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4. Settlement of ethnic conflicts in post-Soviet society

Emil Payin

Emil Payin

1 Introduction
2 Types of inter-ethnic conflicts and their distribution
3 Ways to prevent ethnic conflicts

1 Introduction

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region's peoples have opted for a mode of national development common throughout Eurasia - they all want to have sovereign states of their own. But the rate of collapse of the former multinational Soviet state has been truly unprecedented, and this in itself is one of the reasons for mounting ethnic tensions. Surely no other country in living memory has been gripped at one and the same time by such deep economic, political, and also ethnic crisis. Social and ethnic tensions have been brought to a head by the plummeting living standards of the population. All this has paved the way, in most former Soviet republics, for the establishment of authoritarian-nationalist regimes which inflame nationalist passions even more. Conflicts flaring up as a result further exacerbate the plight of the people.

Prazauskas has termed the process precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union "division of the colonial legacy": the former colonies (the former Soviet republics) are dividing among themselves the country's territory and armed forces, its factories and plants, and other resources. Similar processes in Africa, Asia, or Latin America have often been accompanied by territorial and ethno-nationalist conflicts1 the case of the former Soviet Union, such conflicts have flared up at a galloping pace. The Centre for Ethnopolitical Studies lists some 20 such conflicts from 1988 to 1991. According to the USSR Interior Ministry, a total of 782 people were killed and 3,617 wounded in such conflicts in 1991 alone.2 The general toll of dead and wounded over those four years is estimated at over 10,000. According to the same statistics, the number of refugees had reached 710,000; a total of 1.0 to 1.2 million people had been forced to abandon their homes in areas of high inter-ethnic tension.3

2 Types of inter-ethnic conflicts and their distribution

Inter-ethnic conflicts of different types have been observed to interact with one another, producing a cumulative effect.4

Conflicts of "uncontrolled emotions"

Typical of this category are riots and pogroms. Their organizers usually pursue no clear-cut objectives. Thus, neither researchers nor police officials can explain the attacks on the Meskhetian Turks during the Fergana riots in the summer of 1989 nor on the other ethnic minorities in that area. Nor have there been any clear explanations for the anti-Armenian feelings at the start of the Dushanbe disturbances of 1990. In such cases the "scapegoats" were probably chosen at random, the real causes of massive unrest being of a socioeconomic nature, such as an acute housing shortage in Dushanbe or a shortage of land in Fergana, Osh, and other places.

Conflicts like these are often triggered by mounting unemployment, so it was not accidental that all these riots occurred in the areas of highest unemployment. Such high-risk areas today include major multi-ethnic towns and cities, especially their industrial lower-class suburbs. If living conditions continue to deteriorate, there may be widespread riots, but the most explosive places of all will be areas with high concentrations of refugees.

Conflicts of "ideological doctrines"

These conflicts always have deep historical roots. The demands of the conflicting parties are formulated in the slogans and programmes of nationalist movements. Unlike those underlying ordinary riots, political demands bear a strong nationalist tinge and have been elaborated by theorists and ideologists of the movements involved. Worsening socio-economic and political conditions can promote the spread of such doctrines and determine the degree of violence of their manifestations. The champions of such an "ideal" are frequently ready to sacrifice not only economic benefits and personal comforts but even their own lives.

Regrettably, many politicians in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) fail to take into account the "non-pragmatic" character of such ideological conflicts. Instead they assume that all these troubles are "rooted in our poverty," that a better economy is the key to solving inter-ethnic problems. The price of this political naiveté is the escalation in ethnoideological conflicts of many kinds: - Conflicts over historically disputed territories. Examples include the dispute between the Ingushes and the Ossetians over the Prigorodny Region and the civil wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and Southern Ossetia. The two latter examples demonstrate yet another variety of inter-ethnic confrontations.

- Conflicts over the administrative status of an ethnic territory (events in Abkhazia, Gagauzia, Trans-Dniester, the Chechen Republic, and many other areas).

