Colombo Telegraph

The National Question After The Ukraine

By Kumar David

Dr. Kumar David

Not merely in the Twenty-First Century, but from the third quarter of the Twentieth, new states have surfaced in different ways from that foreseen in the old Right to Self-Determination and Secession (SD&S) theory which emphasised Nationality. While use of SD&S in current discourse should recall its origins in Leninist discourse, more crucial is that the concepts be adapted, by lateral thinking, for today’s global context. However, most current discourse lags far behind actuality, as is always the case with static concepts. The purpose of this essay is to bring political theory up to date with events which are moving faster than men’s ability to construct theories thereof. It is a little repetitious of one of my previous essays in CT but some repetition is warranted when exploring new concepts.  Lanka is not mentioned today to discourage CT’s entrenched hoard of bigots and racists from engaging in their usual, pointless, slanging match.

Though this is not a polemical piece, allow me to first dispense with a peripheral matter. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka responded to a polemical piece where I criticised him (and Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran) as theoretically and ideologically out of date. His response appeared in CT (Minority Report: Sri Lanka’s Tamil Question a Response to Profs. Kumar David and Laksiri Fernando). I do not intend to reply because Jayatilleka’s rather disjointed ramble is not of a theoretical genre, or to use his words: “To me, ideology . . . has little to do with my practice . . .” I agree with his assessment of his own efforts; therefore there is no reason to debate him. I now return to my substantive topic.

New states in the modern world

The inherited Leninist theoretical framework is illustrated by Wigneswaran’s remarks at the Bernard Soysa memorial lecture earlier this month.

Ukrainian income map and Moldova-Transnistria map ; Monthly salary; note the pro-Russian east is the richest part. (The currency, funny-Z, is about eight to the dollar)

“A State with a capital ‘S’ may mean a self-governing political entity recognized by the international community as a distinct state or a division of a federal entity. In the first sense it can be used interchangeably with ‘Country’.  But a Nation is a tightly knit group of people who share a common culture and perceive themselves as such. A Nation State is a Nation, which is coterminous with the borders of a State. Nations are groups of people having relatively greater cultural homogeneity, and perceive themselves to be distinctive.  They are generally larger than a single tribe or community, and share a common language, institutions or religion or religions, and historical experiences”.

This is classic Lenin; an example is Tsarist absolutism versus the Georgian people’s struggle against oppression, feudal remnants and primitive social structures. Notwithstanding their bourgeois leadership Lenin stood with the Georgians; they represented historical progress and were potential allies of the revolutionary proletariat. Morally for the former reason, strategically for the later, he supported their right to SD&S. Wigneswaran is silent on secession for obvious reasons. Knowing the insanity of Gota’s defence establishment – arresting, harassing and abducting – it is wise.

Jayatilleka says that Lenin’s formulations were relevant only in the age of imperialism and not any longer. Balderdash! He must reckon they cannot be stretched, mutatis mutandis, to modern times and dozens of states that have emerged in the last 25 years. Lenin’s way of thinking is relevant today though Jayatilleka prefers Gramsci, a staging post for many on the journey from Lenin to Hayek?

Secession in modern times

A century has passed since the Lenin-Luxemburg debates and the emergence of new states no longer depends only on nationality and cultural homogeneity. Putative states need to be cohesive, not homogeneous in culture or nationality, but cohesive in that a majority, albeit a non-homogeneous one, wishes to secede. In modern times this is the measure of identity since the viability of a new state depends on modern imperatives such as global supply-chains, collapsing trade barriers, universal digital connectedness and international support, especially in the near-abroad. All this has erased ‘economies of scale’ in state size; there is no optimum size. Nearly 20 states emerged from the demise of the USSR, seven from Yugoslavia; or think EU and Africa.

Small (half Lanka’s size) Moldova, and tiny Transnistria (population half million,
size one-tenth of Lanka) which has proclaimed itself an independent state!

Taiwan is a thriving Asian example consisting of four groups with little common history prior to the fall of the KMT in China. There is not all that much cultural homogeneity except that created by modern capitalism (which is exactly my point). But they share one cohesive marker of identity – they wish to remain a separate state. Ok, whatever the facts, grant this hypothetically. Then eureka, you have it! These peoples (note plural) Hoklo, Hakka, Mainlanders who came with the KMT, and the Originals, are entitled to their state. The PRC should bow to their right to Self-Determination.

Size is irrelevant. Take Singapore; it was kicked out of Malaysia in 1965 and has prospered gloriously since. This is not a case of secession by self-determination but by expulsion (Lee Kwan Yue described it as “The only instance in modern history where a country was formed because it was kicked out”). But it would not have made any difference to the prosperity of non-homogeneous Singapore and Malaysia if it had been the other way round. Size and homogeneity do not matter. More examples of small, independent and economically viable states are Latvia and Lithuania, each the size of Lanka with populations of 2.2 million and 3.2 million, respectively, while Estonia is 70% of our size and has a population of 1.7 million. Rwanda and Burundi are each 40% of Lanka’s size and have populations which are each half ours. There are many examples of viable new states when the global economic nexus and the near-abroad were supportive.

Latvia and Estonia contradict the thesis of cultural homogeneity as a necessary condition to secede and form a stable state. The former is ethnically mixed, 60% Latvians, 27% Russians and 13% others, the latter Estonia 69% Estonians, 26% Russians and 5% others.  To put it bluntly, any cohesive group that desires to constitute itself into a state so as to benefit in modern times from a globalised ethos, is a candidate provided it is viable on practical grounds like democracy, population, political stability, land/territory (preferably contiguous), and international connections. In a nutshell this is my case. This is where Leninism brings us in the century of globalisation. In modern times, linguistic, cultural or faith-homogeneous new states are the exception.

The Ukraine as proof

Ukraine is about nine times larger than Lanka and its population of 45 million is 79% Ukrainian and 20% Russian (mainly in the east and Crimea); it’s per capita of GDP $7400 is 2.3 times Lanka’s per capita GDP at nominal exchange rates. It is one of the world’s bread baskets and largest grain exporters. Its history has been a chequered one; overrun by classical Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire and later occupied by the Goths who were subdued by the Huns. The country reached its zenith, embracing Ukrainian and Russian people, in the 10th to 13th Centuries, but eroded and fragmented after the ruinous 30-year war in Europe (1657-86). In the 18th Century the Ukraine passed under Tsarist suzerainty. In the wars following the Bolshevik Revolution a large chunk of western Ukraine was lost to Poland, a small region in the south-west became independent Moldova, and the remainder became a founding republic of the USSR.

It will come as no surprise when the eventual outcome of the present conflict in the Ukraine will be only partly influenced by nationalism and the country’s chequered history. Great Power politics, Russian security concerns, NATO, and global economics – gas pipelines from Russia to Europe, grain exports and advanced industry in eastern (Russian) Ukraine – will call the shots. Crimea is gone to Russia; there will be no return. A form of federalism guaranteeing the eastern provinces substantial autonomy is the only fix, short of secession or a merger of some provinces with Russia.

Face it! This is not an exception but the visage of the “national question’ in the Twenty-First Century. It is time to discard inherited categories and the pride of our glorious ancestors. In modern times that is all irretrievably sliding down the slopes. What fits best with global interconnectedness, pluralism, autonomy, the power of democracy and with international relations, will survive.

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