European Union and Iran: Turning the Page?

By Elbay Alibayov

On 25 October, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the EU strategy towards Iran. It is a comprehensive document consisting of five sections under a preamble: (a) political dialogue, (b) trade & economy, (c) sectoral cooperation, (d) regional security, and (e) socio-economic issues, rule of law, democracy and human rights. It covers a broad range of cooperation areas and activities (rightfully calling them ‘an ambitious plan’) and envisages the reopening of the EU Office in short term perspective, to facilitate the dialogue and joint activities to the mutual interest and benefit. But it is not only the content of this important document but the timing and contexts in which it occurs make it especially interesting.


Acting in concert? The EU and Iranian Foreign Ministers at a news conference, 2015 (Photo: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY)


Europe and Iran: mutual interests

European countries and Iran (or Persia) have a centuries-long history of coexistence, where partnership and collaboration have been mixed with competition and rivalry and confrontation, often-time simultaneously. It is only natural, given geographic proximity, shared economic and security interests, and diverse social and cultural ties. They also need each other more than ever today, for various reasons.

For the European economies still struggling to recover after the crisis Iran may offer a golden opportunity. Iran is the world’s largest economy outside the WTO, with high growth potential in many sectors; its GDP was worth 425.33 billion US dollars in 2014. The biggest sector of Iran´s economy is services (such as real estate and specialized and professional services; trade, restaurants and hotels; and public services), which account for more than half of GDP. Oil production constitutes about a quarter of the output, with manufacturing and mining, agriculture, construction and electricity, gas and water distribution being among the largest contributors.

The recent World Bank assessment expects Iran’s growth to rise to 4.2 and 4.6 percent in 2016 and 2017 respectively, as a result of the lifting of the sanctions and a more business-oriented environment. It also stresses the importance of strong capital inflows, including Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and the repatriation of part of the frozen assets for the economy’s fast recovery.

Iran needs Europe, too. It needs contracts, investment, technology transfers, more jobs—and as soon as possible, as a land awaits rain after a long draught season. Europe can offer, along with investment and technology, its state-of-the-art financial services but also, importantly, facilitate Iran’s faster global economic integration, and thus help getting post-sanctions benefits at higher pace (especially compared how things have been developing thus far—understandably enough but still to disappointment of Iranians) and broader extent. Europe can also add its voice to advocate for the firm place to be secured for Iran in global security and other Middle East related international talks (which is anyways happening, through the Russian and US joint efforts, namely in Syria and Iraq).

This is not all economy for Iran, however. Growth is slower than expected after the signing of Iran Nuclear Deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) and the economy’s performance is subject to heated debates in Iran. Unemployment rate (Q1 2016) in Iran has grown to reach 11.8 percent, and the inflation rate (as of September 2016) went up to 9.5 percent, with the interest rate making rather modest decline from 22 to 20 percent. That is not enough to overcome the daunting economic and financial problems. Neither is it enough to satisfy the demands of the population, especially youth. The debate and consequent criticism of the reformist government led by President Hassan Rouhani has taken its high pick as of recent, with the next year’s presidential elections approaching.

Today, Iran is still considered a high risk market. It currently is not rated for sovereign risk classifications by private credit rating agencies (CRAs, such as Moody’s, Standard & Poors, Fitch etc), but Iran’s country risk assessment as per the OECD classification of the Participants to the Arrangement on Officially Supported Export Credits equals to 6 (on the scale from 1 to 7; ascending risk), as of 28 October 2016. [To compare with the others in the region: Egypt is 6, Saudi Arabia is 2, while Oman and Qatar both stand at 3.]

The risks notwithstanding, Iran is assessed as a market with potentially extraordinary high return opportunities for investors. It is not accidental that Russia, Turkey and China have tightened their political and economic relations with Tehran, after the sanctions lifted as a result of the nuclear deal. Today, it is pretty much ‘first come first serve’ market, but if everything develops as envisioned in the JCPOA and commitments on both sides kept, it is not going to be like that forever. Competition will be high, and it makes sense to be among the first to take critical segments in the growing economy in distress. The way how Airbus and Boeing pushed their pending approval contracts (combined worth 44.6 billion dollars) with Iran through is quite indicative.

