You say Lwów, I say Lviv
A guide to Eastern Europe's most tedious arguments
LAST week’s column dealt with the arcane name squabble between Macedonia (aka FYROM) and Greece. This piece was soon the most-commented on the Economist’s website. That was no thanks to the brilliance of the prose and the lucidity of argument. The subject was one of those issues that attracts bigots, scaremongers and polemicists, with a vanishingly tangential relationship to truth, logic and courtesy.
The article described the row as “the most tedious dispute in the Balkans”. The ex-communist region sets a high standard in such matters, so the epithet is not to be bestowed lightly. Here is an outsider’s guide to a few of the other rows. All the arguments below are a) historically plausible and b) strike most outsiders as quite mad.
Are you calling me a Tatar?
Moldova/Romania A sizeable number of Romanians believe that what is today called the Republic of Moldova is nothing more than a lost province of real Romania, snatched by Stalin out of spite (along with northern Bukovina, which went to Ukraine). The sooner this “pretend Moldova” rejoins Romania the better. Handing out passports to as many Moldovans as possible brings this nearer.
Bulgaria/Macedonia From a certain Bulgarian-nationalist viewpoint, the idea of a discrete Macedonian ethnicity or language is a nonsense—rather like defining “Texan” as an ethnicity in America. Yugoslav Macedonia was a historical accident, and the sooner the detritus joins Bulgaria the better. After that, it will be time to liberate the brother-Slavs of northern Greece.
Slovakia/Hungary According to hardline Slovak nationalists, the whole idea of a Hungarian ethnic minority in the country is absurd. These people (many of whom are Gypsies anyway) should shut up and get on with being Slovaks: ie, speaking Slovak and thinking like Slovaks. Any other behaviour is a sign that they are still imprisoned by their imperial mindset. If they don’t like living in Slovakia, they should go back to Hungary (where, incidentally, the Slovak-speaking minority has dwindled to nothing—proving that it is the Magyars who are the real ethno-nationalists).
Lithuania/Poland Not many people realise this, but most of the people speaking Polish and Belarussian in the area in and around Vilnius are not really Slavs but polonised Lithuanians, the legacy of centuries of forced assimilation. That is a terrible fate, so the right (and kindest) thing to do is to depolonise these people and relithuanianise them. A good way to start is to make sure that they do not get trapped into using foreign Polish letters and silly spellings when writing their names. It is Adomas Mickevicius, not Adam Mickiewicz. Let nobody forget it.
Ukraine/Poland Anyone who spells the capital of Galicia as Lwów is a Polish nationalist who bayonets Ukranian babies for fun. Anyone who says it is spelled Lviv is a Ukrainian fascist who bayonets Polish babies for fun. Anyone who spells it Lvov is a Soviet mass murderer. And anyone who calls it Lemberg is a Nazi. See you in Leopolis for further discussion.
Among the runners-up: “Tatar” is a derogatory and invented name for the inhabitants of modern Tatarstan, who are in fact the descendants of Volga Bulgars. Kievan Rus was not Russian. Any talk of a Ruthenian nation is ill-informed, stupid, possibly mad and the product of Muscovite attempts to split and destroy Ukraine.
Outside pressure has mostly calmed these arguments within formal politics. But on the internet the rows still rage, with tortured facts, arguments and syntax, all mixed with vituperative insults, phoney politeness and seemingly RANDOM Use Of Capital letters. There is a whiff of pyjamas-at-noon, and of people who check their emails in the small hours. Time to get a life?