Year XXXIII,1991, Number 2 - Pagina 95
Federalism and Self-determination
The risk of Yugoslavia disintegrating, and the persistence of tension between the central and republican authorities in the Soviet Union, are severely testing the new European balance that has been emerging in the wake of the cold war. It would be rash to try now and predict whether, in these two crisis regions the central power will succeed in maintaining state unity, and at what price, following the eclipse of communism and in the current state of economic collapse. What can be foreseen with a reasonable degree of certainty, however, are the consequences of the Soviet Union and Yugoslav Federation falling apart. It is true that the present levels of interdependence in political, economic and social relationships exclude the possibility of repeating the explosive situation that existed in central and western Europe in the first half of this century. Nowadays, no state can guarantee its orderly functioning and even the survival of its society, unless it forms part of a network of economic partnerships, and belongs to a security system that is of continent-wide proportions. But this does not exclude the fact that the multiplying of small or tiny sovereign states, whose only ideological basis is the myth of the nation itself (in a region of Europe where the idea of the nation is not well established and does not identify groups having definite, or even approximately defined, borders), is destined to create a situation of permanent tension and serious instability, hence blocking the process of de-politicising borders which the European Community and CSCE (Conference for Co-operation and Security in Europe) are pushing forward.
If the secessionist urges of the Baltic states, Moldavia, and Transcaucasian states in the Soviet Union, and of Slovenia and Croatia in Yugoslavia give rise to new sovereign states, or the modification of borders between current sovereign states, it will be the beginning of a chain reaction that will undoubtedly not stop at the borders of either the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. As regards Yugoslavia, it is sufficient to recall that Bulgaria boasts territorial claims over a part of Macedonia, and awaits the weakening of the Yugoslav Federation so as to provide an opportunity of fulfilling them; that, moreover, the Magyar population of Vojvodina and the Albanian one of Kosovo can only hope, in their turn, to profit from the power crisis in Belgrade; that in Istria the existence of an Italian minority has been rediscovered, and has begun to be pressurised with propaganda by fascists from across the border. As for the Soviet Union, the existence of a majority of Romanian speakers in Moldavia and an important Polish minority in Lithuania, risks involving both Romania and Poland in the process of diffusing nationalist tensions. A resumption of Polish nationalism would have immediate repercussions in Upper Silesia and Pomerania. As a result, certain reactionary trends that continue to thrive in Germany, but which the current situation ensures remain in the political subsoil, could be revitalised, once more giving substance to the placated, but never eradicated, distrust that West European countries have of the Federal Republic. The process of European unification itself would risk crisis, or at the very least, serious delays.
But, many argue that whatever the consequences of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrating, it remains the inescapable duty of everyone to respect the right of self-determination of peoples. The claims of the secessionist republics are legitimate at all events, because they are put forward in the framework of exercising a basic democratic right. A direct choice between democracy and raison d’Etat is at issue here, and the former must take precedence over the latter.
In reality the situation is not so simple. This is because the right of self-determination is highly obscure. This obscurity lies essentially in uncertainty as to who should be the subject to exercise it. The common definition holds that the “people” exercise this right. But in this context, the concept of “people” itself is elusive. With regard to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, for example, it is not at all clear which peoples are entitled to the right of self-determination. A referendum on the merit of safeguarding the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union would have entirely different results depending on whether it was addressed to the “people” of the Soviet Union in its entirety; or the “people” of Lithuania, Moldavia or Georgia; or finally the “people” of the Belorussian or Polish regions of Lithuania, or those of Gagauzia or Southern Ossetia. The same is true for Yugoslavia. Why do the Croatian “people” have the right of self-determination, but not the “people” of Krajina, the region with a Serb majority which is incorporated into the Croatian Republic?
The fact remains that decisions regarding the identity of the groups which must decide their future, are not taken by citizens exercising the right of self-determination, but are the product of power balances that have nothing at all to do with the right of self-determination. Such decisions are often imposed by unscrupulous demagogues ready to exploit crises for their own ends in the pursuit of power, taking advantage of sentiments which, if managed responsibly, would express themselves in rivalries compatible with normal political dialectic.
