Experts’ Think Tank
Ethnic Conflict as a Tool of Outside
An Examination of Abkhazia and Kosovo
In the 1990’s the collapse of the
Soviet Union and Yugoslavia
led to a series of internal skirmishes within these former empires for
territorial and political control. These political struggles often
times resulted in ethnic conflict, and is some cases ethnic cleansing.
Religious and cultural differences between Georgians and Abkhazians, and Kosovars and Serbians, namely Islam vs. Christianity, are
often cited as the cause of ethnic conflict and cleansing, however, in actual
fact it was a construction of the Serbian and Russian leadership. Samuel
Huntington’s “Clash Of Civilizations” suggestion, that
different cultures will inevitably come to blows, does not hold any explanatory
weight in an analysis of these ethnic conflicts.
The collapse of the earlier dominant federations in Eastern Europe and the
Baltic region led to the creation of newly independent states, such as Georgia,
Bosnia, Slovenia etc..., over which the remnants of power ( the Russian
Federation, and Serbia) sought undue influence, in essence a form of modern
imperialism. Serbia and the Russian Federation
are guilty of using the tools of excessive nationalism to stir up ethnic
conflict in both Georgia and Kosovo, and to increase control in the regions. To
understand the reasons behind Serbia
and the Russian Federation’s
use of ethnic diversity as a method of regional destabilization in an attempt
to gain political control, we must first examine the history, and ethnic
composition of Kosovo and Abkhazia. We will examine in what manner Serbia and Russia were directly involved in
stirring ethnic hatred in Abkhazia and Kosovo, as well as the specific
interests of these two states in the regions in which they involved themselves.
The use of ethnic conflict in the 1990’s, as a last ditch attempt to establish
some degree of political control over former spheres of influence, resulted in
the horrific loss of human life, however, these events were for the most part
ignored by the Western world until the conflict threatened to spread to the
international level. The relationship between the creation of extreme nationalism
and the promotion of ethnic hatred as a tool of outside political influence, is
not a new event, however the 1990’s have seen the creation of deep-seeded
hatreds that threaten to span generations and cause an irreparable rift. Some
analysts of ethnic conflict look to other explanatory variables, religion,
language, culture, and economic hardship, to understand the eruption of ethnic
conflict. However, diversity does not equate violence nor ethnic cleansing, the
autonomy movements in Kosovo and Abkhazia have been used to provoke ethnic
violence to maintain outside political control and influence. The loss of human
life, change in ethnic composition, and the ultimate futility of using ethnic
conflict to gain clear political control over former spheres of influence have
demonstrated that it is not an effective tool of political control, only one
that clearly violates human rights. As the ethnic conflicts in Abkhazia and
Kosovo are examined, it will become clear that ethnic hatred is created by
states with interests in territorial, political and resource gain, but that
this method is ultimately dangerous, destabilizing, and will backfire into a
situation that will continue for generations.
Abkhazia and Georgia: A
Abkhazia is a small region in
Transcaucasia located within the Republic
Of Georgia, bordering the Black Sea.
It is named for its indigenous North West Caucasian people, the Abkhaz (also
known as the Apsua), religiously composed of both Christians and Sunni Muslims
(religious majority); some ninety to one hundred thousand Abkhazians inhabit
the territory of Abkhazia.
Abkhazia is also one of the most resource rich areas of the former Soviet Union.
During the Soviet years, Abkhazia was considered to be an autonomous region,
within the Soviet Republic of Georgia.
With the collapse of the USSR
in 1991, Georgia gained
territorial independence from the newly formed Russian
Federation, and Abkhazia expected similar independence
In 1991, the newly formed Georgian Assembly, under the leadership of President
Eduard Shevardnadze (Gorbachev’s onetime foreign minister), reinstalled the
Georgian Constitution of 1921, which revoked the national autonomy of the
Abkhazians, against expectations of independence.
As a result of this decision, fighting broke out between the
Abkhazians and Georgians in Abkhazia in 1992.
