Self-Determination in the Age of Putin

Does Crimea have the right to join Russia? The answer isn't as clear as Moscow’s critics or its defenders think.


The citizens of Crimea voted on March 16 in a hastily arranged and deeply flawed referendum to secede and join Russia. The purported results — 97 percent in favor of secession — were compromised by, among other things, the presence of thousands of armed Russian troops and militias. Yet after the vote, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, defended the process using the language of international human rights: "Deciding to hold [a] referendum is a sovereign right of Crimea’s legitimately elected parliament … the right of people to self-determination." The Kremlin, meanwhile, characterized the referendum as "in line with international law and the U.N. Charter, and … the precedent set by Kosovo," which voted to secede from Yugoslavia in 1991 and whose declaration of independence was recognized by most Western nations (and not Russia) in 2008. Soon after the March 16 referendum, the Russian parliament voted to recognize the results, and President Vladimir Putin announced a treaty formally annexing Crimea.

The U.S. and other Western governments have been quick to denounce the referendum using much the same language — calling it a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitution, as well as international law. The world, President Barack Obama announced before the vote took place, is "well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders."

So who is right? In short, the answer isn’t as clear as Russia’s critics or its defenders (few as they may be) like to think.

The events in Crimea have once again raised the specter of self-determination, one of the most important and contested political ideas of the 20th century. The United Nations defines self-determination as the right of all peoples to freely determine their political, economic, social, and cultural development. But figuring out what this means in practice often leads to more questions than it answers: Are the Crimeans a "people"? If so, do they have the right to self-determination? Does this right extend to secession from the Ukraine, and, if so, under what circumstances? What of groups within Crimea that do not desire secession or whose voices have been sidelined? How does the international community decide whether an act or process of self-determination is legitimate?

Ill-informed commentators in recent days have been quick to say that the principle of self-determination either guarantees Crimea’s right to secede from the Ukraine or gives it no such right at all, citing abundant examples that supposedly support their arguments. The truth, however, if history is any guide, lies somewhere in the middle: While a right to secede does exist, Crimea’s move departs from evolving international norms about secession. Yet that will hardly stop other groups from appropriating the Crimean example to suit their purposes.

Self-determination’s history and meaning remain poorly understood and the subjects of fierce debate. Though its roots lie in 19th-century philosophical conceptions of rule over the individual self, late 19th- and early 20th-century socialists appropriated the idea as a way to describe the collective aspirations of colonized peoples for freedom from European rule (external self-determination). At the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson offered a more limited vision of self-determination within a country (internal self-determination) as popular self-government, at least for the peoples of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, much to the disappointment of anti-colonial activists seeking legitimacy for their struggles. Over the course of the 20th century, these two visions of self-determination — external and internal — would frame countless debates over the nature and meaning of sovereignty and international order.

Until the formation of the United Nations, self-determination had no standing in international law. The United States and other great powers considered it at best a principle, not a right, applicable to individuals and not collectively defined "peoples." The U.N. Charter mentioned self-determination only in passing, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights not at all.

Beginning in the early 1950s, however, many anti-colonial and non-Western political leaders sought to enshrine self-determination as a collective right under international law. Proponents advocated including self-determination in new human rights treaties and pushed dozens of General Assembly resolutions on the matter. This included the landmark 1960 Resolution on Colonialism, which defined self-determination as "the legal foundation for the establishment of the sovereign state from the colonial territory." And in 1966, the General Assembly adopted twin human rights covenants, Article I of which began with the famous line, "All peoples have the right of self-determination."

Although at the time, proponents mostly thought of self-determination as an act of colonial emancipation, later U.N. resolutions stated that it was both an external and an internal process. It could take forms other than national independence, such as federation, association, or integration with another state, widening the scope of possible outcomes beyond those envisioned by anti-colonial leaders. This more expansive definition appealed to many people: U.S. officials, who sought to legitimize their control over non-self-governing territories such as the Marianas Islands, critics of Soviet control of Eastern Europe, opponents of Apartheid in South Africa, and others fearful of the proliferation of small, unviable mini-states that might invite unwanted attention from their larger neighbors.

The new definition was tied to worries, as decolonization accelerated, that cascading self-determination claims might lead to increased pressure for the secession of regions and groups within existing states. The prospect didn’t sit well with the international community, which while disagreeing — often vehemently — about decolonization, had long opposed secessionist movements within states in all but the most extreme cases. And so it supported efforts by governments to quash such movements, sometimes with extraordinary violence, in the name of territorial integrity. During the Cold War, for instance, the United Nations intervened in the Congo to prevent secession by the breakaway province of Katanga and stood mute while Nigeria bloodily suppressed a rebellion in Biafra.

Soviet leaders, meanwhile, supported self-determination for colonized peoples but ruled out the same right for ethnic, racial, and religious minorities within Soviet borders, as well as for the subject nations of the Soviet bloc. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian government killed tens of thousands of people in its attempt to stamp out a secessionist rebellion in Chechnya, with nary a peep from the West.

