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Chapter 1 of "The Georgian - South Ossetian Conflict



1 Methodological Considerations and Formulation of the Problem

This thesis is the story of the so-called Georgian - South Ossetian ethno-nationalist conflict. In this thesis I will cast some theoretical light on the conflict, trying to reach an understanding of the specific features, roots and processes of the conflict. By the experienced conflict I will try to demystify and decipher the so commonly used an accepted notion of ethnic conflict.    

Among journalists but also some academics, the most conventional explanations for the ethnic conflicts that arose in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the communist regimes are the ones that can be called the "pot-lid-theories" or the "refrigerator-theories" (Sampson 1992, p.395, Brown 1993, p.5-6 and Suny 1993, p.3). The communist regimes, especially the Soviet Union, are said to have repressed national and ethnic sentiments and differences and frozen down national identity. The ethnic/national differences, grievances and/or conflicts that existed were repressed, and have now re-emerged, hence the metaphor of the pot-lid that has been lifted.

These explanations generally see communism as a parenthesis, something that has interrupted a natural historical course. In this light ethnic conflict is seen as something almost natural, logically diverted by differences and as something which was frozen down by communist repression. Now that communism, and with that repression, have ended and the lid removed, nature can evolve as it should, and the eternal historical hatred will be expressed freely.

In this explanation lies two main assumptions. One is that ethnic conflict is more or less natural, that when you have different ethnic groups in one setting conflict is inevitable. Hence that heterogeneous areas are unnatural. The multi-national states, such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, are in this light seen as artificial constructions. The homogeneous nation-state is generally seen as the natural state - as things should be. Hence the titles of numerous articles and books on the Balkans or the Caucasus using the words ethnic powderkeg, mosaic, or puzzle. The other assumption is that the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and especially the Soviet Union did not tolerate expression of national or ethnic identity and hence suppressed it and instead tried to create an artificial Homo Sovieticus. In this view the recent conflicts are seen as a reaction to this artificial situation. The nations and the ethnic groups are now moving towards the natural situation of one state - one nation.

1.1 The Problems of the Thesis

The overarching aim of the thesis will be to demystify and decipher the notion of ethnic conflict. Understanding specific features and processes of ethnic conflicts. The thesis will however be two-stringed in the way that it will consist of a theoretical and empirical understanding of ethnic conflict. The emphasis will be put on an understanding of the experienced Georgian - South Ossetian conflict. The theoretical part should thus be seen as developing concepts in order to shed some theoretical light on the experienced ethnic conflict. In the urge to understand the phenomenon of nationalism and ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as such I thus put strong emphasis on an understanding of the actual experienced conflict and this in its ‘Soviet context’.

The aim of this report is exactly to question the above mentioned conventional explanations for the rise of ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, using the experienced example of the Georgian - South Ossetian conflict. To try to question the inevitability of ethnic conflict and to show that national and ethnic identities are constructions in themselves. That nations and ethnic groups do not, with Benedict Anderson's words, loom out of an immemorial past. That we are dealing with a socio-political and cultural phenomenon rather than a nature given. And in fact that we are dealing with a phenomenon that is multidimensional and only be can fully grasped if analysed contextually. In this respect I will try to show that the policies of the Soviet Union played an active part in the developing of national and ethnic identities and furthermore elaborated a system, which was inherently conflictual in respect to these identities. That in fact one even might say that the Soviet political system nursed and cultivated ethnic/national differences and inherent conflictual structures and identities rather than putting a lid on them or freezing them down.

Furthermore it has been shown that wars defined as ethnic conflicts on an avarage have a significant longer duration than other types of war; that they are more vicious of nature and uncontrollable, and that more frequently than other forms of conflict, ethnic conflicts do not end by negotiated solutions but by outright military victory by either side (King 1997, p.13 and Scherrer 1997, p.42). The common explanations for this intractability and protracted nature of ethnic conflict are often ascribed to the uncontrollable irrational behaviour motivated by deeply rooted ancient hatreds and incompatible deeply felt values and identities of the belligerents in ethnic conflict (King 1997, p.13 and 52). An explanation not only found in journalistic writings but also in arguments by the so-called international community for not intervening in these kind of conflicts (Snyder 1993, p.79 and King 1997, p.26).

I shall look for alternative explanations to the nature of ethnic conflict. Looking specifically on the structure of conflict or armed conflict/warfare to be more precise; determining structural factors that can help explain the protracted nature and intractability of ethnic conflict in another light than the above mentioned explanations.

