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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#17 - JRL 7067
February 18, 2003
Process of National Self-Determination
The ethnic paradox of the modern world
By Professor Zinaida Sikevich
A special for the Rosbalt News Agency
Translated by Robin Jones

This notion, which relates to trends that have, in one way or another, affected almost all multiethnic states in the postwar period, was first introduced to academic debate by Galina Starovoitova (a former St. Petersburg politician murdered in 1998 - trans.). What is so paradoxical in the struggle of ethnic minorities to achieve their own state?

On the one hand, the primacy of universal values and global thinking are taking root not just in political phraseology, but also in everyday consciousness. Europe is uniting, and people are migrating around the globe in search of work and a stable, comfortable life. On the other hand, experts predict that the beginning of the new millennium will see significant changes in the political map of the world: the number of states will increase by half.

The crisis in inter-ethnic relations has not just accompanied the collapse of the post-socialist states - for example, the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia - the process of 'Europe-building' is also not going as smoothly as expected. Specifically, according to national opinion polls, only around 50% of Czechs, 55% of Slovaks, and a little over 60% of Poles want to see their countries in the EU. Is this simply due to the economic 'fears' of certain sections of the population?

It is easiest to explain the ethnic conflicts on the territory of the former USSR or Yugoslavia simply as the result of a social crisis, a breakdown in the former system of values, or mistakes (or should that be crimes) committed in national politics. This approach echoes the globalist view of the world, which is based on super-ethnic models of behaviour and the primacy of universal values corresponding to a so-called 'Atlantic' mentality.

But if that is the case, then how can European 'regionalisation', with its economic and cultural aspects, not to mention the direct 'ethnic' terror of some Basques and radical members of Northern Ireland's Catholic community, or growing separatist sentiment in Scotland and secret ethnic mobilisation in Quebec and Corsica be explained?

The problem is that globalisation is opposed (sometimes consciously, but more often unconsciously at the psychological level) not just by Central and European peoples who are still recovering from decades of communism, but also by some 'civilised' communities in prosperous Europe, where the process of 'nation-building' ended at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is this that is paradoxical from the point of view of globalist logic, which ignores ethnic differences between peoples that appeared during the cultural and historical process of development.

Anti-globalisation trends seem to have both a cultural and political aspect. Although if the cultural motive is rooted in the discrepancy between universal and ethnic values, which form the core of national self-consciousness, then the political motive is the growing process of national self-determination among those peoples who, for a variety of political reasons, ended up in the second tier of nation-building.

Individuality against unification

The cultural motives for opposing the introduction of universal values, strangely enough, are rooted in the clearest trend of the 20th century - the internationalization of material and spiritual values. Initially, cultural 'globalisation' brought about a rise in urban populations, which grew due to migration from rural areas. Rural life, with its multitude of threads, ties a person to the traditions and habits of his or her ethnic culture, whereas urban life is always 'cosmopolitan'. Therefore, a former peasant always gradually loses his original cultural identity in an urban environment.

However, whereas in the first half of the 20th century migration was mainly internal (between regions within a country), after the end of the second world external migration in search of work greatly increased, and still continues to grow. The flow of immigrants from Turkey and former Yugoslavia to Germany is growing steadily; France and Great Britain are receiving ever-larger numbers of immigrants, mainly from their former colonies, who, out of necessity, have to integrate into a foreign cultural environment.

In this way, by helping populations 'to mix', both urbanization and migration have effectively laid the ground for a move to universal values. However, against the backdrop of this clear trend, a nation or part of one (a national minority) will unconsciously strive to preserve its identity in the face of its enforced 'cleansing', resisting ordinariness in order not to become like 'everyone else.' This is why Bretons, for example, cultivate their own customs and language, and the French battle against the 'Americanization' of mass culture, regarding it as cultural expansionism by the New World.

This is the secret reason behind attempts to introduce a law on the Russian language in Russia. It is not only a matter of the number of so-called anglicisms that litter the Russian language - our language can deal with these itself, just as it has done many times before when French was all the rage. In trying to protect their mother tongue, people are instinctively protecting their national culture, their national self-consciousness in general, which has its verbal expression in the words and sounds of the mother tongue.

This opposition can be clearly explained from a psychological point of view: any person drawn into a system of social relations will strive to remain 'himself' or 'herself'. The same goes for a nation - a part of mankind - which will oppose attempts to dilute it. This is supported by the largely unsuccessful attempts to create 'new historical communities' from the Soviet, Yugoslavian and Czechoslovakian people.

In a crisis situation cultural motives for defending one's ethnic 'we' often become the basis for a political demarcation - one of the first factors in inter-ethnic tension. Many of the nations of the former USSR have gone down precisely this route. Initial opposition to the introduction of Soviet values (an ideological form of Russification) gradually grew into political declarations of sovereignty and independence.

