Nomen est omen

ANALYSIS  Željko Popović Published: 22. 12. 2022.

The right to secession – self-determination of the people and the nation-state

In these war times, when the dominant discourse is congested with apparently well-intentioned but actually hypocritical appeals for peace and stability, invoking people’s right to self-determination can seem like adding fuel to the fires of nationalism and inciting armed conflicts. The application of that right in international practice, as well as its analysis in legal and political theory, reveals its tendency towards instrumentalization by the most powerful states, but also its revolutionary potential which can significantly affect the destabilization of the international order or change the balance of power within it. Observing self-determination from a historical perspective reveals its connection with the state, war, and nationalism, forces that often distorted the meaning and goal of people’s aspirations for freedom, trying to return them to a state of slavery and dependence.

As an unwanted child of the revolutionary politics of the popular masses and the conservative right of the state power, the people’s right to self-determination had to fight for recognition by political figures and legal experts from the very beginning. The French Revolution, that extraordinary political event, proclaimed the fundamental right of every nation to organize its own form of government without the interference of foreign forces, with the introduction of plebiscites as a means of determining the legal status of a given territory, in order to preserve the revolutionary legacies through legal mechanisms.

In the 19th century, with the rise of nation-states, the call for self-determination was heard in movements for the unification of Italy, but also in separatist movements in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, so self-determination does not necessarily lead to the splitting of states, but also to the creation of multinational state entities, such as were the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and later Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, the first association which comes to mind when mentioning self-determination, which at the same time constitutes its conceptual root, is an armed rebellion against a sovereign state and its power in a certain territory, thus it became recognizable and popular among enslaved peoples in their struggle for independence.

However, the popularity of self-determination and its revolutionary force was also subject to reactionary abuses, the Nazis called for the self-determination of Germans living outside the borders of Germany as part of their plans to annex foreign territories. On the other hand, the unclear legal status of that right and accentuated and emotionally colored moral attitude aroused the suspicion and caution of legal experts, who avoided specifying concrete indications in which cases that right could be used, and its legal codification in international declarations and resolutions has also been delayed for a long time.

Without beating around the bush Lenin emphasized that freedom in the form of self-determination implies the possibility of choosing secession and full political independence while achieving the status of independent statehood, which can be achieved by holding a referendum.

The contradictory nature and different interpretations of self-determination clearly come to the fore during and after the First World War with its affirmation as a political principle without legal foundation by American President Woodrow Wilson. In order to achieve lasting peace in Europe, it is necessary to support the demands of minority peoples for a national state and to end the existence of national empires. However, the principle of self-determination cannot be consistently implemented due to the interests of the victorious powers, which gave some peoples legitimacy for the formation of new states, while other peoples had to be satisfied with the guarantee of minority rights instead of statehood. Fearing the endless fragmentation of territorial integrity, it was resorted to advocating autonomy as a substitute for achieving self-determination and a legal framework for respecting minority rights. In the end, it came to be that the primary beneficiaries of self-determination were recognized states whose jurisdiction is protected by sovereign equality, rather than nations and minority peoples whose claims to statehood could mess up the plans for great powers. Nevertheless, the allies did not hesitate to play the card of nationalism of small nations in case of need in order to oppose the internationalism of the Bolsheviks, which brings Lenin to the historical stage and the specific commitment to self-determination within the framework of Soviet Marxism.

Without beating around the bush Lenin emphasized that freedom in the form of self-determination implies the possibility of choosing secession and full political independence while achieving the status of independent statehood, which can be achieved by holding a referendum. He distinguishes between support for the right to self-determination and support for concrete demands for its realization, which did not exclude the need to oppose concrete secessionist demands at certain moments. Depending on the different stages of capitalist development, the call for self-determination should not be supported in the capitalist phase with established states in which there is a clearly expressed antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, because class tensions suppress nationalist aspirations and enable the release of international solidarity. On the other hand, promoting self-determination in the colonies during the war should encourage their rebellion and cause a global revolutionary wave, which would hasten the end of the war and the beginning of socialism.

