Archives for category: Eurasia

In my book, The Politics of Nation-Building, I explore the reasons behind a state’s choice to assimilate, accommodate, or exclude ethnic groups within its territory.[1] I develop a theory that focuses on the international politics of nation-building arguing that a state’s nation-building policies toward non-core groups — any aggregation of individuals perceived as an unassimilated ethnic group by the ruling elite of a state — are influenced by both its foreign policy goals and its relations with the external patrons of these groups. Through a detailed study of the interwar Balkans, I conclude that the way a state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state’s foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group’s external patrons. However, as I admit in the book, this argument does not travel to states where the ruling elites are not motivated by a homogenizing imperative.

Some places in the world are run by core groups consisting of apparent minimum winning coalitions,[2] others by elites that go at great lengths to establish national states.[3] Why do some countries have leaders that try to make the national and the political unit overlap and others that opt to rule with a minimum winning coalition? One argument suggests that maybe the degree of diversity prevents the nation-building path in some cases, other arguments focus on the pattern of spread of nationalist ideology and/or the prevalence of competing ideologies such as communism, yet others put forth the importance of war-making and imitation of successful military tactics as a mechanism that accounts for the spread of nationalism and the nation-state system.[4] In The Politics of Nation-Building I build on some of these and suggest that the main reason that leaders adopt the nation-building option is the reality, or anticipation, of other powers using non-core groups in their state to undermine their stability or even annex parts of their territory.

The European story is well known and so are the interactions between the Russians and the Europeans. Tilly’s argument that war made the modern national state may be correct but it is also based on an understood reality: borders were constantly changing during the centuries that modern European states developed.[5] But the Westphalian principles have been adhered to more in some parts of the world than others.[6] Border fixity did not only vary tremendously over time but it also significantly varied crossnationally across the globe.[7] For example, following the Treaty of Berlin in the end of the 19th century the borders of Africa “froze” after the decision of the Great Powers.[8] This led to a completely different incentive structure for both ruling elites and counterhegemonic elites in countries with “fixed borders”. Beyond the case of Africa, however, we can point to other places with similar levels of border fixity that resulted from different geopolitical configurations, such as Latin America—the back yard of the USA—or the Middle East, where the colonial powers also left their mark on the demarcation of borderlines.[9]

Overall, areas that were part of a geopolitical configuration that guaranteed border fixity had less of an incentive to pursue nation-building policies. Within these cases the only countries that I would expect to see nation-building policies emerging involve cases where an external power (major power, regional power, neighboring state, diaspora group and so forth) attempted to cultivate a fifth column within their territorial boundaries. Moreover, it would not be surprising if this phenomenon of external backing of non-core groups would be less pronounced in regions where border fixity was perceived to be really high. However, this ‘equilibrium’ becomes more or less sustainable based on the structure of the international system and the ability—real and/or perceived—of regional actors to defy these geopolitical configurations I described above.

The crucial question today is: What is the future of border fixity in today’s world? More importantly, what is the perception of the relevant actors across the world with respect to this question? The list of border changes is longer than we want to admit. One just needs to cite former Yugoslavia and USSR;[10] but more recently we find cases beyond the traditional spaces where nation-building has already made its mark like Sudan.[11]Discussion of border changes has also emerged in the case of Iraq, Mali, and even Syria. It remains to be seen if any such plans will materialize. Granted the list of cases could have been much longer if nationalist principles were to be fully operative but this is not a satisfactory answer. Even if we only get a few dozen of the hundreds of border changes we would get based on nationalist principles, the reverberations will be felt globally. Moreover, such a situation would further push the spread of nationalism, encourage external involvement, and boost nation-building projects across these areas. We are already observing manifestations of this dynamic, but more border changes would certainly intensify it. This in turn will have the direst consequences for the well being of ethnic groups that are perceived as having ties with external powers that are perceived as enemies by core elites. Shi’as in various Sunni dominated states in the Middle East are a case in point.

What can be done? The International community can impact perceptions of border fixity by either investing resources in upholding the norm of territorial sovereignty or by promoting regional integration schemes around the globe that would indirectly guarantee existing borders and, according to The Politics of Nation-Building, would also lead to accommodationist policies. However, neither of the two solutions is sufficient without important investments in economic and political development.


 The article was published at e-IR on May 8, 2013 | © e-International Relations (e-IR)

Harris Mylonas got his Ph.D. at Yale University in 2008 and then joined the Political Science department at George Washington University as an Assistant Professor in the fall of 2009. He was also an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies in 2008-2009 and 2011-2012 academic years.