People’s cultural identities are by nature complex, and their feelings of belonging concern a variety of territorial communities, down to the smallest which are the places most firmly etched in their affections, habits and memories. This complex structure is the basis of the spiritual richness of the human race, the root of pluralism and liberty. But when a single community, whichever it may be, becomes the exclusive focus of loyalty to its members, and to it is attributed the property of sovereignty, then the principle of disintegration becomes introduced into society via nationalism. It is true that the idea of the nation was used in the nineteenth century – even if in only a part of Western Europe – as an ideological justification for the enlargement of the sphere of the state, and for the creation of vast markets freed from the encumbrances of feudal society. But nowadays, in an era of the growth of interdependence to continental and global proportions, the idea of the nation remains but a reactionary myth, whose purpose is solely to divide, not unite. As a result, the legitimate aspiration of all human beings to express themselves freely in their own language and to live according to their own customs, in openness to other cultures and with respect for other peoples’ customs, is instead transformed into intolerance and aggressiveness towards those who speak another language and live according to different customs. It is worth noting that intolerance and aggressiveness towards minorities tends to become more serious, the smaller the size of the “nations” that have achieved sovereign status. The difficulty of gaining recognition – precisely on account of their small size – makes the presence of groups that identify themselves with different symbols and rites both intolerable and threatening. It is sufficient to note the absolute refusal of the Georgian “nation” to recognise the existence in the republic of “different” communities, such as those of the Ossetians and Akhbasians; or the refusal of the Croats to confer on the Serbs who live in their republic the same rights that they are calling on Belgrade to recognise for them.
The fact remains that as long as people maintain that the human race is naturally divided into separate nations, it will be impossible to avoid acknowledging that there exists no community, little as it may be, that does not contain minorities, each one of which can boast, with the same claim as the others, of the right of self-determination. In this light, the principle of self-determination reveals its true character as the principle for undermining civilised society, for returning to the state of nature, that of war by all against all.
Many western newspapers, as mentioned earlier, consider the separatists of the peripheral Soviet republics, or those of Slovenia and Croatia, as democrats in a struggle against an oppressive power. And it is true that Gorbachev’s Soviet Union cannot yet be considered a liberal-democratic regime (despite having made gigantic steps in that direction), just as the Serbia of Milosevic (which, however, is not Yugoslavia) is without doubt one of the least democratised regimes in Eastern Europe. But at the heart of the issue lies the fact that the process of democratisation is progressing all over Eastern Europe, and only men’s folly can stop it. Many people tend to forget that what culminated in the events of 1989, thanks to Gorbachev’s extraordinary work, was a world-wide transformation. This reawakened “national identities” in Lithuania, Georgia, Slovenia, and so on, only because, on the one hand, the Soviet Union started down the path to democracy, and because on the other hand, the nature of the world balance was radically altered, destroying the bonds of bi-polarism, and, in particular, relaxing the power situation in Western Europe. That Gorbachev’s undertaking is of immense difficulty is true, as is the fact that it is far from being finished. But one thing is certain: that following the grand thaw brought about by this historic personality, the battle for democracy in the world is no longer, neither in deeds nor in the minds of men, the battle of one superpower against another in the framework of a balance of terror, but is founded on mutual security, growing understanding, and economic and technological co-operation between peoples. The democracy of the future can only be achieved through the establishment of a new, stable and peaceful European order, the mainstays of which would be a European Federation extended to the western borders of the Soviet Union, and a Soviet Union that had completed its journey towards federalism, full recognition of civil rights and the market economy. On the contrary, the creation of new small sovereign states, that are both unstable and aggressive, represents only the road to authoritarianism and the disintegration of civilised society. The fate of democracy in Lithuania, Georgia, Slovenia and Croatia depends exclusively on the evolution of the European framework, and, without doubt, not on the purely illusory prospect of recovering national sovereignty. Serbia itself will only be able to evolve democratically if a Yugoslavia, that has maintained its territorial integrity, grows ever closer to the Community, (with which it already maintains increasingly strong relations), and undergoes the Community’s political influence until it is in a position to become one of its member states. On the other hand, a Serbia separated from the two secessionist republics and constrained to look for a consensus among its own citizens on the basis of nationalistic motivations, can only worsen its expansionist and authoritarian tendencies, and thus constitute a permanent threat to its neighbours and a perennial source of instability for the Balkans and for Europe.
Hence, nowadays, only those working for unity are democratic, while those working for division are, objectively, on the side of dictatorship.
It is often said that refusing to support the aspirations to independence that exist in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia would be blameworthy, because, in the final analysis, the separatist groups are not acting in a spirit of nationalism, but only so as to liberate their countries from the bonds that hinder the development of closer ties with the Europe of the Community. Their fundamental wish is only to leave an imperialistic multinational bloc, so as to enter another, democratic, multinational bloc (and one which is much more developed economically at that). Certainly, it is not impossible that developments of this nature may in fact occur at a certain future time. The European Community exerts a considerable power of attraction, and will continue to do so for a good many years to come, if it manages to create democratic and federal institutions. If one or the other of the western Soviet or Yugoslav republics succeeds in the unlikely attempt to assert its independence to some degree, without throwing the whole of Europe into chaos, it will be drawn sooner or later into the orbit of the Community. There remain however some important reservations. The first is that the behaviour of the secessionist groups and their leaders seems to be stamped with the most classic hallmarks of nationalism, with its myths and rites, with violence and hatred of one’s neighbour. Hence, to present them as potential federalists appears to be pure wishful thinking. The second is that the prospect of the secessionist republics entering a Community transformed into a federal Union is both uncertain and far-off, because it will be realised only if, and when, the serious internal and international political crises that their fight to achieve sovereignty will certainly provoke, have been overcome. Thus it is fanciful to draw on such an unlikely outcome to support claims that, for the foreseeable future, can only create tension and instability. The third reservation is that it is clearly understandable (from a strictly self-interested point of view) that some sections of the population of certain Soviet and Yugoslav republics, which are relatively prosperous compared to other regions in their states, should want to free themselves from the burden of having to contribute, proportionally to their own resources, to the development of the rest of the country. They are irked by the fact that the fruits of their labours are dissipated, in part, by a political class and bureaucracy which is corrupt and inefficient. But the consistent application of the principle by which any region could legitimately, and arbitrarily, leave the state to which it belonged for another, for reasons of economic advantage, would simply imply the negation, in the sphere of politics, of the dimension of solidarity, that represents the essence of democracy itself: the dimension which, in Italy, is negated by the false federalism of the leagues. On the contrary, real federalism intends to widen, reinforcing all the while pluralism, the scope of solidarity – first at a continental level, then at a global one.
