National Self-Determination And Integrity Of States Need Not Be In Conflict, Tatar Historian Says – Analysis


The right of nations to self-determination and the principle of the territorial integrity of states need not be contradictory,a leading Tatar historian says, but if this right is ignored by untrammeled majoritarian democracy or if states try to suppress it by force, many invoking this right will decide that they have no alternative but to seek independence.

In an essay posted on the portal this week, Rafael Khakimov, director of the Kazan Institute of History and at one time a political advisor to former Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev, argues that states with ethnic minorities must recognize this reality and its risks (

But even though Khakimov focuses on various situations elsewhere and says that “Tatarstan never raised the question about leaving Russia” but rather worked with Moscow to broaden the rights of the Tatars, his argument is likely to strike many as provocatory in the current Russian political environment.

Khakimov begins his essay by noting that “the world consists not only of states but also of peoples who are seeking to increase the level of [their] freedom,” adding that “this collision” can produce conflicts” and also that either ignoring the rights of nations or seeking to suppress them will only make the situation more difficult.

In recent times, the Kazan historian continues, many Russian media outlets have “criticized the right of self-determination of peoples as an invention of the Bolsheviks, which apparently led to the destruction of the USSR and has created a threat to the integrity of Russia, as if a legal document creates the pursuit of freedom by peoples and not the other way around.”

“Many peoples do not suspect that there is exists a right to self-determination written down on paper,” Khakimov continues. “Nevertheless, they strive to achieve it, sometimes with arms in their hands. And this pursuit of the broadening of freedom is the main vector of history. It cannot be stopped.”

Consequently, “any limitation of the existing status of a people is fraught with conflicts,” he notes, pointing the process that was set in train when Serbia “at the end of the 1990s liquidated the autonomy of Kosovo.” That made “a conflict inevitable, and it [was] ended by the separation of the Kosovars.”

Using force against those seeking greater freedom makes such conflicts all the more intense, Khakimov says, arguing that “sometimes by means of negotiations it is possible to preserve the integrity of states by offering guarantees to the people.” But these outcomes, which require pragmatism on all sides, are “political” rather than “legal.”

Unfortunately, he continues, “in public opinion and however strange this may b e even among lawyers and politicians, the principle of equality and self-determination of peoples is treated as separate from the state, as the destruction of its integrity and as a striving toward complete independence.”

“In fact,” Khakimov says, “there can be various forms of self-determination,” many of which are compatible with the territorial integrity of the states within which the peoples seeking to implement this right find themselves. It can take the form of “a confederation or federation, associated status, autonomy or even complete dissolution in the structure of the state.”

At the very least, “self-determination and complete independence are not equivalent terms. Separation from the state is only one of the forms of self-determination, albeit the most radical,” and “not all peoples” seek this, preferring instead “broad autonomy within the framework of a single state.”

“For example,” Khakimov points out, “Tatarstan never raised the question of leaving Russia but demanded and with complete justification a broadening of its rights, with which the Russian side agreed.”

Those who say that Tatarstan put pressure on Russia are “naïve,” Khakimov says. “Little Tatarstan could not impose its will on an enormous country.” Moreover, “Tatarstan is one of the most disciplined tax payers.” And consequently, the accord delimiting the rights and powers of each satisfied the interests of both sides.

“The self-proclaimed republics of the post-Soviet space have attempted to repeat [the Tatarstan Model] but unsuccessfully,” Khakimov says. “Broad autonomy … would have been profitable for all,” both in the case of Georgia with respect to Abkhazia and South Ossetia and “much more” in that of Moldova regarding Transdniestria.

“The mistake Georgia or Moldova made regarding the self-proclaimed republics,” the Kazan scholar and political commentator says, “consisted in the fact that instead of negotiations, they attempted to resolve the conflict by force, intensifying it to the point where people are not listening to one another.”

“At a certain point,” he continues, when Eduard Shevardnadze was Georgian president, there was a chance to “build a federation” there “with a guarantee of the rights of the relatively small Abkhaz and Osetian populations. [But] this did not happen,” and Georgia has been torn apart.

“Unfortunately,” Khakimov continues, there is another problem besides an inclination to use force. “Democracy in the post-Soviet space is treated as the will of the mechanical majority alone. Whoever has the most votes is right.” But this is “a faulty principle,” as even the briefest reflection will show.

“Yes, the number of Tatars in Russia is an order smaller than that of ethnic Russians. By means of a vote in the Stae Duma it [would be] possible to liquidate the Repulbic of Tatarstan, to declare the Tatars a non-existing nation, to limit the use of the national language, and to close schools and television broadcasts” in Tatar.

But “this does not mean” that the Tatars will “disappear.” And if Russians themselves think this way, then they should remember that the ethnic Russians “are a minority in comparison with the Chinese.” “False principles” of this kind simply “drive the conflict deeper” on both sides.

From this it follows that “democracy is not a panacea for the resolution of such problems but only an instrument in politics. For the harmonization of inter-ethnic relations, it must be liberalized by taking into account the interests of numerically smaller peoples.” Otherwise, Khakimov implies, disaster awaits them and the state.

Negotiations are needed to resolve these problems, and in them, “procedures themselves” are critically important. Shevardnadze failed in his talks because “they were conducted by a narrow circle of trusted people” rather than more broadly. And that meant some on each side felt too much had been given away without their consent.

“Tatarstan used a different method,” Khakimov, one of the participants in this process, recalls. “The negotiations were open, they took place on three levels, and they involved a large circle of participants” and state institutions over a period of three years. And there was a great deal of trust between Yeltsin and Shaimiyev

Khakimov concludes with this observation: “Conflict studies is a special discipline at the border of science and practice.” In talks, “the habits of the negotiators are no less important than the positions of the sides which as a rule are extremely tough at the start of contacts.” He adds that “international law unfortunately more often divides the sides than brings them together.”

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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