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A Nationalism and International Order
in Europe and the World

Ethno-social wars in Europe as a challenge
to citizens' movements and peace research


By Ulrich Albrecht

1. The issue
The peace and citizens' movements are confronted with new challenges if they today deal with war and bloodshed in Europe and possible remedies. Actual politics face the same dilemma: the two dominant war scenarios of the past, inner-state or civil war and war between sovereign states, do not fit to what happens in former Yugoslavia or in the Caucasus. The established main instruments to deal with the threat of war, on top the system of the United Nations, are geared towards the full-fledged nation states. There are no provisions to handle a militant situation in decaying states, such as Somalia, or to stem warfighting against the emergence of new states, such as Bosnia. Also the most recent inventions in this field, e.g. the Vienna CSCE centre for the prevention of conflict, have no mandate to deal with the new kind of war (the centre was meant in the Cold War to prevent inter-state armed conflict).

The new problem is that large conglomerates of states with multi-ethnic populations, presently led by the former Soviet Union or Federal Yugoslavia, are in a continued process of dismemberment, and it remains uncertain, where the secessions will find a natural end. Secessionist aspirations are confronted with the contradicting claim to preserve political structures of the past, e.g. the Yugoslav federation. In a number of instances it remains also unclear whether political leaders are more or less only nominally in charge, because they do not effectively control fighting units. The social fabric which is so characteristic for the European nation states is in decay or, in emerging new states, not yet sufficiently developed.

The violence occurs predominantly in the periphery of Europe, but (thesis # 1) it is not peripheral for European politics.

These recent wars are not waged according to the Hague Conventions and other humanitarian laws of war, under which the civilian population ideally even is not aware that the sovereigns fight each other. In the extreme reverse one is forced to consider war waged against the people, in which the population has got to carry the brunt of the sufferings, and where the combatants in uniform count few casualities. Much of the bloodshed is closer to pogroms than to methods of modern warfare. There are strategic violations of basic human rights, for a great number of victims, there are concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, mass rapes of women and girls as a deliberate policy - actually the contrary to the European tradition to hedge the conduct of warfighting and to limit the suffering of innocent outsiders. To give just one indication of the ensuing consequences: the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (10 January 1993) reported that according to UNICEF estimates more than one million children until 1993 in former Yugoslavia have been so heavily traumatized by war events that they deserve therapeutic treatment in order to survive.



2. The basis of the issue
Human societies disintegrate into groupings of various sizes and orientations. The so-called theories of differentiation try to take these processes into consideration and address some of the basic questions in social science -- why do groupings of human beings differ from one another, how can the processes of differentiation become understandable and politically eventually made controllable, and what does this imply for the interchanges of groups? Historically, analysts cared for social strata or classes, and the orientation towards ethnic descent was considered to represent an obsolete or even backward-minded position, at least in European affairs. Social scientists must today admit that this assessment turns out as premature.

It remains hard to understand why recently the distinction between "our own" and the aliens has received so much direct political meaning, and there is a number of contributions e.g. pointing at the end of the East-West-conflict. My hypothesis # 2 is that one must think in much more profound terms in order to match the deep-rooted causes for the bloodshed. One of the basic notions in social science becomes shattered, that of continuity and the sedimentary increases of stability of institutions, accompanied by incremental social change, which sometimes is interrupted by e.g. a revolution, which rapidly creates new, reliable structures.

In contrast, social scientists by now are forced to see that the robustness of social fabrics is a precious good which is difficult to attain and to preserve. Research about social structures in the Third World more and more comes to the result that there is a particular weakness in the failure of "nation-building", and that these societies live in comparatively frail states. The path of development during the past decades has lead, in political terms, to stagnation and even decay of statehood, as Somalia demonstrates. Both in the formerly state-socialist Second and the economically backward Third World so-called intermediate institutions failed to flourish, truly independent trade unions, strong church movements, or a well differentiated system of administrative courts. Rogers Brubaker, taking up the emerging broad notion of uncertainty about social congruence, has suggested as a common formula a triangle between "minority, nationalizing state, and homeland," in order to interpretate the present turmoil.

