Better peaceful separation than forced tolerance

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE INSTANT at which a community becomes two communities is a mystery as invisible as conception. From the wreckage of Yugoslavia there have come many reports after the event: neighbours who become enemies, schoolfriends who kill one another. But Granada's film We are all Neighbours, shown on Tuesday night, managed to find its way to the precise moments of fission in a Bosnian village.

Muslims and Catholics lived there together. There was a church and a mosque. At the outset the villagers seem a single community, often close friends across the religious boundary, listening to the approaching guns and united by fear of what may happen to them. Then Croat militiamen are seen digging what might be a gun emplacement near a haystack. A small, cold wind of fear springs up. Muslims and Catholics begin separate patrols to guard their houses. Neighbours stop visiting, pretend not to see one another. In the end, Croat forces move to seize this scrap of territory, and the Catholic villagers - now 'Croats' - join in the killing, the burning, the expulsion of the Muslims.

At the heart of this tale is the scene where a Catholic woman tries to describe what is happening inside her - how she finds that she has suddenly, helplessly turned into a Croat who must fear and mistrust the Muslim neighbours she has known all her life. She cannot explain it. She does not even seem happy about it. But she knows that this inner change is irreversible. There is no way back to her village as it was before. There are now two communities, which can only fight or agree to separate for ever.

What happened in that village was piteous and a human disaster. The atrocities in all Bosnia are piteous, and I still believe that it would be right to use foreign troops to stop them - even though military intervention cannot do much more than halt the onslaught of one group upon another. But we should not only hate but also understand what happened in the village. The West is screwing up its courage to get involved in Bosnia. But it is getting involved under the wrong slogans.

I detect the launch of a crusade of Civilisation against Nationalism. In propaganda terms, this crusade is already under way. What is happening in ex-Yugoslavia is presented as 'tribalism' and 'anarchy', as primitive nationalism, which is the true adversary of a New World Order not just in the Balkans but throughout the world. On the banner that decent and progressive men and women should carry is written 'Internationalism', or 'The Multi- Ethnic Society'.

These slogans are less good than they sound. There is certainly something primitive about all collective violence and greed (although the old empires and nation-states of the West have infinitely more experience in those practices than the 'tribes' they once dominated). And there is everything excellent about a land or a city where people of all kinds of origin live peacefully together by their own choice. But to assume that the world system is internationalism, threatened by a horrible old nationalist demon clambering out of the pit to which history consigned it - that is the truth turned inside out.

Nationalism dominates the world - nationalism enlightened or savage, tolerant or xenophobic, modernising or isolationist. That is a fact that the Cold War obscured for 50 years. And internationalism - which can also be good or bad, fraternal or imperial - is no more than a force that can moderate nationalism but never overcome it. As the Scottish writer Tom Nairn put it the other day: 'Socialists have to decide what sort of capitalists they will be, and internationalists what sort of nationalists they will become.'

Look again at the tragedy of that Bosnian village. Some multi-ethnic communities are the result of free choice by their members - the United States, for example. But most multi- ethnic communities in Europe were established and maintained by imperial force. Bosnia was created by the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and preserved as an ethnic mixture into our own times by the supra-national force of Tito's Yugoslavia. The Habsburgs, again, were responsible for settling Orthodox Serbs as a military garrison belt in the Catholic lands of Croatia. Catherine the Great colonised her conquests along the Black Sea shore by planting Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Armenians and Jews there and ordaining that they should live together. Stalin's deportations turned Muslim Central Asia into multi-ethnic communities. Britain settled Scottish and English Protestants in Northern Ireland.

While the empire remains, a mixed community unites to avoid conflict for fear of punishment from above. When the imperial weight is removed, this motive for unity is removed, too. Democratic politics arrive, inviting everyone to take sides. At our end of Europe, we assume that parties recruit from the haves, the wanna-haves and the have- nots. But in post-Communist Europe, the only sides that such communities know are usually the old divisions of religion, language or race. When they asked Radovan Karadzic why he was replacing multi-ethnic tolerance with nationalism, he put his odious finger on it: 'People no longer have to live that way; we have free choice.'

It is not only the break-up of such communities that is a tragedy. More tragic still is the history which tied them together so long that they could only break up with murderous violence. Germany is unfairly abused in the London press for insisting on the recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence. But Germany's real mistake was recognising Croatia's border with Serbia as an international frontier, as if the end of Yugoslavia did not mean that Croatia's Serbian minority would claim 'free choice'. The hard truth is that, if we want to reduce human misery, we have to help nationalities to separate peacefully rather than rivet them together.

This is not an argument for 'ethnic cleansing'. Britain is a mixed society by the free choice of immigrants, and we should fight to keep it so. But the whole tide of the post-1989 world is towards diversity, as many different kinds of community seek the chance to modernise on their own terms. At its worst, this could mean strife and more migrations. But at its best it will mean a far richer choice of identities.

There will be new nation-states based on 'ethnic' exclusiveness, but others which ask only that their citizens pay their taxes. There will be self-governing regions defined merely by economy or geography. There will be micro- nations - more Singapores and Lichtensteins - and there will be polyglot city-states like Hamburg or Trieste. This is the New Disorder, composed not of standard nation-state bricks but of rubble-fragments of every size and shape. This is the new universe of nationalism, in which any Great Power which still believes that all frontiers are sacred and all populations must stay at home will blunder to destruction.

Although the fate of that particular Bosnian village is settled, there are many others. But the foreign soldiers, if they come, can do only so much. They can patrol the street, shooting at those who shoot their neighbours. They can help families to leave if their future seems impossible. But about that moment of inner transformation, when a Bosnian Catholic becomes for ever a Croat, they can do nothing.