Perspectives on ethnic Accord in Post-Soviet Space


Ethnicity and nationalism have taken on conflicting forms in the post-Soviet world. Ethnonationalism has contradictory implications for politics and civic life in the region. On one hand, the rise of ethnic identities and ethnopolitics was a major factor behind the disintegration of the unitarian state. Nationalist movements have helped to preserve cultural integrity and have become the basis for mass political mobilization. Nationalism in its cultural forms is an important component of nation building in newly-emerged states.

On the other hand, in recent years the territory of the former Soviet Union (FSU) has become an arena of destructive ethnic wars, cleansings and violence, causing thousands of deaths and millions of displacements, material losses and political instability. Ethnonationalism legitimized the activities of ethnic entrepreneurs, enforced violations of human rights, and stimulated irresponsible political actions, xenophobia, and intolerance. Ethnic nationalism and conflicts have become major obstacles to reforms and modernization. Nationalism is pivotal in the making of new states but, at the same time, is a major challenge to them because it subverts their sovereignty, integrity, and ability to maintain social order and provide for their people.

If it is not to lose the peace, now that the Cold War is over, the world community must meet this challenge with urgent expertise, responsible policy recommendations, and energetic action at the local, regional and international levels.


In multiethnic societies social and political disparities and cleavages often go along culture (ethnic, racial, or religious) boundaries. People use ethnic affiliation as one of the most accessible and understandable forms of group solidarity, and a as a tool to achieve different goals. That is why, as Manning Nash wrote:

Ethnicity is a reservoir for unrest in a world where power, prosperity, and rank are distributed in an unequal and illegal way between and within nations (Nash, 1989:127).

The new post-Soviet polities abound in such conflict-generating disparities. Representatives of some ethnic groups (or nationalities) enjoy a dominant political and cultural status. Among such groups are ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation, Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, Ukrainians in Ukraine, and other dominant ethnic groups in successor states. The titular nationalities in a number of Russian republics could be added to this list, especially where they are in the majority and are able to organize politically.

The situation did not change much when new states claimed legitimacy under the rubric of "national self-determination." Previously subordinate nationalities became dominant majorities in multiethnic states. Meanwhile, many minorities and millions of ethnically related people were divided by new borders. These new dominant groups and their elites claim exclusive power over cultural institutions and priority status in the economy and social services. In turn, those who used to be "double" minorities (like Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, southern Ossets, and Abkhazians in Georgia, Gagauz in Moldoza) and so-called "new minorities" (Russian and Ukrainians in Moldova, Russians in Estonia and Latvia) are now challenging their diminished status and discriminatory attitudes towards them. Not having a "voice," they prefer an "exit" via secessionist or irredentist struggles.

The welcome decentralization of power in Russia and other states has been accompanied by a growth of ultranationalist rhetoric and actions, as well as explicit attempts to make government and resources the exclusive property of one group. Chechen nationalist leaders, after the political coup in September 1991, took openly separatist stands. Tatarstan, under the leadership of ethnic Tatars, rejects any form of vertical relations with the federal center. Northern Ossets expelled from the territory of their "own" republic about 40 thousand citizens of Ingush nationality.

Many minorities in the FSU, feeling discriminated against and lacking state support, hoped that liberalization would bring them cultural or territorial autonomy, even their own states; but when peoples like the Gagauz in Moldova, Crimean Tatars in Crimea, Abkhazians in Georgia, etc. voiced these aspirations, they were often met by repressive measures in a welter of mutual intolerance. Weak minorities became targets of ethnic cleansing and pogroms.

Socioeconomic and political differences are important factors in understanding the nature of ethnicity, but they are not enough to explain why ethnic conflicts happen. Ethnicity has a powerful emotional and psychological function. It is a kind of symbolic capital which a group and its members share, providing a feeling of comfort and security amidst outside challenges and disturbances. Ethnic groups strive to legitimize their existence and status through territory, power structures, language, and other cultural institutions. In the post-Soviet world there are no other more powerful symbols for social groupings and coalitions. A lack of civic institutions, and alternative structures for the expression of interests and ideologies makes the FSU extremely vulnerable to ethnonationalist ideology and practice. In recent years practically all major political careers, as well as state politics and projects, are shaping around ethnic or nationalist appeals and manipulations.