Britain: New (old) rival

Russia, Turkey and China as the Europe’s competitors are ‘known knowns’ in the Middle East geopolitical theatre. But hey, why to look far away? There is a capable rival next door that has just recently emerged out of the Brexit—United Kingdom, with its all advanced financial, legal and other satellite services and an infrastructure for transactions and global operations. Britain may now take its chances and endeavour in setting own deal with Iran, apart from the EU. Ironically, the initial report on which the resolution is based was produced by the British Labour party’s Member of European Parliament (MEP) Richard Howitt back in June this year (before Brexit referendum, to be sure). Britain always has had an interest in Iran and actively involved in political and economic relations (including some notorious interventions, like MI6 in alliance with CIA deposing the elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953—something that Iranians have neither forgotten nor forgiven).

There is a sizeable Iranian Diaspora in the UK, to advocate for the expansion of relations, too: According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates the number of UK residents of Iranian origin was about 86,000 in 2015. At the same time, Iran apparently is contributing the largest number of asylum seekers in the UK, and their number is growing:  in the year ending June 2016 there were 5,466 applicants registered (2,920 more than in previous year)—much more than from other top contributors Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. Britain is making moves to normalise the relations. Along with intensifying the diplomatic ties and reopening the Embassy in Tehran in summer 2015, the Government has removed Bank Saderat Iran (BSI) from its list of sanctioned entities (as of 22 October 2016).

Americans indecisive yet

The United States may not be as eager as Europeans, to engage in business with Iran full-steam and right away, due to various political reasons at home (uncertainty with regards to the new administration’s foreign policy and with ever-strong hardcore politics lobbying for tough stances, including in normalising the relations with Iran) and abroad, with commitments under lasting strategic alliances in the region (with Israel and Saudi Arabia, both being in their own competition with Iran and watching the US warming up towards Iran with jealousy if not resent, and actively lobbying against it) and being occupied at the moment with much less pleasant business of dealing with numerous wars and former allies disintegrating, if not turning back (the recent rhetoric of the Philippines President Duterte is indicative of changing allegiance).

The tag-of-war over the Middle East strategies and particularly those related to Iran is at its high at this point, considering the golden moment opening up to influence the yet-to-be-formulated foreign policy of the new US President. For example, the Atlantic Council’s recent strategy paper while acknowledging the risks involved, calls the United States ‘to prepare for an eventual normalization of relations’ with Iran. To the contrary, the report on new world order commissioned by the Center for a New American Security (a think tank said to be close to the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton), takes a customary hawkish approach towards building future relations with Iran: ‘[t]he United States must adopt as a matter of policy the goal of defeating Iran’s determined effort to dominate the Greater Middle East’ and making it even more clear, ‘Tehran should understand that Washington is not expecting the nuclear agreement to lead to a changed relationship with the government of Iran.’

The truth is that the US needs Iran for economic reasons (such as an oil and gas supplier or for investment of its companies) much less than for geopolitical, security reasons. And even in geopolitical calculations, Iran is not on the top of its agenda (as long as there is no major trouble, beyond the rhetoric). That said, the American companies, strategic investors and transnational corporations headquartered in the US keep a close eye on Iran, weighing the political risks and ready to engage once situation appears favourable.

First reactions

All this being good and promising, the Euro Parliament’s resolution has also quite elaborate statements on the human rights issues. And this is what triggered the reaction, especially of conservatives.

The issues explicitly addressed in the resolution (and this means not only mention but call for action, greater cooperation with international organisations and human rights NGOs, and international periodic reviews) include: death-penalty executions; proper and independent functioning of civil society organisations; human rights defenders; freedom of expression both online and offline, of opinion, of association and peaceful assembly, of thought, conscience, religion or belief; individual, social and political rights without discrimination or persecution on grounds of sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, gender, sexual orientation or other status; basic right to equality before the law, as well as the right of equal access to education, health care and professional opportunities; fair trial guarantees; release of all political prisoners and imprisoned EU citizens;  individuals imprisoned from religious minority communities or because of their beliefs; full gender equality to ensure women’s equal participation in the labour market and in all aspects of economic, cultural, social and political life; respecting the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Did I miss something?

