University of St. Thomas Campus News
- Studying Nationalism at a Historic Crossroads
An odd headline ran in The New York Times on Jan. 1, 2013: “Used to Hardship, Latvia Accepts Austerity, and Its Pain Eases.”
I say this is odd, because I fail to understand why we would assume that “Latvia” – think of this as shorthand for the three Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and their constituent nations – is somehow more naturally accepting of hardship than, for example, Greece or Portugal. Why should a reporter for The New York Times make such an assumption? And why do readers, other media figures and American politicians echo this assumption, particularly when praising the Baltic governments’ austerity efforts and “stiff upper lip” of their populations while shaming the so-called PIIGs (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece) for their popular protests against such measures?
The short answer is: Most people have assumptions about East European nations. The most pervasive stereotypes of Eastern nations are two: In the positive camp, we have the relative fiscal responsibility of the East European EU member states, and the ways in which observers link this behavior to national identity. Rather than viewing this political behavior as an example of practical decisions made by East European lawmakers – and, one might add, in response to the demands of very powerful forces such as the European Union, International Monetary Fund and the global economy – this fiscal responsibility has been molded into an assumption about Eastern nations and their nations’ collective acceptance of suffering. East Europeans are “accustomed to hardship,” rather than “responding rationally to external economic incentives.”
It also echoes, uncomfortably, the romantic notions of the East European populations forwarded by 19th century German writers like Herder and Fichte, who believed that different ethnic groups displayed particular characteristics that were largely biologically determined. Herder praised the Slavs for their innate work ethic, for example. If this sounds a bit familiar, it should, given the assumption discussed above.
In a current research project, I am examining neoliberal economic policy adoption – in other words, the choice of austerity and fiscal restraint policies – by East European states and its connection to the European Union, as a means of critiquing this “essentialist” assumption and hopefully bringing a deeper understanding of how the East European states have been affected – positively and negatively – by EU membership.
The second, less-flattering stereotype attributed to Eastern nations is their purported ethnolinguistic and exclusionary character. “Eastern” nations are purportedly exclusive, hostile to minorities and anti-democratic, or so the myth goes. This assumption pervades civil society and even worms its way into academia, so that when a so-called Eastern nation chooses a model of national identity that does not fit this stereotype, it may be dismissed as lacking a national identity entirely! In this case, the Belarusian nation has been labeled as “denationalized” because it chooses, at least for the time being, to eschew the path of ethnolinguistic exclusivity.
It is hard to resist an opportunity to critique “common knowledge,” particularly when that common knowledge appears to be factually incorrect and stereotypes entire populations of individuals. Since 2009, I have been fortunate to engage in a number of research projects regarding nationalism in East Europe with my department chair, Dr. Steven Hoffman, and two co-authors from Belarusian State University: Victor Shadurski and Marharyta Fabrykant.
Our published research has focused on the characteristics that comprise national identity in Belarus and Lithuania, and in each case we have found that reality bore little resemblance to the assumptions about these nations. Yes, Lithuanians believe that speaking Lithuanian is an important part of being part of the Lithuanian nation, and this fits with the “linguistic” part of the ethnolinguistic assumption. However, many Lithuanians care a great deal more about democracy than they do religion or ethnicity when they draw their mental boundaries of the Lithuanian nation.
Belarus is even more interesting. We found that ethnolinguistic and exclusive ideas of what it means to be Belarusian are not only not salient to our survey respondents – they are downright frightening to many. To understand this, it is necessary to think of Belarus as a historical crossroads: one that has seen the rise and fall of many official languages, religions and regimes.
This has lent a richness and diversity to this territory that pervades the country – Catholic and Orthodox churches face each other across city streets, often alongside other houses of worship, whether Protestant, Jewish or Islamic. The Russian language is used everywhere today, while two other languages, Trasianka (a hybrid of Russian and Belarusian) and Belarusian are sometimes seen and heard. In the 19th century one would have heard Polish, Russian, Yiddish or Belarusian spoken in the streets and in peoples’ homes.
If that richness is the bright side of being a crossroads in history, the dark side is war. Belarus, as was the case with most of Eastern Europe, was brutalized throughout history by one conquering force or another. Napoleon’s troops fought (and lost) in the Belarusian forests where today families go on mushroom-gathering trips every fall. Those same forests were the sites of brutal partisan battles against the Nazis.
In Minsk, one can visit a park with a sculpture that memorializes the deaths of Jews in pogroms, see the boundaries of the Jewish ghetto to which nearly 100,000 Jews from throughout East Europe were sent and see the names of Belarusian citizens granted the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” for protecting Jews during the Holocaust.
Outside of Minsk is the Khatyn Memorial, which reminds visitors of the more than 600 villages burned to the ground, with all inhabitants, by Nazi reprisal squads. Many university-aged students still go visit their grandparents to help with harvesting the garden every fall, and while harvesting their grandparents tell them about the “Great Patriotic War” and its horrors.
All of this has led many Belarusians to value tolerance and fear those individuals and groups that would pit the diverse religious, linguistic and ethnic population of Belarusians against one another. Clearly this is not a formula for rabid ethnolinguistic nationalism.
