Thursday, 17 April 2014

When countries fall apart

It's beginning to look as if Ukraine, as currently constituted, is well on the way to becoming a non-functioning state. So let's ask the really difficult question: so what?

After all, it wouldn't be the first country to fall apart. Some do it relatively painlessly -- take a bow, Czechoslovakia -- others do it drenched in blood -- Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

And, whisper who dares, what about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland if Scotland decides to go its separate way? Or even Spain, if the Catalans have their way?

National borders are sometimes no more than lines drawn on a map, often by colonial powers who had little or no understanding of -- or indeed interest in -- ethnic or religious loyalties. Ukraine has been fought over, controlled, and divided for much of its history -- as recently as the 1920s, bits of it were handed over to Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. Western Ukraine was snatched from Poland and handed over to Moscow in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939.

What all this means is that Ukraine in its current incarnation is a very modern, and very artificial, construct. (Crimea was handed over to Ukraine by Khrushchev only in 1954.) And if some of its people aren't happy with where the borders are, why shouldn't they have the right to change them?

That's the theory, anyway. The reality, unfortunately, is a great deal more complex, which is why one of the most hallowed tenets of international law is that internationally recognised borders are sacrosanct. Any attempt to change them by force is regarded in law as an act of aggression.

It's been evident ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, from which Ukraine re-emerged as an independent state, that the people in the west of the country -- what had been Poland until 1939 -- have a very different world view from those who live closer to Russia, many of whom are Russian-speaking and whose centre of gravity tends to be Moscow. Much of the current crisis stems from a historic refusal to recognise the political implications of that divide.

So now we are where we are. Both Kiev and Moscow say they're prepared to talk about new constitutional arrangements that would give more autonomy to the people of eastern Ukraine. Trouble is they are miles apart on how much autonomy is reasonable: Moscow wants Ukraine's eastern regions to be free to adopt their own foreign policy (now, why would that be important to the Kremlin, I wonder?), while Kiev, understandably enough, regards that as several steps too far.

All this would be tricky enough to resolve even without the big power posturing that overlies so much of the current crisis. Both Moscow on the one hand, and the EU and Washington on the other, seem to see Ukraine as a tug-of-war, pulling in opposite directions to drag Ukrainians into one camp or the other. It's not a pretty sight.

I don't see why it would be such a tragedy if Ukraine and Russia redrew their borders, with one, all-important proviso: that it is done in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the people in the region affected, as expressed in a fairly-conducted referendum. After all, that's what is planned for the people of Scotland …

The best we can hope for -- and by "best", I mean best for the people of Ukraine -- is that the men with the balaclavas and the guns and the not-so-mysterious origins will hold their fire, and that the Ukrainian armed forces will act with maximum restraint, while politicians and diplomats try to hammer out a constitutional reform package that both sides can live with.

In theory, it's not impossible. In practice, I'm not very hopeful. But at least can we stop pretending that there's something immovable about current borders or unchangeable about constitutional arrangements. Borders have changed throughout history, usually as a result of war. Is it really beyond the wit of man to change them peacefully?