Grassroots Commentary

Countries, Borders, Peoples.

George Handlery · Sep. 22, 2014

Man is a territorial animal. A consequence is mass murder that proves that pacifism, meant as an antidote of aggression, facilitates bloodshed. If land is involved, leaders and peoples tend to lose their rationality and their moral compass of decency.

Most conflicts are about claims to real estate. Current events prove that the past continues as the present. China’s pretentions, backed by 10% of logic and 90% of might, claiming the islets of others, receive scant attention. Even so, it signals conquest once her means match her appetite. For a starter, Russia took the Crimea, and she is devouring the Ukraine. The unpleasant message: States with Russian ethnics are, regardless of their wishes, the desert Putin’s plate. Thus, the present’s crisis is not a “final”; it is a beginning.

States have a way of disappearing and emerging. Due to the victors, after 1918 the defeated multinational empires – the Ottoman, the Russian and Austria-Hungary –were dissolved. Following the sequel world war, the colonial empires were liquidated. With the fall of the USSR, a further redistribution came about. Thereafter Czechoslovakia – itself a successor state of a dissolved empire- separated in a civilized fashion. Yugoslavia – in fact a “Great Serbia” – did so amid bloodshed.

As Scotland’s case demonstrates, the territorial realignment of the world is an ongoing process. Think of the demands involving Padania, Basks, Catalans, Kurds, Flamands, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and many others. We might have no alternative but to reshuffle the prevailing political geography. Here our choice is limited to the “how.”

Alas, there is no simple and universally practical principle to deal with allegedly national states that contain unwanted “aliens.” Sometimes separatism (wishing to create a new state) can be, as in the case of the Kurds, justified. Yet, it appears that separatism is less practical than autonomy (local self-government). Some ethnics, such as the Székelys in Transylvania, the Magyars in Slovakia, the Voivodina, and the Ukraine, insist that they want home rule (the use of their language and representation) and NOT separation. The model is the “Südtirol” the German province in Italy’s north, or the Swiss cantons. The cause of local self-rule on demand that is favored by this writer is damaged by the separatist wave.

Autonomy, if it means local self-rule, implies decentralization. That wish, as it reduces the center’s power, enhances the clout of individuals and of the groupings they care to form. Constructive diversity brings more liberty. In the case of areas populated by the indigenous – not by recent immigrants – home rule results in more satisfaction. Enhanced freedom and inclusion results in a stronger country because it will gain from freely extended approval.

Such adjustments are likely to reduce international tensions and instability. Most conflicts involve the control of territory and the desire to grab land. This works best where the coveted target is, due to internal divisions, unstable and weakened by shunted minorities that feel forced to seek their salvation by “exiting.”

Often, states lack the wisdom to achieve stability through consent. Their political class might be distrustful of democracy and of the kind of regionalism, that reflects local peculiarities. This is so because, while decentralized democracy bolsters countries, it reduces the power of their rulers. Sometimes, the support of these is likely to come from an ethnic fraction of the population. Such favored elements become “insiders” of the system, while the exclusion of other groups will firm the support of the beneficiaries. However, those left “outside” will, as happened in Maliki’s Iraq, be alienated from the country and its system.

Constructions that rely on such a popular dictatorship involve the disdain of a minority, and rely on a connected cult of the hostility to neighbors which can unite insiders and bring thereby temporary stability. As in the case of Ceausescu’s Romania, foreigners might be fooled to cheer. Nevertheless, such structures are inherently unstable, retrograde, and ultimately the source of international tension.

Any plea for regionalization needs to admit that localism can be a cover for separatism and, as in the case of “New Russia” and the Crimea, it may serve as a lever to achieve annexation. Furthermore, local autonomy might not always hold a country together. If the differences in ethnicity, religion, development, perceived history, and values are too great, their aggregate will deepen and broaden the dividing ditch.

If separation is the unavoidable solution, as in the past between Ireland and England, the Czechs and the Slovaks, or in the future between several states and the Kurds, then borders need to be redrawn and new states must be accepted. At least in Europe, the idea of moving borders is officially anathema. Driven to the extreme, such a policy can bring unwanted results. Today’s diplomacy protects states and rulers -and not peoples or individuals. This is the case when elites use force to eliminate the demand for self-rule and “sovereignty” is cited. Since the claim of autonomy invoke ethnicity, there is a temptation to create ethnic homogeneity by deporting the indigenous, forbidding their language, and by diluting their numbers through imported settlers. The ethnic composition of the Baltic States tells that tale.

Indeed, often unintentionally, the old Empires have moved peoples. The Muslim Albanian majority in the Kosovo – the heart of Orthodox Serbia – is an example. Quite frequently, foreign victors counseled by local “experts” with an axe to grind, drew borders. The result is “bad” borders that ignore ethnicity, truncate communities, and so become the subject of interstate litigation. The fitting cases in Europe, Africa and in the Near east, are apt to grow into deeper sores unless decentralization makes state boundaries into secondary factors in the daily lives of communities that might be potential nations.

The condition of entire global neighborhoods is defined by the volatility of their component states. Instability is exacerbated by unwise centralism that creates conditions in which irredentists thrive. The resulting tensions of intra- and interstate relations create opportunities for powers inclined to pursue the extension of their sway through annexation. In the light of that, we can conclude that the future is not likely to be brighter than is the political intelligence of those that are empowered to make policy.

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