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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
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View the documentNote to the reader from the UNU
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View the documentIntroduction
close this folder1. Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies
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View the document1 Governance, ethnicity, and conflict resolution
View the document2 The role of the state
View the document3 The concept of self-determination
View the document4 Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies
View the document5 International responses and mechanisms
close this folder2. Ethnic conflict in the Horn of Africa: Myth and reality
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View the documentIntroduction
View the documentConceptual problems
View the documentProblems of definition
View the documentEthnicity and social harmony
View the documentThe role of ideology
View the documentTraditional remedies
View the documentAn alternative approach
View the documentConclusion
View the document3. Ethnic conflicts in the context of social science theories
close this folder4. Settlement of ethnic conflicts in post-Soviet society
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View the document1 Introduction
View the document2 Types of inter-ethnic conflicts and their distribution
View the document3 Ways to prevent ethnic conflicts
close this folder5. Dynamics of the Moldova Trans-Dniester ethnic conflict (late 1990s to early 1990s)
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View the document1 Introduction
View the document2 Historical background
View the document3 Linguistic disputes and growth of ethnic political activism in Moldova
View the document4 First power shift and proclamation of sovereignty
View the document5 From declaring sovereignty to declaring independence
View the document6 The august 1991 coup attempt and the transition to independence
View the document7 Large-scale inter-ethnic violence
View the document8 Bloodshed and conflict settlement in Bendery
View the document9 Socio-political change and inter-ethnic violence
View the document10 Ethno-political legitimacy crisis as transition to violence
View the document6. Ethnic conflict in the Osh region in summer 1990: Reasons and lessons
close this folder7. From centre-periphery conflict to the making of new nationality policy in an independent state: Estonia
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View the documentFrom country to borderland, from nation to minority
View the documentAn ethnically divided society
View the documentThe language issue
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close this folder8. Conflict management in the former USSR and world experience
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View the document2 On the notion of ''conflict management''
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View the document5 Ethnic conflicts in the former USSR: history and lessons
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close this folder9. The dissolution of multi-ethnic states: The case of Yugoslavia
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View the documentPrologue
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View the documentUnresolved problems will remain
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close this folder10. Ethnic conflict, federalism, and democracy in India
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View the documentIndia's ethnic spectrum
View the documentPotential for conflicts and their protraction
View the documentSimultaneous conflict formation and conflict containment
View the documentDynamics of development
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close this folder11. An intractable conflict? Northern Ireland: A need for pragmatism
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View the documentIntroduction
View the documentAn intractable conflict?
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close this folder12. Political autonomy and conflict resolution: The Basque case
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close this folder13. Ethnic and racial groups in the USA: Conflict and cooperation
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View the documentIntroduction
View the documentPost-1965, immigration and the breakdown of the racial/ethnic dichotomy
View the documentVoluntary and involuntary minorities
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View the documentIncidents of bias in New York city
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View the documentCompeting perspectives, multiple realities
close this folder14. Ethnic conflicts and minority protection: Roles for the international community
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View the document1 Why should the international community be concerned with ethnic conflicts?
View the document2. International roles in conflict prevention and resolution
View the document3 Reconciling the humanist impulsion and the quest for a stable international order: Requirements by the international community on how to manage minority conflicts
View the document4 Conclusions
View the document15 The right to autonomy: Chimera or solution?
View the documentOther titles of interest

3. Ethnic conflicts in the context of social science theories

Valery A. Tishkov

Different social science approaches to the phenomenon of ethnicity and the methodologies of the discipline influence a rather wide spectrum of interpretations of ethnic conflicts. The problem is that what is usually categorized as an ethnic conflict quite often has a more complex nature. As an example, the national movements for independence in the Baltic region were considered by Soviet experts as an ethnic conflict developed in the former USSR.' But, in reality, the decisive factor of these events was political rather than ethnic: it was a movement of three Baltic polities comprising ethnically mixed populations for state sovereignty and for a complete secession from the Soviet empire.

