Self-determination is an elusive concept. It means different things to different people. A referendum is a potent instrument to enable democratic decision-making and actions based on the will of the majority. The controversy is over who has the legal and legitimate right to decide to conduct a referendum.
Now put the two together – a referendum to practice self-determination – and you get the confusion and chaos that has been created throughout the world over the so-called parade of sovereignties. In addition to legal discrepancies and political bickering, the situation is further exacerbated because of the lack of clear international rules on the legitimate timing and choice of referenda. To top it all off, there is the matter of the double standards of the major powers in pursuit of their geopolitical interests.
Most governments in the West recognise Kosovo as an independent state; Russia does not. Russia and just a handful of other countries recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. The US and most Europeans do not. In both cases, one side accuses the other of violating international law.
Just as the world was not prepared to address and peacefully resolve the self-determination claims at the Paris Peace Conference, so was it not ready to address the wave of self-determination claims that came right after the end of Cold War.
When Kosovo conducted a referendum for independence in 2007, the West determined that Serbia’s consent was not required. Yet the absence of Kiev’s consent has led the same Western countries to consider Crimea’s referendum illegal.
Indeed, the line between the legality and non-legality of a people’s right to determine their own fate and destiny through a referendum has been irrevocably blurred.
Fate and destiny
On May 11, this confusion was taken to a whole new level when the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk voted on self-rule. Clearly, these referenda, and before that Crimea’s secession from Ukraine, were geopolitically motivated moves in response to Ukraine’s decision to align itself with the West.
Such expedient actions should not in any way detract from and discredit the more legitimate self-determination claims where whole ethnic groups have been striving to gain or regain their rights.
There are 192 United Nations member states, more than 1,000 ethnic groups and a few dozen simmering, frozen or dormant self-determination movements in the world. If the world of nation-states resembles an onion, and each layer represents a new wave of self-determination movements, one may say that the onion is barely peeled.
US President Woodrow Wilson was the first in modern times to embrace the right of self-determination. It was right after World War I, at the Versailles peace talks, that the principle of self-determination assumed its two distinct meanings. One is (external) self-determination seeking full sovereignty, and the second is for (internal) self-determination – to secure the right to meaningful participation in a domestic political process.
When Wilson said, “No people must be forced under sovereignty under which it does not wish to live”, even then Secretary of State Robert Lansing was highly critical of this categorical embrace of the principle of self-determination. In his notes at the Peace Conference, he wrote: “The more I think about the president’s declaration as to the right of self-determination, the more convinced I am of the danger of putting such ideas into the minds of certain races…The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes, which can never be realised. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end, it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realise the danger until too late to check those who attempt to put the principle in force. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!”
Lansing was half right. Since his days, a great many peoples have realised their dreams of statehood, some indeed paying a high price and experiencing painful calamities. There were 51 states when the United Nations was created in 1945, today there are more than 190. The newest joined just a couple of years ago. The process has not ended.
Dreams of statehood
Just as the world was not prepared to address and peacefully resolve the self-determination claims at the Paris Peace Conference, so was it not ready to address the wave of self-determination claims that came right after the end of Cold War. It was a given that with the collapse of the mother state, the individual Soviet republics and the constituent parts of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia would emerge as independent states. The problem for the international community was the autonomous regions within those new states, with the exception of Crimea and Montenegro, immediately opted to exercise their own self-determination.
In our time, we have witnessed East Timor’s independence made legitimate through a referendum; we witnessed the independence of South Sudan, too, on the basis of a referendum. We witnessed the growing number of countries that recognised Kosovo’s independence after its referendum. Among the political, legal, academic experts working in and around those places, there is a growing awareness of the possibility and reality of recognising the right of self-determination in certain circumstances.
The UN’s growing membership is evidence that self-determination through referendum is a mechanism that works.
The challenge is to have the right criteria to transcend the seemingly contradictory principles of international order: territorial integrity and self-determination. The key is to judge existing self-determination struggles each on their own merit, each in terms of their own historical, legal circumstances, as well as the realities on the ground.
Certainly, we need to make a distinction between stability and forced maintenance of status quo. A status quo in political life is never inherently permanent. A viable policy of stability requires the mechanisms to pursue a dynamic process of managing change. The international community has to be ready to adopt a policy where it can manage change in this quickly changing and dynamic international environment. This is where the focus should be, instead of simply applying a blanket policy supporting the territorial integrity of states. Such a standard approach cannot be applied to every case of self-determination.
Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.