Q&A with Roger Petersen

September 15, 2008

CIS Scholar Spotlight on Roger Petersen

Roger Petersen, an associate professor of political science at MIT and a member of CIS, studies comparative politics with a special focus on conflict and violence. He has written two books: Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe and Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, Resentment in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe. He also has an interest in comparative methods and has co-edited, with John Bowen, Critical Comparisons in Politics and Culture. In spring 2008, Petersen went on sabbatical to the Balkans for six months. Upon his return, he sat down with CIS to discuss his recent studies.


CIS: You just got back to MIT from an extended time in the Balkans. What were you working on?

RP: Yes, I just came back; I was there for six months working on a book. The idea of it is looking at western intervention and why western intervention sometimes goes according to plan and sometimes goes very badly. I've been working on this book on and off for about seven years. The nature of it has changed a little bit because I've been following Iraq. So my topic has expanded to looking at various types of western interventions. 

In the Balkans they've had a number of agreements that were brokered by the West or enforced by the West: the Dayton Accord in Bosnia; the Erdut Accord in Slavonia; the Ohrid Accord in Macedonia; another accord in south Serbia; and another one in Montenegro. Then there are special deals within Bosnia in a place called Brcko and Mostar. So I have about a dozen places where the West has come in and said here's a deal that's going to reconcile ethnic groups. Some of them have gone all right, but Kosovo's policy of "standards before status," the policy of the United Nation's Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) from 1999 to 2004 for instance, is an example of a failure in my view.


CIS: With UNMIK being a largely a failure, as you said, and with Kosovo's declaring independence from Serbia this past February, what's happening there today?

RP: That's a big issue. Now Kosovo has yet another western accord with the incoming EU Rule of Law mission. This makes three different interventionist approaches, starting with the one in 1999. I start the Kosovo case back in '91 when communism was breaking up, because it was already a case of western intervention there. The Albanian population was trying to bring in the West. They had certain types of nonviolent political strategies to do that, and then in the late '90s there was an idea by Albanian elites to escalate by creating violence. And that violence did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to bring in the West on their side. And so after '99 you have a United Nations Mission in Kosovo, and they have this idea that OK, we won't talk about the final status of Kosovo until you prove that you can treat minorities decently and and deal with crime and other governance issues. That went on for about five years. In 2004 there were massive riots against the Serbian minority by Albanians that ended that particular effort. And then instead of standards before status it became standards and status where they had a whole different sort of deal. And now with the independence, the European Union is taking over the whole game again and they have a EULEX mission that is supposed to have the rule of law in Kosovo. The related Ahtisaari Plan is supposed to work as the structure for consolidation of government for an independent Kosovo. But the point is that if you look at Kosovo there is a set of plans going backwards: Ahtisaari, standards and status, standards before status, and then the policies under the old Yugoslavia and Serbia.

I'm looking at the strategies that changed these phases. And especially with western intervention, because as opposed to Iraq, there was an enormous amount of force, an enormous amount of money per capita; in relative terms the amount of people and material resources in Kosovo would dwarf Iraq. The West had everything going for it here. And still it didn't go right.


CIS: In this critical case, why did things go wrong?

RP: Because the West has a very narrow rational view of human nature and behaves as if all they have to do is organize the sticks and carrots in a certain way. We believe we have all the resources, both militarily and financially, to come in and control these places, and we probably do, but we fail in spite of that.

My work views this through a different lens and focuses on the experiences and histories of the parties involved in the conflict. The experiences of these people, whether Iraqis or Albanians, leave residues in the form of emotions. Put bluntly, the Serbs and Albanians hate each other but the Europeans don't want to admit this. I define what hatred is, what fear is, what anger is, what resentment is. The basis of my work is to treat these emotions as resources in the same way that we political scientists treat guns and money. Long battles and political resentments are a part of the Balkans history. You can use violence to create fears and anger and can pit this against all the West's money and power. And it gets to be a more even battle. Emotions like fear are ideal for keeping populations separate. Because if you don't know who might attack your family and you don't know where it's coming from, your only defense is to leave.