The majorities of people in these republics consist of three distinct ethnic groups, and they were the ones who formulated the national idea and the programme of ethno-nationalism. Around this programme an overwhelming majority of the population, including non-natives, was mobilized. Half of the ethnic Russians living in these republics openly supported and participated in the national movements for independence. In this Baltic case, it is not so easy to distinguish inter-ethnic parameters from the predominantly vertical political struggle between the periphery and the centre. In spite of inter-ethnic tensions between titular groups and that part of the Russian-speaking population which showed solidarity with the agonizing all-Union structures, it would be an oversimplification to put these contradictions in a category and analyse the tension as an ethnic conflict per se. The Baltic experience was closer in nature to the political struggle of third world peoples for their national self determination after the Second World War, when the leaders of this struggle were at the same time resolute opponents of ethnic and tribal separatism. It was only later on that Latvian and Estonian nationalist leaders took a resolute position of open discrimination towards the non-titular (or "Russian-speaking") populations of their republics, when the laws on citizenship, official language, and new constitutions were passed and elections to new parliaments were held (in Estonia and Latvia over a third of the population was disfranchised).

Equally, it is not quite correct to consider the political struggles and nationalist movements for sovereignty now taking place in the territory of the Russian Federation as ethnic conflicts. They often repeat the same logic of decentralization of large multi-ethnic state formations, and these movements of Russian autonomies also include strong ethnic and cultural parameters because their initiators and leaders are predominantly represented by titular groups. Meanwhile, there are not sufficient grounds to speak about the Russian-Tatar and Russian-Chechen conflicts as inter-ethnic conflicts in connection with the political strategies of the Tatarstan and Chechen republics. Among those who formulate and support these political strategies there are many individuals and activists of Russian and of mixed ethnic origins, such as the vice-president of Tatarstan, Vasilii Likchachev.

The same kind of reservation could be applied to the interpretation of the movement for the autonomization of the Crimea as a Ukrainian-Russian conflict; although one can easily trace behind this movement a feeling of threat on the part of the Russian majority in the Crimea regarding its status in a new geopolitical situation when the Ukraine became an independent state and kept the territory of the peninsula under its jurisdiction.

Because of the multi-ethnic composition of almost all major areas of the former Soviet Union (the only exception is Armenia after the exodus of the Azeris from this territory), practically all kinds of conflicts and clashes - social or political (from young men's fights in local discotheques to collisions at the highest levels of power) - easily acquire an ethnic manifestation and flavour, making these conflicts and contradictions deeper, more complex, and extremely hard to resolve. Thus, while avoiding the easy temptation to extend the category of ethnic conflict to encompass all conflicting realities in this region, we must state that there are more than enough serious reasons for inter-ethnic tensions and unrest, both on an individual and a group level. The list of crimes and persecutions against ethnic groups and cultures committed by previous regimes is so long, and the existing socio-political and cultural hierarchies of ethnic groups are so obvious, that it would be a naive and irresponsible approach to reduce conflicting ethnicity to any other societal collisions and contradictions.

The ethnic factor in this region of the world often generates in its turn many critical situations which appear in the realm of politics, inter-community contacts, and federal-provincial relations. Precisely for these reasons, the borders between socio-political and ethnic conflicts in the territory of the post-Soviet states, including Russia, are fragile and hard to diagnose. The conflicts have multidimensional characteristics, and one form can easily convert into another or can have external, displaying facades with quite different internal contexts.

We can find a striking example of this kind of ethnic camouflage, with a political struggle posing as "national self-determination," in the case of the northern native people. This struggle, led by authorities of autonomous districts of Russia, is backed by the powerful interests of local élites recruited from the Russians and other nonnative who dream of building their Eldorado by exploiting the vast resources of the north. The most recent and striking example is the proclamation in 1992 of the new sovereign Chukchi Republic (the former "autonomous okrug") on behalf of Chukchi national self determination. Meanwhile the titular group comprises only 7 per cent (12,000 people) of its population and does not have any significant representation in this formation. This Arctic people is suffering from aggressive and poorly controlled entrepreneurs and from a collapse of state-supported social programmer, no less than they had suffered under the Soviet regime. An opposite example, where an ethnic conflict is camouflaged as a political one, can be seen in the fight of Moldovan nationalists against "pro-Communist bastions" in the Trans-Dniester and Gagauz areas: in reality these were (and still are) serious conflicts between Russian-Ukrainian and Gaganz minorities on the one side and pro-Romanian Moldovan nationalists on the other. There is also a serious conflict between ethnic and sub-ethnic clandivisions in Tajikistan. This has involved indigenous Pamiri groups, which were behind the dramatic political clashes in 1992, and was represented externally as a fight between the "democratic opposition" of Islamists and the "corrupt party-based ruling elite" supporting the former President Nabiev and the current President Rakhmonov.

