Crimean crisis: Blame it on Napoleon

By J Brooks Spector 18 March 2014

Recent events in Crimea – up through the weekend’s referendum to have the territory rejoin Russia - have led J. BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate the nature of the ethnically homogenous nation state – and whether there is yet another chapter to be written in international relations.

The ongoing Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, following a hastily contrived plebiscite that saw an overwhelming vote for independence from Ukraine and absorption into Russia, inevitably raises questions about the very nature of nationhood – and what this may mean in what we now think of as increasingly globalised world. The plebiscite was called to justify Crimea’s secession from Ukraine, and its absorption into Russia, under the “protection”, of course, of more than 25,000 Russian troops.

So far at least, this progression has been met by howls of disagreement from authorities in Kyiv, statements that this unilateral territorial change has violated international law, the launching of targeted sanctions on key Russian individuals by the US – and similar decisions by the EU. Thus, things stand now.

But how did we end up with this understanding of the sanctity of the nation and a people – and the congruence of these with lines on a map? Has this always been the case? And is the Crimean Peninsula’s situation unique, or are there analogues elsewhere that are – or might be – just as problematic in the future? Time for a little ramble through history.

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire spanned much of the known western world. While originally the right to be a full citizen of the Roman Republic, rather than just one of its subjects, was severely limited to only some people living in the central regions of the Italian Peninsula near the capital city, by the first century AD, Roman citizens could be found throughout the length and breadth of the empire – and from virtually every ethnicity within the boundaries of empire.

To take just one well-known example, Josephus, a Jew from one of his homeland’s leading families and an early leader of the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in 79 AD, eventually defected from his own cause to became a full-fledged Roman citizen and a renowned historian of empire (something akin to the trajectory of Ben Hur’s life in reverse). In the years ahead, even the occasional emperor would come from among the empire’s citizens – and generals – drawn from Rome’s many subject peoples around the Mediterranean basin.

In Europe, from the Middle Ages onward, a person usually gave allegiance to a local lord who then gave his own fealty upwards, and so on, until a king could, ostensibly, claim that final link in the chain. As a result, kings and princes often came to rule discontinuous territories that were simply bound together in allegiance to a crown, rather than as part of an individual, identifiable ethnic group. German princes ruled Saxony and Poland/Lithuania for many years; Swedish kings ruled Finland and parts of German speaking lands; Burgundian princes held broad swathes of territory from the English Channel to the Swiss border where inhabitants spoke several different languages, and literally hundreds of miscellaneous rulers gave nominal allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor from lands as disparate as Bohemia to what is now Belgium. Spanish rulers united such diverse territories as Naples, Sardinia, Sicily, the Catalan lands, Castile, Navarre and Andalucía – and then included the first overseas empire of the modern era in the New World and The Philippines.

The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 had established the sanctity of the nation-state and their notional equality regardless of size, as part of an emerging international legal order. Nevertheless, for hundreds of years, most people almost certainly felt their “national” allegiances to be the subject of a complicated, overlapping tapestry of language and dialect, religious affiliation, obeisance to local lords, and their position in a strict hierarchical order of status and wealth, rather than the broader embrace of nation and national identity.

In fact, it really wasn’t until Napoleon’s attempted conquest of all Europe into one system, topped by imperial France. as the ideas of nation state, language and ethnicity became firmly fused together in the idea of a “people”. This happened as one kingdom after the other joined together to oppose his empire – even as he had given the idea of nationhood a boost by creating the Germanic Confederation of the Rhine out of the wreckage of the phantom-like Holy Roman Empire, as well as a Kingdom of Italy, and an independent Poland composed of lands where Polish was the main language. Then, too, his invasion of Russia led to a vast upwelling Russian national feeling and resistance to the invader.

In the years following Napoleon’s career, to an increasing degree, the 19th century became the story of the coming together of national presences or the emergence of nation states, as in the cases of Italy and Germany. 19th century nationalism aimed to unify ethnicity, language and government – or to sunder ties between lands where the ethnic divides were too much to bear, such as the emergence of a Catholic Belgium out of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the independence of Norway from out of Sweden, or the first modest modern Greek state from the Ottoman lands.

For those whose nationhood went unredeemed for years, such as Italy, Poland, Hungary, Finland or many of the subject territories of the Ottoman Empire, the concept of nationality was further underscored through culture – via literature and most especially via music. And music, in turn, helped stimulate national urges and ideals. Increasingly large scale economic activity and trade, communications and transportation – the telegraph, telephone, mass distribution newspapers and other publications, and the railroads – all contributed to this rise in nationalism, even as the lines on the map delineating one state from the next became increasingly firm.

Historian and author HG Wells once remarked that the United States was – barely – able to hold together as a continental empire because the telegraph and railroad came along just in time to allow the country to hold together, along with a powerful Union army, of course. And as a sideline, it is interesting to note that movement between states was still a relatively easy matter in most cases. A passport was rarely needed to move across those boundaries – something only now emerging again in Europe.

The end of World War I helped bring about a collapse of Europe’s remaining multi-national, multi-lingual empires. Finland, the Baltic states and Poland emerged out of Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire imploded over the pent-up (and overlapping) nationalist demands of a half dozen groups. Yugoslavia emerged in response to calls for unity among the South Slavs, while the Ottoman Empire finally disintegrated completely as well.

