Grassroots Commentary

Secession, Autonomy and the State System

George Handlery · Oct. 9, 2014

Even aloof Americans and West- Europeans are affected by “foreign affairs.” The lacking concern’s cause is supported the impression that all troubles happen “abroad.” It is the good fortune of the American continent, and largely of Europe’s west, that it avoided numerous destructive territorial-ethnic disputes.

Borders played a role among the violent forces that had shaped the 20th century. Several components have contributed. One is the case of peoples that, devoid of historic independence, lack/ed their own state. Furthermore, boundaries ignore ethnicity: such borders separate what is apt to want to belong together. The world wars had led to the redrawing of boundaries and to the creation and to the abolition of states. The problems of unfair and inappropriate borders remain. We are mired in the morass of arbitrary borders and the states they define that created populations that perceive of them as “prisons.”

Here an example. The reorganization of the USSR and Yugoslavia into successor states tells of the problem caused by boundaries designed to settle disputes but that feed new tensions. In Europe alone, much continues to hide under covers. A sample: Laplanders, Germans in several countries, Austrians in Italy, Sorbs in Germany, Frisians, Catalans, Basques, Bretons, Ocsitanians, Scots, Kasubs, Albanians, Serbs, Flamands, Corsicans, Moldovans, Macedonians, Russians, Ukranians, Romanians, Gypsies, Magyars and Jews.

New maps make teachers despair; they need to upgrade displays and to learn something new. Cartographers benefit. The discrepancy between existing borders and their possible adjustment to connect what belongs together and to separate what is different, fuels disputes. Our instincts are territorial. We share this trait with dogs that raise a leg. The difference is that we have missiles. We claim to be cleverer than our canines, yet a few square miles can cause bitter conflicts. Therefore, rules to guide the processes of adjustment are crucial. Even if understood, this does not make solutions, easy. The Kosovo question, being far from the Western reader and unconnected to the writer’s background, is suited to illustrate some generalizations.

To its misfortune, Kosovo represents much that defines territorial quarrels. Typically, allegations backing good claims are pit against each other. However, the invoked facts lack a common denominator and sometimes prove only the fantasy of their inventors. Who should own contested territory that had several past owners? Actual demographics, facts and myths collide. Regarding Kosovo, a battle lost by the Christians against the Turks creates a “clearly unclear” case. In fact, there were two clashes. The Serbs prefer to remember the second one. No wonder. In the first encounter, a neighbor did the heavy lifting. It is a role that Serbs now resent because of claims to a district newly administered by Serbia. Actually, the second battle on Kosovo Meadow was fought by an alliance in 1389. The defeat brought the ruin of the Serbs that represented Europe’s resistance to armed Islam. The glorious defeat, became an icon by which the Serbs define themselves.

Subsequently, this identification grew into a complication. The essentials tend to be repeated in areas that were under the rule of alien empires. Today’s contested Kosovo’s original Serb population moved north – into Hungary’s south where they became a majority. WW1’s generous victors gave the land to Serbia. Earlier, through migration, Kosovo became Albanian and Muslim. While alleging that demography prevails over Hungary’s historical claim, in Kosovo the claim is reversed to assert that history overrides demography.

A conclusion is suggested by world wars; common borders can make for bad neighbors. Territorialized disputes tend to make the involved communities lose their sound judgment. Reason, fairness, common interests, as well as the facts, are abandoned in favor of claims presented as temper tantrums that demand land.

Examine the case of contested borders: only rarely can “good lines” be drawn – ones that respect the identity of all locals. Borders that reduce tensions, rather than to nurture them, are not the rule. The great peace treaties (Vienna 1814, Paris 1919 and Yalta/Potsdam 1945 share an element. The victors claimed to lay down the basis of a lasting peace. Just borders creating states that rely on a supportive people were to be the solution. Sound borders were to facilitate internal harmony. Stability was to be served by eliminating territorial disputes between ethnic states. To support the edifice, the integrity of the entities was to be inviolable. Such commitments lasted until the “next war” and the repetition of the charades at peace treaties.

Much is wrong with the alleged stabilizing result of inviolable borders that ignore the artificial divisions they impose. Equally wobbly is a related assumption. It is that borders, drawn without the consent of the affected, secure the state behind them. Also, the fiction is believed, that states with reluctant subjects can become national states and as such will function as homogenous democratic and stable communities.

Therefore, in principle, the entities created are declared untouchable. The conditional inserted into an absolute is not the result of logical inconsistency. Obviously, great powers are, such as Russia in the Crimea, exempted. The equation that sacrosanct borders guarantee peace is wrong. The theory attempts to overlook a component of reality which is the lot of ethnics assigned to the “wrong” state.

Forcing local ethnic majorities to submit to a “national state” of another people has consequences. The contradiction between claimed homogeneity and ethnic diversity brings internal strife first and then interstate conflicts. It is hard to be loyal to a state that claims not to be yours.

This outcome arises because the denial of rights must occur when arbitrary borders incorporate resented and suspected populations into structures that are alien to them and which they will resent. Suppressed ethnic groups tend to overlap interstate boundaries. Thus, the distance between internal and international strife is small.

“What is to be done?” Let us begin with an admission. It is senseless to support centrally governed multi-ethnic states that want to eliminate minorities whose existence provokes the “people of state.” Suppression in the pursuit of stability is a bad policy. In the case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this effort led to the Great War. Those who wish to preserve multi-ethnic states governed by the pretention that they are mono-ethnic, need to be nudged to grant local self-government. Failing that, separatism will emerge. The international community must abandon the view that all autonomists are separatists and that the former are therefore a threat to peace.

For some time now, the contrary approach was thought to provide stability. As in Iraq, major powers support allies that suppress minorities. This has consequences. By ignoring federal solutions, countries whose minorities might have a state across the border, limit democracy alone for the majority. With a built-in enemy, much will be sacrificed to combat the feared collusion of domestic and foreign foes. Such a project will also hinder the development of peoples that discover “brothers” in need of liberation. The derived duty to irredentism or to conformity will be exploited by ultras that demand the kind of unity on which dictatorship feeds.

The problem is soluble even if the ailment seems to be a chronic. The international community must use its influence not to re-draw borders but to change their consequence. Not borders need to be moved: their outcome must be revised. To save the country, ultras claim that power be used to create a uniform people. Yet the openly multi-ethnic state must not be a threat. Nor is forced unity a pre-condition of greatness. These are the errors of the past – successful societies have avoided the disease. Minority status must not be a punishment. The land of the minorities is not conquered territory kept down to secure imperial survival. Disputes recede once rights are respected because they apply to “man” and do not express ethnic privilege. The rule of law instead of the rule of a lording majority, defuses ticking bombs.

Europe, has missed an opportunity to soothe old conflicts with doses of federalism to overcome multi-ethnic realms that act as national states.

A condition of EU membership should have been that personal liberty includes collective rights. Self-government for the indigenous within existing states would have strengthened these. “Subsidiarity,” which remained a slogan, would have transformed states that were let to remain national dictatorships regardless of their EU membership. Additionally, tensions between members provoked by the treatment of “brothers” across the border, would have abated. It is still not late to act even if the palliative action advocated here has missed the optimal moment in time.

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