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The paths and legacies of civil war

by Anastasia Shesterinina

Civil wars leave enduring legacies for social networks, political identities, preferences, and attitudes. Their impacts on public perceptions of peace, participation in politics and economic activity, state institutions, economic development, education, and a range of other outcomes that run through the social, political, and economic fabric of war-affected societies, are profound. Civil wars are also often directly inculpated in post-war violence.

Legacies of the Georgian–Abkhaz war

As I wrote about in my book, Mobilizing in Uncertainty: Collective Identities and War in Abkhazia, the Georgian–Abkhaz war of 1992–93 left profound legacies that have lasted for decades. Life history interviews with nearly two hundred participants and non-participants in the war in Abkhazia reveal that a polarization and militarization of society preceded the war, deaths and destruction were incurred during the fighting, and most of the Georgian population was displaced from Abkhazia as a result. Family and friendship networks were reshaped and new ties among, for example, bereaved mothers and disabled veterans were forged.

Wartime loss and post-war economic hardship reinforced Abkhaz perceptions of Georgia as an aggressor and the Abkhaz military victory in the war as the liberation of Abkhazia from Georgian domination. Memorialization of the war became part of everyday life. People’s shared understandings of the conflict and their roles in it — what I call collective conflict identities — focused on these experiences.

Former fighters became prominent in post-war political institutions. Gender roles changed when women replaced their fallen husbands in positions of leadership and sustained households during a blockade that prohibited Abkhaz men’s travel to Russia during the 1990s, crucial for many of the economic activities.

Low-scale violence and recurrence of fighting characterized the Georgian–Abkhaz border area until the recognition of Abkhazia as a de facto state by Russia in 2008, which hindered conflict resolution and the return of the displaced Georgian population. Participants viewed this violence as the continuation of the Abkhaz struggle and mobilized to defend the Abkhaz victory in the war from ongoing Georgian threat. The war’s legacies, therefore, enveloped the social, political, and economic fabric of society in Abkhazia and placed this isolated territory worlds apart from Georgia.

Not all post-war outcomes are direct legacies of war

Not all outcomes can be considered legacies of civil war, however. Post-war economic decline, for example, can reflect economic conditions that contributed to war’s onset in the first place. New outcomes can also emerge in the post-war period which are not directly related to wartime processes, or that are endogenous to post-war processes. For instance, the electoral success of parties that participated in wartime violence can be shaped by how the war ends, rather than by the war itself. Negotiations that exclude groups who object to the terms of peace can generate new actors in the conflict. Other outcomes, such as post-war violence, particularly crime, can be related or unrelated to civil war, with multiple causal mechanisms involved. These outcomes vary across war-affected countries and sub-nationally.

The paths a war can take

This variation points to the different paths that civil wars follow. My analysis suggests that pre-war contention, non-state armed group formation, and/or state fragmentation can contribute to the emergence of wars. As wars progress, the particular way they change societies is a result of strategies that local armed actors adopt to establish control over territories and populations and/or the character of any external intervention. A variety of transitions to post-war conflict and peace develop as the fighting subsides.

Understanding these paths and how they compare across cases is crucial to understanding the institutional legacies of violent conflict. As such, the new UNU-WIDER project on this subject will dovetail nicely with my latest endeavour, the Civil War Paths project. Together, these two projects will contribute to a deeper understanding of participation in protests, riots, and other forms of political contention in the context of civil war, evolution of wartime institutions that embed armed actors in local communities in different ways, and implications of these wartime dynamics for how participants relate to the state after war.

The Civil War Paths project, funded by a GB£1.2m UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship, will explore, in particular, civil war as a process that connects pre-war, wartime, and post-war stages of conflict through evolving interactions between states, non-state armed groups, local populations, and external actors. This represents a shift in focus, from outcomes to processes, and places participants’ experience of these processes at the center of analysis.

The project builds on my fieldwork-intensive research on individual trajectories from pre- to post-war in the Georgian-Abkhaz and Colombian contexts. Researchers at the new Centre for the Comparative Study of Civil War at the University of Sheffield will collect in-depth interview, ethnographic, and other primary and secondary data in a medium-n sample of cases, paired based on variation in how civil wars emerged, unfolded, and ended or transformed. By comparing pre- to post-war paths in the selected cases, the project will identify how post-war outcomes are related to civil war from the perspective of the very actors involved, and how these vary within and across the cases.

Our focus on how participants perceive, interpret, and adapt to changing circumstances in the course of conflict will help shape policy responses to civil war, including its legacies, that are grounded in the lived experiences of conflict.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.

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