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Diversity, Disparity, and Civil Conflict in Federal States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Erik Wibbels
University of Washington,


Policymakers and scholars have turned their attention to federalism as a means for managing conflicts between central governments and subnational interests. But both the theoretical literature and the empirical track record of federations make for opposing conclusions concerning federalism's ability to prevent civil conflict. This article argues that the existing literature falls short on two accounts: first, it lacks a systematic comparison of peaceful and conflict-ridden cases across federal states, and second, while some studies acknowledge that there is no one-sizefits-all federal solution, the conditional ingredients of peace-preserving federalism have not been theorized. The authors make the argument that the peace-preserving effect of specific federal traits—fiscal decentralization, fiscal transfers, and political copartisanship—are conditional on a society's income level and ethnic composition. The argument is tested across twenty-two federal states from 1978 to 2000.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 2006

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1 The phrase “peace-preserving” federalism is coined by Bermeo, Nancy, “The Import of Institutions,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Recent research that has begun to address this question focuses on the political-economic conditions for self-determination movements and the degree to which a country's minority population is concentrated in one province. See Sambanis, Nicholas and Milanovic, Branco, “Explaining the Demand for Sovereignty” (Manuscript, Department of Political Science, Yale University, New Haven, May 2004)Google Scholar; and Hale, Henry, “Divided We Stand: Institutional Sources of Ethnofederal State Survival and Collapse,” World Politics 56 (January 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 In this regard, our study is consistent with “state in society” approaches. See Migdal, Joel S., State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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28 For work with a similar argument but focused largely on political parties, see Brancati, Dawn, “Decentralization: Fueling the Fire or Dampening the Flames of Ethnic Conflict or Secessionism,” International Organization 60 (July 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In general, this is a research agenda that is promoted by Amoretti and Bermeo (fn. 8), but they do not systematically examine the conditions under which peace-preserving federalism works.

29 Nor does a cure versus curse debate allow us to investigate the track record of conflict within federal states. We know, for example, that the conflict score for India is due to conflicts primarily in Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, and Tripura—just a few of India's thirtyfive states and union territories. Likewise, Russia's conflict score is due to conflicts and protests mainly in Buryatia, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Sakha, Tatarstan, and Tuva—a small share of Russian's eighty-nine regions.

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77 Of Russia's thirty-two ethnically defined regions, twenty-five declared sovereignty during the 1990–91 period, and many followed up by either adopting their own constitution, asserting the right to control natural resources, or even—as in the case of Chechnya and Tatarstan—declaring outright independence.

78 Treisman, Daniel, After the Deluge: Regional Crisis and Political Consolidation in Russia (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001)Google Scholar. In a small-N study, Aleman and Treisman find limited support for this theory across federations. See Eduardo Aleman and Daniel Treisman, “Fiscal Politics in ‘Ethnically-Mined,’ Developing, Federal States: Central Strategies and Secessionist Violence,” in Roeder and Rothchild (fn. 12).

79 Filippov, Ordeshook, and Shvetsova (fn. 32).

80 Ibid.; Riker (fn. 4); Stepan (fn. 14).

81 Filippov, Ordeshook, and Shvetsova (fn. 32).

82 Brancati (fn. 28).

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87 Filippov, Ordeshook, and Shvetsova (fn. 32), 189.

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91 The data set builds considerably on that collected by Jonathan Rodden and Erik Wibbels by including region-specific measures of inequality, identifying ethnic-majority regions and the share of those regions governed by the party governing nationally, and adding several cases: Belgium, Ethiopia, Russia, South Africa, and the three communist countries that disintegrated in 1991 and 1992. See Rodden, and Wibbels, , “Beyond the Fiction of Federalism: Macroeconomic Management in Multitiered Systems,” World Politics 54 (July 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

92 Gurr (fn. 14); Sarkees, Meredith Raid, Wayman, Frank Whelon, and Singer, David J., “Inter- State, Intra-State, and Extra-State Wars: A Comprehensive Look at Their Distribution over Time, 1816–1997,” International Studies Quarterly 47 (March 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

93 Aléman and Treisman (fn. 78). Several countries have regions that are commonly known as ethnic regions even though the ethnic groups in question actually make up a fairly small percentage of the region's population. For example, the Russian Federation has thirty-two regions that are designated as ethnic regions, but in some of these only a small percentage of the population belongs to the ethnic group that the region is named after. In order to capture more of these regions, we construct a second measure for ethnic minority regions where we include regions in which at least one-fourth of the population belongs to an ethnic group that is a national minority. Using this latter measure does not affect our findings. See Appendix 1 for data sources.

