Exploiting Ethnicity: Political Elites and Domestic Conflict

By Carment, David | Harvard International Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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Exploiting Ethnicity: Political Elites and Domestic Conflict

Carment, David, Harvard International Review

Self-serving, perceptive elites tend to exploit ethnic conflict for their own personal benefit. In times of political and social upheaval, when insecurity prevails, ethnic leaders take advantage of uncertainty to consolidate their power and provide benefits to their groups. Two conditions exacerbate this process: democratization and diaspora support.


Ted Gurr of the University of Maryland challenges the prevailing notion that conflict emerges when states collapse into anarchy. He has argued that the so-called "Third Wave" of democratization, which swept through Africa and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, led to ethnic upheavals because institutional change created the opportunities for groups to more openly pursue their objectives.

However, I would argue that violent conflict involves a crisis of legitimacy in which both state and society become arenas for open conflict and reform-minded leaders lose ground to ethnic nationalists through the electoral process. In Yugoslavia, for example, the careful balance of power between Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians was torn asunder by self-serving bases of power controlled by ethnic elites. The situation then spiraled into conflict between the Serbs, who dominated Yugoslavia's weak political institutions, and the Croats and Bosnians, who moved to counteract the Serbs by attempting to wrest control and territory from the center of the country.

Thus, an important condition for the escalation of ethnic conflict is the relentless pursuit of ethnic goals under conditions of democratization, combined with the failure of reform-minded political leadership to anticipate and resolve disputes before they devolve into violence. Such leaders often lack the necessary skills and resources to resolve disputes peacefully. Ethnic leaders take advantage of this by exploiting group differences for short-term political gains and encouraging radicalized politics and violent conflict.

Fueling Ethnic Violence

Aside from democratization, there are other significant factors that fuel ethnic conflict. Perhaps the most significant of these is financial support from diaspora communities. The transformation of the political arena into a series of narrow bands of ethnic sensibility results in a situation in which ethnic leaders face a basic tradeoff in strategy. On the one hand, they must establish a power base that is broad and inclusive enough to fend off potential reform-minded challengers. On the other hand, in order to maintain support from extremists factions, leaders must demonstrate their unwillingness to compromise on fundamental security issues. They generally reconcile these two strategies by lobbying for support from diaspora groups. More often than not, these groups hold the most extreme positions on questions of ethnic survival, yet their strength does not threaten a leader's power base. Diaspora finance is thus a fundamental component to the success of ethnic elites.

Surprisingly, diaspora remittances far outweigh Official Development Assistance. The World Bank estimated that in 2005, remittances reached an all-time annual high of over US$230 billion. Another World Bank study indicated that post-settlement ethnic conflicts have a higher probability of reverting to war when a large proportion of the diaspora lives in the United States. The financial support of diaspora groups, many of whom still cling to their ethnic prejudices, was found to be vital in supporting armed groups and precipitating this reversion to war. To be sure, not all remittances are directed toward fueling ethnic fires abroad. But the basic problem with fungible resources like financial flows is that, in the absence of complete information about who should be supported, funds are often distributed indiscriminately.

Framed in this context, ethnic conflict brings benefits to ethnic leaders. For example, conflict plays an important role in ensuring group cohesion.

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