Anticipating the community of independent socialist states, Lenin was convinced that the people who are not subjugated and had the right to self-determination, would not resort to its use in the form of independent statehood, but would opt for unity among equal peoples. Seemingly paradoxical, the right to secede would enable the union of nations on an internationalist basis, in an alliance of large socialist states. In contrast to Wilson’s concept of self-determination, which prioritizes stability, order, and structure as a condition for lasting peace between imperialist states whose interests and aspirations are not questioned, Lenin insisted on achieving freedom as equality, even when it means the use of violence to achieve independent statehood from imperialist interference in the affairs and life of the people.

How did it work in practice? The Bolsheviks did not insist on self-determination in those countries where there was no developed labor movement, but, on the other hand, they could not allow the independence of small nations that would be devoured by war-torn imperialisms. After the October Revolution, the Soviet government calmly accepted the separation of Finland from Russia, because there were no strong laborers soviets there. However, in the case of Ukraine, this could not be allowed. Although the situation in that country was quite complicated, because German occupiers and White Guard reactionaries were present on its territory at the same time, there were also well-organized units under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, with the presence of tough resistance from Makhno’s anarchists, which all speak in favor of strong impulses of the Ukrainian people towards freedom and independence, which after the civil war, led to the acquisition of the status of Ukraine as a regional community on par with Russia and Belarus. For this reason, when Putin declares today that Lenin created Ukraine (so I guess that’s why it should be razed to the ground), he completely misses the point, because, in the imaginary of self-states, it is the leaders who give independence to the masses, and not the people who fight for freedom.

For Trotsky, national self-determination represents the basic formula for oppressed peoples that guarantees their equality and independent existence, but that principle stands beneath the unifying tendencies of socialist economic construction because mutually isolated states are not economically sustainable. As a counterweight to separatism, self-determination goes in the direction of the centralist tendencies of the planned economy. After World War II, when the USSR becomes a respectable world power, the Soviets will have double standards for self-determination same as their capitalist rivals. Instead of international workers’ solidarity and world revolution, peace is given primacy as the supreme goal, in order to preserve the block division of the world and intact spheres of interest. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Brezhnev limited the right to self-determination of Eastern European states under Soviet patronage by excluding the possibility of changing the socialist form of government. In case it came to that, other Warsaw Pact members may use force against states with such intentions.

In the conditions of the current war crisis which threatens to escalate to global proportions, calling for peace and stability (of state crime) has the ideological function of stifling freedom and equality.

After the end of World War II, in the declarations of the UN, the principle of self-determination is affirmed through the status of the right of all peoples for independence from colonial domination, whereby this right would be strictly limited to the colonial context so that the former colonies would fight for equal rights, but also in order to protect the territorial integrity of the existing states. In addition, from the point of view of international law, national minorities do not have the right to self-determination, but to political and territorial autonomy.

It is not difficult to assume that the collapse of the colonial system was hard on the Western countries that did not want to give up their colonies without a fight. Initially, they advocated that only colonial powers could grant self-determination to colonial peoples in the moment when they reached sufficient maturity (as later as possible, preferably never) in order to be guided by friendly colonial powers on their maturing path to freedom. When this transparent argumentation was debunked, the Western states gave principled support to self-determination, but in the form of a universal principle of general importance, which would divert attention from their own colonialism, while at the same time demanding the freedom of the Eastern Bloc states from Soviet interference. Such an attitude helped the survival of neocolonialism through the rule of not changing the borders of former colonies determined by the colonial authorities, which led to the creation of dysfunctional states divided by religious and tribal conflicts, strengthening of repression against minority peoples, and production of separatist tendencies.

Attempts to implement self-determination in the field of realpolitik were followed by corresponding efforts in political and legal theory, where the greatest efforts were directed toward the demarcation of self-determination from autonomy and secession. Such understandings emphasize that self-determination does not contain the ultimate desire for an independent state, and secession, as its most radical form, is justified in the case of a fight against foreign military occupation or when the state refuses to provide a broader form of autonomy to a given group. Granting territorial, cultural, and economic autonomy would protect stateless peoples and preserve the sovereignty of existing states.

