From the Black Sea to the Malvinas
By Marcelo Falak
Territorial integrity vs. self-determination is still main focus of conflict in today’s world
Alongside Islamic terrorism, the zigzagging relationship between the principles of the territorial integrity of the state and the right to self-determination of people continue to be the main focus of conflict in today’s world. The global ideological dispute of the Cold War and the parallel construction of the most emblematic case of supranational integration (the European Union) curbed nationalist claims — prematurely and deceptively, as it turns out — as obsolete.
We now know that the former was a lid which, once it blew off, revealed an interminable maelstrom of unresolved nationalist issues underneath, while the latter was a mirage which sold the idea of the end of national self-interest and the beginning of a new era of co-operation, an illusion which failed to pass the acid test of the 2008 crisis, which showed that more than ever “Europe” remains in large measure the stage where the Germans, the French, the British and other fortunate countries defend their national self-interest while the Greeks, the Spaniards and other needy peoples do what they can.
From Israel and Palestine to the confines of the former Soviet Union, from Tibet to Spain and the United Kingdom, just to name a few emblematic cases, the planet remains crisscrossed by national claims. A Ukraine torn between Moscow and the West is today only the hottest case of this trend totally at odds with Cold War terms of reference — this is not an ideological tussle but the re-emergence of the national factor with a Russia which never (whether under the czars, Communism or Vladimir Putin) stopped seeing itself as an empire. And what should be said about its rivals with the United States at the top of the list?
At the end of the day empires act on the basis of interest and the much-vaunted “international law” is no more than a respectable veneer for power politics. It is thus no surprise that Russia, which today defends the sovereign right of the Russian-speaking majority of the Crimea to define its future, should have resisted Kosovo asserting that same prerogative against its ally Serbia in 1999. Nor is it a surprise that, in a perfect mirror image, the US and Western Europe, so jealous then of the right to self-determination, should now defend the preservation of Ukrainian territorial integrity with the zeal of converts.
Opportunism, of course, but also concern. How could a European Union threatened by separatism in Catalonia, the Bazque Country, Belgium and even Scotland say anything else? This latter case exposes in all its treachery the double talk of the United Kingdom, the empire of empires. London, with a Conservative prime minister David Cameron as merely a historical circumstance, has resisted as long as it could the Scottish bid to jettison the Act of Union of 1707, an obvious right of either party in a contract. When that was no longer possible, it began to strew the path to next September 18’s independence referendum with all kinds of threats addressed to the Scottish electorate — expulsion from the EU, economic chaos, an impossible tax burden.
Meanwhile London, as we can see, is opposed to the Crimean people exercising a similar right this Sunday but upholds it for the Kelpers. Nor does it care that the population of that Black Sea region tops two million people while the colony forcibly implanted in our Malvinas is around 2,000 — less than the neighbours in your apartment block, esteemed reader.
Returning to the Crimea, the end of the road is still unpredictable. The 2008 military campaign in which the Kremlin crushed Georgia on behalf of the Russians of North Ossetia and Abkhazia ended in the de facto independence of those regions, although formally recognized almost exclusively by Russia. Does the same result await Crimea?
If principles are purely fiction for the main players in the drama, what happens next will depend on the relation of forces. While according to a Pew Institute survey, 56 percent of US public opinion warn Barack Obama against even thinking of meddling in such a distant conflict, Putin’s popularity (according to the Levada Institute) has never been higher at a record 69 percent.
Here in a country which is not part of the Great Game, we can only watch and wait. And, of course, never stop raising the basic moral and legal principles. The weak have no other weapon.