(This article originally appeared in two parts on the news and commentary website, EpicTimes, March 17 and 24, 2014)
The Ukrainian-Russian crisis over the de facto occupation of Crimea by Russian military forces, which has enveloped the concerns and fears of the world over the last weeks, revolves around two conflicting claims of national self-determination. It has, once again, brought with it the danger of war on the European continent.
What is this conflict about? It concerns the issue of how it will be decided under what political authority people will live.
Americans do not easily understand the anger and fear this issue has for many in Europe and other parts of the world, and why it can result in such potential or actual violent conflict.
The American Philosophy of Individualism
The American political system was based on a philosophy of individualism. That is, each individual is recognized as possessing certain inalienable rights to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. The individual is not the property of an absolute monarch or an arbitrary majority.
Under the traditional American system, virtually every area of human life was viewed as the private affairs of the individual who had that inalienable right to guide and design his life according to his own values, beliefs, and purposes. Interpersonal relationships in society were formed, took shape and changed over time based on the voluntary and mutually beneficial associations and exchanges into which people freely entered.
In the social arena this individualistic philosophy implied that people should be judged as individuals, and not on the basis of such “accidents of birth” as language, religion, ethnicity or race. Of course, and unfortunately, people in their social interactions with others have not always consistently practiced this ideal. Americans, in their private life, too frequently have judged others and acted on the basis of racial, religious, linguistic or other group prejudices.
However, where such racial prejudice was still legally imposed as in the southern states until the 1960s in the form of segregation laws, it was recognized by more and more Americans to be inconsistent with and an offense against the founding principles of the country, and which could not stand in the long run.
Private prejudices and discriminatory acts on the basis of race, religion or language surely might be morally reprehensible but were a part of an individual’s freedom to decide with whom to associate. However, such discrimination was not supposed to be brought into the arena of governmental social or economic policy since this was considered to be violations of individuals’ rights by using the power of the state to harm them on the basis of a collective classification of their identity.
Americans also have been a highly mobile people. From colonial times, Americans always have been open to “moving on.” That nineteenth century phrase attributed to Horace Greeley, “Go west young man,” has been the cultural motto of the nation. Immigrants came from faraway countries and spread across the continent, as did every generation of the native-born Americans.
While the continent has been “conquered” and settled long ago, Americans still pick themselves up and change in what part of the country they live and work far more readily and frequently than most Europeans do in their own part of the world.
The lowering of the migration barriers within the European Union is changing this, especially among the younger generation of Europeans, but it is still, in general, less than among Americans. People in Europe, due to their relatively greater immobility, have traditionally felt a stronger “connectedness” to a specific and local geographical area.
Europe’s Philosophy of Collectivism
Europe’s history is grounded in a philosophy of collectivism, the idea that the group comes before the individual and that his identity and sense of meaning and purpose is tied to the particular “tribe” into which he has been born.
One of the most powerful modern variations on this collectivist theme has been nationalism. Before the demise of monarchism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the individual owed his allegiance to the king or emperor who claimed to own and rule over all and everything with absolute authority in his domain, and usually by asserted “divine right.”
But with the coming of the French Revolution in 1789, all this began to change. With the end of monarchy, the issue arose, “If not to the king, to whom does the individual owe allegiance?” It was declared that within the boundaries of what had been the territory of the former king, the new ruler was “the people” themselves. The “nation” was the new collective to which the individual owed his allegiance and for which he should expect to sacrifice himself if the good of “the nation” required it.
Nationalism and Collectivist Identity
But what defined a “nation” or a “people” as one collective group versus another? Some of the advocates and propagandists of the new nationalist ideal of human identity spoke of a common culture or set of traditions extending over many generations that shaped and made the individual’s sense of who he was and to whom he was connected.
Others spoke of language or race as the unifying determinate of what bound a people together as “one” in terms of national belonging and common destiny. The structure of language and the meanings of words shape how a group of people think and reason, it was said, thus, binding together all those speaking the same language. Even deeper, it was argued by others, was the connection between those coming from the same genetic stock; the collective identity and sense of “oneness” among a group of people was “in the blood.”
