Understanding Violent Separatism: Institutions, Identities and International Intervention

Hamilton, Robert, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lynch, Allen, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Walsh, Denise, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Owen, John, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Geraci, Robert, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the phenomenon of violent separatism, asking why it is that – in periods of political transition – some groups mount violent separatist movements against the center, while others do not. Although my research interest in this question stems primarily from the experiences of the post-Soviet states, the phenomenon of violent separatism in the context of political transition has far broader applicability, as the experience of the Arab Spring movements demonstrates.

In this dissertation, I argue that where there is a high level of institutionalized identity-division within a state, the process of political transition is likely to be accompanied by high levels of mobilization and escalation along this identity-division. Where mobilization and escalation take place, the geopolitical affiliation of the state is a key determinant of its fate. Those states seen by external actors as belonging to the West are offered assistance by friendly states and international organizations; this assistance is intended to prevent the development of a violent separatist movement. Those states not seen as Western are often targeted for military intervention. This intervention is designed to achieve the goals of the intervening state, and often involves enabling the development of a violent separatist movement and supporting its military campaign. Thus, the potential for the development of a violent separatist movement during periods of political transition is seen as a function of institutions, identities and international intervention.

The four cases examined in this dissertation come from the post-Soviet states of Georgia, Moldova and Estonia. I use theory-oriented process tracing to examine these cases, allowing me to rigorously trace the causal process between my independent variable – the level of institutionalized identity division – and my dependent variable – the level of violent separatism. My research included two years of residence in the country of Georgia as well as field research there and in Moldova and Estonia. The cases and the methodology selected allow me to rule out other causal variables for internal war often advanced in the literature, including political autonomy, poverty, rough terrain and “lootable” natural resources.

This dissertation and its findings should help shed light on an important problem, which is of interest to both scholars and policy-makers. Violent separatism is a form of internal war, and internal wars account for a large and growing portion of those wars that occur in the 21st century. Research has shown that internal wars last longer and produce more casualties than interstate wars; they also have a tendency to spill over borders into neighboring states, spreading instability and violence. Among internal wars in the post-Cold War period, the post-Soviet wars are understudied, despite the fact that – as the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 war in Ukraine demonstrate – they are far from concluded. My goals in this dissertation were to advance a generalizable theory for violent separatism that will allow us to better understand this destructive phenomenon; to test this theory using post-Soviet cases, in the process gaining a better understanding of those cases; and to bridge a gap between key literatures from comparative politics and international relations. The reader will judge for him- or herself whether or not I have succeeded.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
identity, political transition, violent separatism, ethnic conflict, internal war, intervention, Soviet Union, Georgia, Moldova, Estonia, Russia
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