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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentNote to the reader from the UNU
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentIntroduction
Open this folder and view contents1. Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies
Open this folder and view contents2. Ethnic conflict in the Horn of Africa: Myth and reality
View the document3. Ethnic conflicts in the context of social science theories
Open this folder and view contents4. Settlement of ethnic conflicts in post-Soviet society
Open this folder and view contents5. Dynamics of the Moldova Trans-Dniester ethnic conflict (late 1990s to early 1990s)
View the document6. Ethnic conflict in the Osh region in summer 1990: Reasons and lessons
Open this folder and view contents7. From centre-periphery conflict to the making of new nationality policy in an independent state: Estonia
Open this folder and view contents8. Conflict management in the former USSR and world experience
Open this folder and view contents9. The dissolution of multi-ethnic states: The case of Yugoslavia
Open this folder and view contents10. Ethnic conflict, federalism, and democracy in India
Open this folder and view contents11. An intractable conflict? Northern Ireland: A need for pragmatism
Open this folder and view contents12. Political autonomy and conflict resolution: The Basque case
Open this folder and view contents13. Ethnic and racial groups in the USA: Conflict and cooperation
Open this folder and view contents14. Ethnic conflicts and minority protection: Roles for the international community
View the document15 The right to autonomy: Chimera or solution?
View the documentOther titles of interest


Kumar Rupesinghe and Valery A. Tishkov

The continuing agonies of Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Azerbaijan Armenia, and Algeria, just to cite a few of the dozens of examples of the violent internal conflicts which are the predominant form of warfare in the world today, underscore the timeliness of this volume by pointing to the urgent necessity of improving the global community's understanding of the causes and consequences of violent conflict and options for their prevention, constructive resolution, or transformation.

While covering a wide geographic and experiential range, this volume has no pretensions to providing an exhaustive or definitive overview of the relationships between ethnicity, power, and conflict in the modern world. In fact, in the following pages readers will find opposing perspectives, definitions, arguments, and conclusions, all of which are part of a rich and dynamic process of analysis, debate, and discovery. The material contained in this volume, which explores conflicts and conflict resolution approaches in the Horn of Africa, some of the Soviet successor states, the former Yugoslavia, India, Northern Ireland, the Basque country, and the United States, leads to the conclusion that solutions to the dilemmas posed by the resurgence of ethnicity and shifting power relationships in the post-Cold-War world involve a plethora of factors which do not lend themselves to superficial analysis or pat solutions.

In reality, the nature of conflict is as complex as the global varieties of social life itself; a fact which should, but does not always, lead scholars to reject the temptation to make categorical classifications and avoid oversimplifications. Case-studies, whether drawn from the former Soviet Union, Africa, Asia, Western Europe, or the Americas, demonstrate varieties of entwined objective and subjective factors, as well as rational and irrational motives on the part of individuals and groups, that belie simple classification. The urgency of many current conflict situations also demands that scholars, policy makers, and ordinary people eschew blinked methodological, political, or ethnic orientations when trying to understand conflict and build peace.

The importance of the issue of self-determination in any discussion of conflict and conflict resolution in the contemporary world is indisputable, an importance which is reflected in this volume in several of the case-studies, as well as in the more general discussions. But the viability of political arrangements between groups is only part of the intricate matrix of most conflicts, which can involve issues of governance and authority as well as issues of ideology, identity, economic disparity, competition for resources, and other factors, most often in complex combinations.

Co-editor Kumar Rupesinghe's contribution, entitled "Governance and Conflict Resolution in Multi-Ethnic Societies," describes some of the fundamental changes which will be needed in our perceptions of security and sovereignty if the global community is to manage peacefully the dynamics of ethnic conflict and the unresolved and largely unreflected issue of self-determination. The issues of governance, ethnicity, and conflict resolution are explored in the context of the evolving new world order, which is still encumbered with increasingly obsolete and ineffective international systems, mechanisms, and approaches. Rupesinghe argues that conflicts involving claims or resistance to claims of self-determination remain among the most intractable, partly due to the absence of mechanisms to address such claims.

In "Ethnic Conflict in the Horn of Africa: Myth and Reality," Hizkias Assefa offers a definition of ethnic groups as collectivities of people who share the same primordial characteristics, such as common ancestry, language, and culture. Ethnicity refers to the behaviour and feelings that emanate from membership of an ethnic group.

In looking at the resolution of conflict, Assefa contends that mechanisms must be sought to legitimize ethnic identity without making it incompatible with the formation of larger units of identity based on mutuality and beneficial collaboration, such as a loose federal system of governance.