The principal of national self-determination was a key part of the peace negotiations, never mind that not all groups could exercise such a right equally over the same bits of turf. As a result, numerous revanchist territorial demands drawing on ethnic minority populations were put aside to be dealt with later, somehow. World War II, of course, emerged, at least in part, over the ability of Nazi Germany to draw on such feelings with regard to the Sudeten Germans who were now part of Czechoslovakia (rather than the old multi-ethnic Habsburg lands) as well as a sense yet other German populations were still left at the mercy of yet other nations.

In our contemporary world, the political landscape largely continues to live within the context of lines that had been drawn at the Treaty of Berlin (in Africa) or arrangements built up over centuries in Europe. The circumstances of Africa have led to competing nationalisms (laced with religious differences) that have virtually ripped some nations apart – and appear to be moving towards the same thing, yet again, in places like the Central African Republic and, perhaps, Nigeria.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union has compounded this nationalism problem for Europe and parts of Asia, again. As a giant continental empire built up over five centuries, Czarist Russia had incorporated wildly varied ethnicities within its territory – from Poles and Ukrainians to Central Asian Moslems, from Volga Tatars to Siberian Buryats and many others. And this didn’t even include the jumble of ethnicities on both sides of the Caucasus Mountains – the Dagestanis, Ossetians, Chechens, Circassians, Avars and various others.

Some groups from the old USSR would gain independence after its collapse, but others would be left in a state of being unappreciative subject peoples within a primarily Russian polity. And, of course, several million ethnic Russians were now also marooned in successor states like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. And many of these populations were making only meagre, unhappy compromises to their new and unfamiliar status of being an ethnic minority.

As far as Western Europe was concerned, in the ideals of a visionary like Jean Monnet, the European Economic Community had been established as, among other things, a way of taking the sting out of the destructive nationalism that might feed yet more war. As it matured into the EU, there were many who argued that under this increasingly multinational umbrella, the struggles of more narrow nationhood could begin to recede and that places like a Catalonia or a Scotland might even find an intermediate home before full independence.

To some degree this has happened. Travel visas between most European nations are increasingly a thing of the past, transnational economic and financial institutions are increasingly important, regardless of nation, and among many young people there is a sense they are now more European than German or Dutch. And countries on the outside of the EU continue to paw at the window to be allowed in so as to partake of the union’s benefits. But paradoxically, this very EU-fostered transnational circumstance has allowed new nationalisms (recalling much older traditions) in places like Scotland or Catalonia to re-emerge with increasing vigour. Moreover, the current economic and financial distress in much of the continent has fostered a growth of economic nationalism in seriously affected nations like Greece in opposition to those very European-wide economic bodies – and, of course, against the austerity policies of the continent’s economic monolith, Germany.

Paradoxically, too, the communications possibilities of the Internet, social media and cell-phone networks seem to be helping spark a rise of this new nationalism. It is now infinitely easier to connect with like-minded individuals throughout a nation – and well into its global diaspora – allowing networks of dissidents, activists and even international terrorists to flourish much more easily than would have been the case in the past. And among more peaceable citizens of ethnic minorities or would be nationalisms, the exchange of news and the organisation of campaigns to rally support for their causes can be done in on a desktop – at home or abroad.

And so, the real question remains starkly unresolved. To take the case of Crimea for just a moment, if one accepts the rationale and results of the recent referendum as appropriate in sending Crimea back into the Russian state, would the Crimean Tatars also be justified in calling for their own referendum for their own independence? After all, they were an independent nation until 1783. They were exiled during the end of the Second World War until they were finally allowed to return in the 1950s. Or what of the Ukrainians who have similarly been living there – are they somehow to become independent in some way too?

And then what about the fate of the Volga Tatars? That is a group that was a cohesive entity well before the formation of Czarist Russia? If the upcoming referendum over disassociation within the United Kingdom on the part of Scotland should happen to be passed, is that an appropriate or acceptable political decision? Or Catalonia, or even a Northern Italy that divorces Sicily and the South of the peninsula by virtue of those regions’ existence as a hopeless economic backwater?

This problem is not simply an academic one. Too many of these causes will only take strength and energy from the success of any other such movement. The Chinese – another great continental empire – have been noticeably silent over Crimea’s agonies because of their own circumstances with the Uighurs of Xinjiang (a Turkish Moslem people not closely related to Han Chinese), the Koreans in the border regions near North Korea, the Mongolians in Inner Mongolia and, of course, the Tibetans. To give way on the sanctity of nation state boundaries opens a Pandora’s box for other multi-ethnic nations whose jostling minorities or warring groups must be looking at the Crimean vote with some satisfaction and inspiration to try a little harder to rectify their own historical injustices.

Even in our own neighbourhood, there is no really sacrosanct meaning to boundaries in Southern Africa. They don’t conform to the ethnicities that straddle them, and they are in significant measure simply a function of empire building at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, well into that century, the South African government harboured the idea that it could create a much larger commonwealth that would include all the British territories up to what is now Tanzania – under the tutelage of civilized white men, of course.

As a result, a very real challenge for individual nations, despite an increasingly globalised world where borders seem to be melting away in economic terms, will not just be about how to compete with all the other nations economically. Rather, it will also be about how to preserve those hoary old boundaries descended from colonial times, ancient conquests, or the decisions of diplomats at long ago peace treaties. This will come as all those restless minorities within all those various borders believe they can see very different possible futures for themselves. Those various groups (like those notoriously fractious Belgians, the Nigerians or perhaps those supremely opportunistic Kurds located in four different nations now) will, increasingly, be on the lookout to see if an antiquated Westphalian nation state system and the borders of our current world may now be giving way, ushering in new more diversified – and almost certainly more chaotic – world order instead. DM

Photo: Napoleon Bonaparte


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