The difficulty of defining the notion of ethnic conflict in the context of the political realities of the former Soviet Union lies not only in the multi-faceted nature of ethnicity but in the region's diverse ethnic systems. Donald Horowitz (1985) defined two major categories, "centralized" and "dispersed" ethnic systems, existing within the limits of multi-ethnic states. One occurs when ethnic groups are so large and strong that problems of their interactions are constantly present at the centre of the political life of a state. These systems are mostly predisposed and potentially vulnerable to large ethnic conflicts, since dominant ethnic groups more often formulate demands for control and even for the exclusive possession of state institutions. These unacceptable demands become the reason for the polarization of societies along ethnic or racial lines, as in Sri Lanka, Burundi, Rwanda, or South Africa.

To a "dispersed ethnic system" belong states with a population comprising a large number of ethnic groups, each of them so small and weak that it is unable to control the centre. Such systems, according to Horowitz, are more prone to inter-ethnic harmony and consensus. Switzerland, Nigeria, and probably India could be categorized as such.

In which of these two categories do we place the former Soviet Union? Its ethnic system was a rather asymmetrical imperial type constructed by ideological doctrine and the political practice of ethno-nationalism, based on the following postulates:

- most ethnic groups were defined as "nations" comprising only titular nationalities living within the limits of their "own" republic, qualified as "national states";

- the whole population of the Union and autonomous republics was divided into categories of "indigenous" and "non-indigenous" or (Russian-speaking) living in the territories of a state that was not their "own";

- the a priori dominant status for titular nationality included undeniable rights to control republican centres in spite of the fact that in many cases these groups did not comprise a majority of the population.

An attempt in 1988 by President Gorbachev to replace Kunaev, the first Party secretary of Kazakhstan, by an ethnic Russian, Kolbin, brought resolute opposition on the part of the Kazakh population, aiming to destroy this long functioning political formula. This formula of exclusive property of a state by a titular group has found new strength in recent years in spite of democratic reforms and ideological liberalization. Small concessions in favour of non-titular groups could be found recently in successor states and in republics of Russia. In independent Kazakhstan and in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, for example, official titular-Russian bilinguals was proclaimed; Lithuania and Ukraine passed special laws on rights of minorities. The Georgian and Moldovan readerships have started to discuss opportunities for developing federal systems for the* countries.

But more often these steps carry a declarative form, and real political power is controlled by titular groups. In Tatarstan over 80 per cent of all major administrative positions were taken by ethnic Tatars comprising 49 per cent of the population in their republic. In Georgia, the ruling Provisional Council approved a new formula that Georgia is a "national state of Georgians and Abkhazians" - but not of Ossetians, Armenians, Meskhetian Turks, or other indigenous residents of the republic! Mentioning Abkhazians did not prevent their long-standing exclusion from central power and prestigious positions in Georgia. This very position justified a veto against the return of Meskhetian Turks to Georgia, as well as repression towards Southern Ossetian autonomy, initiated by the ultra-nationalist leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.2 Events since August 1991 have shown that as soon as new state leaders acquired a weapon of mass destruction from Soviet Army arsenals it was very often used against local minorities; for example, against the Ukrainian-Russian population in Moldova in the Trans-Dniester region, or against Abkhazians in Georgia to prove the exclusive status of titular groups.

