Successfully integrating diverse groups of citizens within a common national identity is one of the greatest challenges of modern international politics and state-building. In some previous eras, the main fault lines dividing citizens in many parts of the world revolved around social class.
However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union ethnic conflicts have again achieved salience. The Cold War decades limited the potential for such conflicts -- although some of the struggles associated with decolonisation movements offered portents of the potential for ethnicity to again serve as a primary flashpoint for violence and political hatred on the global stage. Three recent events highlight the politically incendiary role of ethnicity:
Kenyan elections. The December general election in Kenya was a bloody debacle, which returned President Mwai Kibaki to power through a victory of questionable legitimacy. Violence flared after Kibaki's main challenger, Raila Odinga, challenged the result. Under the surface of politically driven 'ethnic' clashes -- with Kalenjin, Luo and other militias attacking Kikiyu communities in diverse areas of western Kenya, leading to reprisals by Kikuyu militias there and in other parts of Kenya -- are longstanding grievances related to the distribution of land and the centralisation of political power. Politicians since independence, but in particular since the return to multiparty politics in the early 1990s, have exploited these grievances in ethnic terms. The violence, which left over 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, was not caused solely by the elections, which merely served as convenient cover for these political agendas.
Tibet. Riots by ethnic Tibetans in Lhasa and in other Tibetan areas exemplify how ethnic differences can complicate profoundly state and nation building. Chinese officials responsible for propaganda and state policy have long maintained that Tibetans are a well-integrated ethnic minority within China's social fabric. Yet most Tibetans see themselves as quite distinct from other Chinese; a small minority continue to seek independence on that basis within the geographic borders agreed during the Simla Convention of 1914. Significantly, economic development has apparently not diminished the desire among many Tibetans for ethnic self-determination. This tendency may be counter-intuitive, but it is not uncommon elsewhere in the world.
Tibet is an example of an ethnic conflict in which a defined ethnic group seeks real autonomy within (or independence from) a state with a dominant group that is capable of holding these desires in check. The Basques of Spain are a familiar instance. This often results in low-level conflict that may ensure for generations, absorbing considerable resources and political energy before any resolution is achieved.
Kosovo. The recent outbreak of violence in northern Kosovo exemplifies another strain of ethnic-based conflict. The Serb minority in Kosovo is refusing to accept the legitimacy of the self-declared government in Pristina or the authority of the ethnic Albanian-dominated police force. The UN and NATO are providing some security, but this cannot represent a stable, long-term solution. All Serbs, both in the province of Kosovo and in Serbia proper, believe that Kosovo is historically part of Serbia and see Western acquiescence in Pristina's unilateral declaration of independence as a violation of national sovereignty -- even though Albanians make up the vast majority of the population of the province, which used to enjoy autonomy under the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. Some Serbs hope to make northern Kosovo ungovernable from Pristina -- perhaps ultimately allowing Belgrade to hang on to this slice of territory.
Politics of ethnicity. These conflicts demonstrate several key features of ethnicity as a political phenomenon:
• Potential for violence. Ethnic distinctions can engender deep hatreds capable of expression in violence. Even in stable societies pernicious expressions of ethnic hatred are manifest, as for example in the persistence of sporadic acts of anti-Semitism in France. Many societies contain 'minorities at risk', or minority groups against whom violence may be suddenly and unexpectedly directed.
• Difficult to suppress. Ethnic identities and ambitions are deeply-rooted and very difficult to alter. A common perception of history maintains ethnic loyalties through traditions and beliefs -- both the positive or aspirational and the aggrieved -- across generations.