December 1994 saw the Russian military launch an assault on Grozny, capital of the obscure Caucasian autonomous republic of Chechnya, in an effort to put an end to its pretensions to national independence. Three years earlier, in 1991, a renegade Chechen general in the Russian Army, Djokar Dudayev, had acceded to the pleadings of Chechen “elders” who wished to take the territory out of the Russian Federation-Russia. By mid-1996, what had quite unexpectedly become a very bloody operation, and a political hot potato in Moscow, remained uncompleted. In spite of a declaration of cease-fire by President Yeltsin and the killing of Dudayev, Chechen “freedom fighters” based in the mountains and villages continued to wage an Afghan-style struggle against the “occupiers” from Moscow. After some 30,000 deaths, most of them civilian, there was no end in sight.
Is the war in Chechnya sui generis, as some would claim? Or is it symptomatic of a broader class of wars? As of late 1995, according to the Kennedy School’s Project on Internal Conflict (Harvard University), some 35 major armed intra-state struggles were underway around the world. In a number of ways, Chechnya is unique, but it can also be seen as an archetype for similar conflicts taking place, or pending, around the world.
Why the apparent increase in ethnic conflict in the early 1990s? What, if anything, might the United States and the rest of the world do in the future to prevent such carnage from becoming an accepted feature of global politics? Absent satisfactory explanations of these crises, the chances are better than even that, within the next few years, the United States and its allies will find themselves confronted by a similar “no-win” situation in any one of the dozens of places where very little provocation will trigger new episodes of ethnic cleansing.
We offer an account of the causes of ethnic and sectarian conflict that is applicable to a growing number of countries and regions. In brief: What we have come to call “ethnic and sectarian conflict” is neither ethnic nor sectarian per se. Rather, it is about struggles over the levers of power and wealth within societies and countries in which ethnicity and religion provide the cultural and historical resources for mobilizing popular support for particular elites. These countries are almost always caught in the throes of economic and political transformations, brought on by external factors and forces. These erode or destroy old social, political and economic relations—old ways of doing things—and conflicts follow. The outcomes of such struggles are not pre-determined—ethnic cleansing is not dictated by some kind of historical materialism. There are possibilities for intervention before violence erupts.