MINELRES: Fwd: Book: Politics and Ethnicity: A Comparative Study

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Mon Oct 15 19:20:27 2007


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Politics and Ethnicity: A Comparative Study
By Aidan Butler

Joseph Rudolph
Palgrave MacMillan (2006)

http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/?p=1072

In this work, Joseph Rudolph has managed to produce a book which is both
a rigorous scholarly analysis of the political importance of ethnicity
and to write an accessible and very readable account of the issue. This
is a pretty impressive trick to have pulled off, and a difficult one,
given the tendency of academia to reward impenetrable prose and overly
enthusiastic use of jargon.

The book, despite its modest size, is an immensely ambitious project. In
it, Professor Rudolph seeks to illustrate the continuing salience,
importance, and above all complexity of ethnicity as a political factor
across the world. The core of the book is a comparison of three states
taken as being representatives of what would once have been referred to
as the first, second and third worlds. The states examined are,
respectively, France, Czechoslovakia and Nigeria. He shows how ethnic
conflict and compromise, the essential stuff of ethnic politics, have
taken extremely different forms in the three different states. 

In France, historically, ethnic political conflict has been constituted
primarily by the demands of geographically outlying ethnic and
linguistic minorities for autonomy (Alsace and Brittany) or outright
independence (Corsica) from the political centre of the state. Since the
Second World War, this friction has been joined by a new one, at the
geographical heart of France, between the Christian/secular, French
majority and the largely Muslim, North African, immigrant population who
have arrived. The former conflict gave rise, primarily, to the rise of
regional political parties and interest groups, the latter has given
rise to the far-right National Front party.

In Czechoslovakia, the history of ethnic conflict has been far more
complex. Despite their very similar languages and cultures, the Czechs
and Slovaks were ruled over by two different powers: Austria and
Hungary, respectively, who collectively made up the extremely
multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian empire. Both the Czechs and Slovaks were,
essentially, treated as subject races. The borders for the new state of
Czechoslovakia were drawn up by victorious powers at the end of the
First World War and after a brief period of independence, the state was
absorbed into the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. The Velvet Revolution
of 1989, which saw the end of Soviet rule of Czechoslovakia was swiftly
followed by the Velvet Divorce of 1993, which saw the peaceful break-up
of the state into the Czech and Slovak Republics. Part of the reason why
Professor Rudolph chooses Czechoslovakia for examination (apart from the
fact that he has a great deal of personal experience and knowledge of
the region) is that the Velvet Divorce offers an almost uniquely
peaceful example of the political fragmentation of a state along ethnic
lines. He illustrates the contrast between the fragmentation of
Czechoslovakia and that of former Yugoslavia; which offers a refreshing
example showing how such a process can go well, instead of merely
dwelling on how badly things can go. This done, he is at pains to show
that the dissolution of Czechoslovakia was not simply a fairytale ending
for all of the ethnic groups in the area. He shows that the relative
ethnic homogeneity of the Czech Republic was only achieved by the
expulsion of over two millions Germans at the end of World War II. He
also highlights the ethnic discrimination faced by ethnic minorities
within the two states, especially those in Slovakia. He illustrates the
discrimination faced by Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarian population (who make
up around one tenth of the total population), the Roma population (who
make up around one twentieth) and the country’s (now miniscule) Jewish
population. 

In Nigeria, the problems of ethnic politics are far more extreme again.
Africa’s most populous country, with some 130 million inhabitants, is
home to over 200 tribes. The largest of these being the Hausa-Fulani,
the Yoruba and the Ibo, who together constitute around 70 per cent of
the state’s population. The state is also divided between the Muslim
North and the Christian/Animist South. There is also widespread
resentment amongst many other tribes towards the Ibo, who are perceived
to have enjoyed privileged status with under British colonial rule.
Added to this mix is the fact that the discovery of oil in some costal
areas of Nigeria has lead to separatist conflict in that region –
including the war for Biafran independence – as well as, often violent,
competition amongst the other tribes in the state to gain control of the
petrochemical wealth.

