Man is a territorial animal. What canines mark by lifting a leg is in our case a border. Whatever is enclosed by it we call a country. We also like to think that we are secure once our proclaimed border gets international recognition. Our border also reassures us when we reckon that the land it fences off might not rightfully be ours. Posturing in search of security can go further. If insecure, we can erect a wall, such as the Chinese one to keep baddies – such as my ancestors – out. A nastier mutation is the one the Communists erected across Berlin. It completed their Iron Curtain, stretching, as Churchill put it, from “Stettin to the Adriatic”.
Especially in Europe’s case, borders caused the disagreements that shaped the 20th century. As things stand, the matter of just, unjust, justifiable and unfair borders, is still far from being resolved. This also applies to the rest of the world. Currently we are in an early phase of a reshuffling of unnatural borders and states. In a generation, the new political map will cause teachers to despair as they will have to learn something new and make mapmakers rich. The discrepancy between existing borders, the way they should be and the way they could be, threaten to bring avoidable altercations. Therefore, the development of rules by which to channel the process of adjustment is important. Our next “border-related” crisis is mixed into the not-so-dormant Kosovo question.
Kosovo is a region that, to its misfortune, represents a microcosm of what is typical regarding territorial controversies. In such disputes allegations are pit against real or invented facts that lack a common denominator. Who should have sovereignty over a territory? Demographics and myths can easily collide. In Kosovo’s case, it is interesting to know who really fought whom in 1389. A generation later there was a second battle (again the Turks won) on the same meadow. If fighting that one also implies a title to the place, then the province has a “very interesting” pretender.
Among the most important claims to “ownership” are:
(1) Being the resident majority. In this case a territory’s inhabitants are to choose between autonomy, independence, or amalgamation in a “homeland” across an existing border. Any one of the above can become contentious. This is so even in the case of advanced countries with a peaceful record such as Belgium.
(2) Who has the historic claim? “Who was here first” brews trouble as it raises the question whose history – or, generally, distortion thereof – is accepted. A related practical issue is – as in the case of China in Tibet or Taiwan – whose theory is backed by the larger divisions. It is also a matter of debate from which point in time is history to be counted. The Israel-Palestinian dispute has roots in a disagreement about when the past began that counts for the future.
(3) National security. It comes into play once claims cannot be justified by twisted versions of points 1 and 2. Once this happens a right is extracted from a new trick-box. Military-national security claimants argue that without the control the disputed territory, the security of their homeland is imperilled. In an effort to avoid excellent central European examples, it must do here to refer to the USSR’s war on Finland in 1939 to annex Karelia. The result of such land-grabs is generally less security than one would have had otherwise: acts of piracy assure enmity.
The “unity of the people” pretension is a mutation of the foregoing. Ethnic groups are likely not to occupy a continuous territory. Often, the pattern of ethnic settlements is spotted. The A’s might be separated by a sliver of land inhabited by B’s. Once the national unity of all the A’s becomes a goal, the people in the way need to be annexed. (Good options are deportation or liquidation.) The upshot is that the A’s view their reluctant subjects with suspicion. The abducted will respond to second class citizenship and to the violation of their rights. A positive result is likely. At the first opportunity the “suspicion” will be collaborated by deeds and will, therefore, not remain a “prejudice.” A cute spin around the problem exists. It will not convince the disadvantaged but might score abroad. It is to pretend that the B’s are not what they seem to be. No, actually they are A’s who became confused about their real identity. Just days ago, Mr. Slota – his Slovak National Party (SNS) is part of EU member Slovakia’s governing coalition – has come up with such a finding. The country’s Magyar are Slovaks who have lost their way.
Military security has an economic twin. The twist to legitimize violations of the fundamental principle of self-determination asserts that, the economic survival of the claimant is at stake. Therefore a right to annex essential raw materials or shipping lanes, roads and rail roads is claimed.
