Stirring the pot
Geology not ethnography is the problem
“ETHNOGRAPHICALLY, it’s ours.” This was one of the most dismal phrases of the early 1990s, as countries freed by the cold war’s end explored their buried history and geography. Sometimes it made tragic if impractical sense. Nationalistic Finns (previously thought to be an extinct species) explained the legal case for recovering Karelia from Russia. Hungarians gloomily analysed the borders drawn by the Treaty of Trianon. Poles insisted that at least half of Belarus was really theirs, while Belarusians laid confident claim to all the lands of the ancient Grand Duchy, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Estonians and Latvians mourned slivers of lost territories (while not actually wanting them back: they are now mostly Russian-populated). Lithuanians hurriedly changed the subject: it was the Soviet occupation that returned their capital, Vilnius, from Poland and their seaport, Klaipeda, from Germany. Ukrainians explained that Kievan Rus had nothing to do with Russia, while Russians asked, reasonably, how Nash Krim (our Crimea) had ended up in Ukraine thanks to a Kremlin pen-stroke three decades previously. The Crimean Tatars pointed out (with even greater justice) that the balmy peninsular was theirs long before it was Russia’s.
For all the sentiment and heartbreak, the arguments were dangerous, even lethal, as Yugoslavia’s tragic disintegration proved. Some never stopped their poisonous bubbling. Is Kosovo “ethnographically” Albanian because of its recent past (recent in this context meaning a century’s worth of history), or Serbian because of its role in the Middle Ages?
But the great unsung triumphs of the 1990s were the conflicts that did not happen; these dwarfed the few that did. The desire to look respectable to outsiders trumped the desire to swagger in front of voters. Hungary and Romania buried the hatchet. The Czechs and Slovaks never quarrelled seriously about the divided villages on their (previously unimportant) border. Lithuanians and Poles became best friends. Germans digested the “new federal states” released by the collapse of the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic and stopped hankering after Silesia and Königsberg. The new rule was that nobody with historical quarrels outstanding could join the European Union or NATO. And it has worked marvellously.
A rabble-rouser in Moscow
But nothing is more dangerous to a great achievement than complacency. As EU expansion stalls and its willpower weakens, old squabbles are returning. Romania should be best friends with Moldova. Instead the two countries (or at least their presidents) have been indulging in a pointless game of historical tit-for-tat. There are low-level rows between Croatia and Slovenia, and between Bulgaria and Macedonia.
Russia has already shown it can stir things up in Estonia—this spring it encouraged a riot over a war memorial in Tallinn. In Ukraine, Crimea could be an even nastier mess: it has Russian nationalists plus a Kremlin naval base and increasingly cross Muslims (Tatars, whose patience has got them nowhere) including a small but ominous Islamist presence. Even if Ukraine had a strong and sensible government, the situation would be tricky. And amid the current mess in national politics, a smouldering problem could blaze up (or be stoked) all too quickly.
Certainly no one should rely on the Kremlin wanting to behave nicely, as it mostly did in the Yeltsin era. Russia’s new submarine expedition to claim the North Pole (or at least a chunk of territory the size of western Europe running up to it) is a clear sign of a newly assertive foreign policy. Countries such as Canada and Denmark (which handles foreign affairs for the 50,000 inhabitants of Greenland) are scrambling to protect their interests. Thankfully, this row is about geology, not ethnography, and affects more polar bears than people. But the same approach applied elsewhere could be incendiary.