If there is one major criticism which could be made of Rudolph’s book,
it is that the ethnic political conflicts in the three states he has
chosen to compare face are so different that the book ends up as a
contrast of extremes, rather than a teasing out of common strands
linking his three principle subjects together. However, one need not
take this limitation as a criticism of the book. One could just as
easily take the view that in identifying the myriad different axes along
which ethnic political conflict operates across the world, the author is
doing good empirical social science. One might take the view that he
deserves praise for not attempting to distort the data to fit some neat,
simplified theory of his own as to how the political world works.

However, despite the fact that Rudolph declines to draw any grand,
over-arching conclusions about ethnic political conflict, he does
repeatedly draw the reader’s attention to a number of recurring factors
throughout the book.

One of the main things which he notes is that once an ethnic conflict
has become a politically salient issue it becomes an extremely difficult
feature of the political landscape to remove. This is not only because
people tend to perceive ethnicity as such a fundamental aspect of
themselves, as something one is born into and cannot escape. It is also
because once politicians and political movements whose power base is
founded upon ethnicity come to power, they have extremely powerful
incentives to keep ethnic conflict alive, so as to secure the
foundations of their power base.

If there is one central problem of ethnic politics which emerges from
this book, it is the frequent inadequacy of the state, as a political
entity, for dealing with an ethnically diverse population within its
borders. This is because the supporting ideology of the state,
nationalism, is based on the assumption that the nation-state is
primarily a political organisation of a particular nation, or ethnic
group, with enough of a shared history, culture, language and belief
system to justify their political unification under a single authority.
The problem which this study continually drives home to the reader, is
that actual states almost never match up to this simple ideal. The most
extreme example of this problem which Rudolph’s book offers is that of
Nigeria, the rulers of which inherited from the British a weak colonial
state apparatus the borders of which included in excess of 200 tribes or
nations. However, none of his other case studies match the nation-state
ideal either, with even the one that comes closest – the Czech Republic
– being only 93 per cent Czech. Indeed, many of the more horrifying
aspects of recent history have resulted from action by political
groupings to attempt to make the actual political world live fit this
ideal: as was the case, for example, in former Yugoslavia, where
attempts to create ethnically “pure”, geographically distinct,
nation-states, have resulted in brutal warfare and ethnic cleansing. 

Some corollaries to this problem, which Rudolph identifies, are the
extremely difficult political challenges facing nations without states:
in particular those who are thinly spread across a number of states. The
two such groups which he singles out for particular attention in the
book are the Jews and the Roma. In the particular case of Slovakia, he
argues that both groups historically occupied a kind of outsider status,
with the Jewish population disproportionately well represented in the
professions and in the administrative apparatus of the Hungarian
imperial authorities and the Roma occupying an opposite outsider role
near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, as itinerant horse dealers
and sellers of used clothing. In times of general discontent and unrest,
these groups constituted easy and vulnerable targets for the discontent
of the general populace. Rudolph deftly illustrates how this occurred
repeatedly from the time of these groups arrival in the region, through
the Austro-Hungarian, Nazi (when both Jews and Roma were targeted for
extermination by the occupying German forces, with the often willing
co-operation of the local Slovak majority) and Communist eras and
continues up to the present day. After reading his analysis, one gains a
greater understanding of the importance many Jewish people place in
having their own geographically defined, Jewish majority state, as a
political entity which can look after their interests throughout the
world. One further feels a great deal of pity for the Roma, who have
neither any state willing to represent their interests, nor the prospect
of getting such a state at any point in the foreseeable future.

Insofar as Rudolph sees any solution to the problem of nations
unrepresented by states, it comes in the form of international and
trans-national organisations – in particular the EU – which have the
potential to look beyond the interests of democratically dominant ethnic
groups. He shows that the cause of linguistic independence for minority
linguistic and ethnic groups in France has been aided by the EU; that
the peaceful break up of Czechoslovakia was enabled largely because the
of Czechs’ perception that they could gain EU membership more quickly
alone and by the perception that EU membership would reduce the
importance of state borders anyway. He also notes that the EU is the
only significant political force pushing for Roma rights across much of
Europe, although he repeatedly laments that the EU both could, and
should, be doing much more to help the people who make up around five
per cent of the Slovakian population as well as living in substantial
numbers across Europe as a whole.

In short, this is a wide-ranging, ambitious and illuminating book, from
which one can learn a great deal about variety and impact of ethnicity
as a political force of continuing importance across the
world.

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