Managing Ethnic Conflict – Moscow Style
If we want to treat Moscow’s interventions into Eastern Ukraine and Crimea seriously for the moment we might ask about any legitimate concerns on the part of Moscow. But the issue of “legitimate” concerns that justify aggression against others conjures up the rhetorical history of the Soviet Union and their claim to have spheres of influence. Hitler and Stalin used phrases such as this to intervene in the business of others and claim their “legitimate” rights to land and military presence in order to protect Russian citizens or interests.
This is exactly the situation in Eastern Ukraine on the lands that border Russia. Even though these territories have culture contact with Russia and a history of political engagement, the current tensions are not so much the result of locals agitating for stronger associations with mother Russia but with interference by way of propaganda and Russian adventurism. Moreover, it continues Russia’s persistent attention to breakaway regions of the former Soviet Union. Russia has desperately tried to hold on to influence in some of the states (e.g. Georgia, Azerbaijan) but this typically backfires. Ukraine and Kiev will probably be even more oriented toward the West and Ukrainian nationalism will soar.
Ethnic Conflict without the Conflict
The old Soviet Union, like so many political actors, wore blinders that allowed them to see primarily the colors of ethnic groups. The Soviet Union divided and assigned groups to territorial units predominantly on the basis of ethnic heritage. Stalin in particular created ethnic territories and established a broad array of territorial units defined as states. These states were supposed to be homelands for particular national groups (Azeris, Armenians, Uzbeks, etc.). The strategy was to keep groups separate so they could not easily organize against Moscow. It worked for a long time until various groups began to demand independence. Soon, there was ethnic violence and Moscow had its excuse to maintain influence by stepping in and claiming to calm the situation.
Russia has felt quite comfortable intervening in the affairs of its former territories. Russia felt, in fact, very secure and justified by its movement into Crimea. About 58% of the population of Crimea is Russian so the claim to a sphere of influence has some standing. But if Russia feels as if some international commitment has been violated, then they should use diplomacy and the avenues available to them through international law.
The Basic Instruments of International Conflict Management
For my money, Russia has never been particularly good at managing ethnic conflict. Even though historically they oversaw with the old Soviet Union 15 Soviet socialist republics all of which had minority groups, Moscow is sort of a “bull in the china shop.” There are typically four intervention possibilities – military interventions, economic interventions, diplomacy, and dialogue – but Russia relies mostly on military options. In designing a macro level institution meant to facilitate ethnic conflict resolution, the Russians have never been very innovative or creative. Take the case of the Chechens for example. In the northern Caucasus of South Russia Chechens are increasingly a higher percentage of the population, and there are about 20% Russians. Even without Russia agreeing to Chechnya’s autonomy assuring fair treatment, increased cultural autonomy, and more political rights would be reasonable.
When it comes to designing macro structures for divided societies Russia seems to ignore all of them. First, an ethnic group must address the issue of territorial organization of the state. The Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Chechnya and territories, Georgia, and other points of Russian interest are yet to resolve these territorial issues properly. Secondly, is the matter of the governmental relationship between the minority and the majority. And finally, Russia rarely concerns itself with the protection of identity groups and individual rights.
Putin may have successfully grabbed territory in the Crimea but he is increasingly competing with the West rather than a lesser prepared minority. And he may be banking on the fact that the EU will never consider Ukraine a proper European project, but this may be a dangerous wish as Ukraine increasingly turns its attention to the West and thereby makes progress on territoriality, sound governmental relations, and the protection of identity and minority groups.