The analyst also has to drop established perspectives on political affairs. The study of war hitherto remained the arcanum of an elitist view on governmental politics. In the case of progroms or ethno-social violent clashes nothing could be less appropriate. The perspective from below, from the angle of the victims will be much more telling, e.g. about the systematic application of raping as a strategy to humiliate the husbands on the other side, the strategic use of snipers to terrorize civilians, or the shelling prohibited by international law of cultural landmarks such as Dubrovnik. In sum, the atrocities of fighting in wrongly so called civil wars in Europe require and deserve a serious and unconventional approach by the social sciences -- if these are willing to offer help.



3. A problem of transformation in formerly communist states?
There is an obvious tendency to link the erupting violent conflicts in the arc of countries which neighbour the former Soviet Union or which were part of it with the general grave problems which ensue in the transformation into market economies and Western style democracies. There is hardly a more comprehensive restructuring of a society imaginable than the one occurring in the formerly state socialist societies which change their political and economic systems. It ought to be expected that such transitions are prone to conflict, that they entail numerous possibilities to turn violent. But the grand transformation, according to thesis # 3, does not provide for the root cause explaining the recent bloodshed and atrocities in the respective countries. Certainly in the past one cause has been repression of secessionist aspirations and the specific policies of past regimes towards the various nationalities. It will also be the case that repressed minorities feel that even their poor status was threatened by emerging new states, and that they deliberately tried to exploit the phase of transition to step out and to quit older ties. But the decision to go to war is not based on such considerations.

A supporting argument comes in if one looks at the protracted kind of violent conflicts in Western Europe. The bloodshed in Northern Ireland, the Basque irredentistic bombings in Spain, violent clashes in Corsica indicate very similar symptoms to the cases cited above. The recent research literature stresses the globality of the phenomenon.



4. The magnitude of the problem
Ethnologists count up to 5,000 ethnic groupings in the world which potentially might call for their right of self-determination, and which theoretically could call for their own state. The vast majority of these disputes are latent or stable nonviolent. Some 260 minorities demand actively independence and secession, indicating the upper limit of the number of members of a future United Nations. Between seventy and ninety of these ethnic squarrels were recently characterized by outbursts of organized violence. UN peacekeeping operations dealt with 17 of them in mid-1994. - In Europe, some 50 "regional movements" are on the record striving toward secession.

This supports thesis # 4: the cause of ethnic bloodshed will increase and has not yet reached an upper limit.



5. The root causes of violence
The varying keywords in the assessment of ethnic war indicate that social science is still at an early stage to understand the phenomenon (thesis # 5), and that there are no accepted standards: the more or less identical issue is labeled "ethnopolitical conflict"/Gurr; "pluri-ethnic conflict"/Krippendorff; "ethno-national conflict"/Ropers; "identity conflict"/Koenig, alongside with older appoaches such as "secessionist conflict"/Horowitz; "Anti-regime war"/Gantzel, "regional movement", "minority conflict", "irredentism", etc.

As most group activities, violence against others is certainly not predetermined by one single motive or cause. There is mostly a bunch of push factors, proximate events, and triggering experiences which overlay one or more prime fixations which lead into insane escalation (thesis 6). Yet the task is, for the sake of finding remedies, to identify the basic elements which make the outbursts of barbarism at all comprehensible.

According to the respective basic premises, some analysts stress the role of social discrepancies, or alternatively group psychological or religious differences. The multitude of key concepts mirrors analytical uncertainty about the actual factor which induces groups top resort to violence. The various epithets hardly fit (thesis # 7), as will be demonstrated in the following.


5.1 The flag of religion
It is easy to reject the religious notion, which generally prevails in identifying the groups involved in active ethnic conflicts (thesis # 8). It is common use to set Protestants versus Catholics in Northern Ireland, to pose in former Yugoslavia catholic versus orthodox Christians or against Muslims, in the Caucasus again Christians of various denominations against Muslims, in Lebanon Sunnites versus Shiites versus Druses versus Maronites. There is a narrow relationship between religious fragmentation of a society and political cleaveges.

But hardly more. The infights are not about disaccords in matters of religious belief, which had been central in the understanding of war in Europe a few hundred years ago. Churches and mosques in Europe do not experience a massive inflow of believers. The religious label simply generates identity, at least one of collective historical rememberances. The combatants do not fight as religious fanatics. The crude grouping according to religion, in a widely secularized world, is little more than one reference to descent. It does not reveal the contents of conflict, nor does it pattern the mode of action by the parties involved in the dispute.