Some of the theoretical underpinnings of current conflict resolution approaches, as well as their shortcomings, are reviewed by Valery A. Tishkov, this volume's other co-editor, in his chapter, entitled "Ethnic Conflicts in the Context of Social Science Theories." Looking at various conflicts in the former Soviet Union, Tishkov argues that it is not correct to label as "ethnic conflicts" these sometimes violent political struggles, because of the multi-ethnic composition of most of the areas involved. However, he notes that manipulative elite's have not shied away from using "ethnic camouflage" to obscure other motives and inflame disputes. Tishkov states that although the choice for ethnic separation is usually driven by economic calculation, political factors are also important. That is why the "elite-based" theory of conflict, focusing on the mobilization of ethnic feelings by intellectuals and politicians, has been fruitfully applied in the analysis of a number of case studies in the Soviet successor states.

Emil Payin's chapter, "Settlement of Ethnic Conflicts in Post-Soviet Society," focuses on types of inter-ethnic conflict and their distribution. The Soviet Union's rapid and unprecedented disintegration is, in Payin's view, a contributing factor to mounting ethnic tensions brought to a head by plummeting living standards. The establishment of authoritarian-nationalist regimes has further inflamed nationalist passions and led to conflicts, which interact with each other and have a cumulative affect. Payin presents a scale of ethno-political stability based on three types of factor: potential conflicts based on the historical and cultural alienation of ethnic communities; conflict of ideas (ranging from nationalistic statements in the press to violent demonstrations); and conflict of action - sporadic clashes or prolonged armed conflict.. Paying suggests that the prevention of ethnic conflicts ultimately requires radical socio-economic and political reforms, plus an ethnic conflict prevention system.

Airat R. Aklaev's chapter, "Dynamics of the Moldova-Trans-Dniester Ethnic Conflict (Late 1980s to Early 1990s)," argues that ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet Union are predominantly political and have been brought about by rapid socio-political change. The situation has been complicated, however, by artificial boundaries and complex territorial claims and demographic patterns within areas such as Moldova. Aklaev identifies five critical points in inter-ethnic political struggles in Moldova between late 1988 and mid-1992: the adoption of language legislation; local elections to Supreme Soviets; the reaction to the coup attempt in Moscow; referenda on independence in the Gagauzia and Trans-Dniester districts; and separatist authorities' attempts to subordinate local police offices. He singles out three major stages in the development of disruptive inter-ethnic confrontation between Moldova and Trans-Dniester: transition from non-violent to violent ethnic political action; transition to recurrent violent interaction in ethnically mixed urban and rural areas; and transition to warfare. Based on the Moldova case-study, Aklaev contends that the transition to violence often results from an ethno-political legitimacy crisis and that the dynamics of conflict are significantly influenced by fast-paced socio-political change.

In "Ethnic Conflict in the Osh Region in Summer 1990: Reasons and Lessons," Abilabek Asankanov analyses the causes of the inter ethnic conflict in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan and its common features with other conflicts in the Soviet successor states. Based on survey material and local reports, Asankanov contends that the primary cause of the conflict, which was characterized by its cruelty, was economic backwardness, which was tending toward even further decline. Unemployment, lack of housing, disputes over the allocation of land, and other problems created an environment for the emergence of a nationalist Kyrgyz group and an Uzbek separatist movement. But Asankanov notes that when survey respondents were asked what measures should be taken to prevent national conflicts, most focused on improvements in living conditions.

Klara Hallik introduces her chapter, "From Centre-Periphery Conflict to the Making of New Nationality Policy in an Independent State: Estonia," by describing how that country's cultural heritage and national identity were submerged under a wave of massive immigration during the Soviet era. Consequent demographic change has led to an ethnically divided society now shaping a new national identity. Estonia became the first former Soviet republic to enforce a language act giving its native tongue official status, which in turn led to conflict. Hallik favours the legal definition of citizenship as a response to problems involving national minorities, although she also states that resolution will be extremely complicated on a psychological level. According to the author, for Estonia to move from ethnic to civic nationalism it needs to rid itself of the ideology of a minority and create a pluralistic democratic society, free of polarization.

In "Conflict Management in the Former USSR and World Experience," Victor A. Kremenyuk describes conflict management as preventing the unpredictable development of conflict, providing a framework which can incorporate both "winning" and "compromise" approaches, and envisaging resolution or prevention as preferable outcomes. The author divides ethnic conflict into several different groupings, depending on whether ethnic minorities are seeking cultural autonomy, independence, or reunification, and suggests that the underlying rationale for the rise of ethnic conflicts is the fact that diversity is one of the world's most important and powerful locomotives of cultural development. In relation to the former Soviet Union, he contends that there is no model for managing ethnic conflicts that is fully suited to the new independent states, that the use of force is self-destructive, and that resolving ethnic conflicts must be seen as a long-term task.

