States & Ethnic Conflict

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Ethnic conflict is an issue of great concern to democratizing states and newly established democratic governments. Those states that are transitioning toward democratic governance post ethnic-conflict face many challenges and it is likely that the battle for democracy and a stable government will be a steep-uphill one. In places that are establishing a government after ethnic conflicts and civil war, the rivalries between groups in the political sphere are the biggest challenge to establishing a stable nation. Newly established governments that have gained independence and autonomy are likewise at a risk of civil and ethnic wars, particularly in nations that are culturally diverse.

            Transitioning towards a democratic government after an ethnic conflict is particularly challenging as opposed to creating a democracy after breaking free from a colonizing nation. States that face transitions after conflict must deal with ethnic rivalries that are still in place, ruling parties’ tendencies to further oppress other ethnic groups, and divisions in civil society’s beliefs and values. Some states which have been oppressed by more powerful nation’s center around their ethnicity and the struggles they have overcome. Armenia is one example of a country whose ethnicity has not only shaped its formation but also its present day relations. During WWI, Ottoman Turkey instituted a policy of forced resettlement coupled with harsh practices against those of Armenian ethnicity, leading to an estimated 1million Armenian deaths. As a result of this oppression and a strong sense of ethnic identity, Armenia is presently engaged in a dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a primarily Armenian-populated region that was assigned to Azerbaijan in the 1920s by Moscow. The conflict escalated after both countries attained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Although both Armenia and Azerbaijan are establishing democratic governance the ethnic dispute threatens the economy and political sphere on both sides. The ethnic cleansing that took place prior to Armenia’s independence has continued to play a part in its politics and has shifted from one international conflict to another. Since the 1990s over 800,000 mostly ethnic Azerbaijani’s were driven from the occupied lands of Armenia and about 230,000 ethnic Armenians were driven from their homes in Azerbaijan into Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the Armenian border with Turkey remains closed as a result of the conflict with Azerbaijan.[i]

Democratization in the face of ethnic problems and past ethnic conflicts proves difficult for many nations. Rwanda is an example of a country trying to reestablish itself after internal ethnic genocide destroyed the nation and created deep divisions between the two largest ethnic groups the Hutu and Tutsi. Prior to the genocide, Rwanda was on the road of democratization, but political turmoil and struggles for power led to civil war which quickly developed into an ethnic conflict and genocide. At the time of the conflict the Hutu dominated the government sphere and killed hundreds of Tutsi in a very short period of time. Since then the Tutsi have maintained power in government and although elections are going forward the Tutsi “are unwilling to sanction full democracy until they are closer to their stated aim of creating a society with no Hutus or Tutsis, only Rwandans.”[ii] As a result of the oppression the Tutsi group faced, the Tutsi-dominated government is reluctant to believe that a quasi-democratic government will help at all until there is a unified national Rwandan identity. As a result of this reluctance Rwanda looks to be more of an authoritarian government than a democratizing one.

The idea of stressing a national identity after ethnic wars have demolished a state is a very common them in post-ethnic-conflict nations. Germany is another example of a state that, due to its horrific history of discrimination against Jews and Gypsies, stresses a strong German national identity above ethnic identity. After the Holocaust and WWII, Germany was occupied by the Allied Powers and forced to democratize its government, de-Nazify it and give reparations to the Jewish community. As a result of the genocide Germany still pays reparations to the Jewish community through an agreement with Israel as a result of the Jewish Claims Conference.[iii] Although the Holocaust is deeply engrained in German memories, the nation got past its history and was able to reunite both sides, knocking down the Berlin wall to form a larger democratic state. Although Germany is often remembered for its dark history during WWII it is also an example of a nation that was able to get past an ethnic conflict and establish a strong democracy.

Germany and Rwanda are two post-ethnic-conflict nations that are easily contrasted on how their process for democratization has worked out. Germany has been able to establish a strong democracy and national identity whereas as Rwanda continues to struggle to form a national identity and is further hindered by the lack of democratic governance. In fact, it can be argued that Rwanda is experiencing not democracy and reconciliation but dictatorship and exclusion.[iv] After the Rwandan genocide, the governing parties looked to be establishing a democratic government, stressing a national identity as opposed to ethnic ones. However, the idea of all groups being included was soon shattered when forced exile of Hutu and Tutsi survivors came into light along with the harassment, imprisonment, and physical elimination of Hutu elites.[v] The situation in Rwanda continues to spiral downward from democratization to authoritarian rule as a result of the ethnic conflict that took place over 15years ago. The power of the ruling party has shifted hands and in order to ensure they are not killed off again, the Tutsi governing parties, while stressing a national identity, frequently seeks to oppress their ethnic rivals, in all aspects of society.

The end results for a nation establishing democracy after ethnic conflict varies greatly; so what then is the likely outcome in places such as the Sudan where ethnic conflict has been shaped the region for the past few years? Is it possible that after the fighting ceases they will establish a strong democracy or is it more likely that ethnic difference will continue to shape the government and cause problems such as in Armenia and Rwanda? Unfortunately, the reality is that the nation of Sudan is likely to end up with a continuous struggle that we see in Rwanda. Many argue that democratization and democracy can help manage ethnic conflict through the creation of equal rights and voting in government officials, however this has not proved to be the case in Rwanda. What once seemed like a step in the right direction has proven to be the very negative outcome of what democratization after ethnic conflict can result in. It is for this reason that many nations who face the idea of democratization after civil war do not want to democratize immediately but instead prefer a more authoritarian regime that will protect them from international bodies and secure basic needs. The fear that many developing nations deal with when democratizing is the fact that in new democracies, the ruling party does not always step down from power after being voted out of office, creating further riots, coups, and civil uprisings. The fact that this is a trend in new democratic nations makes it hard for newly established governments to accept that democracy will work out as promised by “Western” nations. For nations that are presently dealing with ethnic wars, such as the Sudan, it is unlikely that they will see a strong form of democracy become established in less than a decade after cease fires and peace agreements are drawn up.

Although the prospect for democracy after ethnic civil wars appears to be slim, democratization does not always produce negative results. Democracies are often the only nations where minority groups and culturally diverse societies have their needs more readily met and are more likely to be incorporated into civil and political aspects of society. It is for this reason that authoritarian governments are so often forced to transition towards democracy by the indigenous populations. The rights and opportunities of minority groups is a good indicator of the type of government that is established and how democratic or undemocratic it is. If enough measures and laws are put into place, and upheld, democratization can be a very powerful process for ending ethnic civil wars and creating a stable government.


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[i] CIA World Fact Book.

[ii] Neither Hutu or Tutsi, just Rwandan. The Economist. London. 3 April 1999. Vol. 351. Iss. 8113.

[iii] German Reparations and the Jewish World: A History of the Claims Conference. Second edition. Ronald W. Zweig

[iv] Rwanda, Ten Years On: From Genocide to Dictatorship. Filip Reyntjens. African Affairs. Apr 2004; 103, 411; International Module. pg. 177

[v] See endnote iv

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