Lessons and Many More Questions about Nationalism and Self-Determination

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Abstract: This article briefly summarizes what the post-Soviet experience teaches us about nationalism, understood here as claims that a population constitutes a people that should have a sovereign state of its own.

The creation of fifteen independent countries from the Soviet Union provided us a rare opportunity to observe processes of nation-state formation, for at no other time have so many new nation-states been created by secession. The Soviet successor states constitute about half of the thirty new states created between 1941 and 2011, and most of these were created following growing secessionist movements. The break-up of the Soviet Union in December 1991 occurred when its three founding members chose to withdraw from the union. The European and Caucasian states that had not already been recognized as independent chose this occasion to make good on previous attempts to secede. Only in the Central Asian states were there few significant political actors seeking independence until it was thrust upon them by the dissolution of the union. The experience of the Soviet Union and the successor states offers lessons that challenge some of our well-established views or provide us opportunities to refine these views on the consequences of secessionism and self-determination. (1) I will focus on some of these lessons and venture several questions for further inquiry where we may speak not only to one another, but also to our colleagues who study other parts of the world.

1. Granting independence to secessionists is not that bad an option after all.

The prevailing approach in policy circles prior to 1991 was to discourage or resist secessionists' demands for independence. Indeed, as late as August 1991, in his Chicken Kiev speech, the American president warned Ukrainians against "suicidal nationalism" and reaffirmed the American commitment to the Soviet federation. The usual policy argument against granting independence is that it makes democracy less likely, increases the likelihood of ethnic oppression, turns domestic conflicts into international conflicts, and serves as inspiration for a proliferation of demands in neighboring states.

The transition from the Soviet Union should have dispelled many of these fears. What may be most remarkable about the transition to new nation-states is how few of the maladies attached to the labels "partition" and "secession" have actually been manifest in the Soviet successor states. Moreover, it is precisely in the republics that were most secessionist prior to December 1991 that independence has produced the most positive results. First, unlike the transition in Yugoslavia, there have been few wars among the successor states and these were far more localized and limited in their mayhem. The primary post-Soviet exception was the Karabakh war. The Abkhazian and South Ossetian wars and the Transdniestrian altercation were far more limited. The peacefulness of this transition is not fully appreciated and certainly not well explained by the prevailing literature of the social sciences. Second, democracy has flourished in some successor states precisely because they have been permitted to develop independently. We cannot know with any certainty what the Soviet government would have looked like if it had held together after August 1991, but any government that sought to hold together the union would face an up-hill battle in democratizing the Soviet Union. We can observe, however, that the more political distance a successor state has established from Moscow, the greater its likelihood of democratizing. Third, the independence of fifteen new states did not unleash a herd of copy-cats in the neighborhood; the contagion was largely limited to the Soviet space itself.

This should not lead us to champion secessionist causes everywhere but to ask whether and how the Soviet experience should inform our responses to current secessionist conflicts--not only in the intractable, frozen conflicts in the successor states, but also around the world: Under what conditions should we be more supportive of the demands of secessionists in the future? …