Silvo Devetak's contribution, "The Dissolution of Multi-Ethnic States: The Case of Yugoslavia," raises a crucial question for those interested in conflicts and conflict prevention: whether the survival of the Yugoslav Federation could have avoided the carnage in former Yugoslavia. According to Devetak, the answer is no, because the dissolution of Yugoslavia had begun in the 1970s as a result of the abolition of market laws and legal obligations among economic entities, the ineffective decision-making process at the federal level, and the ineffectiveness of the political elite. Looking at the means of ensuring a future peace, the author suggests that what will be necessary will be economic revival and the resolution of socio-political problems, genuine democratization, improvements in inter-ethnic relations, and cooperation between states.

S.D. Muni contends in "Ethnic Conflict, Federalism, and Democracy In India" that diversity and heterogeneity do not necessarily produce conflicts, although the potential is often there. If India is to resolve its ethnic conflicts peacefully, he argues, political opportunism and expediency cannot be allowed to go uncurbed. The problem lies not with institutions and common people, but with leadership that surrenders values and larger gains for short-term and selfish advantages.

John Darby's chapter, "An Intractable Conflict? Northern Ireland: A Need For Pragmatism," examines how the violence which reached a peak in 1972 in Northern Ireland has declined with the implementation of social and military mechanisms to constrain it. Using the analogy of cancer, Darby likens conflict to a disease which was once seen as incurable but is now often successfully treated. Similarly, Northern Ireland's political problem is no longer viewed solely within a constitutional context but as a group of interrelated issues which include, as well as the constitutional issue, social and economic inequality, cultural identity, security, religion, and day-to-day relationships. Darby notes that progress in these areas provided the impetus for the political negotiations in late 1993 and early 1994 and has contributed greatly towards the peacemaking process.

"Political Autonomy and Conflict Resolution: The Basque Case," by Gurutz Jauregui and Jose Manuel Castells, weighs the practical results achieved in 12 years of autonomy for the Basque region of Spain against the practice of violence. Although autonomy has not resolved all the Basques' traditional demands, the authors suggest that its implementation has provided satisfactory results. Most importantly, it has been an effective instrument for recovering Basque identity, particularly in terms of language and culture.

In "Ethnic and Racial Groups in the USA: Conflict and Cooperation," Mary C. Waters argues that the historical experiences of ethnic groups in the United States significantly shape the various cultural lenses through which people understand inter-ethnic conflict. Based on four major bias incidents, Waters proposes that the treatment of people, along with the mode of their incorporation into social and cultural structures, influences meanings attached to racial and ethnic identities, the relationship of the group and its component individuals to the state, and the meanings attached to incidents of hate crimes, violence, and intergroup encounters.

Asbjørn Eide's contribution, entitled "Ethnic Conflicts and Minority Protection: Roles for the International Community," presents guidelines for peaceful and constructive ways to handle ethnic conflict through regulation of both processes and outcomes. The guidelines include non-discrimination and full participation; promoting the rights and development of minorities in ways which do not endanger regional peace; application of special measures and constructive development processes, such as preserving traditional languages, lifestyles, and cultures; and respecting the human rights of all majorities, minorities, and individuals. In Eide's view, conflicts cannot be resolved using ad hoc approaches; that is, without the application of basic standards which must be adopted at the early stages of conflict, when parties are still behaving rationally. Without rationality, there is a need for a much more complex step-by-step process, where peace enforcement could be required - a tremendously difficult undertaking for which tactics and strategy have yet to be learned.

In "The Right to Autonomy: Chimera or Solution?", Hurst Hannum analyses autonomy as a component of democratic governance and argues that autonomy arrangements respond to the three primary needs of self-expression, democracy, and the protection of human rights, although they do not guarantee them. The author suggests that the assumption that self-determination may lead to secession should not be accepted automatically, as it is a relative, not an absolute right, and different levels of self-determination may be appropriate for different groups. Hannum stresses that the right to effective participation in the economic and political life of a country is of crucial importance and would reduce demands for autonomy. While devolution of powers to sub-state components or even separation should remain options, they should only be exercised after a lengthy process in which the wishes of all parties can be accurately ascertained.

What is evident in the material contained in this volume is the specificity of particular conflicts, as well as the potential for sharing approaches and mechanisms for their peaceful prevention, resolution, or transformation. We believe that active cross-fertilization of ideas, methods, and mechanisms at the global level will increase the international community's capacity to transform the violent conflicts we currently face and to meet more effectively the challenges of the future. In that context, we believe it may be useful to put forward some general approaches for the reduction and management of conflicts rooted in issues of authority and governance. While these suggestions are derived to a large extent from experiences in the former Soviet Union, we also believe they could have validity in other societies.

