Armed with decades of experience in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and familiarity with their leaders, Allen Kassof foresaw the problems that would emerge during the post-communist transitions of the 1990s. So, he says, he founded the Project on Ethnic Relations “to try to help calm the dangerous ethnic conflicts that broke out in Eastern Europe and the Balkans after the collapse of communism in 1989.”
These conflicts threatened European stability and U.S. interests and led to the most serious violence on the continent since World War II, and Kassof was uniquely suited to address them. His father immigrated to the U.S. from what is now the Ukraine in about 1912, and his mother was born in New York City. In 1939, Kassof and his parents moved from New York to Toms River, where they operated a chicken farm. Though Kassof did not grow up speaking Russian or Ukrainian, his parents’ interest in world affairs sparked Kassof’s early curiosity.
Kassof studied sociology at Rutgers and became a Soviet specialist at Harvard. He taught at Smith College and Princeton University before founding the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) in 1968 and serving as its director until 1992.
IREX, once located at 126 Alexander Street in Princeton and now based in Washington, D.C., directed the U.S. scholar and research exchanges with the USSR and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. As director of IREX, Kassof knew many of the people who emerged as leaders during the transitions of the 1990s.
As Eastern Europe underwent massive political and cultural transformations, Kassof wondered, “Could these contacts of trust and confidence be used to bring antagonists to the table to manage their differences?” With this in mind, he procured funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to launch the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) in 1991. Kassof was president, and IREX colleague Livia Plaks was executive director.
Originally located at 1 Palmer Square and now housed at 15 Chambers Street in Princeton, PER began to work in Romania with the leaders of the governing coalition parties and the leadership of the Hungarian ethnic minority to craft an overall agreement that became the backbone of their future peaceful relations.
As PER’s reputation spread, it worked in Slovakia and is involved as the key neutral in Montenegro, where it devised an accommodation between the majority Montenegrins and the Albanian minority, as well as in ongoing talks between Macedonians and Albanians.
Though Kassof retired in 2005, Plaks has continued to lead the organization in managing contacts between feuding Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, where PER is the only organization able to bring the two sides to the table.
Asked what he has learned in his years of observing ethnic conflict, Kassof offers six rules that he and his colleagues devised to explain why these conflicts are so stubborn:
1.) Everyone is right: the conflicting claims of the antagonists are emotionally rooted and irrational, making it difficult to appeal to reason;
2.) The devil is in the details — agreements reached in principle often break down during implementation;
3.) The timing is always wrong, and by the time it’s right it’s often too late;
4.) Bad behavior displaces good behavior, but good behavior rarely discourages bad behavior;
5.) There are at least four sides to bilateral disputes, with infighting between radicals and moderates on each side and fighting between the sides.
6.) They never learn — every new conflict is likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.
PER’s hard-won successes under Kassof’s leadership have rested on overcoming these difficulties by persistent efforts that have contributed to calm and stability in long-troubled areas.