Unsurprisingly, the establishment felt concerned. But not much threatened if to judge by the scale and intensity of responses. Iranians are known for their diplomatic skill and pragmatism. They know perfectly well that the human rights issues shall be in the EU resolution but hardly they will constitute a mandatory precondition to economic relations (they are well aware of practices; take China or Saudi Arabia, their rival, as an example). Still, they realise that certain concession might be required in this respect, and show readiness to talk. Impositions do not work, everyone knows that by now. The openness to discuss certain issues is already a good starting point and shall not be underestimated (although high hopes on Iran taking any steps immediately, if at all, might be equally misleading).

The language of first reactions (especially comments of broadly quoted Iranian judiciary’s Human Rights Council, Mohammad Javad Larijani who bluntly dismissed the human rights related interventions as corrupt) and the government’s response (the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Bahram Qassemi press statement, where he downplayed those demands from the resolution as not correlated to existing realities  and urged the European Parliament to take a more positive attitude towards Iran by passing ‘constructive and realistic resolutions’) points to that.

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The Euro Parliament’s resolution and recent hyper activity of the EU institutions and European governments vis-à-vis Iran (including additional aid funding to cope with humanitarian issues) comes at interesting times. On the one hand, the global developments indicate of a new world order emerging: at the very least, it is shaping towards a global governance with more than one power centres acting on the area/region and issue-based power sharing rather than the old-times Cold War and post-communist era arrangements (of the last quarter-century) where global spheres of influence were either distributed between two super-powers or one powerhouse dominating anyone else.

On the other hand, various internal country and region specific and global events and developments coincide and thus create a juncture point offering new opportunities for the parties concerned—to strategically reposition and strengthen their standing, particularly in the Middle East. This means that Europeans may move ahead with expanding the relations with Iran on their own, independently of whether or when (if at all) their strategic partner the United States decides so.


In Search of National Identity: Afghanistan’s Enduring Rivalry

“All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I am sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”           

—Jalal-al-Din Mohammad Rumi



Kabul, 1961 (Photo: AP/Henry Burroughs)

By Elbay Alibayov

The recent developments in Afghanistan indicate that the conflict there may have entered a new phase, which has a potential of setting ground for gradually ending the violence and establishing a lasting peace. A series of events at first glance look rather random and business-as-usual, but they send messages that taken together imply that something new is in making at the background beyond the events.

To appreciate the significance of these developments, one has to place them into a right analytical framework where local contexts (structures, institutions) and political actors contesting the distribution of power continuously interact and keep interpreting these interactions and the opportunities they offer at any critical juncture in time. At the end of the day, whatever large-scale and intensive, this is not the external factor that will decide the final outcome of the Afghan war and the destiny of the Afghan state—but the local political actors.

This article is an attempt to reflect on the political conflict in Afghanistan in the context of an enduring rivalry between modernisation and traditionalism, which is itself a manifestation of a search (and shaping and reshaping) of national identity for a country as culturally diverse as Afghanistan. The topic is not new, but it has not been explored at the interface of a long-lasting process and momentous opportunities opening up at some crucial points. These moments are impossible to foresee, let alone to engineer. But it is possible (and imperative, for political agents) to be ready to take advantage as soon as they avail themselves.

The political conflict in Afghanistan reflects an enduring rivalry between the proponents of modernisation and traditionalism, in their search for national identity

I put an effort to keep it concise (hope you would appreciate that ;- ). The paper consists of four parts. In the first post I will give an overview of current narratives about Afghanistan, resulting models, and their flaws. In the second part I will position the conflict in the context of enduring rivalry between modernisation and traditionalism in Afghanistan. The third part will look at coincidence of the current, most recent events and how they are interpreted by the agents as offering them opportunities for further action. And in the final part I will look beyond the events, to make some conclusions and outline the possible directions to explore.

Part One: Prevailing Narratives

The hidden works of narrative fallacy

There are scholarly works by historians and anthropologists written mostly in the past century, offering valuable insights into the Afghan history and culture (among them my favourite Afghanistan by Louis Dupree). There are also various narratives created over time (especially in post-2001 era), about Afghanistan’s institutions of power and statehood tradition, political actors, their interests, and the drivers of lasting wars.

