Summary of doctoral research (in progress)
Civil wars – separatist wars in particular – are characterised by violently contested divisions of control between conflict actors claiming an exclusive right to govern the same territory. This ‘multiple sovereignty’ tears apart the existing political order and generates competitive state-building projects as conflict actors seek to defend or extend their control and challenge the control of rivals. My research builds a theory that explains the post-war trajectory of these divisions in control, that is, how de facto, or effective territorial control is changed or sustained once armed combat is over and a transition to a post-war environment begins. How do conflict actors – from local non-state armed groups to Great Powers – reconfigure the pieces of a fragmented wartime order? Just as a civil war is “a contest over the shaping of political order in a contested area, a means of determining who rules, how much, and in what ways”, a transition to a post-war environment is the continuation of this contest by other means. My research tries to make sense of these post-war dynamics: what explains the uneven and varied trajectories of effective territorial control after armed conflict is over? What are the causal mechanisms driving the trajectory?
These questions define the general and specific objectives of my research. Broadly, it aims to contribute to the political science literature on internal wars, territorial conflicts, and war to peace transitions by providing a framework that can better explain the formation of post-war environments. The more specific aim relates to the empirical focus of my research – the South Caucasus and the Balkans, where contested transitions have been especially pronounced since the wars of the 1990s – and an effort to make sense of the conflicts in Abkhazia and Kosovo in particular. During these wars, intense local conflict dynamics unfolded alongside geopolitically significant events, reshaping the political architecture of the European neighbourhood and exposing fault lines where claims of sovereignty, authority, territory, nation, and people do not align. These processes did not end when the most violent phases of the wars concluded. Rather, struggles to secure control of territory and shape the post-war order continued long after the fighting stopped, struggles that manifested themselves in the continued displacement of refugees and obstruction of returns, incomplete statebuilding projects, the consolidation of power by warlords, the formation of ethnic enclaves, and external manipulation by foreign powers.
I meet these objectives with theory-building case studies of the termination and aftermaths of the wars in Abkhazia and Kosovo. Drawing on original archival and field research in Tbilisi, Zugdidi, Sokhum/i, Gal/i, Belgrade, Pristina, Mitrovica and New York between October 2016 and June 2018, I show how conflict actors shape the post-war environment through a struggle over exclusion of rivals and compliance of civilians and subordinates to secure effective territorial control. I hone in on areas of sub-national territorial contestation in places like Gal/i region and Kodor/i Valley in Abkhazia and Mitrovica in Kosovo, investigating how these localised conflicts affect and are affected by national, regional and international competition for control.
To understand post-war environments, I first operationalise effective territorial control (ETC) in terms of conflict actors’ ability to exclude rivals and induce compliance from civilians and subordinates within an area. Unlike much existing post-conflict and peace research, I am not trying to explain positive or negative peace, peacebuilding success or failure, post-war democratisation, and so on. Rather, I start with the civil war literature’s emphasis on wartime multiple sovereignty and the ‘competitive statebuilding’ processes this generates as conflict actors pursue territorial control to settle the question of ‘who rules?’. I use the theoretical insights from this literature as my entry point to understand the empirics of post-war environments, and then use the case studies to link ideas and evidence and build a theory that explains post-war trajectories of effective territorial control.
This approach bridges, theoretically and empirically, wartime and post-war dynamics rather than treating them as separate domains of inquiry, and draws attention to processes that would otherwise be neglected when studying post-war environments. Existing research conflates war with violence and peace with its absence, defining post-war environments statically at the state level, and characterising the actors as either ‘peacebuilders’ or ‘spoilers’. This impedes explanation of change over time, variation above and below the level of the state, and the diverse behaviour of conflict actors pursuing their interests. As my case studies show, post-war environments are formed by the interaction of local, national and external actors pursuing territorial control through a variety of means, with different areas becoming more or less contested over time, and shifting patterns of control emerging as constellations of actors succeed or fail in excluding rivals and inducing compliance.