Such appeals derived their resonance from the efforts of the intellectual elites fostered in different ethnic groups by the Communist regime. It was mainly academic intellectuals, including some based in Moscow, who provided legitimization for the Karabagh movement among the Armenians. The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict first started as "a war of philologists" between them-Supreme Council chairman Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Arzinba. When such elites took power they acquired the opportunity to organize war in heavily militarized societies, where individual lives and human rights had low priority. Post-Communist politicians inherited the same low level of accountability before public opinion previously enjoyed by politicians of the communist state. Since the onset of ethnic violence in the former Soviet Union no single instigator of it has been called to account. On the contrary, the escalation of ethnic conflicts into regular war liberates leaders and followers from judicial sanction and enforces the professionalization of military activities.


The territory of the former Soviet Union was and will consist of multiethnic polities, inspite of all efforts to realize the principle of "one ethnic group - one state." The major priority for the FSU, in a time of transition, is to find formulas and mechanisms for preventing conflicts and the improved governance of complex societies. At the moment ethnic wars and violence have severely affected only a few states (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Moldova, and recently Russia) but practically no state is immune from this disease. A long and painful list of grievances and injustices towards many nationalities and minorities still exists, and there are more than enough clients capable of escalating dangerous conflicts.

Soviet political and intellectual traditions embedded a doctrine of ethnic nationalism, enforcing mutually exclusive ethnic loyalties and instigating attempts to construct states and their structures on ethnic principles. The idea of ethnonationalism is still very powerful, and enjoys wide political and emotional support. Very often governments are more concerned about their own ethnic diaspora than about citizens belonging to non-dominant minorities. Citizenship and basic rights became subject to blood calculations, and hundreds of thousands of people born on the territories of new states found themselves stateless persons. State ideologies, symbols, and even constitutional and legal provisions reflect dominant groups' perceptions of themselves as being of single common descent, and as the only "holders" of the state, thus excluding from nationhood all those of other ancestral origins.

A difficult but essential task facing all segments of society in the FSU, is to change this ancestral definition of the state and to replace it with the idea of the nation as a civic and multicultural entity. Nations may have certain cultural profiles (usually defined by their dominant groups), but they do not constitute ethnic entities. Multiethnic states must therefore take legal, economic and educational steps to ensure that no nation, however dominant, is equated with a primordial "ethnos" claiming descent from a common ancestor. Such culturally-constructed myths are a breeding ground for conflicts.

This idea of the nation as co-citizenship was enshrined in the new constitution of Russia in 1993 As President Boris Yeltsin stated:

No single ethnic group can possess an exclusive right to control over territory, political institutions, and resources. Equality of rights is conditioned by the necessity to take mutually-agreed decisions, taking into account the interests of various ethnic groups (Yeltsin 1994:4).

A promising strategy for reducing ethnic conflicts is, as Donald Horowitz says, "proliferating the points of power so as to take the heat off a single focal point" (Horowitz 1985:348). It could be done by decentralizing state power through territorial federalism.

Federalism should however be a means of making the institutions and services of the state more reflective of the needs and interests of culturally diverse groups within it. It must not be used as a means to implement the idea of "one ethnic group - one state."

Another strategy is to change the character of power structures and the cultural realm to make the center more ethnically mixed. The Russian Federation is still ruled by representatives of the most numerous and culturally dominant group - the Russians. In the newly elected Russian Parliament (State Duma), 368 of 448 members are Russians. How to make the federal center multiethnic and raise the aspirations of non-Russians in the center constitute new challenges for democratic reforms.

