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  • Ethnic Conflict and the “Generosity Moment”
  • Robert Hislope (bio)

The potentially destructive consequences of politicized ethnicity have been especially apparent in some recent cases of regime transition. Serbia’s brutal suppression of ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo region, and the gruesome wars that have raged in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Georgia show that regime transitions can provide fertile ground for the rise of aggressive nationalism and ethnic hatred. At the same time, not all states and fledgling democracies falter in the face of such challenges. The southern Balkan country of Macedonia, for example, has managed to avoid both the wars of Yugoslav succession and the territorial revisions craved by some of its neighbors. To the north, Czechoslovakia broke up along ethnic lines, but did so peacefully. South Africa overcame predictions of disaster to conduct a remarkably successful democratic transition. And Spain has made considerable headway in earning the democratic consent of Basque nationalist parties that once leaned toward violent separatism.

The above cases suggest that states fare well when they hew to deliberate strategies of interethnic generosity. Elites from the dominant ethnic groups in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Georgia did the opposite, rejecting interethnic conciliation and championing militant and uncompromising nationalism instead. The consequences of their choice are well-known: interethnic warfare, widespread human rights abuses, economic devastation, failed democratic transitions, and, in some cases, states dismembered by partition. In contrast, the experiences of South Africa, Spain, Macedonia, and Czechoslovakia demonstrate that the accommodation of ethnic minorities can be an effective tool of conflict management. Concerted efforts at reaching intercommunal consensus [End Page 140] seem to be associated with lower levels of violence, more cordial interethnic relations among elites, greater success at building democracy, and (Czechoslovakia excepted) state integrity.

Regime transitions are times of exceptional uncertainty and turbulence. 1 The legitimacy of institutions, the traditional forms of ethnic cohabitation, and the rules of conflict resolution are unsettled. As memories of past repression are rekindled and fears of domination spread, mutual suspicion comes to characterize interethnic relations. In the words of Donald Horowitz, “times of transition are often times of ethnic tension. When it looks as though the shape of the polity is being settled once and for all, apprehensions are likely to grow.” 2 Such apprehensions can easily spiral out of control as opportunistic ethnic politicians begin to play a game marked by escalating demands, hyperbolic rhetoric (possibly encompassing the breakup of the state), and the ever-present threat of strife. A single act of violence can trigger widespread ethnic mobilization, with conflict likely unless elites calm mass passions and anxieties. 3

Yet if elites from the dominant group approach minorities in a spirit of flexibility, inclusiveness, and tolerance, the odds are that tensions can be defused. As a normative construct, such generosity does not require specific policy prescriptions. 4 On the contrary, it is assumed that the grounds for peaceful cohabitation are historically and socially variable. Generosity, however, does demand that elites from the dominant group publicly acknowledge minority concerns, invite minority elites into negotiations and the policy-making process, and display flexibility in addressing minority issues. In this sense, generosity is akin to a process of political incorporation, in which minorities are assured of a permanent “voice” in the system.

The “generosity moment” leaves considerable room for elite discretion in determining precisely what to offer minority groups. This is only appropriate given that elites from the dominant ethnic group must make difficult decisions over how to respond to disparate groups whose demands range from minimal to extravagant. Nor does generosity require an abandonment of calculation on the part of the dominant group. As a matter of enlightened self-interest, generosity is compatible with the jockeying for advantage that is the normal stuff of politics. Only an attempt to impose a solution by force is ruled out.

Generosity is conducive to democratic consolidation, because both involve the establishment of stable patterns of interaction among different elite groups. In ethnically divided, democratizing societies, elites from the dominant group must deal with minority ethnic elites or risk the chance that democracy itself will suffer a check. When minority elites are invited into the political process and regularly interact with elites from...

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pp. 140-153
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