There are more important things than territorial integrity

Democracy and self-determination are great. But nobody should believe that a referendum hastily pulled out of a hat, with limited choices and without a proper prior public debate about the question posed at the polls is a good example of direct democracy. Likewise, self-determination of a people is not enhanced if such a referendum is carried out while under the military occupation of a neighboring country not known for its love of democracy.

The referendum in Crimea with an almost North-Korean outcome was a worse joke than the ones told by the Vodka-infused sailors in the bars in Sevastopol. Only one guy is laughing about this joke – Putin -, but the rest of the world has to decide how to react.

Western responses to the crisis in Crimea quickly focus on the aspect of territorial integrity. This monster of a word means that a country must not be torn apart, filleted, cut up or otherwise divided. States are no pizza which you can divide randomly. By using the argument of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the West resorts to the weakest argument of all.

Why should it be an international principle of high regard that a country’s territory must neither shrink nor grow? I find it much more important how people in that territory fare: if there is freedom, democracy, rule of law and prosperity, it should be of secondary concern what kind of flag is flown in front of city hall. Within the European Union, I thought we have come to understand that, which is why nobody is fighting over Alsace-Lorraine or Trieste anymore.

"I am sorry. I didn't want this to cause a war."

“I am sorry. I didn’t want this to cause a war.”

I also wish that Crimea would have remain with Ukraine. But not because this is the current (or by now previous – and if you know the history: rather arbitrary) border, but because I believe that it would be better for the inhabitants of the peninsula to live in a country with a democratic, European perspective than in an authoritarian Mafia-state. (Additionally, but that is a rather egoistic motive, I cherish the existence of a Russian-speaking territory in a country for which I don’t need a visa, because I’d like to go there for a few months to learn Russian.)

From German history, we know that a country does not necessarily become a worse country by shrinking in size. And since 1990 we know that divisions of territory are not irreversible. “Size doesn’t matter,” as we men assert in other contexts.

One doesn’t have to go back more than 25 years to realize that some of the current EU member states were born out of a “violation of territorial integrity” of states which still existed then. When Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, although it had never before existed as an independent state, we did not insist on the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. Nor did we insist on the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union when Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became independent.

At any time of world history, borders have been moved back and forth. Why should this process be completed once and for all just before 16 March 2014?

It seems to me that this insisting on transfixed borders comes from a wish to keep the world manageable. But it isn’t. This simplification is not only intellectually unsatisfying, but it also commits the consequential mistake of valuing a line on a map higher than human life. This urge to maintain old borders has already led to a number of problems. A few recent examples:

  • In Bosnia-Herzegovina the Dayton Accord insisted on keeping the borders of this artificial former Yugoslav state intact, although some regions would much rather have become parts of Serbia or Croatia. The result is an inconsistent, almost ungovernable state with a multitude of bloated local, regional, state and international levels of administration.
  • The same mistake was made in Kosovo. A majority of countries recognized independent Kosovo in the borders of the erstwhile Yugoslav province, instead of limiting this to the 90% of the territory which was inhabited by Albanians and leaving the northern part with its almost exclusively Serb population to remain or become part of Serbia. Today, nobody in Pristina would care two hoots about North Mitrovica, and the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo could be much more cooperative.
  • For more than 10 years, we have been insisting on treating Afghanistan as a unified entity although most of the population there doesn’t find that particularly important. If ISAF had focused on the parts of Afghanistan which could have been pacified and stabilized, the Taliban might still be hanging around in Kandahar, but by focusing our resources we could have helped to build up society with a real chance of survival around Kabul and Herat for example. Possibly. The way we did it, we half-heartedly bustled around all of Afghanistan, we leave this year, and the whole country will go down the drain after. But at least we don’t need to memorize any new borders.
  • In the north of Somalia, the two relatively stable regions of Somaliland and Puntland have declared their independence. The international community however hardly recognizes them and insists on treating all of Somalia as a failed state.

Returning to Crimea, the problem is not where exactly the border between Ukraine and Russia runs. The real problem is the existence of a large, aggressive, power-hungry, authoritarian, corrupt and uncooperative state that looks down on human rights. This problems existed before the crisis in Crimea and it won’t be solved by freezing bank accounts and issuing travel bans. Even the containment of such a problem requires an effort that we haven’t mounted since the Cold War. If we are not ready to master this task, we might as well call the Eastern European states which are not NATO members and tell them “we are sorry”. By way of precaution, we can already issue such a call to Moldova where Transnistria and Gagauzia are the next trouble spots.

(Dieser Artikel ist auch auf Deutsch erschienen.)

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Cold War, Estonia, Europe, Germany, History, Human Rights, Latvia, Law, Lithuania, Military, Politics, Russia, Ukraine and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to There are more important things than territorial integrity

  1. Pingback: Territoriale Integrität? Es gibt Wichtigeres. | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Anonymous says:

    As an eternal optimist, I believe that Putin’s secret goal is to ostensibly start a new cold war as a mean to unite all of the western world under a common threat.

    No-one can deny that during the cold war, western countries were better governed because they had to be. People had to be kept happy so that they wouldn’t start dreaming of communism and science and technology had to be funded so that the soviet union couldn’t get ahead of us.