Political liberalization has brought with it competition for access to power and privilege. The demise of the former system of insider promotions has brought to power not only former dissidents and other democratic figures but also politicians who subscribe to nationalist ideologies and address ethnically-defined electorates. The new leaders of post-Communist states, as well as of many republics in Russia, effectively use such opportunities, and are able to bring to power "national cadres" to safeguard majorities in representative institutions and administrative positions. In Tatarstan, 85% of key positions in 59 administrative regions of the republicare filled by ethnic Tatars, although they comprise about half the population. In the new republic of Adigea in Russia, local nationals (29% of the population) acquired control of top power.

A need exists for special measures and programs, including quotas and affirmative action to strengthen minority representation in power structures and in the cultural relam of the state.

Meanwhile multiethnic countries, as well as federal units like the Russian republics, should explore election procedures that guarantee that candidates be nominated and elected on the condition of representing a multiethnic eletorate. Interest group coalitions, including business, professional, and territorial associations, should be encouraged in multiethnic societies.

A central issue in interethnic relations is the question of reducing inequality and ethnosocial disparity. In the post-Com-munist world, most ethnic inequalities originate either in urban-rural and regional economic differences or in restrictive economic differences or in restrictive actions of the state towards certain groups (Stalinist deportations, restrictions for ethnic and religious minorities, language assimilation, etc.).

The task of correcting striking inequalities should be made a major priority in the new states and territories, to avoid open interethnic unrest. First, work against such inequalities should touch on economy and resource management, especially given new trends towards privatization and emerging market economies. It is usual that members of certain groups serve as major agents of industrialization, land exploration, and resource development, as ethnic Russians and Ukrainians have in the gas and oil industries in Siberia, gold and diamond mining projects in Yakutia, electronics and textile industries in the Baltics and Central Asia, and military installations in the republics of Chuvash and Tatarstan.

A paradox of the present situation is that those industries with predominantly Russian-speaking personnel generate major percentages of the gross national product in territories (for example, 80% in Tatarstan and Yakutia, 70% in Latvia and Estonia) in which political power is held by non-Russians. So, along with a process of devolution and redistribution of political power, measures could be undertaken in the economic field: training of personnel and widening opportunities for high-skilled jobs for underrespresented groups; provisions for balanced interethnic participation in privatized enterprises, equal access to land sales, etc. Equally, it is important to provide more representations of Russian-speaking minorities in power structures of successor states besides Russia. Rural enclaves exist where minorities suffer economic deprivation; special programs of assistance should be implemented in such areas.

Local self-government and community activities should stress grassroots interests based on cultural distinctiveness. The role of community as a basic institution of social control and regulation in civic societies is drastically weak now. The Law on Local Self-Government passed by the Russian Parliament in 1991, was abortive and reflected centralized political thinking and practice. At the same time it is evident that most of the disputes in the FSU are local ones or at least disputes that could be resolved by local authorities.

In recent years, there have been many cases in which potential conflicts or violence were regulated and stopped by local forces (Committee for Self-Defense in Dushanbe; community leaders negotiating in the Northern Caucasus; local authorities' activities to stop the unlawful decisions of a community meeting against ethnic aliens, etc.). Local governments should be provided with the authority and financial resources to implement their own initiatives and policy towards ethnic issues. Local governments must have a right to make decisions on educational systems, including questions on language of instruction and teaching, on local broadcasting networks and press, on local official festivities, cultural symbols, etc. The variety and content of these kinds of activities are still very limited and poor in the territory of the FSU.

After decades of severe Bolshevik criticism as "a bourgeois invention," the concept of cultural autonomy must be rehabilitated. Self-determination should not be treated only as a state or territorial matter, with all the limitations imposed by existing political geography and systems. Self-determination today denotes an individual and group determining its own identity and safeguarding rights and interests based on this identity, irrespective of territorial status and political- administrative borders. Self-determination is the right to participate in wider political and cultural processes.


