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The lack of international regulation of separatist processes has resulted in a whole spectrum of interstate abuses, including the use by aggressive countries of separatist movements as a smokescreen for their objective of annexing neighboring territories. Russia’s behavior toward Crimea serves as a striking example of such an abuse. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, the creation of an international convention on separatism could help the problem.



Humankind has not yet invented a better mechanism of settling disputes than law. Its alternatives are violence and war, which hardly suit anybody. In civilized countries, citizens and organizations that cannot come to an agreement take their disputes to court, where the law gives them the opportunity to reach an equitable solution with as little trouble as possible. In such countries, violence is seen as either a deviation from the norm, resulting in criminal liability, or an instrument of punishment used against people who ignore legal means of solving their problems.

The situation in the global community is more or less similar. Interstate conflicts are also best settled by means of international law. In the absence of arbitration, problems either are solved through the use of arms or are abandoned and not solved at all, postponing the settlement of the dispute indefinitely.

International law offers detailed definitions of such phenomena as aggression, genocide, war crimes, and annexation of territories. Many international conventions establish norms of law that are binding for all countries party to the agreement. International law outlines how such countries must react to such crimes. Sometimes, these mechanisms snap into action, and international justice prevails.

What happens in normal society when the law disregards citizens’ interests? Citizens begin to solve problems as they see fit, which often means recurring to the use of force. A similar thing happens in the global community when it is faced with the problem of separatism.

International law upholds the principle of a people’s right to self-determination. This declaration can be found in the Charter of the United Nations; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples; the Declaration on Principles of International Law; the Helsinki Final Act; and many other documents.

However, this recognition has a purely declarative character. There are no norms of international law that allow countries to legally carry out their right to self-determination. Separatism, however, remains a key cause of military conflicts. Any region’s attempt to break away from its parent country in order to build a separate nation are vigorously opposed and labeled as criminal. Recall, for example, the separatist conflicts that took place in Europe in the late twentieth century: the Yugoslav wars, the genocide in Kosovo, and the military operations in Karabakh, Abkhazia, and Transnistria. These conflicts were all caused by separatism and the inability to solve problems legally and by peaceful means.

Separatist attitudes have never been strong in Crimea. In Ukraine’s most recent parliamentary elections, the pro-Russian party, which supported Crimea joining Russia, received only around 4 percent of the vote. However, Russia’s blistering propaganda campaign helped to create a relevant public mood.

The absence of legal means to settle separatist conflicts results in local, and often very cruel and long, conflicts. This also frequently leads to the radicalization of the public and enables those politicians who rely not on law but on military and police forces to come to power. Furthermore, separatist conflicts affect not only breakaway territories but also countries that believe themselves to be victims of separatism. War, in general, regardless of which country starts hostilities, does not promote the triumph of law and justice. Civil liberties are always the first victims of military conflicts.

The global community often rejects the legitimacy of separatist territories, which results in their isolation from the rest of the world and hardly promotes democracy within them. Such separatist territories perceive themselves as under siege and, in keeping with wartime demands, create mechanisms that have little, if anything, to do with modern legal standards. In search of partners, they are forced to turn to rogue countries because these are the only ones that are willing to maintain relations with them.

The criminalization of separatism and the lack of international regulation of these processes also cause another kind of interstate abuse: the use by aggressor nations of separatist movements in order to annex neighboring territories. Russia’s behavior toward Crimea is a perfect illustration of this type of abuse. By leveraging separatist attitudes and taking advantage of its military superiority over Ukraine, Russia was able to annex Crimea.

Separatist attitudes have never been strong in Crimea. In Ukraine’s most recent parliamentary elections, the pro-Russian party, which supported Crimea joining Russia, received only around 4 percent of the vote. The idea of joining Russia was not popular in Crimea. However, even if it did not increase the popularity of Crimean separatism, Russia’s blistering propaganda campaign helped to create a relevant public mood. Russia’s deployment of “unidentified” armed troops to Crimea, followed by the parody of elections and a few days of “independence,” resulted in the sudden loss of Crimean sovereignty and Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. All the while, Russia was referring to the people’s right to self-determination as a basic provision of international law.

It is absolutely necessary to decriminalize separatism if we aim to uphold the principle of a people’s right to self-determination and want to avoid future military conflicts. An international convention on separatism could establish the legal grounds for the creation of new states. Such a convention could specify the conditions necessary for this process, such as transparency of referendums, international observance, extended time limits before the passage of a final decision, approval procedures, possible transitional periods, and so on. Such a convention would serve as a barrier to unscrupulous political players who use separatism to justify aggression and the annexation of foreign territories.