The same kind of asymmetrical imperial ethnic system, based on a special status for "indigenous nations" (or titular groups who gave a title to one's republic), is reproduced in the territory of the Russian Federation, where the titular nationalities of the former autonomous republics do not comprise a majority in 15 of 21 so-called "national states."

Judging by formal demographic characteristics, many CIS states and most of the Russian Federation republics could be considered as "centralized" ethnic systems with approximately equal titular and non-titular groups - Kazakhs and Russians in Kazakhstan, Tatars and Russians in Tatarstan, Russians and Latvians in Latvia, etc. - but in reality, because of deep-rooted legacies of the past and mental attitudes, the existing practice and ideology do not allow any non-titular groups to formulate claims to dominate the centre, or even to attain an equal status.

We can consider as a dispersed ethnic system in a more or less conventional sense that which exists in the republic of Dagestan (Northern Caucasus), the only one where no group was assigned a titular status. Even in this republic, however, non-official domination of the comparatively large groups of Avars and Dargins took place, and they controlled key power positions until recently. Only in spring 1992 was this situation challenged by smaller and less privileged groups, especially the Nogai and the Kumyks. This caused a serious ethnic crisis within a republic with an extremely diverse ethnic mosaic. The situation has been seriously aggravated by the nationalist organization "Sadval," representing ethnic Lezgins, a group divided by the border with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani Lezgins were subjected to severe assimilationist policies, to the extent of denial of registration during Soviet censuses. In Dagestan Lezgins were underrepresented in political and cultural institutions.

Another remarkable characteristic of the former Soviet Union, making for an asymmetrical ethnicity, is the status of the dominant ethnic group, the Russians, who comprised 51 per cent of the USSR and now comprise 82 per cent of the Russian Federation. Officially, there was no "national state" for the Russians, and they did not have their "own" territory. Even now, the Russian Federation is not considered a "national state." But, in reality, this group used to be, and remains, politically and culturally dominant in Russia. The ethnic Russians, or acculturated non-Russians of Ukrainian, Armenian, Georgian, or other origin, are keeping control of the federal centre and of local regional administrations. The Russian culture and language serve as a referent (or "core") culture for the whole state. That is why the Soviet people in the past have often been referred to as "the Russians" by the outside world.

For a long time, this dominant status was so obvious and unchallenged that there was no need to fix it officially through the doctrine of "national state" and through the practical implementation of national self-determination for the Russians. Members of this group felt quite comfortable and protected in all regions of the USSR, and also, because of their higher professional and educational status, easily migrated over the territory including the Baltic and Central Asian republics, Ukraine, Siberia, and the north. At the same time, the Russians did not enjoy any privileges in terms of access to political power or to prestigious institutions in the republics. In Kazakhstan, for example, where Russians comprise 40 per cent of the population, they were not among the members of the Kazakh Academy of Sciences and were poorly represented in other prestigious positions, except as industrial personnel and specialists in agriculture. The living standards of the Russians were not significantly higher than those of the local population, and in Russia itself the standard was even lower compared with the living standards for the majority of other republics.

The demise of the USSR and the ethnic challenges in the Russian Federation made the status of the Russians one of the most serious problems, and it became a focal point in relations between the successor states. Although Russians did not become a subject of direct ethnic violence and were not involved in bloody conflicts, with the exception of military personnel, anti-Russian sentiments and actions in many regions became widespread and even became an element of official state policies, especially in relation to legislation on citizenship, ownership, and language.

The growing out-migration of Russians from these regions back to Russia demonstrates the most evident reaction to this changing climate. In Russia itself, the loss of its former comfortable status and a growing feeling of lost pride generated a powerful syndrome of Russian nationalism and patriotic movements, including political coalitions (see Carter, 1993; Drobizheva, 1992). These movements to prevent a further disintegration of Russia became especially strong after a manifest move to secession by two large republics, Tatarstan and Chechen. Moral projections and political accusations regarding injustices directed towards the Russians as a whole by other nationalities created a potential for dangerous conflicts involving the Russians.3 Being previously politically inert and demoralized, the "Russian speaking population" could easily in the near future choose self organizing militant or political resistance in a situation when previously they preferred "to leave and not to stay," as in the Tuva or Chechen republics. In times of economic crisis and inflation, resettlement to other regions brings in practical terms a loss of personal property including apartments, houses, cars, and even personal belongings.