All of these ways of identifying a people’s common nationality were also often linked to a geographical area in Europe that for long period of time, it was claimed, marked off the historical or “natural” homeland of the people sharing that common collectivist root.
The rise of nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries now saw the call for all “suppressed peoples” (that is, those minority national groups living within a country dominated by the majority of another nationality) to have their own nation-states to preserve and protect their language, cultural and ethnic uniqueness.
In addition, since under the monarchical system lands had been conquered or acquired through royal marriages that had nothing to do with those “natural” geographical boundaries of various national groups, borders needed to be redrawn. The political borders of countries, it was said, should reflect the national groups that lived within those areas.
There was a problem, however, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Hundreds of years of wars, conquests and migrations had created overlapping areas of “mixed” national populations. There was little way to nicely and neatly draw the political lines on the map so that only those of a particular national group lived within that national group’s borders.
Every nation-state invariably contained within its political boundaries one or more minorities belonging to other linguistic, cultural or ethnic groups.
Now, if the same individualist and (classical) liberal philosophy that was at the foundation of the American political system also had been present in Europe, there would have been no or few “conflicts” between different national groups living within the same country.
Some people might have found it personally irritating or inconvenient that some of their neighbors spoke a different language, or practiced a different religion or had different cultural traditions and manners. But if their political systems had been based on those same liberal individualist principles as America, then there could have been no politically bestowed favors or privileges for the benefit of those in the majority national group at the social and economic expense of the members of any national minority groups.
But, alas, and again especially in Central and Eastern Europe, this was not the case. Governments were elected or came to power that viewed it as their purpose to secure and safeguard the interests and improvements of the majority national group. Government interventions, regulations, and restrictions were implemented to benefit the one group at the expense of any others. And sometimes this included acts of violence and brutality, which the government either instigated or turned a blind eye to.
Nationalism and the Conflicts over Borders
This ideal of and appeal for national self-determination and self-rule was behind the drive for Italian and German political unification and the revolts of the Poles against the Russians and the Hungarians against the Austrians in the nineteenth century.
The First World War broke up the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires that dominated Central and Eastern Europe. In their place arose a host of new or expanded nation-states meant to represent a new political order of national self-determination and self-rule. Many of the governments of these nation-states used the cover of national independence and national preservation to discriminate against and politically and economically abuse clusters of minority national groups under their jurisdictions.
Hitler played upon these “injustices” against German-speaking minorities in neighboring Czechoslovakia and Poland to justify the need to use political and military force to protect these minorities and bring them within the national fold of a greater and “racially purer” Nazi Germany.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Soviet Union’s conquest of Eastern Europe and the imposition of communist governments in the countries that were totally controlled by Moscow artificially suppressed practically all of the nationalist differences and animosities of the pre-World War II period.
But with the collapse of those communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 and then the end to the Soviet Union itself in 1991, many of the nationalist conflicts once more rose to the surface. It was witnessed with the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into two separate countries in 1993.
It was most viciously exposed in the cruel and murderous wars in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s as the various national groups that had comprised Yugoslavia vied for national independence and an insistence upon lands and boundaries consistent with their respective notions of their “rightful” historical borders, which inescapably overlapped with the claims of some of the other national groups.
Borders and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Countries
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the fifteen “Soviet Republics” had had comprised the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) became independent nation-states. The problem was that their national boundaries were the legacy of lines drawn on the map by the Soviet leadership, in some cases directly by Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the case of the Crimea, it had been a provincial unit within the Soviet Russian Republic and was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic by a decree of the Soviet government in Moscow in February 1954. It was a “gift” to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the merging of Ukraine into the Russian Empire.
Both post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine contain linguistic or ethnic minorities within their borders. In Russia this has been most visible in the conflict that the government in Moscow has waged against the Muslim groups in the North Caucasus mountain regions, the most brutal of which has been with the Chechens desiring national independence.
The political boundaries of Ukraine include the two dominant linguistic groups of the Ukrainians, who make up about 68 percent of the population, and Russian speakers who comprise around 30 percent. (Virtually all Ukrainian speakers also fluently know and use Russian, and many Russian speakers know and understand Ukrainian.)
