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Plain Truth

Ukraine–National Self-Determination or Economics?

Saral Sarkar

Will there soon be another war in Europe? The politicians assuage public fears: no, it will not go that far. But with Russian military support, Crimea has already declared independence, while the NATO countries and Russia threaten each other with sanctions and counter-sanctions. Reason for great worry therefore remains.

In political colloquial German there is a witty saying: "legal or illegal; I don't give a damn." Moreover, no putsch, no ousting of a President, no tyrannicide, no revolution, no unilateral declaration of independence is legal or constitutional. And the demonstrators on Kiev's Maidan did not claim that their "revolution" has been constitutional. Ben Ali and Mubarak were rightful presidents of their country—in accordance with some law in force at the time. Even the despotically ruling King of Saudi Arabia, one of the best friends of the West, is a rightful ruler. Yanukovych was even a properly elected president. But who cares? After some time, the normative power of facts comes into force. Whether the referendum in Crimea and the stand of the Russians there have been constitutional or in accordance with international law, does not matter. The Russians have enumerated to the Americans, how many illegal invasions the latter have perpetrated in recent decades—from Panama and Grenada up to Iraq. Even a Washington Post columnist admitted that the US had no moral right to accuse Russia of anything in this regard. Merkel too has no such right. Gerhard Schroeder, her predecessor in the office of the Chancellor of the German government, recently said that Germany too violated international law when it, under his Chancellorship, bombarded Serbia. That's why he could not blame his friend Putin for Russia's stand on Crimea. Sometimes the great powers also talk plain truth. The Americans often cite their "vital interest" to defend an invasion. In the current conflict over Crimea, the Russians have openly said that they will defend their interests.

Under German law, in certain circumstances, failure to render help can be a punishable offense. In international law, there is no such duty. Precisely for this reason, after the genocide in Rwanda (1994), the ethical principle of "responsibility to protect" was postulated. Of course, great powers can also abuse this ethical principle, as recently happened in Libya. But it is at least theoretically better than strict observance of the legal principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a state. By all means, in 1994, the armies of the neighboring states should have intervened in Rwanda to stop the genocide. In private life, people do intervene when, for example, in the neighboring house an angry husband threatens to kill his wife.

According to the Russian version of the story, the "revolution" in Kiev was in fact a fascist coup d'etat, stoked up by Western powers, against the Russia-friendly elected president. That's why, according to them, this coup was not only a threat to the legitimate interests of Russia (naval base in Sevastopol, defense against the encirclement policy of the NATO etc.), but also a threat to the ethnic Russian people of the Ukraine. This, according to the Russians, justified their stand and compelled them to take action to protect the ethnic Russians in Crimea.

One can also invoke the principle of national self-determination and, with a clear conscience, justify the decision of the Crimean Russians, who constitute the majority of the population on the peninsula, to hold a referendum. In Crimea the ethnic Russians make up 58 percent of the population. Therefore, it was no surprise that in the referendum—even without manipulation—the majority of those who cast their ballot opted for secession from the Ukraine. But the problem is not so easily solved. The remaining 40 percent—the Crimean Tatars and the ethnic Ukrainians—are, or can be, afraid of being persecuted or discriminated against under Russian rule. Generally, going-on about principles and a stubborn enforcement of a referendum or a stubborn refusal thereof are not sensible politics. Especially in such situations as in Crimea, it is better to act reasonably and seek an amicable solution to the problem.

For one thing Crimean Russians had enough justification for their declaration of independence. They, firstly, constitute the majority of the population. And, secondly, the desire to break up or break away from a bigger political entity is neither bad per se nor uncommon. The Soviet Union was broken up with the consent of the leaders of at least the bigger constituent republics. The former Czechoslovakia was split up peacefully at the request of the Slovaks, after which the two succession states are till today living peacefully side by side. If the Scots decide in the already scheduled referendum to dissolve their union with England and Wales, the people of the latter two and the government of the UK will accept that decision.