The secessionist movements in the late-20th and early-21st century that did lead to the establishment of independent states — Eritrea, South Sudan, Bangladesh, and Kosovo are on a very short list — did so either after decades of conflict and out of sheer exhaustion, or because one or another of the great world powers intervened on their behalf. Yet they also shared some similar characteristics: long histories of persecution of ethnic, religious, or cultural minorities by central governments, and recognition that the denial to such groups of meaningful internal self-determination had resulted in their permanent disfranchisement from normal political processes.

Where does this history leave us, in terms of what self-determination actually means? Not on entirely firm ground. Writing as the Cold War drew to a close, African legal scholar Michael Addo concluded that "international law is neutral on the issue of post-independence self-determination." The success of self-determination movements "seems more often than not to depend on the fortunes of war and the strategic demands of the great powers than on the intrinsic legitimacy of their claims."

Power, in other words, creates its own sort of legitimacy when it comes to secession as an act of self-determination. It’s a lesson the Kremlin seems to have learned very well.

That said, the concept of self-determination continues to evolve. Recent decades have produced an expanding set of principles and methods for adjudicating claims that once might have framed secession or its violent repression as the only possible options. Governments negotiating with restive internal minorities, indigenous groups, or separatist movements now have a range of approaches — resource-sharing, decentralization, and autonomy arrangements, among others — from which to choose. In 2004, Indonesia negotiated an end to the quarter-century-old secessionist struggle in the North Sumatran province of Aceh with a mix of these options, granting the province far-reaching autonomy, greater control over rents from oil and gas production, and novel arrangements for local political parties so that Acehnese interests could be better represented in national politics.

In short, there have been hundreds of peacefully resolved self-determination claims over the past decades, and the accumulating body of law and precedent they have created has set a fairly high, if uncodified, threshold for establishing the legitimacy of secessionist claims: A group of people in a defined territory must have distinctive identity and a history of persecution at the hands of an unresponsive state that has made it impossible for them to effectively exercise the right to internal self-determination.

On most of these counts, despite Putin’s claims to the contrary, Crimea falls far short. Still, it is a measure of the power of self-determination as a concept that the Kremlin feels compelled to invoke the norms that are emerging around it, in order to justify what looks to most of the world like a straightforward geopolitical power grab.

Crimea’s leaders can certainly lay claim to a distinct territory and identity, as well as a long history of association with Russia and the former Soviet Union, until Nikita Khrushchev handed the territory over to Ukraine in 1954. But Crimea also has what political scientist Gwendolyn Sasse calls "a history of fractious multi-ethnicity" between ethnic Russians and numerous minority groups, in particular Crimean Tatars, who began returning to the territory in the 1990s after being forcibly deported by Stalin a half-century earlier.

There is, moreover, little evidence of sustained persecution of ethnic Russians by the central government in Kiev, or of the sort of permanent minority disfranchisement that might lead Crimea’s residents to conclude that remaining within Ukraine would preclude the exercise of their basic democratic rights or meaningful representation of their interests. In fact, self-determination has been pretty well exercised in Crimea: Between 1991 and 1998, Crimea’s leaders laboriously negotiated the status of their relationship with Ukraine, resulting in the creation of an "Autonomous Republic of Crimea," whose rights were spelled out in both the Ukrainian and Crimean constitutions. It was a textbook example of the peaceful resolution of a claim to self-determination — which just a few decades earlier might have resulted in violent conflict, and a sobering counterpoint to the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Upcoming votes in Catalonia and Scotland, cited by Russia as justification for Crimea’s referendum, merely reinforce the illegitimacy of Sunday’s poll. Both of the other referendums were arrived at after years of negotiations (and years more of substantial local autonomy) involving not only the people of those regions but the citizens of the country from which they wished to separate. Both processes took heed of the example set by Quebec, which sought to secede without negotiating with the Canadian government or demonstrating that its people were denied meaningful representation in politics, only to be slapped down by a Canadian court, which flatly denied the legality of secession.

The majority of Crimea’s ethnic Russian population may well now desire reunification with Russia. But the mere desire for reunification with Russia does not signal the legitimacy of the region’s purported act of self-determination, which ignored budding international norms and the rights of both Crimea’s internal minorities and those of their fellow Ukrainian citizens. Moreover, the new government in Kiev, though struggling to consolidate control, had demonstrated its willingness to address Crimean concerns through the national political process — in other words, to seek satisfaction of self-determination claims internally — before Russia intervened militarily to foreclose on the possibility.

Then, there’s the matter of international recognition: The ham-handed way that Russia engineered this sham referendum virtually guarantees that few will recognize the people of Crimea as having genuinely exercised their right to self-determination, even if it does represent something approximating popular will. (A similar problem emerged after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and peeled off South Ossetia; virtually no one recognizes that region’s independence, and by most accounts, its population has not benefited from association with Moscow.)

In the end, Russia’s actions in Crimea realistically can be viewed as a mask for the assertion of Moscow’s self-interest. But Russia should be careful what it wishes for. The Central Asian republics, many of them with large Muslim, non-Russian populations, are certainly watching the events in Crimea closely, as are separatist movements in Russia’s Dagestan and Ingushetia seeking to legitimize their own claims. The engineered vote in Crimea only highlights the ambiguity and contested nature of the idea of self-determination, and the ability of states and movements to exploit this indeterminacy in an effort to achieve their aims. Putin’s invocation of Crimea’s right to self-determination may come back to haunt him.

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