In the Crimean peninsula, the breakdown is almost 60 percent Russian speaking, 25 percent Ukrainian speaking, and 12 percent Tatars, who are Muslims and speak a Turkic-based language. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Crimea remained part of the new independent state of Ukraine, with no thought to the fact that many of the Russian-speaking people there would have preferred to be part of the post-Soviet Russian Federation.
Historically, many Ukrainians living especially in the western part of the country have long been strongly anti-Russian. This part of Ukraine had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War, and then was incorporated into the new Poland after 1918.
Western Ukraine only was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, as part of the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact that started the Second World War by a mutual agreement to divide Poland and Eastern Europe between the two totalitarian tyrants.
“Sovietization” of western Ukraine bore down heavily, with many Ukrainians killed or deported to Siberia by Stalin’s secret police as “enemies of the people.” And this was after millions of other Ukrainians in the part of the country already controlled by the Soviet Union before 1939 had been shot, starved or worked to death in the early 1930s as part of Stalin’s forced collectivization of the land.
A sizeable number of Ukrainians actively collaborated with the Nazis after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, including participation in the mass murdering of Jews. Even after the war ended in 1945, bands of Ukrainian nationalists continued to fight the Soviet Army in the forests of western Ukraine until 1951.
The more radically nationalist of the Ukrainians, no doubt, wish to limit the linguistic liberty and language education of the Russian speakers in the eastern areas of the country, where the Russian-speaking part of the population is most concentrated. But many Ukrainians, from all evidence, have no or little sentiment for such discriminatory policies against their Russian-speaking fellow citizens.
A good number of the Russian-speaking citizens of the country feel a much stronger linguistic and cultural tie to Russia next door. Many do resent the sometimes anti-Russian nationalist fervor of some of their fellow Ukrainian citizens. They also sometimes look down upon the Ukrainians as mere “little brothers” of the wider and “greater” Russian people.
This is, clearly, most intense right now in the Crimea. Even separate from the manipulations of the Russian government’s propaganda machine, the majority of the Russian-speakers living in Crimea would most likely prefer a far greater autonomy from the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, or even to be politically joined with the neighboring Russian Federation.
At the same time, the Ukrainian-speaking parts of the Crimean population, along with the Tatars, would rather be politically a part of Ukraine than under the tighter political control of a Russian-speaking majority, whether just in the Crimea and as part of Russia.
It must be emphasized that the propaganda that has been coming out of Russia since the overthrow of the Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovych, in February that there has been a “fascist” takeover in Kiev by Nazi thugs and Ukrainian nationalist extremists is an exaggeration from all accounts.
Many of the thousands who were out on the streets of the Ukrainian capital in opposition to Yanukovych’s corrupt regime for over three months, and dozens of whom were shot and killed by government forces, came from a wide spectrum of Ukrainian society, both politically and ethnically. But nonetheless, members of the most extreme Ukrainian nationalist parties do have a number of prominent ministerial positions in the provisional government leading up to the elections to be held in May 2014.
Nationalism and Interventionism the Core of the Dilemma
Nonetheless, the core of the conflict arises from two dilemmas: First, “self-determination” is defined in collective terms. It is not the individual’s right to decide in which nation-state or other political entity he shall freely choose to live. No, this is a matter for the linguistic and cultural group as a whole to which he is identified to belong.
The implicit assumption is that all people who happen to share a common language or culture or religion all have the same interests and desires. This would include a preference to want to belong to the same nation-state as guardian and preserver of one’s group national identity against other national groups who are presumed to be a “threat” to the national collective.
Second, in spite of the degree of market-oriented reforms that have been introduced in both Ukraine and Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, the fact is that both, in their own distinct ways, are political and economic plunder lands of government intervention and manipulation.
The government is viewed as an engine of favor, privilege, and protection from competition. Political connections, bribery, and influence are the determiners of wealth and social status. Tens of billions have been corruptly made and corruptly hidden away at the expense of the majority of the population based on political “pull” and power.