Just try to examine the cases of only a few of the existing borders while listening to all involved parties. You are likely to stumble upon a shocking insight. It is that only in the rarest cases is it possible to draw “good borders” that respect the collective rights of all those to whom they apply. Accordingly, the border that reduces tensions rather than to nurture them, is a rarity. Oddly enough, the great comprehensive peace treaties (Vienna 1814, Paris/Versailles 1919 and the deals around 1945) share a common element. In these cases the victors claimed to lay down the foundations of a stable peace. Just borders with stable states an supportive people behind them were claimed to be the solution. The sound borders were to facilitate the internal harmony of the states created. Furthermore, stability was to be supported by the lack of territorial disputes between states. Therefore, the territorial integrity of the states created was declared to be inviolable.
Regardless of the dissolution of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, the international community is still far too committed to something that failed but fits a resilient fiction. It is that in the interest of security, borders must be permanent. For that reason, the existence of states so demarcated must be inviolable.
Admittedly, the extreme alternative of the current “do not touch or question” approach would be anarchy. This, however, does not justify rigid attempts to maintain the status quo just because – the facts be damned – it is what we have. Personal strategies are successful if they adjust to the unexpected that must be anticipated. Entire civilizations, not unlike organisms, succeed or go the way of the Dodo-dove, depending upon their ability to respond to challenges.
There is a lot that is wrong with the assumed stabilizing and peace-securing function of inviolable borders. Equally wobbly is a related assumption. It is that borders make states and that the states of the moment are an expression of organic communities. Consequently, these formations are pronounced to be untouchable. Plainly wrong is the idea that sacrosanct borders and states guarantee the peace and must be maintained. Retaining by force communities in a state some of its components reject, might actually cause conflicts.
A few realistic corrections of our prevailing concepts are called for. Indeed, borders might mark the limits of states that house voluntarily created – not necessarily ethnic – communities. Some fortunate states enjoy, whether single-ethnic or multi-ethnic (Switzerland), the consent of the governed. In this case no significant group questions its inclusion and can, accordingly, regard this state as an expression of its collective will. Once individuals – and the groups they form – perceive of the country of their residence as their own state, the country can function as a democracy for all. Of crucial importance is that not only the majority must identify with the state. The minority must also be given cause to share this sentiment. Democracy is voided when a permanent minority completely rejects the state and its, in this case, suppressive system. Avoiding the trap of majority dictatorship or that of not letting those who wish go, is more difficult in practice than it appears to be on the level of theory. In numerous instances ruling coalitions are forged to deprive, in the assumed interest of the “nation” a feared or disliked minority of its rights. The result of such constructions cannot be democratic.
At this juncture, a relationship between an internal order that is perceived as oppressive and the instability of the state system needs to be established. The fundamental and permanent dissatisfaction of local majorities that are national minorities is a source of internal discord. All politics might be “local” and also a form of muted conflict channelled by certain rules. Still, the clash of a permanent majority and a everlasting minority is likely to transcend the boundaries of internal politics.
Experience teaches that the systematic denial of fundamental rights occurs when imposed borders incorporate unwanted populations in a structure these reject. As ethnic groups – especially mistreated ones – tend to overlap state boundaries, the step from internal strife to international rows becomes a small one.
Once we agree (some letter-writers will not) that existing states are neither sacrosanct nor a sine qua non of stability and peace, the question, “then what” needs to be answered.
Let us admit this: the maintenance of multi-ethnic states and their probably centralized system opposed to the wish of local majorities by international pressure is senseless. For decades this had been done in the case of the Habsburg Empire and then the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. An unwanted but expectable result was a significant contribution to “The Great War” of 1914. Accordingly, those wishing such states well should nudge them toward more local self-government. If this is not done then the separatist alternative will come about.
