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Explaining Ethnic Protests: How Territorial Autonomy and Executive Representation Shape Ethnic Minority Protests


What explains ethnic protests? This dissertation studies protests over representation, marginalization, and demands for self-determination by ethnic minority groups. The first two chapters focus on the relationship between territorial autonomy arrangements and protests by ethnic minorities within autonomous regions. The final chapter examines the outcomes of cabinet representation on ethnic minority protests in newly democratizing states.

Do autonomy arrangements increase local ethnic conflict? In chapters 1 and 2 I explore how, contrary to intent or expectations, territorial autonomy may increase protests over self-determination by local ethnic minority groups. By design, autonomy arrangements create new local majorities responsible for local ethnic minorities within them. In ethnically-defined autonomous regions, local ethnic minorities may be too small to shape regional-level policies on their own or challenge the regional government’s authority. Inability to shape local-level policy may create grievances against the regional government that otherwise might not exist. In such instances, local ethnic minorities may be motivated to pursue their own autonomy rights. Together, these chapters raise challenges to the regional autonomy project by demonstrating how systems that aim to increase access to power for regional groups may simultaneously create conditions that exclude other, smaller regional groups.

Chapter 1 presents an illustrative case study analysis on ethnic protests by the Assyrian minority in Northern Iraq. The chapter shows how territorial autonomy in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq may have increased grievances by Assyrians against their regional government. My evidence is rooted in fieldwork interviews with Assyrian and Kurdish elites and civilians in Northern Iraq, online sources including newspapers, magazines, policy reports, and archival material, and scholarly research. Using desk method research, I also collect data on instances of protests by Assyrians in Iraq between 2005-2018. The protest data reveal, in addition to protesting the central government of Iraq, Assyrians also protest the Kurdish Regional government. Specifically, in disputed territories such as Nineveh, Assyrians directed protests against the Kurdish Regional Government slightly more than the central Iraqi state. The evidence in this case study provides support for the theory on how territorial autonomy arrangements shape grievances and conflict outcomes for minorities within autonomous regions.

In Chapter 2, I test whether regional ethnic minorities are more or less likely to protests under systems with autonomy arrangements. I use data on ethnic protests across 186 ethnic groups in 83 countries between 1985-2006 from two sources: the Ethnic Powers Relations (EPR) dataset and the All Minorities at Risk (AMAR) Project. My research produces several findings. First, countries with territorial autonomy arrangements had a higher count of ethnic protests than countries without autonomy arrangements. Second, political and economic grievances by regional ethnic minorities increased under systems with territorial autonomy. Third, protests by regional ethnic minorities were not conditional on opportunities for ethnic protests - in other words, ethnic group size and state repression were unable to predict the probability of ethnic protest in systems with or without territorial autonomy arrangements. Finally, my results held even when controlling for known factors of ethnic conflict including ethnic group diversity, ethnic group war history, and country-level ethnic conflict episodes.

Does representation in the executive cabinet increase or decrease protests by minority groups? To date, current literature on ethnic minorities in democratizing countries accounts for the relationship between representation in the legislature and ethnic protests while sometimes overlooking the importance of executive representation in shaping ethnic group stability. I address this gap in chapter 3 by examining the link between ethnic minority cabinet representation and the number ethnic minority protests following an election year. I argue that as the proportion of cabinet seats obtained by an ethnic minority group increases, we should expect to see a decrease in the number of protests by the ethnic minority group, given inclusion in the executive increases an ethnic minority groups decision-making capabilities for their ethnic communities. To test this argument, I build a cross-national dataset on the representation of ethnic minority parties in democratizing systems in Eastern European countries for each election between 1990-2006 using election data from the PPEG database on political parties, elections, and governments. I identify the ethnic minority group represented in each ethnic party and collect data on ethnic minority groups and ethnic minority protests from the Ethnic Powers Relations (EPR) Core dataset and the Minorities at Risk (MAR) Project, respectively. Contrary to my expectations, I find under certain conditions as the ethnic minority group's cabinet seat share increases, the number of ethnic protests by the ethnic minority increases following the election year. Confirming previous findings in the literature on the relationship between assembly representation and ethnic minority protests, I find ethnic protest following an election year decrease as the assembly seat share of an ethnic minority group increases. However, this finding proved significant only under specific circumstances. Future research should examine how electoral systems in democratizing countries shape the likelihood of ethnic protests given they may impact the ability of ethnic minority parties to obtain a seat in the assembly, which shapes representation of ethnic minority groups in the governing cabinet.

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