Seminar on Citizenship in Northern Europe


Civil society has usually been seen as representing freedom of the citizens against the tyranny of the state. In the course of the seminar, held at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, it became clear that many participants, especially those from Northern Europe, thought that civil society can be strong only if the state is strong. According to Lars Trägårdh (Columbia University), the Swedish social contract depends on the integrity of the state, and on a unitary state at that.

"Furthermore, it assumes an arrangement that, in the name of equality, and satisfying social-psychologically based preferences for individual autonomy, relies on the State to liberate individuals from (excessive) dependency on the institutions of civil society."

"Swedish Social Democracry has inherited the alliance between State and Peasant Estate, becoming both a statist party and a popular movement of the working classes."

In fact, it is impossible to understand the political culture in the Nordic countries without emphasising the crucial role of the peasantry in shaping national political cultures. Henrik Stenius (Finnish Institute) said that "the peasantry had a prominent place in the social, political and cultural field." He also emphasised the centrality of the Lutheran heritage.

"The Lutheran tradition consists of the ideas of stability and continuity, in the assurance that deep in ourselves there is a core of belief which gives us faith in a unitary, indivisible social organisation with a unified set of moral norms. They teach that the good life is one lived in conformity."

Different traditions

There are, however, different traditions of understanding civil society, as Oleg Kharkhordin (from European University at St. Petersburg, currently working at Harvard University) reminded the seminar.

"The Anglo-American tradition has a model of civil society as a pre-political ethical community which delegates certain limited powers to the minimal state. The French-Italian tradition, on the other hand, sees civil society as an association or set of associations that mediates relations between an individual and the strong state."

Anne Showstack Sassoon (an American at Kingston University, currently working at Aalborg University in Denmark) said that no single social institution, church or party could claim to represent civil society. She took as an example the Catholic Church which after Italian unification claimed to be the real Italian community.

As a Gramsci expert, Sassoon reminded how the Italian revolutionary, imprisoned by Mussolini, had observed the growth of the power of the state and large organisations. They wanted to control both the civil society and the individual.

During the collapse of the Soviet Union, civil society played a prominent role. In a radio interview for the Finnish Broadcasting Company during the seminar, Vadim Volkov (European University at St. Petersburg) said that the old system was overthrown by free social activities.

"I would say that the Russian civil society now has two enemies. One is easily recognisable. It is the state with its bureaucracy which can sometimes be oppressive. But there is also an invisible enemy, namely those sections of private economy which have no public morality.

"The weakness of the Russian civil society is that the connection between public life and national economy has been severed. I would say that a real civil society in Russia can only emerge when the present Mafioso-type economy adopts some kind of public morality."

The counter-cultural café societies which emerged during the Brezhnev years still influence informal life in Russia. According to Elena Zdravomyslova (Centre for Independent Social Research, St. Petersburg), the Soviet-type use of public spaces was a very specific phenomenon.

"Being partly autonomous and providing its own space (or place), it was quite informal and based on communication between friends. The basic features of the "café communication" are being reproduced in the structures of civil society that are emerging in the period of transformation in Russia."

Citizenship in Europe

As the debate turned to the concept of citizenship, it became clear that there were different kinds of interpretations.

Jaanus Arukaevu (Estonian Historical Archives) pointed out that in contemporary Estonia the concept of citizenship is used and understood in the same way as social strata were defined in estate societies centuries ago: different estates have different rights in society. Thus it is possible to accept that about 30% of the population - the Russian minority - can live without citizenship.

According to Arukaevu, this can be explained by the socio-political conditions of late Nineteenth Century Estonia. The country was ruled by the Russians, German landowners had their autonomy and the Estonians themselves, forming the lowest strata had no rights. The non-citizens of today are the Russians who immigrated during the five-decade Soviet occupation.

The question of European citizenship in the EU created a lot of debate. It is interesting that some minority nationalities like the Scots in Britain seem to find it less difficult to relate to this question.

In her radio interview during the seminar Elizabeth Meehan (Queen's University, Belfast) pointed out that after 300 years under the same Crown it is perfectly clear that the Scots and the English remain quite distinct from each other.

"I have always been accustomed to being both Scottish and British. I can't understand why people worry about whether you must have a European identity in order to have a European citizenship. I don't think having a uniform, singular identity is necessary to have a certain set of rights which are common to people of different identities, which, as I said we have had for 300 years in Great Britain. Why not in Europe as well?"

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