A Closer Look at Recent Self-Determination Issues in Eastern Europe

Following his recognition of the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states President Vladimir Putin decided to invade the Ukraine with military force on 24 February 2022. According to a speech delivered by him later on the same day, Putin seeks to justify his actions in international legal terms by at least implicitly referring to two doctrines: self-defence and/or humanitarian intervention (see this post), either in self-defence against a threat to Russia itself or in assistance of the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk which asked the Russian Federation for military assistance for their self-defence. Leaving aside the doubtfulness concerning the legal standing of these defences (see this post), it is clear that national self-determination claims by Russian separatists have been instrumentalised to serve Putin’s agenda.

While all eyes are focussed on Ukraine and Russia, old national self-determination conflicts in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereinafter ‘Bosnia’) also flared up. The decision made by the international body overseeing the peace plan for Bosnia to include genocide denial in the Bosnian criminal code led Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik to make a number of announcements that raised fears of the breach of the fragile peace (see here, here and here). Amongst other things, Dodik threatened to “dissolve” Bosnia. At the same time, Bosnian Croat separatism also poses a challenge to the political unity and territorial integrity of Bosnia. Once again, relations between the three ethnic groups recognised as constituting Bosnia in the Dayton Peace Agreement from 1995 are compromised.

While showing obvious differences, both conflicts reference national self-determination, showing a correlation between historic nostalgia and politically motivated national self-determination. Putin justifies Russian interest and intervention in Ukraine on the basis of historic ties, emphasizing “mistakes” made by historical political figures, which ought to be corrected. Dodik refers to the artificially imposed borders of Bosnia after the Bosnian War through the Dayton Agreement (see here), which he alleges prevents RS from achieving its full political and economic potential. Similarly, Bosnian Croats perceive themselves as marginalized group hindered from equally participating in Bosnia’s governance and within Bosnia’s governance system hindered from achieving full political, economic, social and cultural development. In both cases, national self-determination is used as a tool of nationalist forces to reverse certain aspects of history that are portrayed as driving economic and societal hardship, lack of development and inabilities of an ethnic group to (equally) express their desires and aspirations. Furthermore, both Putin and Dodik repeatedly refer to alleged acts of oppression by the Ukraine or Bosnia (through the terms of the Dayton Agreement, rather than an imminent existential threat; see here), which they allege make the situation of the Russian and Serb minorities, respectively, insufferable.

Independent statehood on its own is no panacea to these ailments and brings its own challenges. Regional rather than national approaches, a certain degree of decentralisation and legal protections, which prevent a country’s majority from disregarding or overwhelming ethnic minorities, could be a means to secure the interests of ethnic minorities. The recent actions and rhetoric of President Putin signpost a different interest – one of territorial aggrandization to re-establish a Soviet Union under Russian leadership. This hegemonic claim aims to extend influence and re-establish supremacy over certain territories, including its peoples. It is in light of such interpretations of the national self-determination doctrine, that its conflict with the principle of territorial integrity becomes obvious.

The persistence of national self-determination needs critical reassessment in light of the aforementioned points. History shows it prone to misuse by political leaders of established states (as Hitler did in seeking reunification of ‘German territories’). In seeking to underline their national sovereignty, this by its very nature disrupts any reconciliation of interests among different ethnic groups. Instead, it seeks to establish stability by cementing the predominance of one ethnic group, deemed to constitute a ‘nation’ above others. Under this pretence, the self-determination claims could become merely cyclical, a ‘right’ not aligned with the vaunted objectives of securing freedom from oppression.

Supranational self-determination on the basis of pragmatic interdependence rather than rigid borders may be the antidote to this development. The point of departure for such a theory would be a concept of supranationalism that by its very nature is an opposing stream to nationalism, as it necessarily shifts power away from the national state. Within that framework, supranationalism does not aim to dissolve already existing geographical borders; it does, however, aim at decreasing their barrier function concerning economic, social and cultural exchange and encourage the distribution of power on more than the national level. As the example of the EU shows, supranationalism encourages the involvement of multiple layers (national, regional and supranational) in governance questions. Decades of peace in Europe, whose own history is characterised by long struggles with nationalism repeatedly endangering peace, show that supranationalism is an effective means for countering nationalist aspirations aimed at the establishment of one nation’s supremacy over others. Considering the above-mentioned cases, the development of many European countries suggests that supranationalism is capable of achieving the objectives often pursued through national self-determination as presented above, the arguably most important one being development and economic prosperity. It goes without saying, that there are still considerable issues concerning the distribution of wealth within the EU, and its recent rule of law crisis also highlights that supranationalism carries its own issues. It does, however, carry considerable potential that so far has remained unexplored within the framework of self-determination of peoples. A supranational approach to self-determination claims could furthermore avoid the tensions found between the concepts of national self-determination and territorial integrity, as it does not seek to establish independent statehood, nor does or should it aim at the elimination of sovereign states. Of course, the challenge would be to avoid supranationalism being captured by disguised nationalism. Recent nationalist and populist movements from within EU Member States are a warning sign that in pursuing supranational projects, especially if they are to be included in the realm of the right to self-determination, a bilateral power struggle between national and supranational institutions is a serious risk. This is where the third, regional layer is an important counterweight, to ensure the focus is brought back to the interests of smaller actors involved. As it stands, international law only considers internal or external self-determination, with national self-determination falling under the latter category, if resulting in successful secession. Yet, focussing on outcomes that affect the question of statehood in one way or the other, is prone to give rise to the same territorial and sovereignty conflicts recurring again and again. Thus, it is proposed here to consider including supranationalism in the options through which the right to self-determination can be exercised.