Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sovereignty of ethnic minorities

There is a difficult dilemma regarding regions of countries that have an ethnic majority that is not the same as that of the country as a whole. This issue comes into sharp focus now with the crisis in the Crimea, that is part of the sovereign state of Ukraine, but has an ethnically Russian majority (ca. 65%). This is not an uncommon situation around the world where countries developed from tribes that overlapped and fought each other for control of territory. The issue is, should state sovereignty or local self-determination take precedence?

Almost no country in the world is ethnically homogeneous. A good example of an ethnic dispute is Alsace-Lorraine, that region between France and Germany that was claimed by both countries. It was a major issue of WWI and was decided in France's favor when Germany was defeated. In that case the majority of the population, although ethnically German, preferred by a majority to stay as part of France. Other examples are the United Kingdom, in which the English conquered and annexed Wales, Scotland and Ireland. They were forced to give up most of Ireland to form the Republic of Eire and soon the Scots will vote on whether or not they want to remain in the UK or become independent. Other examples are the large Hungarian majority in the northern Transylvania region of Romania and Tibet that was annexed by China.

One example that proved very troublesome in history is the area of Schleswig-Holstein, between Denmark and Germany, where the people speak Danish and German. Since Germany was a large powerful country and Denmark was not, the outcome was predictable. In 1863 Germany used force to take Schleswig-Holstein, and then settled many German-speaking people there. After they had settled a majority, they held a plebiscite and of course the majority voted to remain part of Germany. This was one of the main reasons why the Geneva Convention forbids the settlement of the population of a conquering country in the territory of another sovereign state. The application of this treaty to the Israel-Palestine dispute is not valid because Palestine has never been a sovereign nation in the Israeli-occupied territories. In fact calling these "Palestinian" or "Arab" territories is a misnomer, they have never been under any recognized sovereignty except that of Turkey.

Another example that caused a lot of trouble was Trieste. It was part of Italy, but after WWII to punish Italy that had been allied to Germany, Trieste was officially added to the state of Yugoslavia. But the almost entirely Italian population rose up and fought to remain part of Italy and after some fighting the allies reversed themselves and in 1954 Trieste became Italian again (a very beautiful city that we visited once). Another example is Moldova, that is a Romanian-speaking region that was annexed by Russia. After the break-up of the USSR, Russia insisted that it not be reunited with Romania, so it became the independent state of Moldova.

So the question arises, should Russia be allowed to take-over the Crimea if the majority of its inhabitants vote "yes" in a referendum. The answer is "no", the principle of sovereignty of a state under international law must be inviolable. Otherwise Hungary could do the same to Romania, Germany could claim Alsace-Lorraine back, Denmark could claim Schleswig-Holstein, Slovenia could claim Trieste, Romania could annex Moldova and so on. There must be a stop to this presumption that because an ethnic minority is a majority in one area, that area is ripe for another country with the same ethnic majority to take it over.

However, that is not the way things will work out in this case. The Russians will take over the Crimea and annex it as a fait accompli. No one is going to go to war with Russia over the Crimea, least of all Ukraine, that is still split and in a state of chaos. Contrary to Putin's assertions, there are no fascists or terrorists taking over in Ukraine, but it certainly cannot be described as democratic at this stage. The West will invest billions of dollars to try to stablize its economy. The West will also try to "punish" Russia for this "adventure", but no effective punishments can deter Putin from gobbling up a pro-Russian entity on his own borders. How far his appetite for further acquisitions will take him remains to be seen.


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