Jonathan Power: The False Dawn of Ethnic Conflict

By Jonathan Power

From what many politicians and some of the press are saying, the house of ethnic togetherness is about to fall apart and the Ossetian withdrawal from Georgia is soon going to destabilize whole continents. No wonder that Beijing is opposing Moscow in rushing to recognize the new order in South Ossetia.

Is this a valid fear? Theoretically yes, historically no. A few years ago, the political scientists James Fearon and David Laitin studied ethnic division in Africa, a continent notorious for its wars. They identified tens of thousands of pairs of ethnic groups that could have been in conflict. But they did not find thousands of actual conflicts or hundreds of new states. Indeed, for every one thousand such pairs of ethnic conflicts they found fewer than three incidents of violent conflict. With only a few exceptions, state boundaries in Africa are the same as they were in 1960 at the time of the independence movement.

It is true that Africa over the last decade and a half has been through a period of great turmoil. But, according to the just-published annual report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Africa (along with Europe) is now the most peaceful continent in the world, with only one significant tribal or interstate conflict last year.

Are we still transfixed and extrapolating from that mad period of the late 80s and early 90s when countries as diverse as Yugoslavia, Zaire, Somalia, and Indonesia seemed to tearing themselves apart with ethnic strife? Then, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was heard to say “Where will it end? Will it end with 5,000 countries?” This was a gross misjudgment. Some two-thirds of all the campaigns of ethnic protest and rebellion of the last two-plus decades began between 1989 and 1993. Since 1993, the number of wars of self-determination has been halved.

Baltic nationalists have moderated their treatment of Russians. Hungarians in Slovakia and Romania are no longer under threat. Croatia’s government is now respecting minorities. Likewise, conflicts between the central government and India’s Mizo people, the Gaguaz minority in Moldova, the Chakma tribal group in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hills, and Burundi’s internal feud, have all diminished.

Central governments, for their part, appear to be becoming more flexible and sensible about devolving power. One of Russia’s most important but least-noted achievements has been its peaceful power-sharing agreements with Tatarstan, Bashkiria, and 40 other regions.

A list not quite as long can still be made for ethnic disputes unsolved, but most are not very violent, if at all. What we have learnt over the last few years is that the pool of ethnic conflicts is not infinite; that the ultra-pessimism of just a few years ago was misplaced; and that human beings can settle for less, so long as the dominant party recognizes the underdog’s integrity and gives it enough room for maneuver. This is the lesson of the once-violent movement for a free Quebec or the Punjab fight for independence from India (which resulted in the downing of a 747 airliner over the Atlantic, killing many innocent Indians) or the attempted secession of Aceh from Indonesia.

Back to the Russia of today. The violent conflict in Chechnya and the mini-war in Georgia are exceptions—the overwhelming majority of Russia’s many nationalities exhibit no urge to break away. They know they are small (geographically and demographically) and that the benefits of belonging to a large free-trade area are important for their survival. Many people have ties of marriage or kin to Russia. Their best and brightest have made their careers there.

Only under bad leadership—when playing the nationalistic card is as self-serving as it was under Milosevic’s Yugoslavia—does separation become an issue. This is the fate of Georgia under the unstable leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili and the reason why the South Ossetians saw a better future as part of Russia than of Georgia.

The West is making a mountain out of a molehill with the Russian-Georgian-Ossetian situation. The Russians, for their part, have used a sledgehammer to kill a wasp.

Both sides are in the wrong and to start talking about the possible renewal of the Cold War (as President Dmitry Medvedev has done and the French foreign minister has alluded to) is out of all proportion. There are much more important things to be discussed—namely, Ukraine’s membership of the European Union, and closer cooperation over economic and nuclear affairs between Russia, the EU, and the United States—that will have far greater effect on the balance of power in this region.

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Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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