While not all ethnic tensions end in unrest and violence, all open-ended conflicts are preceded by tension and have a short- or long-term period of escalation. Ethnic conflicts and wars in the post-Communist world may be divided into two categories. One type is that of brief riots and pogroms directed against ethnic foes. Another type is an open-ended conflict or war with organized military or paramilitary forces on opposite sides of a divided frontline and explicitly expressed positions and programs. Quite often riots evolve into protracted conflicts, and the latter may escalate into interstate wars.

There were pogrom-type conflicts in Azerbaijan (against Armenians in Sumgait), in Osh, Kirghizia (between Kirghiz and Uzbeks), in Northern Ossetia, Russia (against Ingush), and in many other places, as well as sporadic violence in large cities (like in Moscow against traders of the Caucasus region). At the moment there are a few ongoing ethnic wars and open-ended conflicts in the area of the former Soviet Union: Karabakh and Abkhazia. Usually riots last days and very rarely, over a week; open-ended conflicts may last for years. What kind of symptoms and actions precede this violent stage and allow tension and disputes to transform into unrest and clashes? In identifying such symptoms and actions, we may be able to formulate a list of suggestions to avoid open-ended conflict at the pre-violent stage.

People react explosively not so much to the very fact of ethnically mixed population, but to the rapid changes caused by resettlement policy, spontaneous migrations, the influx of refugees, etc. Population movements, especially mass and unorganized movements, bring serious social problems (job competition, shortage of housing, crime), violating accustomed orders and ways of living. Local groups and authorities start to express fear and anxiety, blaming newcomers, usually ethnic aliens, for old and new problems.

Quite often newly emerged states enforce a climate and politics that advocates pushing out "non-native" populations from places of their residence. Such policies should be vigorously resisted and all means, including international ones, used to ensure that all people who lived on the territories of successor states at the moment of dissolution are eligible for citizenship. Migration policy must make it a priority to limit migration, to assist "new minorities" in their social accommodation and to integrate them into the recently changed political environment of the countries where they reside.

The use of violence requires a certain psychological preparation, especially for those who carry it out. The widespread dissemination of propaganda instilling negative ethnic attitudes usually play this role and indicates that violence is likely. For months preceding pogroms in many areas of the FSU, press, politicians and local activists spread negative "images of others", including accusations of their privileged living conditions, dishonest behavior, uncivilized way of life, etc.

Antiracist legislation exists in many countries, forbidding public expressions of racial and ethnic prejudices, especially when they may cause violence. Similar laws were passed in some ex-Communist countries, but such legislation has proven ineffective. The rare attempts to organize court cases bring additional heat and tension, and the mobilization of ethno-nationalistic elements in a society.

Nevertheless, state and public support as well as international judicial assistance is necessary to implement urgent measures against disseminating ethnic hatred and prejudices, especially in areas of potential violence. To locate these places and monitor the situation, special national and regional networks, ethnological monitoring, and early warning services should be established.

A group violent act requires certain material preparations. Most important of these is the creation of illegal paramilitary groups such as "guards", "popular armies", "volunteers", "security forces", etc. This process has two significant components: acquiring arms and ammunition and the hiring and training of "field commanders" and rank-and-file warriors. It becomes possible in a situation of weak central authorities and paralyzed judicial, police, and security state institutions. In the post-Soviet space, there are additional factors: regular armies' personnel, and huge arsenals of weapons facilitating material preparation for ethnic violence. In the former Soviet Union, the recent Afghanistan War has also provided a reservoir of young war professionals, many of whom are psychologically damaged and socially disoriented in a contemporary situation.

Amidst growing tensions and alienation measures, the strengthening of public order and enforcement of strict limitations on illegal acquiring and carrying of weapons and on establishing non-constitutional military structures are needed. Control over army arsenals should be dispersed, and any illegal arms sales, sponsorship, or organization of military training for potential fighters among civilians should be prosecuted. Special rehabilitation and support programs for young war veterans and people leaving reorganized security and military structures should be provided.