The first approach involves the decentralization of state power through territorial federalism. Denunciations of ethno-populism or attempts at dismantling ethno-populist political practices are not enough. Lasting accommodation will only be likely if constructive alternatives are developed. In developing alternatives, the experiences of multi-ethnic countries, which consider themselves, and are considered, nation-states - such as India, Nigeria, Canada, and Switzerland should be taken into account. At the same time, the components of federations should acquire a high level of real power, including rights to their own constitutions and legal systems, control of resources and environmental policy, and management of educational and cultural institutions. Federalism is a means to move the institutions and services of a state closer to the needs and interests of culturally diverse groups living within that state. It is a means to provide self government for lower-level, less spatially extensive authorities, which, as a rule, are ethnically more homogenous. Federalism is not a means to implement the notion of "one ethnic group, one state."

A second mechanism concerns multi-ethnic participation at the federal level as a means of minimizing ethnic conflicts rooted in alienation or rejection of central authority by non-dominant ethnic segments of society. Effective and workable federative systems of governance can be realized not only through decentralization, but also by inclusion at high levels in central political and cultural structures of members of local and regional élites, which would provide them with additional competence, legitimacy, and a sense of being a part of a whole. Reservation of offices and informational channels on an ethnic basis can also foster intra-ethnic competition and thus reduce the potential for conflicts between groups.

The third mechanism involves special measures and inducements to stimulate inter-ethnic political cooperation. Where ethnicity has been central to the formation of political coalitions and for mobilizing those direly affected by crises and attracted to totalitarian solutions, developing substitutes for this powerful charismatic paradigm is not an easy task. As a first step, attempts should be made to entrench the practice of inter-ethnic electoral and political coalitions legally and constitutionally. Multi-ethnic countries should explore election procedures which guarantee that a candidate is nominated and elected by a multi-ethnic electorate. Within the Russian Federation, for instance, a politician could not be elected as president unless, besides getting a majority of votes, he or she received a mandate from at least a majority of the ethnically diverse constituent republics. This model, recently tested in Nigeria and elsewhere and proven to be a promising means of widening and strengthening multi-ethnic cooperation and coalitions, could also be implemented within the components of a federation and their administrative units. Another avenue is the stimulation of special interest groups and coalitions, including business interests, the professions, and territorial associations.

A fourth mechanism concerns probably the most deep-rooted issue of interethnic relations - reducing inequality and ethno-social disparities. In complex societies there always exist along ethnic lines different forms of economic inequality, even when equal opportunities and justice are well established by legislation or by state and community politics. As Manning Nash states in The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 127), "Ethnicity is a reservoir for turbulence in a world where power, wealth, and dignity are unevenly and illegitimately distributed within and among nations." Along with a process of devolution and redistribution of political power, special measures should be undertaken in the economic field, including the widening of participation in highly-skilled jobs for representatives of underprivileged groups through skills training, equal access to land, and, in the case of Russia, provisions for balanced inter-ethnic participation in distributing shares in privatized enterprises.

The fifth mechanism concerns the strengthening of local self-government and community organizations involved in the management of issues of ethnicity at the grass-roots level. In the former Soviet Union, as elsewhere, when we look closely at how ethnic conflict emerges and escalates, it is evident that most of the disputed problems are local ones and could be resolved at the local level. Equally, when conflict escalates into open violence, it is more often than not local authorities, social institutions, and grass-roots organizations who are best able to play pacifying roles. However, it is essential that local governments and other actors have the authority and financial resources to implement constructive initiatives and policies affecting ethnic issues. An extremely important issue for local politics is a proper respect for the traditions and values through which small groups and individuals of different ethnic origin and religious beliefs realize and manifest their own identities.

Finally, it should be considered that the right of preserving and developing one's own culture is one of the most basic rights and one which helps to preserve the diversity of human societies and humankind as a whole. But there is no need of global "Balkanization" to achieve this goal. Self-determination can mean an individual or group determining its own identity and safeguarding its rights and interests based on this identity, irrespective of political-administrative borders. The practice of ax-territorial cultural autonomy for its multi-ethnic population, native languages, press, schools, associations, religious activities, and the like was widespread in the early years of the Soviet Union. In Russia at least, new mechanisms for governing conflicting ethnicity should include revitalizing old experiences and suppressed institutions. The US experience of affirmative action is another possible model, as is Canada's multicultural approach.