Review: The Geography of Ethnic Violence by Monica Duffy Toft

The Geography of Ethnic Violence by Monica Duffy ToftThere is no rest for the weary. While I may be on break from classes, my reading and research does not take a vacation.

In an effort to further develop my knowledge of the existing literature on conceptions of territoriality, I just read Monica Duffy Toft’s The Geography of Ethnic Violence. Originally, I purchased this book for a course last quarter on War and State Development with William Reno. Unfortunately things got so busy that we did not end up reading it as a class. It has sat lonely on my bookshelf since.

Now that I have finally had an opportunity to read it, I wish I had gotten around to it earlier! From a methodological standpoint, Toft lays out a clear and readily intelligible research design of which I am quite envious. Indeed, had I read this book before writing my own research design for my International Security course, my final product would have looked substantially different (and better organized). Her book is well worth the read if only as a model of how a research program can be effectively structured.

But what of the argument itself? Toft’s basic premise is that established approaches, namely materialist, ancient hatreds, security dilemma, and elite manipulation theses, fail to comprehend the critical role of perceptions of territory in the outbreak of ethnic violence. Constructing a theory of “territorial indivisibility”, she contends that the character of conflict as well as the likelihood of violence is largely determined by settlement patterns within the given territory, the different meanings of the territory held by the actors in question, and how these perceptions of contending parties conflict and interact in a bargaining environment.

Employing first a relatively large-n analysis and then focusing on four cases contained within the former Soviet Union, that is relations between Russia and Tartarstan, Russia and Chechnya, Georgia and Abkhazia, and Georgia and Ajaria, she comes to a straightforward conclusion: Violence is likely where the ethnic minority in question demands sovereignty over the territory and the state sees the territory as indivisible from the rest of its territory. Where one party is willing to compromise these principles, violence can generally be avoided.

While there is nothing surprising about this conclusion, what is informative are the conditions she specifies under which the parties in question are willing to negotiate. In terms of ethnic minorities, she believes the motivation to attempt violent secession is directly related to the settlement patterns of the population in question varying from concentrated majorities, concentrated minorities, urban groups, to dispersed groups. Their capability to fight and the legitimacy of their cause is assumed to be greatest to least ranging from the former condition to the latter. Where minorities are most concentrated, their claims to “homeland” are arguably more legitimate and their capability to fight is enhanced by their concentration. Thus they view territory as indivisible. States, on the other hand, are seen as primarily concerned with precedent setting, that is if allowing secession or broad autonomy of one region is likely to spark similar demands in others. It would seem in her account that multinational states are likely to be more concerned about and intractable in response to secession attempts than bi-national states. While Toft allows for the caveats of Kosovo and Jerusalem as cases where more than one ethnicity may claim the same territory as a homeland, in her cases of interest territorial indivisibility for the state would appear not to be determined by claims similar to those of ethnic minorities.  Indivisibility is seen as a product of a concern with survival, either for the state or the minority group.

There are several issues with this work, however. While Toft is clearly concerned with how perceptions of homeland shape the territorial claims of concentrated ethnic minorities, she spends little time to clearly define the origin of the borders of these territories or how these particular demarcated spaces came to be seen by the minorities in question as the extent of their homelands. For instance, in the case of Tartarstan, she points out that the political elite of the Soviet Union took great pains to draw the borders of the Soviet Republic of Tartarstan such that it subdivided the Tartar population across administrative boundaries and made them a minority in their own “homeland”. Moreover, when the USSR began to crumble, it would seem that the most powerful claims to Tartar sovereignty were made by a secular ethnically-agnostic population who treated Tartar largely as a provincial label rather than as a badge of national identity. While this speaks to the decreased capability and legitimacy of urban or dispersed groups to make sustained ethnic sovereignty claims, it also leads one to question the appropriateness of ethnic homeland logic (particularly when juxtaposed to the Chechen case). The cases of Abkhazia and Ajaria within Georgia are even more confusing in this regard as both regions have their own separate governing institutions including legislatures and supreme judicial bodies which would appear to be holdovers from the Soviet era. Yet if these regions were Soviet republics in their own right before Georgian independence, it is never clear either what the borders of these republics were nor why they became part of Georgia. This is not even demarcated on the map provided at the beginning of the fifth chapter despite the obvious importance of understanding the location and borders of the cases in question.

