The proliferation of ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe that came with the end of communism sparked a lot of discussion of whether this was the emergence of “ancient ethnic hatreds.” The lack of a correlation between diversity and ethnic war generally means the answer to that is no, but ethno-nationalism did play an important role in the wars that occurred in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. In this video, I talk about the relationship between democratization and ethnic mobilization that contributed to these conflicts.
The theory I am describing here is most closely associated with political scientists Ed Mansfield and Jack Snyder and their work on democratization and war, including their book Electing to Fight.
The idea is that countries undergoing a democratic transition are more likely to go to war than either stable democracies or stable dictatorships. These types of states – those with incomplete democratic transitions – are more likely to go to war because they have weak political institutions, and weak political parties and media in particular. Politicians participating in free and fair elections for the first time need to convince voters to choose them, but political positions at this time are often unstable. Political parties need time and experience to build effective organizations to turn out voters and to develop a coherent ideology. In addition, voters themselves may not have fixed political views on which to base a vote – after they throw the dictator out in a democratic transition, few people have a clear idea of what they would like to see next. Politicians seeking mass support for the first time in this environment often turn to identity politics to motivate votes – they use nationalism to build a base of support and legitimacy.
When more than one politician is seeking support from the same ethnic group, competition for voters leads to ethnic outbidding. Politicians make increasingly extreme statements, eventually dehumanizing other ethnic groups, in order to demonstrate that they are the better nationalist. When media are owned by a small group of people – due to a state monopoly or otherwise – when press freedoms are weak and independent voices few, the media can be used to enhance these messages, spreading falsified stories about ethnic grievance.
Ethnic war in this case is based not on ancient hatreds, but recent ones, crafted at least in part by politicians cynically seeking to maximize their political support.
The cross-national statistical evidence for this theory is actually kind of weak – it is very dependent on how you define your terms and falls apart with alternate definitions of democracy or war or alternate time frames. So I wouldn’t take this theory as gospel, but it does do a great job of explaining the dynamics of conflict after the fall of communism. Leaders sought new ways to build support and to legitimize their rule. In some cases, the ideology of nationalism replaced the ideology of communism. When that ideology aligned with certain institutional and military conditions, it contributed to war.