    Seeing the decadence and infinite greed in the modern western world, Putin, in all his wisdom, decided to make mother Russia a martyr that would again force the elites of the western world to make their countries better places in order to fight the common threat coming from the East.

  3. stefan says:

    “but because I believe that it would be better for the inhabitants of the peninsula to live in a country with a democratic, European perspective than in an authoritarian Mafia-state”

    Don’t you think it is pretty arrogant to say that (like a BesserWessi). Shouldn’t that be decided by the people?

    • Yes, it should. But in a free and fair referendum without armed thugs outside of polling places. – I only indicated how I would vote in such a referendum, but of course I would accept it if the majority went the other way.

    • stefan says:

      Well, international election observers reported that even without those “thugs” the result probably would not have been that strong BUT still would have been very strong with the same result.

    • Which is the main reason why I recommend in the article that Ukraine accept the loss of Crimea.

  4. stefan says:

    “The real problem is the existence of a large, aggressive, power-hungry….”

    Maybe the people there would call some western countries exactly the same.

    • The very one-directional flow of refugees and asylum seekers makes me quite confident about where good and bad are on the map.

    • stefan says:

      It worries me when people start talking about “good” and “bad”. I thought that way of thinking is something of the past.
      So is the new Ukraine Government the good? Incl. the Svoboda party, which has called for the liberation of his country from the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia and much worse things? Maybe we soon see a wave of Jewish asylum seekers from the Ukraine. That is the “good” in your eyes?
      I think who sorts in “good” and “bad” is either extremely naïve or just wants to put more oil into the fire!

    • Between Russia and the EU, I can tell “good” from “bad” quite easily by looking at democracy, free press, minority rights, rule of law, and that’s not even considering any of the economic factors which might be important for people less interested in theories of good governance than me.

  5. Dante says:

    Dear Andreas Moser,
    I am convinced that you think in categories of “good” and “bad”, and neither do I. The involved are all human beings. This, of course, does not mean that I understood both sides in the sense that I thougt they all were right to some extent but rather the exact opposite: I think in categories of “bad”, “even worse” and “utterly evil”. To me, a bad but not the worst actor is not Putin although I do not trust him since I regard him as a rather unscrupulous “semi-dictator”.
    The worst are, of course, the nationalists who adore Stepan Bandera as a national hero although they know what crimes he committed – and as such I do not regard fighting at Hitler’s side; so did Mannerheim without waging a racial war of extermination. Bandera, on the other hand, was also a Jew-hater responsable for massacres where many people were killed for exactly that reason.
    Later, the German murderers had Ukrainian helpers which were very eager in killing Jews as brutally as possible.
    And the so-called Right Sector puts itself in their tradition – these are people whom I would call the devil himself for help against.

    • Yes, these nationalists also worry me a great deal. And I wish the non-nationalists would distance themselves more clearly. There will always be neo-Nazis, in any country, but the decisive question is how the democratic forces deal with them.

    • Dante says:

      …how the democratic forces deal with them.

      I hope as they are. As criminals. I do not mean all nationalists but such that promote and commit torture and murder against people they regard as subhuman.

  6. Sorry if this is taken the wrong way, but the worry is so entirely over hyped. Russia isn’t the most free country, but it’s far from the most corrupt. With that said the EU and the states both do massive amounts of business with completely corrupt states with human rights abuses that far outwiegh Russia’s. The track record for first world nations and emerging nations isn’t so great either, Russian “commonwealth” type alliance that Ukraine had before the revolution wasn’t perfect, but it offered them cheap gas, in a place that has a bad economy. The first thing to get those nice loans from the EU community? make your people pay more for gas. So all of a sudden your country is no longer broke but is in debt to the world banks and you pay more for a necessary service. That’s going to strengthen their economy?
    The fact is if I was sitting in Crimea I would look at these things and see Russian alliance and integration as the lessor of two evils. Especially considering the nationalist ant-Russian sentiment coming from Kiev. You as an European see alliance with your countries as always a good thing, but I think you can look around the world at emerging economies in the last 30 years or more and see a legacy of outright pillaging of resources of those countries resulting in bankruptcy on top of the previous economic blight.

    Long story short, it’s great to be living in a first world G8 country, but to be beholden to our banking and corporate interests is to lose your resources to international corporate interests. Last time I checked one of the main gripes Ukraine had with Russia is they wanted to pay less than they already did for gas, and now the EU is making it a stipulation that they pay more!… sounds like a great deal for the average Ukrainian??

    • These are very valid points!

      I would have opted for closer ties to the EU because for me, economic arguments are far less important than political ones. I cherish a free press, I cherish the opportunity to write what I want without the police coming to my house or the fear of being gunned down when I leave the house. I am happy in an environment where minorities have legal protection against the majority, where gays are not portrayed as criminals by representatives of the state, and so on.
      But I acknowledge that for many people and maybe even the majority it’s more important to be able to pay the utility bill and the rent every month. (I am not writing from the comfort of not having to worry about these things, but I am generally a carefree person when it comes to material matters.)

      The nationalism in Ukraine is something which also worries me deeply. But then, I am not sure Russian contemporary culture is the solution to that. It seems to me that European diversity is the better answer.

  7. Pingback: An idea for Kaliningrad | The Happy Hermit

  8. Pingback: What do you expect from 2015? | The Happy Hermit

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