Geogians and

Chapter 8 Part 1

Theory and Experiences of Ethnonational Conflict Regulation:
Their Relevance to the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict

Maarten Theo JANS

This chapter consists of 2 parts (1, 2, and notes)

Internal, ethnonational conflicts: dynamics and difficulties

At the end of the 1980s, the gradual weakening of the communist dispensation in the Soviet Union occasioned a reorganization of inter-group relations, often to the detriment of peaceful coexistence and moderation.Titular nations of Union republics and Autonomous republics found themselves locked into a process of self-definition and a quest for national and international legitimacy. The consolidation of the new states in terms of borders, population and political power brought about a nationalizing tendency which, despite existing ethnic heterogeneity, sought a close fit between the nation and the state, thereby alienating the minorities in the new states.[1] Nationalist policies and rhetoric speedily filled up the ideological space vacated by the exit of communism. Ghia Nodia correctly points out that not only was the rise of primordial nationalist feelings spurred on by the end of communist encapsulation, but these feelings were effectively stimulated through the introduction of democratic principles.

Democratic politics require the definition of the demos. Democracy, understood as the rule of the people by the people, begs the question of what is to be understood as "We, the people".[2] Group definitions inherent in nationalism proved to offer the most powerful instrument for identifying the players in the new democratic game. Insider/outsider stigmatization occurred during the definition of the demos along nationalist lines, and this gave rise to violent ethnonational tensions. The problematic necessity of defining the demos in new democratic states, as argued by Nodia, is, however, only one of the conflict-prone features of democracy. Democratic institutions also firmly install the elements of competition and group support in society. Access to political power in democracies depends on the degree of group support one manages to gain in an electoral competition. Elections are little more than a struggle for support, a competition between groups. Ethnonational definitions provide an easy and obvious basis for securing group support, support which is indispensable in the competition for power. Politicians will therefore find it tempting to use ready-made ethnic definitions for rallying popular support.

States with century-long traditions of dealing with ethnonational diversity in a democratic context (such as Belgium, Canada, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) have never ceased to be troubled by ethnonationalist mobilization. Even the textbook example of ethnonational peace and calm - Switzerland - is increasingly confronted by inter-group friction. It should hardly be surprising, therefore, that the end of communism and the subsequent introduction of democracy has given rise to a large number of internal, ethnonational conflicts. Many former Soviet states are currently struggling to come to grips with the problems of (ethnonational) diversity under the new post-communist, democratic dispensation. The nature and complexity of internal conflicts based on ethnonational division renders regulation and accommodation particularly difficult. In general, the marrying of diverging interests requires a concerted effort, and the addition of an ethnonational dimension increases even further the difficulties inherent in regulating a conflict.

Ethnonational identities base their credibility and legitimacy on an interpretation of the historical past. The reference to mythical forefathers, battles, homelands, etc., entrenches the national self-perception in history. By bringing history back into the picture, ethnonationalism also brings historical wrongs and traumas back to centre-stage in politics and conflict. But historical traumas cannot be relived in a more satisfactory way. Historical legacies are the structural foundations of a conflict situation, and it is not possible to erase them. Conflicting players seeking settlement thus have no alternative but to accept the remnants of frustration which history has left them. The past cannot be regulated. This means that historical traumas are difficult to address in concrete bargaining terms.

As Donald Horowitz points out, ethnonational affiliations tend to permeate all features of social life, especially when ethnic tensions emerge. In a conflict, an ethnonationally divided society no longer consists of workers and employers, buyers and sellers, conservatives and liberals, but essentially of members of different ethnonational groups, as the ethnonational dimension supersedes all other forms of social segmentation.[3] By homogenizing the members of an ethnonational group, ethnonationalism also becomes intimately linked with other forms of social affiliation.

Besides the purely ethnic dimension, ethnonational conflicts involve religion, ideology, economic interests, partisan politics, etc. These bundles of intertwined interests and demands are hard both to disentangle and to satisfy. The regulation of ethnonational conflicts presents the difficult task of reducing complex and intertwined demands into disentangled, workable packages of issues to be addressed. Moreover, national identities and the emotions they awaken correspond to the basic human need for self-definition in a changing and puzzling environment. Ethnonational identities infuse emotions and psychological needs into conflicts. Disputes tend to revolve around issues related to a sense of belonging, security and national pride - all of which are highly emotional and non-negotiable matters.