Theoretical currents that differentiate between internal and external self-determination are moving in the same direction. The first variant refers to the aspirations of the people to achieve political and cultural development within the existing state and a type of autonomy in the form of preservation of uniqueness and rejection of assimilation. The trouble with internal self-determination is that it can easily lead to separatism and nationalism of minority and majority people. Moreover, the insistence on the autonomy of a part of the citizens in an authoritarian state will certainly lead to a brutal and massive violation of their human rights, which will have as a consequence the resistance to repression and the demand for secession, i.e. external self-determination.

The contemporary strategy of international law focuses on internal self-determination through the operation of political and legal mechanisms that enable the enjoyment of individual human rights and the protection of certain groups within each state through the inclusion of all citizens in the decision-making process. At the same time, states that possess a developed democratic culture and a high standard of living will gain an advantage in the protection of territorial integrity, which is additionally strengthened by the conviction that the formation of a state based only on ethnicity has no basis in international law. In addition, it is considered that democracies have a wide range of means by which they can respond to the demands of preserving integrity while emerging states can fall prey to major players on the world stage by losing sovereignty over monetary and fiscal policy or losing jurisdiction in the exercise of legislative and judicial authority.

The last time right of the people to self-determination as a legal argument appeared was in the case of the declaration of independence of Kosovo and the assessment of the International Court of Justice on the legitimacy of the self-proclaimed statehood. Independence through self-determination exists as a possibility only for colonies, which was not the case with Kosovo, so the Kosovo precedent was interpreted as a unique exception to the general rule when nations are not allowed to create their own state through brutal repression and a series of failed negotiations. Although the Kosovo authorities initially sought the support of independence by calling for self-determination and liberation by force in case of need, in search of the legitimacy of statehood in the international environment, they later resorted to calling for independence in favor of peace and regional stability. Also, some countries that supported Kosovo’s independence formulated the principle of corrective self-determination, which is applied against countries that do not have a representative government (in this case, the undemocratic regime in Serbia) and therefore cannot enjoy legal protection against secession.

The specific case of Kosovo complicates the international project of building a state with a domestic government with limited powers in order to ensure the rule of law through supervised independence by the international administration. Thus, the citizens of Kosovo are excluded from governance and law-making, which brings Kosovo closer to the status of former colony. But, unlike the former colonies, the maturity of the people was not a condition for statehood, while subordination to foreign administration became a guarantee of stability. It turned out that Kosovo’s statehood was not legitimized in terms of the equality of peoples, but served as a corrective against Serbia’s interference while denying the internal rights of Kosovo’s citizens.

Nevertheless, the members of the Kosovo Assembly, despite the foreign system of domination, were able to affirm the constituent will of the people and the idea of ​​national liberation in their declarations, striving to establish a new legal and political order. The legacy of guerrilla resistance was incorporated into the foundations of the new state, and the international principle of territorial integrity, which applies only to interstate relations, did not prevent non-state figures in Kosovo from declaring independence.

On the global level, one can notice the strengthening of the idea of ​​statehood and its international status, which indicates the predominance of the conservative understanding of self-determination, with the simultaneous absence of international recognition of non-state groups as potential figures of political freedom. As an apparent counterweight to the strengthening of statism, the principles of human rights are promoted in the context of isolated individuals as potential victims, which entails the articulation of security politics and the strengthening of the state as a guarantor of peace and stability. In short, self-determination becomes a security problem that invites war, and supposedly the only way to avoid it is to force a well-armed state fraught with militant nationalism whose only alternative is war. This vicious circle is reinforced by the necessity of non-state groups that are forced to define themselves in terms of national identity, in order to be recognized as international figures with minority rights of indigenous peoples. But, as we have seen, international law does not recognize self-determination based on ethnicity alone, but it gives priority to endangering human rights, thereby excluding collectives and groups with revolutionary potential and libertarian aspirations for whom statehood is not the goal of self-determination.

In the conditions of the current war crisis which threatens to escalate to global proportions, calling for peace and stability (of state crime) has the ideological function of stifling freedom and equality. It was forgotten that people can be unfree in a free state and that workers have no homeland because it is wherever the invisible hand of the world market and the iron heel of the state can reach. Up until some new self-determination for the equality of the peoples and peoples’ freedom.

English translation: Ivana Purtić

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