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The Ukrainian-Russian crisis over the de facto occupation of Crimea by Russian military forces, which has enveloped the concerns and fears of the world over the last several weeks, revolves around two conflicting claims of national self-determination. It has, once again, brought with it the danger of war on the European continent.
What is this conflict about? It concerns the issue of how it will be decided under what political authority people will live.
Americans do not easily understand the anger and fear this issue has for many in Europe and other parts of the world, and why it can result in such potential or actual violent conflict.
The American Philosophy of Individualism
The American political system was based on a philosophy of individualism. That is, each individual is recognized as possessing certain inalienable rights to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. The individual is not the property of an absolute monarch or an arbitrary majority.
Under the traditional American system, virtually every area of human life was viewed as the private affairs of the individual who had that inalienable right to guide and design his life according to his own values, beliefs, and purposes. Interpersonal relationships in society were formed, took shape and changed over time based on the voluntary and mutually beneficial associations and exchanges into which people freely entered.
In the social arena this individualistic philosophy implied that people should be judged as individuals, and not on the basis of such “accidents of birth” as language, religion, ethnicity or race. Of course, and unfortunately, people in their social interactions with others have not always consistently practiced this ideal. Americans, in their private life, too frequently have judged others and acted on the basis of racial, religious, linguistic or other group prejudices.
However, where such racial prejudice was still legally imposed as in the southern states until the 1960s in the form of segregation laws, it was recognized by more and more Americans to be inconsistent with and an offense against the founding principles of the country, and which could not stand in the long run.
Private prejudices and discriminatory acts on the basis of race, religion or language surely might be morally reprehensible but were a part of an individual’s freedom to decide with whom to associate. However, such discrimination was not supposed to be brought into the arena of governmental social or economic policy since this was considered to be violations of individuals’ rights by using the power of the state to harm them on the basis of a collective classification of their identity.
Americans also have been a highly mobile people. From colonial times, Americans always have been open to “moving on.” That nineteenth century phrase attributed to Horace Greeley, “Go west young man,” has been the cultural motto of the nation. Immigrants came from faraway countries and spread across the continent, as did every generation of the native-born Americans.
While the continent has been “conquered” and settled long ago, Americans still pick themselves up and change in what part of the country they live and work far more readily and frequently than most Europeans do in their own part of the world.
The lowering of the migration barriers within the European Union is changing this, especially among the younger generation of Europeans, but it is still, in general, less than among Americans. People in Europe, due to their relatively greater immobility, have traditionally felt a stronger “connectedness” to a specific and local geographical area.
Europe’s Philosophy of Collectivism
Europe’s history is grounded in a philosophy of collectivism, the idea that the group comes before the individual and that his identity and sense of meaning and purpose is tied to the particular “tribe” into which he has been born.
One of the most powerful modern variations on this collectivist theme has been nationalism. Before the demise of monarchism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the individual owed his allegiance to the king or emperor who claimed to own and rule over all and everything with absolute authority in his domain, and usually by asserted “divine right.”
But with the coming of the French Revolution in 1789, all this began to change. With the end of monarchy, the issue arose, “If not to the king, to whom does the individual owe allegiance?” It was declared that within the boundaries of what had been the territory of the former king, the new ruler was “the people” themselves. The “nation” was the new collective to which the individual owed his allegiance and for which he should expect to sacrifice himself if the good of “the nation” required it.
Nationalism and Collectivist Identity
But what defined a “nation” or a “people” as one collective group versus another? Some of the advocates and propagandists of the new nationalist ideal of human identity spoke of a common culture or set of traditions extending over many generations that shaped and made the individual’s sense of who he was and to whom he was connected.
Others spoke of language or race as the unifying determinate of what bound a people together as “one” in terms of national belonging and common destiny. The structure of language and the meanings of words shape how a group of people think and reason, it was said, thus, binding together all those speaking the same language. Even deeper, it was argued by others, was the connection between those coming from the same genetic stock; the collective identity and sense of “oneness” among a group of people was “in the blood.”
All of these ways of identifying a people’s common nationality were also often linked to a geographical area in Europe that for long period of time, it was claimed, marked off the historical or “natural” homeland of the people sharing that common collectivist root.
The rise of nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries now saw the call for all “suppressed peoples” (that is, those minority national groups living within a country dominated by the majority of another nationality) to have their own nation-states to preserve and protect their language, cultural and ethnic uniqueness.
In addition, since under the monarchical system lands had been conquered or acquired through royal marriages that had nothing to do with those “natural” geographical boundaries of various national groups, borders needed to be redrawn. The political borders of countries, it was said, should reflect the national groups that lived within those areas.
