Yesterday, Kalaallit Nunaat – Greenland – moved a step closer toward independence from Denmark. The Arctic country has become a subject in its own right under international law; its language, Kalaallisut, has become the sole official language; and it is taking over control of its own police and judiciary, as well as greater control over its natural resources. This move was based on a referendum that took place in November, in which 75% of Greenlandic voters opted in favour.
The festivities in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk marking yesterday’s event were attended by Denmark’s Queen Margrethe and its prime minister, Lars Loekke Rasmussen. For the Greenlanders are fortunate in having, in Denmark, one of the world’s most enlightened imperial overlords. This is the same Denmark that has proven a staunch member of the allied coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the object of Islamist hatred over the Danish cartoon controversy. We may compared Denmark’s enlightened readiness to permit the peaceful secession of one of its territories and its sterling record as a member of the Western alliance, with the sorry record of Spain, Slovakia and Romania. These countries’ exaggerated fears of ‘separatism’ have led them, despite being members of NATO, to break ranks with most of the rest of the alliance to oppose Kosova’s independence from Serbia, and to align themselves instead with hostile Russia. Denmark, the more enlightened country on the issue of national self-determination, is the better member of the Western alliance.
Denmark’s ready acceptance of Greenland’s right to secede is in keeping with a proud Nordic tradition of enlightened resolution of national questions. Norway seceded peacefully from Sweden in 1905, as did Iceland from Denmark in 1944. Territorial disputes between Sweden and Finland over the Aland Islands in the 1920s and between Denmark and Norway over eastern Greenland in the 1930s were peacefully resolved by international arbitration. Finland granted autonomy to the Aland Islands in 1920; Denmark to Greenland in 1979, allowing the latter to secede from the EU in 1985.
The contrast between the enlightened Nordic acceptance of the right of nations to self-determination on the one hand, and the nationalist resistance to ‘separatism’ on the part of Spain, Slovakia and Romania on the other, is not unrelated to the fact that, whereas Denmark has a long history of liberal constitutional government, Spain was still a dictatorship less than thirty-five years ago; Slovakia and Romania twenty years ago. Spain’s continued refusal to recognise the right of the Basque Country and Catalonia to self-determination is a continuation, in softer form, of the repression of these countries by the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. For their part, Slovakia and Romania have been among the most unreconstructed of the former Eastern bloc countries to join NATO and the EU.
Further still from the Danish ideal of tolerance of secession are repressive states with ruling ideologies hostile to liberal democratic Western values, such as Russia, Iran and China. These states rely on massive violence or forced assimilation to crush subject peoples. They are able to do this precisely because they reject Western values. Equally, as they are unconstrained by concern for human rights, they are ready to support other states that brutally suppress subject peoples. Thus, on 27 May of this year, Russia and China were among those members of the United Nations Human Rights Council that voted for a resolution in praise of Sri Lanka’s brutal campaign against the Tamil Tigers, who are fighting for a separate Tamil state, while Britain, France, Germany and other democratic states voted against. Other states that voted for the resolution included Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Egypt, Nigeria, the degree of whose concern for human rights is suggested by their alignment on this question.
The reality is that, by and large, the more enlightened and democratic a state is, the more ready it will be to accept the secession of a constituent territory or subject people. Conversely, the more repressive and undemocratic a state is, the less willing it will be to countenance such a move, and the more ready it will be to support the brutal suppression of such a move by another such state. It is very possible that Scotland will eventually secede from the United Kingdom; conceivable that Wales will do so, or that Puerto Rico will secede from the US. But while we Britons and Americans may or may not hope against such acts of secession, few of us are enraged by the prospect.
This being so, it is not in the interests of the Western alliance rigidly to uphold the principle that subject peoples should not be allowed to secede unilaterally from existing independent states. Western respect for human rights means that Western states will never be able to support acts of repression by other states against subject peoples as unequivocally as our undemocratic enemies, while even moderate Western expressions of concern at human rights abuses committed during such acts of repression will earn us the ire of the states in question. Western support for Russia against Chechen rebels during the 1990s did not earn us any Russian gratitude, but Western criticism of Russian human-rights abuses in Chechnya certainly earned us Russian ire. Meanwhile, Russia’s crushing of Chechnya strengthened its grip on the Caucasus region, making possible the assault on our Georgian ally last summer. Simply put, Western support for Russia against Chechnya was a blunder; the democratic world should have recognised Chechnya’s independence in 1991, alongside the Soviet republics that declared independence at the same time. Equally, in the event that democratic Taiwan should declare independence from Communist China, while we may regret the clash with the latter that this will inevitably occasion, support for Taiwan would be the only honourable policy. In supporting Kosova’s secession from Serbia, Western statesmen have erred in pretending that this instance of secession is unique. Erred both because it is factually untrue that Kosovo is a unique case, and because pretending that it is will only tie our hands in the future, when dealing with states ruled by hostile, repressive regimes carrying out acts of mass violence against subject peoples.