- Conflicts produced by the changing ethno-demographic situation in various regions and a growing share of non-indigenous settlers. The ethnic majority is afraid of losing its privileged status, or is trying to re-establish its status by demanding that the rights of the indigenous nationality be "protected," for example by granting them certain privileges. As can be expected, such demands run into opposition with the "non-indigenous" ethnic groups, precipitating all kinds of inter-ethnic confrontations, such as in the Baltic region in Moldova, in several republics within the Russian Federation, and elsewhere.

- Conflicts of an ethno-territorial nature, arising as a "historical echo" of the deportation of peoples. Such conflicts take place in areas where deported populations have been forced to settle (as in the "Fergana pogrom" of the Meskhetian Turks), as well as in their historical native territories when the deported people return there. Thus, the call for "restoring historical reality" championed by the Crimean Tatars clashes with the idea of "preserving the historical reality" advocated by today's ethnic majority of the Crimean Autonomous Republic.

All these varieties of ethno-ideological conflicts have one thing in common: a veneration, often bordering on the irrational, of what the parties describe as their sacred "historical rights". This is in reality an attempt to substitute civil rights for those of a certain clan as sanctified by tradition. Such traditionalist, tribal ideology expressed in an ethnic or confessional form is typical of the whole of the post-Soviet world. Indeed, this tendency is actively encouraged and strengthened by the political elite in most of the newly independent states.

In recent times, new causes of inter-ethnic conflicts and their aggravation have also emerged on the scene. These include the abrogation of some ethnic divisions in Transcaucasus, the requirement of residential status for granting citizenship rights to people in the Baltic states, and a "merger" of riot-type conflicts with ideological ones.

Conflicts of "political institutions"

Confrontations of this kind are rooted not only in ideological doctrines; they also represent the conflicting political interests of different parties, political alliances, and institutions of government. In the early 1980s, a team of US researchers led by George Demko started to generalize and map territorial claims advanced by various national movements.5 Their studies revealed that practically all former Soviet republics have some type of border dispute with their neighbours. Such disputes are especially acute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, and Russia and Estonia.

With time, nationalist movements have turned from political opposition into a political base for the leadership of the republics; republics have turned into independent states and territorial claims have become elevated to the level of government policy.

We should also bear in mind the psychological complexion of the leaders of these newly independent states. Their obsessive usage of tautologies like "a sovereign state" and "an independent state" betrays a political inferiority complex in which a "shortage" of genuine sovereignty is made up for by verbal and other status symbols. Thus, the former republics want to have armies of their own, not because of any threat of internal conflicts, but simply as yet another symbol of genuine statehood. When, however, such symbols come into collision, then we must expect some far more serious conflicts.

Summing up the individual factors that lead to ethnic conflicts and assessing the real threat of inter-ethnic confrontation, scholars of the Centre for Ethnopolitical Studies have worked out a preliminary system of comprehensive assessment of ethno-political stability in various regions. Maps compiled on the basis of these studies show that nearly the whole of the post-Soviet territory is affected by conflicts of various types.

This "scale of ethno-political stability" developed by my colleagues and myself (and I wish to stress that these are only preliminary assessments which are constantly being refined and corrected) is based upon three kinds of factor:

(i) Factors of "potential conflicts"

This parameter represents what we have termed the historic-cultural alienation of ethnic communities. It includes factors such as historical territorial disputes; certain tragic historical memories which can lead to ethnophobia (such as the memories of the genocide of Armenians in 1915, which still cast their shadow on relations with Azerbaijan), linguistic and confessional distinctions. This general historical background to present-day inter-ethnic relations can lead to conflicts only under certain additional conditions. These may include, for example, worsening living conditions that prompt people to look for the "culprit," a sharp change in the proportion between the "indigenous" nationality and "settlers," or growing numbers of refugees and deported nationals. Taking into consideration all these factors, we constructed the second level of our "stability scale," then we turned to qualitatively different indices or factors.

(ii) Factors of a "conflict of ideas"

These may range from the most insignificant (like isolated nationalist statements in the press) to the most violent (the staging of rival rallies and demonstrations by conflicting national movements).

