National self-determination seems a straightforward moral principle, but it is fraught with problems. After Russia sent troops into Georgia last August, it recognized the independence of two breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When few other states followed its example, Russia pointed out that the NATO countries had used force to help Kosovo separate from Serbia.
Self-determination is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. This is an important principle, but who is the self that is to do the determining?
Consider Somalia back in the 1960s. Africans used the principle of self-determination to end colonial rule. Unlike many other African states, Somalis had roughly the same linguistic and ethnic background. In contrast, neighboring Kenya was formed by colonial rule from dozens of different peoples or tribes, with different linguistic backgrounds and customs. Part of northern Kenya was inhabited by Somalis.
Somalia said the principle of national self-determination should allow Somalis in northeastern Kenya (and in the southern Ethiopia) to secede, because they were one Somali nation. Kenya and Ethiopia refused, saying they were still in the process of building a nation. The result was a series of wars in northeast Africa over the Somali nationalist question. The ironic sequel was Somalia’s later fragmentation in a civil war among its clans and warlord leaders.
Voting does not always solve problems of self-determination. First, there is the question of where one votes. Consider Ireland, where for many years Catholics objected that if a vote were held within Northern Ireland, the two-thirds Protestant majority would rule. Protestants replied that if a vote were held within the geographical area of the entire island, the two-thirds Catholic majority would rule.
Eventually, after decades of strife, outside mediation helped. But this still does not address the question of when one votes. In the 1960s, the Somalis wanted to vote right away; Kenya wanted to wait 40 or 50 years while it went about its nation-building, or reshaping tribal allegiances into a Kenyan identity.
Does secession harm those left behind? What about the resources the secessionists take with them, or the disruption they create in the country they leave?
For example, the victorious powers in World War I invoked the principle of self-determination, but after the dismantlement of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the Sudetenland was incorporated into Czechoslovakia, even though its inhabitants spoke German. After the Munich Agreement in 1938, the Sudeten Germans seceded from Czechoslovakia and joined Germany, which meant that the mountainous frontier fell under German control — a terrible loss for Czech defenses.
Similarly, when eastern Nigeria decided it wanted to secede and form the state of Biafra in the 1960s, other Nigerians resisted, in part because Biafra included most of Nigeria’s oil. They argued that the oil belonged to all of Nigeria’s people, not just the eastern area.
After 1989, the issue of self-determination became acute again in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the Caucasus, Azerbeijanis, Armenians, Georgians, Abkhazians, and Chechens all demanded states on the basis of self-determination. In Yugoslavia, the Slovenes, Serbs, and Croats managed to carve out independent republics in the early 1990s, but the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina were less successful.