Recent weeks have seen the deadly reemergence of long-dormant conflicts in the Caucasus, Ethiopia, and Western Sahara. These otherwise unrelated events have one key trait in common: cease-fires or political compromises enacted in the early or mid-1990s that are now breaking down.
The early 1990s was the last period of widespread major changes to the world map, thanks to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and the independence of Eritrea and Namibia. At the time, there were concerns that this wave of national breakups would continue indefinitely. “Many states that do not ‘deserve’ to be states have been created in the past few years,” wrote Gidon Gottlieb of the Council of Foreign Relations. “While the creation of some new states may be necessary or inevitable, the fragmentation of international society into hundreds of independent territorial entities is a recipe for an even more dangerous and anarchic world.”
It didn’t happen that way. The creation of new countries and adjustments to international borders have slowed to a trickle over the last 25 years, and national independence movements have been somewhat sidelined as a major factor in international conflict. There are a number of reasons for this age of stasis, but one big one is that a series of cease-fires, compromises, and diplomatic fudges made in the ’90s froze many territorial conflicts in place. A number of those frozen but unresolved conflicts are now thawing.
Take Ethiopia, which is on the verge of a full-blown civil war after fighting that broke out between the central government and the separatist authorities in the northern Tigray region on Nov. 4. The conflict is now spilling over into neighboring Eritrea as well. Hundreds have been killed, at least 25,000 have fled, and there have been reports of widespread atrocities since the fighting began.
With nearly 80 ethnic groups, Ethiopia has a history of sectarian violence. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front led a brutal revolutionary war against the country’s military dictatorship during the 1970s and ’80s, then—after that dictatorship fell—dominated the country’s politics for most of the next 30 years.
In 1994, in a bid to quell ethnic conflict, the TPLF-led Ethiopian government instituted a new constitution that created nine ethnic-based federal states with a high degree of self-determination. While relatively effective at tamping down the violence for a time, the federal structure also had the effect of deepening and formalizing ethnic divisions. As Ethiopian political scientist Yohannes Gedamu told me last year, “It led to the growth of so many nationalist movements. Every political and economic grievance is voiced by ethnic parties or movements.” As in Yugoslavia before the 1990s, federalism put ethnic conflict on ice rather than eliminating it.
Since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took over in 2018, many of those grievances have burst into the open. The country had the largest new population of displaced people in the world in 2018, due mostly to ethnic violence in the country’s south. Now the conflict between the government and the TPLF, which has been sidelined to its home region for the last two years, threatens to undo the recent progress toward democratization and regional peace that earned Abiy a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Meanwhile in the Caucasus, a cease-fire last week brought an end to six weeks of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has killed at least 1,000 people and displaced many more.
The roots of this conflict go back to the 1980s when the culturally Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, then an autonomous region within Azerbaijan, demanded to be transferred to Armenia. All were then part of the Soviet Union. What began with a series of pogroms, broke out into full-scale war in 1992 after the breakup of the USSR, resulting in more than 25,000 deaths, the displacement of around a million civilians—mostly Azerbaijanis—and massacres of civilians on both sides. A Russian-brokered cease-fire brought an end to the fighting in 1994, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh as a semi-independent—but internationally unrecognized—enclave, and several surrounding areas under Armenian control.
The cease-fire was repeatedly violated over the next 16 years, but an Azerbaijani offensive launched at the end of September led to the worst period of fighting since the original war, one that drew in regional powers including Russia and Turkey.
The result was a pretty unambiguous defeat for Armenia, which is required under the cease-fire to turn over the areas outside of Nagorno-Karabakh that were under its control, causing a new round of mass displacement, this time of Armenians. The deal sparked huge anti-government protests in Armenia. It seems very unlikely to be the last chapter in this long-running conflict.
Another long-dormant conflict burst back into the open on Saturday in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, when the pro-independence Polisario Front announced the “resumption of armed struggle” after Morocco launched a military offensive into a U.N.-controlled buffer zone. The sparsely populated territory on the northwest coast of Africa was occupied by Morocco in 1975 after former colonial power Spain, withdrew.
The Polisario, a socialist self-determination movement of ethnic Sahrawis, fought against Moroccan occupation until a U.N.-mediated cease-fire was signed in 1991. Under the terms of the cease-fire, a referendum was supposed to be held to decide the territory’s final status, but that has never happened. Most of the territory remains under Moroccan control and thousands of Sahrawi refugees remain in camps in Algeria, awaiting the resolution of one of the world’s oldest and most neglected conflicts, one that now threatens to reignite into full-blown military confrontation.
Other ’90s-era political compromises, including the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians, the 1998 Good Friday agreement that formally ended the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the “one country, two systems” arrangement that set up Hong Kong’s autonomous political status after the end of British rule in 1997, are also looking pretty shaky these days.
Today, these agreements feel like relics of an optimistic era in which the ideological tensions of the Cold War were fading, making international cooperation to solve previously intractable conflicts possible. In all of these cases, imperfect compromises were hammered out in order to prevent further conflict, usually in hopes that the underlying disputes could be worked out over time once passions cooled.
But unfortunately, once the violence abated, international attention also moved on, and these conflicts were forgotten, even as the underlying divisions that caused them remained unaddressed. Now, in an era of rising nationalism and growing instability around the world, they are exploding into the open again.
What does this mean for the U.S.? The new Biden administration has pledged to reengage U.S. foreign policy on conflicts and problems around the world, and take a broader view of U.S. interests, in contrast to the narrowly transactional approach of the Trump years. No administration ever really knows, before it comes into office, what challenges it will face on the international stage, but it’s looking more likely that the reemergence of conflicts the world thought it had left behind 30 years ago may be among the bigger surprises Biden’s team will face.