27 November 2004

The Myth of Ethnic Warfare

Charles King reviews Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War, by Stuart J. Kaufman (Cornell U. Press, 2001) in the November/December 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs.
The deadly clashes that erupted between Russians and ethnic Tatars in the early 1990s were utterly predictable. Having invaded the Russian steppes alongside the Mongols in the thirteenth century, the Tatars were seen by medieval Russian chroniclers as the epitome of Oriental barbarism. Although the power of the Tatars eventually waned, the Russians did not forget their misery at the hands of these Muslim invaders. In the sixteenth century, Ivan the Terrible razed the Tatar capital. Two centuries later, Tatar nomads were brutally driven as far as China. And during the Second World War, Stalin deported thousands of Tatar families to Central Asia. Once the Soviet Union began to falter, Tatars in several regions began to call for greater rights and eventual independence. Those demands set off a spiral of fear and loathing that drew fuel from the memory of bloodshed on both sides.

The only problem with this story is that there were no such deadly clashes in the 1990s. Russia devolved sovereignty to Tatarstan, one of the federation's constituent republics, without any violence. So successful was the process, in fact, that the "Tatar model" is now touted as a template for how Russia's relations with its other ethnic minorities should work.

Had modern Tatar autonomy not come about so painlessly, it would have been easy to read the bloodshed as yet another case of the inevitable clash of civilizations. Just such an impulse explains why Russia's ongoing war against Chechnya still sends observers scrambling for their Lermontov and Tolstoy: to search for historical allusions to Moscow's long-standing entanglement in the same zone. But as Stuart J. Kaufman shows in his ambitious new book, Modern Hatreds, explaining contemporary wars with reference to ancient troubles is not only a terrible cliche -- it is also fundamentally wrong.

The Seeds of Conflict

In years to come, what looks today like a disconnected string of small, brutish wars across southeastern Europe and Eurasia -- five in the former Yugoslavia and six in the former Soviet Union -- is more likely to be considered by historians to be part of one process: the wars of communist succession. Most of these battles pitted newly independent governments against territorial separatists, but all sprang from a range of disparate causes: the collapse of federations, the end of authoritarianism, the reemergence of old quarrels, the meddling of outside powers, political demagoguery, and -- a major catalyst of organized violence everywhere -- plain old thuggery....

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.N. have spent the better part of a decade "mediating" these various disputes, and the organizations' main strategy has been to address precisely those beliefs and insecurities that Kaufman identifies. That approach has led nowhere, however, and for one simple reason: Ethnic myths and fears have become largely irrelevant to most of the actors in these dramas. In fact, the current status quo -- no fighting but no final peace accord, either -- suits most folks just fine. The separatists get a de facto country. Corrupt officials in the central governments get a transit route for illegal commerce. Foreign governments get relative peace and, therefore, no Christiane Amanpour on the scene to raise concerns at home. International organizations get multiple rounds of "negotiations" and willing recipients for their good offices.

In the long run, however, everyone ends up a loser. The unresolved disputes have had cancerous effects on the regions where they occurred, feeding corruption, weakening governance, and gnawing away at what little democracy exists in Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan. They have created havens for international criminals and conduits for the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and people into Europe and beyond. None of that, incidentally, has much to do with ethnicity.

The Way to War

What does all of this mean for policy? Kaufman rightly calls on outside powers to pay greater attention to potential conflict areas before war erupts. Some of his recommendations are supremely reasonable .... Others ... cannot possibly be meant seriously. And no form of outside intervention, however early, can guarantee success. After all, it would be difficult to find a more concerted recent effort at peace-building than occurred in Macedonia, a case that Kaufman cites approvingly. (The book was published too early to take full account of the recent violence there between the government and Albanian guerrillas.) Long before the shooting started, school curricula were reformed under the eyes of the U.N. and major nongovernmental organizations. Internationally mediated talks were held. There was even a Macedonian version of Sesame Street, created and funded by foreigners, that featured cast members from all of Macedonia's ethnic groups living in harmony. The show became wildly popular with local children. But as for the results, consult CNN.

The real lesson to be learned from the postcommunist conflicts, including the latest one in Macedonia, is probably different from the one Kaufman intended. Myths, fears, and opportunities might be a good recipe for a pogrom, but they rarely lead to large-scale, sustained violence. For that, you need the same kinds of forces that sustain any war, whether "ethnic" or otherwise: entrepreneurs who benefit from the violence, arms supplied by foreign powers, charismatic leadership, and plenty of bored young men. And these are the same factors that external governments and international organizations are most useful at counteracting -- that is, in the rare instances when they have both the will and the wherewithal to get involved. Outsiders can, as Kaufman recommends, try to ban books, shut down radio transmissions, rewrite school curricula, and enforce an internationally acceptable standard of ethnic correctness on historians and teachers. But silencing every bigot in the world would require a monumental effort -- one for which afflicted states do not have the cash, nor Western governments the fortitude.

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