The grim news from Kyrgyzstan continues to roll in. Hundreds and possibly thousands are dead; up to 400,000, half the Uzbek population in Krygyzstan, have been driven from their homes; like so many millions of victims of ethnic violence before them, they are frightened, terrified, suddenly destitute, separated from loved ones whose fates they do not know, and living in improvised camps. Women have been raped, children mutilated, homes burned and neighbor has turned on neighbor in an orgy of violence.
It is, in other words, another day on Planet Earth. The international community is wringing its hands from a great distance; nearby countries and local warlords are scheming to make the most of the situation; evidence accumulates that dark political forces may have planned the massacre in cold blood.
Modern history is littered with tragedies like this, many much larger and even more violent than the horror in Osh, the city in southern Kyrgyzstan where the worst of the violence took place. Each act of violence, each rape, each murder, each act of pillage and arson is an incomprehensible horror, but the last two centuries have been piled high with atrocities — like the skulls of their victims that the Mongols once heaped into ghastly pyramids outside the cities they sacked. Darfur, Chechnya, Rwanda, Bosnia, the gassing of the Iraqi Kurds: and that is only taking us back to the Clinton administration. The ethnic and ethnically-tinged religious massacres and ‘cleansings’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe and the Middle East alone are too numerous to list.
Ethnic Uzbeks fleeing violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, wait in a border village, hoping to enter Uzbekistan (courtesy of United Nations).
We still do not know much about the events in Kyrgyzstan, but from what we can see this looks like a typical modern horror story. The decay of a vast and multilingual empire leads to vicious ethnic conflicts as national groups attempt to build states: the old German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman Empires dissolved into the same kind of murder, chaos and ethnic cleansing that we have seen in the wake of the USSR’s collapse. There is probably much more to come in central Asia, and Africa, where the collapse of the old colonial empires has covered the continent with weak multiethnic states which may have decades of murder and war in the future.
So far, globally, the replacement of the old empires with nation-states has been responsible for tens of millions of deaths and created tens of millions more refugees. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the consequences (the 400,000 refugees created this week in Kyrgyzstan are roughly half of the total Palestinian refugees created in the Israeli War of Independence); so is the ‘frozen conflict’ in Cyprus and the genocidal wars and ethnic cleansing between Greeks and Turks earlier in the twentieth century. The Holocaust, the expulsion of more than ten million Germans from their ancestral homes in central and eastern Europe after World War II, repeated massacres of the Kurds, Armenians and other ethnic minorities in the Middle East: all these are related to the violence that exploded in Osh in the last few days.
Americans, eternally optimistic and sheltered from the worst of these storms by our own relatively happy history, tend to think that these conflicts rise out of failures to modernize — the failure of ‘backward’ people to get with the program of capitalist development, free trade and liberal political ideals. Actually, outbreaks of vicious ethnic violence that verges on or crosses over into genocide is more a sign that modernization is taking place.
In most pre-modern societies, the role of the state is small. Peasants live on the land, speaking one language. The landlords who rule them often speak another; the merchants and guildspeople of the towns often have still other languages and religious customs. Like Greeks, Armenians and Jews in pre-Nasser Alexandria, like Germans and Poles and Jews in Lithuania, like the throngs of groups represented in imperial capitals like Vienna and Constantinople, these ‘foreign’ groups have important economic roles to play and live, usually fairly peacefully, side-by-side. In the Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of what we think of today as the Middle East plus the Balkans, the many ethnic minorities were organized under the ‘millet’ system, with each group under its own communal laws overseen by its own officials and religious authorities. It was a little bit like the caste system in India: people with different languages, customs and hereditary economic roles lived side by side in societies that in many ways were unjust and hierarchical, but in others reflected long established and generally accepted patterns of co-existence.
