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Identity Politics of Secession & Stability

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Conflict Resolution Institute

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scott feinstein, 2017

The past decade has been marked by the return of frosty US-Russian relations. Much to the alarm of historians, peace activists, and conflict resolvers, the politicians of both hemispheres have heightened rhetoric around nationalism, security, and superpower rifts, while escalating involvement in key defense regions like Syria and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, identity politics have returned to the forefront, buoyed by cult-personas and right-wing ethnocentrism. And in this oppositional relationship, dissent spills over into less stable states, as seen in the perpetuation of ethnic conflict throughout the Levant, Eurasia, and Central Asia.

At such a time, it is no surprise that student interest in the region piques. Fortunately, this spring CRI hosted Dr. Scott Feinstein as a visiting postdoctoral fellow. Feinstein is an emerging regional expert, having recently defended his Ph.D. dissertation on the subject of ethnic mobilization in post-Soviet states. He has written and taught on Eastern European and Russian politics, ethnic mobilization, and secessionist movement. Following his undergraduate studies and work in Congress, Feinstein served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a Romanian-Moldovan community. There he became interested in the ethnic and political dynamics of post-Soviet spaces, an interest that he carried with him into his post-graduate studies. He has since had his research supported throughout the region by Fulbright, IREX, FLAS, and the Councils of Learned Societies.

On April 20th, the Conflict Resolution Institute and the Sie Institute for Security and Diplomacy cohosted Scott Feinstein for a talk on how and why conflicts in post-Soviet states did or did not erupt into violence. "Political collapse itself is an opportunity for ethnic groups to mobilize for power," Feinstein told the audience. On the screen behind him, a chart highlighted the effect of group coherence on the success of secession movements. Feinstein explored why some post-soviet states erupted in violence whereas others did not. He found that the underlying explanation seems to be group cohesion, as exemplified in his study of over 40 various ethnic conflicts in the former USSR.

Feinstein used several indicators to quantify cohesion, particularly discursive analysis of history and language. When an ethnic group is able to articulate a clearly defined history within an agreed-upon language, Feinstein defined it "high coherence." For example, Russians have clearly defined ideas of a proper accent, linguistic and historical origins, and national literature. In contrast, when an ethnic group is unable to articulate a clearly defined history and cannot agree upon a language that suits their identity, Feinstein defined it "low coherence." Feinstein noted Moldovans, Russian Tatars, and Gagauz as examples. The Moldovan people contested language, alphabet, and even what constituted archaic vocabulary following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Different national authors portray Romanian, Moldovan, or Russian as the true linguistic identity of Moldovan people. Ultimately, Feinstein found that high coherence groups are capable of successfully mobilizing for secession, while low coherence group efforts shatter under internal pressure and dissent.

Dr. Feinstein will be joining the faculty of Iowa State University in the fall.

~ Emily Zmak, MA '18