134. Preventing Ethnic Conflict: Macedonia and The Pluralist Paradigm

By
Steven L. Burg

The Yugoslav crisis demonstrates the importance of concerted international action to prevent or resolve conflicts before they turn violent. The community of democratic states, working through multilateral institutions, might prevent the outbreak of similar crises elsewhere by adopting a strategy of "preventive engagement" to promote the democratic development of new governments. Elements of such a strategy are already in place in Macedonia, where international actors are attempting to resolve the tensions between the Albanian and Macedonian ethnic communities.

The strategy of preventive engagement differs radically from the so-called realist approach to conflict resolution and international security. Realists base their approach to international conflict on a unidimensional principle that the behaviors of states are constrained by the deterrent or coercive force of external power. They argue that conflict is best prevented, and violence is most effectively ended, by ensuring that each party to a conflict is equally well-armed. In interethnic conflict as in international relations, they argue, it is a balance of military power that ensures peace. Hence, realists propose solutions to the conflicts in former Yugoslavia calling for the delivery of more arms to the region, rather than attempting to address the fundamental sources of the conflict.

The academic literature on preventing or managing ethnic conflict is dominated by two competing paradigms: the pluralist or integrationist approach and the consociational or power-sharing approach. The power-sharing approach is the most widespread basis for solutions proposed by scholars studying current ethnic conflicts and often is cited as an explanation for alleged successes in cases that might have been expected to be failures.p>

This approach can be boiled down to a few simple ideas. First, ethnic conflict originates in contact between groups. Thus the isolation of groups from one another at the mass level through entirely separate networks of social and political organizations--segmentation--is a central component of this approach. Contact between groups is to be restricted to elites. Second, because groups cannot reach compromise, they should be granted autonomy over their own affairs. Third, decision making on issues of common interest is to be exercised by elite representatives of each of the groups. Indeed, elites exercise a monopoly even over the definition of common interests. Fourth, the participation of representatives of all such groups in the decisions that affect them should be ensured through proportional representation. Fifth, and most important, each group represented in authoritative decision-making processes is to be granted veto power over those processes when its "vital interests" are at stake. The obvious vulnerability of such a system to intransigent behavior is avoided, according to the proponents of power sharing, by goodwill between elite representatives of the ethnic segments, a condition seen as essential for success.

Elite domination of these systems is a product of the structural ethnic segmentation of these systems. Isolation at the mass level reinforces the segmentation of ethnic groups into distinct religious, cultural, and political organizations. Organizationally segmented or isolated communities provide the constituencies for ethnically defined political parties whose leaders claim to represent these populations in state decision-making processes. Electoral competition between elite representatives of ethnic constituencies reinforces the utility of appeals to ethnicity and the benefits to incumbents of intransigence on behalf of perceived group interests. Where ethnic populations are distributed in more or less territorially compact patterns, territorialized autonomy--whether limited devolution, federalization, or confederalization--becomes the logical expression of such an approach to conflict management. Indeed, the case most often cited as an example of successful management of ethnic conflict through consociationalism, Belgium, has passed through precisely these stages of increasingly complete deconstruction of the common state and creation of distinct, ethnically defined, territorial entities with increasingly comprehensive independent decision-making authority. At present, it may be said, there is little left of the Belgian state over which the territorial entities can argue, other than the existence of the state itself.

Recent experiences in Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina underscore the inherent vulnerabilities of consociational arrangements to secessionism. In Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia, power-sharing arrangements accompanied by devolution to ethnoregional entities created structural conditions that intensified conflict, rather than dissipating or resolving it as the consociationalists have reasoned. In these cases, intransigent use of the veto nullified the already weak crosscutting or common interests in these states and paralyzed common institutions. Unlike Belgium, only a small proportion of the Yugoslav population shared a relatively weak overarching identity, and there was even less in Czechoslovakia. Structural conditions helped transform the electoral competition that accompanied democratization into an ethnic competition, and provided a ready framework for dominant groups to give an ethnic definition to successor states.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the ethnicization of politics in a disintegrating Yugoslavia ensured that the principle of mutual veto among the three dominant ethnic groups would produce political deadlock, and the complex patterns of ethnic settlement meant that any effort to resolve conflict through deconstruction of the state along Belgian lines, or even along non-territorialized principles, would have required exceedingly complex negotiations among elites committed to a peaceful settlement. Tragically, while power -sharing arrangements delivered powerful weapons of intransigence into the hands of Bosnian elites, few of the incentives to cooperation identified in the literature on ethnic conflict, or in the more general literature on cooperation, were present. And there was little likelihood that they could be developed in the short-term. In all three cases, democratic institutions and norms were too weak to constrain the actions of nationalistic elites. In the absence of powerful cultural, historical norms of cooperation or structural incentives to cooperation, the adoption of power -sharing arrangements as a long-term strategy thus seems certain to encourage conflict, deadlock, and secessionism.