The difference between the two is that the first group was written by people who based their studies on the primary sources collected through the field work in-country and with an intention to learn (and if possible, to understand) the culture of people inhabiting this ancient land; while the latter, to the contrast, were produced mostly by people who intended to explain (and do it authoritatively) all those complex matters of a distant culture and offering concepts backed by the narratives often-time built upon incomplete, or unconfirmed secondary and tertiary sources.

The second group of works and concepts was and still is driven by the day’s practical demands, as they have been produced to inform action by international actors (quite heavily) involved in Afghanistan. As such, they simplify and frame the reality to offer (if not impose) a logical model that makes sense of the otherwise random sequence of events and seemingly unrelated to each other, at times interrupted processes—with an ultimate aim of defining effective solutions to existing problems. And this is where the risk of falling into narrative fallacy (Nassim Taleb) is hidden and where theories turn into myths.


The modern myths

There are many myths created about Afghanistan in the last decades with various degree of uptake by policymakers, but three of them are most persistent (interestingly enough, they have been accepted fully or in considerable part by various foreign actors over time, in spite of difference in their ideological stands and interests).

Central among them is the myth claiming that there has never been an Afghan state, only a mass of continuously and fiercely warring tribesmen who do not recognize any form of central power or unification. It rightly notes that in terms of loyalty for Afghans of all groups and subgroups first comes their kin and then clan or tribe, but makes a wrong conclusion that they lack (if have at all) any allegiance to the state. As all across north of Africa and west, central and south Asia tribes have historically played significant role both socially and politically. This centuries-long tradition sits deep in bone of anyone having origins from these regions; however it does not (and has not) exclude the possibility of having a functional state, whether strong or less effective, centralised or not.

Another myth goes on to say that there had been a somewhat state in Afghanistan but it was annihilated in the wars of the 1980s-90s, and the attempts to rebuild it won’t work as the balance of power has changed from the capital to the rule of ethnically and sub-ethnically diverse (and largely Islamist) countryside that is too heterogeneous to be united.

It correlates with the tendency to see the stand-off between the government and insurgents as merely medieval war waged by local warlords, criminals and terrorists against the legitimate central government (albeit backed by foreigners and dominated by foreign ideology), without taking account of ideas and aspirations of the warring parties, and of the history of propagation of and resistance to reforms (such as claiming that the Taleban’s ‘attitude  toward the state and reforms are not the continuation of some “tradition”, but the result of their own uprooting’).

And finally, there is a myth which holds that Afghanistan is ‘not a natural state‘, pointing to ‘very special’ culture and social institutions of Pashtuns as politically dominant faction and their (deemed) irreconcilable differences with other ethnic groups and tribes. Moreover, some authors also marry this notion of Pashtun tribalism with the legacy of historically more recent ‘Afghan Jihad’ to arrive at totally biased portrait picturing Pashtuns as hostile to anything different (if not alien) from their own.

Common to these myths is that they oversimplify the historic processes and the present-day situation, focus only on one arbitrarily selected element while ignoring the rest, and above all, deny the Afghans (comprised as they are of diverse and distinct ethnic and sub-ethnic groups) their history of coexistence, political traditions and institutions. Taken together they lead to yet another misconception, this one with practical implications—the false assumption of the possibility to control the end state of the Afghan war.

The prevailing narratives created about Afghanistan deny its diverse populations their history of coexistence, political traditions and institutions.

This ‘control of the outcome‘ myth, first, implies that there is a military solution to the conflict and thus feeds into the dominant doctrine seeing the end-state in coercion. And second, this myth impedes the possibility of finding a workable solution to assist the country in establishing peace and state-building as it suggests that a state model can be imported to Afghanistan and sustained through pouring abundant money and technical advice into its structures. Thus far it has not worked well as we can see, if not served contrary to the purpose claimed.


Kabul, 1995

The models: imported and (revived) home-grown

Fifteen years after the intervention, Afghanistan is still in the process of seeking a political settlement to state-building and an administrative structure and mechanisms that would be compatible with its political culture and institutions—and thus viable. I will briefly outline the concepts in play with regards to (a) general approach to state-building, (b) vertical distribution of power within public administration, and (c) options proposed as alternatives to the present constitutional set-up in Afghanistan.