[1] Harris Mylonas, The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[2] William H. Riker, The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962; Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, James D. Morrow, Randolph M. Siverson and Alastair Smith, “Political Institutions, Policy Choice and the Survival of Leaders,” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), pp. 559-590; Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce; Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow. The Logic of Political Survival. The MIT Press, 2003.

[3] Eugen Weber. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976; Ernest GellnerNations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983; Smith, Anthony. 1986. “State-Making and Nation-Building,” in John Hall (ed.), States in History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 228–263; Rogers Smith. Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Memberships. Cambridge University Press, 2003; Keith Darden and Anna Maria Grzymała-Busse. “The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse,” World Politics – Volume 59, Number 1 (2006): 83-115.

[4] Connor, Walker. The National Question in Marxist-Leninist Theory and Strategy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984Barry Posen. “Nationalism, the Mass Army and Military Power,” International Security, 18, 2 (1993): 80-124; Andreas Wimmer. Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[5] Charles Tilly (ed.). The Formation of National States in Western Europe.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975; Charles Tilly.Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Charles Tilly and Wim P. Blockmans (eds.). Cities and the Rise of States in. Europe, AD 1000 to 1800. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

[6] Leo Gross. “The Peace of Westphalia, 1648-1948,” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1948), pp. 20-41.

[7] Boaz Atzili. Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2012.

[8] Förster, Stig, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and Ronald Edward Robinson. Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884–1885 and the Onset of Partition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[9] Livingstone, Grace. America’s backyard: the United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror. London; New York: Zed Books, 2009.

[10] Rogers Brubaker. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; Ronald Grigor Suny. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford University Press, 1993.

[11] Andrew Natsios. Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Originally posted on the Chair of Ukrainian Studies Blog, on 23 June 2010

If there is one thing that I have learned growing up in Quebec, it is that language politics never goes away. Forty-one years after language riots in the Montreal suburb of St-Leonard (over whether children of immigrants should be allowed to study in English) and thirty-three years after the adoption of the Language Law (Bill 101, preventing children of immigrants from enrolling in English schools and making French the sole official language of Quebec), language politics is still making headlines here, this time over whether high school graduates should be free to study in college (an intermediate level, before university) in English (they have been free thus far, per Bill 101). (This latest brouhaha is empirically groundless, if you ask me, but this is for another day).

And so it is in the admittedly different setting of Ukraine. Since independence, the language question has periodically reared its head. In the wake of the Black Sea Fleet Accords, the Holodomor turnaround, and renewed pressure on the media, the government of President Viktor Yanukovych apparently intends to change the language law and grant Russian the status of “minority language” all over Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education seems to have lifted the requirement of Ukrainian-language entrance examination (UKL445, item 9) in higher educational institutions and subsidies to the Ukrainian-language publishing industry are in jeopardy. If these changes come to pass, this would suggest that Yanukovych and his acolytes have failed to grasp, in all these years, the sensitivity of language in national politics.

Language politics is about incentives. Wherever political claims collide over the use of a language against another in public institutions, one language is always more socially attractive than the other. In the language of youth, one language is more “cool” – give greater chance of life mobility – than the other. Language politics consists in giving incentives to speakers of the socially dominant (“cool”) language to learn and use the other language, which, more often than not, happens to be the language of the demographic majority. In proclaiming French as the official language of Quebec in 1977, the idea was to make English-speakers, mostly unilingual back then, learn French. Not that my separatist (we say “souverainistes” here) friends would ever notice, but the policy was a great success. The vast majority of English-speakers beyond 50 are now bilingual (far more than French-speakers) and half of the parents whose children are eligible to study in English schools prefer to send them to French schools, and there would be no other reason for them to do so unless they believe that French has become essential to make it in Quebec society. This is what the Soviet Union called “perspektivnyi”. French has become a perspektivnyi yazyk, a language that opens up possibilities, even though English obviously remains the language of mobility in Canada and the United States, and the “cool” language globally.

The formula is simple, yet endlessly controversial politically. If someone knows that he will always get by speaking his preferred language, then he won’t learn the other one. This is why bilingualism does not work in terms of having two languages granted equal official status on a given territory. If Russian and Ukrainian were to be proclaimed state languages in Ukraine (“state language” and “official language” mean the same thing), then Russian-speakers would feel that they don’t have to bother with Ukrainian any more and would be perfectly at ease answering in Russian to a query in Ukrainian. The social dominance of Russian would remain unaffected, preventing Ukrainian from becoming perspektivynyi. (Yes, the social value of languages is as constructed as identities are constructed.) Obviously, when the Minister of Education Dmytro Tabachnyk lifts the entrance  exam requirement in Ukrainian, he sends a message — still a little confusing, according to Oxana Shevel (UKL445, item 9) — that Ukrainian is not that needed to get a diploma in Ukraine, and therefore not perspektivnyi.