The pluralist approach to ethnic conflict management is based on a radically different understanding of the effects of intergroup contact. Stated most concisely, pluralists argue that, under critically important conditions of open communications and equality, contact between groups generates mutual understanding and cooperation, not conflict. While consociationalists view institutions primarily as reflective of ethnic segmentation, pluralists view institutions not only as reflective but transformative as well. Contact in shared institutions is not necessarily seen as an agent of cultural assimilation; but sustained contact under conditions of open communications and equality is viewed as contributing to the emergence a shared culture of interaction and cooperation, or what in the West has come to be called a "civic culture."

Rather than looking to political elites for solutions, the pluralist paradigm suggests that incentives for cooperation can be found in society itself, in interests that intersect with and moderate the appeal of ethnic identities. This is the essence of the "crosscutting cleavages" hypothesis widely cited in political science. Indeed, proponents of power sharing cite the existence of such cleavages as contributing to the success of such arrangements. But crosscutting cleavages contribute to the moderation of conflict only when they become the basis for political identity, electoral competition, and participation in representative institutions and decision-making processes.

The openness of intergroup contact and communication is an essential element in the pluralist paradigm. Consociational systems tend to perpetuate any deficiencies in intergroup understanding that may exist because structural ethnic segmentation blocks intergroup communications. The pluralist paradigm, by contrast, suggests the importance of efforts to overcome such segmentation in the realm of communications. From this perspective, efforts to ensure the openness of mass media to intergroup communication are a potentially powerful means by which to begin to construct the social foundations for identities and behaviors that transcend ethnic communities. Similarly, while the consociationalist approach celebrates the segmentation of education, the pluralist approach suggests that common educational institutions valuing group identities and cultures equally--especially at the university level--are a potentially powerful means of fostering intergroup contact, communication, and understanding, and encouraging the discovery of shared values and interests.

While the consociational approach depends on goodwill among elites for whom competition is the source of personal power, the pluralist approach depends on goodwill among citizens who recognize intergroup cooperation as an opportunity or means to secure shared benefits. Whereas the consociational approach leads to the politics of identity, the pluralist approach fosters the politics of interest.

Where the consociationalist approach institutionalizes ethnic segmentation in the state itself, the pluralist approach calls for avoiding defining the state or state institutions in ethnic terms. From a pluralist perspective, behavior based on ethnic identities should be required to compete with behavior based on interests on an equal, rather than a privileged basis. Where the politicization of ethnicity dominates other bases of political behavior, as in Yugoslavia and Macedonia, the challenge in pursuing a pluralist approach to ethnic conflict management consists of establishing a balance between the ethnic and the non-ethnic in participation, representation, and decision making. In some cases, and the case of Serbia/Kosovo may be such a case, the challenge consists of facilitating the emergence of any non-ethnic dimension at all. To pursue a straightforward consociational or power-sharing strategy in such cases, however, would mean institutionalizing ethnic cleavages and creating the structural foundations for intransigent use of the veto and ultimately secessionism. Where groups compete for control of the same territory, secessionism becomes the source of violence.

The pluralist approach is thus oriented toward openness and participation. Consociational or power-sharing approaches are at best elitist and at worst anti-democratic in character. In the present post-Communist period of European political development, the popular attractiveness of democratic ideology and demands for empowerment, as well as the danger of regression toward authoritarianism inherent in elite domination, should act as deterrents to reliance on elitist approaches as a long-term strategy for resolving intergroup tensions and conflicts. Some practices associated with the power-sharing paradigm may be useful as short-term preventive techniques. But in the longer-term, the identification (or creation) of crosscutting cleavages and their representation in political decision-making processes in the state, as well as the creation of conditions that encourage cooperative action across ethnic cleavages on the social level, holds the greatest promise for moderating intergroup tensions and preventing conflict.