Deconstruction vs. co-optation

Of broadly defined two available (or practiced in post-conflict state-building) alternatives the international community decided to pursue the path of (partial) deconstruction of existing state apparatus in Afghanistan and then building a new one, instead of taking the approach of co-opting ‘all social forces and power centres into state-building within the existing institutions and trying to redirect their competition for power and [resources] from violent to peaceful channels.’ In so doing (given the nature and the initial justification for the military occupation and overthrowing of the government and political factions behind it) the intervening authorities (US and allies) have effectively excluded the Taleban and some other influential actors from the process (starting from the Bonn conference of 2001 and the creation of interim administration), and thus setting the entire endeavor in a direction of zero-sum game and coercion.

After the departure of Hamid Karzai from the helm of the state (but not from the politics) in 2014, Afghanistan has had even more troubling period following the contested elections and months of tortuous negotiations which resulted in the creation of a Government of National Unity (GUN) between two (tempted to say “former”, but they effectively still are) rivals, President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.

Among other contextual and institutional challenges, the problem with the Government effectively fulfilling its functions lies in the lack of its legitimacy and credibility with large segments of (predominantly rural) population. Limited political representativeness of the central government, due to exclusion of other key players from decision making, will remain the major barrier to stabilisation and development in Afghanistan.

The biggest fallacy about Afghanistan is the view that the conflict can end in coercion through decisive military victory, and then an imported statehood model implanted and sustained.

Sub-national governance

Strong central government in Kabul, as initially supported by the international community, may have seemed as easy-to-go option and also appealed to personal and group aspirations of certain political actors holding power, but it very quickly proved as a nonworking model. In order to enable the government reach down to the villages and across the country while keeping intact the territorial integrity of the state within the constitutional provisions, decentralisation was promoted and introduced as a concept since 2007.

The implementation of sub-national governance reform, even accepted as critically important, has proven problematic for many reasons, including such systemic and institutional challenges as corruption, dominance of politics over bureaucracy, unclear distribution of functions, lack of real delegation of power, and competing interests and overlapping mandates of various bodies in charge.

Key legislation is either pending (lost in the procedures for years) or not implemented. The system itself is quite complex owing, in part, to the difference in conceptual approaches of donors (such as United Nations, World Bank, and USAID) and different government bodies in charge at all levels, from central ministries through provinces, districts, and municipalities (under the overall responsibility of Independent Directorate of Local Governance, IDLG).

Add to this a parallel system of sub-national development councils (operating at village and district level through community, district and cluster networks—all managed by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, MRRD) with own governance ambition—and you have a complex structure which is difficult to map on a piece of paper, let alone to manage. [*I have witnessed and went through all this confusion when assisting the MRRD in their work with District Development Assemblies, back in 2011].

Federalisation and partition

Devolution of power is imperative in Afghanistan—this seems to be appreciated by both foreign and domestic actors involved in state-building. But this is where the views are divided. Some observers and practitioners advocate and keep turning into reality the administrative decentralisation efforts (whatever cumbersome).  Others are sceptical about the success of this endeavour and have come up with scenarios which go beyond the present structure set by Afghanistan’s Constitution. The discussion, and even very light critique of those proposed constructs and their justification is a topic in its own right, therefore I will only touch upon it here. Roughly, there are two groups of options proposed over time that demand the amendment or even the adoption of new constitution.

One group comprises various scenarios of organising Afghanistan as a federal state. This effectively takes one (albeit significant) step further to the current administrative organisation of Afghanistan with thirty-four provinces, with much more power and authority and resources devolved to the federal units. The number and administrative borders may vary but in essence this is an approach to which the Afghan state is not prepared yet, as the vacillations over the implementation of sub-national governance reform have shown.

Another group of option can be subsumed under partition banner, whether suggesting a confederational set-up or the creation of new sovereign states. This is not a new idea either. Back in the 1960s, there was a proposition to set a confederation comprising three entities—Afghan, Pakistani, and Iranian. Today, the proponents of this idea offer a number of other scenarios (dividing the country along ethnic lines), such as a two-entity confederation of South (Pashtun) and North (Uzbek-Tajik) or three entities, with Hazara state added to the two.