The Abkhazian-Georgian war, of 1992-1993, is of interest to many political
scientists, as the Abkhazians ethnically cleansed the Georgians, despite only
composing 17.3% of Abkhazia’s population, and 1.8% of Georgia’s total
population. The war
in Abkhazia against Georgia
was not simply a case of Apsuan versus Georgian. The
Confederation Of The Peoples of the Caucasus (CPC) was
formed in 1989 by six different national movement groups in the region, and
initiated by the Abkhaz as a result of the threat from Georgia to its independence. The
CPC members supported the Abkhazians during the 1992-1993 war, together with
the local Armenians and the Russian military. Despite lobbying by Georgia to have the UN
forcibly bring an end to the war with Abkhazia, that it was losing, they found
that were largely ignored by the international community, and in June 1994 Russian
peacekeeping troops were sent into Abkhazia to bring stability to the region.
Abkhazia’s victory over Georgia
has led to the economic collapse of the region, as well major changes to the
ethnic composition of Abkhazia.
Population Composition Of Abkhazian ASSR Population,
Ethnic Group Percentage Of
Georgians: 242,000 --- 46.2%
Armenians: 77,000 --- 14.6%
Russians: 74,000 --- 14.2%
Abkhaz: 91,000 --- 17.3%
Others: 40,000 --- 7.7%
Kosovo: A Historical Overview:
Kosovo is today an autonomous territory in the Balkans, located
between Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia,
The ethnic composition of Kosovo is mainly ethnic Albanian, with religious
roots in the Muslim faith.
Kosovo’s past lays in membership with the former Yugoslavia. However, even in those
days, Kosovo’s distinct ethnic composition and culture granted it a measure of
autonomy, though not full territorial autonomy. The 1946 Constitution of
Yugoslavia, under the Yugoslav leadership of Tito, set out to “carefully set a
balance of power among the peoples and minorities of Yugoslavia over a
potential threat of Serbian predominance…(a process)
complicated by the fact that the Serbian republic also contained the vast
majority of Yugoslavia’s minorities… the Serbs themselves could not be united
in a single republic without infringing the rights of other nationalities.”
As a result of this problem, Article 103 of the 1946 Constitution stated, “The
of Serbia includes within
its structure the … Autonomous Region of Kosovo,” placing Kosovo under Serbian
control, and with no clear outline for what rights it, as an “autonomous
region,” would be granted.
With the death of leader Tito in 1980, and the later collapse of communism in
Eastern Europe, and the Baltic States, a unified Yugoslavia disintegrated. By 1989
it was clear that the bridge between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo was
crumbling, as tensions rose and Serbian aggression in the region increased. In
revoked Kosovo’s political autonomy.
In 1991, Albanian political leaders in Kosovo declared the Republic of Kosovo,
which only Albania
Throughout the 1990’s the Serbian government, under President Milosevic,
tightened its hold on Kosovo, and by 1996 the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had
arisen from the plight of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. From 1996 – 2000
increased tension and hostilities between Serbians and Kosovars
led to ethnic hate crimes, and the situation boiled over, until NATO’s
involvement brought an end to the conflict in 2000.
Kosovo Population Census Data:
Ethnic Group Percentage Of
Albanians: 1,226,736 --- 82.2%
195,301 --- 9.9%
Montenegrins: 20,045 ---
Muslims: 57,048 --- 2.9%
Gypsies: 42,806 --- 2.2%
10,838 --- 0.5%
Croats: 8,161 --- 0.4%
12,498 --- 0.7%
Total Population: 1,954,747
Federation and Serbia: The ‘New’ Imperialism
The Russian Federation
have been greatly involved in the creation of ethnic conflict in Abkhazia and
Kosovo. However, the question remains as to why these countries seek to
influence these regions. The days of Soviet domination in Eastern
Europe, and centralized Yugoslav control over its various ethnic
factions are gone. With no traditional imperial ability to gain control over
its spheres of influence, Russian and Serbian leadership have turned to a form
of ‘new’ imperialism; destabilizing a region through the creation of intense
and violent ethnic conflict, and from this destabilization force its political
influence over these regions. The former prestige of these territories have
fallen from the dominant ethnic groups, the Serbs and Russians, much to the
distaste of their leadership, therefore leading them to attempt to stop any
sincere independence from its formers spheres of power. Therefore, Russia has sought to destabilize Georgia through Abkhazia, and Serbia has
created ethnic turmoil in Kosovo to maintain control over the former Yugoslav
region. But what specific and strategic interests do Russia
have in Georgia/Abkhazia and Kosovo?.
