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 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.