Self-Determination in the Age of Putin

Does Crimea have the right to join Russia? The answer isn't as clear as Moscow’s critics or its defenders think.

The citizens of Crimea voted on March 16 in a hastily arranged and deeply flawed referendum to secede and join Russia. The purported results -- 97 percent in favor of secession -- were compromised by, among other things, the presence of thousands of armed Russian troops and militias. Yet after the vote, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, defended the process using the language of international human rights: "Deciding to hold [a] referendum is a sovereign right of Crimea's legitimately elected parliament ... the right of people to self-determination." The Kremlin, meanwhile, characterized the referendum as "in line with international law and the U.N. Charter, and ... the precedent set by Kosovo," which voted to secede from Yugoslavia in 1991 and whose declaration of independence was recognized by most Western nations (and not Russia) in 2008. Soon after the March 16 referendum, the Russian parliament voted to recognize the results, and President Vladimir Putin announced a treaty formally annexing Crimea.

The U.S. and other Western governments have been quick to denounce the referendum using much the same language -- calling it a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and constitution, as well as international law. The world, President Barack Obama announced before the vote took place, is "well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders."

So who is right? In short, the answer isn't as clear as Russia's critics or its defenders (few as they may be) like to think.

The events in Crimea have once again raised the specter of self-determination, one of the most important and contested political ideas of the 20th century. The United Nations defines self-determination as the right of all peoples to freely determine their political, economic, social, and cultural development. But figuring out what this means in practice often leads to more questions than it answers: Are the Crimeans a "people"? If so, do they have the right to self-determination? Does this right extend to secession from the Ukraine, and, if so, under what circumstances? What of groups within Crimea that do not desire secession or whose voices have been sidelined? How does the international community decide whether an act or process of self-determination is legitimate?

Ill-informed commentators in recent days have been quick to say that the principle of self-determination either guarantees Crimea's right to secede from the Ukraine or gives it no such right at all, citing abundant examples that supposedly support their arguments. The truth, however, if history is any guide, lies somewhere in the middle: While a right to secede does exist, Crimea's move departs from evolving international norms about secession. Yet that will hardly stop other groups from appropriating the Crimean example to suit their purposes.

Self-determination's history and meaning remain poorly understood and the subjects of fierce debate. Though its roots lie in 19th-century philosophical conceptions of rule over the individual self, late 19th- and early 20th-century socialists appropriated the idea as a way to describe the collective aspirations of colonized peoples for freedom from European rule (external self-determination). At the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson offered a more limited vision of self-determination within a country (internal self-determination) as popular self-government, at least for the peoples of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, much to the disappointment of anti-colonial activists seeking legitimacy for their struggles. Over the course of the 20th century, these two visions of self-determination -- external and internal -- would frame countless debates over the nature and meaning of sovereignty and international order.

Until the formation of the United Nations, self-determination had no standing in international law. The United States and other great powers considered it at best a principle, not a right, applicable to individuals and not collectively defined "peoples." The U.N. Charter mentioned self-determination only in passing, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights not at all.

Beginning in the early 1950s, however, many anti-colonial and non-Western political leaders sought to enshrine self-determination as a collective right under international law. Proponents advocated including self-determination in new human rights treaties and pushed dozens of General Assembly resolutions on the matter. This included the landmark 1960 Resolution on Colonialism, which defined self-determination as "the legal foundation for the establishment of the sovereign state from the colonial territory." And in 1966, the General Assembly adopted twin human rights covenants, Article I of which began with the famous line, "All peoples have the right of self-determination."

Although at the time, proponents mostly thought of self-determination as an act of colonial emancipation, later U.N. resolutions stated that it was both an external and an internal process. It could take forms other than national independence, such as federation, association, or integration with another state, widening the scope of possible outcomes beyond those envisioned by anti-colonial leaders. This more expansive definition appealed to many people: U.S. officials, who sought to legitimize their control over non-self-governing territories such as the Marianas Islands, critics of Soviet control of Eastern Europe, opponents of Apartheid in South Africa, and others fearful of the proliferation of small, unviable mini-states that might invite unwanted attention from their larger neighbors.

The new definition was tied to worries, as decolonization accelerated, that cascading self-determination claims might lead to increased pressure for the secession of regions and groups within existing states. The prospect didn't sit well with the international community, which while disagreeing -- often vehemently -- about decolonization, had long opposed secessionist movements within states in all but the most extreme cases. And so it supported efforts by governments to quash such movements, sometimes with extraordinary violence, in the name of territorial integrity. During the Cold War, for instance, the United Nations intervened in the Congo to prevent secession by the breakaway province of Katanga and stood mute while Nigeria bloodily suppressed a rebellion in Biafra.

Soviet leaders, meanwhile, supported self-determination for colonized peoples but ruled out the same right for ethnic, racial, and religious minorities within Soviet borders, as well as for the subject nations of the Soviet bloc. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian government killed tens of thousands of people in its attempt to stamp out a secessionist rebellion in Chechnya, with nary a peep from the West.

