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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


Nation-building in the Post-Soviet Borderlands: The Politics of National Identity
Grahma Smith, Vivien Law, Andrew Wilson, Annette Bohr, Edward Allworth

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
293pp. Index. ISBN 0-521-59045-0 hb. ISBN 0-521-59968-7 pb.



The period since the breakup of the Soviet Union has been a confusing time for the people within and without the region. In the work reviewed here, the authors examine the struggle of the major ethnic groups in the re-forging of identities that had been long suppressed by the Soviet regime.

The book poses interesting questions in the Preface: 'What new tensions would arise out of the choice of symbols and myths, and which old ones would be exacerbated, or alternatively suppressed?' (p. ix). The tensions do not seem to have reached the point of an outbreak of conflict, with some exceptions. There is a brief discussion of the three biggest conflicts: Armenia-Azerbaijan, Georgia-Abkhazia, and Georgia-South Ossetia. The chapter discussing these conflicts gives concise histories of the issues and presents the primary causes of the conflicts as 'myths of homeland and overlapping "claims to indigenousness"' (p. 48). The authors claim that the actors involved in the conflict are for the most part fighting 'to legitimate their modern political aims' through claims of superiority in culture, religion, and politics and by associating themselves with 'the glorious deeds of distant real or imagined ancestors' (p. 64).

This book is an interesting sociological and political study of the re-building of ethnic identities in the former Soviet Union. It gives a good foundation for understanding the different challenges faced by the groups within the region, including brief histories of the groups and region. The section on ethnopolitics and group boundaries gives a thorough presentation of the identity politics in the region, with particular attention paid to the role of the state. The final part of the book focuses on language as an indicator of ethnicity.

The book's contribution to ethnic conflict studies is that it presents an analysis of where there was, and is, a great potential for ethnic conflict. However, the primary focus of the book is not ethnic conflict itself, but rather the re-emergence of ethnic identities in the former Soviet Union and the potential tensions associated with it.


Kate Robertson



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