(iii) Factors of a "conflict of actions"

These are sporadic clashes without bloodshed; brief armed clashes; prolonged armed conflicts. Taking a look at a map which indicates degrees of ethnopolitical stability (or instability), we can see that the epicentre of inter-ethnic confrontation is the Transcaucasian region. Right next to it comes another belt of tension including parts of the northern Caucasus, areas along the Black Sea (the Crimea), along the Dniester, and in Central Asia. There are high levels of inter-ethnic tension in Tatarstan and the Tuva Republic. There are also potentially dangerous conditions in many parts of Bashkortostan, the Yakut Republic, the Baltic states, and the border regions of Russia, as well as other regions of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The conflict area continues to grow. In 1988 the only place suffering armed conflicts was Nagorno-Karabakh; in the following year there were several such conflicts in Transcaucasus and Central Asia. In the ensuing years the flames of bitter internal conflicts continued to engulf the northern Caucasus, the areas along the Black Sea, and along the Dniester and the Volga rivers. All this demonstrates the urgent need for comprehensive measures to prevent a continued escalation of ethnic conflicts and to try and settle existing ones.

The many notions of the principles and methods of resolving inter ethnic problems can be grouped into three basic categories: current, tactical, and strategic.

Current settlements

Current settlements are of a practical nature and they envisage certain specific efforts either to curb a conflict (such actions as disarming militants or belligerent groups, or reinforcing the protection of vital objectives) or to overcome the tangible consequences of conflicts (accommodating refugees, restoring damaged buildings and communication lines, punishing race rioters, etc.).

By their very nature, current settlements of inter-ethnic problems are heavily dependent on the economy, the transport and communication systems, law and order, as well as on the stability and prestige of the government and its ability to manage the country. Today's economic and political crisis in CIS countries has a highly negative effect on organizations working for inter-ethnic regulation.

What urgent measures can be taken to settle a conflict, when simply making a telephone call from Moscow to nearby Podolsk is a problem and there is a great shortage of petrol and spare parts even for police cars? Equally great hindrances are caused by the lack of coordination between legislative and executive powers, federal and local authorities, the press and the government, and the like.

The main point is that the CIS countries lack a specialized network for the prevention and settlement of internal conflicts, and that impedes urgent decision-making. Most disastrous is the absence of agencies able to ensure monitoring of the ethno-political situation, early diagnosis and prognosis of conflicts, and a "rapid deployment" service which could protect people, prevent escalation and expansion of conflicts, and organize negotiations.

Such agencies never existed in the USSR, but prior to 1991 at least some of these mentioned functions had been fulfilled by the USSR Committee for Emergency Situations. After the disintegration of the USSR, its territory, and especially the junctions of several states, have been neglected because the new Commonwealth has no agencies which could coordinate the independent states' efforts to prevent ethno-social conflicts.

Tactical settlements

Tactical settlements are meant to cope with existing conflicts either by bringing all kinds of pressure, including economic, to bear on the parties involved or organizing negotiations between them. Former Soviet leaders preferred police methods for suppressing national movements and reanimating the unitary Soviet Union, as became clear during the well-known events in Tbilisi (1989), Baku (1990), and Vilnius (1991). Each of these police actions led to losses among both the army and the civilian population. In each case, the results were opposite to the desired affect: the national movements grew stronger and the disintegration of the USSR was accelerated. Economic blockades against national and separatist movements brought similar results - suffice it to recall the fuel blockade of Lithuania in 1990.

The mistakes of the Soviet government were repeated by the Russian leaders, who tried to stop Checheno-Ingushetia from seceding from the Russian Federation by threatening to send troops there. That threat only intensified opposition to the federal government among the majority of national movements in the northern Caucasus, especially those forming the Confederation of Nations of the Caucasus. 6

Since 1988 various political forces in the USSR (and later in the CIS) have repeatedly tried to organize negotiations between various national movements involved in inter-ethnic conflicts, but in most cases they have failed. Strenuous efforts have been made to resolve the long and murderous conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. As far back as 1988, Andrei Sakharov visited both Armenia and Azerbaijan on a goodwill mission followed by representatives of a political movement of the Baltic republics, the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper, Russian MPs, and others. These efforts, however, have obviously failed to yield any notable positive results, and inter-ethnic confrontation has increased.