There was a problem, however, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Hundreds of years of wars, conquests and migrations had created overlapping areas of “mixed” national populations. There was little way to nicely and neatly draw the political lines on the map so that only those of a particular national group lived within that national group’s borders.
Every nation-state invariably contained within its political boundaries one or more minorities belonging to other linguistic, cultural or ethnic groups.
Now, if the same individualist and (classical) liberal philosophy that was at the foundation of the American political system also had been present in Europe, there would have been no or few “conflicts” between different national groups living within the same country.
Some people might have found it personally irritating or inconvenient that some of their neighbors spoke a different language, or practiced a different religion or had different cultural traditions and manners. But if their political systems had been based on those same liberal individualist principles as America, then there could have been no politically bestowed favors or privileges for the benefit of those in the majority national group at the social and economic expense of the members of any national minority groups.
But, alas, and again especially in Central and Eastern Europe, this was not the case. Governments were elected or came to power that viewed it as their purpose to secure and safeguard the interests and improvements of the majority national group. Government interventions, regulations, and restrictions were implemented to benefit the one group at the expense of any others. And sometimes this included acts of violence and brutality, which the government either instigated or turned a blind eye to.
Nationalism and the Conflicts over Borders
This ideal of and appeal for national self-determination and self-rule was behind the drive for Italian and German political unification and the revolts of the Poles against the Russians and the Hungarians against the Austrians in the nineteenth century.
The First World War broke up the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires that dominated Central and Eastern Europe. In their place arose a host of new or expanded nation-states meant to represent a new political order of national self-determination and self-rule. Many of the governments of these nation-states used the cover of national independence and national preservation to discriminate against and politically and economically abuse clusters of minority national groups under their jurisdictions.
Hitler played upon these “injustices” against German-speaking minorities in neighboring Czechoslovakia and Poland to justify the need to use political and military force to protect these minorities and bring them within the national fold of a greater and “racially purer” Nazi Germany.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Soviet Union’s conquest of Eastern Europe and the imposition of communist governments in the countries that were totally controlled by Moscow artificially suppressed practically all of the nationalist differences and animosities of the pre-World War II period.
But with the collapse of those communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 and then the end to the Soviet Union itself in 1991, many of the nationalist conflicts once more rose to the surface. It was witnessed with the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into two separate countries in 1993.
It was most viciously exposed in the cruel and murderous wars in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s as the various national groups that had comprised Yugoslavia vied for national independence and an insistence upon lands and boundaries consistent with their respective notions of their “rightful” historical borders, which inescapably overlapped with the claims of some of the other national groups.
Borders and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Countries
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the fifteen “Soviet Republics” had had comprised the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) became independent nation-states. The problem was that their national boundaries were the legacy of lines drawn on the map by the Soviet leadership, in some cases directly by Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the case of the Crimea, it had been a provincial unit within the Soviet Russian Republic and was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic by a decree of the Soviet government in Moscow in February 1954. It was a “gift” to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the merging of Ukraine into the Russian Empire.
Both post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine contain linguistic or ethnic minorities within their borders. In Russia this has been most visible in the conflict that the government in Moscow has waged against the Muslim groups in the North Caucasus mountain regions, the most brutal of which has been with the Chechens desiring national independence.
The political boundaries of Ukraine include the two dominant linguistic groups of the Ukrainians, who make up about 68 percent of the population, and Russian speakers who comprise around 30 percent. (Virtually all Ukrainian speakers also fluently know and use Russian, and many Russian speakers know and understand Ukrainian.)
In the Crimean peninsula, the breakdown is almost 60 percent Russian speaking, 25 percent Ukrainian speaking, and 12 percent Tartars, who are Muslims and speak a Turkic-based language. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Crimea remained part of the new independent state of Ukraine, with no thought to the fact that many of the Russian-speaking people there would have preferred to be part of the post-Soviet Russian Federation.
Historically, many Ukrainians living especially in the western part of the country have long been strongly anti-Russian. This part of Ukraine had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War, and then was incorporated into the new Poland after 1918.
Western Ukraine only was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, as part of the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact that started the Second World War by a mutual agreement to divide Poland and Eastern Europe between the two totalitarian tyrants.
“Sovietization” of western Ukraine bore down heavily, with many Ukrainians killed or deported to Siberia by Stalin’s secret police as “enemies of the people.” And this was after millions of other Ukrainians in the part of the country already controlled by the Soviet Union before 1939 had been shot, starved or worked to death in the early 1930s as part of Stalin’s forced collectivization of the land.
