Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Tribal War in South Ossetia

As the Russian-Georgian conflict in South Ossetia inches towards a volatile, dangerous and perhaps quite short-lived peace, it is a good time for those who would intervene – ‘soft cops’ like France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and ‘hard cops’ such as American Vice President Dick Cheney – to study the nature of such conflicts, how they arise, how they can be managed, hopefully resolved and, better still, prevented. Better informed, their interventions may have a chance of working.

With ethnic Russian breakaway forces in Abkhazia equally determined to resist Georgian attempts at reintegration and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pronouncing that Moscow cannot work with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, with both armies bloodied and ready to resume combat at the slightest provocation, with civilian dead estimated in the thousands and the two governments hurling accusations of ethnic cleansing and would-be genocide at each other, there is every potential for an awful lot more lives to be lost in the next few months.

At root South Ossetia is a conflict of PURPLE tribalism. The PURPLE vMEME seeks security in belonging; in belonging to some, it demarks itself from others – all too easily leading to prejudice & discrimination against those who are “not of our tribe”. Thus, it marks the tribe of Lancashire as distinct from the tribe of Yorkshire and the clan of MacDonald from the clan of Campbell. But where super-identities can be created, Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen are both ‘English’ and MacDonald and Campbell are both ‘Scottish’ and England can be marked as distinct from Scotland. English and Scottish can – and have been – ‘British’  when dealing with external ‘beyond’ challenges – eg: building the British Empire and fighting the Germans in two World Wars. Now, of course, Britons and Germans are ‘Europeans’. Yet still there is prejudice between Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen and between MacDonalds and Campbells.

Racial, religious and political differences can all be used as tribal markers by PURPLE. In fact, anything that distinguishes your own tribe from another.

So ethnic Russians, as they see themselves, are not from the same tribe as ethnic Georgians, as they see themselves. The ‘other lot’ are not from our tribe.

That, in itself, need not be a problem. Psychologists from Clare W Graves (1978/2005) to William Samuel (1996) have reported that studies of tribes untainted by anything beyond their own tribal existence describe them as showing little aggression. When they do become aggressive, it is a defensive aggression to protect themselves and/or their resources – and one of the most important resources for a tribe is its land. So South Ossetia, like Bosnia and Kosovo before it, is a tribal conflict over land.

Unfortunately there seems to be little appreciation of PURPLE tribalism in the more sophisticated thinking of key Western policymakers. Some 12-years-plus after the start of the tribal wars which tore Yugoslavia apart, the United States’ invasion of Iraq got bogged down in internecine tribal wars which the invaders had failed utterly to anticipate. Even now it can be argued that one of the single biggest obstacles to progress in Iraq is the US determination to impose one man/one (secret) vote democracy – a BLUE system beyond the understanding of many Iraqis whose PURPLE looks to their tribal leaders to be told what to do and how to think.

RED exploiting PURPLE
Of course, the situation in South Ossetia is more complex than a straight-forward tribal war. Like Bosnia and Kosovo, South Ossetia was part of a BLUE large-scale governmental hegemony in which a number of tribes were compacted together into a super-tribal identity. In part, the tribes were encouraged to associate into that super-identity – eg: Yugoslavia: ‘all the Slavs’. In part, the super-identity was imposed through a totalitarian police state – eg: both the USSR and Yugoslavia – with any dissent being ruthlessly crushed.

When those hegemonies began to collapse at the end of the Cold War – what emerged from their suppressions? Primarily PURPLE tribalism. Because the super-identities were tied into the governmental hegemonies, they tended to melt away with them. Even Czechoslovakia disintegrated once the structure of totalitarian Communism was dismantled.

But the Czech and the Slovak tribes parted company without bloodshed. Why then, in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, have the partings been so brutal and bloody?

Jerry Coursen (2001), a neuroscientist and Complexity Theory expert from Arizona State University, has put forward the idea that RED inevitably emerges in the leadership of a tribe. (Logic: to be a leader, no matter how low profile, RED must be there in the asserting of your ideas.) RED – and vMEMES higher in the Spiral – then exploit PURPLE tribalism for their own agendas. Since RED is focussed totally on itself and doing what it wants to do, the cost to others is unimportant. Depending on temperament – ie: if there is high Psychoticism – and what schemas are held – eg: killing is OK – RED may actually gain pleasure from the exercise of  brutality.

One of the most significant examples in recent times of RED exploiting PURPLE tribalism was Slobodan Milošević’s emotive address to Serb nationalists at Kosovo Polje on 24 April 1987 after they had been roughed up by the police, largely composed of ethnic Albanians. As Milošević was reputed to have said, the (BLUE) dream of Yugoslavia died that day – and his own ascent to power began. And how many people died over the next 13 years as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of Milošević’s lust for power…?

In South Ossetia there are striking similarities in the way Mikhail Saakashvili used the issue of the secessionist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and talk of reclaiming Georgian land to propel his presidential re-election campaign at the start of 2008. The assault he unleashed on Tskhinvali on 8 August was out of all proportion to the provocative attacks on Georgian forces by Ossetian separatists over the preceding week and, even by conservative estimates, careless of the loss of civilian life in the extreme. Another sign of RED driving Saakashvili’s thinking was the apparent blindness to consequences. Russia had given explicit warnings it would intervene if there was a major military offensive by Georgia.

In comparison to the ruthless and bloody strategies of Milošević and Saakashvili, the so-called ‘Velvet Divorce’ of the Czechs and the Slovaks was helmed by ‘big picture’ thinkers like Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar who saw the need for and the benefits of separation and planned it in meticulous detail. Neither side was significantly disadvantaged by the separation and relations between these two tribes are often described these days as “better than ever”.

