Economic Reform and Ethnic Cooperation in Post-Soviet Latvia and Ukraine | Wilson Center

Economic Reform and Ethnic Cooperation in Post-Soviet Latvia and Ukraine

Economic Reform and Ethnic Cooperation in Post-Soviet Latvia and Ukraine
September 15, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES informal discussion with Stephen Bloom, Postdoctoral Faculty Fellow, University of California-Los Angeles and East European Studies Research Scholar

For years, various analysts have made a link between bad economic conditions and ethnic conflict in an effort to explain why different ethnic groups peacefully coexist in some countries at certain times while in other contexts, inter-ethnic violence ensues. Stephen Bloom's research on ethnic groups in Latvia and Ukraine debunks this conventional wisdom. By analyzing the issues raised in public demonstrations in both countries, he found that ethnic mobilization in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) has decreased at the same time that the majority of the population's living standards have slumped. Instead of ethnic conflict, economic decline led to inter-ethnic cooperation in mobilizing support to counter the state's austerity measures.

Bloom's research also reacts to the speculation in the early 1990s that the USSR would not dissolve peacefully. These fears were sparked by the fact that the 25 million-strong Russian diaspora (which enjoyed privileged positions in the Soviet satellite states) would not cede power peacefully and strong nationalist sentiments would lead to retaliation against Russians for imposing 50 years of communist imperialist rule. Despite these real fears, violent ethnic conflict never materialized in the Baltic States or Ukraine, as it did in the Balkans.

Economic reform facilitated ethnic cooperation in the FSU, Bloom argues, because the pain and costs of reform measures were equally felt across ethnic lines. The Soviet system offered public goods to certain groups—such as veterans, miners, Russians or disabled people—and the state could do this because it alone controlled the means of production and could easily determine who would receive scarce goods and who would not. By contrast, capitalism imposed costs uniformly (such as increased rent and utility costs). Moreover, as public goods were taken away or became completely undesirable, people came to rely on themselves rather than the state for survival, and access to goods was determined by wealth, not by other factors such as ethnicity. Thus, costs and benefits of economic reforms are seen as spread across groups, which, under certain conditions, can lead to cooperation rather than conflict.