Summing up this thesis will be about the Georgian - South Ossetian conflict. A conflict with the label of an ethno-nationalist conflict. Determining what it is that makes this conflict an ethno-nationalist conflict. Looking specifically on theories of nationalism and ethnicity, the dynamics of armed ethnic intra-state conflict and on the specific roots and processes in the Georgian - South Ossetian conflict. But let us turn to some methodological considerations where I also will argue for the choice of theories and empirical material.

1.2 Methodological Considerations

The first theoretical part of this thesis, nationalism and ethnicity, is more an attempt to give an overview and an interpretation of the theoretical approaches to the phenomenon of nationalism and ethnicity, rather than lining up a couple of different theories and use them on the experienced conflict. In doing so I am aware of the fact that I may reduce the complexity of the different theories and thus a previous knowledge on the subject of nationalism may be required.

At the same time it should be mentioned that my purpose is not to give an exhaustive typology or genealogy of the theories of ethnicity and nationalism but rather to show that nationalism is a contested and heterogeneous phenomenon. Though extensive enough to serve the purpose of this thesis, not to say that ‘nationalism is really...’ but to show that nationalism can have several meanings, depending on space and time and is changeable depending on context and purpose. Therefore the purpose of this chapter should be seen as that of elaborating an applicable theoretical framework for the analysis.   

The second theoretical part of the thesis, the dynamics of armed ethnic intra-state conflicts, is an attempt to theorise on the more structural and inherent components of conflict as a counterweight to the more socio-political and cultural explanations of ethnic conflict, which should be given by the first theoretical part. To try and grasp the basic nature and extract the particularities of this kind of conflicts, but also to compare it to other forms of intra-state conflicts in order to demystify and decipher the notion of ethnic conflict.

The empirical part also consists of two parts. The first part will deal with the actual experienced ethnic conflict, the so-called Georgian - South Ossetian conflict. Here I will line up the actual course of events based on interviews, first hand experience and written material. This will in effect be an attempt expose and describe the circumstances in which this conflict evolved, but also at the same time to line up the different perceptions on behalf of the involved parties.

The second part will so to speak focus a level back and up, looking on the Soviet setting in which you also will have to analyse the conflict. As written above one of my hypotheses is that the Soviet Union by its intended policies played an active role in the developing of national and ethnic identities and furthermore elaborated a system, which was inherently conflictual in respect to these identities. In this chapter I will thus look on both Marxist-Leninist theory on the nationalities question and the principle of national self-determination on the one hand, and the actual way the system functioned in practice on the other hand. In this putting more emphasis on how the system was implemented on the ground rather than putting emphasis on the theoretical aspects and historical developments in these discussions. This of course with an emphasis on the experienced conflict. Hence the part on Marxist-Leninist theory will be least studied, the principle of national self-determination more and the actual implementation and functioning most.      

As mentioned above this thesis is a linking of theory on nationalism and conflict dynamics to the specific experienced conflict. Linking theory and empirical material is however not just something you do without further methodological considerations. Without entering the apparently never-ending discussion within social sciences on the relation between theory and empirical material I will still try to argue for my chosen method. 

The theoretical parts will first of all be a rewriting or reconstruction of the theories to a form that makes these applicable as steering-tools in the analysis of the empirical material. The aim of the project is not to confirm the existence of nationalism or its prominent role in the conflict, but to use theories on nationalism and internal conflict to shed some theoretical light on the conflict and to determine what role ethnicity and nationalism play in this conflict.

It is not a verification or falsification, of the theories I will make, which would be methodological inappropriate as you would, so to speak, operate within the realm of the theories themselves, and as the saying goes in Danish ‘som man råber i skoven får man svar’. But still it is to use the theories (or the rewritten theories) to shed an explaining and interpreting light on the conflict. In other words to use the theories to decipher the notion of ethnic conflict and in this way extract from the theories some analytical tools to be used in analysis of the phenomena and the case. But on the other hand also to look for the possibility of the empirical material to provide background for possible critique of the theoretical apparatus.   

The theoretical part on nationalism and ethnicity consists of an overview of the landscape of theories of nationalism, were I will try to reach my understanding of nationalism. Of course it has been impossible for me to get acquainted with all contributions to the theoretical debate on nationalism over the years. The chosen theorists represent what others and I call, the ‘modern classics’, and these theories are building on previous contributions and cover the vast part of the theoretical space. It should however, also be mentioned that I draw on additional theoretical material where I find it necessary.  

Although most of these theoreticians deal with the subject in order to seek and understand the historical roots of nationalism, they also describe the nature of nationalism and its conflictual aspects, which is the main focus of this project, and thus what I will focus on.

