BOOK REVIEW / Travels with teenage drunks toting automatics: Blood & Belonging - Michael Ignatieff: BBC / Chatto, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Online
BALKAN teenage drunks toting automatic weapons, crop-headed Greater Germans bent on racial war, a wide-eyed Australian girl discovered in Marxist rhapsody high in the mountains of her ancestral Kurdistan: such are the sentries on Michael Ignatieff's road to the new world disorder.

Vast and sweeping themes grapple with the requirements of a subject adapted for television and the presence of the philosopher-author. He guides us down the empty Highway of Brotherhood and Unity between Zagreb and Belgrade; he introduces us to the peasants on his familial Ukrainian estate; and he muses on the social insights offered by everything from an Austrian Airlines plastic bottle of wine - 'capitalism epitomised' - to the pallid light bulbs in a Kiev hotel.

The book succeeds in its sharp descriptive writing. It tries valiantly to reconcile bloody anarchy with a set of rational beliefs about nationalism. But it contains two unsettling elements. The first is a question of taste. At times the interchangeable villains seem like a mere backdrop for the most important character, the author himself. What would a comparable work from 1938 have yielded? The home life of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, perhaps, followed by an evening in the bierkeller with Herr Henlein and his Sudeten Germans? All their deeds could equally provide a clever thesis whose merits might be argued wittily across a dinner table.

The second question then arises: what of the central Ignatieff premise, that the conflicts he selects can be made to fit a theory of two nationalisms, one bad, one good? He reasons that chauvinist politics, in the new Croatian state, for example, are examples of bad ethnic nationalism. Against this is set good civic nationalism, a liberal idea that peoples need nations to provide the security and rights necessary to enjoy cosmopolitan lives.

The fate of Sarajevo seems to exemplify the triumph of ethnic unreason over civic tolerance. But it is stretching the argument to include Leo the Leipzig skinhead in the company of Dr Franjo Tudjman. Euro-racism, as it is termed in these pages, is a matter of class as much as ethnic pride. The triumph of National Socialism owed more to reparations, the gold standard and protectionism than to Wagner and the German Romantics.

Ignatieff's analysis can seem rather neat, as if the examples were chosen to prove the diagnosis. But how, for instance, could the state of Israel, embracing Jews from Casablanca and Minsk, readily conform to either definition? The infant state of Palestine will certainly be founded upon ethnic grounds, but are liberal cosmopolitans to deplore its creation?

Still, Ignatieff has brought back interesting and provocative snapshots from the front lines. He is good on the 'moral universe of pure nationalist delusion' inhabited by Serb and Croat warlords, where nobody but the opposing side is ever responsible for evil. It was thoughtful to include the quavering voice of Milovan Djilas, who says that gradual democracy could have saved Yugoslavia. And who could have predicted in East Germany that the most serious cultural effect of the end of Communism would be the death of cabaret?

Perhaps the greatest irony of ethnic nationalism is that its divisions seem infinite. Ukraine, divorced from the Soviet Union, finds its own euphoria dampened by angry Russians wanting their own republic, while in the hills of the Crimea the Ukrainian writ is under an esoteric challenge. The Crimean Tartars, a Muslim folk deported en masse by Stalin in 1942, are returning from Central Asia to Bachiseray, their ancient capital, where fountains still play in the abandoned palace of the Tartar Khans. If you want respect, they say, you must have your own nation.