Genuine democracies have nothing to fear from ‘separatism’; dictatorships and other repressive states do. It is time to accept the principle that, in certain circumstances, subject peoples should be permitted to secede unilaterally from a parent state. Such circumstances might include those where the subject people in question has suffered particularly extreme persecution, or conversely where it has proved itself worthy through practising good, democratic governance. Should they ever choose to exercise this right, the people of Darfur would qualify under the first condition; the Taiwanese under the second. Other conditions or combinations thereof might also warrant qualification. Kosova, for example, qualified not only because of the extreme persecution its people had suffered under Serbian rule, but also because of the constitutional status the territory had enjoyed in the former Yugoslavia. The question of whether a subject people has earned the right to secede should ultimately be decided in the court of public opinion in the democratic world.
But this does not mean that every secessionist movement or act should be supported indiscriminately – far from it. For the right of nations to self-determination is open to abuse. There are cases where an expansionist, predatory state conquers part of a neighbour’s territory, using the pretext of support for a national minority; the predatory state then ethnically cleanses the unwanted population from the conquered territory, creates an artificial demographic majority in favour of ‘independence’, then declares that this artificial majority has the right to ‘self-determination’. This is what Serbia did in Bosnia, Turkey in Cyprus and Russia in Abkhazia. There are cases where the population of a territory is split relatively evenly between supporters and opponents of secession, or where the secessionists are in the minority.
Clearly, in such cases, support for the right to secede should not be the default position. Rather, each demand for secession has to be judged individually, on its own merits – like a case in court. The example most often cited by opponents of national self-determination is that of the southern US states’ attempted secession in the 1860s; as this secession was motivated by the desire to preserve the barbaric institution of slavery, it is not an example that can be used to deny the right to secede to secessionist peoples with more legitimate motives.
The very real possibility that the democratic world might intervene to support a secessionist movement on its territory would act as an incentive for repressive states, both to improve their treatment of their subject peoples and to lessen their hostility to the democratic world. The possibility of losing Darfur would be likely to act as a greater deterrent to Khartoum’s genocidal policies there than the toothless indictments of the International Criminal Court. Conversely, where it is a case of a repressive state allied to the West, pressure to reform would take a different form. Because Turkey is a member of NATO and an EU candidate country, there is no possibility that the Western alliance will intervene militarily to end Turkey’s rule over its Kurdish-inhabited regions; Turkey’s territorial integrity is therefore secure. But the ‘price’ that Turkey pays for this is that it is required to improve its treatment of its Kurds and its human-rights’ record generally – something that, over the past decade, it has actually done. So long as Turkey continues to democratise, Kurdish support for secession is likely to wane, or at least to be increasingly channelled away from support for violent insurgency to support for peaceful, constitutional nationalist parties.
As surely as night follows day, more peoples that today are unfree will join the ranks of the Eritreans, Croatians, Kosovars and others which have already seceded in recent decades after fighting bitter wars of independence. There is no point regretting this, or attempting to halt the process. The Western alliance should be on the right side of history.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
If there has been one cause that has long inspired me above all others, it is the cause of small nations struggling to free themselves from oppression or domination by larger ones. Even before the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia made me interested in the politics and history of that region, when I was in still in school, I was greatly moved by the history of the Irish struggle for freedom and independence from Britain. I have long felt that the cause of freedom for oppressed nations has not figured as prominently as it should in progressive political thinking, and have always found national-chauvinistic ideologies that justify the suppression or forced assimilation of subject peoples to be uniquely horrifying. In the most extreme cases, such ideologies underpin acts of genocide – the most extreme form that national oppression can take. And for myself and kindred political spirits, genocide is the greatest evil humanity has produced.
Progressive thinking has, likewise, traditionally paid insufficient attention to the phenomenon of genocide. The inability of the Left to respond adequately to genocide was made abundantly clear by the events in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. For some of us, this deficiency has been a catalyst to our disenchantment with left-wing politics in their traditional form. Not just because genocide-prevention has usually been assigned a lower priority than ‘class’, ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ causes, but because it presupposes outside intervention, something to which a large proportion of ‘progressive’ opinion has traditionally been averse.