In terms of the official status of languages, the strategy of President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions has evolved over the years, from demanding that Russian be made a second state language to calling for Russian to be a “minority language” in Ukraine. This is line with the requirements of the European Charter for Minority Languages, which has been ratified by Ukraine in September 2005. Of course, in a liberal democracy, the protection of the official language must go hand in hand with the protection of minority languages. The problem in Ukraine is that it is not clear who the minority is. Borys Kolesnikov, a Party of Region MP in charge of drafting a new language law, thinks that it applies to “those who speak (volodiiut) Russian.”

Yet there is no country in the world that defines its minorities in terms of what they can speak (in Ukraine, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens can speak Russian). The criteria used is generally akin to mother tongue and it happens to be the sole category used in the Ukrainian census (ridna mova, although a better translation is native language). Crucially, the Charter does not specify how minorities are to be counted, i.e., the statistical threshold that establishes when a “minority” is recognized on a given territory. For Kolesnikov, you only need 10%, while the Yushchenko government, in ratifying the Charter, said 50%. (The tradition in the first country to abide by language thresholds, Austria-Hungary, was 20%). The application of any of these criteria – from 10 to 50%, from “native language” to the ability to speak a second language — would bring hugely different results.

Don’t hold your breath, however, for a substantive discussion about all this. Lest anyone needs a reminder, Ukraine is a state based on the unrule-of-law. How else could it be described when the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, contradicts its own previous ruling in allowing deputies to defect from electoral factions and form a parliamentary majority (UKL443, 17 May 2010, item 14)? Or when Yanukovych declares to the world that the Holodomor was not a genocide before changing the law that says the opposite? The use of language in public domains is not about to be legally codified in Ukraine. The battle is over the principle of making Ukrainian a language that counts in Ukraine. Leonid Kuchma understood the electoral imperative of identifying the state with Ukrainian within months of winning the presidency in 1994 (and after having campaigned on making Russian a second state language). It is puzzling that Yanukovych does not seem share this basic electoral truth.

Dominique Arel is Associate Professor of Political Science and titular of the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa.

On June 12 the leader of a sovereign state in Russia’s periphery reportedly requested Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and the US government to send troops to its territory to restore order. Both leaders –for the time being—have refused. Russia was eager to intervene back in August of 2008 when it fought a war against Georgia over two breakaway republics, under the pretext of humanitarianism. Likewise, the US and NATO intervened in Serbia under the rationale of preventing human suffering in Kosovo. Why did the two governments refuse to intervene in Kyrgyzstan even though it is experiencing a major humanitarian crisis?  The short answer is that the geopolitical importance of Kyrgyzstan to Russia and the US is much lower than in the previous cases of military intervention.  Yet the low stakes should also make cooperation in the troubled Central Asian nation easier.

Since the overthrow of the Kyrgyz regime on April 7, the new government has been unable to provide security throughout most of the country. As a result, the past two months, local clashes have broken out in several regions, sometimes along ethnic lines. Beginning June 11 deadly attacks perpetrated by ethnic Kyrgyz on minority Uzbeks broke out and violence  spread throughout the country’s southern half  in a matter of hours. According to the latest official reports, over several hundred have been killed, thousands are wounded and 400,000 have fled toward neighboring Uzbekistan.

The US and Russia both perceive limited strategic interests in Kyrgyzstan. Since 2001, the US has operated an airbase there, primarily for logistical support for Afghanistan. Russia also has a military base as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)–a regional security body of former Soviet states. Both powers have thus far turned down the Kyrgyz government’s request to intervene.Russia has stated that it will only send troops if the CSTO agrees on such an action. Contrast this with the rapid Russian intervention in the Georgian crisis.

What is different this time around? Besides safeguarding their military bases, the two powers perceive little at stake in Kyrgyzstan. The country is impoverished, possesses no oil or gas, it does not border Russia, and has no known al-Qaeda presence.  Unlike Georgia, Kyrgyzstan has never been under consideration for NATO membership and is therefore not at risk of exiting Russia’s “sphere of influence.”