The secessionist movements in the late-20th and early-21st century that did lead to the establishment of independent states -- Eritrea, South Sudan, Bangladesh, and Kosovo are on a very short list -- did so either after decades of conflict and out of sheer exhaustion, or because one or another of the great world powers intervened on their behalf. Yet they also shared some similar characteristics: long histories of persecution of ethnic, religious, or cultural minorities by central governments, and recognition that the denial to such groups of meaningful internal self-determination had resulted in their permanent disfranchisement from normal political processes.

Where does this history leave us, in terms of what self-determination actually means? Not on entirely firm ground. Writing as the Cold War drew to a close, African legal scholar Michael Addo concluded that "international law is neutral on the issue of post-independence self-determination." The success of self-determination movements "seems more often than not to depend on the fortunes of war and the strategic demands of the great powers than on the intrinsic legitimacy of their claims."

Power, in other words, creates its own sort of legitimacy when it comes to secession as an act of self-determination. It's a lesson the Kremlin seems to have learned very well.

That said, the concept of self-determination continues to evolve. Recent decades have produced an expanding set of principles and methods for adjudicating claims that once might have framed secession or its violent repression as the only possible options. Governments negotiating with restive internal minorities, indigenous groups, or separatist movements now have a range of approaches -- resource-sharing, decentralization, and autonomy arrangements, among others -- from which to choose. In 2004, Indonesia negotiated an end to the quarter-century-old secessionist struggle in the North Sumatran province of Aceh with a mix of these options, granting the province far-reaching autonomy, greater control over rents from oil and gas production, and novel arrangements for local political parties so that Acehnese interests could be better represented in national politics.

In short, there have been hundreds of peacefully resolved self-determination claims over the past decades, and the accumulating body of law and precedent they have created has set a fairly high, if uncodified, threshold for establishing the legitimacy of secessionist claims: A group of people in a defined territory must have distinctive identity and a history of persecution at the hands of an unresponsive state that has made it impossible for them to effectively exercise the right to internal self-determination.

On most of these counts, despite Putin's claims to the contrary, Crimea falls far short. Still, it is a measure of the power of self-determination as a concept that the Kremlin feels compelled to invoke the norms that are emerging around it, in order to justify what looks to most of the world like a straightforward geopolitical power grab.

Crimea's leaders can certainly lay claim to a distinct territory and identity, as well as a long history of association with Russia and the former Soviet Union, until Nikita Khrushchev handed the territory over to Ukraine in 1954. But Crimea also has what political scientist Gwendolyn Sasse calls "a history of fractious multi-ethnicity" between ethnic Russians and numerous minority groups, in particular Crimean Tatars, who began returning to the territory in the 1990s after being forcibly deported by Stalin a half-century earlier.

There is, moreover, little evidence of sustained persecution of ethnic Russians by the central government in Kiev, or of the sort of permanent minority disfranchisement that might lead Crimea's residents to conclude that remaining within Ukraine would preclude the exercise of their basic democratic rights or meaningful representation of their interests. In fact, self-determination has been pretty well exercised in Crimea: Between 1991 and 1998, Crimea's leaders laboriously negotiated the status of their relationship with Ukraine, resulting in the creation of an "Autonomous Republic of Crimea," whose rights were spelled out in both the Ukrainian and Crimean constitutions. It was a textbook example of the peaceful resolution of a claim to self-determination -- which just a few decades earlier might have resulted in violent conflict, and a sobering counterpoint to the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Upcoming votes in Catalonia and Scotland, cited by Russia as justification for Crimea's referendum, merely reinforce the illegitimacy of Sunday's poll. Both of the other referendums were arrived at after years of negotiations (and years more of substantial local autonomy) involving not only the people of those regions but the citizens of the country from which they wished to separate. Both processes took heed of the example set by Quebec, which sought to secede without negotiating with the Canadian government or demonstrating that its people were denied meaningful representation in politics, only to be slapped down by a Canadian court, which flatly denied the legality of secession.

The majority of Crimea's ethnic Russian population may well now desire reunification with Russia. But the mere desire for reunification with Russia does not signal the legitimacy of the region's purported act of self-determination, which ignored budding international norms and the rights of both Crimea's internal minorities and those of their fellow Ukrainian citizens. Moreover, the new government in Kiev, though struggling to consolidate control, had demonstrated its willingness to address Crimean concerns through the national political process -- in other words, to seek satisfaction of self-determination claims internally -- before Russia intervened militarily to foreclose on the possibility.

Then, there's the matter of international recognition: The ham-handed way that Russia engineered this sham referendum virtually guarantees that few will recognize the people of Crimea as having genuinely exercised their right to self-determination, even if it does represent something approximating popular will. (A similar problem emerged after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and peeled off South Ossetia; virtually no one recognizes that region's independence, and by most accounts, its population has not benefited from association with Moscow.)

In the end, Russia's actions in Crimea realistically can be viewed as a mask for the assertion of Moscow's self-interest. But Russia should be careful what it wishes for. The Central Asian republics, many of them with large Muslim, non-Russian populations, are certainly watching the events in Crimea closely, as are separatist movements in Russia's Dagestan and Ingushetia seeking to legitimize their own claims. The engineered vote in Crimea only highlights the ambiguity and contested nature of the idea of self-determination, and the ability of states and movements to exploit this indeterminacy in an effort to achieve their aims. Putin's invocation of Crimea's right to self-determination may come back to haunt him.



