Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Self-determinaton: Are we hypocrites or anti-imperialists ?

I am half-Croatian, and I shall confess to having a specifically Croatian agenda for opposing the right of Bosnia’s Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) to secede from Bosnia, and for rejecting the idea that such an act of secession would be in any way equivalent to Kosova’s entirely legitimate secession from Serbia.

Namely, if one were to support the right of Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia, one would have to support a similar right for the Croat-controlled part of the Bosnian Federation. This would lead, effectively, to the emergence of a Great Croatia. As an opponent of Great Croatian nationalism, this is not something I could accept. Every true Croatian democrat and anti-fascist is the sworn opponent of Great Croatian nationalism, consequently of the partition of Bosnia. Not only would this be an enormous injustice to the people of Bosnia, but it would reward the worst elements in Croatian politics – Ustashas, Tudjmanites and other chauvinists. It would be a betrayal of all those true Bosnian Croat patriots – Stjepan Kljuic, Ivo Komsic, Ivan Lovrenovic and others – who valiantly defended their Bosnian homeland against the Great Croats during the 1990s and thereafter.

Support for the right of national self-determination is about supporting democracy, but it is also about opposing oppression and injustice; about standing up for the rights of smaller, oppressed nations against colonial masters or predatory neighbours. It is therefore wholly at odds with the idea that such predatory states should be allowed to manipulate the right of national self-determination to expand their borders at the expense of those smaller and weaker than themselves. This is what Serbia attempted to do vis-a-vis Croatia in the 1990s. It is what both Croatia and Serbia, at the same time, attempted to do vis-a-vis Bosnia. It is what Russia is attempting to do vis-a-vis Georgia. And it is what occurred in the most notorious instance of the abuse of the right to self-determination: the 1938 Munich Agreement.

It could be argued, however, that no matter how one tries to justify it, this remains hypocritical. Let us take up the challenge and say:

1) We should recognise the right of Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia – provided Republika Srpska recognises the right of its former Muslim- or Croat-majority areas to secede from it (with all those expelled and non-resident allowed to participate in the vote), and provided Serbia recognises the same right to Muslim-majority areas in the Sanjak and Hungarian-majority areas in Vojvodina;

2) We should recognise the right of the Bosnian-Croat-held areas to secede from Bosnia – provided Croatia recognises the right of its former Serb-majority areas to secede (again, with all those expelled and non-resident allowed to participate in the vote);

3) We should recognise the right of South Ossetia to secede from Georgia – provided Moscow recognises the right of North Ossetia to secede from Russia;

4) We should recognise the right of Abkhazia to secede from Georgia – provided Moscow recognises the right of all its autonomous republics in the Russian North Caucasus to secede.

I strongly suspect that once you insist that the strong be subjected to the same principles that they would like to impose upon the weak, then their own enthusiasm for these principles would vanish.

The right of nations to self-determination is an undeniably thorny issue, above all because there are so many areas where the rights of two or more nations overlap, and where it is difficult or impossible to grant the right to one nation without denying it to another nation – or even destroying the second nation altogether. This is why, when considering how to apply the right, so many factors must be taken into account – rather as in the case of a judge or jury weighing up numerous factors in a court case. I would, however, suggest two general rules of thumb:

1) The right of self-determination, since it is a democratic right, cannot belong to nations that have achieved an artificial majority through ethnic cleansing, since the right belongs to the whole population of the territory in question – including those expelled;

2) The right of self-determination should not be used by larger, stronger nations that already enjoy independent statehood, to expand their borders at the expense of smaller, weaker ones whose state would be consequently destroyed. Thus, although I sympathise with the Albanian minority in Macedonia, given its history of oppression and discrimination, I would not support its right to secede and join Albania or Kosova – simply because there are already two Albanian states in existence, because the Macedonians are a much smaller people than the Albanians, and because Macedonia would be unlikely to survive such an act of secession.

If anyone responds by saying that I have imposed too many qualifications, I would reply that democratic rights are never perfect or absolute. I support freedom of speech and expression – but not to inciters of racial violence or distributors of child pornography. I support freedom of assembly – but not for uniformed, private armies. I support freedom of the press – but not the freedom of newspapers to practice libel.

National self-determination, furthermore, is inherently imperfect – however one draws the borders, there are always likely to be some members of a particular nationality who are stuck on the wrong side. The very concept of majority-rule implies that someone has to be in the minority. The problem with national self-determination is in fact a problem with democracy itself.

Most of the objections to the idea of a right of nations to self-determination are made by people positing hypothetical, extreme cases – such as the supposed danger of a Muslim-majority part of London seceding, or the possibility of a ‘Kosovo in the Galilee’. One could oppose just about any democratic principle by citing hypothetical, worst-case scenarios.

The secession of a Muslim-majority part of London ? That’s a risk I’m prepared to live with.

Monday, 3 March 2008 - Posted by | Abkhazia, Balkans, Bosnia, Caucasus, Croatia, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Kosovo, Russia, Serbia, South Ossetia, The Left, Transnistria

1 Comment

  1. […] Surbiton writes about “an undeniably thorny issue” of the right of national self-determination. Share […]

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