over the present situation or to be governed like Belarus now or Moldova of much of its post Soviet history. A Putinist Russia without oil or gas would be highly questionable also.

      The myth that Ukraine is just about to make a choice on whether to join the Euro zone and thus supposedly faces immediate economic catastrophe because of that alleged decision seems to be peculiarly wide spread. By the time Ukraine joins the Euro zone (if this does happen) the crisis will have been over for years, if not decades. In the worst case scenario the Euro zone will have been disbanded and the question will be irrelevant. Poland, much wealthier than Moldova, Belarus, or Ukraine does not currently use the euro at it is a member of the EU.

      It is obvious that Ukraine can do much, much better than it has since 1991. Avoiding Putin-like politicians and extreme corruption will help. Adopting reforms to strength democracy, the rule of law, and to reform the economy to become more like many EU states would be an improvement. Spain, Itay, and Greece are having problems right now, but even Greece, not representative of most EU states, has a much higher per capita GNP than Ukraine (which actually faces the prospect of bankruptcy under Yanukovyvch). Putin’s aid package only provides immediate short term support for the economy and would discourage reforms and weaken democracy.

    • “Racism” is used to describe prejudice based on race, ethnicity, nationality, skin color, and plenty of other group identities.

      For pointless and not even particularly accurate pedantry, your complaint fails.

  11. If you are EU-US you want to split the Slavs from Russia so you can’t emphasize a common identity. You want instead to play up the “European” identity.
    For the Arabs you want to lump those MENA muslims together as a utility ‘other’. You can’t very well say ‘Semites’ since you must keep them clear of the Jews. So it has to be Arab or Muslim.
    And so it goes according to the whims and dictates of Western (or should that be ‘White’) imperial politics.

  12. Yanukoych has fallen, being deposed by Ukraine’s parliament. It is extremely obvious that the uprising in Ukraine will have major ramifications across the globe, including in Egypt. The failure of the anti-protest law in Ukraine, as well as the futility of butchering protesters, must give Sisi’s handlers pause in their preparation for a presidential bid.

    Putin’s endorsement of Sisi suddenly isn’t looking so good. Putin cannot be said to be on the march if he is not able to help defend his clients much. I have no doubt that if Sisi tries to act like a Yanukovych on crack/steroids during his presidential term, he will eventually fall. The repression in Egypt is already starting to shake the system, though it still is in the warming up phase.

    It is also clear that the Algerian ruling clique is heading for dissolution at the current rate.

    The Ukrainian uprising will help reinvigorate the Arab Spring momentum. It may not be immediate, but there is no getting around the fact that what happened in Ukraine shares strong similarities with changes that swept some North African and Middle Eastern countries.

    Yanukovych tried to vilify protesters and opposition as terrorists, foreign agents, traitors, and extremists but where did that get him? How long can the Egyptian elite continue to condemn all opposition, even peaceful dissidents and protesters, as terrorists, foreign agents, traitors, spies, saboteurs, or aliens? The demolition of the anti-uprising narrative in Ukraine will greatly weaken the vilification campaigns against Arab democracy and human rights movements.

  13. A Western (American) mind that sees everything under nationalist/racialist light can not understand the agony of Ukrainian soul under authoritarian governments. Ukrainians are at heart matriarchal and not nationalistic at all. They are dedicated to their families first. They love their men even as possessions. They (men and women) feel that their men are trusted with them and they are responsible for their happiness. Authoritarianism is contradictory to this. Now Putins and Ayatollahs can go somewhere else and find other subjects.

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