By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
There is a well-meaning term in international law that has, unfortunately, been causing a lot of trouble in the last few decades.
The principle of uti possiditis (Latin for “as you possess”) states that territory and other property remains with its possessor at the end of a conflict. It was designed to guarantee a new state’s territorial integrity from both outside aggressors and internal secessionists.
But the collapse of two Communist empires, the Soviet Union and Communist Yugoslavia, and the emergence of a host of new countries, had led to a “double standard,” in terms of the right to national self-determination for the successor states.
Both the Soviet Union and Communist Yugoslavia operated on the principle of ethno-federalism – a political system in which territorial governance units were explicitly designated as ethnic homelands.
Hence their names: the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and so forth, in the USSR; the Socialist Republic of Croatia and the Socialist Republic of Serbia, and so on, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
These republics occupied the highest level of the federal hierarchy. But numerous other titular units, though also named for ethnic groups, had a lesser status, and were nested within the full-fledged republics.
So, for example, in the USSR, Abkhazia was an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic and Chechnya was part of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the huge Russian Soviet Federative Soviet Republic (today’s Russian Federation).
In Yugoslavia, Kosovo, an Albanian-majority entity, was only a Socialist Autonomous Province, attached to the Socialist Republic of Serbia.
After the collapse of the multi-national empires, while the republics were accepted by the international order as newly sovereign polities, these lesser entities, though clearly also ethnically homogenous homeland nations, remained attached, despite their wishes, to the newly-independent jurisdictions they had been subservient to.
Suddenly, internal borders within larger entities that had meant little, became internationally-recognized frontiers. There were no referenda to determine the wishes of their populations, no partitions or adjustments to reflect ethnic or religious realities. It was, shall we say, a “lazy” way of dealing with the issue.
This has caused no end of grief. The Chechens fought two bloody wars following the dissolution of the Soviet Union to extricate themselves from the new Russian Federation. Abkhazia declared itself independent of Georgia, but the latter, committed to retaining the “territorial integrity” is possessed under the USSR, has attempted to reconquer it (and South Ossetia), leading to a war with Russia in 2005.
Kosovo did manage to finally gain its independence in 2008, but only after the intervention of NATO to drive the Serbs out in 1999. Serbia remains determined to recapture it should the relative military fortunes in the Balkans ever shift.
On the other hand, ethnically absurd creations like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, because they had been republics in the old Yugoslavia, were now deemed to be sovereign states – against the wishes of its Croat and Serb populations, who would have preferred to join their neighbouring kin in Croatia and Serbia, in the first case, and Albanians in the second.
In the case of Bosnia, this led to a horrific war in the 1990s and the deaths of tens of thousands of people in ethnic cleansing operations.
In discussing this absurd situation – nations which should be states but are not, and states which shouldn’t be independent but are -- in a class on Eastern Europe, I drew on a sports analogy.
Soccer leagues in most countries are divided into divisions, with the top teams in the first division, and the lesser ones in second and third divisions, and so forth.
Soviet and Yugoslav ethno-federalism worked along these lines. Full-fledged “socialist republics”– say Azerbaijan in the Soviet Union or Slovenia in Yugoslavia – were in the “first division.” But other places that were only “autonomous republics” or “autonomous regions” were in the secondary ranks.
When the USSR and Yugoslavia broke apart, only the “first division” republics were, by the “rules” of the international system, entitled to full sovereignty. For the others, despite their well-defined populations and territorial borders – it’s just too bad.
Think of the irony: the international community remains committed, in most of these cases, to uphold the sanctity of borders drawn up, fairly arbitrarily, and based on abstruse Marxist-Leninist theories of nationality, by Joseph Stalin, in the case of the USSR, and Josip Tito, for Yugoslavia.