Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

10 Ethno-political legitimacy crisis as transition to violence

Non-violent proactive action by a disadvantaged and aggrieved ethnic group seeking a revision of the established ethno-political order poses a challenge to the constitutional order if, as in the former USSR or Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic state includes ethno-territorial principles in the foundation of its political organization. Challenges to the constitutional order mean, of course, challenges to regime legitimacy. Such legitimacy issues are likely to be especially severe in newly establishing or newly established political systems, since such systems lack a past performance on which to base their legitimacy. Any perceived inequities in the system are particularly likely to be deemed unacceptable. The situation in the state then approaches anarchy, because there is no adequately legitimate authority capable of resolving disputes among ethnic groups. Moreover, the government controlled by the ethnically dominant group does not enjoy full legitimacy even among the dominant ethnicity, due to rivalries among ethno-nationalist leaders and sub-Úlites.

Under such circumstances, virtually every issue of ethnic cleavage and dispute (language, religion, culture, official versions of the historical past, and the like) will often acquire a salient political dimension, and will generally turn into contests for power or become instrumentalized as such. When power conflicts between ethnic adversaries are particularly likely to become extreme and to be viewed as questions of survival, the likelihood of violence will increase dramatically.

Tilly places special importance on the argument that there is no sharp division between violent and non-violent collective action: there exists a close connection between the two (Tilly et al., 1975: 248; Tilly, 1978: 172-88). In this perspective, collective violence is seen as a by-product of group political interaction, of the struggle for power and of its repression. Tilly stresses that agents of government play a major role in such interactions, not only because governments often make claims which groups within their jurisdiction resist, but also, and primarily because, agents of government play a crucial role in collective violence as repressors of collective action. (filly et al., 1975: 243, 257, 283).

Let us now apply these propositions to the consideration of ethnopolitical disputes. It would appear that the stage of an ethno-political conflict when the central (ethnically dominant) government resorts to violence to repress the collective action conducted by the ethnic subordinates in their struggle for ethnically relevant redistribution of political arrangements, is most likely to become the point of transition from non-violent to violent collective ethnopolitical action.

This gives rise to an important question. At which stage of an ongoing ethno-political conflict is the central government most likely to repress the disadvantaged ethnic group contending for power? This stage the ethno-political crisis of legitimacy - appears to occur when the (ethnically dominant) government calculates that the challenge cast by the aggrieved ethnic group jeopardizes the regime's legitimacy in toto. No matter how tolerant and disinclined to repression the dominant ethnic group and its governing elite may be, there still exists a point in the escalation of ethnopolitical conflict which, once reached, is almost destined to entail reaction and repression from the agents of the central government.

This critical point can be called the ethno-political crisis of legitimacy - as the culmination of non-violent ethno-political interaction. Such a point has been reached when the aggrieved group has become, or is on the verge of becoming, so highly mobilized as a political actor that the central government comes to realize that the anticipated next step of the disadvantaged ethnic group will not only pose another challenge to the legitimacy of the regime but may also bring about complete delegitimation of the current order.

It is during such an ethno-political crisis of legitimacy that interethnic power contention becomes extreme. The stakes in terms of threats to and opportunities for the objective political interests of the groups involved are particularly high; zero-sum perceptions become widely shared and the likelihood of violence peaks. (For a more general discussion in legitimacy issues and politicized ethnicity, see Rothschild, 1981.) The outbreak of an ethno-political crisis of legitimacy means that a turning point in the power conflict has been reached and a new, intense, and different level of political interaction between the conflicting ethnic groups becomes possible. Violence then appears as a likely resultant mode of further conflict behaviour.

The dynamics of the Moldova-Trans-Dniester conflict indeed indicate that the ethno-political crises of legitimacy which occurred at different stages of the rapid socio-political transformation in Moldova, each time entailed violence. As demonstrated by the Moldova case, fast-paced socio-political change appears to be a major factor in shaping the dynamics of inter-ethnic violence. This influence can be assessed in at least three ways:

(1) It was the rapid character of the transformation of political life in Moldova which created an intricate superimposition of political struggles on interethnic cleavages, and the escalation of ethnic disputes to the stage of ethno-political crisis of legitimacy. The unresolved issue of power allocations between Moldova and Trans-Dniester and the salience of ethnic anxieties contributed to the reoccurrence and reproduction of legitimacy crises at each stage of sociopolitical transformation.

(2) Each new legitimacy crisis was more acute than the previous one, resulting in an ever-increasing scale of ethno-political violence. The overall pattern passed from the small-scale sporadic violence of single violent clashes between government agents and rebel civilians to large-scale organized and sustained warfare.

(3) Each new stage of socio-political transformation, with old patterns of ethno-political arrangements being broken and new issues arising, encouraged the growth of group organization and militant, politicized ethnic assertiveness. This is turn raised the level of political ethnic mobilization.

Acronyms and abbreviations

ASSR Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic
CDPF Christian Democratic Popular Front
GASSR Gaganz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic
GPF Gagauz Popular Front
GSSR Gagauz Soviet Socialist Republic
IM Internationalist Movement
MASSR Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic
MPF Moldovan Popular Front
MSSR Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic
OPON special police detachments created by Moldovan government
PASSR Trans-Dniester Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic
PMSSR Trans-Dniester Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic
SSR Soviet Socialist Republic
IZ Izvestiya (USSR Supreme Soviet newspaper).
KU Kuranty
MS Moldova Suverana
NG Nezovisirnaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper)
NM Nezovisirnaya Moldova (Independent Moldova)
RG Rossiiskaya Gazeta
SM Sovetskaya Moldavia (Soviet Moldavia)
ST Sfatulo Tserij (Weekly paper published by the Moldovan parliament)


Dialog (Tyraspol local newspaper), nos. 19, 20, 21,1990.

Horowitz, D. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rothschild, J. 1981. Ethnopolitics: A Conceptual Framework. New York: Columbia University Press.

Shibutani, T., and K.M. Kwan. 1965. Ethnic Stratification: A Comparative Approach. New York: Macmillan.

Tilly, C. 1978. From Mobilization to Revolution. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Tilly C., L. Tilly, and R.T. Tilly. 1975. The Rebellious Century: 1830-1930. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Contents - Previous - Next