The expression of self-determination through a referendum in Scotland is neither the first nor will it be the last in nations’ efforts to exercise that basic right.
When the West helped Kosovo through referendum and recognition, they were very careful to repeat that this cannot be a precedent for others. For clear reason. Not just because there are many peoples in the world wanting sovereignty, but also because on the path to Kosovo sovereignty, the West bent a great many rules and circumvented many international norms out of political expediency.
The uniqueness of the Scottish referendum lies in its unquestionable legality and legitimacy, thus setting a new self-determination paradigm for the rest of the world. This time around, there are no “ifs” and “buts” as there have been with other self-determination movements.
The key elements of this new paradigm are history, nationalism and the clear realities on the ground.
History is a critical consideration both in terms of the origins of a particular situation and in terms of its evolution leading to contemporary status quo which one of the parties involved would like to change.
The Union of 1707 between England and Scotland was the result of voluntary acts of the two parliaments which led to the creation of the Parliament of Great Britain. During this Union’s 300 years, much has changed, affecting the very foundations and the principles on which the Union was constructed.
The acclaimed historian of Europe, Norman Davies, himself a Welshman, predicted in 2012 that the United Kingdom is unlikely to last because the historical pillars on which the state was founded – the British Empire, the Royal Navy, Protestant ideology and the monarchy – have either vanished or been eroded.
Every secessionist entity has its own history of belonging to another state. Most of the secessionist movements in the former Soviet space are the product of Stalin’s divide and rule policy of the early 1920s which resulted in the forcible creation of a mosaic of ethnic enclaves in the Soviet republics for the purpose of facilitating the Kremlin’s control. The collapse of the Soviet Union lifted the lid on ethnic outbursts triggering a parade of independence referenda – most of which still await international recognition.
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…
The second element, nationalism, is a potent force. In a recent Stratfor analysis George Friedman writes: “From an outsider’s perspective, Scotland and England were charming variations on a single national theme – the British – and it was not necessary to consider them as two nations. If there was ever a national distinction that one would have expected to be extinguished in other than cultural terms, it was this one. Now we learn that it is intact.”
It is intact. In the 19th century, European nationalism was a political consequence of the Central European reaction to the universalising ideas of the 18th century French Enlightenment; today’s European nationalism is a reaction to the universalising, and therefore, disorienting notions of being a European.
From a Scottish person’s perspective, it is not enough that s/he is British, now s/he is a European. There is now two layers of distance between his or her Scottish ethnicity, culture and tradition and the pan-European supra-national construct.
Nationalism is not an ideology because it has no universality. One cannot be a nationalist as such. You can only be a German, French, Russian, Armenian or Azerbaijani nationalist. But it does occupy the moral and emotional ground otherwise held by political ideology; and just as Europe was unable to graduate from a common geography to a common citizenry, so was it unable to provide a common political ideology.
In my part of the world, the former Soviet space and particularly the Caucasus, it was the false Leninist ideology and the common Soviet citizenry that was supposed to supersede the nationalism of ethnically defined republics and occupy the national moral and emotional ground. It did not work. The moment perestroika promised a breath of freedom, suppressed and simmering nationalisms struck with ferocity causing the collapse of the union and triggering an array of bloody ethnic conflicts, the consequences of which are still felt and most of them are still unresolved.
Realities on the ground
At the end of the day, it is the third element – the realities on the ground – that influence outcome in self-determination struggles. That is what Scotland’s referendum is all about. But there are oceans of difference in the de-facto status of some of today’s long-term conflicts. In fact, there are three different categories of self-determination movements determined by the combination of degree of control the state exercises over its entire territory and the degree of self-determination achieved by a secessionist movement.
Quebec, Northern Ireland and now Scotland fall in one category. In these cases, the provinces or constituent parts maintain self-determination to such a high degree that they can conduct referenda to decide their own legal and political status.
The overwhelming majority of today’s secessionists fall in a second category, where the movements struggle without any degree of self-determination and the state continues to fully control the territory under question. The Kurdish people’s struggle in Turkey falls into this second category.
Nagorno Karabakh, over which Armenians and Azerbaijanis continue to struggle, falls in category three. Azerbaijan has no control whatsoever over those territories as Nagorno Karabakh enjoys complete sovereignty.
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.
A “Yes” vote in Scotland would have had a tectonic impact on the United Kingdom and Europe. The “No” vote’s impact, however, will not be any less, as neither the UK nor Scotland will ever be the same. The world, of course, has watched the process with admiration and circumspection, among them those peoples and nations with self-determination aspirations.
Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.