Abkhazia is known as being “one of the
richest provinces of the former Soviet republic,” with borders on the Black Sea
In 1991, the republics of Azerbaijan,
Armenia and Georgia were poised for independence from the Soviet Union, and would soon be areas open to
international investment and interest.
loss of territorial control was made all the worse by the thought of foreign
interests dictating policy in its “own backyard.”
The solution to this problem was found in stirring up ethnic conflict and
violence, making such areas unattractive to outside investment and interest,
political influence and control over the area.
Oil also plays a role in Russia’s
interests in destabilizing the Caucasus; the planned pipeline system connecting
oil fields in Central Asia to Western Europe is poised to pass through Georgia and the independent Caucasus
states, which has infuriated Russian leaders, such as Boris Yeltsin.
Another factor in the rise of Russian interests in maintaining control over Georgia,
through Abkhazia, are the national election results.
Since December 1993 Russia’s
military elite have been gaining political strength, forcing the issues of
Russian nationalism and chauvinism into political and electoral debate.
had long been held to have a strategic geopolitcal
value in the former Yugoslavia,
and held a different form of value to Serbia in the 1980’s and 1990’s. A
government report from 1953 stated, “situated in the central part of the
Balkans…(Kosovo) divides Montenegro
from Serbia and these two,
in turn form Macedonia.
These lands of the Federative Yugoslavia will never be strongly tied to each
other as long as they do not obtain a direct ethnic border.”
In other words, Yugoslavia
valued Kosovo’s geographical position in offsetting any substantial national
movements among its many ethnic groups. However, with the collapse of a unified
Yugoslavia, interest in
Kosovo came mainly from Serbia,
of which it was still a fragment. In the 1980’s Serbian political leaders Ivan Stambolic and Slobodan Milosevic, struggled for political
power. Both Milsoevic and Stambolic
saw the potential political power to be gained in Kosovo if they could be seen
as the “champion of the Kosovo Serbs.”
Milsosevic stoked the flame of Serbian nationalism to
gain political control in a time of economic hardship, through which he used
the issue of ethnic struggle.
It is said that, “Milosevic needed a convenient scapegoat on which to blame the
failures of the Serb nation to take its historic place as leader of the
Yugoslavs... He hadn’t pursued Serb claims in that province during the wars
with the other republics in view of having to fight on a second front. However,
with the wars over, the economy in ruins, and calls for his resignation
growing, Milosevic had to turn to Kosovo and raise the spectre of nationalism
once more – if for no other reason than to ensure his own political survival.”
Russian and Serbian interests in Kosovo and Georgia have manifested themselves
in a form of ‘new’ imperialism, through which ethnic conflict has been created
to help these states gain control over their former spheres of influence.
The Russian Federation and Serbia: Involvement In The Creation Of Ethnic Conflict
have developed an understanding of the motivation behind the creation of ethnic
conflict and ethnic cleansing in both Kosovo and Abkhazia, we must examine the
ways in which the Serbian government, under Slobodan Milosevic, and the Russian
Federation, under Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin, have
involved themselves in the creation of hatred between those of different
ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. Russia’s
war on Georgia,
through the conflict in Abkhazia, has remained undeclared; a new form of
warfare to join a new form of imperialism.
However, just because Russia hasn’t officially made its position against
Georgia known, does not mean that the Russian Federation isn’t directly
involved in the creation of ethnic conflict in Abkhazia, or is not
participating with its military in maintaining Georgian submission. Russia has manipulated the cultural, ethnic and
religious diversity of the Caucasus. Using the
tool of extreme ethno-nationalism in Abkhazia, Russia has managed to turn
dissatisfaction with the Georgian government into 17% of the population
slaughtering and expelling the Georgians from within its province, and using
its weapons and “peacekeeping troops” to fend off the Georgian republic.