94 For states where provincial GDP data are not available, we use either provincial income data (Switzerland) or provincial primary school enrollment data (Ethiopia and Nigeria).

95 For each country, as an alternative measure for the overlap of ethnic concentration and regional income we calculate the average ethnic region's GDP per capita as a share of the entire country's average GDP per capita. See discussion in fn. 122 below.

96 Most important, the IMF counts automatic transfers from national taxes to regional governments as revenue raised by the regions themselves for several of our cases, including Germany, Mexico, and Argentina, and as revenue to the central government. In other words, those revenues are incorrectly double-counted. Given the importance of distinguishing between spending financed by regional taxes and that financed by national transfers for our third hypothesis, we have relied on national sources for these cases.

97 Because of Switzerland's unusual executive power, where neither national nor provincial executives are embodied in one person but are instead part of a collegial body of seven persons at the national level and collegial bodies of five to nine members at the provincial level, we code it as follows: In each province, we considered the number of executive members who were from the four parties that have been represented in the national executive since 1959. If all members of a province's executive body were from one, two, three, or four of the parties in the national executive, it was coded as 1. If one of the members of the canton's executive body was from any of the parties represented in the national executive, the measure for copartisanship was “one over total number of seats in the provincial executive” body, and so on. The yearly number in the data set is the average for all the ethnic provinces in that year. For country-years with authoritarian rule, the variable was coded a

98 Data until 1999 from Fearon and Laitin (fn. 48), available at

99 Bermeo (fn. 1).

100 Fearon and Laitin (fn. 48).

101 Collier and Hoeffler (fn. 48) see the same indicator as measuring how poor or rich a certain state is and find that richer states are less likely to experience conflict than poor ones. Again, we would think that wealth may be of particular import in federations, at least if the central government is to engage in significant redistribution among the regions of the state.

102 Ibid.

103 See Suberu (fn. 62) on Nigeria.

104 Treisman (fn. 25).

105 Gurr (fn. 14).

106 Data as in fn. 98.

107 Brancati (fn. 28) and Bermeo (fn. 1).

108 Clarke, Kevin A., “The Phantom Menace: Omitted Variable Bias in Econometric Research,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 22 (Winter 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

109 Clarke's point is that including too many control variables can make the bias on our coefficients of interest equally bad or worse than potentially omitted variable bias.

110 Fearon and Laitin (fn. 48). Relying on the area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curve as a measure for accuracy, we compared our models to that of Fearon and Laitin's model on our sample and violent conflict variables. The area under the ROC curve ranges from 0.5 to 1. Numbers closer to 1 are preferred because 1 indicates that the diagnostic test for the model achieves both 100 percent sensitivity and 100 percent specificity. See King, Gary and Zeng, Langche, “Improving Forecasts of State Failure,” World Politics 53 (July 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Both in terms of armed conflict and ethnic conflict, we found that our model produced a slightly higher number (for the logit model of armed conflict, 0.9868 compared with 0.9744, and for the logit model of ethnic conflict, 0.9611 compared with 0.9395). Fearon and Laitin did not design their model to explain nonviolent conflict, such as our measure for major ethnic protest.

111 Gleditsch, Nils Petter, Wallensteen, Peter, Eriksson, Mikael, Sollenberg, Margareta, and Strand, Havard, “Armed Conflict 1946–2001: A New Dataset,” Journal of Peace Research 39 (September 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Harbom, Lotta and Wallensteen, Peter, “Armed Conflict and Its International Dimensions, 1946–2004,” Journal of Peace Research 42 (September 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. We use version 3 of the data set.

