Ethnic Conflict in the Former Soviet Union


Senior Fellow, Emerita
  • Professor, Political Science, Emerita

Ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet Union, and their potential for triggering serious interstate conflicts, pose a major threat to regional and international security in the years ahead. Even as the dissolution of the Soviet Union diminished the threat of nuclear and conventional warfare on which the postwar alliance system rested, the disruptive consequences of the major political, economic and social transformations sweeping the region have created a variety of new threats to regional security. The emergence of 15 independent multiethnic states, confronting crises of state-building and economic transformation with uncertain identities, contested boundaries, insecure minorities, and in many cases the looming threat of Russian hegemonism, poses a major challenge to Western policy. Gail Lapidus, formerly a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley and now senior fellow emerita at Stanford's Institute for International Studies, conducts research at CISAC on ethnic conflict and conflict management in the former Soviet Union.

The Project on Ethnic Conflict rests on the view that, although the sources of current conflicts are partly historical and partly the legacy of Soviet nationality policy, they have also been triggered or exacerbated by the impact of democratization and marketization; elite struggles over political power and resource distribution underlie conflicts that are often treated as purely "ethnic." Moreover, the dissolution of the Soviet Union along the lines of its 15 Union republics provides an impetus to further unravelling and ongoing conflict insofar as it calls into question other boundaries and territorial arrangements in the region, and brings to the fore the fundamental tension between two internationally recognized norms: the right of self-determination and the territorial integrity of existing states.

The Project is also premised on the need for a differentiated approach to current conflicts. The tendency to lump together all conflicts in the region as a generic problem of "national minorities" is a further impediment to understanding their different sources, patterns and dynamics. The belief that "conflictology" offers a universal panacea for any and all conflicts, and that conflict resolution techniques are not dependent on the specific character and context of a given conflict, constrains the search for effective strategies by international actors.

A final premise of the Project's approach is the view that the security arrangements emerging in the region -- the military forces and doctrines of the new states, as well as the security agreements between them -- have a crucial bearing on the prospects for interethnic and interstate conflict. Russia is clearly the preponderant military power in the region, and the Russian government has been seeking special peacekeeping rights in the "near abroad." At the same time, no other great power is likely to be in a position to send troops to the region. Under the circumstances, it is important to strengthen the role of international organizations such as the OSCE or the United Nations to ensure that Russian military involvement takes place under their supervision, and within the framework of appropriate guidelines, and that it not become merely an instrument of Russian domination. Whether or not this can be done, and what arrangements might be made to try to achieve this, are among the issues we are examining.