The causes of this failure should be analysed in detail elsewhere. Here I shall mention only a few - those which I find most typical of the USSR and the CIS.

First, all those efforts were made spontaneously, without proper preparation, without a special plan or a well-thought-out timetable. Secondly, no special attempts were made and no special professional methods were used to remove one of the main obstacles in any negotiations - the stubborn belief of each party that its decision is the only correct one.

Thirdly, there was no "information boom" in any of the cases; and the situation occurred when the negotiating parties used either unreliable or deliberately distorted information about the major circumstances of the conflict and the opportunities to settle it.

Fourthly, the political status of the negotiators did not guarantee a strict observance of agreements, if any. That was the case with the talks in Zheleznovodsk (1991) in which Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders took part and Russia and Kazakhstan acted as mediators; political forces directly involved in the conflict were not represented at all, though many of them acted independently and often contrary to decisions made by Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

This reveals a recurrent problem in organizing negotiations on inter-ethnic conflicts: to find the most authoritative representatives of the conflicting sides able to evaluate adequately the standpoint of each side and to restrain the parties from violating the agreements. The Zheleznovodsk talks provide an example of still another mistake: inviting major political figures to take part in negotiations which have not been properly prepared. As a result, the politicians lose face (as potential mediators in particular) and trust in negotiations as a means of resolving inter-ethnic problems is undermined.

A shortage of relevant specialists, conflictologists in particular, makes itself felt when negotiations are to be organized and when other means are to be used for inter-ethnic regulation. The CIS countries still lack a system of training professional conflictologists.

Speaking about minor imperfections of conflictology in both the former USSR and the present CIS, we must also recall the repeated attempts at trying to use methods elaborated for definite regions, say

Central Russia, to evaluate the inter-ethnic tensions in quite different historical and cultural conditions - Central Asia, for example. The main drawback of both current and tactical settlements of inter ethnic conflicts is that they are poorly coordinated with general inter ethnic strategy, both in individual CIS countries and in the Commonwealth as a whole.

Strategic decisions

These are meant to prevent ethnic crises by providing, in good time, the legal, political, economic, and socio-psychological conditions for a civilized development of these processes.

In the historical period commonly referred to as perestroika - a more accurate name for which would be "Mikhail Gorbachev's time in office" - no sensible ethnic policy was pursued, and no relevant strategy existed. Nor does such a strategy exist in the Commonwealth of Independent States today. At any rate, the fact that Russia has no such strategy has been confirmed by its government leaders.7 At the same time, most politicians in the USSR and the CIS have had, and still keep, certain ideological preferences which prompt them to take certain lines of practical action to settle ethnic conditions.

Arkady Popov of the Ethno-political Research Centre has studied these ideologies, and reduced them to three basic doctrines:8

(i) The "might is right" doctrine

As applied to ethnic relations, this boils down to the theory that stronger nations and states have a "right" to assert themselves by ousting or subduing their weaker neighbours. In the former Soviet Union, the doctrine manifests itself in ethnic policy in its two basic varieties: orthodox-imperial, the adherents of which insist on all the peoples and ethnic groups of the former Union being subordinated to the centre; and neo-imperial, which recognizes formal independence of the states which have broken away from the Union but which reserves for Russia, as a great power, the "right" to dictate to them (not necessarily by force).

Today these varieties of the "might is right" doctrine are preached by representatives of the so-called "national-patriotic" forces of Russia. In all the other republics, however, this doctrine is rejected outright, in whatever form it appears. The organizers of the August 1991 putsch in Moscow would seem to have drawn their inspiration from it; an attempt to put the doctrine into practice would have been fraught with the danger of at least a dozen "Yugoslavia-type" wars breaking out in the former USSR.

