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After Georgia, get ethnic conflicts
in proportion



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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September 7, 2008

LONDON - 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 going to destabilize whole continents. No wonder that Beijing is opposing Moscow in rushing to recognize the new order in South Ossetia.

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 African state boundaries 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, that monitors world trends in violence, Africa along with Europe, is now the most peaceful continent in the world, with only one significant tribal or interstate conflict last year, and this. (That is with over 1000 battle-related deaths.)

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

The list of countries where the problems of ethnic conflict looked until quite recently potentially ominous and which are now vastly improved is a long one. 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 diminshed.

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 peacefully-arrived-at 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 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, as 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 ending of the Punjab's fight for independence from India (which brought down a 747 airliner over the Atlantic, kil ling many innocent Indians) or the attempted secession of Aceh from Indonesia.

Back to the Russia of today. The really violent conflict of Chechnya and the mini-war of Georgia are exceptions. The overwhelming majority of Russia's many nationalities exhibit no urge to break away. They know they are small and they know that the benefits of belonging to a large free trade area are important for their survival. Many have ties of marriage or kin with Russia. Their best and brightest have made their careers there, as the Ossetian conductor, Valery Gergiev, has today made a world reputation with his conductorship of the Mariinsky Theater of St Petersburg and now of the London Symphony Orchestra.

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

The West is making a mountain out of a molehill with the Russian-Georgian-Osettian 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 too is likewise out of all proportion. There are much more important things to be discussed - Ukraine's membership of the European Union and closer cooperation over economic and nuclear affairs between Russia and the EU and the U.S..


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

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