Ukrainians fear that if they were under the control of Russia, the levers of privilege and plunder would flow more through Russian hands than their own, so they would be the victims at whose expense others might benefit. And some Russian-speakers in Ukraine fear that the more radical Ukrainian nationalists would use political power to repress and discriminate against them in various cultural and economic ways.
But it must also be said that an important distinction between the Ukrainian and Russian situations is that in Ukraine right now vast numbers of people have taken to the streets and demonstrated, sometimes with the loss of their lives, their desire for real political change away from political corruption and power plundering. Whether it succeeds in the longer-run without a radical change in political philosophies away from collectivism and in the direction of true individualism remains to be seen.
In Russia, on the other hand, political dissent is forcefully kept in check by an authoritarian regime. It has the additional element of a Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who considers the collapse of the Soviet Union to have been the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century, and who wants to restore the “greatness of Russia” in terms of political power and fear on the global stage of international affairs. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine and Crimea need to be in the Russian sphere of influence and control as a matter of “vital national interest,” even if this means the use of military force and propagandistic lies and deceptions.
Since two political authorities cannot occupy and have administrative control over the same geographical area at the same time – it is either Ukrainian national and political sovereignty or Russian national and political sovereignty over Crimea – the conflict over borders and political control threatens to spill over into potential real war.
Is there no way out of this dilemma? While the reality of nation-state power politics and nationalist appeals to collective identity makes it unlikely, what might be a (classical) liberal or individualist solution to this crisis?
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s power grab and annexation of the Crimea has filled global news headlines as he attempts to reverse what he has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” – the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it needs to be remembered that this conflict has its deeper roots in two ideas that have plagued the world for over two centuries: nationalism and government interventionism into economic affairs.
In the early years of the nineteenth century the new nationalist idea of self-determination in establishing in what country people should live was considered a logical extension of the general idea of individual liberty and freedom of choice.
Just as an individual should have the liberty to guide his own life according to his own values, beliefs and ideals; just as he should be free to peacefully associate with whomever he chose on the basis of commonly shared goals or mutually beneficial exchanges; so, too, individuals should have the freedom to choose in what political state they wanted to live.
Freedom and the Government Under Which to Live
The (classical) liberal ideal included, therefore, the individual’s right to freedom of movement. That is, if an individual chose to move to another country to live, work or visit, and as long as he was peaceful in his conduct and paid his own way, then there should be no legal barriers preventing him from freely migrating from one part of the world to any other.
Thus, if a person did not agree with the government under which he was living, or considered himself in some way oppressed or persecuted by that political authority, he should have the freedom to “vote with his feet” and move to a political jurisdiction more to his liking and desire.
However, it was also argued that people should not necessarily have to leave their home and country due to oppression and control by an arbitrary and tyrannical government under which they lived. They should be able to influence and determine both who held political office in that country and through them the policies implemented by that government. Thus, arose the advocacy of representative government in place of absolute monarchies claiming to rule by “divine right.”
It was also argued, as stated in the American Declaration of Independence, that when a government has become oppressive, and after many reasonable and peaceful attempts for a redress of their grievances, individuals have a right to replace that government and form a new one that will respect and enforce their respective inalienable rights to life, liberty and honestly acquired property. This was the American Founding Father’s rationale for revolution and breaking away from Great Britain, and in forming their own new nation and political system.
Self-Determination and the Right of Peaceful Secession
But why should men have to resort to and bear the human and material costs of violent change if they no longer wished to live under a particular political authority? Thus, there arose the idea of a right to peaceful secession.
If a group of individuals who shared a set of common values and beliefs, or a similar language or culture wanted to form their own political country independent of the one that they had belonged to up to that time, or be joined with another existing political country through a territorial transfer, they should be free through peaceful plebiscite to make that decision.
The fundamental premise of this right to secession was that of the individual’s right of self-determination. This was explained with great cogency by the free market Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, in his book, Liberalism (1927):
“The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to another other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars . . .
“The right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.
“This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations [in the provision and enforcement of police and justice], which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.”