The Russian’s are guilty of having used propaganda to ignite the Abkhazian
secession movement from Georgia;
despite the fact that secession was opposed by Georgians inside Abkhazia, who constituted
the majority of the population.
has participated directly in the training of Abkhazian military units, using
the Russian special services, and has also provided the Abkhazians with
has also been manipulated by the Russian
Federation to unite the Muslims of the Caucasus
against “Christian” Georgia.
UN sanctioned Russian “Peacekeeping Forces” helped launch attacks against the
Georgians during the war with Abkhazia.
Through the use of Russian military weapons, propaganda, and cultural and
religious strategy, the Georgian military was fully expelled from Abkhazia in
Serbia’s participation in Kosovo’s massive
ethnic conflict and experiences with ethnic cleansing was more obviously direct
than Russia’s participation
Between 1989 and 1990 Serbia
began the process of revoking the autonomous rights of Kosovo, placing it back
under clear Serbian control.
Provincial authorities were deprived of their power in Kosovo, mass dismissals
of Albanians from their places of employment occurred, and Albanian culture in
Kosovo was dismantled. Albanian books were removed from the libraries, and
Albanian children and teachers were prevented from attending school, unless
they agreed to follow a Serbian curriculum.
Serbian control over the media became clear as “increasingly inflammatory and
propagandistic use of the media (was used) to incite intercommunal
fear and anger.” However, these attempts to remove Albanian
culture from Kosovo were only the tip of the iceberg in Serbian action within
the province. Kosovar resistance against Serbia through
the Kosovo Liberation Army was countered through the “torching” of several Kosovar villages.
By 1998, the Serbian army had entered Kosovo and was directly involved in the
slaughter and forced immigration of Albanians in the territory. Russia and Serbia’s direct involvement in
creating and participating in the ethnic conflict in Abkhazia and Kosovo,
demonstrates the harsh truth, that the political aims of leaders in Russia and
Serbia, to extend their spheres of influence to their former glory, have led to
the creation of horrific ethnic violence, of whose repercussions go well beyond
the political level.
Ethnic Conflict and Ethnic
Cleansing: Effective Tools Of Outside Influence?
examination of why the Russian Federation and Serbian governments participated
in the creation of ethnic conflict in Kosovo and Abkhazia, as well as in what
manner they stirred up ethnic tension, the question that must be asked is
whether or not ethnic conflict and ethnic cleansing was an effective tool in
allowing outside powers to gain political influence beyond their borders. It is
clear that the instability of Kosovo and Georgia as a result of ethnic conflict
makes these regions more susceptible to outside influence. As a result of Russia’s interference in Abkhazia, the Georgian
government must now deal with inter-ethnic wars within its own borders, dealing
with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, instead of
focussing all its attention on maintaining its territorial and political
integrity against Russian ambitions.
Russia has successfully used
ethnic conflict and violence as a means of opening Georgia up to Russian influence, through
its ‘voluntary” membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
However, Russian ‘success’ in using ethnic violence is far from absolute. The
devastation on the economies of Georgia and Abkhazia, the massive loss of human
life, as well as the hatred created by ethnic violence make these areas of
little use to the Russian government, other than having some measure of control
over Georgia. The war in Abkhazia has also added to Russia’s
problems with Chechnya, as
armed Chechens participated in the war against Georgia,
adding to their arsenal as well as their military training, all which helped
aid them in their struggle against Russia.
The oil pipeline factor, also failed; Russia’s
desire to have the pipeline within its borders has not been achieved through
the war in the Caucasus.
experience with ethnic conflict and ethnic cleansing as a political form of
imperialism, demonstrates to what degree this plan can fail. Between
1999-2000 the Serbian government under the leadership under Slobodan
Milosevic collapsed. In July 1999 protests calling for the overthrow of
Milosevic began, and in September 2000 Milosevic lost the Serbian national
failure of ethnic conflict as a political tool in Kosovo lays in the fact that
the violence was too prominent and taken too far. The international community
could no longer avoid the mass violence and excessive force of Serbians against
the Albanians in Kosovo, and in 1999 NATO involved itself in the conflict,
putting down the violence.
