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World: Analysis From Washington - Ethnic Conflicts And Blame?

  • Paul Goble



Prague, 15 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Western diplomats working in the former Yugoslavia are blaming the selfishness of local leaders rather than the attitudes of the population for the continuation of ethnic conflicts there.

U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke said this week that the greed of local leaders is "the most difficult" problem that mediators have to confront in seeking to make peace.

Such leaders, he and other diplomats argue, whip up ethnic passions in order to create institutions, including new state bodies and borders, in order to exploit them for their personal profit.

Senior officials around the world increasingly have chosen to blame local leaders rather than the people behind them for ethnic conflicts over the last decade.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev routinely blamed the leaders of union republics for ethnic conflicts that ultimately contributed to the disintegration of the USSR.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin invoked this explanation for the Chechen independence movement.

And Chinese leaders are currently using this argument in Tibet, blaming the exiled Dalai Lama for what Beijing calls the secessionist movement there.

The reasons such leaders have for using this tactic are obvious: It simultaneously delegitimizes national causes that these officials oppose. And it often increases international pressure on local leaders to make concessions or to reach a compromise.

Assigning blame in this way may thus be a useful political and diplomatic tactic, and it does capture part of the truth. But it is anything but satisfactory as a comprehensive explanation for these conflicts. More than that, it entails three important dangers.

First, blaming local leaders for everying has the unintended consequence of giving them more credit than they deserve and even elevating their status in the eyes of their populations.

Local leaders may exploit, exacerbate and channel ethnic passions for their own ends just as they make use of other popular attachments such as religion. But these leaders on their own are rarely able to create such attitudes.

Moreover, attacks on such leaders by outsiders however justified may in fact cause local populations to give them even more support. These populations may see such attacks as politically motivated and thus may dismiss such charges rather than attend to them.

Consequently, a diplomatic or political strategy implicitly based on the notion that leaders are bad but the people are good is almost certainly doomed to failure because it is likely to lead peace makers to ignore the factors underlying the conflict as a whole.

Second, this notion that the leaders are to blame reflects a perspective widely held in the West but one that has little empirical support. It has become almost a commonplace to say that democracies will not go to war against their neighbors.

If a government genuinely reflects the attitudes of its citizens as democratic states are supposed to do and if they hate their neighbors, such a regime may sometimes be less able to block aggressive impulses than would a more authoritarian one.

With the collapse of communism in this region, local leaders have become more dependent on popular support even if the countries have not become genuine democracies.

And in that situation, local leaders have not unexpectedly turned to primordial ties like ethnicity and religion in order to justify their positions.

Consequently, while the local leaders may benefit from exploiting these attitudes as elites in other countries do from exploiting other attitudes, these leaders in a curious way may be representing their populations even as they oppress them.

And third, constant references to the corruption of local leaders inevitably if not intentionally have the effect of delegitimizing the ethnic movements behind them in the eyes of outsiders.

But as the history of most countries and national movements shows, corruption among some leaders does not necessarily mean that the causes of the populations standing behind them are venal as well.

They may be or they may not be, but the behavior of the leaders is not the best or the only measure of the legitimacy of the group on whose behalf they speak.

Pressuring or removing corrupt local leaders can in fact help to moderate many ethnic conflicts. But focusing exclusively on this task is not only like applying a Band-Aid to a major wound. It is often like acting in a way that ignores the existence of the wound itself.
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