Yet for all this, an unprecedentedly large number of nations have achieved national independence since the early 1990s, and the cause of genocide-prevention has entered the progressive consciousness in a way it never did before. In the spirit of the Christmas season, I’d like to highlight recent developments in these fields that should give us cause for optimism; developments that I really should have written about more fully and promptly, if only one had unlimited time as a blogger…
1) While the youth of Greece is still battling on the streets for its social and economic emancipation, a quieter, but perhaps ultimately more significant movement for progressive change is taking place in neighbouring Turkey. More than 22,000 Turkish citizens have signed the following apology: ‘My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.’
To apologise for the Armenian genocide should be, for Turkey, a matter of national honour. But it is also a matter of self-interest for any Turkish citizen who wants to live in a democracy. In Turkey, as in Serbia, Croatia, Greece and other South East European countries, national-chauvinist ideology is the single biggest enemy of democracy; the taunt of ‘traitor’ is used to silence dissent, while minority rights are trampled over in the name of the ‘nation’. Yet in the words of Cengiz Aktar, professor of EU studies at Istanbul’s university of Bahcesehir and one of the principal organisers of the Turkish campaign to apologise: ‘From now, anyone who speaks about the Armenian question will have to take into account this expression of consciousness. It’s a new element in the debate.’ Readers of this blog will be aware that I do not support the campaign for the US or UK officially to recognise the Armenian genocide, or any other historic genocide that has taken place in a foreign country, for reasons that I have explained in detail. The organisers of the campaign in Turkey likewise appear ambivalent about such campaigns in the US and elsewhere. It is only through a democratic campaign in Turkey itself that the country can gradually come to recognise what happened to the Armenians.
2) While progressive Turks are striking a blow against genocide ‘from below’, a blow has been struck ‘from above’, with the conviction and jailing for life of Theoneste Bagosora, the mastermind of the Rwandan genocide, and two of his collaborators by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Described by prosecutors as ‘enemies of the human race’, they were found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war-crimes. The record of the war-crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia has been less than perfect, but in this instance, at least, justice has been done.
3) A new genetic study apparently proves that twenty per cent of the population of the Iberian peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and ten per cent has Moorish ancestry. Another study proves not only that the ethnic origins of the Balkan nations are extremely mixed – which everyone knows, of course – but that the populations of Greece and Albania are genetically more Slavic in origin than the Slavic-speaking populations of neighbouring Macedonia and Bulgaria. Scientists have already proven the genetic kinship of Jews and Arabs.
The myth that ethnic differences are based on genetic differences remains surprisingly pervasive, not just among nationalists – of whom we expect no better – but among ‘educated’ opinion in general. Ethnic differences or identities that are disapproved of are frequently counterposed to ‘real’ ones in discussions about civil wars and other conflicts. Just as nationalists like to imagine their own group has been ethnically pure since Antiquity or earlier, so leftists are frequently fond of portraying ethnic differences as having been ‘invented by imperialism’, or some such nonsense. Yes, the modern nations of the world are largely the products of imperialism, colonialism and genocide, and many ethnic identities have been deliberately fostered by imperial overlords or other interested parties. So what ? All ethnicities are ultimately human constructs, with little or nothing to do with genetic differences. They are only as ‘real’ as their members or their persecutors feel them to be. The more that scientific studies undermine the disgusting, racist myth of ‘real’ ethnic differences, the better for human enlightenment and emancipation.
4) Kalaallit Nunaat, or Greenland, voted last month to increase its autonomy from Denmark, in what may be a step toward full independence. The Greenlandic independence movement is fuelled both by economic factors and by simple national feeling on the part of the predominantly Inuit population. I am fascinated by the Nordic world, not least because it has proven adept at managing the transition to independence of its constituent nations in a peaceful and civilised manner. It is up to the people of Greenland alone to decide whether they want to secede from Denmark, of course; nobody else can or should exercise a veto over this process. But should they choose to, the peaceful acceptance of their decision that Denmark will undoubtedly demonstrate should serve as a model for states all over the world, from Spain to India.
On this note, I wish readers a very merry Christmas and happy New Year.
Tasiilaq, East Greenland
V.I.Lenin once wrote that class-conscious workers should ‘conduct systematic propaganda and prepare the ground for the settlement of conflicts that may arise over the secession of nations, not in the “Russian way”, but only in the way they were settled in 1905 between Norway and Sweden.’ Quite. When surveying the bloodshed and horror resulting from attempts to suppress national ‘separatism’, from Kosovo and Chechnya to Kashmir and Sri Lanka, it is worth remembering that it really does not have to be this way.
