Words fail us as the world drifts towards disorder

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The Independent Online
WE ARE stumbling deeper into the New World Disorder. Even the Foreign Secretary admitted it last week. Once, in that tidy epoch called the Cold War, the West named the disrupter of order as communism. Now communism is dead, and yet the world is untidier than ever. So who is the disrupter now?

The answer is: nationalism. That is no value judgement. Nationalism can be good or bad, and usually has a bit of both. But it is almost bound to be a force of disruption. Nationalism comes from the impulse of communities to impose their will more directly on their own circumstances. That usually means smashing up a larger power structure into smaller pieces. Sometimes, as with Serbia or Nazi Germany, it leads to a challenge to the collective security of the whole continent. One lot's liberty is often another lot's chaos.

Since 1989, it has been clear that we are living through the biggest eruption of nationalism ever seen. To call nationalism 'atavistic' or to proclaim an anti-nationalist crusade is like proclaiming a crusade against hydrogen in water. The point is not to overcome nationalism but to understand it. We must learn - fast - how to tell the good manifestations from the bad, and how to make nationalism turn wheels rather than destroy cities. But to discuss nationalism sanely, a new language has to be invented and many old words put away.

Last week, I was struck by three very different texts. The first comes from Professor John Dunn's introduction to Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, published last year. 'Two thousand five hundred years ago, the small Greek city-state of Athens made a series of adjustments to its domestic political arrangements . . . No contemporary of Kleisthenes could possibly have imagined that his reforms might pioneer a form of regime that would come to serve as a virtually unchallenged standard for political legitimacy for all the peoples of the world.'

The second is from an article by Roger Just in a book called History and Ethnicity (1989). He describes the theories of the German savant Fallmerayer, in the 1830s, 'whose thesis was that the Slavs who entered Greece in . . . the seventh and eighth centuries so overran the country that not a drop of pure Hellenic blood was left. In short, the Greeks were not 'Greeks' '.

The third, which I scribbled down as she spoke, was from a talk by Dr Effie Voutira, who probably knows more than anybody about the Pontic Greeks in Central Asia (deported from their homes on the Black Sea shores by Stalin). 'The Greeks in Kazakhstan and the Greeks remaining in the Caucasus abuse each other for not being Greek enough. The second say the first don't look Greek and often don't speak the language. The first say that the second were not deported because they did not have Greek identity papers - so how can they call themselves Greek?'

These are statements about the enigma of nationhood. The Greeks, who invented words like democracy, tyranny, oligarchy (and enigma), also left us 'ethnos'. But what does 'ethnic' mean, in their own case first of all? Is ethnic identity about continuity with history, about membership of a state, about language and culture, or just about 'race'? Who are the Greeks?

Fallmerayer was wrong. The Greeks can forget the private nightmare that they might really be Slavs. But that does not automatically make them ancient Hellenes. The claim that modern Greece is a resurrection of the Greece - or rather Athens - in which democracy began is a concoction. It was dreamed up by patriots who lived in Bucharest or Paris, fervently encouraged by British Romantics in love with their own vision of Grecian purity and liberty. It is one of those feats of 'forging a nation' which 19th-century intellectuals performed so brilliantly.

The prettiest definitions of ethnicity are the simplest - those that ignore questions of race, religion and history. The columnist Joyce Macmillan writes that 'everyone who lives in Scotland is a Scot' - a postal definition. Professor Gwyn Williams goes a bit further: anyone who lives in Wales and is committed to Wales is Welsh. The trouble is that most people want harder evidence.

When 'Greece' won independence in 1830, most Greeks lived somewhere else: in Asia Minor, the Balkans or the Black Sea coast. The fantasy of expanding the state to include this whole 'ethnos' bogged down early in this century, after the stalemate of the Balkan wars and Turkey's expulsion of the Greek population from Anatolia. Criteria of religion or language were not enough, because many Greeks had been converted to Islam and more spoke only Turkish or Russian. So some superpatriots fell back on another idea: that modern Greeks were the physical (not just political) reincarnation of Pericles and Socrates, and that what really counted was 'Greek blood' - the biological link.

This neatly evades the problem posed by the lack of common language, religion, geography or citizenship in the larger Greek world. It is a racial definition of 'ethnos' and, as such, mostly nonsense. All sorts of people have wandered around and settled in that beautiful country and become 'Greek'. But the Greeks feel comfortable with that definition. They feel that they know who they are.

Macedonia is where this approach grows dangerous. There is Greek Macedonia and then, across a compromise frontier, a place which Greece frantically refuses to recognise as independent Macedonia. The people there speak non-Greek languages and have non-Greek cultures. But then so did many people now within the Greek frontiers: when the Greek army conquered Salonica in 1913, the city had far more Jews and Turks than Greek-speakers. The nationalist dogma is that people in lands once ruled by Alexander of Macedon are people of 'Greek blood' who have fallen into alien ways but who can be redeemed for the 'ethnos'. To admit that the ex-Yugoslav Macedonians are physically foreign would also be to admit that minorities within Greece are not part of the 'ethnos' either.

Under these contorted arguments lies the buried Doomsday machine of Europe. The Serbs think they have rights over Macedonia. The Albanians, with a huge minority there, are alert. The Bulgarians regard much of Macedonia as lost Bulgarian lands. The Romanians affect concern for the Vlach minority, with its Romance language. The Greeks want to redeem the empire of Alexander. The Turks, if the balloon went up in Macedonia, might be tempted to intervene against Greece. Meanwhile, Bosnia is burning nearby, and Kosovo, next door, is beginning to emit ominous threads of smoke.

We are stumbling towards a big war, a full-dress Balkan conflict. And yet we still do not have the words to describe the roots of this crisis, but repeat the legends of dead emperors and the exploded myths of racial ethnicity. An Athenian from the 5th century BC would be baffled. For him, the city-state or polis was a structure, not a blood relationship. Large territorial kingdoms belonged to a 'barbarous' past which the Hellenes had outgrown. Above all, he would be baffled by our inability to describe nations in terms which were rational, not blurred by superstition and pseudo-science. For the New World Disorder is also, and above all, in our heads.