The Collectivist Turn to National Self-Determination
The problem was that the idea of the individual’s right of self-determination in the form that Mises explained become replaced by the collectivist notion of national self-determination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
That is, the unit of decision-making was not the individual, but “the people” as a whole defined as a national group sharing some characteristic such as a common language, culture, religion, ethnicity or race, and an often presumed shared “national homeland” over a particular geographical area.
Once established, the government representing that national group was to use its political authority to enforce the use of a particular language or to educate and indoctrinate all inhabitants of this “nation-state” into the cultural customs and traditions of that national group through government schooling, propaganda, and restrictions on the introduction of “alien” cultural influences – regardless of the wishes of the individual citizens of that country, including those who may happen to make up a linguistic or cultural minority in that nation-state.
Government Intervention Against National Minorities
Often in European history, national governments harshly discriminated against linguistic, ethnic or religious minorities within their national borders. Regulatory procedures have been used to restrict members of such a minority group from entering and practicing certain professions, occupations, or trades. Taxes have been imposed in an apparently “neutral language” that, in fact, ended up targeting certain sectors of the economy containing many members of the minority group, and thus placing them at a competitive disadvantage relative to the majority national group.
Economic intervention by the government through taxing and regulatory procedures and practices can and have imposed biased burdens on individuals and minority linguistic, ethnic and religious groups under the cover of “preserving” the majority national group’s cultural, linguistic, or historical heritage.
Here we see the “national self-determination” and government interventionist dilemmas in the current international crisis between Russia and Ukraine. This part of Europe never had the opportunity to fully absorb and integrate the ideas of “the West” concerning the political philosophy of individualism, personal freedom, private property, respect for contacts, and the general, impartial rule of law.
The Collectivism of Imperial and Soviet Russia
Carried over from both the older imperial era of Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution as well as the nearly seventy-five years of communist control and economic planning has been the notion that the sole purpose of government is to plunder others in society through political privileges, favors and “connections” with those in authority.
In old Russia under the absolute monarchy, the Czar was the ruler and nominal owner of all land and property on it. Possession was not a “right” belonging to the individual, but a privilege bestowed upon a person and his heirs for as long as it served the “pleasure” of the Czar.
Both commoner and nobleman were subject to having all that they possessed taken back by the Czar if they fell out of favor due to criticisms or opposition to the wishes of the absolute ruler. This could include exile to the vast wastelands of Siberia.
Following the communist revolution of 1917, all privately owned land and capital were confiscated and transferred to the new revolutionary socialist state. The means of production were controlled and managed by the new Soviet government through a comprehensive system of central planning – of course, in the name of the people and for their claimed benefit.
With the socialist government as the single monopoly producer and employer, every person within the Soviet Union had his fate and future determined and dictated by how he fit within the socialist “plan” of building the bright, beautiful collectivist future.
Political Privilege in the Soviet “Classless” Society
The asserted “classless society” of the Soviet Union was a huge and intricate system of power, position and privilege overseen, commanded and controlled by the Communist Party. Gradations of privilege permeated the entire Soviet system reflected in apartment allocations, accesses to special food shops and medical clinics, acceptance into institutions of higher learning for one’s children, and even designated resorts for rest and recreation based on one’s position within the Party structure and management or employment in the various state enterprises.
The Soviet system worked on the basis of “rank” within the hierarchies of power. Within the Communist Party structure subordinates paid “tribute” to those above them with “gifts” and “services,” and, in turn, these subordinates received “favors” and perks for loyalty and obedience from those “above,” in an almost feudalist relationship of lord and serf.
In such a system the notion of “rights” to life, liberty and property had no meaning. The only implicit rule was to get what one could from any privileged access to the resources and goods owned and produced by the state.
Cheating, manipulating, and stealing what you could was the nature of “competition” in the worker’s paradise of socialist central planning. The only “rules of the game” were to not get caught, remain on the “good side” of those above you in the communist power structure, and often use people in any way that might further your personal interest
The Plunder Lands of Ukraine and Russia
This is the legacy inherited by those who came to power in the newly independent and “democratic” Ukraine, as well as in the post-Soviet Russian Federation.