This failure to specify the origins and precise borders of homeland claims is particularly surprising given the relatively large post-Soviet literature examining emergent ethnic nationalism in the successor republics. Indeed, theorists such as Rogers Brubaker have been unmistakably clear in arguing that many of the “national” identities which exist in these republics are the product of the Soviet federal system which assigned particular territories to particular ethnic titles while actively avoiding perfect correspondence with ethnic populations. The effect was to construct new national identities while disempowering previously salient ethnic communities which allowed for easier regional manipulation and control by Moscow (For a more detailed description, see Nationalism Reframed by Rogers Brubaker). This account is certainly consistent with Toft’s treatment of the Tartar case. While her historical narrative accounts of the particular national identities in question is clearly important to establish her claims, it does not make clear why these identities and why these borders are the pivotal ones. To do so, she would need an institutionalist account like Brubaker’s, a narrative which specifically engages the ethnohistorical sources of homeland, or an account of international normative pressures to preserve territorial integrity in the post-WWII era. Absent these specifications, one is left to wonder why all territory within (I presume) old Soviet borders can be taken as indivisible while those outside are either negotiable or excluded from the framework as with Dagestan vis-a-vis Chechnya. One must also question why, beyond the notion of fait accompli, the territory populated and administered largely by the minority in question must be indivisible if not all territory within its borders in fact make up the homeland. Indeed, if Soviet borders were drawn to split ethnic populations rather than unite them in single territories, it would stand to reason that the successor states in question would contain territories that could not be seen as wholly their own historic “homeland.”

A final point for critical examination is Toft’s policy implications. She identifies three which are in actuality a single point. Ethnic conflict over territory where homeland claims are involved can be quite intractable and, in the absence of minority concessions as in Tartarstan and Ajaria, are only resolvable where the host state either forcibly resettles the minority population in question, an option generally seen as morally unthinkable, or accepts the “long-term solution” of acceding to minority demands where the population has the capability to engage in sustained insurgency. If we can assume that concessions by minority populations occur where secessionist threats are largely non-credible, as Toft’s analysis would seem to indicate, the corresponding logic applied to credible threats is simply the conventional international diplomatic response to secessionist violence: “Give them a state!” Logistical implications and international ramifications aside, such an outcome only makes sense in Toft’s framework where the ethnic minority in question has a homeland claim but the host state does not. Russia can make no legitimate ethnohistorical claim to Chechnya while Chechens can. Therefore, Chechens should have their own state.

But what about Abkhazia? Both Abkhazis and Georgians claim this territory as part of their homeland. De facto independence has been achieved by Abkhazia in large part due to Russian military intervention (ironically not unlike Kosovo under European administration) yet Georgia is unwilling to let go. Is it fair to demand of Georgia to compromise on its vision of homeland because another ethnic minority makes a competing claim? What about the Abkhazi claim is inherently more worthy of fulfillment than the Georgian one? The simple argument is that while Abkhazis are demanding sovereignty over only Abkhazia, Georgians still have the rest of Georgia. One could argue then that this outcome or even formal independence could be sustainable assuming Abkhazis have no further claims within Georgia and the Georgian government is willing to compromise. To accept this argument at face value however is to a priori dismiss the legitimacy of Georgian claims and likely ensure that violence will remain on the horizon even with the achievement of formal independence. If a key policy implication of Toft’s work is that we must take homeland claims seriously, then one side’s homeland claims cannot take automatic precedence over another’s. If this is apparent in the Abkhazi case, it is similarly pressing in Serbia-Kosovo, Armenia-Nagorno Karabakh, and Israel-Yehudah and Shomron. In the latter case, the resolution suggested by Toft is even more problematic given that Palestinians claim the whole of Israel as their homeland and not simply those territories occupied since 1967. As such, granting of independence will likely silence neither Jewish nor Arab claims to the territory in question.

While Toft is correct to point to the continuing importance of territorial claims in generating and sustaining ethnic conflict, she ultimately does not uncover novel explanations for the intractability of ethnic conflict nor break from standard policy prescriptions for addressing violent self-determination movements by concentrated ethnic minorities. This does not mean, however, that there are not valuable points to be drawn from this work for deeper exploration. The question of homeland does indeed deserve great attention in examining the persistence of ethnic violence. Moreover, further research must be done to explain how the identities of the players in these conflicts shapes the nature and boundaries of these claims. Lastly, we must examine the international environment in which these conflicts occur with the knowledge both that external actors (as with the Russians in Abkhazia) may generate or perpetuate domestic ethnic violence and that international norms and expectations of the appropriate forms of peaceful settlement structure policy prescriptions. It is partially this basis from which I hope to begin my own research in earnest.

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2 Responses to Review: The Geography of Ethnic Violence by Monica Duffy Toft

  1. […] outstanding work Quasi-States.  I have also been able to write two book reviews, the first on Toft’s book and the second on R’Meir Kahane’s controversial work, They Must […]

  2. […] coupling this read with Monica Duffy Toft’s The Geography of Ethnic Violence (see my review here) and perhaps sections of Rogers Brubaker’s Nationalism […]

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