The Nordic peoples have a long and strong tradition of national separatism, and it is one they should feel proud of. For over a hundred years from the end of the fourteenth century, all the Nordic lands from Greenland to Finland were formally united under a single crown, but since then there has been a steady process of Nordic Balkanisation. Sweden broke away from the Danish-dominated Union of Kalmar in 1523, and it is true that it took years of warfare before Denmark recognised the secession, but that was a long time ago. More recently, Norway seceded from Sweden in 1905 and Iceland from Denmark in 1944, in both cases peacefully and without bloodshed. This may be due in part to the strong Nordic tradition of representative bodies, and respect thereof; the Icelandic parliament that declared independence could trace its origins back to the year 930.
Yet there was nothing primordial or pre-ordained about some of the nation-states that today seem immutable parts of the map of Europe. Until the Napoleonic wars, Norway had been in stable union with Denmark for many centuries, while Finland was merely a part of Sweden where a Swedish-speaking elite ruled over a Finnish-majority population. We do not know whether, or how quickly, Norway and Finland would have emerged as independent states had it not been for the ‘accident’ of the Russian conquest of Finland and the Swedish conquest of Norway early in the nineteenth century. Today, the Nordic countries are not as nationally homogenous as they are commonly perceived to be by outsiders and it is far from certain that the process of Nordic Balkanisation has come to an end, yet it is extremely unlikely that these factors will ever result in bloodshed.
Iceland was before 1944 an autonomous territory under the Danish crown. Other such autonomous Nordic territories exist today: Greenland and the Faroe Islands, both autonomous under Denmark with representatives in the Danish parliament, but strong pro-independence sentiments among parts of the populations; and the Aland Islands, an autonomous Finnish territory where Swedish is the language of the administration and population. A distant cousin that still bears a certain family resemblance is the Isle of Man, a self-governing possession of the British Crown whose parliament, the Tynwald, was established by Man’s Norse rulers during the Middle Ages and has been in continuous existence ever since. It is entirely conceivable that the Faroes and Greenland, at least, may become independent at some time in the future, following the Icelandic example. Greenland has already seceded from the European Union, in 1985. Yet it is questionable how much real difference independence would make, either to the lives of the populations or to their functional relationships with their parent countries. Today, Iceland’s Reykjavik Airport (not to be confused with Keflavik International Airport) mostly operates domestic flights – its only international flights are to Greenland and the Faroes, which until the 1940s were not ‘international’ vis-a-vis Iceland.
As much as the Nordic countries have benefited from their traditions of administrative continuity, they all bear hallmarks of the diversity of their backgrounds, a diversity that was not always dealt with gently. Parts of southern Sweden were originally part of Denmark and spoke Danish; Sweden’s King Charles XI, faced with their pro-Danish irredentism, was a seventeenth-century pioneer in forced linguistic assimilation. The small, originally semi-nomadic Sami people who inhabit the Arctic north of Norway, Finland and Sweden (the region commonly referred to as Lapland), with a smaller community in neighbouring Russia, were for centuries subject to often brutal forced assimilation that really only came to an end in the 1960s, as the Nordic nations improved their behaviour under the influence of anti-colonial struggles elsewhere in the world. There remains today much Sami resentment at this treatment; a strong Sami patriotism was apparent to me when I visited the Norwegian Sami capital of Karasjok in 2004; at the Sami themepark of Sampi, the tags on the exhibits were written in Sami and English but not in Norwegian – something that the attendant appeared proud to acknowledge. The Norwegian Sami have their own parliament in Karasjok, built to resemble a traditional Sami dwelling. The Swedish and Finnish Sami have their own parliaments as well; the three representative bodies enjoy a consultative relationship.
The Sami parliament at Karasjok
The Norwegians themselves have two versions of the Norwegian language – the traditional Danish-influenced Bokmal deriving from the long era of union with Denmark and the more patriotically inspired Nynorsk, supposedly ‘purified’ of Danish influences, though it is Bokmal that is the dominant version. Finland, for centuries part of Sweden, is a formally bilingual Finnish- and Swedish-speaking country; the Finnish national hero Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who led Finland against the Russians in its war of independence and in World War II, was himself a Swedish speaker who did not speak Finnish very well. It was the Russians, however, who established Helsinki as the capital of Finland; today, Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral lays claim to being the largest Russian Orthodox Church in western Europe. Russian influence is also apparent on the fringes of the Norwegian world; the town of Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, has street signs in both Norwegian and Russian and a prominent statue of a Soviet soldier, in memory of the Soviet liberators of World War II. Still more remote, Norway’s Svalbard islands are the site of the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg; with its Soviet-era architecture and bust of Lenin in the village centre, Barentsburg is more different in appearance from the neighbouring settlement of Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s typically-Norwegian administrative centre, than St Petersburg is from Oslo.
