Citation: Raymond Shonholtz, "Conflict Resolution Moves East: How the Emerging Democracies of Central and Eastern Europe Are facing Interethnic Conflict," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 359-368.
Drawing on the work of Partners for Democratic Change in the emerging democracies of Eastern and Central Europe, Shonholtz explores the "intersection between the historical and cultural suppression of conflict and the democratic need for the expression and resolution of conflict."(p. 360)
Attitudes toward conflict and conflict resolution re shaped by ones' cultural background. "In the West, conflict is inextricably linked to positive images of freedom, and it is perceived as a constructive engine for social change that warrants constitutional and institutional protection."(p. 360) Conflict is constitutionally protected in the form of individual rights against the state.
In contrast to the Western acceptance of conflict, Communist nations saw all conflict as rooted in the class struggle. This view leaves no room for the idea of conflict between people who are on the same side. If there was a conflict, then the side challenging the State must be an enemy of the State. "With dissent a criminal activity, there was no need to develop negotiation, mediation, or conflict management systems that could address opposing political perspectives peacefully."(p. 361) Minority ethnic groups whose ideas differed from the Communist State were thus seen as opponents or enemies of the state. Conflicts were seen in "win or lose" terms.
After the fall of Communist governments the new democratic governments explicitly embraced diversity and conflict. But those new states still lack the institutions, procedures and cultural attitudes needed to deal productively with conflict.
Partners for Democratic Change seeks to create conflict mediating structures in civil society--what Shonholtz calls "a physical place and visible process"(p. 3620) Local conciliation commissions are one such conflict mediation structure. The Partner's program in Bulgaria began with an educational push to show local government and ethnic leaders that conflict can be constructive and can promote democratic goals. Partners teaches that "In a democratic civil society, minority conflict becomes an indispensable vehicle for the clarification and adaptation of new social rules and the rationale for developing a physical venue for the interaction of those rules in society."(p. 363) Minority conflict is particularly helpful in generating new rules and venues for addressing conflicts.
Conflict also serves to strengthen democracy. Dealing peacefully with conflict involves changing the very conditions that created the conflict. Dealing with conflicts makes the society more flexible and adaptable. Suppressing or repressing conflicts makes society more rigid, and so more likely to fail catastrophically when conditions change.
Partner's local conciliation commissions also create a much-needed forum for conflicting parties to explore their differences, their options, and the various consequences of their conflict or its solutions. Shonholtz notes that "the psychological framework of enemies and winners that prevailed in the old regimes is dysfunctional in the context of a commission that focuses dialog on needs, interests, and the exploration and analysis of options."(p. 364) These commissions also create an opportunity for opponents to test each other's power.
Shonholtz describes the creation of a local conciliation commission in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. In 1992 a police shooting of a gypsy man sparked ethnic unrest in the city. The city had no neutral forum for discussion of such incidents. Working together, Shonholtz and a Bulgarian conflict resolution center created a forum where the different groups involved could discuss the incident. "The absence of an existing community capacity to meet and address ethnic tensions and the need for such a capacity became important themes of the center's organizing work in Plovdiv."(p. 365)
Those first meetings in response to the shooting incident ultimately produced an agreement to create a local ethnic conciliation commission. This also marked the very first agreement to be reached between the parties. The commission was composed of Turkish, Bulgarian and Gypsy members. Member training included role-play over a fictional case of ethnic crisis. The role playing exercise served to move participants away from "enemy" thinking, and toward more open discussion of their problems, exploration of their options and assessment of their relative power. This training exercise has led Shonholtz to conclude that, "given the number of parties involved and the likely breadth of social issues presented, [training] needed to include the features of facilitated dialogue, negotiation, and cooperative planning and problem solving."(p. 367)