A sizeable number of Ukrainians actively collaborated with the Nazis after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, including participation in the mass murdering of Jews. Even after the war ended in 1945, bands of Ukrainian nationalists continued to fight the Soviet Army in the forests of western Ukraine until 1951.
The more radically nationalist of the Ukrainians, no doubt, wish to limit the linguistic liberty and language education of the Russian speakers in the eastern areas of the country, where the Russian-speaking part of the population is most concentrated. But many Ukrainians, from all evidence, have no or little sentiment for such discriminatory policies against their Russian-speaking fellow citizens.
A good number of the Russian-speaking citizens of the country feel a much stronger linguistic and cultural tie to Russia next door. Many do resent the sometimes anti-Russian nationalist fervor of some of their fellow Ukrainian citizens. They also sometimes look down upon the Ukrainians as mere “little brothers” of the wider and “greater” Russian people.
This is, clearly, most intense right now in the Crimea. Even separate from the manipulations of the Russian government’s propaganda machine, the majority of the Russian-speakers living in Crimea would most likely prefer a far greater autonomy from the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, or even to be politically joined with the neighboring Russian Federation.
At the same time, the Ukrainian-speaking parts of the Crimean population, along with the Tartars, would rather be politically a part of Ukraine than under the tighter political control of a Russian-speaking majority, whether just in the Crimea and as part of Russia.
It must be emphasized that the propaganda that has been coming out of Russia since the overthrow of the Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovych, in February that there has been a “fascist” takeover in Kiev by Nazi thugs and Ukrainian nationalist extremists is an exaggeration from all accounts.
Many of the thousands who were out on the streets of the Ukrainian capital in opposition to Yanukovych’s corrupt regime for over three months, and dozens of whom were shot and killed by government forces, came from a wide spectrum of Ukrainian society, both politically and ethnically. But nonetheless, members of the most extreme Ukrainian nationalist parties do have a number of prominent ministerial positions in the provisional government leading up to the elections to be held in May 2014.
Nationalism and Interventionism the Core of the Dilemma
Nonetheless, the core of the conflict arises from two dilemmas: First, “self-determination” is defined in collective terms. It is not the individual’s right to decide in which nation-state or other political entity he shall freely choose to live. No, this is a matter for the linguistic and cultural group as a whole to which he is identified to belong.
The implicit assumption is that all people who happen to share a common language or culture or religion all have the same interests and desires. This would include a preference to want to belong to the same nation-state as guardian and preserver of one’s group national identity against other national groups who are presumed to be a “threat” to the national collective.
Second, in spite of the degree of market-oriented reforms that have been introduced in both Ukraine and Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, the fact is that both, in their own distinct ways, are political and economic plunder lands of government intervention and manipulation.
The government is viewed as an engine of favor, privilege, and protection from competition. Political connections, bribery, and influence are the determiners of wealth and social status. Tens of billions have been corruptly made and corruptly hidden away at the expense of the majority of the population based on political “pull” and power.
Ukrainians fear that if they were under the control of Russia, the levers of privilege and plunder would flow more through Russian hands than their own, so they would be the victims at whose expense others might benefit. And some Russian-speakers in Ukraine fear that the more radical Ukrainian nationalists would use political power to repress and discriminate against them in various cultural and economic ways.
But it must also be said that an important distinction between the Ukrainian and Russian situations is that in Ukraine right now vast numbers of people have taken to the streets and demonstrated, sometimes with the loss of their lives, their desire for real political change away from political corruption and power plundering. Whether it succeeds in the longer-run without a radical change in political philosophies away from collectivism and in the direction of true individualism remains to be seen.
In Russia, on the other hand, political dissent is forcefully kept in check by an authoritarian regime. It has the additional element of a Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who considers the collapse of the Soviet Union to have been the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century, and who wants to restore the “greatness of Russia” in terms of political power and fear on the global stage of international affairs. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine and Crimea need to be in the Russian sphere of influence and control as a matter of “vital national interest,” even if this means the use of military force and propagandistic lies and deceptions.
Since two political authorities cannot occupy and have administrative control over the same geographical area at the same time – it is either Ukrainian national and political sovereignty or Russian national and political sovereignty over Crimea – the conflict over borders and political control threatens to spill over into potential real war.
Is there no way out of this dilemma? While the reality of nation-state power politics and nationalist appeals to collective identity makes it unlikely, what might be a (classical) liberal or individualist solution to this crisis?
This will be discussed in part II of this article next week.
[Originally published at EpicTimes]