The Nando times - Century's most intractable conflicts show no signs of abating

By PAISLEY DODDS

(November 28, 1999 12:08 a.m. EST) - As parts of the globe greet the 21st century with peace and prosperity, others will enter the new year with the same conflicts they had 100 years ago.

Over the last century, colonialism crumbled in Africa, economic development spurred democracy in parts of South America, and countries like Czechoslovakia peacefully won independence. But the age-old firestarters of war - ethnicity, religion, ideology and money - still blight progress in places like the Balkans, Russia, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

"These conflicts are intractable," said Lynn Miller, a professor at Temple University. "In many respects, the struggles look much like they did at the turn of the century."

At the start of the 1900s in the Balkans, territories had broken free of the Ottoman Empire and the bulk of Balkan peoples were at peace with each other.

But there was a quick turnaround in 1903 when the Serbs felt manipulated by both Austrian and Russian influences. Serb nationalism took root and Serbs began to mobilize against ethnic groups who posed a threat to a national Serbian identity.

"Serbia was always a feisty, nationalist state, creating their nation on the basis of military success against opposing ethnic groups like the Albanians who they repressed in the 1920s, the '50s and again in the '90s," said Gale Stokes, head of Rice University's history department.

The first effort made to solve the Balkan crisis ended in global disaster. The 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, triggered World War I. That conflict brought down continental Europe's four great empires, setting off the economic disruptions and political chaos that led to World War II.

The Balkans are just as troubled today, with 80,000 international peacekeepers trying to cool tensions among Serbs, Croats, Albanians and Bosnian Muslims after wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia's Kosovo province.

But continuing revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians against Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo have international leaders fearful about a never-ending cycle of violence.

"As a new century dawns, the Balkans will hold much of the same unless boundaries are redrawn around ethnic lines," Stokes said.

Like the Balkans, Chechnya remains embroiled in a nationalistic war. At the core of the dispute is the creation of an independent Muslim state.

"Even though Chechnya was incorporated into greater Russia by the 1860s, the government has never been able to govern it," said Eric Lohr, a history professor at Harvard. "And the way it was conquered was so brutal that if you scratch beneath the surface, resentment is still there."

After a 29-year war, the Chechens were finally conquered by the czar's army by the start of this century.

In 1944, fearing another Chechen rebellion, Josef Stalin's Red Army deported hundreds of Chechens from their Caucasus Mountains homeland to Siberian gulags, where the rebels earned the reputation as being some of the hardest prisoners to crack. Chechens retain that toughness. Fueled by their drive for independence, they continue to fight Russia's army.

Unlike Lithuania, Ukraine and Uzbekistan - which broke from the Soviet Union - Chechnya remains a part of Russia. Moscow feels it must suppress the rebels to fence off chaos, protect a key oil export route and head off a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Russia's Muslim areas.

"The only difference in Chechnya today is that while rebels continue to wage a war with Molotov cocktails, Russian troops are backed by heavy artillery, helicopters and high-tech weaponry," said Paul Beaver at Jane's Information Group, the military research specialist in London.

In another part of the world, Cuba is closing out the century stuck in an ideological cold war with the United States, a dilemma that Cuban independence leader and poet Jose Marti foresaw during the fight against Spanish rule at the end of the 19th century.

When Cuban activists were being jailed and slaves were being forced to toil on sugar plantations, Marti was churning out liberation verses against Spain. But he also warned that the United States was becoming more entangled in the island's future, writing that the greatest danger facing Cuba was "a formidable neighbor who scorns and does not understand us."

No longer drawn just by Cuba's sugar, the United States presses sanctions in hopes of forcing Cuban President Fidel Castro from power and bringing extensive market reforms to the communist-ruled island.

"Many of the conflicts of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century stemmed from anti-imperialism," said Mary Ann Reed Tetrealt of Iowa State University. "But the Middle East has evolved under a slightly different set of circumstances."

With the exception of Kuwait, many nations hadn't been created in the Middle East by 1899, but the foundation for the Jewish campaign to create an independent state was being laid.

"This period was the beginning of state building in the region," said Tetrealt. "Today, the issues of territory and religion have grown into regional disputes."

Like the Middle East, ethnic and religious tensions continue to stir trouble in post-colonial Africa.

From 1899 to 1920, Somali chieftain Muhammad ibn Abd Allah Hasan, leader of a militant Muslim Sufi brotherhood, pursued a holy war against British colonials.

Today, the fighting is among Somali clans that want control in the territory, which has deteriorated to a state of anarchy.

In Sudan, where anti-colonialist wars raged against the British in the late 1800s, civil war has been a near constant of the latter half of the 20th century. Thirty-two of it 43 years of independence have been spent at war, making its civil war one of the longest in history.

Its peoples thrown together by colonial decisions, Sudan's civil war pits the people of the south, mainly blacks who follow Christianity and tribal religions, against the mostly Arab and Islamic north. An estimated 2 million people have died, many from war-related famine.

Despite these enduring conflicts, Miller, the Temple University professor, cautions against letting the snapshots and headlines of such failures overshadow the century's accomplishments.

"It's a question of whether the glass is half full or half empty."

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