The Ljubljana Recommendations of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in the Post-Soviet Context

The post-Soviet space in Eastern Europe has seen its fair share of conflict involving national minorities over the past two decades. From Central Asia to the Caucasus north and south, to Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltic states, some of these conflicts were very violent, others were more contained. A number of these conflicts remain unresolved, and there is, unfortunately, potential for old conflicts to escalate again and new ones to emerge. At the heart of all of these “past, current, latent, potential” conflicts is a fundamental lack of social cohesion. In the wake of the major geopolitical changes that occurred in Eastern Europe more than two decades ago, a lack of integration and/or rapid disintegration of societies goes a long way in explaining the origins and early phases of the conflicts in Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Moldova (Gagauzia and Transnistria), and the Nagorno-Karabakh territory in Azerbaijan, as well as the persistent tensions and volatility of these situations today, highlighted dramatically by the re-escalation of conflict in Georgia in 2008.

What is it about social cohesion that is so important for successful conflict prevention? One of the fundamental ideas underlying the notion of conflict prevention in diverse societies is that different population segments can resolve any differences by recourse to institutional processes rather than violence. For such institutional processes to be effective, a viable and resilient state is required whose fundamental constitutional principles are broadly accepted and respected across all segments of societies. If this is the case, societies may well be diverse across any number of indicators, including, ethnicity, language, and religion, but they will also be characterised by a sufficient level of social cohesion. Absent social cohesion, the state will become fragile and unable to provide the institutional setting in which differences can be addressed effectively. Such states gradually lose sovereignty, at least in a de-facto sense. State sovereignty, rightly emphasised in the Ljubljana Recommendations, is thus indeed an essential pre-requisite of both integration and conflict prevention. In this sense, integration and conflict prevention in diverse societies are very closely related: integration ideally achieves sustainable social cohesion which provides the framework for effective conflict prevention.

The connections between integration and conflict prevention do not end there. Both are two-way processes that involve mutual recognition and reciprocation by all segments in diverse societies, minorities and majorities alike. This is reflected in the notion of rights and duties: accepting and respecting basic constitutional principles is only meaningful if it happens broadly across societies and if individual citizens fulfil their duties arising from this and are at the same time secure in their rights under this constitution. As majorities question the right of minorities to their distinct identities and as minorities reject the idea of being part of a state in which they feel threatened, and thereby seemingly undermine the very existence of this state, conflict escalates and often becomes intractable as has happened in the Caucasus for the last two decades.

In diverse societies, therefore, integration as a set of policies aimed at achieving social cohesion requires striking a careful balance between inclusiveness and distinctiveness. In other words, viable states in which violent conflict can be prevented, are sufficiently cohesive around a basic constitutional consensus, but within this framework allow for, and guarantee, the individual, group, and institutional expression of distinctiveness, be it qua the recognition of a second (or third) official language, cultural autonomy arrangements in the areas of religion and education and/or territorial self-governance and power sharing. Crimea and Gagauzia, despite all their shortcomings, serve as examples of how to make a genuine attempt at getting this balance right, at least some of the time.

In Ukraine, the dispute around Crimea never escalated to the level of a full-blown violent conflict because the process of resolving the status of Crimea in Ukraine was inclusive and participatory locally, nationally and regionally. In this sense, of the cases considered briefly here, Crimea is the one in which conflict prevention actually worked, partly because the process of disintegration of the Ukrainian state and society was arrested in time through OSCE mediation and the moderating influence of elites in Kiev, Simferopol, and Moscow. Yet, while national integration has been pursued quite sensibly and effectively (considering the considerable divide within Ukrainian society at large) and prevented a re-escalation of conflict between Simferopol and Kiev, integration at the local level has been less successful and social tensions remain high, especially in relation to the Tatar population.

The case of Gagauzia, at the same time, demonstrates that establishing an acceptable constitutional consensus alone is not enough if it is not followed by a context-sensitive integration strategy. While there has been, and is, no real danger of Gagauzia sliding back into violent conflict, the decade after the OSCE-mediated settlement of this conflict in 1995 has seen little, if any, serious effort at integration. While this short-coming has been addressed at least at an institutional level with closer political integration, Gagauzia continues to suffer from a degree of isolation—or lack of integration—that is, if anything, increasing, partly because little effort was made in the past to promote, and embrace, Moldova’s official language in a small region where Russian remains the locally predominant medium of communication.

Effective integration and conflict prevention are also linked in that they require a comprehensive approach in terms of the policy areas and people or groups they involve. Integration and conflict prevention policies, thus, have both horizontal and vertical dimensions: they need to engage elites and masses within and across different population segments and they need to address the specific concerns that they have.

Responsive engagement is key to effective integration and thus to achieving sustainable conflict prevention. It highlights the significance of one particular mechanism noted in the Ljubljana Recommendations: effective participation. This is not a new approach as such, but has been present in earlier recommendations by the HCNM, in particular, the Lund Recommendations. Effective participation is so important because it establishes channels of communication across the range of institutions and at all levels of society, because it is one of the pre-requisites for access to remedies for those who perceive their rights to be ignored or violated, and because it can prevent alienation and (self-)isolation from state and society thus eroding social cohesion and rendering states more and more fragile and vulnerable to conflict.

Where citizenship and the rights and duties that flow from it remain contested, as for parts of the Russian populations in Latvia and Estonia and many Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, effective participation is not possible and thus cannot be a means to build trust between different segments in diverse societies. Effective participation in itself may not guarantee that institutional processes will always result in a particular individual’s or group’s most preferred outcomes, but it can ensure that broadly acceptable outcomes are achieved most of the time and that the fundamental constitutional consensus that they have signed up to is protected. Integration is an outcome-oriented process to achieve social cohesion and prevent future conflict. It is often most necessary and most difficult to achieve after violent conflict when diverse societies are at their least cohesive and state still very fragile.

This requires a great degree of sensitivity about how to pursue integration: too much too early would be as counter-productive as too little too late, the only difference being in when conflict would be likely to re-escalate. Past experiences with integration thus offer crucial lessons for conflict management and prevention.

For example, in relation to the conflict over Transnistria where at present renewed, and, optimistically speaking, rather promising conflict settlement efforts are under way in the form of the 5+2 talks it will not only be important that a broadly acceptable consensus on a viable Moldovan state is established but such a consensus also needs to be promoted actively across all segments of society, and this will require a comprehensive integration strategy that accompanies, and extends beyond, the conflict settlement process that is currently underway. Such an integration strategy should be modelled closely on the Ljubljana Recommendations and address among others the institutional, socio-economic, and cultural concerns of all citizens.

Integration, thus, is, on the one hand, essential for conflict prevention, and can, on the other hand, only succeed if it is based on the acceptance of a constitutional consensus in which social cohesion and diversity are equally valued, promoted and protected. This is borne out quite clearly by the experiences of success and failure in conflict and conflict management in Eastern Europe over the past two decades. The Ljubljana Recommendations cannot easily undo the failures of the past, but they offer a very useful guide for local, national, regional and international actors in the post-Soviet space and well beyond to avoid similar failures in the future.