Yet these examples should not mislead one into thinking that dividing up a state into smaller independent states is always and everywhere possible without much trouble. Modern history shows that such an attempt can also end in a catastrophe. There are several examples for this: Biafra (Nigeria), Katanga (Democratic Republic of Congo), the Tamilian northern part of Sri Lanka. In Europe, the Basque region of Spain and France has gone through several decades of murderous guerilla war. Even where such attempts have in the end been successful—in 1947 in India (Pakistan), 1971 in Pakistan (Bangladesh), in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, recently in Sudan (South Sudan)—in every case the process was accompanied by bloody wars and large-scale massacres of civilians. The only pure exception is Czechoslovakia. The breaking up of the Soviet Union was preceded by political and economic breakdown, a military putsch attempt, and the ouster of Gorbachev from power. And if the Scots vote for independence, the English and the Welshmen will, of course, accept their decision, but there will definitely be conflict over sharing the revenues from the North Sea oil, over Scotland using the pound sterling as its currency, and over Scotland's membership of the EU.

It is easy to feel sympathy for the separatist independence struggle of a constituent part of the population of a state when the majority of the former inhabit a roughly definable part of the country. But, as the examples above show, it is very difficult to carve a new state out of an already established one or to completely liquidate the latter as it happened in the case of Yugoslavia. Despite these negative examples such attempts are still being made—in northern Italy and in Spain, where not only the Basques but also the Catalans are trying to break away and create an independent state of their own. Such attempts are today very unwise. For today, there is hardly a country or even a larger part of a country (a province or even a district) where one does not find different ethnic, religious or language groups living strongly mixed up side by side. This writer once asked a Turkish expat, a leader of a left political group in Germany, whether he supported the independence struggle of the Turkish Kurds. He said, no. He would not mind, he said, if the Kurdish regions would secede from Turkey, but then, he added, the Kurds would also be forced to leave Istanbul, Ankara and the other bigger cities. How would that possibly end?

A similar problem exists in the Indian part of Kashmir. The Hindu minority, that had been living for generations in the midst of the predominantly Muslim population of Kashmir valley, has long been forced to leave that part of the state. But in the south, in the province of Jammu, Hindus and other non-Muslims constitute the majority. And the Buddhist Ladakhis live in the north. If now the Muslim inhabitants of the Indian part of Kashmir declare that they cannot live in India as it is a predominantly Hindu country, and if they somehow succeed in splitting the territory out of India and integrate it into the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, then the Hindus in the greater part of India might tell the Muslims living scattered throughout India they should also, go to Pakistan. A large-scale and cruel expulsion of the Muslims could then be the result, the second after 1947. Also the small peoples living in small states in north-east India—the Nagas, the Mizos, the Manipuris—would have a big problem if they somehow succeed in their effort to gain independence. The majority of Indians might then tell them: we don't want to have anything to do with you any more. See how you cope with your independence. These small states are situated far away from any seashore. Without cooperation with India, they would not be able to carry on foreign trade or receive foreign investment. Geography is also a part of fate.

In the current case of Ukraine-Crimea, one must remember that what at the beginning stood in the foreground was the economic problem. President Yanukovych decided after much deliberation that for the Ukraine, on balance, an economic association with Russia would be more advantageous than one with the EU. The EU's offer was too meager. In a situation where the Ukraine is broke, where the country needs $30 billion in this year and the next just to avert bankruptcy, the EU offered initially only 800 million Euros in emergency aid. It was obvious that Russia's offer of assistance—$15 billion emergency aid plus a discount of 33 per cent in gas price—was comparatively much better. Yanukovych also had to consider that Russia is a major export market for Ukraine's industrial products.

The President acted like a prudent father, who wanted to marry his daughter (the Ukraine) to a rich groom. But the daughter (more specifically, only the western part of the Ukraine) was determined to marry her loved one, the EU. The real world is simply so. Not all people act in a rational way, comparing the economic advantages and disadvantages of a decision with those of another. Strong irrational feelings and emotions are also there, and there is national pride, even in politics.