Every political party that has come into office in Ukraine since 1991 has used the power of the State to enrich its leading members and others who have given support and allegiance to those in power who can bestow various privileges and favors.
Ukraine, like most of the other former Soviet Republics, has been a plunder land of abuse, corruption, and huge wealth grabs for plutocratic oligarchs and special interest groups that revolve around and manipulate the redistributive and interventionist halls of political power.
In Ukraine, however, the thousands who demonstrated against and overthrew the corrupt and murderous government of Victor Yanukovych in February 2014 have shown their desire, and some of them with the loss of their lives, that they want a new and more “Western”-oriented country.
Yet among those Ukrainians are a significant number ardent nationalists who are more concerned with their collectivist conceptions of a “protected” and enforced Ukrainian culture and language than an open and free society in which each citizen makes his own choices on such matters, and lives his life is own way as he considers best and most desirable.
The main difference between Ukraine and Russia over the last twenty-two years since the end of the Soviet Union in this regard is that Russia is a larger land to plunder and far worse in its political authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin.
Nothing happens in Russia without connections, “pull,” and bribes. Property rights have no meaning – a Russian or a foreigner can find that one day they own a business and the next it has been confiscated under some trumped up charges, with the Russian owner imprisoned and sent off to Siberia or in the case of the foreign investor being expelled from the country with a total loss of his investment.
The news media, especially radio and television, are under virtual government monopoly control. Even “independent” newspapers and other Internet information outlets are subject to conscious degrees of self-censorship under the threat of being shut down. Those from the West wishing to share and disseminate news or information that is in any way viewed by the Russian government as a challenge or threat to the existing system of power have their permissions to operate and their visas to reside in Russia revoked.
Dissent in the street is often met with harsh treatment from the police, and with the danger of high financial fines and uncertain periods of imprisonment.
Ethnic Conflicts within Russia
In addition, Russia’s central, regional and municipal governments have also dealt harshly with some ethnic minorities within the Russian Federation. Several Muslim and ethnic groups in southern European Russia in the Caucasus mountain region, especially the Chechens, have attempted to gain national independence.
This has resulted in massive physical destruction and thousands of deaths as the Russian government under Putin has tried to crush the rebellions in this part of the country. In response, the Chechens and some other related groups have resorted to indiscriminate and deadly terrorist attacks on civilian targets, including in Moscow and most recently, shortly before the winter Olympics, on a train station in Volgograd.
This has angered and frightened ethnic Russians in many parts of the country. Chechens and other groups from that southern region of European Russia have been beaten up, had their property vandalized, and in some cases have been killed in Moscow and other places. In addition, in spite of the fact that every Russian citizen is lawfully to have freedom of movement and residence within the borders of the Russian Federation, the Chechens and some other groups have been required to have residency permits or have been expelled from Moscow and other cities, simply based on their ethnicity.
Ukrainian and Russian Conflict over Crimea
In Kiev, it is said that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine and cannot secede from that country, either to be independent or a part of Russia, without the approval of the entire country. In Moscow, it is said that Crimea is a historically important area for Russia, and the people of the peninsula had to decide whether or not to join the Russian Federation.
The problem is that Crimea is populated by three groups: Russian-speakers who make up almost 60 percent of the population, Ukrainian-speakers who represent around 25 percent of the people there, and the Muslim Tatars, who make up an additional 12 percent.
If any referendum on Crimea’s future were to require a vote by the entire population of Ukraine, or by the representatives in the parliament in Kiev, the Ukrainian majority would no doubt vote against it. This would result in many in the Russian-speaking majority in Crimea forced to live within a country to which they do not want to be a part.
Any vote in Crimea, even if “fair” and open to international supervision to prevent “irregularities” compared to the vote recently taken for incorporation into Russia, easily would end in the Russian majority expressing their desire for unification with the Russian Federation. This would leave many of both the Ukrainians and the Tartars forced now to be citizens of a country (Russia) they would prefer not to live in as a result of a change in the political lines on a map.