All this does not compromise in the least the right of every territorial community, including the very smallest – be it village or city – to self-government. The element that distinguishes the right of self-government from the so-called right of self-determination, is the absence of links with sovereignty, in other words with the feature of exclusivity. Self-government is an essential aspect of democracy. Men have needs that are common to the entire species, as well as needs specific to the communities of differing sizes to which they belong. It is natural that government levels should be arranged and organised within the same territorial framework where needs exist, and hence problems present themselves. For fundamental requirements, that are ideally expressed in the values of liberty, equality, justice and peace, the dimension of solidarity must be global. This means that current sovereign states themselves are arbitrary, and should be superseded within the perspective of a world Federation. Other requirements, such as those linked to culture, the quality of life, territorial planning, and the relationship between public and private spending, should be resolved in more narrow institutional environments. The plurality of government structures, which are independent in their own sphere and co-ordinated between themselves, constitutes the essence of federalism. In a federal system that gives real expression to the principle of subsidiarity, every human community, even the smallest, can assert its own individuality, thanks to the protection of its rights guaranteed by the constitution; yet without this causing communities to stop being a part of a wider people and, in perspective, of the people of the world.
Federalism gives political expression to the fact that people are the same in their moral dignity as free beings, and infinitely diverse in their cultural specificity. Diversity, in an environment of universal fraternity, is clearly not a vice of minorities, but a virtue of all. This concept cannot gain recognition in civilised society through a state structure that seeks to found its legitimacy on the tribal impulses that dwell in the worst part of everybody’s soul; but rather through one based on a consensus freely entered into by individuals, who identify primarily with a sense of common membership of the human race.
The question is often asked of what we must say to Baltic, Croatian or Slovenian friends who declare they are motivated both by the federalist ideal and nationalist feelings towards their own republics. We must answer that the disintegration of the Soviet Union and civil war in Yugoslavia are the worst service that could be rendered to the cause of European and world federalism. Nowadays, the clash between federalism and nationalism is the front on which the future of humanity is being fought out. Whatever the sophistry that may be employed in an effort to reconcile the irreconcilable, and taking for granted the good faith of the majority of those who accept it, it is not possible to be both a nationalist and a federalist. This does not hinder people from loving their own, numerous small countries: but only within the framework of an institutional system that guarantees both peace and pluralism. Today, a true federalist in a Baltic country – courting unpopularity, as federalists have always done – should go in search of the thousands of citizens in other Soviet republics that also appreciate the values of solidarity and pluralism, and work with them to transform the Soviet Union into a true democratic federation, able to contribute decisively, within the framework of the Helsinki accords and in partnership with a European Union capable of action, towards the creation of a European and world order which is both peaceful and democratic. Similarly, a true Croatian or Slovenian federalist, likewise defying unpopularity, should seek people inside other Yugoslav republics that are driven by the same values, so as to advance the process of democratisation in the country as a whole, and to bring the country (without compromising its integrity) into the European Union. In this way, along with the Federal Republic of Germany, an example would be given of how a federal state can itself become a member of a larger federation, thereby guaranteeing its decentralisation and pluralism.
The fact remains that West Europeans cannot pretend to give lessons on federalism to East Europeans if they show themselves powerless to create, within the framework of the Community, a true federal state, which is able to use its own wealth to contribute to the creation, in Europe and in the world, of a stable and peaceful equilibrium; one that is capable of offering admission to its close neighbours without endangering its own internal cohesion and the effectiveness of its decision-making; and is able to present the world with a model of social cohabitation that is founded on tolerance, thus providing an alternative to the destructive myth of the nation. The tragedy that the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are experiencing represents a permanent and serious indictment against the governments of the Twelve, which, faced with the concrete chance to achieve such a transformation, seem once again to be paralysed by the concern of defending national sovereignties. The great majority of their own citizens now perceive such sovereignties as senseless and anti-historical.