RED is far from being the only vMEME to exploit PURPLE in the South Caucasus. American BLUE/ORANGE  – which views the RED/BLUE policies of the Russian government and their sometime echoes of the Communist era with deep suspicion – has encouraged the idea of Georgia and the Ukraine joining NATO. Thankfully, wiser (and more complex-thinking) voices such as France and Germany have stalled this extreme provocation to the former Cold War enemy. In the meantime Western ORANGE has profiteered by selling arms on a sizeable scale to the Georgian military.

No wonder that Russian BLUE is sceptical of American airforce planes flying in humanitarian aid to Georgia’s civilian victims of the Russian counter offensive!

Vladimir Putin, good Kremlin despot
Although now prime minister, rather than president, Vladimir Putin is still widely acknowledged as the principal decision-maker in the Kremlin. Given the ruthless manner in which he pursued a military solution in Chechnya, the Russian military response to the Georgian onslaught on Tskhinvali was entirely predictable (except presumably to Saakashvili’s myopic RED!).

RED, clearly, is a major player in Putin’s vMEME stack. However, he also shows much BLUE in his thinking. In many ways, he is what Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck (2003) would call a ‘zealot’. He knows how it should be and he will make that happen.

After the chaos of the immediate post-Communism years, when RED ruled much of Russia through widespread corruption and the activities of Mafia-style criminal gangs, when many people in Russia were longing for the ruthless discipline of the Communist years to return, Putin was very much the man for the job.

Under his iron fist, Russia has reinvigorated itself and prospered mightily from its gas and oil businesses. If ORANGE does flit about in Putin’s thinking, it is often put out of business by RED and BLUE. If Putin does often seem like an old-style leader of the Soviet Union, well, that’s because at heart he is. He even uses Russian’s mushrooming economic clout as a weapon to keep order in Russia’s interests. The most notable sufferer of Russian strategies in this way has been the Ukraine’s struggle with the prices for the Russian gas on which it very much depends.

American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice showed just how much she doesn’t get it when she said, “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslavakia, where Russia can invade its neighbour, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed.”

Not in Vladimir Putin’s head they haven’t. He’s doing what a good Kremlin despot does. He’s keeping order on behalf of Russia’s interests.

And what can the US do about it other than huff & puff and sell more arms to the Georgians? The American military are already failing to win 2 wars – in one of which they invaded a sovereign country, occupied its capital and overthrew its government!With the Iranians also still dragging on not going nuclear, overt military operations in the South Caucasus – even in a very limited manner – is not an option. No American GIs are going to die for Georgia.

So what to do…?
Essentially RED has to be restrained and the PURPLE of both Georgians and South Ossetians made to feel safe.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s 6-point ceasefire plan is a good start but it’s merely a short-term holding operation. It doesn’t even attempt to address the underlying tribal disputes but calls for ‘international negotiations’ on the future status of South Ossetia and Abhkazia.

According to reports coming out of Tbilisi and Gori, many Georgians blame Mikhail Saakashvili for the mess their country is in. Now would be a good time for a vote of no confidence in him in the Georgian Parliament, leading to fresh elections. The last thing the United States should do is attempt to shore up Saakashvili’s government. He has to go.

Of course, the US has to go through the motions of chiding Russia for its military intervention in Georgia but relations should be re-normalised as soon as possible. Putin has given the Georgians a very bloody nose for daring to attack Russian citizens and it will be some time before Georgia’s military infrastructure is back to where it was. His popularity is as great as ever and the Russian electorate generally seem pleased with the decisive response. Putin can afford to be generous and the US should show him and his country the respect his RED requires, drawing him into co-operation, rather than berating him into a dangerous isolationism. And, of course, since it was Georgia who pushed skirmishes onto a war level so the US has reason it should follow to stop selling Georgia arms – on an unofficial understanding the Russians also stop arming the separatists. (Putin’s RED should enjoy this top level negotiation behind closed doors!)

The difficulty between now and any conference on the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be the very real likelihood of Georgian reunionist extremists and the separatist militias keeping the conflict going at a very low level – but always with the potential for it to explode once more. All interested governments will need to work at restraining those they can influence and to avoid getting sucked into military operations again.

Then, as they approach the ‘international discussions’, all negotiators need not only to understand the dynamics of geopolitics but also how PURPLE tribalism works. South Ossetia particularly is an interweaving patchwork of Georgian and Russian villages, with a high representation of both tribes in many of them. What ever solutions are proposed, they need to both honour the tribal identities and fulfil PURPLE’s need to feel safe by belonging.

In any part it plays in such negotiations, the United States needs to lose its dogma of one man/one (secret) vote democracy. Many of those attending a conference to resolve a PURPLE-driven conflict will have the RED-fuelled mindset of a warlord, rather than a liking for Western democracy. Solutions proposed need to take in the current level of thinking of those involved – not seek to impose some idealistic but unrealistic and unworkable form of government. Don Beck has put forward the concept of Stratified Democracy – the development of forms of representative decision-making pertinent to the cultural mindsets of the constituent populations.  (In 4Q/8L terms, this is matching the Lower Right Quadrant to what’s prevailing in the Lower Left.) Barack Obama needs to understand this and flow with it. George W Bush appears not to understand this – and there’s precious little evidence John McCain does.



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  1. Albert says

    Keith, once again thanks for your ongoing analysis and blogging about some global troublespots, conflicts, tension zones and underlying dynamics. This time about an Eurasian one.

    While Winston Churchill once described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma this is even more true for the new Eurasian chessboard in 21st century. No “give me a break” moments anymore for non-stop learning processes and mastering these issues. Albert