Lots of words have been spilled on this Crimea thing, and so it is reasonable to ask whether our opposition to Crimean self-determination might be more about our feelings about Russia than about secession/irredentism.

Chris Blattman asked:

It raises a legitimate question: shouldn’t people be allowed to choose their destinies?  Shouldn’t folks be allowed to engage in self-determination?  I responded with heaps of tweets, but let me summarize my twittering here.

It is really hard to ignore the process.  That is, the way this thing was conducted taints it entirely–sham referendum, held as a pop quiz, at gun point, with much fraud.  Putting that aside, the general argument that I follow is that secession is something that is a last resort (there is a vast literature on the morality of secession–see Allen Buchanan and Margaret Moore).  Massive political change has lots of consequences so we should save it for when other solutions have been ruled out.  Part of this is because if Crimea gets to change its boundaries, what about groups within Crimea?  Quebec is facing that discussion right now–if it secedes, what about the Anglophones of various parts of Quebec?  What about the First Nations?  Part of this is that democracy only works if those who lose accept losing.

The problem with Ukraine/Crimea/Russia is that the political changes in Kyiv were just a few weeks ago.  If the concern is that the new Ukraine government might repress Russians in Crimea, then the first step is to try to encourage the government to restrain itself, to develop new institutions that give Crimea more autonomy and all the other tools in the ethnic conflict management tool box.  When the Baltics became independent, they promised new policies that would be harmful to the Russians living there–mostly language laws that would restrict rights.  A bunch of international organizations, including the EU, NATO, and OSCE jumped on them to encourage more moderate policies.  Things are not perfect in these places, but they are better than what people initially feared.

So, the really big problem with the Crimean situation and Russia’s handling of Ukraine in general is that not enough time has passed to figure out what is likely to happen, for outsiders to pressure, and so on.  What separates Kosovo and South Sudan from Crimea is that the former experienced decades of repression, where the host governments of Serbia and Sudan broke many promises despite facing significant international pressure.  It is not just that these government repressed, but that they repressed for a long time despite much pressure.  Kosovars and South Sudanese had few tools left to improve their condition besides secession.  Crimean Russians?  None of the usual tools had a chance to work yet.

You don’t have to hate or fear Russia to find the Crimean situation play out in bad ways.  Should there be a high bar for secession?  Yes.  Even higher for irredentism since irredentism usually implies war (the country losing the territory usually gives it up only after a fight).

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