Last week i had a number of days where i had no training scheduled, and i was expected to find my own way to fill the time productively. Most people in my situation will meet with various governmental agencies and bureaus within State to get some advice or pointers on their post, but since i'm not leaving for ten months, my desk officer has advised me to wait until the summer, because things will change too rapidly in Saudi to make a meeting now worthwhile. Therefore, i justified to myself that a presentation on a region that interests me and near to which i'd be serving in the future was totally a productive use of my time. Is it a stretch? Of course it is! But it was very interesting, and i came away with some new frames of thought about zones of conflict.
So, this panel discussion was held at the Jamestown Foundation in DC, a think tank filled with graying Cold Warriors who have turned their attentions to the former Soviet republics, China, and the Middle East. (Once again, i was one of the youngest people there, and clearly one of the very few who don't actually remember the Soviet Union. This seems to be a common theme of the discussions i attend.) Wednesday the organization hosted a panel discussion of Ingushetia, a Russian district between Chechnya and North Ossetia (where the Beslan hostage crisis occurred in 2004). Ingushetia, like much of the north Caucasus, isn't the most stable of places, and the general consensus of the panel was that the current situation there has more than a passing resemblance to Chechnya in the late 1990s - ie, right before the second Chechen war started. The panel speakers included a number of human rights activists, researchers, and journalists, one of whom, Fatima Tlisova, was identified as being the next Anna Politkovskaya. (This is high praise, even outside of our little world of people with interest in the Caucasus.)
That's enough specifics; i realize that i'm not playing to a caring crowd on that specific subject. However, there were some general observations made that i think are useful for people to consider when they read or watch the news about violence in some far-away place. There are a few dangers we face in processing these stories, given the habits of our media sources in the US. For one thing, the stories are often told without much of a context, so it's difficult to see in the US media that violence in Ingushetia is intimately connected to violence in Chechnya, and it's very hard to see that this is a conflict with a history that is fully visible to history. By this, i mean that it's not some conflict that's been happening "forever" or "for centuries" that therefore must be a natural part of the world order. (See pretty much all media coverage and popular discussion of Israel/Palestine, ethnic conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, and other perennial hot spots for more examples.) Moreover, viewing these conflicts as isolated happenings tends to make them exotic: look, honey, it's another country whose name we can't pronounce and whose neighbors we can't find on a map! This exoticism obscures the similarities among many of those un-pronounceable places, therefore obscuring common problems and common steps that could lead towards a reduction in instability and violence.
There's one other point i want to make - the concept of ethnoterritory. Now, it is very easy to make fun of academics who stick ethno- in front of any established field and call it a dissertation topic; i've done plenty of that myself. (Ethnobotany, ethnocartography, ethnocalligraphy, ethnophotovoltaic paleontology, etc. Sometimes i just crack myself up.) With that being said, i think we should all think a little about ethnoterritory - how and why do different groups of people claim a piece of land? Again, Israel/Palestine is only the most famous example, but if any of you ever found an arrowhead in the ground when you were a child, then you should think about who else might claim the land where you grew up. i don't really have any deep insights into this concept, but i do think that if groups want to live peaceably on land that others claim, then either concessions must be negotiated to achieve stability or everyone with a competing claim must be eliminated. i don't really think there's much middle ground, and i think it's obvious which i'd prefer... sadly, rationality doesn't seem to be breaking out in the world, so it seems more people are pushing rhetorically for the latter.
So, that's your weekly dose of dense material about places you can't find on a map. Next week i'll talk a little bit about what, exactly, i will be doing when i'm in Saudi Arabia as a consular officer. Have a good weekend!