By relying on the EU, the role of boundaries should be not only verbally but also in practice become re-defined. States that serve as expressions of the grandeur of an ethnic nation that wilfully ignore their multi-ethnic reality, do not deserve international support. The function of borders need to be reduced to administrative limits and should not serve as artificial barriers to separate identical ethnics from each other. If we seek stability we need to create units of the state system that offer equity to all groups they include. This means that regionalism (autonomy, self-government) paired with some form of federalism if demanded, must be institutionalized. If honestly applied, federal structures facilitate collective self-determination. The resulting decentralization of power reduces the sway of the “centre” and the group that controls it. Thereby the pride nurtured by depriving others of their rights will suffer. At the same time localism, whether it is called autonomy or self-government, brings concrete benefits for both the majority and the enfranchised minority. If this fails, as a last resort the international community should be prepared to admit that what does not fit together should be separated peacefully. While not necessary a preferred option, separatism is, regardless of what our instincts tell us, hardly an unqualified catastrophe. Would Sweden and Norway have prospered as they did, had their union been maintained by the superior force of Swedish arms?
Contrary to what those who were educated in the tradition of centralization might feel, federalism is not a construction that results in weak and unstable states. 700 years-old Switzerland might be small but it managed to unite four nations. Three of these have been perennial enemies beyond her borders. As the richest sizeable country of the world, her earned wealth is largely a product of a consensual internal balance that would not have been attainable without federalism. Admittedly, Switzerland’s success was bolstered by a credible defensive capacity relying on a disproportionably large military entrenched in excellent defensive positions. That a French infantry led by Italian non-coms, supported by Rhaeto-Romanic artillery and commanded by German officers could be counted on was no accident. Thanks to the highest possible degree of local autonomy all “nations” had reason to feel that the state and the system to be defended is, regardless of their background, theirs. Still, the best argument against the fear that localism equals weakness is not tiny militarized but neutral Switzerland. A great power, actually the superpower of our time, also happens to be a federation. At the time of the writer’s last check, when listing America‘s weaknesses no one is mentioning her federalism.
Accordingly, the international community needs to overcome its inclination to consider autonomists as separatists and these latter, without distinction, as threats to peace. This is more easily said than done. For long the idea of the contrary has been serving as a pillar of stability. Even more important is that some influential countries support uncritically the maintenance the existing members of the state community by force.
An excellent opportunity has existed to defuse the problem created by formations that insist upon being homogenous national states while actually being multi-ethnic. Within the EU’s framework, a wise pre-condition of membership could have been created. It should have asserted that personal liberty includes the right of association and thus collective rights. Creating self-governing units within existing states could have strengthened these by defusing ethnic tensions. Meanwhile, applied subsidiarity would have democratized and consensualized countries that have – regardless of their EU membership – remained majoritarian national dictatorships. As an added benefit, tensions between member states on account of the harassment of “brothers,” would have abated. It is still not late to act even if the palliative action advocated has missed the optimal moment in time.
The European Union is an organization for an unruly continent that has been unable to create its historic systems of order without the anarchy of war. At its best the EU is an experiment with new approaches to combine unity, order and harmony in a region characterized by cultural, religious, ethnic and developmental diversity complicated by histories of enmity. Bold action is needed if, regardless of its current doldrums, the Union is to achieve the purpose it has been created for. Many feel that this need to innovate is blocked. The temptation to rely on a centralized bureaucracy spreads. This revives an element of our authoritarian tradition. The new apparat is a response to a growing lack of consensus and it is provoked by the wish to replace (complicated) voluntarism by (easy) regulation.
Replacing the past’s petty states with a super state is accompanied by wanting to stick to another mistake bequeathed by that past that the EU has been created to escape. It is the assumption that, the fewer states compose the concert of Europe, the more stable and coordinable the union will become. This might be so. But it is true only as long as the continent’s component units are at peace within. Only the respect for and the implementation of collective rights irrespective of borders can secure this pre-condition. Enforcing an order that is rightfully rejected by those upon whom it is imposed is a gamble against programmed futility and also hardly the business of the EU.
The EU might be set up and contracted by member states. However, if the organization is to fulfil its intended purpose, it better consider itself – in the manner of all good governments – as the protector of the wellbeing of all of its member peoples. If it wishes to avoid the dustbin of failed ideas, the EU must not serve the interests of governments that take their inspiration from concepts derived from a past that ended in a collision at the end of a cul-de-sac. To succeed the union should enhance rights growing from the bottom up rather than to secure the power that flows from the governmental top to subjects at the bottom.