Here is another way to think about what is happening in Ukraine: as the latest chapter in the self-decolonisation of Europe. After dismantling the Soviet empire at the end of the short 20th century, Europeans went back to finishing off the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman ones, including successor states such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Now it is the pre-Soviet Russian empire that is being challenged. Think of Russia’s president as Tsar Vladimir the Last.
The unmaking of empires is a messy business. Empires are not made of Lego: take it apart and you have a neat red block here, a yellow one there. What decides which group of people on which patch of land gets to be a state? Cultural, linguistic, ethnic and historical commonalities certainly play a part. So do the legacies of long-forgotten international diplomatic agreements, and territorial divisions internal to an empire or multi-ethnic successor state. Local political will and leadership is crucial. Perhaps most important of all is historical luck, the fortuna that Machiavelli calls ‘the arbiter of half the things we do’. It was such a mix of history, will, skill and luck that brought Kosovo its still not universally recognised independence.
I was seized by this thought about the untangling of old empires some years ago when I visited the breakaway para-state of Transnistria, on the eastern edge of Moldova, next to Ukraine. In its weird Soviet-retro capital, Tiraspol, I came upon a grand equestrian statue of the Tsarist military hero Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov. The statue celebrates his founding of that city at the end of the 18th century. Earlier, in Uzhhorod, a city on Ukraine’s western frontier with Slovakia, I had dropped in on the self-styled Provisional Government of Sub-Carpathian Rus – or Ruthenia for short. The prime minister was a professor of medicine, who graciously received me in a small office in the local hospital. The foreign minister had driven over from his home in Slovakia. The justice minister made the tea. I nearly persuaded them to sing their national anthem, which begins ‘Sub-Carpathian Rusyns, arise from your deep slumber’. Ridiculous! you may say. Operetta! But then fortuna spins the kaleidoscope of history, and suddenly there is an internationally recognised country called, say, Moldova or Montenegro. Its sons and daughters, succumbing to the normative power of the given and misled by nationalist history textbooks, grow up taking this nation-statehood for granted.
Subversively, the frontiers of old empires then re-emerge on the electoral maps of new democracies, as if traced in invisible ink. Chart the majority vote for parties and presidential candidates by colour. The 19th-century domains of the Austro-Hungarian or German empires shine out in orange, Russian or Ottoman in blue. In Ukraine, in Romania, in Poland: the parties and colours vary, but the phenomenon is the same.
Liberals are good at articulating universal principles for the equal sovereignty and self-determination of individual human beings. They get in a complete muddle when it comes to peoples. Why should Kosovars have a right to self-determination but not Kurds? If Scotland, why not Catalonia? If Catalonia, why not Padania? Padania is the name proposed by the Lega Nord for an independent north Italy. As empires and multinational states weaken, the cry goes up ‘why should we be a minority in your country, when you could be a minority in ours?’ (I borrow the brilliant formulation of the Macedonian scholar Vladimir Gligorov.) Or, as the Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky provocatively put it the other day: if Ukraine can have its revolution, why can’t Crimea?
As most newspapers readers have recently learned, Crimea was gifted to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic at the behest of Nikita Khruschev 60 years ago, in February 1954, to mark the 300th anniversary of the 1654 treaty of Pereiaslav, which Soviet propagandists reinterpreted as having marked the ‘reunification of Ukraine with Russia’. This decision was described by the Soviet Ukrainian communist Nikolai Podgorny as ‘yet another affirmation of the great fraternal love and trust of the Russian people for Ukraine’. Ho, ho. Even if Khruschev was not drunk when the decision was made, as is sometimes maliciously reported, there was clearly nothing inevitable or historically ‘natural’ about this – or, for that matter, ‘unnatural’. If it had not happened, Crimea would today be a part of the Russian Federation, with a large minority of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians complaining ‘why should we be a minority in your country, when you could be a minority in ours?’ But it did happen – so the anger surges the other way.
There is no historical necessity in such outcomes, and no universal justice, but two things we should learn from more than a century’s experience of Europe’s self-decolonisation. First, once people have a state, they tend not to want to give it up. ‘You know,’ a Macedonian friend told me soon after the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia became an independent state, ‘I think Macedonia did not have to be a country; but now it is, I quite like it that way’. It is no accident that the number of states in the UN keeps going up, not down. Waiting in the wings are the members of UNPO, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation. Listed among them are the Crimean Tatars.
Even more vital is a second lesson. As that great anti-imperialist Mahatma Gandhi insisted: means and ends cannot be cleanly separated. Violence begets violence. How you do it is not merely as important as what you do; it actually determines where you end up. A velvet divorce, as in Czecho-Slovakia, takes you to a different place than a bloody one. So does a peaceful, voluntary staying-together (Scotland and England, perhaps?) rather than a forced one. The use of force always has unintended consequences. Tsar Vladimir may claw back domination of Crimea, but his actions will ultimately reinforce the independence of Ukraine.
Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and the author of Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name. Additionally, he is a member of the IWM Academic Advisory Board.
First published in the Financial Times, March 8/9, 2014
© Author / Financial Times