These ideas mostly are deriving from the narratives discussed in the beginning of this paper, especially the one justifying the creation of a separate Pashtun state. Indeed, Pashtuns today are estimated at about 45 million, as per mid-2016 estimates: they comprise 15.42 percent of Pakistan’s population (approx 31.2 million) and 42 percent of Afghanistan’s population (approx 14 million). The idea of independent Pashtunistan has been entertained by various local political actors since 1947 (with or without relation to the disputed but still respected by both countries Durand Line); this always made the Pakistani authorities feel uneasy, with periods of escalated tensions, such as in the 1960s-70s.

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The Politics of Separatism and Violent Conflict

“Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” – William Morris


A Southern Sudanese voter casts her ballot in Juba on January 9, 2011 on the first day of independence referendum expected to lead to the creation of the world’s 193rd UN member state (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty images)

By Elbay Alibayov

Wars, not much peace

Have you noticed that we live in the age of continuous violent conflict fought simultaneously under various banners in different places? Virtually there is no a single day when we do not hear news about small, big, short or long wars (mostly about attacks and casualties, much rear so about successful peace deals). And this trend has been in making for quite a long time; modern time globalisation and technology advances made information about them readily available but also made the wars more intense and devastating, and rapidly escalating.

These are staggering facts, but in the course of past two centuries (from 1816) more than three hundred civil wars have been fought across the globe. Consider now that vast majority of them take months and years, and some last for decades (and this does not mean that the conflict is settled once and for all)—and you will realise that the humanity has not lived in even a short peace period for at least two hundred years.

Separatism as political manifestation

More than one-fifth of civil wars have been conflicts related to or originating from separatist demands. It does not come as surprise though—the very process of state creation and nation building over centuries, which left many cultural groups and nations stateless or residing as minority on the territories controlled by other groups, made it unavoidable. Political processes of the 20th century–especially the collapse of empires, redrawing borders and creating new states after two World Wars, decolonisation, dismantling of communist system and the end of Cold War–have both created conditions for tensions between various groups within newly formed states and boosted the nationalist and separatist ideas and movements.

The results of most of those state creation and recreation experiments are irreversible, for various reasons ranging from the resistance (or resilience) of internal political structures to regional and global security considerations and international law provisions and practices (which are not unambiguous, in turn). Therefore separatism is here to stay, and each generation of those groups seeking autonomy will take up their fight, as has been the case all along. If so, it makes sense taking a close look at separatism—to understand why it results in violent conflicts and what could be done to prevent it from turning into civil wars, and what could be done to end those wars once they occur.

Separatist conflict is about power and thus is inherently political but not necessarily violent. Better we understand the interplay between its agents and their ideas, underlying institutions and structures, and appreciate the role of externalities and contingencies at given point in time–higher the chances to prevent it from turning violent or to end the war once it occurred.

First, separatism is an inherently political movement. Politically organised distinct cultural groups (for example, ethnic, racial, religious, tribal) advocate and act upon their claims for greater autonomy or independence from the state on which territory they reside in compact, as a minority. Material incentives play small, if any, role in this kind of contest: that is why greed and grievances of political economy analysis fall short of explaining the drivers of separatist conflict.

Second, separatism means conflict, but not necessarily violent. There are many separatist groups which pursue their goals of greater autonomy by peaceful means. And there are many states which engage in talks and concessions to meet those demands, instead of resorting to repressions outright. A lot depends on political culture and tradition of a given country and a combination of various contexts at a given time. And finally there are also various external actors which, in pursuit of their own agendas, may calm down or fuel the violent conflict.

[*On a related but separate note: the end of hostilities and eventual secession does not immediately or necessarily mean peace and prosperity for newly established states. From one civil war they may move into another war–this time within their borders and driven by another political struggle, separatist or otherwise. Think of South Sudan.]

Basics of separatism

All the above, backed by recent literature and evidence on the ground bring us to conclusion that separatism-inspired or driven civil wars shall be understood, studied and dealt with in terms of political science, by employing such categories as institutions, contexts, structures, agents, ideas, and contingency. Below is a summary of basics on contemporary separatist conflict, as informed by evidence:

  • There are different types of separatist groups and movements (or agents)
  • There are different kinds of separatist demands (or ideas)
  • There are different local contexts (or institutions and structures)
  • There are different exogenous factors (or externalities)
  • There are numerous points in time when individual decisions randomly coincide to produce unpredictable outcomes (or contingency ).