Macedonia is a post-Communist state characterized by weak political institutions and a very weak civil society. Relations between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians are characterized by social tensions and political confrontation, but not open conflict or sustained violence. Basic features of the post-Communist social and political systems are still being negotiated. The pluralist paradigm suggests that procedural or institutional reforms, or the establishment of new institutions that foster contact and communication between groups and encourage the emergence of cross-cutting cleavages, might contribute to reducing intergroup tensions.

Several organizations have been conducting projects in Macedonia explicitly intended to prevent inter-ethnic conflict that fall squarely within the pluralist paradigm. Their successes are consistent with the view that this strategy can work in Macedonia.

Search for Common Ground in Macedonia (SCGM), for example, has been engaged in a number of efforts that encourage intergroup contact and communication as well as active cooperation in the pursuit of shared interests hoping to fostering greater intergroup empathy and understanding. The "How We Survive" journalism project sponsored by SCGM resulted in simultaneous publication in the major Albanian-, Macedonian-, and Turkish-language newspapers of a series of feature reports on how people of all ethnicities were coping with problems of daily life. It also generated greater cross-group empathy among the journalists who participated. The journalism project exploited the existence of common professional interests on each side of the ethnic cleavage, mobilized institutional support for cross-cleavage contacts, increased the flow of sympathetic information across the cleavage in the form of newspaper articles, and helped to create cross-cleavage empathy among journalists, who play an important role in shaping mass perceptions and opinions. SCGM is following this up with a current project encouraging the publication of contrasting opinions on important issues as a means of acculturating readers to the idea that one characteristic of democracy is "conflict of opinion without conflict." SCGM sponsored monthly roundtables at the University of Skopje to encourage direct interethnic discussions on issues of common concern, and its projects on environmental protection support interethnic cooperation in direct efforts by local populations to clean up their communities. The ongoing successes of SCGM projects provide powerful evidence of the utility of the pluralist paradigm and of a strategy of "preventive engagement" in Macedonia.

The Center for Preventive Action of the Council on Foreign Relations Working Group on the South Balkans (WG--for which Burg served as principal consultant) identified higher education as another area in which such a strategy might be pursued. Its recommendations for depoliticizing the issue and bringing ethnic actors into direct contact in the pursuit of mutual interests included allowing the establishment of private universities, opening the state-funded university to greater enrollment of ethnic Albanians by expanding the domain of Albanian-language instruction at the university (and taking steps to ensure that more Albanian students receive adequate preparation for higher education), and increasing the role of international educational professionals in goal setting, policy development and implementation, and evaluation. Although these recommendations- were developed by the members of the WG without reference to the pluralist paradigm, they conform to it. Allowing the establishment of a private university would encourage the development of civil society in Macedonia and underscore its legitimacy. Making the state-funded university more open to all ethnic groups would underscore the civic definition of state institutions. And professionalizing educational policy would allow educators of all ethnicities to participate as equals in cooperative activities of common interest.

The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) has also demonstrated that the strategy of professionalizing issues that might otherwise engender additional intergroup tensions can be successful in Macedonia. NDI recently reported that, at the request of the Macedonian government, it arranged for expert review of the government's draft law on local elections. Eighty percent of NDI's recommendations were accepted. NDI then organized an all-parties public roundtable on the draft law, which precipitated a wider public debate, including newspaper, television, and radio coverage of the event and the issue. By these actions, NDI helped Macedonian party leaders depoliticize the issue and resolve their differences amicably and established an important precedent for meaningful public consideration and debate of proposed government policies.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) cannot succeed without strong back-up in the form of Western governmental and multilateral support for peace. In the case of Macedonia, for example, the presence of UNPREDEP (United Nations Preventive Deployment in Macedonia) forces has provided a critical demonstration of international support for the peaceful resolution of both external and internal conflicts. But governmental and multilateral actions are unlikely to affect the norms of behavior and patterns of interaction at the grass roots that hold the key to preventing violence and "solving" ethnic conflict. To achieve such change will require far more attention and support for the kinds of direct action outlined above, action that can be undertaken only by NGOs if they are not to be viewed as "interference," or even contribute to the escalation of such conflicts.

Steven Burg spoke at the Wilson Center on February 19, 1997.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant