Ethnicity and territorial autonomies

Ethnicity and territorial autonomies

The ICELDS is pleased to announce a project on territorial autonomy, recently accomplished by our partners, and the project’s outputs including the Ethnic Regional Autonomies Database. The project “Securing a Balance in Interethnic Relations: Regional Autonomies, State Integrity and The Rights of Ethnic Minorities” was carried out by the group of researchers from the Perm University (Political Science Department) and the Perm Research Center of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Department of Political Institutions and Processes).

What do we mean when we speak about ethnic territorial autonomies? What kinds of territorial autonomy can be considered as ethnic ones? However, these issues are far from being settled. Ethnic autonomies are in a focus of public debates and as such constitute an important research agenda. Based on the project’s findings [1], Dr. Petr Panov (Russia) comments on some problematic points of the topic in question.

Territorial autonomies are quite common in the contemporary world. Leaving aside a fairly complicated definitional issue of what “territorial autonomy” actually means, I will adhere to a so-called “broad position” that embraces not only autonomous sub-national units with special status in unitary states but also entities of federations. [2] Quite often, autonomy arrangements are not related to the ethnicity factor at all. They may be based on geographical location (as, for example, the Azores and Madeira in Portugal), political deals (Mount Athos in Greece), metropolitan status (many capital cities enjoy a special status), etc. Nevertheless, territorial autonomy in the contemporary world is often closely linked with ethnicity and considered as a legitimate way to prevent, manage and resolve ethnic conflicts.[3]

Consequently, there are good reasons to distinguish ethnic territorial autonomies (ETA) as a special type of territorial autonomies. Almost every territorial community is polyethnic so that the term “ethnic territorial autonomy” appears to be problematic. For example, Thomas Benedikter argues that in a strict sense the term applies only to some special cases of monoethnic communities, such as indigenous reservations.[4] Nevertheless, most scholars use the concept of ETA (and/or some other notions like “autonomous ethnic region”, “ethnically-defined territorial autonomy”, “ethnically based autonomy”, “ethnic autonomy regime”) in a broader sense tagging it to polyethnic territorial autonomies and thus assuming that they are closely associated with a certain ethnic group.

If we follow this view (which seems to be more fruitful), there is the question about the linkage between territorial autonomy and the declared ethnicity. What does “ethnically based” / “ethnically driven” territorial autonomy mean? I agree with Alexander Osipov who argues that the criteria for the inclusion of individual cases in the type of ETA are subjective, if not outright arbitrary. [5] Probably, one of the reasons for that is that commentators strive to develop a “universal criterion” whereas “ethnic foundation” may be perceived differently in various contexts. For example, ethnic composition of the population within a territorial autonomous entity is certainly a dubious criterion, as within numerous ETAs their ‘titular’ ethnic groups are in a minority position (17% Mongols in Inner Mongolia, 12% Khakas people in Khakasia, 7% Karelians in Karelia, 8.6% Harari people in the Ethiopian region Harari, etc.). Demographic proportions as such does not hinder ethnic group to be perceived as the “reason” for the creation of autonomy. For instance, the Harari people’s ethnic identity largely rests on the fact that historically the city of Harar was an important center of Islam; and it was the reason for the creation of a separate Harari region in 1995. In spite of their small number, the Muslim Harari people keep control over the regional government, though they share it with the representatives of the Oromo people, who are the biggest ethnic group in the region.

Other criteria used to define the “ethnic grounds” of territorial autonomies seem to be much clearer: the official ethnic naming of the autonomy (ethnonym), the official recognition of a certain ethnic group as the “titular population” of the autonomy, special guarantees that secure access to power to the members of this group. In course of our comparative study of ethnic regional autonomies in the modern world, we carefully examined dozens of ETA and concluded that none of these criteria can be considered as a universal one. Various factors may matter in different contexts. Consequently, our argument is that it would be more fruitful to use the set of indicators amid the logic “one of the following”. In other words, ethnic character of a territorial autonomy can be identified by the presence of one of the following indicators: 1) legal recognition of a certain ethnic group as the “titular” group in the region; 2) a special status of a designated language / religion as the official language / religion of the region; 3) special preferences for a “titular group” in the distribution of high-ranked governmental positions; 4) the presence of ethnic identity in official attributes of the unit (ethnonym in the unit’s name, ethnic symbols in flag or coat-of-arms, etc.).

The criterion of autonomy’s “ethnic fundamental” deserves a special attention. It means that a territorial autonomous entity can be interpreted as ETA if its establishment is explained by an aspiration to accommodate ethnic claims and ethnic diversity. Two empirical indicators can be used in order to measure this criterion: 1) the autonomy is the result of an ethnic group’s struggle for self-determination. In other words, the autonomous status is a compromise between self-determination claims and maintenance of the state integrity; 2) the autonomy is the result of the implementation of top-down “ethno-national policies”. Thus, in such countries as Russia (and previously the Soviet Union), China, Ethiopia, the “national policies” were ideologically attached to nations’ right to self-determination and entailed the creation of “ethnic” sub-national units such as “national republics” in the Soviet Union, ethnic regions in China and Ethiopia, etc. These two indicators can be complementary to each other in a “supply-demand” way, i.e. self-determination claims (demand) meet respective top-down policies (supply) in the course of interactions between the central authorities and spatially concentrated ethnic group.

Again, we should not treat this criterion in a “universal manner”. Autonomy could be created on non-ethnic grounds but transformed into an ETA later. Postcolonial India is an exemplary case. Originally it inherited numerous features of the British colonial administrative system. Some states were created on the basis of ethnic colonial provinces (West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Orissa), and there is a good reason to consider them as ETAs. A number of other states (Assam, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Punjab) were constituted on the basis of non-ethnic administrative units. In the 1950s, the government started the reform of the administrative-political composition upon the linguistic principle (The States Reorganisation Act, 1956). In course of this reform, non-ethnic units were transformed into ethnic autonomies based on definite titular ethno-linguistic groups.

At the same time, opposite developments (i.e. when an ETA loses its ethnic character) are also possible. For instance, in the 1920s, during the early Soviet rule, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic had a sizeable percentage of ethnic Armenians, for some reasons was included in the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic and gained a special autonomous status. However, within several decades most Armenians left or were displaced from the region; and today Nakhchivan is not perceived as an ethnically defined region.

Consequently, in one way or another ethnicity plays an important role in the creation and historical evolution of ETA. Sometimes it is not the case, even if the region has ethnic peculiaritiess. For example, unlike the rest of Serbia, the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina has a distinct ethnic composition because of large and locally concentrated groups of Hungarians, Slovaks and others. Nevertheless, historically Vojvodina was granted a sort of “proto-autonomy” in the 19th century within the framework of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it was an autonomy for the perdominantly Serbian region. Later on, Vojvodina was created as an autonomous region of communist Yugoslavia in 1945, not because of its ethno-linguistic composition, but in order to slightly reduce the influence of Serbs and to balance interethnic relations in the entire country. As a result, one can observe a fairly strong Vojvodina identity today, though it is rather a regional identity not linked with ethnic Hungarian, Slovak or any other ethnicity. That is why it wouldn’t be correct to consider Vojvodina as an ethnic territorial autonomy.

Furthermore, in some cases the problems with ‘ethnicity within territorial autonomy’ stem from the very nature of ethnicity. Following Max Weber’s tradition, most scholars define ethnicity as a social categorization which is based on subjective belief in ‘common origin’ or ‘common descent’ of the group’s members, regardless of what feature provides for such a belief. [6] A variety of factors can determine ethnic boundaries: language, religion, race, but also tribes, casts, etc. [7] As Frederic Barth argues, “we give primary emphasize to the fact that ethnic groups are categories of ascription and identification by the actors themselves, and thus have the characteristic of organizing interaction between people.”[8] Since ethnicity is a very strong sentiment, actors struggle over which social boundaries should be considered as ethnic lines, especially if ethnicity becomes politically salient. Consequently, though in most cases one can observe a dominant and legitimate perception of ethnic categories and ethnic boundaries shared by the members of a society, there are some dubious cases that lack clarity about what social boundaries can be actually considered as ethnic lines.