Thus, defining the systematic peculiarities of the former Soviet Union's ethnic characteristics, and making certain reservations against too broad definitions of ethnic conflict, we must, at the same time, accept a certain degree of conditionality among social scientists as to how to define this phenomenon. In spite of different approaches, there is a certain consensus that we consider a conflict as ethnic when it involves organized political movement, mass unrest, separatist action, and civil wars with opposing lines drawn along ethnic boundaries. As a rule, that is a conflict between minorities and dominant majorities, where the majority controls access to the power and resources of the state and the minorities, often without going into an open confrontation with the dominant group, could question the state structure as a whole and act violently when the society and the state are unable to suggest any mechanisms for regulating and resolving these contradictions (Stavenhagen, 1991; for an updated overview of recent approaches and work on the issue see Vayrynen, 1994).

Among the strongest theoretical approaches to the study of ethnic conflicts widely shared by Soviet and Western experts is a sociological one, explaining phenomena in categories of social groupings and socio-economic interest. Ethnic parameters of social stratification's, labour divisions, and class differentiation's are the main focus of interest for proponents of this approach. Being mostly newcomers in the field of ethnic studies, sociologists consider as major discoveries the phenomenon of usurpation by members of one ethnic group of certain privileged social niches and also the effect of social discrimination based on ethnic and racial characteristics. It is hard to deny that basic social and class disparities exist and that hierarchy and discrimination based on them remain among the strongest impulses for inter-ethnic tensions and open conflicts. This has been proven by analysis of many case studies for different regions of the world (Rupesinghe, 1992).

In the case of the former Soviet Union, we have quite a few studies analysing serious disproportion's and correlation's between ethnic and social structures. For several regions, especially former Union republics, the proportion of Russians and Ukrainians among highly skilled industrial personnel, management staff, health professionals, and educators was considerably higher than that of titular nationalities. The Russians and the Ukrainians possessed disproportionately large representation also among specialists in agriculture. The reasons for this were quite obvious: it had been the policy and practice of the centre to construct large industrial and military projects all over the territory of the USSR by bringing in personnel from central areas of the country. For a long period, the Russians also played a major role in educational policy. These factors all contributed to making the industrial centres of the republics, including capital cities like Riga, Alma-Ata, Tashkent, Minsk, Kazan, Ufa, and others, predominantly Russian (Guboglo, 1991).

This correlation between rural and urban structures along ethnic boundaries could also be considered as conflict-generating, but it cannot be presented as the main reason for open ethnic conflict - at least, there are no serious research data or field observations which could prove this thesis. In fact, some regions clearly show the opposite tendency. In Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, the social status of the Armenians in the enclave was higher than that of the Azeris inside and outside the territory (Yamskov, 1991). Nevertheless, it did not prevent the irredenta movement and, later on, a devastating civil war among two communities.

In the republics of Central Asia, where the Russians and the Ukrainians enjoyed higher social status, the tolerance for Russian speaking people was motivated by an understanding of the important economic and social role this group plays in the functioning of local societies, and special efforts on the part of authorities to keep them from leaving their homes and jobs were undertaken (Tishkov, 1995a). However, this did not prevent a massive exodus of Russians from this region, mainly because of internal insecurities, economic hardship, and different adjustments to a new political order.

In Tatarstan, for example, the Russians are now the major labour force and provide managerial personnel for the most important productions in the automobile, gas and oil, and military industries. The local republican authorities and leaders of the nationalist movements understand the significance of converting Russian-speaking residents into allies to achieve full sovereignty.