And so the idea of the standards before status policy was that Serbs who fled in 1999 should be able to come back to their homes. Well, Albanians didn't want that. But they couldn't just openly attack them, because the West would have penalized them. So there was a campaign of low-level violence involving killings and bombings. Nobody knew where it was coming from. And now there's almost no presence of Serbs in any Kosovo city. They've essentially been ethnically cleansed. Pristina had 30,000 Serbs in 1999. It's down to 200 now. They never were able to come back because there was a strategy of inculcating fear through unstated, unclaimed low-level violence, which political elites, in my estimation, provided tacit signals of approval. 

Fear is an emotion used as a resource to change the populational dynamics. Anger is a resource to create a spiral. And these things are the resources I'm looking at.

If you look at Iraq, one of the key findings in my earlier book, Understanding Ethnic Violence, turns out to be one of the key motivators for the ethnic violence in Iraq: When a group that is on the top of a political hierarchy is put below another group they cannot accept that position. For example, the West says to the Sunnis: You're 20 percent of the population, you get 20 percent of the power. But if that group has been running the show, you can't tell them to accept 20 percent. The West views this as rational, but you can guarantee that this is going cause tension. That's what happened with the Sunnis who formed the backbone of violent resistance for several years. In cases like these, where resentment or status reversal is involved, then the emotion of resentment can come into play as a resource.


CIS: Moscow has felt alienated, reportedly, by the West's support on Kosovo's bid for independence, not to mention the Bush administration's support of Georgia and Ukraine becoming a member of NATO. In light of the recent conflict between Georgia and Russia over the Caucuses, what are your thoughts on Russia's reaction?

RP: Well, from the Russian standpoint Kosovo independence justifies secession and was also a slap at Russian interests. Brazil, Russia, India, China also do not recognize Kosovo independence. In fact, states comprising the vast majority of the world's population have not accepted Kosovo as an independent state because it sets a precedent. If Kosovo, which under Resolution 1244 is still recognized as part of Serbia, if they can break away, why can't South Ossetia break away? Why can't Abkhazia break away? That's the Russian position. And I think that their argument now is that why do these people have to be integrated into a unified Georgia when the Albanians in Kosovo didn't have to be integrated into a post-Milosevic democratic Serbia. And so that's an issue. And outside of the European Union and the American vassals like the Marianas Islands, very few states have recognized Kosovo, because they don't want to have secessionism established as a principle. And so I think that's related.

But the other thing is why won't Abkhazians and South Ossetians accept the deal the Georgians are going to give them? And this has to do again with the reaction of the status hierarchies. They don't want to be second-class citizens in Georgia. They want the Russians in there because they don't feel the actual day-to-day presence of Russians as dominators the way they would with Georgians. The Georgians say well, we're going to give them a good deal and put them back in, but why isn't it acceptable? And now after violence has happened, how can you make a deal like that? It's got a whole new layer of meaning on it. And after your city has been hit how do you make one of these rational choice games between the Georgians and South Ossetians? This looks like it's probably frozen the conflict for another decade.

This also sends a signal to Ukraine. It would be a major event if Ukraine were incorporated into NATO. I think some might see the Georgian invasion as a way for the Russians to say that they are going to nip NATO expansion and let the Ukrainians know that there's going to be big problems if they join NATO. And also to tell the Europeans that if you let them into NATO there could be real big problems that you don't want to get involved with.


CIS: How do you see your work enhancing the field of political science today?

RP: I'm incorporating insights elements into our political science models that will help explain why we see the failures we do. In most general terms, I wish to incorporate a more realistic and complex view of human nature into the models and methods that we employ most of the time in classrooms and political science departments. 

Political science has gone more towards economics and gotten rid of the psychology. And that's what's happened in the last 30 years. So I'm trying to incorporate some of the psychology into our games and still pursue rigorous social science. In earlier work, I dealt with emotions in a broader sense. Now I'm looking at them in more of a fine-grained sense as a resource in conflict. I believe, in the most basic social science sense, that I can explain variation in the success and failure of Western intervention better than existing efforts.