"All the new nations faced severe problems, for political independence did not automatically bring them prosperity and happiness...they were seldom free of external influences. They were still bound to...structures developed earlier by the colonial powers." --Thomas H. Greer. From A Brief History of the Western World, 5th edition. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1987, p. 536-37.
Around the world today, intractable conflict is found in many areas that were once colonized or controlled by Western European or Soviet powers (i.e., Africa, the Balkans, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America). The source of many of these protracted conflicts, in large part, lies in past colonial or Soviet policies, and especially those regarding territorial boundaries, the treatment of indigenous populations, the privileging of some groups over others, the uneven distribution of wealth, local governmental infrastructures, and the formation of non-democratic or non-participatory governmental systems. It is therefore essential, if one wants to understand intractable conflict and its causes, to examine not only the issues and problems of the moment, but also influential historical factors -- most notably, past colonial and Soviet policies -- and their lingering effects.
Colonial and Soviet Expansionism
Western colonial expansion began during the 15th century when Spanish and Portuguese explorers conquered "new" lands in the West Indies and the Americas. It continued for over 400 years, and ended with the start of the first World War. By that time western powers such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Portugal and Spain, spurred on by their competitive desire to acquire new lands and resources, had colonized the whole of Africa and the areas that we know today as the Americas, Oceania, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and many parts of Asia.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) likewise embarked on an expansionist period that took place during the first half of the 20th century. By mid-century, due to lands gained through an aggressive expansionist policy and through post-World War II treaties, the Soviet Empire gained control of all of Russia and most of Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
Onaje Mu'id, MSW and CASAC (Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor) with the Practioners Research and Scholarship Institute (PRASI), describes the need for some sort of reconciliation amongst the nations or races of the world, but the question relates to ripeness.
During these periods of expansion, Western European and Soviet powers formed new colonial multiethnic provinces (e.g., Rhodesia, French Indonesia, German East Africa) and satellite states (e.g., Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia). They did so with little regard for the people living in the newly controlled areas, or for existing geographic or cultural boundaries. Populations that had previously identified themselves as distinct, based on their cultural, ethnic, and/or religious heritage, were forced to unify under a single national identity. The new multiethnic colonial territories and Soviet states were maintained, upheld, and controlled through the use of violence, and through the implementation of imperialist policies. Certain populations were denied their political, economic, social, and human rights. Imperialist policies promoted ethnic rivalry by favoring one group above the others, distributed resources in an unequal manner, disallowed democratic governments, and prohibited local participation in governmental decisions and actions.
Issues Affecting Postcolonial and Post-Soviet States
By the 1960s, after years of fighting for independence, most Western colonial territories (e.g., India, Indonesia, Algeria) had gained self-rule. Sovereignty, however, did not bring with it freedom from imperialist influences. Colonial legacies were visible in the desire of the new governments to keep the boundaries that were created during colonial times, in the promotion of ethnic rivalry, in the continuation of inhumane and unjust actions against minority populations, and in the practice of distributing the country's resources in an uneven manner. Also, after being under foreign rule for decades, newly independent governments often lacked governmental institutions, good governance skills, and the governing experience needed to effectively rule their newly sovereign nations. In most cases, the transition from colonial province to independent state was a violent and arduous journey.
Many post-Soviet states (e.g., Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Georgia) experienced similar problems. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, conflicts involving borders, ethnic rivalry, human-rights violations, and the uneven distribution of resources raged through former Soviet regions (e.g., the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe). In addition, many post-Soviet governments were plagued by a lack of governmental institutions, good governance skills, and governmental experience.
Issues of particular importance included:
"Over a hundred new nations were born during the process of de-colonization. Most of these new nations, however, ... had not existed at all as nations before colonization, or they had not existed within the post-colonial borders."
Most colonial and Soviet satellite borders were created either through conquest, negotiation between empires, or simply by administrative action, with little or no regard for the social realities of those living in the areas. Nevertheless, many of the leaders and governments of postcolonial and post-Soviet states have fought to keep the territorial boundaries created by past imperialist governments. As a result, a number of boundary conflicts have arisen within post-colonial and post-Soviet territories. Parties to these conflicts justify and legitimate their side's position, using different historical boundaries as evidence for their claims. For example, the Libya-Chad conflict involves a dispute over 114,000 square kilometers of territory, known as the Aouzou Strip. Libya justifies its claims to this territory based on ancient historical boundaries, while Chad justifies its stance based on boundaries established during the colonial period.
Onaje Mu'id, MSW and CASAC (Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor) with the Practioners Research and Scholarship Institute (PRASI), calls for a plebiscite to determine the relationship people of African descent should have with the USA.
Ethnic Rivalry/Group Status
Colonial and Soviet powers often created situations that encouraged ethnic rivalry. For example, when the Soviets took control of the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia, they created boundaries that separated members of the same ethnic group (i.e. the Tajiks) into different multiethnic regions. "This enabled the Soviet authorities to continuously be called upon by the people of the region to help them manage conflicts that were bound to emerge as a result of these artificial divisions." European and Soviet imperialists also sometimes favored one ethnic or religious group over other groups in the region. This practice of favoring one group, or of giving one group a higher status in colonial society, created and promoted inter-group rivalries.
The conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots has its roots in ethnic rivalry encouraged during British colonial rule. During this time, Turkish and Greek populations were often played against one another as a means of maintaining control on the island. For example, as Greek Cypriots pushed for self-rule, the British encouraged Turkish Cypriots to actively oppose them. By the time the British pulled out of Cyprus in 1960, they had helped cleave deep divisions between the Greek and Turkish populations. The new independent nation, equally ruled by Greeks and Turks, soon was embroiled in ethnic conflict. Greek Cypriots wanted the entire island to become part of Greece, while Turkish Cypriots wanted the northern part of the island to become an independent Turkish state. Consequently, hostilities between the two groups escalated to the point of violence. Decades later, ethnic rivalries that were encouraged during British rule, continue to impact the people of Cyprus as violence between Greeks and Turks continues to periodical erupt on the island state.
Unequal Distribution of Resources
The practice of favoring one ethnic, religious, racial, or other cultural group over others in colonial society, or of giving them a higher status, helped to promote inter-group rivalries, and often contributed to the unequal distribution of resources. Favored or privileged groups had access to, or control of, important resources that allowed them to enrich their members, at the expense of nonmembers. For example, under Soviet rule the elite of the northern province of Leninabad (now the province of Sugd in Tajikistan) were given almost exclusive access to governmental positions. As a result of their control of governmental policies, they sent a disproportionate share of the country's development and industry to this northern sector. The consequence of this action was that by 1992, over half of the country's wealth had been distributed to this one province.
Today, many post-colonial and post-Soviet states continue the practice of favoring one group over others, whether it be a minority European settler population (as in South Africa), a minority European alliance group (e.g., Lebanon, Syria, Rwanda, Burundi) or an internal ethnic group (e.g., India). As a result, we see numerous conflicts being caused in part, by dominant groups enacting and enforcing governmental, economic, political, and other social policies that distribute resources unequally among their nation's members.
Sri Lanka is an example of how the unequal distribution of wealth during colonial times, continues to affect ethnic relations today. Under colonial rule, Tamils, because of their higher rate of English-language skills, had easier access to higher education than did the Sinhalese. The better educated Tamil, thus dominated governmental and academic jobs, especially in the fields of medicine, science, and engineering. After independence, the Sinhalese majority implemented changes in the state's university admission policy that gave them an advantage in gaining access to higher education, specifically to science admissions. This policy resulted in a marked increase of Sinhalese working in the fields of medicine, science, and engineering, and a clear decline of Tamils. Today, as the admission policy to higher education is more equitable than in the past, the animosity created by first, colonial, and then post-colonial policies that promoted unequal access to education and thus, jobs, continues to breed distrust and conflict in the region.
Mohammed Abu-Nimer discusses the suspicion Muslims have about Northern and Western peacebuilders, which derives from colonization and occupation.
The status, privilege, and wealth of colonial and Soviet ruling populations were often maintained and upheld through the use of policies that violated the human rights of those living in the colonized areas. Unjust policies subjected colonized populations to the loss of their lands, resources, cultural or religious identities, and sometimes even their lives. Examples of these brutal policies include slavery (e.g., British-controlled West Indies), apartheid (e.g., South Africa), and mass murder (e.g., the Incas of Peru, Aborigines of Australia, Hungarians after the 1956 uprising).
Today, many post-colonial and post-Soviet governments have adopted unjust colonial practices and policies as a means to preserve their dominant status. Rights with regards to traditional lands, resources, and cultural language are denied to many populations, as groups that were marginalized under colonial occupation continue to be marginalized under postcolonial governments, most notably indigenous populations such as in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, the Ashaninka of Peru, and the indigenous peoples of West Papua. Human-rights violations, including horrific events of mass murder and genocide, can be found in postcolonial and post-Soviet states such as Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo, El Salvador, and South Africa.
Lack of Governmental Institutions, Skills, and Experience
For the most part, colonial and Soviet satellite societies were repressive and undemocratic in nature. Domestic governmental systems and structures were controlled and operated either from abroad or by a select domestic, privileged group. Consequently, when liberation came, these states lacked the internal structures, institutions, and 1egalitarian way of thinking needed to create good governance systems. The result is that many postcolonial and post-Soviet states, although independent, are still ruled by repressive and restrictive regimes. For example, Melber (2002) states, "(t)he social transformation processes in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa can at best be characterized as a transition from controlled change to changed control."
Intractable conflicts are found in many areas that were once colonized or controlled by Western European or Soviet powers such as Africa, the Balkans, and Southeast Asia. Most of these conflicts such as the one in Kashmir, Chechnya, and Cyprus are large and complex, and involve multiple issues ranging from human rights to good governance. Imperialist practices and policies, especially those concerning boundaries, ethnic rivalry, the uneven distribution of resources, human-rights violations, and lack of good governance can be found at the heart of protracted problems. For this reason, it is vital that those wishing to transform or resolve protracted conflict, acknowledge the past, and take into account the effects past imperialist policies continue to have on today's post-colonial and post-Soviet societies.