In sociological analysis, special interest is focused on trade and its agents in multi-ethnic societies. There is a tendency to control the trade and market activities by members of a certain group, usually a minority.4 This often causes a negative reaction on the part of the rest of the population. A whole series of pogroms of the food markets and cooperative kiosks run by non-natives took place in many large cities of Russia, including actions in Moscow in November 1991 against "faces of Caucasian nationality." Similar actions took place against Meskhetian Turks in Fergana and against Armenians in Uzen, Uzbekistan, in the summer of 1990.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence that rural and urban settlers accept mutually beneficial economic roles: different groups are tending to overcome their negative feelings towards more successful ethnic aliens who serve as trade mediators, since they have regular contact with them and receive useful services from them. For example, throughout the region of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, ethnic Uzbeks traditionally play the role of skilled agricultural traders, while Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Turkmens are more inclined towards traditions of nomadic horticulture and have negative cultural stereotypes of trade-related occupations (Polyakov, 1990). Over the whole territory of the former Soviet Union, traders from the Transcaucasus practically controlled the farmers' markets selling fruit and flowers, by this occupation providing relatively higher living standards for themselves. But for decades, the situations both with the Uzbeks and with the Caucasian people were peacefully accepted by the rest of the population.

Even in cases of aggressive behaviour towards non-native traders, it is more often the case that political motivations are hidden behind the actions. Thus, competitiveness in labour and trade relations based on mutually beneficial and accepted roles can only rarely be considered among the major reasons for large ethnic conflicts.

From our point of view, certain experts who analyse nationalist movements emphasize too strongly the role of economic sustainability as a precondition for "independent economic activities of the people" and for "reproduction of ethnos" (Shkaratan and Perepelkin, 1989). This represents a simplification or a reductionist approach towards regional economic forces pushing for self management and freedom from the tyranny of Moscow central agencies. These moves are not simply a part of the process for self-determination. If they were, it would be impossible to understand why economic separatism became equally strong in practically all administrative regions of Russia. The thesis about "reproduction of ethnos" through acquiring economic independence contains a certain irony and myth, because, as pointed out earlier, major contributions to the economic basis of republican GNPs are provided by non-titular employees. Energy production in Estonia, electronics in Latvia and in Kyrgyzstan, mining and metallurgy in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, gas and oil in Tatarstan, gold and diamonds in the Yakut Republic are produced largely by the labour of non-titular groups.

We can conclude that the realization of separatist scenarios leads more often to economic losses than gains for their initiators, even when the economic aspects of separatism include a desire to maintain relatively higher economic standards and not to share in the burdens borne by the states of less advanced regions. This last statement could be illustrated by Eritrean separatism in Ethiopia and by the economic reorientation of the Baltic republics away from the USSR. The main conclusion is that the choice for ethnic separation is usually made against economic calculations. Probably there are more powerful factors in operation.

That is why some political science theories can help in explaining ethnic conflicts. One of the approaches is the elite-based theory of conflict. This approach sees the role of intellectuals and politicians in mobilizing ethnic feelings and inter-ethnic strife as key, and has been fruitfully applied in the analysis of a number of cases. 5 Unfortunately, this approach has been hardly used to interpret Soviet realities, because of the inertia of previously dominant methodologies and a lack of scholarly interest to the phenomenon of power. From our point of view, the question of power and the hedonistic predisposition to rule on the part of elite elements, the interaction between power and material rewards, are the key factors for understanding the causes of ethnic nationalism and conflicts in the regions of the former Soviet Union.

For many decades, the access to power in that country was strictly controlled by the party nomenklatura. The ruling elite in the centre, especially at the level of the high party apparatus and the government, was unconditionally loyal to the totalitarian and unitarian type of rule. This elite included representatives of different ethnic origin, and special seats in the Politburo were reserved for party leaders of the largest republics. But the actual power belonged to the dominant group of Russians. For example, in the spring of 1991, on the eve of the full collapse, after a few years of democratic changes the apparatus of the Central Committee of the CPSU did not include one single Jew or any representatives from many other groups (Tishkov, 1991a). The army officers and diplomatic corps consisted mainly of Russians and Ukrainians, with a few other nationalities represented in minor posts.