Peacekeeping forces were installed in Kosovo, to prevent further ethnic
conflict between Serbs and Albanians.
Kosovo’s experience with ‘new’ imperialism shows the devastation of the plan,
and the lack of political control it intends to gain through ethnic conflict.
Milosevic’s aims to maintain power through nationalism and chauvinism, to
distract from Serbia’s true economic and political problems, failed, leading to
his loss of power and the further economic, social and ethnic devastation of
the former Yugoslav states. For all the evidence demonstrating the creation of
ethnic conflict to serve outside political means, some political scientists and
observers of ethnic violence claim that ethnic conflict arises out of
religious, linguistic, historical and cultural differences.
Ethnic Conflict: A Natural Phenomena ?
While it is clear to some that ethnic
conflict is simply used as tool of political control, or a ‘new’ form of
imperialism, some political scientists and scholars argue that ethnic conflict
arises out of genuine difference: linguistic, religious, historical and
cultural. Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” perhaps best summarizes
this perspective in which “the inability of people to form political
communities across civilizational divides, such as
Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Islam, is at the root of contemporary
The religious and historical diversity of various “minority groups” in the Caucasus is at times cited as the cause of the conflict
in Abkhazia. Many see the Abkhazian-Georgian war of 1992-1993 as the result of
the tensions between the Caucasus Muslim and Georgian Christian populations
boiling over, combined with the historical disputes over which group is
entitled to rule over which areas.
However, the Abkhazian’s are amongst themselves
divided in faith; while the majority remain Muslim, there is a segment of the
Apsua population that is Christian.
is further known to be a fairly secular state, despite its extremely Christian
reputation. In the
“twenty-four ethnic groups, three main languages, three main religions, two
alphabets, and six republics each having a majority
ethnic group, (made) Yugoslavia
seem a ticking time bomb that portended war and destruction.”
Religion is often cited as the wedge that divides the Albanians and Serbians in
Kosovo and is the criteria on which the argument of ethnic conflict is made, with some arguing that the use of ‘othering’
in making Muslims in the Balkans seem ‘non-European’ is the cause of conflict..
However, without the tools of excessive nationalism employed by the Serbian
government, under Milosevic, in an attempt to exacerbate differences between
groups, and use these differences to establish political control, it is quite
possible that ethnic conflict could have been long avoided. While some argue
that ethnic conflict will arise naturally out of difference, this paper
suggests that ethnic conflict doesn’t emerge spontaneously but rather, that it
is the result of conscious political decision making to use ethnic differences
in an attempt to destabilize a region and gain outside political influence, a
new and modern form of imperialism. Ethnic conflict is a political decision
that is unbalanced and often grave in its consequences.
Ethnic Conflict And The Consequences For International Security
The effects of the ethnic wars in Kosovo and Abkhazia have had both
domestic and international ramifications. Whenever ethnic conflict is employed
without check by other political powers, or when action is taken to stop ethnic
conflict in a “too little too late” fashion, damage is inflicted that will
affect not only the immediate region but, the world at large. One of the clear
consequences of ethnic conflict is the massive loss of human life, as well as
the huge flow of refugees.
It is estimated that 1.8 million ethnic Albanians had to flee Kosovo to escape
the onslaught of Yugoslav and Serbian action over the decades of turmoil in the
In Abkhazia “the war resulted in changes of ethnic makeup…. Which is illegal
under the Geneva Convention of 1949,” and also led to the abandonment of the
area by “almost 80% of its civilian population.”
The wars in both Kosovo and Abkhazia have led to the destruction of towns,
beautiful landscapes, economies, and any potential sources of tourism. The
violence and lawlessness in these regions has also opened them up to the drug
and weapons trade.
However, these are ramifications of ethnic violence that are rather confined.