The lessons learned from this research may seem specific to a particular region, and indeed the particulars of the history, geography, economics and politics of Eastern Europe are an important part of the content of my Politics of Post-Soviet States and Politics of the New Europe courses. Students who choose one of these courses are interested in the specifics of the region and enjoy these details. I enjoy bringing in the hands-on experience – either with data or with research abroad – into these classrooms and making it accessible to students.
However, the broader lessons revealed by this research – the horrors and causes of war, the foundations of ethnic hatred, questioning “common knowledge,” and considering the policy consequences of assumptions and actions – pervade all of my courses, and I would say, all of the international relations subfield. International relations, as a “practitioners’ discipline,” teaches us to be ever aware that misunderstandings, erroneous assumptions and faulty “common knowledge” extract a huge price from our own country and from humanity in the shape of wars, exclusion and hatred.
Since a natural career path for students in my field is foreign policy analysis, and a number of graduates have pursued this career, there is a real-world impact from the teaching of these lessons. Other students may not pursue careers in policy, but will, one hopes, form a key part of the critical citizenry that elects and critiques our government’s foreign policy decisions, and for them these lessons are equally important. I consider this the unique contribution that my department, my subfield and my research can make to the training of UST students to be morally responsible, critical thinkers.
Or, as a favorite UST student and research assistant of mine once put it: “International relations: solving the world’s problems one uncomfortable topic at a time.”
Associate professor Dr. Renee Buhr teaches in the Department of Political Science.
From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.
- St. Thomas Real Estate Analysis: Strong May and June Helps Return Twin Cities Market to Pre-Crash Levels
A strong first half of 2015 — and an especially robust second quarter — has for the most part returned the Twin Cities housing market to a level of health not seen here since the pre-crash years of 2005 and 2006.
Each month the Shenehon Center for Real Estate at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business looks for real estate trends in the 13-county Twin Cities region and tracks the median price for three types of sales: nondistressed or traditional; foreclosures; and short sales (when a home is sold for less than the outstanding mortgage balance).
Additionally, as part of its analysis, the center creates a monthly index score by tracking nine data elements for those three types of sales, including categories like the number of closed sales, how many days homes are on the market, and what percent of the asking price sellers receive. The researchers started the index at January 2005 and for that month gave each of the three indexes a value of 1,000.
For several years running, the Shenehon Center had to report some dismal news in its monthly analyses. Although there were both ups and downs along the way, the index for traditional homes (not short sales or foreclosures) dropped into the 900s in early 2007 and eventually bottomed out at 889 in February 2012.
The traditional home index has since rebounded and reached an all-time high in June 2015. “At a level of 1,120 the June index is the highest that has been observed since it was created in 2005,” said Herb Tousley, director of real estate programs at the university. The June 2015 index is up 4.2 percent from the same month a year ago, and is up 2.8 percent from May 2015.
The St. Thomas researchers found six categories that had especially healthy numbers in June and contributed to that record-high composite index score:
- Median price of all homes: The median price of the three types of sales (traditional, foreclosures and short sales) in June was $229,900, a level not seen since August 2007.
- Median price of traditional-sale homes: The median price for a traditional-type sale (not a foreclosure or short sale) in June was $235,500, also the highest since August 2007.
- Percent of distressed sales: The percent of distressed sales in June (foreclosures and short sales) was 7.7 percent of all sales. The percent has not been that low since mid-2007.
- Number of closed sales: The 6,980 closed sales in June was the highest number since the St. Thomas index was created in January 2005.
- Number of pending sales: The number of pending sales for the last 90 days was more than 6,200, the highest since spring 2005. This high number of pending sales indicates that the number of closed sales should remain strong for the rest of the summer.
- Sale price as percentage of asking price: In June the sale price as a percentage of the original asking price increased to 98.6 percent, a level not seen since spring 2005. The inventory of homes for sale at 16,718 in June remains historically low, and is one reason for a higher number of multiple offers and, in some cases, homes that are sold for more than the asking price.
Construction of new homes
With such a shortage of homes on the market, the Shenehon Center checked on the number of new homes being built to meet the demand. It found that while there has been some improvement over the past three years, the number of single-family-home permits has been flat over the past year.
So far this year 2,224 permits were issued, compared to 2,270 for the first half of 2014. The dollar value of the permits, however, has increased from $319,254 per home last year to $335,295 this year.
“There are several factors that explain this increase,” Tousley said. “There has been a marked increase in the price of building materials such as concrete and drywall. Secondly, due to a shortage of quality buildable lots, land prices have also increased considerably.”
He said the average sale price of an existing home is $121 per square foot while the average sale price of a new home is $162 per square foot. That’s a 34 percent premium for a brand-new home.
“While many homebuilders have focused on building higher-priced homes because the profit margins are higher, the low supply of existing homes available for sale is creating a pent-up demand for construction of lower-priced homes,” Tousley said. “There are a number of homebuilders who are starting programs to profitably build entry-level homes that provide a bit more than the basics to entice first-time and entry-level buyers. An example of this is D.R. Horton’s Express Homes program. The company has been aggressively rolling out this program on a national basis as a way to add to the supply of moderately priced homes available for sale.”
More information online
The Shenehon Center’s charts and report for June can be found here.
The index is available free via email from Tousley at firstname.lastname@example.org.