It is important to stress that cultural 'mobilisation' does not always turn into political mobilisation, but for obvious reasons it always precedes it - the very fact that it is necessary to defend one's 'native' culture from 'foreign' cultural influence creates an aim of achieving one's own 'independent' cultural space (not a single one of the national movements of the former USSR managed to avoid cultural slogans during its first stage of development, although they later grew into powerful political forces, like the Lithuanian Sadjudis or the Ukrainian RUKH).

A legal impasse: the right of people to self-determination or the principle of territorial integrity?

Practice clearly shows that there are at present no universally accepted criteria allowing us to determine who 'has the right' to statehood and who does not. It is difficult to explain ethnic conflicts and separatism simply by the striving of ethnic and national elites to expand their power.

There are a number of states in modern Europe that appeared comparatively recently as a result of someone deciding to separate from someone else: Belgium from the Netherlands, Norway from Sweden, and Finland from Russia. None of these countries suffers from an inferiority complex with regard to their former ruler. In recent years, Croats, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Estonians, and many other nations have received the right to statehood, although others, such as Armenians in Karabakh, Kosovo Albanians, or Chechens have been refused this right. With regard to these people 'separatism' has taken on a negative character.

How is the international community resolving this problem? In the past a national group was regarded as a territorial appendage lacking any rights. The Middle Age notion that everything located within a territory belongs to that territory was in force. The basis for owning a territory was usually either conquering or 'discovering' it (territories were 'discovered' if the people living there were regarded as 'savages' by Europeans), buying, being given, or inheriting a territory was rarer.

This Middle Age legal understanding was undermined by the French and American revolutions, and in the 19th century the principle of nationality, which is directed against state borders established by absolutism according to the principles of legitimacy and status quo, steadily took root. There was the American War of Independence, the liberation wars of the Spanish colonies in South America, the Italian 'risorgimento', and the nationalist movements and liberation wars of the Balkan people against the Ottoman Empire.

The beginning of the 20th century was marked by the fall of three empires - the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Ottoman - which led to the appearance of many new states in Europe and the Middle East. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, the number of official states in the world rose to over 200.

In this way, the principle of self-determination has become the international legal basis for nations to achieve independence. International law recognizes three main ways for nations to achieve their right to self-determination, which are laid out in UN General Assembly resolution 1541, passed in 1960. These are: the emergence of a territory without self-rule as a sovereign independent state; free association with an independent state; and integration into an independent state.

The African Charter of Human Rights, which came into force in 1986, states that all nations have the indisputable and inalienable right to self-determination and to determine their political status 'by any means recognized by the international community' (note the legal 'vagueness' of the last phrase). This interpretation of the right of a nation to self-determination was confirmed by the International Conference of Human Rights in June 1993, within the context of fundamental human rights.

At first glance, everything is completely clear and not open to different interpretations. However, one mustn't forget about the principle of territorial integrity, which is just as firmly entrenched in international law.

The expression 'territorial integrity of a state' entered the language of international relations with the adoption of UN General Assembly resolution 2625 in 1970. It contains the Declaration of the Principles of International Law, which affect friendly relations and cooperation between states in accordance with the UN Charter and the Helsinki Agreement on security and cooperation in Europe, which was passed in 1975. The signatories to the Helsinki Agreement agreed to accept the boundaries that appeared after the Second World War as binding.

Some people believe that this principle is aimed at preventing foreign aggression and does not envisage secession initiated by 'internal' impulses, in particular, the desire for independence of a national group in a territory that does not have self-rule. However, this point of view is simply an interpretation and is hardly appropriate with regard to a legal act.

It is completely obvious that simultaneously following both of these norms of international law to the letter is impossible, especially as there is not hierarchy in international law and all acts are of equal force.

This is clearly a legal impasse, if we consider secessionist conflicts between Karabakh and Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and Georgia, Chechnya and Russia, Kosovo and Serbia, or, for that matter, the Basque Country and France and Spain. There is no doubt that in all the above-listed cases the right of a national group to self-determination is being broken, although the creation of an independent Chechnya or Abkhazia, the unification of Karabakh with Azerbaijan or Kosovo with Albania, or the appearance of a new state in the Pyrenees would break the territorial integrity of those states to which the territories currently belong.

One should also bear in mind that domestic legislation in countries from which a territory wants to secede either forbids secession completely or links it to a lengthy process of altering the Constitution and holding referendums. In these kinds of situations we see a different process come in to play, which is highly suspect from a legal point of view and never declared outright . The principle of 'political expediency' allows the desire of national elites for their own state to be called 'separatism' in some cases, and 'the realisation of the legal right of a national group to self-determination' in other cases.

This kind of wavering has been seen over the last ten years with regard to the Chechen conflict, where the stances taken up by both Western and Russian politicians have unfortunately been based exclusively on short-term political needs, and also in the alternate inclusion and exclusion (sometimes open and sometimes secret) of Russia from the list of the world's 'civilised' countries. In this context the process of globalisation and the absorption into mass consciousness of universal values often, by capricious means, become entangled with actual encouragement of separatism beyond the bounds of one's 'own' territory.

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