A guest post by Lutz F. Krebs:
The “elite manipulation” school of thought is prominent in conflict research. Proponents such as Jack Snyder and Philip Gagnon argue that political leaders conjure up an outside threat when their hold on power is at risk. This “diversion” allows them to portray themselves as the defender of their people, thereby increasing their chances at the polls.
Of course, this outside threat is not a complete work of fiction. But as the name suggests, the public is manipulated into worrying about a subject that they did not consider relevant before. Gagnon’s detailed study of the Yugoslav break-up contains references to polls done in the late 1980s showing that the majority of Yugoslavs did not consider members of other ethnic groups to be a threat.
However, a re-examination of the evidence suggests that there may not be a diversion at all.
Sticking with the Yugoslav case, Slobodan Milosevic rose to power by invoking Serbian nationalism in opposition to Kosovo-Albanians. But by the time Milosevic gave his first public speech on the subject, the conflict between Serbian and Albanian inhabitants of the Kosovo region had been acutely ongoing for years (and even longer at a lower intensity). According to official figures, tens of thousands of Kosovo-Serbs had emigrated from the province over the period of several years because they did not feel safe. Addressing and campaigning on a pre-existing safety worry of your constituents seems an ordinary tactic for politicians, not manipulation – even if it does further the career of the politician in question.
In fact, structural forces inherent to the situation may contribute to the conflict risk, particularly during democratization periods, which have been shown to face a higher risk of civil-war onset. Inhabitants of ethnically heterogeneous countries undergoing democratization will need to consider their safety worries. Moving towards “rule by the people” requires a definition of the people, and if the population has concrete reason to fear the behavior of others, they may prefer that the demos equal the ethnos. The population will then support ethno-nationalist candidates, but the origin of the process is not a top-down manipulation.
One thing is clear: the combination of ongoing democratization, pressure on incumbent leaders and a history of political exclusion along ethnic lines is an explosive mix. The figure shows that the risk of civil-war onset is much higher in the presence of these factors compared to their absence, and that this is not significantly dependent on the time since the last civil war.
While the combination of factors seems clear, the causal argument that places the blame squarely with political leaders may need to be re-examined in favor of a theory that takes both individual responsibility and structural forces into account.