It is Greenland, however, where the Nordic world’s capacity for cultural synthesis is perhaps most striking; the village of Kulusuk, the gateway into east Greenland, is only a short flight westward from Reykjavik, yet comes as something of a culture shock after the cosy Icelandic capital. Reykjavik city centre boasts a London telephone box and Tube sign and the same shops and latte-serving cafes as other West European capitals. Two hours away in Kulusuk, there are brightly coloured houses and a wooden Lutheran church similar to those found in Iceland, Norway and Svalbard, but the villagers have no rubbish disposal service or running water (the pipes would freeze in the winter). Kulusuk’s larger neighbour Tasiilaq, however, with a population of less than two thousand, is large enough to support supermarkets stocked with imported European goods. Under Danish rule, parts of the Inuit Greenland population have gone technologically from the stone age to the twenty-first century in little more than a hundred years. The experience of Danish colonisation and rapid modernisation has not been uniformly happy; in his brilliant novel, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, the Danish author Peter Hoeg portrays the unhappiness of his mixed-race Danish-Greenlandic heroine Smilla, who spent her formative years in Greenland and was never able to adjust to life in Denmark – her brother committed suicide. Still, the experience of the Greenland Inuit at European hands may be favourably compared with that of other Native Americans; although demographically a small nation (smaller than South Ossetia), Greenland enjoys almost complete autonomy and a bilingual Greenlandic and Danish administration, numerically dominated by native Greenlanders. Should Greenland choose to secede fully, Denmark is unlikely to respond with destruction or genocide.
This positive historical experience, of bilingual nations seceding from, or enjoying extensive autonomy under parent countries, is one that other parts of Europe should emulate. And to some extent they have. Lenin was inspired by the example of Norway’s peaceful secession from Sweden, and was a prominent advocate of the right of nations to self-determination (as an aside, Russia has historically been influenced by its Nordic neighbours; the medieval reach of the Nordic peoples stretched from Canada to Constantinople and the Caspian, and it was the Scandinavian Varangians who founded the medieval state of Kievan Rus, the precursor of Russia. Peter the Great built St Petersburg on occupied Swedish territory. More recently, Lenin himself was of an ethnically mixed background that included Swedish roots). Under the Communists, the Soviet nationalities were organised on the basis of different levels of republican statehood or autonomy. There was of course a lot of hypocrisy in the Communist treatment of the Soviet nationalities, and Soviet brutality was at times equal to anything the Western colonial powers produced – witness Stalin’s genocide of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tartars and others. Nevertheless, the fact that the break-up of the Soviet Union was ultimately less bloody than that of the French, British or Portuguese colonial empires was due in part to the fact that, under the Soviet constitutional system, the right of members of the Soviet federation to secede was formally guaranteed.
Where the break-up was more bloody, as it was in Chechnya as well as in the former Yugoslavia (also organised on the basis of Leninist nationality principles), this was in large part due to the fact that the system had not been developed to its logical conclusion. Thus, under the Yugoslav constitution, the right of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics to secede was not spelled out, although it was strongly implied, while Kosovo was accorded a lower status than the formally sovereign republics, although it was a member of the Yugoslav federation. Chechnya, in the Russian Federation, enjoyed a lower status still, being not even a member of the Soviet Union. These factors were used as justification for the wars waged by the enemies of self-determination. In Yugoslavia’s case, a lot of nonsense was spoken by ill-intentioned or ill-informed individuals about the constituent republics of the federation having nothing to do with the constituent nations, and having purely ‘administrative borders’ that could be legitimately redrawn at will by fascist dictators and terrorists in the event of the federation’s break-up – myths I have refuted in my book, The History of Bosnia. But leaving aside the wording of constitutions, it is clear that when nations secede, they must in practice do so on the basis of existing ‘administrative’ borders – as was the case with Norway, Iceland and the former European colonies in Africa and elsewhere – if there is to be any chance of the experience being peaceful. The secession of individual nations from a multinational whole is not a matter of arbitrarily drawing lines on a map; it occurs in a context shaped by centuries of history that cannot simply be swept away.
- Basque Country
- Central Europe
- East Timor
- European Union
- Faroe Islands
- Former Soviet Union
- Former Yugoslavia
- Marko Attila Hoare
- Middle East
- Political correctness
- Red-Brown Alliance
- South Ossetia
- The Left
- World War II