Many books written during the 1980s and 1990s have proven somewhat less than prescient about the directions the world has taken since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the dissolution of the Soviet empire after 1989. Andrei Codrescu’s The Hole in the Flag (1991), for instance, seems to capture well the moment of the Romanian Revolution in 1989, but doesn’t see very far into the future. V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers (1981) and his follow-up Beyond Belief (1998), on the other hand, seem equally incisive and far more prescient, even though both Codrescu and Naipaul have the advantage of being pessimists.
Academics are rarely able to capture the moment, but are often better at capturing long-term trends, especially if they involve looking back into the past rather than forward into the future. One academic work that offers a fairly clear long view back is The New Geopolitics of Central Asia and Its Borderlands, edited by Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner (Indiana U. Press, 1994), whose introduction begins thus.
No major empires have dissolved in this [20th] century without their successor states undergoing civil wars or regional conflicts. The breakup of the Ottoman empire was accompanied by the Balkan wars and by internecine conflicts among the successor Arab states. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire triggered conflicts within both the Balkans and Central Europe. After the Second World War, the withdrawal of the British, French, Dutch, Americans and Portuguese from their overseas colonies left unstable states and regional conflicts. The departure of the British from South Asia left two successor states, India and Pakistan, in conflict, and Sri Lanka a deeply divided society. The withdrawal of the British, French and Portuguese from Africa left dozens of countries torn by civil conflicts, guerrilla warfare, refugee flows and declining economies in the midst of rapid population growth. The French and Dutch withdrawal from Indochina and Indonesia was, in both cases, followed by civil conflicts. What is it about the breakup of empires that leads to civil wars and regional conflicts among successor states?
It is first necessary to recognize that ethnic conflict within and between successor states is not merely the result of the reemergence of historic enmities that had been suppressed by the imperial centre. It is tempting to argue that the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, Serbs and Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, Armenians and Azeris, Russians and Estonians are ancient battles that reflect fundamental clashes between peoples of different cultures, even different civilizations. While historic memories do play a role in ethnic conflict, imperial states typically create conditions which generate conflict among and within their successor states. Under imperial rule, nonindigenous peoples migrate into the region under colonial authority, where they often assume positions of political, social and economic superiority. The migrants often belong to the ethnic community of the imperial states, but they can also come from elsewhere. Under British and French rule, for example, Chinese or Indian migrants settled in various parts of the empire; under Ottoman rule Turks, but also Albanian and Bosnian Muslims, settled throughout the Balkans. These migrations were sometimes simply the result of the emergence of new opportunities; at other times they represented a systematic effort by the imperial power to relocate peoples for political reasons.
The governments of newly established states, and their supporters, often regard migrants and their descendants as an alien people whose very presence is illegitimate. Successor states may take away citizenship from the migrant communities, expel them, or impose restrictions on language use, education and employment which induce them to leave. Thus, Uganda and Burma expelled Indians; Indonesia massacred Chinese; Algeria forced out the French pieds noirs; Bulgaria expelled the Turks; and Romania pushed out the Hungarians.
Massacres and expulsion are by no means inevitable, because there are constraints upon nationalist elites. Although the nationalists’ capacity for economic self-destruction should not be underestimated, nationalist leaders may be aware of the economic importance of the migrant community and the losses incurred if entrepreneurs, professionals, financiers and skilled workers are forced to leave. Nationalists may also be constrained by fears of intervention by the country from which the migrants originate, or by a concern that discriminatory policies may result in civil conflict. How nationalist elites deal with the demographic legacy of imperial rule is a complex matter, often shaped by historic memories of overlordship, by deep cultural notions of jealousy, or by egalitarian levelling sentiments, rather than by concerns over economic growth or even of avoiding violent conflict.
A second feature of empires that generates conflict in successor states is that the internal borders of empires rarely coincide with linguistic, religious or racial boundaries. Empires are built by accretion, so that their administrative boundaries often reflect the manner of absorption of new territories. Moreover, imperial authorities often govern by pitting one community against another; they prefer, and therefore may create, administrative divisions that divide ethnic and religious communities so as to impede their mobilization. Each of the administrative units within an empire often contains minorities who form majorities in a neighbouring state. Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh, Romania’s Transylvania, Serbia’s Kosovo and Burma’s Arakan are not unusual examples. When empires dissolve, it is common for the successor states to be based upon existing administrative divisions. Rarely is self-determination accompanied by redrawing of boundaries so as to be inclusive of an ethnic community, with minority-dominated regions transferred to another state. The presence of minorities from a neighbouring state combined with irredentist disputes over boundaries is a dangerous mix.
While successor states ever proclaim the general principle that state boundaries are inviolable, the fact is that irredentist wars have been commonplace — between Ethiopia and Somalia, between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, between Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece over Macedonia, between Italy and Austria over Trieste, etc. The breakup of empires also often leaves some peoples without states of their own — Kurds, Baluch, Macedonians, for example.
In any event, multi-ethnicity in the successor states may be unrelated to migration under colonial rule or to the way in which administrative boundaries were established. Tamils and Sinhalese occupied Sri Lanka long before the Europeans arrived; in Africa tribes lived side by side, and sometimes fought one another, long before imperial rule. Under imperial rule some groups coalesce, and new alliances are formed, but also new cleavages are created. Some groups do relatively well under imperial rule, as they become disproportionately more educated and move into the professions and into the civil or military bureaucracy while others are left behind. At the end of imperial rule, some groups are in a stronger position than others to exercise political power or to control the major economic institutions. If a demographically hegemonic community assumes power, minorities are sure to be uneasy, especially when majorities assume political power, but minorities have a strong hold upon the economy. The removal of foreign domination creates a new political arena within which groups once subordinate to the imperial rulers now contend for power.
A third feature of successor states is that they are often weak. Under imperial rule the major institutions — the civil administration, the police, the military, the financial institutions, the universities, the corporations — were dominated by the imperial power. The successor states often lack the experienced manpower to manage these institutions; in some instances, the institutions themselves have become discredited and their legitimacy eroded by their nationalist opponents; and in still other instances these institutions continue to be dominated by the same individuals who controlled them during the era of imperial domination. It is also sadly not uncommon for emerging elites to regard these institutions as a source of personal gain for themselves and their families, and as a way in which they can now exercise autocratic authority over others. The result is a further erosion of these institutions and of public regard for them.
The successor governments may also find that their economies were in some fundamental ways warped by imperial domination, as they became suppliers of raw materials for the imperial centre, and their transport systems structured to meet the needs of a distant metropole.
A fourth and final feature of successor states is that violent conflicts within and quarrels among them readily become internationalized as each party to a dispute seeks external allies. Minorities within states often turn for support to a neighbouring country with whom there are ethnic bonds. As states dispute their borders, make claims upon each other’s territory, or support secessionist or irredentist movements within a neighbouring state, they often turn to outsider powers for support. Weaker states need military and political support from others and, in turn, stronger states often respond by creating alliances with those who are enemies of their neighbour’s allies. And so, in time, countries that have little intrinsic interest in the internecine quarrels of smaller states soon find themselves embroiled in large balance-of-power conflicts. Examples abound: during the interwar period, for example, Albania, in dispute with Yugoslavia, allied with Italy; Hungary joined with Germany; Bulgaria with Russia, then subsequently with Germany; the Serbs with the allies and the Croatians with the Germans; the Greeks with Britain, while Turkey flirted with the Germans. Similarly, in the postwar period, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, India and Pakistan each turned to one or another of the great powers to help them in their regional disputes.