Western Ukrainians are generally known to have a long-standing antipathy towards (even hatred of) Russians. History is hard to forget. And it is true that Ukrainians suffered much under the Tsars and during the Stalin era. Even so, economically, it would probably have been better for the Ukraine if she had not made herself so dependent on the EU. As a member of the EU she would lose much of her independence—a problem that is already troubling the people of many member countries, e.g. the people of the UK and Germany (there, especially Bavaria). The EU and the IMF will certainly give her the urgently needed rescue loans, as they have also given Greece. But under the same conditions that must be fulfilled by Greece. The state will be saved from bankruptcy, but Ukrainian society will suffer the same tragic fate as Greek society is already suffering. Even if later, for geo-strategic reasons, the Western creditors forgive part of their national debt, the Ukrainians would "enjoy" the same bad living conditions as the Bulgarians and Romanians do today, especially after they have lost their goods and labor markets in Russia. The Germans will soon grumble at the allegedly lazy and corrupt Ukrainians as much as they have done for the last few years at the Greeks. But the Western Ukrainians were not bothered about such future prospects. They have fallen in love. They are now elated at the prospect of visa-free travel to many countries and job opportunities in Germany, France or the UK.

As for Crimean Russians, apart from succumbing to their national feelings, they also acted rationally in leaving a sinking ship. The Ukraine is broke, but not Russia, which still possesses huge energy and other resources, the world market prices of which are rising continuously. As citizens of Russia they will get higher salaries and pensions, better medical care etc. Great power Russia is willing and will able to bear these extra costs. The Ukraine should, if only for this reason, let the Crimean Russians go and wish them well. The peninsula has no highly valuable mineral resources, nor is it the location of major industries. The only condition that she and the so-called international community should try to impose on Crimea and Russia is a guarantee of equal rights and equal treatment of ethnic Tatars and Ukrainians. For similar economic reasons, also the Kashmiri Muslims should opt for continuing to live in India rather than for becoming citizens of Pakistan, an obviously and increasingly failing state.

Economics has generally been the most important (though not the only) factor in questions of this kind. Most relatively poor European countries that joined the EU before 2008 (i.e. when the current world economic crisis broke out)—Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Poland—clearly did that in expectation of all kinds of development aid and investments from the core EU countries of those days. They hoped they would, in this way, be able to economically catch up with, say, Germany. They were willing to sacrifice part of their independence in exchange. Things have however changed since then. Today's poorer EU members and aspirants for membership cannot expect that much help any more and cannot hope to be able to catch up with Germany. Big corporations may invest there, but only if wages and taxes are sufficiently low. Even Greece, an old member of the EU, has been compelled to lower wages, cut salaries and pensions, cut medical aid etc. in order to attract investments.

Economics has also been the most important factor in many past cases where a part of an existing state wanted to break away and become independent. Some examples thereof have been mentioned above: the copper-rich province of Katanga in the DR of Congo, the oil-rich province of Biafra in Nigeria, oil-rich South Sudan. Further back in history, the imperialists created small client states around large oil deposits. Examples: Brunei and Kuwait. More recently, in the case of the Slovenians and Croatians, Catalonians and North Italians, their desire for independence arose from their higher level of prosperity that they no longer want(ed) to share with the rest of their countrymen. And for the Scots, as they themselves say, the prospect of getting a higher share of the North Sea oil revenues is a strong motivation for seeking independence. But one should not make the matter so simple. In all these cases, definitely, sub-nationalism also played an important role.

In recent history, there is also a case in which a small island "nation", for economic reasons, refused an offer of independence from colonial rule: Mayotte, one of the four Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean, had been a French colony until 1974, when France organized a referendum for self-determination. The other three decided to become independent, but not Mayotte, which voted to retain French suzerainty. Through a referendum held in 2009, Mayotte even officially became France's 101st department.

Of course, it would have been much better if the conflict between the great powers Russia and the EU could have been resolved consensually and peacefully, so that the Ukraine would not have been compelled to choose between the EU's association agreement and Russia's Eurasian customs union. The current Crimea conflict, however, came up only after the Russians both in Crimea and Russia saw that fascists and Russian-haters succeeded in making their putsch and became a strong component of the new government.

This political crisis in Europe will have tragic consequences. It has already made all Europeans forget the other great crises: the ecological crisis, the climate crisis, the resource crisis, and the economic crisis. It has made them forget all the other urgent problems of Europe and the world: the poverty problem, the unemployment problem, the refugee problem, the xenophobia problem, and the problem of the rise of the right radicals. Political movements for a better world have been set back by many years.

But one may also see something positive in this negative development: When the Ukrainians are compelled to stop living beyond their means and when the Western European and Russian economies experience another recession because of the imminent economic war by means of sanctions, counter-sanctions and gas price increases, then that will be good for the environment.

Frontier
Vol. 46, No. 45, May 18 -24, 2014