Friday, August 15, 2008

The Lesser Evil

Ahh, the rhetoric of international politics. While Russia refers to its ¨peacekeeping mission¨ to ¨prevent genocide¨, Georgia calls for an end to the ¨armed invasion¨. Meanwhile the US escalates its involvement, accusing Russia of ¨seizing territory¨. Public statements demonstrate a predictable framing, designed for popular consumption. Yet insofar as they are engaged with each other OVER Georgia, both Russia and the US are parties to this conflict, not intermediaries. The good news is, a ceasefire is in the works thanks to a constructive intervention by France.

But the debate between territorial integrity versus right to self-determination is agan in full swing. In the current crisis over South Ossetia, I find myself curious: Which is the lesser evil - secession or forced integration?

Secession is a means to an end - political autonomy, which in itself represents group loyalty and sentiment. Decades of research on the topic demonstrates that the aspiration of national peoples for political autonomy need not come at the cost of state integrity - if state governments are able to provide that which national peoples seek.

¨Peoples who are denied basic cultural, linguistic, and political rights by their rulers are more likely to resort to violence than those who have been given a large measure of local autonomy¨ (¨Self Determination: Soveriegnty, Territorial Integrity, and Right to Seccession¨, United States Institute of Peace).

This hypothesis of violent conflict is largely borne out by decades of research by Ted Gurr´s Minorities at Risk Project among others, from which USIP relies for data. He draws more concrete conclusions, but they essentially they come down to felt perceptions of security. In short, secessionist conflict based on insecurity is likely to the extent that a state cannot ensure:

  • Protection and promotion of legitimate political and cultural interests
  • Substate autonomy for regional minorities

And this holds true for ¨seccesionist conflict¨ whether we are talking about national peoples (regionally concentrated cultural groups) or locally concentrated identity groups in a completely different kind of environment. The recent decision to ¨forcibly integrate¨ Los Angeles penal institutions has led (and will lead) to protests and violent conflict within US prisons. Inmates, who voluntarily segregate themselves within LA prisons, are fearful of the new mandate handed down by the Supreme Court. They voiced opinions at a recent meeting in the San Quentin Garden Chapel (grouped together voluntarily in whole pews of different ethnicities).

  • ¨We protect our own. It´s always been that way.¨
  • ¨If I get into a fight with a black cellmate, then I´m out in the yard, they´re all gonna get me.¨
  • ¨What if 80% decide together that we don´t want these new rules? Will you still enforce the program?¨ (The answer by the way: Yes, and through ¨progressively coercive methods.¨)

Compare these narratives of fear and insecurity to those voiced by Ossetians and Georgians:

  • ¨The Georgians bombed us, they wanted to destroy us¨ (NPR interview with Ossetian civilians).
  • Saakashvili close to tears said ¨he will ´never, ever surrender´in the showdown with much-larger Russia. ´You are dealing with a people who despise anything human´¨(reported by the Associated Press ).
  • A recent referendum shows Ossetians are against integration, viewing Georgia see as incapable of guaranteeing their collective security (view article here)
  • South Ossetians fear annibiliation by Georgians, reports Hasan Dzutsev (an Ossetian sociologist), a fear that Georgians brush aside.
  • Georgians are afraid that ¨Moscow´s real goal is to remove their president¨, a fear that Moscow brushes aside.

Although there may be rational reasons for integation, the desire for autonomy is a fundamentally emotional aspiration. Only when collective institutions (whether political, economic, or social) can genuinely substitute for the trust and predictability of our most salient identity-based connections, can humans trade in kinship for associational bonds. And the jury is still out on the strength of these bonds for minorities in Western pluralistic societies.

The bottom line? Most ethnonational conflicts begin with the quest for autonomy, and end with some arrangement of sub-state autonomy. It´s less costly for governments to settle, and seperatist movements are generally outmatched (though not out-right beatable). Yet loyalty and love of nation are not negotiable, not easily traded - even for ¨economic development¨ or ¨greater political participation¨. The worse for human ¨rationality¨once violent conflict has entered the picture. Violence fractures the associational bonds that tie diverse groups together, driving humans into more local and trusted networks - as both US prisons and the crisis in Georgia demonstrate all too clearly.


Diodotus said...

Nice analysis. I think Gurr is basically articulating the security dilemma between states, applied to the substate level. Question is, given that the conditions for violent conflict are probably felt among many groups, why do some flare up in some cases but not others?

I've been particularly wondering about the role of the Olympics in all this as a trigger event. What do you think?

Diodotus said...
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