A very characteristic is the case of Zanzibar which became a part of Tanzania as a result of the post-imperial transformation, when a federation was formed from the British colonies of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Unlike the mainland, the history of Zanzibar is closely connected with the Arabs, who made the island the center of the slave trade in the Middle Ages. The centuries-old contacts between the Arabs and the indigenous population led to the Islamization of the island’s population and the emergence of the Shirazi. This distinct group of people has African appearance, professes Islam and lacks “their own language” (and thus speaks Swahili, the official language of Tanzania). [9] Thus, Zanzibaris are often perceived as an ethnic group, and according to this logic, Zanzibar is an example of ETA. However, this interpretation is not conventional.

Similarly, there is no conventional approach towards the social boundaries which have ethnic significance in such autonomies as Ajara (Georgia), Sicily (Italy), Bougainville (Papua New Guinea). That is why, while developing the list of ethnic regional autonomies (the current ones and those that ceased to exist in the beginning of the 21st century) within the framework of our project, we divided it into two parts: the “core list”, which includes the cases that fully comply with the definitional criteria, and the “border-line list” with ambiguous cases.[10]

Finally, ethnicity is not only socially disputed but also a socially changeable phenomenon. It means that the interpretation of which social boundaries have ethnic significance may change. Trinidad and Tobago is an exemplary case. Tobago, the smaller one of these two islands, is located quite far from Trinidad. It is distinct in terms of history and economy. The island fought long for autonomy and received it in 1980. Although firm ethnic boundaries lines are drawn between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians, “Tobagonianism”, or the Tobagonian identity (yet not perceived in ethnic terms), is a fairly strong, and this situation may change over time. It is well known, for example, that many Sicilians perceive themselves as a distinct ethnic group. The Tobagonians have no less historical, geographic, economic and other reasons than the Sicilians for “ethnicizing” their identity.

Therefore, the issue of linkages between territorial autonomy and ethnicity belongs not only to scholarly domain, but it also has a definite practical dimension. This linkage means that ethnicity becomes politically salient in a territorial autonomous entity. Consequently, the protection of ethnic minorities’ rights and maintenance of a balance in interethnic relations attain a special significance. In this context, one should keep in mind that the linkage between territorial autonomy and ethnicity strongly varies around the world and that ethnicity is a socially disputed and changeable phenomenon. Hence, there are no (and cannot be any) universally applicable solutions in the domain of interethnic relations.


[1] The project “Securing a balance in interethnic relations: regional autonomies, the state integrity and the rights of ethnic minorities” was supported by the Russian Science Foundation (Grant №15-18-00034).
[2] See for instance: Cederman, L.-E., S. Hug, A. Schadel and J. Wucherpfennig. 2015. “Territorial Autonomy in the Shadow of Conflict: Too Little, Too Late?”, American Political Science Review 109 (2), pp. 354-370; Anderson, L. 2013. Federal Solutions to Ethnic Problems: Accommodating Diversity. New York: Routledge.
[3] See for instance: Ghai, Y. (ed.) 2000. Autonomy and Ethnicity: Negotiating Competing Claims in Multi-Ethnic States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Weller, M. and S. Wolff (eds.) 2005. Autonomy, Self-governance and Conflict Resolution Innovative approaches to institutional design in divided societies. London, New York: Routledge.
[4] Benedikter, T. 2009. Solving Ethnic Conflict through Self-Government: A Short Guide to Autonomy in South Asia and Europe. Bozen/Bolzano: EURAC.
[5] Osipov, A., 2016. “Studying Territorial Autonomy as a Multiplicity of Ways to Institutionalise Ethnicity”, in: M. Nicolini, F. Palermo and E. Milano (eds.) Law, Territory and Conflict Resolution. Law as a Problem and Law as a Solution. Leiden: Brill, p.73.
[6] Wimmer, A. 2013. Ethnic Boundary Making: Institutions, Power, Networks. Oxford Studies in Culture and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, p.7.
[7] Horowitz, D. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 17-18; Ghai, Y. “Ethnicity and Autonomy: A Framework for Analysis”, in: Y. Ghai (ed.) Autonomy and Ethnicity: Negotiating Competing Claims in Multi-Ethnic States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.4.
[8] Barth, F. 1998. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Reissued Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press. p.10.
[9] Benedikter, T. 2009. World’s Modern Autonomy Systems: Concepts and Experiences of Regional Territorial Autonomy. Bozen/Bolzano: EURAC, pp. 159-160.
[10] The list of ethnic regional autonomies as well as Atlas of Ethnic Regional Autonomies of the Contemporary World is presented on the project website:

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