Even after the breakdown of the USSR, in spite of the danger of further disintegration, no radical changes took place in the power structures of the Russian Federation except a wider representation of Jews after Gorbachev openly brought forward accusations of anti-Semitic practices. As in the past, no proper representation has been given to such large ethnic groups as Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash, etc., in the federal governmental structures. At the same time, powerful and educated ethnic élites were formed among non-Russian nationalities as a result of efforts by the centre. From the "nativization" policies of the 1920s to the 1980s, purposeful efforts were made to develop a system of preferences and affirmative actions to prepare non-Russian intellectuals, scientists, and cultural figures. In the republics, the reproduction of intellectual and bureaucratic élites occurred on an unprecedentedly wide scale. The Institute Diploma and Ph.D. degrees became a symbol of prestige and the proportion of scientific degrees granted was not only equal but considerably higher among some groups, such as Georgians and Armenians, compared to the national average and to Western standards as well (see statistical data in Arutionian and Bromlye, 1986). To support prestigious symbols of national statehood, extensive resources were put into institutions like Academies of Sciences and professional creative unions such as those of writers, actors, and cinematographers. At the same time, in the republics and autonomies powerful strata of local bureaucracy took shape, including members of the party apparatus, KGB, and militia.

As soon as the centre lost its control over ethnic élites, and as soon as a vacuum of power and ideology took place, these élites were ready to start a fight for real power in the polities which, according to the Constitution of 1977, were qualified as "Sovereign National States." The most powerful means of political mobilization and of providing popular support became a national idea. The intellectual elite changed its Communist ideology and was able to start effective struggle first against the centre and then against the local party apparatchiks. Professors, writers, dramaturgy, and cinematographers became leaders of nationalist movements and even of military units. In most cases they played a decisive role in overturning the old guards from their power positions. After the republican elections in spring 1990, national élites of titular groups won the majority of seats in republican parliaments and local councils, pushing aside representatives of other groups. Even in republics such as Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, and the Yakuti Republic, where they were not the majority of the population, they were able to take control of legislative bodies (Tishkov, 1991b).

Intellectuals and other elite elements were among those who provided emotional and historical justification for participants of mass inter-ethnic clashes, starting with the Karabakh movement and spreading to the tragic events in Moldova and Central Asia. However, it would be a mistake to overestimate the generating and organizing role of élites as a reason for ethnic conflict. This approach cannot fully explain the phenomenon of mass mobilization itself, the intensity of emotion among participants in conflicts, nor the strength of group desire for autonomy and the readiness to sacrifice and to use the most violent methods to achieve goals formulated by activists. We can find a partial answer to these questions in political science theories about the logic of collective behaviour (see, e.g., Amirahmadi, 1987). These arguments deserve proper attention because they can explain how a phenomenon called "ethnic fever" or "mob power" can appear at a grass-roots level. Rank-and-file participants are often ready to follow their leaders out of a sense of collective solidarity, even when the leaders' appeal can cause the followers negative rewards and losses.

Probably, the aspects of behavioural psychology and socio-psychological mechanisms play a more significant role in ethnic conflicts than traditional interpretations have suggested. We have enough evidence to prove that groups with diminished status and who are subject to discrimination in dominated environments quite often express fears for their own existence, even when objective demographic, political, or cultural conditions would normally not lead to such conclusions. This "reaction of concern" comes from the exaggerated feeling of danger and leads to "extreme actions in response to rather moderate dangers" (Horowitz, 1985: 383).

In support of this thesis, we can mention the sensational and exaggerated notion of the "dying out" of nations, languages, and cultures which dominated public discourse during the first years of rising nationalism in the USSR, and also the strict protective measures taken by republican governments to safeguard the position of titular nationalities. An objective analysis of the demographic and socio-cultural data for most ethnic groups of the former Soviet Union does not prove the above-mentioned arguments. In spite of old crimes against the peoples and the deep crisis through which they are going now, not one ethnic culture has disappeared from the map of the Soviet Union. Indeed, a few rather small groups, such as the Baltic peoples, could be described as flourishing cultures even by Western European standards. The Estonians, who number less than one mil lion, possess not only a strong ethnic identity but also more highly developed forms of culture - professional theatre, literature, music, science, education, and publishing - than any comparable group in Europe. In spite of this, the irrational fear of losing cultural integrity became a powerful political reality in Estonia and Latvia, for instance, which helped to formulate extreme ethnic claims and provided motives for the involvement of broad masses in the political struggle.