After the thuggish and brutal behavior of the ‘self-defense” gangs of Crimean Russians and the Russian military forces “hiding” their identities by not having official insignias on their jackets since the “non-invasion” by Russia, the Ukrainian and Tatar minorities most certainly would be frustrated and fearful of a pro-Russia outcome to such a free and impartial referendum.
At the same time, given the behavior of a seemingly sizable number of the Russian-speakers in Crimea to actively and aggressively support the move for annexation by Russia, if the peninsula remained a part of Ukraine resentment and anger against them could easily result in their lives being made “uncomfortable,” or even arrest and imprisonment of some of them as “traitors” to the Ukrainian motherland.
These alternative possible outcomes reflect the effect of thinking of self-determination in nationalist and collectivist terms. The “nation as a whole” of Ukraine has to decide, or the national majority within the entire Crimean peninsula must have its political way and impose it on the ethnic and linguistic minorities who live around them.
A More Individual Self-Determination Solution for Crimea
What, then, could be a (classical) liberal “third way” rather than a nation-wide Ukrainian referendum or a “winner-take-all” plebiscite on the Crimean peninsula? A solution to the dilemma along the lines presented by Ludwig von Mises would suggest that each village and town in Crimea should have a plebiscite, in which the residents would decide between independence, reunification with Russia, or continuing political unity with Ukraine.
A new political map of Crimea might look like a colored checkerboard, with some villages or towns where the majority of the occupants are Ukrainians or Tatars being the same color as Ukraine. Other portions of the Crimea, perhaps a large part of the peninsula, would be the same color as Russia on the map. And possibly some areas would be a different color different from either Ukraine or Russia, being those districts or towns in which the majority had opted to form a separate Crimean government.
Would this prevent the continuing discomfort of some ethnic or linguistic minorities who might still find themselves surrounded by a majority of people who speak a different language or practice different customs in the village or town in which they reside? Or would it prevent political discrimination or favoritism against them by the majority if state power were used in this way? Unfortunately, the answers are, “No.”
As long as people believe that it is the duty and responsibility of government to regulate commence and industry, redistribute wealth and interfere into the individual’s right of free and peaceful association, political power will be used and abused to benefit some at other’s expense.
But such a system of local plebiscite in determining both the formation of governments and the boundaries of political entities, would give each individual more weight in deciding his own future and fate than when he is lost in the great mass of people in the modern nation-state. And it would at least tend to minimize the number of people who might find themselves in the situation of being an ethnic or linguistic or other type of minority within a political entity.
The fact that some areas belonging to one political authority may not be contiguous to the others but separated by the territories of other countries need cause no problems if a minimum of freedom of movement and free trade exist between them. One particularly enlightened outcome of the European Union has been the dismantling of border controls, so people may move as freely between member countries, for the most part, as Americans take it for granted in traveling between and across the states that make up the U.S.
If such a more (classical) liberal method was followed as an answer to these types of disputes everywhere, then at least state borders and political frontiers would no longer be determined by blood and conquest, but by the local choices of the people themselves who reside in such areas.
In addition, they could be open to revision and change periodically as demographics and people’s preferences changed. A plebiscite might be held once every ten or twenty years, as a formality. Or it could be held whenever, for example, two-thirds of the population in an area petitioned for the holding of such a plebiscite.
Such a system for the defining of boundaries of political entities does not necessarily imply exclusionist nationalism. The people of some regions, towns or districts might wish to form separate states or join larger ones that are consciously multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic, and culturally diverse precisely because of the societal advantages of such pluralistic communities. Furthermore, to the extent that freedom of movement and trade existed, everyone could take advantage of global culture diversity and a commercial international division of labor.
The Ideal of Individualist Self-Determination for the Future
Unfortunately, too many people and their governments are not ready for such a system of tolerance and respect for the choices of their fellow individual human beings in establishing their political affairs and boundary lines. Too many still take the collectivist view that the group or tribe owns the entire territory of a nation-state, including those who live, work, and die within it.
But we may wish that after enough wars and conquests, civil wars and campaigns of terrorism against the innocent, people may finally come to see the importance and value of respecting the rights and choices of the other individuals with whom they live in this troubled world.