Zartman singles out another typical and problematic characteristic, namely, the asymmetric nature of many internal ethnonational conflicts. Tensions between insurgents and incumbents are often characterized by an asymmetry in coercive capacity, legal position, international support, numbers and administrative or bureaucratic capacity. Such asymmetric relations are less amenable to regulation because the stronger party has little incentive to deal with the weaker side on an equal footing, while the weaker side will invest more in attempts to change the disadvantageous balance of power than in attempts to settle the conflict.[4]

Internal conflicts display a recurrent pattern, in which one side tries to maintain the asymmetry which the other side is seeking to redress. Asymmetric internal conflicts are likely to remain in a state of constant flux until some level of symmetry is reached or until the existing asymmetry is no longer perceived by either side as sufficient reason not to seek a joint settlement. Needless to say, such realizations may only emerge when both sides have exhausted one another in conflict, at the expense of a great deal of time, energy and bloodshed.

Once violent acts have been perpetrated, internal conflicts often enter a spiral of violence. Repetitive cycles of violence can be arrested, but they do jeopardize the chances of a future settlement, not least because the harm inflicted raises the level of frustration which will need to be addressed in a settlement. Violence also decreases the possibility that the warring partners will perceive each other as credible and acceptable partners in dialogue.

Conflicting parties often find the thought of being on speaking terms with those who have allegedly committed atrocities against them to be unacceptable. Inter-group violence involves regular armed forces, but it also attracts uncontrolled, disparate armed groups lead by warlords or common criminals. These irregular forces gain prominence during the conflict, a prominence they are likely to lose once the peace process is on track. Though they have no vested interest in the specifics of a settlement, their lack of hierarchic control puts them in a position to derail the settlement process by not complying with agreements or by breaking fragile cease-fires.

As noted earlier, ethnonationalism touches upon many aspects of social life. Territorial, linguistic and socio-economic delimitations are part of how ethnonational groups define themselves. The overwhelming variety of ethnonational identities is made up of different mixtures of similar constituent elements. The apparent diversity of ethnonational symptoms should not distract us from identifying the similarity of underlying causes that can be found in cases of ethnonational hostility. When the specific features of each single conflict are temporarily put aside for the sake of generalization, we find that a common thread running through many ethnonational conflicts is a basic fear of extinction. Insurgent ethnonational groups in Canada, Belgium, the Basque country, Northern Ireland and South Africa, to name but a few, have all been driven by a primordial fear of being overwhelmed or, as Horowitz puts it, of being swamped by ethnonational outsiders. This anxiety often reflects the numerical inferiority of the ethnonational group or a downward demographic trend. Even where demography does not lend legitimacy to fears of extinction, the perceived disappearance of important ethnonational markers (language, customs, culture) will. Flemings were always the largest group in the Belgian population. Despite Flemish numerical preponderance, the higher social status associated with French language use stimulated an increased "frenchification" of the Flemish population. The gradual retreat of the Flemish language in favour of French led to the perception that a crucial defining characteristic of "Flemishness" was under attack. Flemings felt engulfed by the French language, and the nationalist movement capitalized on the fear of extinction of "Flemishness" in Flanders. Generally, fears of extinction - which are present in many if not all ethnonational conflicts - will need to be reduced or proved unwarranted if regulation is to be successful. In practice, this anxiety will only be allayed once institutions have been established that guarantee the continued survival of the ethnonational group. The ongoing tensions between Quebec and anglophone Canada are evidence that even the most (socio-economic) successful states remain ineffective as long as they fail to provide sufficient guarantees of ethnonational survival.

The Regulation of Internal Conflicts: What are we Aiming at?

Pointing out the complexity of ethnonational conflict is one thing, suggesting how conflicts can be reduced and satisfactorily managed is another, even more demanding exercise. There are no uniform, straightforward answers to the question of how to reduce ethnonational conflicts. Each conflict is different - for example in time, space, parties involved, intensity, issues, etc. - and it is likely that different conflicts will require different approaches. A technique which was successful in conflict A may prove to be irrelevant - or worse still, detrimental - in conflict B. It therefore makes little sense merely to copy successful structures from one country to another in the hope of producing results which will reduce the conflict. Different diseases require different treatments.

Even if we are aware of the need for context-specific regulations, the path to be pursued needs to be specified. What precisely is meant by conflict regulation or conflict reduction? Should the intended regulation merely focus on the cessation of violent interactions, or should it do away with all sources of friction between groups in order to be deemed successful? Clearly, the first stumbling-block in dealing with internal, ethnonational conflicts is the difficulty of defining conflict regulation itself.

