Lessons from Ukraine: Self-determination and Imperialism

PRESS ARTICLE: How self-determination is at the heart of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the implications for South Africa

Lessons from Ukraine – Self-determination and Imperialism

As the Ukrainian crisis unfolded, I found myself somewhat nonplussed. Like I suspect very many others, I had never even heard of Donetsk and Luhansk, and certainly was in no position to form a thoughtfully considered position.

The inherent danger in such situations is that we do not receive the news, we receive whichever version of the news a tiny handful of news editors choose to present to us. The responsibility lies with us to add context.

Depending upon whom you listen to, Ukraine is suppressing the rights of Russian ethnic minorities, Russia is suppressing the rights of Ukrainians, the conflict is a proxy war over NATO expansionism, or the entire episode is a front for Russian imperialism. It is highly probable that there is some truth in all of them.

Editorial bias is not just the preserve of the media, once you pick a team it is human nature to cheer for it. East versus West, Left versus Right, Black versus White, Vax versus anti-vax. Principle is often the first casualty.

Opposing Imperialism is easy

In this conflict two diametrically opposing concepts are at play, self-determination, and imperialism.

Picking a side should be easy. Self-determination is now an established human right and protected under international law. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reads:

“All peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Imperialism, by contrast, is the projection of your power over other peoples and could reasonably be defined as the denial of another’s right to self-determination.

When imperialism takes the form of an unprovoked and unjustified Russian military invasion of Ukraine, opposing imperialism is easy. Suddenly people who could not have located Ukraine on the map seven days ago are now flying its flag on their social media profiles. Ukraine has the right to self-determination. Russia's conduct is despicable and the global community has not been shy in saying so.

The question we must all face however is, do we support self-determination only when it suits us, or do we still support self-determination even when it becomes uncomfortable for us to do so?

What about Donetsk and Luhansk?

If we were to take the current crisis at face value, and consider it through the lens of Donetsk and Luhansk, what then?

Canadian YouTuber Lauren Chen took to twitter to ask a critical question which I had not seen asked by far more reputable media houses. What do the people who actually live there want?

“In Ukraine, if separatist regions actually want independence, I support that. Some people question whether the majority of people actually want it, or if it’s just Russian Agitators. I feel like answering that question should be the first priority in assessing the situation.”

I can’t find any fault with that logic.

The answer to the question is in fact far more revealing than perhaps Lauren Chen might have imagined, and, as well as for many other places around the world, it has substantial political significance in contemporary South Africa.

Opposition to a Ukrainian unitary state

The demographic composition of both Donetsk and Luhansk differs substantially from the rest of Ukraine. Outdated census information shows that 40% of the population are ethnically Russian, when compared to 17% nationally.

Like South Africa, Ukraine is a unitary state, and there is substantial debate about whether the system of government adequately serves ethnic minorities in the country. Polling conducted in 2014 found that only 11% - 19% of Donetsk and Luhansk residents supported Ukraine remaining a unitary state. 40% - 50% wanted Ukraine to become a federal state, with the remainder favouring independence or an increase in devolved powers.

Referendums are widely accepted as the purest test of democratic will for the purposes of self-determination. Since 1994 there have been 36 independence referendums globally, of which the outcomes have been accepted in 26. This excludes non-independence referendums such as Brexit.

In Ukraine however, referendums have been highly problematic.

‘Self’ an essential component of self-determination

On the Ukrainian side, the constitution, the law on referendums, and the Central Electoral Commission of Ukraine, all make a regional referendum on self-determination impossible. The referendum must be called by the national government and all Ukrainians must be allowed to vote regardless of whether they live in the area seeking self-determination or not.

This position is entirely incompatible with the principle of self-determination since it removes the essential component of 'self'. It is also completely at odds with established international norms.

As we have seen elsewhere, the trouble with denying people a democratic referendum, is that they then tend to organise an illegitimate and undemocratic one. This is exactly what happened in Donetsk and Luhansk. In 2014, unofficial independence referendums were held. The disputed outcome was strongly in favour of secession. Shortly before the invasion Russia officially recognised the results using them as a justification for their actions.

It was therefore deeply ironic that on the eve of the invasion itself, President Putin denounced Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent sovereign state, thus denying the people of Ukraine self-determination, under the guise of securing it for the people of Donetsk and Luhansk. All peoples have the right to self-determination, not just the ones that suit us.

So, what about South Africa?

Parallels with South Africa

There is an obvious parallel between Donetsk and Luhansk and the Western Cape.

The Western Cape is demographically distinct from the rest of South Africa and holds sharply contrasting political views. The party of provincial government strongly favours federalism and is actively campaigning for significantly greater regional autonomy, and there is a well-established independence movement.

South Africa does not have the same constitutional and legal hurdles around calling provincial referendums since the constitution expressly allows for them, but the position of the ANC, the party of national government, echoes the Ukrainian position.

Whilst the ANC will be unable to prevent a provincial referendum on Western Cape Independence, it has no intention of respecting the outcome. Just like Ukraine, it is already on record as saying that the decision on Western Cape Independence is a matter for all of the people of South Africa. It will therefore look to use its national parliamentary majority to prevent the outcome of a provincial referendum being enacted.

Constitutions can impose imperialism too

Returning then to an earlier question, does the ANC support self-determination just when it suits them?

They support Ukrainian self-determination, Palestinian self-determination, South Sudanese self-determination, and Western Saharan self-determination. They were founded to fight for South African self-determination. Why would they then be opposed to Western Cape self-determination?

Imperialism is the alternative, and constitutions can be just as powerful as guns in imposing it, perhaps even more so.