Kyrgyzstan’s low geopolitical value has left it in the lurch. The US and Russia have proved willing to intervene –even when uninvited– for “humanitarian” purposes if there is a strategic interest involved. This is illustrated by the military interventions in Serbia and Georgia. However, a clear-cut case of humanitarian crisis occurring under the nose of 1,000 American troops can easily be ignored.

If the two great powers of the region are unwilling to intervene, other states may take matters into their own hands, to the detriment of all. Thus far, the government of Uzbekistan has not threatened any military action to protect its co-ethnics, despite having the most powerful military in the region. Uzbekistan has always prioritized internal stability above all else. Its lack of initiative should not be surprising—countries do not always act to protect their co-ethnics.

However, as residents of Uzbekistan witness the incoming throngs of beleaguered fellow Uzbeks and hear their stories, they are likely to put pressure on their government to rescue those (primarily men) who stayed behind.  The Uzbek government may then have to choose between suppressing its own people and invading its neighbor.

Kyrgyzstan’s only hope lies in a peacekeeping force from outside the region that can stop the violence and protect vulnerable populations.  Fortunately, US-Russian relations have been “reset” since Obama became president and mistrust has been replaced by engagement on a number of issues. Given that Kyrgyzstan is not a geopolitical flashpoint and both powers have an interest in preventing an escalation of the conflict, the two should be able to cooperate with minimal friction to address the crisis.  The alternative is more instability that may irreparably change the character of the region.   The US and Russia should answer Kyrgyzstan’s call for help.

Harris Mylonas, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at The Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University and Scott Radnitz, Assistant Professor of International Studies, University of Washington.  Radnitz’s book, Weapons of the Wealthy: Predatory Regimes and Elite-led Protests in Central Asia, is forthcoming from Cornell University Press in December 2010. (A version of this piece first appeared on Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review on June 23, 2010).

As the death toll rose from Kyrgyzstan’s violence, a refugee crisis loomed, and the humanitarian conditions worsened, leaders in Kyrgyzstan’s interim government requested Russian peacekeeping troops. Some Russian soldiers manned a military base in the country, although that base is in the north of the country, far from the Ferghana Valley.  Yet the Russians demurred.

The Russian decision to intervene seems contrary to previous policy decisions taken alongside humanitarian rhetoric, namely the 2008 invasion of Georgia to aid the Ossetian population of the South Ossetian breakaway region, after Georgian troops moved in to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinval(i). Citing Georgian genocide against the Ossetian population, although the Georgian government and several observers argued the Russians were more politically motivated than humanitarian. For some current analysts, Russian interest in a humanitarian policy is further exposed by her lack of action in Kyrgyzstan.  Commenting for the New York Times, Fiona Hill linked the Georgian and the Kyrgyzstan cases and Russian action: “One would imagine this kind of self-declaration also comes with responsibility. They can declare their interests and the right to intervene at the time they choose, but when people ask them to intervene they are much more reluctant.”

Other observers, like Brian Whitmore in his RFE/RL feature story and op-ed, ponder a new Russian strategy of restraint — motivated perhaps by a renewed interest in multilateralism (regional multilateralism in the form of the Collective Security Treaty Organization) and the Obama-Russia reset. Whitmore is careful to juxtapose the Georgian experience and note that it is far too early to tell whether the inaction in Kyrgyzstan represents any real policy change.

To my mind, I’m not troubled about the seeming Russian hypocrisy in its lack of action in Kyrgyzstan. Large powers cannot possibly intervene for every humanitarian crisis. (Although I do concede that the Russian inaction is troubling to me personally, since I do think major powers should attempt to prioritize humanitarian concerns when they can.) As a regional power, Russia’s costs in intervention in Kyrgyzstan would have been lower than the costs of the Georgian invasion. Yet the political interest of Russia in Georgia’s fragmentation speaks a great deal to its Black Sea geopolitical interests, its rivalry with the West, its oil politics, and the desire to protect the interests of Russian citizens, as the Abkhazian and Ossetian populations in the secessionist regions had largely become.

But it’s hard to see any sort of political advantage for the Russians to act militarily in Osh and accept the costs and uncertainty that military intervention necessarily bring. The Russians had gained with the upheaval in April and the overthrow of Bakiev. The Russians would like to see the U.S. military base removed from the north, but the current Ferghana violence does not speak to any U.S.-Russian rivalry. It seems now that the Ferghana violence is ebbing. If the worse is indeed over, perhaps it’s wise that the Russians did not escalate the fog of war.

(Hat tip to Laura Adams)

Julia A. George is an assistant professor of political science at Queens College, CUNY.