The first theoretical part is mainly based on more general theories of nationalism, namely Benedict Anderson "Imagined Communities", Eric J. Hobsbawm “Nations and Nationalism Since 1780”, Anthony D. Smith "National Identity", Ernest Gellner "Nations and Nationalism", and last but not least Paul R. Brass “Ethnicity and Nationalism” from 1991, who more specifically deals with ethnicity.

I have made use of the chosen theories because they say something about nationalism and ethnicity. But one could easily ask the question, why use theories about nationalism and ethnicity to shed light on an ethnic conflict, why not use theories on class struggle, modernisation, state theory, theories on international politics etc.?

On the one hand the point is exactly to look at ethnic conflict as a specific theoretical problem. One can choose to look at ethnic conflict or ethnic politics as just another form of politics where other theoretical approaches can be used to explain the phenomenon. But one can also choose, as I do, to look at ethnic conflict, or ethnic mobilisation, as a special form of politics, where exactly the culture, or more specifically ethnicity, functions as the mobilising basis. Then it is interesting to use theories on ethnicity and nationalism as something different from other more general theories of social sciences, which probably can explain a deal, but not the processes and dynamics in the conflicts, which are specific because they are articulated in ethnic terms. Here it is not a question of taking the arguments of the participants in ethnic conflicts for granted, but to accept that it leads to specific conflict patterns, which theories dealing exactly with nationalism can shed light on.

On the other hand I should also state that one of the aims of this thesis, as mentioned initially, is to demystify and decipher the notion of ethnic conflict. Therefore I have chosen to use theories of nationalism and ethnicity to so to speak play their ballgame in order to see what this framework offers. I exactly want to study the specifities of ethno-national conflict, demystifying and deciphering the ethno-national elements, and therefor I have to study ethnicity and nationalism.

At the same time I have felt the necessity of drawing on another theoretical approach. Besides making use of theories of nationalism I have decided to use theoretical work on what you could call the dynamics and nature of armed ethnic intra-state conflicts. This I have chosen to do not from the start but as I went deeper into the jungle of this study. This need appeared because of the fact that several questions surfaced as I went along. The question of what makes an ethnic conflict different from other internal conflicts and the questions of the possible presence of inherent structural factors in intra-state conflict situations that makes ethnic conflicts more protracted and severe. Hence looking at other explanations than culture and identity which is offered by the theories of nationalism. Trying to find something ‘rational’ or ‘logical’ in a seemingly or at least depicted irrational phenomenon.

The fact that there does not, to my knowledge, exist comprehensive theoretical works on this[1] have made this chapter a bit of a puzzle, taking bits and parts mainly from working papers, articles and journalistic writings. Comprehensive literature retrieval has made this chapter possible and hopefully not puzzle-like to read.

The main sources of this part is based on Charles King “Ending Civil Wars”, Michael Ignatieff “Blood and Belonging”, several working papers from the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute (COPRI), and literature from international relations theory and peace research theory that in a more indirect manner deals with intra-state/ethnic conflicts.

1.3 Method of Gathering Empirical Material

The second empirical part of this thesis - the Soviet Setting - is mainly written on a documentary style of method. Gathering information on the Soviet setting from books and articles written by scholars focused on the Soviet Union and its policies on the national question and not least area specialists of the region. Furthermore I have made use of Soviet and Georgian/South Ossetian empirical data on population figures and ethnic compositions in different arenas. This of course raises certain questions as to the validity of such empirical data, since some of it can be interpreted as biased.

First of all most, if not all, scholars dealing with the nationality question of the former Soviet Union agrees to the fact that the Soviet Union had fairly reliable census data at least when it comes to the recognised nationalities as the ones I am dealing with (see for example Gurr 1993, p.12-13). Secondly this data I shared and discussed with the parties and others on location, and found no mayor discrepancies or objections. 

This part of the thesis has on my part been carefully written, knowing that ethnic composition figures often are at the hart of the matter in ethnic conflict. Comparing and double-checking all statistical data where possible. Where this has not been possible or there has been a high danger of apparent biased data I have used it as an indication rather than as fixed and precise figures. However, I should also state that as I had most of the empirical data gathered when I was in the area I confronted the different parties with the data and found no mayor objections. At the same time I should also mention that ‘incorrect' statistical material is also of relevance since ethnic conflict is not necessarily about facts but more important about perceived ‘facts’.   

