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Sample 2

The Rediscovery of Ethnic Realities in Jenny Engstrom’s

Democratisation and the Prevention of Violent Conflict: Lessons Learned from Bulgaria and Macedonia



In a recent study on the relationship between contemporary ethnic conflicts and democratization, Jenny Engstrom proposes an innovative and rather revolutionary interpretation on the causes for intra-state conflict in young democracies. Democratisation and the Prevention of Violent Conflict: Lessons Learned from Bulgaria and Macedonia (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Surrey, England, 2009) transcends the cause-effect like simplicity, through which ethnic conflicts have been described in the past, and elaborates on the topic from a constructivist and critical perspective. Democratisation and the Prevention of Violent Conflict is an extensive and transformative study on the nature of ethnic and intra-communal relations in immature democracies, which traces the impact of communism and other forms of authoritarian rule on democratization, liberalization, and political pluralism in democratically deprived societies. It is a study, which focuses on regional conflict in the Balkans, historical tensions, and primordial cleavages, as well as theories of ethnic conflict and democracy-consolidation in the contemporary context of globalization.

A challenging and well-argued work, Engstrom’s analysis on the complexities of a relationship between democratization and intra-state conflicts attracts the attention with its scope not in terms of geography, but in terms of concepts. Although it covers only two particular case studies, post-communist Bulgaria and Macedonia, the relation between democratization and ethnic/inter-communal conflicts is explored through the prism of several different academic disciplines – comparative politics, political philosophy, international law, and Balkan studies. In this multi-disciplinary manner, Engstrom unearths a positive connection between democratization and ethnic conflicts in post-communist societies. The author challenges the mainstream scholastic and public perception that democracy and democratization are the wrong political choice for young and fragile post-communist societies such as Macedonia and Bulgaria, and most of the countries from former Yugoslavia. She defends this argument with a simple, but very elegant and clear methodology. Engstrom uses a ‘top-bottom’ methodology, in which the width of the theoretical argument precedes the narrowness and scholastic particularity of the case study. The author places the case studies of post - communist Bulgaria and Macedonia in a broader theoretical framework on the nature of democracy and the factors, which enhance its consolidation in fragile societies. In this way, the methodological and scientific approach of Engstrom is vertical, rather than horizontal and this is what contributes to the depth of the study. Engstrom reveals the peculiarities of regional democracies in the field of a larger, non-contextual, and rather exhaustive observation on democracy, democratization, and liberalization as antipodes of ethnic/communal conflict. Probably one of the greatest strengths of this recent book is that it defends the argument that democratization may help prevent and stabilize internal ethnic relations in a very illustrative and argumentative way. ‘National unity’ and the political will of the communities, Engstrom argues, are the necessary preconditions for functional, stable, modern democracy in Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Another theoretical discovery, which Engstrom makes, is the distinction between democratization and liberalization – two concepts, which are very often confused or used interchangeably. Engstrom views liberalization as a possibility for the building of political opposition. Unlike democratization, liberalization does not necessarily entail free elections or the participation of a multitude of political actors, such as political parties. Engstrom argues that liberalization may eventually lead to democratization, but is not a prerequisite for the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law (Engstrom 2009, p. 16-17). This peculiar observation is what best describes the political situation in Bulgaria and Macedonia in the early years after the fall of communism, Engstrom implies (Engstrom 2009, p. 103-137).

In terms of ideas, the biggest merit of Democratisation and the Prevention of Violent Conflict is that it approaches the concept of ethnicity in an instrumentalist, constructive way. The book implies that ethnic identities on the Balkans (Bulgaria and Macedonia in particular) are not inevitably attached to the concept of the blood, but can be constructed, perceived, instrumentalized, and even manipulated. In this sense, Engstrom’s work deserves a place next to the publications of instrumentalist theorists such as Norman Cigar, Anthony Oberschall, and Bette Denich.

Unconventional and exhaustive, Engstrom’s scholarly triumph leaves only one question unanswered – how can the political manipulation of ethnic identities in multi-ethnic societies such as Bulgaria and Macedonia be avoided? Democratization and democracy consolidation very often result in ethnic and identity politics in ethnically divided societies – a common phenomenon in post-communist Romania and Bulgaria, but mostly typical for the countries from former Yugoslavia (for example Macedonia and its Albanian political parties). Political pluralism in ethnically divided societies always predisposes towards alignment along ethnic/communal lines, which inevitably leads to the exclusion of one ethnic group at the expense of another. In this sense, Engstrom does not clarify how the exclusionary nature of political pluralism and the oppositional inter-group relations to which it leads in multiethnic societies can be overcome.

Engstrom’s direct and elaborate rediscovery of Balkan ethnic identities as more than a historical predisposition is what makes the book a recommended reading not only for students and scholars in International Relations and Ethnic Studies, but also for those interested in totalitarian regimes and their impact on the process of democratization. It might also be a useful tool for international lawyers and those interested in the role of the international community on ethnic relations on the Balkans.

Accessible and beautifully written, Engstrom’s detailed study on democratization and ethnic relations in post-communist societies in the Balkans is a powerful reminder of a completely transformed global political agenda. Democratisation and the Prevention of Violent Conflict: Lessons Learned from Bulgaria and Macedonia draws the attention towards a new world order, in which the classical inter-state wars are withering away and are replaced by new wars, where non-classical oppositions and non-tangible hostilities put communities and ethnic groups one against the other.



Engstrom, J. (2009) Democratisation and the Prevention of Violent Conflict: Lessons Learned from Bulgaria and Macedonia. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing

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