From Détente to Meltdown

Will Russian adventurism in Crimea blow up the P5+1 nuclear talks? Iran's hard-liners sure hope so.

As "self-defense forces" storm Ukrainian bases in Crimea and Russian President Vladimir Putin embraces the peninsula's return to the Russian Motherland, Moscow's adventurism is creating a dangerous ripple effect far beyond the cold shores of Crimea. With Russia, the United States, and Europe dancing around the abyss of a new Cold War, Moscow's cooperation in resolving other international disputes will be severely tested. The first casualty of the Crimea debacle could be the ongoing efforts of Russia, the United States, and the other P5+1 countries -- China, Britain, France, and Germany -- to reach a final agreement limiting Iran's nuclear program.

Yet there is much more at stake than the nuclear negotiations. As this week's Vienna talks unfold, and as other rounds follow, lead negotiator Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will also be engaged in a shadow play with his ultra-conservative rivals back in Iran. He knows that the outcome of the nuclear talks will shape the trajectory of Iran's domestic and foreign politics for decades. Indeed, the embryonic effort of Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani to pry open Iran's closed politics largely depends on advancing both the idea and the practice of global détente.

This is precisely why for Tehran's ultra-hard-liners the conflict in Crimea is the best news they've have had in a long time. Their domestic political fortunes rest in part on sustaining Iran's own Cold War with the United States. For the hard-line leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, their much vaunted concept of "resistance" means much more than countering Washington's military power: It requires the assertive presence of other world leaders who -- like Putin -- share a common desire to foster an ideology of cultural, religious, or national prowess in opposition to the United States.

That ideology -- or the resentment that animates it -- has global dimensions. Indeed, events in Crimea have played into the security obsessions of autocratic regimes from Venezuela to China, not just Tehran. The one thing they fear most is a people's uprising: Whatever its color, for these paranoid leaders it represents the twin danger of democracy and U.S.-Western power. The panicked escape of Ukraine's autocratic and clearly pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 suggested that the allure of unruly rebellion might once again spread from Russia's greater backyard to other shores and countries.

Thus it is hardly surprising then that Moscow's actions, which elicited noxious merriment from Russia's ultra-nationalist ideologues, have also been celebrated by Iranian hard-liners. When they hear the likes of Sergei A. Karaganov, a dean of international relations at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, mocking President Barack Obama or insisting that "confrontation with the West is welcomed ... to cleanse the elite, to organize the nation," Iran's hard-liners can only applaud. Putin's televised and defiant defense of Crimea's annexation -- during which he bitterly complained of the many "insults" Russia has suffered at the hands of the West -- is like music to the ears of those Iranian leaders whose careers depend in part on endless struggle against the United States.

The very opposite is true for those Iranian leaders who have hitched their political careers to advancing political détente, both at home and abroad. For them, the P5+1 negotiations are an essential first step to rolling back the hard-liner's resistance project. For this reason, Zarif will have to work hard to put a firewall between the nuclear talks and the rumblings of a new Cold War. After all, the unity of the P5+1 members is not something sought only by the United States: It's something that Zarif is counting on to advance the negotiations. By contrast, his opponents are surely hoping that new tensions among the P5+1 states will either wreck the talks or produce an alternative nuclear arrangement that earns Moscow's blessing and Washington's ire.

Where do things go from this precarious moment? Thus far, EU negotiators insist that the Crimea crisis has not undermined the unity of the P5+1. But these are still early days in talks that have yet to address the truly tough issues. With U.S.-Russian relations deteriorating, the incentives for Moscow to play nice will only decrease.

Much may ultimately depend on Putin himself. He certainly surprised Western leaders by how quickly he embraced Crimea's succession, but if this event threatens to provoke a bloody civil war in Crimea -- a slim possibility, but not an unthinkable one -- Putin might conclude that he has paid a high price for his embrace of the ultra-nationalists that are now rejoicing in Russia's "victory." Moreover, Putin must remember that other autocratic nations fear the economic and strategic consequences that could ensue from Moscow's actions. China, after all, abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote on Crimea. In light of all this, there is a slim chance that Putin will instruct his negotiators at the P5+1 nuclear talks to show flexibility in the hope that doing so will mitigate Russia's growing international isolation rather than see the talks as another chance to demonstrate Russia's capacity to say nyet.

Still, now that he is riding a rising tide of Russian chauvinism, it is unlikely that Putin worries much about blowback from Moscow's support for Crimea. On the contrary, his actions highlight the growing allure of an intensely anti-Western ethos that is strengthening aspiring autocrats in cities as far flung as Moscow, Cairo, and Sevastopol. Zarif and Rouhani have seen this movie before -- they know how it ends. They are struggling to guide Iran's ship of state to a more rational harbor, one that defends Iran's national interests without indulging in a regressive ideological dualism that divides the world into warring camps. But the seas around them are not as favorable as they seemed some weeks or months ago, when everything suddenly seemed possible. And whether that moment returns may be largely out of their hands.