Obvious symptoms of coming violence are the rising intolerance, overheated rhetoric, and provocative activities of ethnic entrepreneurs, some of whom make no secret of their preference for a violent solution. At the same time, there is often a paralyzing and disoriented mode of behaviour among the central authorities, who may wish to avoid and resolve a dispute but lack the experience and resources to do it. That is why it is important to pay special attention to the training and education of leaders and local actors in conflict resolution approaches as well as in sharing information on similar situations in other regions of the world and what mistakes were committed.

At this stage at least two major strategies are possible: one is mobilization of local communities and public opinion against actions that disturb the peace, including establishing committees on grassroots levels and watch groups monitoring the situation in potentially dangerous areas; another is energetic actions on the part of the police and the courts to stop sporadic violence.


Going out of conflict is the most complex problem for experts and politicians. Confronting this difficult challenge, some people take a fatalistic and demobilizing approach. Associating ethnic conflict with so-called "basic human needs" and the "fear of group extinction," one specialist in conflict resolution surprisingly, concluded that "so far there has been no solution to any major multicultural or multiethnic conflict. Ethnic and cultural conflicts persist and either become an ongoing part of a sociopolitical system, or erupt, leading to violence and the destruction of the system" (Burton, 1990:33-34).

We cannot accept that vision of the problem, for many reasons. No conflicts, especially violent ones, last endlessly or are programmed by history and ethnicity itself. Even the severe recent unrest on the territory of the former Soviet Union, as in Moldova and Central Asia, ended in different forms of resolution and governance. There are prospects for managing the situations in Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as in Tajikistan. Modest but valuable experience in transforming open-ended violent situations into peaceful ones has already been accumulated for this area of the world. Enormous human and material resources are dedicated to peace-making efforts without being hostages of ambitious elites pretending to speak on behalf of "the people's will and interests".

A lack of specially trained and effective military or legal forces characterizes many ethnic riots, pogroms, and mass killings. Typical cases are the expulsion of Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan (spring 1989), the KirghizUzbeks conflict in the Osh region (summer 1990), and ethnic clashes in Fergana (summer 1991). In this situation violence could be stopped in different ways. It tends to peter out for fear of punishment and a lack of recruits. More often it does not stop without interference which may be of two kinds: by the state, or by local communities and other sectors. Energetic action is crucial, even if violence has ceased, because it sends a message against its further proliferation.

Organized warfare could be stopped by two kinds of interference in case conflicting sides cannot reach agreement on their own. One kind is political measures providing conditions for and assistance in negotiations to reach ceasefire and peace agreements. Such agreements are however much easier to reach than to sustain. Many agreements were reached in the war around NagornoKarabakh and in Abakhazia, but most were short-lived, and often used for accumulating new resources to resume military operations.

Another form of interference to stop violent conflicts is third party intervention. In many respects it is a last resort, to halt mass destruction and deadly wars. Though it is increasingly popular internationally and with the UN, it may have unpredictable consequences. Third party intervention has proven successful when done with the consent and participation of both conflicting sides, as in Southern Ossetia (May 1992). The introduction of three-party military forces with Russian army participation helped to stop three years of armed conflict.

The main challenge of third party intervention is to ensure the neutrality of the outside force and avoid direct alliance with any side in a conflict. Such alliance took place, for example, when the Russian army in Abkhazia practically sided with local separatists and played a role in transforming the conflict into protracted war.

Outside intervention, including joint international efforts, should be used only when political peacekeeping techniques have been exhausted, or when contending parties request. The introduction and use of outside force should be arranged as a joint action with the participation of the fighting forces. Large-scale operations by outsiders should not be practiced in areas of ethnic conflicts and internal wars, because a conflict may easily evolve into guerrilla-style warfare against the "outsiders" who were called in to help.

When riot-type violence is stopped, security measures should include steps against its possible repetition or spread into another places. Urgent measures are needed to prevent continuing violence in covert forms and secluded places, and to ensure the release of all hostages on an "all to all" basis. Police and troops, in cases of Emergency Law as well as temporal administration imposed by higher level authorities, are usually in the difficult situation of "newcomers," and quite often demonstrate incompetence and unpreparedness for actions, or could be easily involved in "local diplomacy" and false forms of solidarity. That is what happened to representatives of the Russian government and the military commanders when they worked in a zone of the Ingush-Ossetian conflict in November 1992.

