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Viral nationalism, tolerance and the threat of renewed conflict

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I got a call from a family member advising me to go back to my native Russia for the duration of the pandemic. I am a U.S. citizen and have not been to Russia in more than a decade, but her reasoning was that if I get sick and need a ventilator, as an immigrant I would not be a priority. Is her reasoning logical? Probably not. But that was her natural reaction to the uncertain environment.

In times of danger, people tend to get closer to their co-ethnics. By doing so, they expect more help and are more willing to share scarce resources with their tribe — whether it be family, a community or their countrymen, as was shown by multiple academic studies. Does it work the same way with the coronavirus pandemic? Unfortunately, it does.

It is a similar situation with those in a position to help fight the virus, such as people with money. When the pandemic started, one of the wealthiest people in Russia, Alisher Usmanov, donated money to his native Uzbekistan to help equip hospitals to fight coronavirus. He also left Russia to live in Tashkent for the time of quarantine. After the press found out, he announced his intention to donate to the coronavirus effort in Russia too. Still, it was obvious his heart was with his own people. It was similar with Russian businessman of Azerbaijani origin God Nisanov.

Ethnic minority regions have also behaved cohesively in this time and have often responded to the crisis faster and more effectively than multi-ethnic or ethnic majority regions. Assuming they could not expect help from their governments, these minorities took matters into their own hands.

In Iraq, while the federal government in Baghdad was still debating the pros and cons on national lockdown, Kurdistan had already instated total lockdown by patrolling and blocking streets and closing all businesses and airports. And by doing so, they have, thus far, secured a much lower mortality rate. The wealthy in the area also donated money to the government to ensure the wellbeing hit hardest by the lockdown. And although the Kurds initially criticized their government’s actions, they now understand their regional authorities were right and are grateful to them for saved lives.

Some central governments are understandably not happy with such developments, feeling endangered by a rapid increase of mobility and independence in ethnic minority regions. For example, when the Russian Republic of Chechnya, a Russian region with a long history of separatist movement, decided to stop all transportation from entering the republic, it led to conflict with Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Michael Mishustin complained of local leaders overstepping their authority in closing borders. According to Mishustin, only Moscow had the right to make that decision.

It’s sad that Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadirov had to publicly defend his choice, highlighting that his actions were necessary to “protect one of the regions of Russia… and the Russian citizens living there.” This intentional signal of loyalty to the central government was meant to keep him out of hot water, something he should not be concerned with when protecting a republic for which he is responsible.

But in fact, in a crisis like the pandemic, central governments should exercise caution when trying to control ethnic minorities’ self-governance. How could they prohibit such measures on a local level? By doing so, they would ultimately be the ones blamed for the death of countless loved ones — a very dangerous development for central governments in unstable regions. 

So what will the map of the world look like after the pandemic?

If multi-ethnic countries do not consider the well being of their ethnic minorities, this pandemic could trigger the reemergence of independence movements and armed conflict.

Vera Miranova is a research fellow at Harvard University studying ingroup and outgroup relations in conflict situations. She is the author of “From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists: Human Resources of Non-State Armed Groups,” which has been shortlisted for the Conflict Research Society’s Book of the Year prize. Her op-eds appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. Follow her on Twitter @Vera_mironov

Tags Azerbaijan Chechnya Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Ethnic groups Iraq Kurdistan local control Lockdown Mikhail Mishustin Ramzan Kadirov Russia Uzbekistan

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