One aspect of liberalism implicated by Crimea is a people’s right of self-determination. Abraham Lincoln subscribed to none such, and American historians give him a free pass on it. The USA did not invade and conquer the CSA to end slavery, but as an end in itself. Constitutional scholars past and present are equivocal on states’ right of secession, and the Constitution is of little help in resolving an issue that’s thankfully only come up once. Critiquing the most revered lines of the Gettysburg Address, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” H.L. Mencken wrote, “It is poetry, not logic…. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of people to govern themselves.”
Take away the Russian troops and the Ukrainian revolution and ask a simple question: if Crimeans voted by a supermajority to sever ties with Ukraine, in favor of independence or union with Russia, why shouldnt we validate that choice? After all, states dont really have rights – people do.
What’s playing out in Crimea and across Eastern Ukraine today isnt new – only the players are. Much of Eastern Europe is and has for centuries been a mixed-up place, where ethnicity, language and national identity varies from town to town and province to province, without respect to political boundaries. The archetypal case remains Yugoslavia, which ultimately splintered into 7 different countries. Much of the Balkans were and are fractal – there was never any way to draw clean lines on a map to provide discrete enclaves for distinct ethnicities. Bosnia was the most mixed up of all, lacking a genuine national identity or even a language. War came first – terms like “Bosniak” and “Bosnian language” were post hoc inventions to condemn, condone or otherwise explain hostilities among one people who shared one language and one history.
Like Bosnia, Crimea is a region NOT associated with a specific national identity or language. The last of its late medieval inhabitants – the Tatars – were forcibly displaced 50 years ago, and today constitute about 10% of the total population – most of whom only moved back in the past 20 years. More than half the population describes itself as “Russian”, and three-quarters call Russian their native language. Legally and politically, Crimea was part of Russia from 1783 until 1954 – it was only ceded to Ukraine through a bizarre gesture on the part of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, an ethnic Russian with Ukrainian connections and sympathies. About one-quarter of Crimeans today are ethnically Ukrainian – and that’s the most ever.
The US answered this question, albeit under very different circumstances, when Kosovo sought independence from Serbia – a move that the US supported and subsequently recognized. (Russia did not and does not.) The US rationale is that Serbian aggression justified Kosovo’s secession – that since there’s been no Ukrainian aggression against Crimea, secession is not rightful. The argument is entirely unpersuasive, and conceals the realpolitik on which US positions are based: Ukraine stands to be an important ally, and so the US takes her side in the dispute; Serbia was an adversary, and so the US recognized Kosovars’ right to self-determination. For what it’s worth, Kosovo was an ethnically Albanian enclave within Serbia – but why should we care about the particularities of nationality, religion or culture – a people’s right to self-determination – much less any right – shouldnt depend on it. And for the moment, we might also put aside the intellectual question as to how small a polity can be to enjoy the right of self-determination. (A province? A city? A block association? A condo? You and your cat?) Crimea is more populous than 10 other European countries – Kosovo among them.
If we’ve learned anything from European history, we should appreciate that in the interest of long-term peace and stability, Crimea should probably be part of Russia – and it should certainly be aligned with whatever state its population prefers.
It is the process that should determine the legitimacy of the end result. Obviously an election to determine Crimea’s allegiances cannot be fairly conducted under the occupation of foreign troops – and so of course the coming referendum will be illegitimate. But the issue should be considered and resolved in the abstract, to apply to all future cases: a people probably should have a relatively unlimited right to disassociate from a polity, to form their own or join another – if only because the alternative is so noxious: the application of coercive force to prevent them from so doing. Such a resolution is good enough for Scotland, which will have been part of the UK for about four-score and two years longer than South Carolina has been part of the US – when it holds a referendum on independence this coming September….