Massive flows of refugees can lead to processes of “ghettoization,”
a known threat and cause of potential international security problems. Ethnic
violence’s impact in creating hatred that can span generations, and spread
across borders becomes all the more likely with the use of ethnic conflict as
political violence. The formation of groups designed to combat their original
persecutors can become groups that are terrorist organizations with no aim but
violence, as can be seen with the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka.
The domestic and international consequences of ethnic violence as a political
tool and form of new imperialism far outweigh the benefits, on both a practical
and moral level. Universal human rights must not be violated in the name of
Abkhazia and Kosovo have been the sites
of ambitious political projects of the Russian
Federation and Serbia in the use of ethnic
conflict as a political tool to gain influence in regions outside their direct
control, equating a new form of imperialism. The reasons behind the political
action of Russia in Abkhazia
lay in developing domination over its former sphere of influence, lost when Georgia gained independence with the collapse of
Russia hopes that by
stirring the ethnic tensions in Georgia
it will be able to gain political influence over the area, and keep
international interests and investment out of its “backyard.” In Kosovo, former
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic used ethnic conflict to consolidate
Serbian political control over the area, as well as to stir up excessive
nationalism in Serbia
to hide the devastating political and economic state the country was in. By
employing propaganda, weapons, training, direct military involvement and
financial support, both Russia
involved themselves in creating hatred and violence between ethnic groups. In
their relative success in creating the ethnic cleansing experienced in the
1990’s in Abkhazia and Kosovo, the question must be asked whether or not the
end justified the means. Were the political goals of Russia
met? In the case of Russia, Georgia was
destabilized, but to what end did it matter, or was worth the casualties
inflicted on the area? In Serbia
the failure of ethnic conflict as a political tool is clear. While some suggest
that ethnic conflict arises naturally out of differences between groups, it is
obvious that ethnic differences are manipulated by outside powers to gain
political influence in a form of new imperialism. However, the cost of these
political actions has consequences both domestically and internationally. While
ethnic conflict emerges as a tool of political manipulation, the international
community must step in and stop such action, instead of hoping that such
conflicts will resolve themselves, if for no other reason than the threat
ethnic violence will eventually become a threat to international security, let
alone the moral responsibility of the world to stop such wars.
Andrew. Russia Versus Georgia:
One Undeclared War In The Caucasus. n.d.
Halpern, Joel M., and Kideckel, David A. eds. Neighbours At War:
Yugoslav Ethnicity, Culture, and History. Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania State University Press,
J. Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics Of Ethnic War. New York:
Kolsto, Pal. Political
Construction Sites: National Building In Russia and The Post Soviet
States. Colorado: Westview Press, 2000.
Krag, Helen and Funch, Lars. The North Caucasus: Minorities At A Crossroads. London: Manchester
Free Press, 1994.
Mandelbaum, Michael ed. The New European Diasporas: National Minorities And
Eastern Europe. NewYork:
Council On Foreign Relations Press, 2000.
Mastyugina, Tatiana and Perpelkin, Lev.An
Ethnic History Of Russia: Pre - Revolutionary
Times to The Present. Naumkin, Vitaly and Irina Zviagelskaia
Mertus, Julie A. Kosovo: How Myths
and Truths Started A War. California:
of California Press, 1999.
Europe’s Nightmare: The Struggle For
Rywkin, Michael. Moscow’s Lost
Empire. New York:
M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1994.
Smith, Graham and Law, Vivien, and Wilson, Andrew, and Bohr,
Annette, and Allworth, Edward. National Building
In The Post-Soviet Borderlands: The Politics Of National Identities. United States: Cambridge University
Taras, Raymond C. and Ganguly, Rajat. Understanding Ethnic Conflict: The International Dimension 2nd Edition. United States:
Publishers Inc., 2002.
Miranda. Between Serb and Albanian: A History Of
Kosovo. New York:
Wilmer, Franke. The Social Construction Of
Man, the State, and War: Identity, Conflict,
And Violence In
The Former Yugoslavia.
NewYork: Routledge, 2002.