This post is first in a series where I will look at each of these statements separately.

1. Different types of separatist groups and movements (or agents)

Most of research conducted on separatism use the most complete database operated by Minorities at Risk (MAR) project of the University of Maryland. According to generally accepted definitions, there are six ethnopolitical groups identified in terms of their potential relevance to separatism. Under relevance it is meant that those groups have a potential for seeking autonomy, due to their historical past or current conditions.

As of 2006, there were estimated 283 such ethnopolitical groups across the globe:


Ethnonationalists are regionally concentrated peoples with a history of organized political autonomy with their own state, traditional ruler, or regional government, who have supported political movements for autonomy at some time since 1945.

Examples include: Kashmiris in India; Jews in Argentina; Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey; Turk Cypriots; Tatars in Russia; Zanzibaris in Tanzania; Scotts and Northern Ireland Catholics in the UK; Sardinians in Italy; Basques in Spain.

Indigenous groups are conquered descendants of earlier inhabitants of a region who live mainly in conformity with traditional social, economic, and cultural customs that are sharply distinct from those of dominant groups.

Examples include: Rohingya in Myanmar; Mayas in Mexico; Berbers in Morocco; Chechens in Russia; Nuba in Sudan; Native Americans in the US and First Nations in Canada; Maori in New Zealand.

National minorities are segments of a trans-state people with a history of organised political autonomy whose kindred control an adjacent state, but who now constitute a minority in the state in which they reside.

Examples include: Biharis in Bangladesh; Azerbaijanis in Iran; Crimean Russians; Catalans in Spain; Serbs and Croats in Bosnia; Baluchis in Pakistan.

Religious sects are communal groups that differ from others principally in their religious beliefs and related cultural practices, and whose political status and activities are centered on the defense of their beliefs.

Examples include: Ahmadis in Pakistan; Copts in Egypt; Shi’a in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Communal contenders are culturally distinct peoples, tribes, or clans in heterogeneous societies who hold or seek a share in state power. Disadvantaged communal contenders are subject to some degree of political, economic, or cultural discrimination but lack offsetting advantages. Advantaged communal contenders are those with political advantages over other groups in their society. Dominant communal contenders are those with a preponderance of both political and economic power.

Examples include: Hazaras in Afghanistan; Druze in Lebanon; Zulus in South Africa; Hutus in Burundi; Ashanti in Ghana.

Ethnoclasses are ethnically or culturally distinct peoples, usually descended from slaves or immigrants, most of whom occupy a distinct social and economic stratum or niche.

Examples include: Sri Lankan Tamilis; Roma in Romania, Hungary, Serbia; Tutsis in Congo (DRC); Hispanics in the US; Turks in Germany; Koreans in Japan; Chinese in Vietnam and Thailand.


Each of these groups has its own identity and shared history, present-day circumstances, and ideas about their future as political entity. I will explore them in the next piece.

Ten Most Important Nudges, for All Walks of Life


Nudge as Choice Architecture

Knowing how people make decisions is important. For various practical reasons, from making better policies to delivering product or service with higher value, to managing teams and companies, to effectively winning campaigns (think of elections, for example). Not surprisingly, the way how we make decisions as individuals and groups interests scientists—psychologists, sociologists, behavioural economists, political science and communications scholars. They have been studying human decision-making for long, but the real boom started with publishing a seminal work by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who made the concept comprehensible (as compared with technical jargon filled academic publications/journals) to broad audiences of non-experts and coined the term ‘nudge’.

This is how they define it: ‘A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.’

What made the notion so popular was efficiency of its practical application—relatively unsophisticated and inexpensive methods that can deliver tangible benefits. Moreover, as the proponents claim, it is beneficial both ways: the governments and citizens in policy implementation and service delivery, the businesses and customers alike, in their interaction. The logic is pretty simple: by helping people make better choices of your products and services, you help yourself (through customer satisfaction, for instance).


Nudge and Free Will

The use of insights from behavioural sciences in public administration and business management has been growing for years, and there are many followers of employing ‘nudging’ methods for communicating public policies (in US and UK even public offices established), but also critics who claim that ‘nudging’ is paternalistic, even unethical.