Strong instructions for delegates of outside or superior powers to dissociate themselves from any conflicting side and not to allow themselves to be influence by local propaganda and other pressures would be necessary in any case of intervention. Establishing "direct rule" is useful only under conditions of neutrality and independence from the locals.

In open-ended conflict there are usually two sides but may be many actors with their own claims to power, position, and participation. The tragedy of internal feuds based on ethnic and clan loyalties in Tajikistan lies in the inability of state forces, including Russia's military and diplomacy, to contact and negotiate with local field commanders. Non-obedience of separate paramilitary groups is a disturbing factor in all violent conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Many times such non-obedience was a major factor in the resumption of fighting. That is why at this stage of conflict transformation it is important to establish contacts with potential intruders into the peace process who are not at the top of he negotiation list, but possess arms and recruits capable of ruining any armistice and challenging agreements.

Disarmament in immediate war zones is a much harder issue for technical (it requires substantial time and resources), political (arms became measures of political capital and legitimacy), and psychological (people are used to arms and come to see them as heroic) reasons. Arms are also personal investments and people don't want to lose what they paid. There were different strategies used to take arms away from civilians, in most cases unsuccessful: practically all weaponry arsenals were kept by local populations in the Southern Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria conflict zones. At the same time no strong measures were taken to meet the problem. We recommend a combined method of buying out guns and other deadly weapons while setting deadlines and sanctions for giving them up.

Most conflicts do not reach the stages desired by ethnic entrepreneurs: refugees go back home, territorial and political changes are not accepted by more powerful actors. Some combatants are normally reluctant to restore the statusquo, but this is often the only acceptable and realistic formula for getting out of the violent stage. But the status quo means allowing people to return to places of residence, returning property seized from them, and restoring state and civic institutions. Emerging from conflict is also a time of opportunity, when a society may reap rewards from previous losses and destruction as well as build mechanisms to prevent possible conflicts in future. It is a time when there should be a change of political leadership, allowing the sharing of power with those who were not heavily engaged in violence and who do not bear direct responsibility for crimes committed during it. This recommendation goes against the usual practice, according to which militants gain wide support through violence, which legitimizes them as political leaders and often makes them into heroes. But without changing the major actors it is hard to start a new play.

After violence, serious political discussions, public debates, and legal measures should be instituted to give people confidence in mutually positive changes. An important element at this stage is the legal prosecution of crimes committed during the violence. So far there have been no such trials anywhere in the post-Communist world, except in the case of the Osh conflict. It is important to establish the likelihood of punishment for such offenses, as a deterrent to future militants. Leaving them unpunished is an invitation to fresh violence.

Any violence is traumatic, both individually and collectively, so that immediate steps should be taken once it is over to relieve the trauma. Urgent action is required to free hostages, bury the dead, trace missing persons, and assist the grieving, the destitute, the women who have been raped, and the children who have been orphaned. In the FSU it was usually impossible for refugees to return home. Azeris could not go back to Armenia, Armenians to Azerbaijan, Turks to Uzbekistan, Ingush to Northern Ossetia, Georgians to Abkhazia, and so on. Some feared to return, but more often they had nothing to return to, for their lands and dwellings had been seized. There is an urgent need for national legislation and international action to prevent people from seizing property in situations of mass unrest.

Above all, it is essential to restore confidence in areas recently torn by violence. This can only be done by means of media campaigns against ethnic prejudice and systematic efforts to undermine those who profit economically from ethnic conflict. Instead, a crisis situation can be used to encourage local autonomy and self reliance, which could in turn be applied in projects to develop the region. Such development programs offer the best hope in the long run. If they are openly discussed, widely acclaimed and adequately financed, they could induce former ethnic foes and rivals to cooperate, for they will offer results that people value and fear to lose.

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