If Crimea, who next?

With Crimea’s unilateral referendum on becoming a ‘subject’ of the Russian Federation, the secession textbook is opened again. When is secession justified? There is no international law on the subject, but there are well-established principles in political theory and practice. A core principle is whether the seceding region has a just cause, such as a minority suffering grave abuse of human rights, for example mass murder or deportation. A second principle is over the constitutional right to hold a referendum in just one region of a state, or the right to self–determination.Then there is the broader context, such as whether the state borders fit well or not with cultural, linguistic and historic factors.

For Crimea, the first two of these arguments are clear and negative. The Crimeans have not been suffering grave abuse of human rights at the hands of Kyiv. However the Tartar minority within Crimea has indeed suffered both mass deportation under Stalin, and upon return unfair treatment by the Russian majority over restitution of their lands; so actually there is a human rights record here against return to Russia. Secondly Kyiv does not authorise the referendum. No-one in his right mind would recommend that any region of any state can hold a secessionist referendum at any time. If President Putin goes ahead to welcome the unilateral Crimean referendum, who else might welcome the model? At home, maybe some parts of the Northern Caucasus? I But further abroad President Xi Jinping would hardly welcome the model on behalf of Tibet and Xinjiang region in China.

If Europe’s border misfits between political frontiers and language groups were the criterion one could tear up the map wholesale: Spain, France-Belgium, Belgium-Netherlands, Germany-Austria, Italy-Austria, Finland-Sweden, Romania-Hungary, Bosnia-Croatia-Serbia, … and so on indefinitely. If restoration of historical borders were the criterion, again all of Europe can go to it. Why not start with East Prussia, currently called Kaliningrad? The very idea of changing any of these European frontiers is of course absurd. Why could not Crimea have been left equally quiet? However in Central Asia there is plenty of space for ethno-cultural rationalisation of frontiers, but Presidnet Nazabayev would presumably not welcome opening the suject of the Russian-inhabited northern part of his country.  If Crimea, why not move on to the Kharkiv, Donetsk and Odessa oblasts of Ukraine? Why not? Actually the protection of one’s compatriots abroad as pretext for the use of force has a terrible track record historically.

Somewhere in the region of Crimea and East Ukraine there are some thick red lines. While it is clear that the West will not go to war over Ukraine, its sanctions policy could be upgraded from the symbolic to the devastating: visa bans for just some targeted groups through to the population at large, asset freezes for just some targeted group or for Russian assets at large, and finally the gas question. It is clear that the gas market has moved on, and the bottom line now is that Russia needs gas revenues from Europe more than Europe needs Russian gas.

Better idea for Ukraine and Crimea: a hybrid Belgian-Canadian solution. For the language tensions in Ukraine the Belgian model is very pertinent. On region uses largely one language, another region largely another one, and the central region and state capital uses a mix of both. In addition Quebec has a very special autonomy status in a federation where all the other states have equal status.