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
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
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
- 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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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