Russian President Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea, arguing that the region, with its Russian-language majority, has the right to “self-determination.” Now he is suggesting that Ukraine’s eastern provinces in the Don region also have a right to “self-determination.”
The “right to self-determination” sounds pretty good. But what about the right to a democratic government? The two principles don’t coexist very well.
Back in 1861 some of our southern states decided they would exercise their right of self-determination by seceding from the United States. The north decided they had no such right. Indeed, President Lincoln gave one of his greatest speeches, on the battlefield of Gettysburg, to justify the north’s struggle to keep the country together. If a minority could decide not to be bound by majority rule and to break away and form a separate country, then democracy could not exist.
Why the Canadians take a different view of the matter vis-à-vis Quebec, and the Brits vis-à-vis Scotland, is not clear. But back to President Putin — and Russia.
If Putin is so committed to maintaining the right of minorities with different cultures and languages to exercise their right to self-determination — to secede and form their own countries — I wonder how he would feel about some of the Russian nationalities taking the same view.
“Russia” is actually the “Russian Federation.” It is what was left after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. It consists of 85 separate units, 22 of which are “republics.” They have the right to their own official languages and their own constitutions. Even the other members of the Russian Federation — those that don’t have the status as “republics” — have their own regional or territorial organizations, with a degree of autonomy. Many have majorities which are not ethnically Russian and for whom Russian is not the primary language.
Ethnic Russians make up less than half of the populations in Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia and Cherkessia (predominantly Turkic and Muslim). Russians make up less than 5 percent in the Caucasian regions of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.
Siberia, which includes “The Siberian Federal District,” comprises the entire Russian Far East, over three-quarters of Russia’s land mass and some 30 million people. Siberia is rich in minerals. It is home to 70 percent of Russia’s developed oil fields and 40 percent of the world sources of nickel. Although most Siberians are Russians, there are also Ukrainians, Germans, Mongols, Turkic groups, Yakuts and an alphabet soup of other cultural and linguistic groups.
The Siberians — if they separated from the western-European parts of Russia, centered around Petersburg and Moscow — would make an economically powerful and diverse country. They could have lots of fun charging Putin and a truncated Russia for oil and gas supplies piped in from the East.
During the Russian census of 2010, increasing numbers of citizens east of the Urals chose to identify themselves as “Siberians” rather than “Russians.” Many regard the westerners as colonizers, and might welcome a new relationship with the United States. In late 2013, Aleksei Tarasov, a Siberian journalist, wrote that Siberian regionalism “won’t go away.” Even the Russian speakers in Siberia might relish the chance to govern themselves independently from the westerners — and President Putin.
The principle of self-determination now advocated so eloquently by President Putin could turn around and bite him someday — perhaps soon.