The main concern of opponents is that by using behavioural science, the governments and businesses (and in fact anyone else) can manipulate our decision making, ‘softly’ push us toward making choices which are not necessarily in our best interest. On the other hand, there is a notion of free will in individual choice involved. For us, the very fact of the choice made voluntarily matters. In fact, we value it so much that we are ready to make sacrifices and accept the cost of it (at times, stubbornly pursuing our course—remember sunk cost?) thus, exercising our ‘right to be wrong’.

This is what I recall from Dostoyevsky: ‘What human being wants is just an independent choice, whatever the cost of this independence and whatever it may bring about.’ Therefore ‘rationality’ (strictly self-interest based behaviour, as defined by mainstream economists in their models) is not necessarily the driving or determining factor of any given decision made by us as individual human beings, and I assume this makes it impossible to model an individual’s behaviour (for good or bad). The value of a model which does not incorporate our intuitive cognition is of small practical use.

Nudging Tips

So what are the most important nudges? According to Cass Sunstein, the co-author of Nudge, there are ten of them:

Default rules: Setting the most beneficial to customers (as perceived by the initiative owners) as a default—most of us automatically accept them without giving second thought. Application may include automatic enrolment in programmes, including education, health, or savings;

Simplification: Making programmes easily navigable, even intuitive. This may include simplification of (at times numerous and lengthy) forms and regulations (which only experts dare ‘decoding’);

Uses of social norms: For example, by emphasizing what most people do—putting phrases like ‘most people plan to vote’ or ‘most people pay their taxes on time’ or ‘nine out of ten hotel guests reuse their towels’ in the communication with customers. In UK, this kind of nudges have proven effective in target interventions that support families with long-standing problems, turning around their lives and improving the life chances of children;

Increases in ease and convenience: We frequently reject some offers, especially those related to change of habit, because find them complicated (this is not the only reason, of course). The benefit shall be presented up-front, to immediately attract attention, without much effort. Applications may include, for example, making low-cost options eye-catching in the list or healthy foods visible on the store shelf;


Disclosure: For example, the economic or environmental costs associated with energy use, or the full cost of certain credit cards, or making easily available large amounts of data, through the Internet (as in the cases of and the Open Government Partnership);

Warnings: We know they work—campaign against smoking, with its emotional appeal through graphic means (as for cigarettes), is an example. Other visual effects, such as large fonts, bold letters, and bright colours can be effective in triggering people’s attention. Generally, visual effects can be used not only to warn but to encourage certain behaviour: for example, the use of flags can affect tension between communities, feeding into reconciliation strategies (as shown in the Northern Ireland Government’s Shared Future policy);

Precommitment strategies: These are nudges by which people commit to a certain course of action at a precise future moment in time—it is thought to better motivate action and to reduce procrastination;

Reminders: For example, by email or text message. The purposes may broadly vary—from paying bills, to taking medicines, or making a banker’s or doctor’s appointment. It also has a nice touch (‘we care’) which is good for building consumer trust and confidence. Closely related approach is ‘prompted choice’, by which people are not required to choose, but asked whether they want to choose (for example, clean energy or a new energy provider, a privacy setting on their computer, or to be organ donors);

Eliciting implementation intentions: Asking questions like ‘do you plan to vote?’ or ‘do you plan to vaccinate your child?’. Emphasizing people’s identity can also be effective (‘you are a voter, as your past practices suggest’). There are some interesting outcomes, for example in encouraging people towards more sustainable transport habits by leaving their cars at home and use public transport, by using this nudge;

Informing people of the nature and consequences of their own past choices: Private and public institutions often have a great deal of information about people’s own past choices – for example, their expenditures on health care or on their electric bills. The problem is that individuals often lack that information. If people obtain it, their behaviour can shift, often making markets work better (and saving a lot of money). Take for example, initiatives like ‘smart disclosure’ in the US and the ‘midata project’ in the UK.

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In the following article I will share examples from the experience of governments as well as business practice on nudging people to take certain action—as practical application of the above nudges (or stated intentions to do so).

For other articles in this series see How Humans Think: Five Mental Shortcuts and How to Make Right Decisions in the Age of Uncertainty