One could uphold an intuitive notion of peaceful coexistence devoid of conflict, but hardly any ethnonationally divided country (except perhaps Switzerland) would fit in with this intuitive notion of conflict regulation. All states characterized by ethnonational segmentation have experienced some degree of inter-group friction and conflict. If we were to accept the absence of conflict as the ultimate aim of conflict regulation, hardly any ethnonationally divided state would qualify as a case of successfully regulated conflict. The absence of conflict cannot be used as an operational indicator of the success of conflict regulation.

Once ethnonational tensions have occurred they will affect future relations between the opposing groups. No regulation or pacification will succeed in turning the clock back. In this sense, conflicts can never be "resolved" or ended in an absolute sense. The conflictual acts which occurred during the tensions will continue to affect and colour interactions between the groups, even if pacification has decreased the intensity of the dispute. Settlements cannot efface previous conflictual acts, nor will every source of friction be brought to a mutually fully satisfactory outcome in an agreement. The heritage of past conflictual acts and the remnants of dissatisfaction on one or both sides will often contain the seeds of future conflict between ethnonational groups. Settlements may decrease the amount of overt hostility or violent interaction, but they will never end or bring about the disappearance of conflict.

Strategies aiming at the annihilation of conflict between (ethnonational) groups are unrealistic and often even undesirable. It could be argued that inter-group conflicts are a perfectly normal and essential feature of politics. If societies consist of different individuals organized in different groups, it is likely that these groups will develop dissimilar sensitivities, needs and preferences, which are a corollary of their group or individual differences. The institution which, following the formulation of dissimilar interests, processes these different interests into a common policy outcome, is the state. The creation of policy outcomes applicable to all involves high stakes, divergent interests and intense competition between these group interests, often resulting in disagreement and conflict. In the policy process, the competing groups resort to a number of coercive, persuasive, bargaining and other tactics to achieve their desired outcome. The heated competition to determine policy outcomes clearly involves conflictual relations. It is commonplace to portray conflictual relations in politics as detrimental, dysfunctional and counterproductive to the functioning of a political system. All too often there is a tendency to overlook the fact that these conflicts identify the relevant issues, they clarify the sensitivities and importance attached to these issues by societal players and they also illustrate the power balance between groups. In this respect, conflicts are an essential and even a functional feature of politics, allowing the production of realistic, balanced and sensitive policy. The point here is that the goal of conflict regulation cannot be the disappearance of conflict. Conflicts are a normal and functional corollary of group differences. Conflict-regulating strategies should aim at controlling and orienting the conflict towards stable outcomes, rather than investing in the creation of conflict-free environments.

The proposed view - that conflicts are part and parcel of political decision-making - should not be interpreted as an unqualified plea for the uncontrolled proliferation of conflicts. Tensions and conflicts often escalate and lead to highly sub-optimal outcomes or even to the collapse of the policy-making institutions. Regulatory strategies should focus on avoiding such detrimental escalation by stimulating the recognition and acceptance of divergent interests as the starting-point from which differences can be processed into stable policy outcomes. Conflict regulation techniques will not succeed in resolving conflicts, but will at best manage to channel damaging tensions towards outcomes which allow for the coexistence of competitive groups. Having reduced unwarranted expectations of the capacity of regulatory acts to end conflict, we now propose the following definition: the successful regulation of internal conflicts occurs when group dissatisfactions and opposing interests are confronted and addressed in a political system and conflicting demands are subsequently processed, at the lowest possible cost and risk, into stable policy outcomes. Some elements of this definition of conflict regulation require closer scrutiny. First, regulation requires dissatisfactions to be voiced and responded to by the conflicting parties. Without clear statements of group discontent, there is little to which regulatory techniques can be applied.

If the deprived group fails to mobilize (for lack of organizations, infrastructure, communication, etc.), it may not be effective in putting forward demands. Once grievances have been voiced, the group in relation to which the discontent is expressed needs to recognize and attend to the problem. This is certainly not always the case, as the (dominant) group, to which demands are addressed, can choose to ignore or deny the existence of this dissatisfaction. By denying the existence of a conflict, the (dominant) group legitimizes its lack of response and avoids taking any policy steps designed to reduce the dissatisfaction. These two conditions for successful conflict regulation are often lacking. Conflicts may seem to have been pacified, but the apparent calm is merely due to the failure of dissatisfied groups to put forward their demands or the result of a (dominant) group's preferring to deny the existence of a problem for as long as it can.