As for the first part of the empirical material, the actual conflict, it is first of all important to state that I was in Georgia to fulfil a certain job position not to do research on Georgia and the specific Georgian - South Ossetian conflict. This in itself laid down some restrictions on my other role as a student of ethnic conflict.  However I came to Georgia as well with the agenda to study ethnic conflict and my job created certain opportunities to study this conflict not as an observer but rather as a participant, as you must include international organisations and NGO’s on this side[2].

However in late 1995 I was asked by my organisation to write a small paper on the history and course of conflict (which is also the basis of these two sections in this thesis), to be published as background material for the international community (international organisations and embassies). This gave me a change to study the conflict a bit closer and to learn how sensitive it is put such events and perceptions of history down on paper. I made an effort not to present this as the objective truth, as this of cause is impossible, but as the perceptions of both the Georgian and South Ossetian side. This was one of the first times, if not the first, that the South Ossetians had their perspective on the history of the conflict presented on paper in English. This I state to emphasise that this, regardless of its obvious small scope, was a kind of pioneer work. Not only did I get the label of professor of history I also experienced how history change according to present circumstances as I on several occasions was asked to change certain previously stated “facts”.    

The restrictions and dangers of the position of an employee of a foreign NGO were that the conflicting parties of course could become more cautious as to how close they would let me in into their worlds so to speak, as I through this position became a small part of the overall political ‘game’. However, at the same time this got me into a position where I could operate with more ‘authority’ and generally they were very forthcoming. This has also something to do with the fact that very little international attention was directed towards the South Ossetian issue. In this way I had weekly meetings with senior officials and other administrative personnel through my job position. Arranging practical things like setting up meetings and conferences with South Ossetian participation, which of course led to more opportunities of informal talks on the overall issue of the Georgian - South Ossetian conflict.

I am making a clear distinction between my contact with the Georgians and South Ossetians because there was a clear difference in the way of having contact with them. First of all I lived in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, not in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. They all saw me as an outsider, a stranger, but at the same time the South Ossetians were conscious about the fact that I lived on ‘the other side’. The South Ossetian authorities would at first not let me stay for a period of time in South Ossetia as I requested. But as they got used to my organisation intentions and me they asked me to stay for a longer period of time, but unfortunately then I had run out of time to do so. Hence my freedom of movement was restricted in South Ossetia, it was simply not save to move around on your own without local ‘escort’ and the authorities preferred to control the situation. Therefore my contact was limited to official and semi-official persons, but on the other hand my work with youth organisations and journalists gave me a broader insight as well as the writing of the small paper.

In Georgia proper I had no such restrictions, I lived there, and made contact with all sorts of people, I felt the atmosphere of the place in a different way. Having said this it is important to note that I made good contacts and friendships on both sides. And in a way I got intimate in another way with the South Ossetians because of their isolated position, especially as I at a couple of occasions functioned as an ‘international escort’ to Georgia proper at meetings and conferences arranged by my organisation.

Writing this I have to say something about the way of getting close to the people of the Caucasus, Georgian or South Ossetian. I had plenty of official meetings and formal interview situations, but in Caucasus this is not the way of getting close to the heart of the matter. To get to the heart of the matter requires intimacy and in the Caucasus intimacy is inseparably connected to food and drinking.

You can read methodological books about how to do an interview or how to observe but in the Caucasus you must drink and eat your way to the core of the matter. If you don’t like Caucasian food or the smell and taste of Georgian wine, South Ossetian beer or vodka and its local variants then don’t bother doing research in the Caucasus. It can sound very unscientific on paper but I would not have been honest to my method and the ‘truth’ if I had not written this. On the other hand one could also see this as part of an anthropological method where it precisely is about being in the centre and not on the side line. Observing but also participating and thereby acquire the experience necessary to reflect and understand.

Of course I got a lot of information and empirical material from written sources from both sides and formal interviews, not to mention material written by other scholars. The point is however that I had been no where if I had not been there in the Caucasus, smelling the fresh air from the Caucasian Mountain Range, the gasoline in the streets of Tbilisi, listening to the personal stories told around ‘the Caucasian Table’ after having been ‘forced’ to eat a lot of food and drink a lot of alcohol. These were the situations were I began to see and understand the situation, this was the intimacy required, on the behalf of the involved parties, if they were to let me into their understanding, perceptions and views on the situation. This is part of my method, or maybe should I say their required condition for doing research in the region.

[1] Christian P. Scherrer states in a working paper from COPRI that this field is far from as advanced as for instance inter-state conflicts and this especially concerning ethnic intra-state conflicts (Scherrer 1997, p.4 and 34).

[2] This was however only one of the many tasks I had within the organisation. See in appendix 2 for a description of my work at the organisation.


Chapter 2