112 More precisely, 0 is no conflict; 1 is minor conflict, which means more than twenty-five battlerelated deaths per year every year over the course of the conflict; 2 is intermediate conflict, which means more than twenty-five battle-related deaths per year and a total conflict history of more than 1,000 battle-related deaths; 3 is war, which means more than 1,000 battle-related deaths for every year over the course of the conflict. The unit of the analysis in the armed conflict data set is conflict-year. In cases where there were more than one conflict per country-year in our data set, we marked the highest level of conflict.

113 The data set is maintained by the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland and is available via the center's Web site, www.cidcm.umd. edu/inscr/mar/ (accessed October 13, 2006). The Minorities at Risk (MAR) data is group-level data, and we use the MARGene software to transform the group conflict scores into country-year indicators. In the event of there being more than one group in conflict in a country in any given year, we used the highest level of conflict. Prior to 1985, the MAR indicators are available on a five-year basis, so we use MARGene's interpolation function for the 1978–1985 period. (We also ran our analysis for ethnic rebellion and protest on the sample including only country-years after 1985, and it did not affect our main findings.)

114 See, for example, Hechter (fn. 14).

115 For each of them, we chose a cut-off point approximately one standard deviation above the average in our sample. For armed conflict, this means that the cut-off point is 1, i.e., minor armed conflict. For ethnic rebellion, we focus on whether in any given year a country has experienced a conflict categorized as local rebellion or a higher level of conflict, such as guerilla activities or protracted civil war. For ethnic protest, we focus on whether in any given year a country has experienced a protest categorized as medium or large demonstration.

116 Franzese, Robert, Kam, Cindy, and Jamal, Amaney, “Modeling and Interpreting Interactive Hypotheses in Regression Analysis,” (Manuscript, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2001)Google Scholar; Clark, William, Gilligan, Michael, and Golder, Matt, “A Simple Multivariate Test for Asymmetric Hypotheses,” Political Analysis 14 (Summer 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Braumoeller, Bear, “Hypothesis Testing and Multiplicative Interaction Terms,” International Organization 58 (Fall 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

117 Franzese, Kam, and Jamal (fn. 116).

118 An alternative would be to plot conditional coefficients, for example, Clark, Gilligan, and Golder (fn. 116), but we find the conditional predictions more substantively interesting.

119 We use King, Tomz, and Wittenberg's Clarify software to generate these predicted values. See King, Gary, Tomz, Michael, and Wittenberg, Jason, “Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation,” American Journal of Political Science 44 (April 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

120 Lijphart (fn. IS).

121 For example, Alesina, Spolare, and Wacziarg (fn. 48); and Sambanis and Milanovic (fn. 2).

122 For example, Horowitz (fn. 34), Gurr (fn. 14), and Stewart (fn. 51). In order to try to distinguish among these two hypotheses, we exchanged the interaction term Ethnic Concentrationinterregional Inequality with an indicator measuring the relative wealth of a country's ethnic regions (calculated as the average of the ethnic regions’ wealth over the country's average level of wealth) and found the indicator to be negative but not significant, suggesting that more research is needed to determine whether it is relatively wealthy or poor regions that may spur ethnic rebellions.

123 King and Zeng (fn. 110).

124 The area under the ROC curve ranges from 0.5 to 1, and numbers closer to 1 are preferred because 1 indicates that the diagnostic test for the model achieves both 100 percent sensitivity and 100 percent specificity. In our case, for the logit analysis of armed conflict, the area under the ROC curve of the full model was 0.9868, while the corresponding number for the analysis excluding the interaction terms was 0.9845. For the logit analysis of ethnic conflict, the area under the ROC curve for the full model is 0.9611, while the number for the limited model is 0.9477 and the corresponding numbers for ethnic protest are 0.9386 and 0.9282.

125 Saideman et al. (fn. 14).

126 Filippov, Ordeshook, and Shvetsova (fn. 32), 5.

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Diversity, Disparity, and Civil Conflict in Federal States
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