The same kind of reaction to hypothetical dangers, such as rumors of the division of land plots or providing apartments for ethnic aliens, could be traced in conflict-generating events in Central Asian republics. Psychologically speaking, ethnic conflicts can spring from irrational feelings of loss of collective worth and suffering from historical injustices. Ethnicity in its extreme, manifest forms often serves as a therapy for the trauma suffered by all nationalities of the Soviet Union, from the Russians to the small indigenous groups of the North.

Similarly, the problem of group legitimacy is connected with a sense of collective identity and with the fact of an existing political entity in the form of state. Among the ethnic groups we can trace the growth of an idea, and then a political programme, which holds that a state is an attribute and guarantee of preserving group entity. That is, the state, including its territory, institutions of power, and resources, must have an ethno-national character and be an element of a certain cultural system. The state must have an official language, that of the dominant referent group, which provides a moral basis for exclusive control of resources and power by one group. Arguments in favour of this position are usually taken from history and especially those historical periods that are more favourable to the territorial borders and the status of the group. The struggle for making its own state may be a goal per se, as a confirmation of status and the very fact of existence for the group, and also as a guarantee against both real and hypothetical challenges from alien environments. Through this state, the ethnic group tries to establish certain symbols of collective legitimacy and protection. Most often, such symbols are territory and language. The territory is considered not only as a source of subsistence, especially under contemporary conditions, where the market economy effectively fails to recognize ethnic and political boundaries. The struggle of Armenians and Azeris for Karabakh, the Japanese desire for the return of northern territories, or the feelings of Russians towards the Crimea, spring from symbolic rather than pragmatic interests. But these symbolic interests are not mere irrational mystification's; they can acquire a real strength. The behaviour of states towards territorial problems is often strikingly irrational: states are more ready to lose their own citizens as victims of violence and as emigrants than to make territorial concessions.

The same kind of symbolism lies behind language problems in ethnic conflicts. It is not coincidental that in the programmes of national movements the struggle for strengthening the status of native languages was not only a part of a general cultural strategy, or a question of enlarging opportunities for a certain nationality in the field of labour and education. The desire of ethnic groups to give their own language official status became also a means of proving their higher legitimacy compared with other members of polities. Language became one of the symbols of newly acquired group integrity and a symbol of the domination of one group over another. Symbolic interests in a system of inter-ethnic relations are not only an illusion by which élites manipulate for mobilization of the masses to achieve pragmatic goals. Distribution and acquisition of prestigious symbols is a real and rational subject for ethnic conflicts. The problems of prestige and symbols are quite different from material interests. The latter more often lie at the basis of social and class conflicts and can be negotiated in quantitative parameters - salaries, pensions, payments, working hours, and so on. Symbolic demands are extremely difficult to negotiate and redistribute because they are expressed in moral and emotional categories and are not subject to quantitative characteristics. That is why ethnic conflicts, like religious conflicts, in themselves comprise unconciliatory irrationalism and often acquire a bloody character.


Assistance in the translation and typing of this chapter was given by Jan Helge Hordnes, PRIO.


1. See Prazauskas, 1991. For a more substantial study, see Clemens, 1991.

2. Eduard Shevardnadze has refused to restore autonomous status for Southern Ossetians, and his war minister, Tengiz Kitovani, when starting military sanctions against Abkhazia, stated publicly that in Georgia there will be only "cultural autonomy."

3. A sociological survey done in Moscow in 1991 showed that 40 per cent of Muscovites expressed a negative attitude towards refugees from non-Russian republics and 72 per cent expressed a negative attitude towards "traders from southern republics."

4. On ethnic business see Light, 1972; Pincus and Ehrlich, 1994: 237-72. 5 See, for example, on Quebec and Sri Lanka, Handler, 1988; Spencer, 1990.


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