5.2 The flag of ethnicity
The epithet "ethnic", if one really goes into things, also rapidly fades away as a prime tool of differentiation (thesis 9). Firstly, the debate among ethnologists about the definition of the key term of their discipline appears as not very rewarding. One finds various accumulations of attributes of the kind "historically grown units", distinct by "common language, racial descent, cultural tradition, national character" from other people. For a political scientist, the notions of "racial descent" and "national character" create headaches. There is also hardly a modus operandi to turn these concepts into something which can be actually researched. Recent definitions of ethnicity hardly surpass Max Weber's statement of a "subjective believe in common descent."

Secondly, racially "pure" populations, even of small groups, are exceptions in Europe. Centuries of migration, the consequences of two World Wars, in modern times mobility required by the division of labour in the economy, all these factors have contributed to blur ethnic boundaries. Eric Hobsbawm, in a brilliant piece which demonstrates that the soul-searching for identity is vastly looking at historic forgeries, addressed in the most sardonic manner as an example Greek nationalist claims that there is but one Macedonia: this region "is historically such an inextricable mixture of ethnies - the French by no means accidentally have named their fruit salade after this (macÇdoine) - that any effort to equal it with a single nationality is undue."

Noting the problems which ensue with the ethnic epithet, Gurr uses repeatedly the surrogate notion of "communal groups", as he states, "fuzzy sets" of people:

"In essence, communal groups are psychological communities: groups whose core members share a distinctive and enduring collective identity based on cultural traits and lifeways that matter to them and to others with whom they interact."

The attribute "communal" for a group, however, appears as analytically not very helpful. Hence we will continue, as most of the literature does, to use the label "ethnic" to identify actors in the armed clashes which should be analysed.

But the reader should remain well aware of the shortcomings of this waiver. The actual movers, the thriving force, remains shrouded. And even if the desire for identity could have been answered: why is this demand so overwhelmingly important that it induces contemporary citizens to engage in the obscene cruelties the media so often report?


5.3 Results
The repeated reference to "belief" systems (thesis # 9, the belief in a religion, in one's heritage) signals the importance of social-psychological aspects for the understanding of the problem. Groups which come under consideration furthermore see themselves as discriminated (the perception again is a psychological process), in economic, political or racial dimensions, something the whole group experiences as grievances. There is also a self-determined aspect involved: in order to become a political actor, the group needs to be mobilized. The mechanisms of mobilization, which in the end motivate humans to dehumilate and kill, deserve special attention in the analysis.



6. The extension of the paradigm -- my proposal for research
Helmut Koenig states generally that ethnosocial conflict is principally prone to escalation:

"Ethnonational currents are generally shaped by demands for identity. At least they contain a dynamic which easily induces that rational and negotiable interests become dominated by aspects of identity. Negotiations are difficult, compromise is rare and violence abundant where questions of ethnonational identity are at stake."

A little bit later, the same author writes about "the high danger of escalation and great openess for violence. Apparently suitable instruments for peaceful conduct in conflict are lacking in these societies as well as in the international environment." This enforces the basic question, why ethnic groups resort to violence, why they opt for war and pogroms.

My personal proposal is to link research and reflection about ethnosocial clashes with research about extremism (thesis # 10).

The idea to link the paradigm of peace research with the one about research on extremism is supported by the similarity of factors which condition the excess into violence, the irrational involved. Again, there are numerous definitions of what extremism is, but commonly they contain the aspects of openess for violence, militancy and intolerance - indeed pertinent dimensions for our problem.

In sum, the political fight against "civil" war in Europe in fact is one against extremism. The peace and citizens' movements apparently are facing one common enemy. And they know from history how to counteract successfully.

Recommended literature
Rogers Brubaker, National minorities, nationalising states, and external national homelands in the new Europe: Notes towards a relational analysis, (mimeo), Los Angeles (UCLA) 1994.

Ted Robert Gurr, Minorities at risk. A global view of ethnopolitical conflicts, Washington, D.C. 1993.

Jochen Blaschke (ed.), Handbuch der europäischen Regionalbewegungen, Frankfurt a.M. 1980.

Eric Hobsbawm, "Die Erfindung der Vergangenheit", in: Die Zeit, No.37, 9 September 1994.

Helmut Koenig, "Nationalismus und Identität in Osteuropa - eine Forschungsskizze", in: Nationalstaat - Nationalismus - Frieden.Humboldt-Journal zur Friedensforschung 10/11, 1992-93.












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