Book Review by EPF Board Member, Professor Anna Ohanyan: The Neighborhood Effect: The Imperial Roots of Regional Fracture in Eurasia

This review has first been published on the Cambridge University Press website: Available here!


The Neighborhood Effect: The Imperial Roots of Regional Fracture in Eurasia. By Anna Ohanyan. 

According to Anna Ohanyan, neighbors matter. Yet countries neighboring each other more often than not disregard the importance or possibility of regional security arrangements and instead seek safety elsewhere. “More characteristic of the foreign policies of the new states [of the former Soviet Union and the Balkans] has been a fixation on pursuing geo-political patrons and extra-regional alliances” (p. xi). In her new book, The Neighborhood Effect, Ohanyan sets out to explain “regional fracture” and asks whether it is a legacy of empire. Adopting a comparative historical approach and having carried out over one hundred interviews, she argues forcefully that rather than the product of evolving institutionalization of existing states, the regional prehistory within empires more effectively explains both the fracturing and resilience of regional connections. Regions existed before states and created the matrix of geopolitics that followed the collapse of the Eurasian empires: the Romanov, Hapsburg, and Ottoman. If she is correct, her analysis would have profound policy consequences.

Earlier accounts hold that strong states lead to stable and peaceful regions, but Ohanyan counters that strong states are correlated with violence. Sturdy regional ties that predate the state system, however, make strong states, and where neighborhoods are resilient (that is, marked by intercommunal collective action) rather than fractured, there are lower risks of armed conflict. Fractured regions have long evolutions within empires and are the product of imperial policies of divide-and-conquer. Empires create patterns and institutions that prevent peripheries from uniting in opposition to the metropole. They tend to have weak institutional governance, and their ethnic and religious diversity is compounded by the cohesive bonding of individual groups despite the bridging connections that also occur between different groups. Path dependency—that is, what historians call history—explains how these patterns outlive their origins and the fractures continue into the post-imperial regions within the nation-state systems where hegemonic powers may also practice divide-and-conquer policies.

Ohanyan is critical of her own field of international relations for far too narrow a focus on Great Powers to the neglect of smaller states, sub-state actors, civil society, traditional institutions, and regions, which has “produced overly deterministic accounts of the power of nationalism in security studies” (p. 62). She calls for the deployment of an imperial lens and greater emphasis on hierarchy to eliminate Euro-centricity and anarchy as an explanatory concept in the study of international relations. National states also operate like empires. Consider a relatively weak Russia fracturing the regions of South Caucasia and Central Asia in order to establish itself as the local hegemon.

For her regional case studies, Ohanyan chooses three imperial peripheries—Ottoman eastern Anatolia, Russian Transcaucasia, and Hapsburg Bosnia—selected on the dependent variable of onset and severity of violence. In these regions as in others, the end of empire was followed by a period of conflict, interethnic and territorial, as would later occur in post-imperial Africa and the decolonized post-Soviet space. Latin America is notable in our own time as a resilient region of relative interstate peace, while in the immediate post-imperial period of the early nineteenth century, devastating wars were fought between the newly independent states. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was marked after the historic compromise of 1867 by strong associative connections between peripheries and responsive central governments, and this integrated social fabric held the decentralized empire together until its defeat in World War I. Linguistic nationalism in the Czech lands and elsewhere, as well as economic disparities between regions, pulled in the opposite direction, but the highly ethnically diverse empire held together and might have evolved into a modern multinational state had the war not intervened. Bosnia was a special case. Three religious communities lived their separate lives, bonding together internally rather than bridging to one another, and that legacy, despite attempts by imperial governors to forge a more participatory constitutional political order, led to fratricidal war almost a century later.

In the Ottoman case the vaunted millet system, in which confessional groups enjoyed a degree of autonomy and recognition from the central government, resulted in separation and isolation of the Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Muslims, or in Ohanyan’s terms, “clustered connectivity on the peripheries, with the limited bonding social capital between ethnoreligious communities reinforced and overseen by the imperial center, as well as by members of these communities” (p. 121). The empire operated through indirect rule and tolerance of difference but without real civic equality, a system which in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the absence of bridging social capital and institutions, devolved into state-sponsored ethnic violence and eventual genocide. Regions matter, Ohanyan contends, and whatever reforms Istanbul proposed (and failed to enact fully), they did not resonate in or reach to the imperial peripheries. Sultanic attempts at centralizing the empire, through tax collection instead of tax-farming, undermined old regional elite connections to the center. She also points out how the Porte’s attack on Kurdish emirates in eastern Anatolia during the Tanzimat, which should have resulted in greater power of the center in the provinces, in fact led to fracturing of governance, reduced the regional connectivity of Eastern Anatolia, and increased predatory behavior of local lords on vulnerable Armenians and others. Genocide was not inevitable and certainly not primarily the result of geopolitical competition between empires. Rather opportunities to make other choices were neglected, and illiberal policies that might have been avoided if regional actors had had greater capacity were adopted by the Young Turk leadership in Istanbul. Ohanyan’s regional analysis builds on a large body of literature on the late Ottoman period and the Armenian Genocide and introduces fundamental and original insights into the story of how predatory governance carried out by a centralizing imperial regime produced the tragedy of 1915.

The case of tsarist Russia explores how the vastness of the empire pitted territorial expansion against institutional governance. Focusing on Russian Transcaucasia, Ohanyan finds that “regional fracture was integral to Russia’s strategy” (155). Here Great Power rivalries drove Russian policies, and the propensity toward imperial centralization of decision-making—the Russian “octopus,” centralization without participation—diluted local institutions of governance. St. Petersburg ruled its peripheries through “differential contracting:” some regions, like the North Caucasus were brutally repressed by the military; others, like the Baltic region, Finland, and Poland for a time, were allowed considerable autonomy and maintained representative institutions; and still others, like Transcaucasia and parts of Central Asia, were governed through bargaining with local elites. Her study of Transcaucasia demonstrates vividly how sporadic attempts at bureaucratic and cultural Russification, as well as class, ethnic, and religious cleavages, exacerbated the decline of social connectivity and participatory politics. Collapse of the empire and the erosion of potential social connectivity in Transcaucasia were not inevitable, but the inter-imperial war of 1914–1918 tore asunder the efforts of local actors to forge a regional, federative alternative.

Ohanyan argues that fractured regions were more likely to experience conflicts immediately after imperial collapse and with greater severity than were regions with greater resilience and higher levels of connectivity among groups and with the central authority. Among the severe conflicts that resulted from regional fracture were the Karabakh conflict, the wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Kurdish-Turkish conflicts, and the Yugoslav wars, particularly in Bosnia. She contrasts these cases with the relatively peaceful outcomes in the Baltic region and Central Europe. It turns out that connectivity matters.

Despite some dense passages, repetition, and overly abundant self-citation, this book is a brilliant analytical tour de force and a major contribution to the field of conflict studies. As the global hegemony of America declines, Ohanyan proposes that clusters of democratization are to be encouraged; aspiring regional hegemons should be vigorously confronted; and regional connectivity should be encouraged. The implications for international affairs are nicely summarized early in the book: “Eurasia has become a neo-imperial continent, and … its future as a postimperial one is contingent on how the regional fault lines of Eurasian security are negotiated in the years to come” (p. 88).