(ii) The traditionalist "historical right" doctrine

Here the underlying principle is as follows: "a particular land or region belongs to its indigenous inhabitants." There are two varieties of the "historical right" doctrine. The "ethno-demographic" variety gives priority to "the people which was the first to settle on the given land and is, therefore, indigenous to it"; according to the "ethnopolitical" interpretation of the doctrine, "the land by right belongs to the people which was the first to establish its statehood there."

The traditionalist doctrine is extremely popular with ethnic movements today. Most of them have made it the basis of their political programmes; upon coming to power in the Baltic republics, the Transcaucasus, Moldova, Tatarstan, and other places, they have vigorously applied it in practice, thus triggering or fomenting a multitude of ethnic conflicts.

The main flaw of the "historical right" doctrine appears only too obvious: modern humanistic notions are incompatible with the absurdity of making the rights of a given territory's permanent inhabitants dependent on the hypothetical merits of their distant ancestors. History grants people no preferential rights.

(iii) The legitimist "ethnic right" doctrine

According to this doctrine, the nation's right to state self-determination is a function of constitutionally legitimized legislation ("the nation which has the constitution and the law on its side is right"). Few people deny today the need for observing constitutional and legal succession; in a situation, however, where a union state has fallen apart and new independent states have emerged from it, there are negligible chances of such a legal succession remaining unbroken. In withdrawing from the USSR, each of the former Union republics deviated, in one way or another, from the former Union Constitution and from the law on the procedure of seceding from the Soviet Union.

Today, however, these newly independent states are fighting the separatism of their own ethnic minorities on the grounds that it is against their Constitution and their new laws. Naturally, this argument sounds unconvincing to those who champion the right of small ethnic groups to their national and state self-determination. On the other hand, the arguments the ethnic minorities use to substantiate their claims are based on certain provisions of the Constitution of the now nonexistent USSR, which makes them unsuitable for resolving ethnic conflicts; such arguments can only escalate ethnic tension even further.

All three doctrines - imperial, traditionalist, and quasi-constitutionalist - are defective in that they emphasize the collectivist forms of national self-determination only. They recognize only a state, a people, or a clan as a subject of law, whereas individual human rights are regarded as mere derivatives from the rights of a community and of a social system. This results in certain politicians sacrificing the interests of individuals (their compatriots included) and to those of "the people," "the nation," and "the motherland."

These doctrines are contradictory and based on different - often mutually exclusive - and discriminatory principles. For instance, the standards applied to the self-determination of autonomies differ from those set for the sovereignty of a former "Union Republic," now an independent state.

Each of these doctrines bears evidence of politicians clearly exaggerating the possibility of controlling ethnic relations by force - be it force of arms, injunction, or economic sanctions. Noting the record of abortive attempts made first by the Union authorities and now by the leaders of the CIS sovereign states to control ethno-political processes, we can conclude that the concepts and means used for the purpose are time-serving, usually geared to momentary political needs, and doomed to be soon out of date and unsystematic.

3 Ways to prevent ethnic conflicts

As a manifestation of Soviet society's overall crisis, the escalation of ethnic tensions cannot be arrested without radical socio-economic and political reforms. It would be a dangerous mistake to presume, however, that such reforms will automatically bring ethnic relations back to normal.

Moreover, any further worsening of the social and ethnic situation in the CIS will render these reforms impossible. Therefore, each of the Commonwealth's states, and the Commonwealth as a whole, are in urgent need of a special ethnic conflict prevention system.

In my opinion, such a system can be set up through a combination of three approaches: institutional, instrumental, and phasic.

The "institutional approach" presupposes the establishment of a network of organizations (i.e., a special infrastructure) for the prevention and adjustment of inner conflicts. Such an infrastructure should comprise institutions at the national, regional, and global levels, and have functions that will differ from level to level.

National conflict prevention systems must be responsible for solving both local problems which call for urgent action and national problems due to fundamental socio-economic causes not removable by external (foreign) intervention. At the same time, the people should be able to rest assured that other states will lend a hand in emergency situations where basic human rights are trampled underfoot, where a nation is on the verge of self-destruction, or where it is in danger of extermination or suppression by other nations.