Second, successful conflict regulation involves the processing of conflicting demands at the lowest possible cost and risk. It is not possible to indicate precisely the point at which conflicts are processed at the lowest cost and risk. Such operationalization requires quantifiable indicators of costs and risks and a thorough understanding of how the conflicting parties assess these costs and risks. The general notion of lowest possible costs proposed here is that the amount of resources, time and energy devoted to dealing with the conflict does not interfere with the successful formulation of other policy outcomes. Conflict regulation can be deemed successful (where all the other conditions are met) if the cost of dealing with the conflict does not hamper the policy-making capacity of the political system. The regulation of a conflict can drain a substantial amount of resources, to the extent that all other policy issues need to be put on hold, leading to a policy blockage and the inability of the political system to function at all. Such instances of policy-making overload are failures of conflict regulation, even if they come about without violence. Next to costs, the element of risk needs to be taken into account. The costs involved in regulation may be low while the chances of jeopardizing the continued existence of the political system may very be high. If the regulation of conflicts involves bringing the political system time and again to the brink of disintegration and collapse, then the techniques applied are unsuitable for repeated use and, therefore, unsuccessful.

Third, successful conflict regulation should result in the formulation of stable policy outcomes. A stable policy outcome is perceived as one from which none of the parties has an incentive to deviate. There is no incentive to deviate because, in the given circumstances, all the other reasonably possible outcomes could be expected to leave each of the parties worse off. A stable outcome does not necessarily correspond to the full realization of one or both parties' goals. It is likely to leave a residue of dissatisfaction on each of the opposing sides. Despite falling short of a full realization of their goals, both sides can adhere to the outcome and render it stable because they are aware that the struggle for maximum individual gain leads to mutually inferior outcomes.

Inherent in the above description of a stable outcome is the fact that the stability achieved is unlikely to be maintained indefinitely. Changing circumstances (changing environments, needs, leaders, etc.) can alter and decrease the benefits linked to an outcome, thereby making other outcomes more desirable. Conflicting parties seeking the regulation of their differences should therefore be prepared for an ongoing process of establishing new stable outcomes. Longevity of outcomes can be pursued by entrenching them in institutions. Institutional frameworks (constitutions, bureaucracies, jurisprudence, etc.) tend to reinforce and attribute a certain "robustness" to outcomes, thereby prolonging their existence. Institutionally embedded outcomes can be expected to be more resistant to change, but there is ample empirical evidence that even institutionalized outcomes are not immune to changing needs and environments.

The definition of conflict regulation presented in this paper can be regarded as fairly pragmatic for several reasons. First, the termination of conflict (understood as the end of tension and friction between groups) is rejected as a goal of conflict regulation. The aim is not to abolish conflict, but rather to limit some of its destructive consequences. Conflicts between groups cannot and should not disappear. Instead, conflict regulation should aim to process conflicting demands, at a low cost and low risk, into stable outcomes. In more concrete terms: conflicting groups should learn not to avoid living in disagreement, but to live with disagreement. Second, the definition is not centred on the presence or absence of violence. On the one hand, the absence of violence - desirable as this may be - is no guarantee of successful coexistence. Non-violent conflict situations may be accompanied by high costs and risks and a failure to produce stable policy outcomes, rendering group coexistence fragile or even unbearable. On the other hand, the use of violence does not necessarily entail the failure of conflict regulation.

Law enforcement or the voicing of discontent can take a violent form. Such eruptions of violence do not, by definition, jeopardize the success of regulation or group coexistence. Although the use of violence in conflicts is not a suitable indicator for determining the failure or success of conflict regulation, it is unlikely that violence will be part of a successful regulation strategy, as the use of violent means to enforce an outcome is usually a costly, risky undertaking and leads to hotly contested, and therefore unstable, outcomes.

Joint Decision-Making as the Optimal Approach to Conflict Regulation

Three ways of settling a conflict may be discerned: an external authority can impose a solution upon the conflicting parties, the conflict can result in an outcome through a number of unilateral actions, or the conflicting parties can decide to settle their differences jointly. It will be argued that the latter approach is both normatively and factually the preferable procedure for regulating conflict.

