More on Crimea, Kosovo, and the morality of secession

Mike Walker of the Moscow Times (an English-language publication oriented primarily towards Westerners living in Russia) has written an article in which he criticizes my argument that the Kosovo “precedent” does not justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason Law School argued in the Washington Post on Monday that Crimea does not meet the same ethical tests as Kosovo because, unlike in Kosovo, Crimeans have not been outwardly threatened with physical harm. He also argues that Russia was greatly opposed to Kosovo’s independence, so how can it possibly support Crimea now? Somin missed a couple of other key points.

First, while the situation in Crimea is not as dire as in post-war Kosovo, the possibility of economic peril under the new Ukrainian government is very real. People should not have to face the threat of ethnic cleansing, as they did in Kosovo, to seek a better life for themselves.

Second, the circumstances of Crimea’s inclusion in Ukraine is unique and makes little sense in today’s post-Soviet world. Kosovo’s position was different. Its unity with Serbia was a completely different matter. Russia opposed the disunion of a nation, not the return of a territory that was only given away in a good will gesture by the Soviet leadership. It is easy for the U.S. and Western Europe to conjure up the specter of Russia returning to Cold War views, but it is clouding their judgement.

Walker misunderstands my argument. I do not contend that secession is only justified when the population of a seceding region is threatened with “physical harm.” To the contrary, I believe that secession is often justified in less dire circumstances. However, the fact that Kosovo’s secession came in the aftermath of genocidal mass murder, while nothing even remotely comparable occurred in Crimea undercuts claims that the former is a comparable situation to the latter.

In addition, Walker ignores the other two crucial distinctions I drew between the Kosovo and Crimea cases. First, the Putin regime is likely to adopt the same repressive policies in Crimea as it has in Russia itself: persecution of political dissenters, repression of gays and lesbians, and others. The present Ukrainian government, while far from ideal, is has not engaged in comparable human rights violations. By contrast, Kosovo’s secession did not involve the installation of a more repressive government than existed in the region before.

Second, in Kosovo there was no question that secession was supported by the vast majority of the region’s population. By contrast, the secession referendum conducted by the new pro-Russian government of Crimea (which came to power in a coup), was likely tainted. Polls conducted before the region was occupied by Russian troops showed only minority support for reunification with Russia. It’s possible that there is now majority support for such a move. But at the very least the case is far less clear than it was in Kosovo. While majority support is not by itself sufficient to justify secession and annexation, it is at least a relevant consideration.

Unfortunately, Walker offers no evidence to support the claim that Crimea’s population will benefit economically from annexation by Russia. To the contrary, if the new Ukrainian government signs a free trade pact with European Union and eventually joins the EU (as now seems likely), the region is likely to benefit far more from remaining part of Ukraine. Free trade and (eventually) free migration between Ukraine and the European Union would be a huge economic gain for Ukrainians, as it already has been for other Eastern European nations.

At one point, Walker cites the fact that much of Crimea’s population consists of Crimean Tatars as a justification for splitting it off from Ukraine (since Tatars are not ethnically Ukrainian). This ignores the reality that the Tatars overwhelmingly oppose reunification with Russia, and have been the victims of severe oppression and mass murder at the hands of past Russian and Soviet rulers.

Finally, Walker suggests that Crimea is a special case because it only became part of Ukraine in the first place because of an arbitrary decision by Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. But it is not clear why Ukraine’s ownership of Crimea is thereby any less legitimate than Serbia’s control of Kosovo was, which came about as a result of conquest in 1913 – in defiance of the wishes of Kosovo’s mostly Albanian Muslim population, which did not want to be ruled by Orthodox Christian Serbs. The fact is that most of the territory in the world was at some point acquired or transferred by morally dubious means such as conquest or transactions between authoritarian rulers who gave little consideration to the wishes of the people. That does not, however, justify secession in cases where the result is likely to be a more repressive government than would have existed otherwise.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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