With modernization, that old system doesn’t work. The modernization of agriculture drives peasants off the land: machines reduce the need for manual labor in farming and large landholders find it more efficient to farm on a large scale with modern equipment than to rent their land out to large numbers of inefficient tenant farmers at low rents. The displaced peasants flood into the cities, upsetting the old ethnic and economic balances there. The government also becomes more important in daily life. Seemingly lesser national decision are, in fact, terribly important and complicated: For example, if public schools are established, what language(s) will they use? The choice of language for basic instruction not only determines whose kids get the best grades and the best start in life; it determines which groups get jobs as public school teachers. If the schools in Bohemia teach in German, the Czechs are marginalized. Similarly, integration into the global economic system was hardly the sole reason the Kagame government chose to make English the official language of Rwanda, dropping French.
Ditto the civil service. What languages are bureaucrats expected to use in their official dealings? This isn’t just about civil service jobs. It’s about which ethnic groups will have sympathetic ears in government, whose relatives will make decisions about where government investments are made, who gets the contracts and so forth.
As modern commercial life spreads, the old system of every community living under its own laws also breaks down. Person A might be Kyrgyz and person B might be Uzbek; whose laws and customs will be used to settle disputes between them, and which ethnic group will produce the judges who administer the laws?
Unfortunately for the peace of the world, intellectuals tend to care deeply about these issues. It is the Czech intellectuals who want to drive the German-speakers out of the civil service jobs, teaching positions and other learned professions. But nationalism doesn’t feel to nationalists like a selfish passion in most of these cases. The passionate nationalist demanding ‘justice’ for fellow group members is also and often primarily thinking of the poor displaced farmers, exploited and oppressed by ‘foreign’ landlords in the country, and wretchedly exploited in the city. Nationalism is an idealistic program of uplifting the poor — that just happens to create large economic and political opportunities for intellectuals who espouse it.
Each quarrel, each pogrom, each murderous outbreak of ethnic violence is unique, but most of them seem to be rooted in patterns like these. It can happen where the groups share a religious background — as between Muslim Uzbeks and Kyrgyz; it is often even more bitter and intense when the groups have different religions — as between Orthodox Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks, or Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs.
Over the last couple of centuries, this process of rising in-group loyalty and ethnic conflict and displacement (often called ‘national awakening’) has been spreading around the world. Today we see it in Central Asia and in many places in Africa (where it is often called ‘tribalism’). There is much more of it to come. The violence may even grow: the internet allows the rapid development and dissemination of intense group cultures based on paranoiac readings of the ‘Other’, and modern weapons and means of communication allows violent movements to grow and act more quickly than in former times, and to use more destructive weapons when they do. The Hutu massacre of Rwandan Tutsis was a kind of intermediate phenomenon: radio allowed the genocidaires to act quickly, but lacking better weapons they were thrown back on machetes.
The tragedy of modern life seems to lie in the fact that we cannot live with nationalism and we cannot live without it. The deep loyalties and affinities we fell towards those who speak our language and share our customs and our historical memories provides much of the social capital that allows modern society to develop and grow. On the other hand, the conflicts between national and ethnic groups must be overcome if we are to have any hope of peace. In the twentieth century, communism stood for the idea of a world society that domesticated and suppressed ethnicity in the interests of a single cosmopolitan order. Fascism stood for the idea of the unlimited assertion of the power and dignity of particular national groups. Neither worked very well, but the moral problem that gave birth to both visions of the world is still with us, still unsolved.
The ethnic conflicts now ripping through the old Soviet empire (think Georgia, Chechnya and the Caucasus, Central Asia) and its neighbors like Afghanistan have caused more than one war since 1990 and their destructive course still has a ways to run. The rapes, the murders, the pillage continues; the refugees turn to the ‘world community’ for help. Fortunately, after centuries of escalating slaughters, we have gotten a little better at the relief part. The Uzbek refugees are likely to get more help, and get it faster than the Armenians, Bulgarians, Turks, Jews, Greeks, Germans, Palestinians, Kurds, Poles and so many others who have suffered this kind of fate in the not so distant past.
Perhaps that is progress.