Conflicting parties deciding to settle their disagreements jointly accept that the formulation of a conclusion to the conflict shall be dependent on the agreement of both sides. This necessity for mutual agreement has important consequences for the nature and quality of the decision-making process.

The pursuit of a mutually acceptable outcome implies an interactive process. First of all, the grievances and demands of both sides are put forward. These grievances will need to be addressed if an outcome is to ensue, and this forces all participants to note and act upon the dissatisfactions expressed by their opponents. Moreover, this exchange of information clarifies the sources of discontent, the relevant issues and the relative importance attached to the matters in dispute. It cannot be assumed a priori that the adversaries have adequately assessed the contentious issues. Conflicting parties often have only indirect information regarding how far the opponent is willing to go. One side's sensitivities, intentions and real goals are often uncertain or blurred by their opponent's negative perceptions. Confrontation and the exchange of information and perceptions are instrumental in forging workable definitions of the conflict situation. Joint decision-making encourages conflicting parties to redefine their own positions and, more importantly, to reconsider their perception of the opponent in the light of conveyed information.

Through the interactive exchange of information and the subsequent adjustment of perceptions, opponents gain knowledge of each other's goals and bottom lines. This exchange of information reduces the element of uncertainty in the interaction. The importance of minimizing uncertainty and achieving certainty cannot be overestimated, as certainty with regard to the relevant features of the conflict situation (issues, opponent, minimum demands, etc.) allows for the emergence of mutual trust in the joint decision-making process. Conflicting parties operating under conditions of great uncertainty as regards their opponent's motivation, means and goals cannot be expected to develop sentiments of trust vis-a-vis an unpredictable adversary. The exchange and adjustment of information reduces uncertainty, increases the predictability of the opponent's behaviour and favours the emergence of trust. Conversely, uncertainty in interactions is a factor which inspires feelings of fear and vulnerability - feelings which, according to psychological theory,[5] are highly conducive to violent reactions.

As was mentioned in the introduction, a number of scholars have pointed out the problematic asymmetric nature of most internal or ethnonational conflicts. Generally, the asymmetry can be qualified as a power imbalance, based on coercive, legal or moral grounds, between the dissatisfied group and the incumbents. Such asymmetry is deemed problematic because equals are said to make peace more readily and more easily than unequals.[6] Adversaries seeking conflict regulation through joint decision-making accept, by implication, that settlement can only occur if both sides agree. Joint decision-making, therefore, equalizes the relative weight of asymmetric adversaries in the formula for the final decision.

As unanimity is essential to this formula, both need to agree, so each of them has the power of veto. Joint decision-making entails an equalization of power in the decision which might not be paralleled by equality in the coercive or legal capabilities of the conflicting parties. This equalization of power in decision-making is one possible reason why rival groups reject joint settlements, because their favourable power position on the battlefield is significantly curtailed by the equalizing effects of joint decision-making. In general, jointly accepted outcomes will be less power-induced than those which are the result of unilateral or external (hierarchical) actions. This does not mean that conflict regulation through joint decision-making will be devoid of power struggles or the effects of bargaining power. The degree of dependence, the availability of alternatives, the consequences of non-agreement and the salience and importance of the issues at stake for each of the parties will largely determine the parties' strength in the joint decision-making process. Power relations between the conflicting parties will still be a crucial variable in this process, but imbalances will be partially redressed by their equal share in the formula for the final decision.

Finally, outcomes resulting from joint decision-making will incorporate the minimum demands of each of the parties. Under unilateralism or imposed regulations, there is no guarantee that the needs of both sides will be addressed in the final outcome. The unanimity rule implicit in joint decision-making means that, in order to be mutually acceptable, an outcome should satisfy at least the minimum needs of both parties. This mutual satisfaction of minimum needs renders the outcome more stable than unilateral or imposed solutions, which are likely to give rise to dispute and the re-emergence of inter-group hostilities.

At the start of this section we stated our conviction that joint - as opposed to unilateral or hierarchical - decision-making is the most beneficial approach to conflict regulation. Joint decision-making encourages a full discussion of all dissatisfactions through a clarifying exchange of information, which reduces uncertainty and allows for the emergence of trust. Moreover, the unanimity rule partially reduces asymmetry and guarantees that at least the minimum demands of the opposing sides will be part of a mutually accepted outcome. The inclusion of minimum demands increases the stability of the outcome, as each side receives a share of satisfaction.

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Georgians and Abkhazians. The Search for a Peace Settlement
© August 1998, Vrije Universiteit Brussel