Modern international legal practice rests on the principle of drawing international institutions into resolving ethnic conflicts stage by stage. In the initial stage of such a conflict, the leading role is assigned to the regional organization. The Organization of American States, for example, managed to resolve a conflict between Honduras and Nicaragua.9 An organization of this kind ought to be set up in the CIS without delay. Of course, no one can prevent any state of the Commonwealth from using other effective mechanisms of adjusting ethnic conflicts - through the International Court of Justice in The Hague, for instance. If its verdicts are ignored, then the UN Security Council should be authorized to take measures of compulsion - in other words, global-level institutions should come into play.

The "instrumental approach" consists of selecting the right combination of specific measures (instruments) to resolve conflicts. Unfortunately, the role played by a certain individual instrument is often exaggerated in conflictology. The British-American tradition in conflictology, for instance, assigns the decisive role to the organization of talks, or rather to the psychological aspects of communication between representatives of the conflicting parties. This is only natural, considering that United States conflictology deals mainly (and quite successfully) with conflicts that arise in the so-called micro-groups: seller-buyer, management-union, municipality-community, and so on. In resolving such conflicts, negotiations can indeed play a crucial role.

However, massive ethnic conflicts caused by an all-round crisis of society are a different matter; such conflicts need to be dealt with in a comprehensive way using a multitude of different control levers.

Unfortunately, this principle has not yet been adopted by current political practice in the CIS. Politicians are prone to exaggerate the role of legislation. Recently, for example, a law has been passed in the Russian Federation on the rehabilitation of deported peoples and reinstating them in the lands once forcibly taken away from them. While supporting this law in principle, I am also certain that if the repressed peoples and those who have occupied their lands fail to reach an agreement, no decree can resolve the dispute between them. This is why the enforcement of this law without the preliminary organization of any negotiation process has caused escalation of ethnic differences in several regions, for instance the northern Caucasus.

On the other hand, the organization of the negotiation process will be ineffectual unless it rests on a firm legal basis and follows a clear cut agenda. A comprehensive approach consists in the optimal combination of various instruments meant to relieve tensions and prevent the outbreak and escalation of conflicts. Such instruments include: economic stimuli and sanctions; information, dialogue among the conflicting parties; creation and effective enforcement of laws in the sphere of ethnic policy, etc.

The typology of conflicts and an analysis of the stages of their development may provide the groundwork for various anti-conflict arrangements. The latter will make it possible to take action designed specially to bring the situation under control at any stage of a certain type of conflict. This is what the "phasic approach" is all about.

It is not my objective here to formulate an exhaustive conception of resolving ethnic conflicts. Many of the ideas I have put forward are of a tentative nature and may strike the reader as controversial. One thing is certain, however: the international scientific community must pool its intellectual efforts and resources to reach a comprehensive approach to the settlement of ethnic conflicts.


1. A. Prazauskas, "CIS as a Post-Colonial Space," Nezovisimaya Gazeta, 7 February 1992.

2. V Mukomel, "Demographic Consequences of Ethnic Conflicts," Vestnik, 1992, no. 1.

3. Ibid.

4. This is followed by a typology of inter-ethnic conflicts as formulated by E. Payin and A. Popov, "Interethnic Conflicts in the USSR," Sovetskaya Etnografiya, 1990, no. 1. The present paper contains excerpts from this study; some of the original definitions have been further specified.

5. George J. Demko, "Beginning from Typology," Nezavisimaya Gazeta. 25 July 1991.

6. By December 1994 the Russian leaders had turned from threat to military operation in the Chechen Republic, causing mass resistance and numerous victims among the peaceful Chechen population.

7. Vice-Premier Sergei Shakhrai of the Russian Federation admitted this in a television appearance on 27 February 1992.

8. Arkady Popov, "The Ideology of Ethnic Conflicts," News Letter, Foreign Policy Association vol. 1, February 1992.

9. V. Orlov, "How State Borders Are Redrawn," Moscow News, 16 February 1992.

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