Yevgeny Primakov on Separatism and Russia
OCT 30, 2000
Yevgeny Primakov Former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Russia
Separatism and Russia’s Future

MOSCOW: “Self-determination” dominated international politics for two centuries. In the postwar era, Marxists were the strongest advocates of this theory, insisting on including it in the UN charter. That grant of legitimacy to the national aspirations of subordinated peoples helped eliminate colonialism. Should the principle of “self-determination”, however, continue to be embraced in today’s world?
Imagine the chaos that may ensue if separatist energies are allowed to continue in an unfettered way in a world where over two thousand ethnic groups live in over 150 distinct states. Nowadays, indeed, separatism is not a problem confined to individual states and societies; it is one for the entire global community.
Of course, if all parts of a nation accept separation, creation of a new national state need not be resisted by the world community. But when a party disagrees about dividing a nation, separatism becomes illegitimate. So the world community must resist unilateral efforts at separation because separatism today is much more dangerous than during the post-colonial era due to the twin evils of international terrorism and religious extremism.
When I suggest that religious extremism is a danger, I do not equate it with religious fundamentalism. Muslims in the old Soviet Union were attracted to fundamentalism because they were oppressed. They could not build mosques; they could not perform their faith in public. A fundamentalist adherence to Islam was a perfectly natural response to this.
Islamic extremism differs from religious fundamentalism because, beyond promoting strict adherence to Islam, it preaches the spread of Islamic models of power and society. Married to terrorist tactics, religious extremists, with their unlimited goals, present a real danger to the world.
Perhaps nowhere is this threat as serious as in Russia. Throughout the North Caucasus many nationalities and ethnic groups have lived in close proximity for centuries. Some groups – prominently Muslim Chechens – are now separatist-minded. Others groups want to remain part of Russia. In the face of such rival desires, how can Russia deal democratically with separatist claims made at gunpoint?
Rather than encourage more of the fragmentation that pursuit of self-determination has caused, I strongly support bringing together and uniting the nationalities that live on Russian territory into a stronger state. I disagree with those who argue that such a policy will hinder Russia economically and politically. Indeed, there are clear instances when Russia’s unity with the other independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union will prove to be beneficial to everyone involved.
Take the case of Byelorussia. During Soviet times, Byelorussia was an “assembling room” of Soviet industrial production. It remains a republic with solid intellectual potential and hardworking manpower. Byelorussia may not posses as many natural resources as Russia, but it is self-sufficient, so it may not be the long-term drain on Russia’s economy that many see Byelorussia as being. Most importantly, Byelorussia and Russia share historical origins. These bind us together. Why should we live in two distinct states if most people, not small groups on either side, want unity?
In uniting with Byelorussia we need not act precipitously. Byelorussia’s President Aleksander Lukashenka seeks closer ties to Russia. We agree with him. After all, much of Western Europe adheres to a common currency and its member countries have not come to a bad end. These processes are complicated but the point is to move in this direction; then, perhaps, Ukraine will begin to come closer to Russia.
What applies to Byelorussia in terms of ending an unwanted separatism applies even more to the Caucasus. In the US, many ethnic groups live at peace within America’s states. Russia must resolve its ethnic, national, and separatist problems by providing cultural autonomy and national self-expression within the context of a community remaining part of the Russian Federation. Assisting national self-expression by some, however, does not mean that others, say Chechnya’s neighbors in Tatarstan or Bashkortostan, should suffer. National support for one group should not mean oppression of others, or come at their expense.
In seeking peaceful solutions to ethnic and separatist friction, Russia faces unique problems. Nationalities expelled by Stalin to internal exile in Siberia and elsewhere may want to return to areas that were theirs “by origin.” Crimean Tartars, for example, want to return home to their “Crimea.”
Individuals should be able to return to their homelands, but as individuals. For even if we admit (and we do admit) that historic injustices – historic crimes, really – did take place, we must recognize that land which one people lost through expulsion has been repopulated by others. To evict them would be unfair and would repeat the original historic crime.
When all of Russia’s people realize that they must live together they will begin to adjust to each other. To insure that this realization takes place, the separatist option must be closed. Only in this way will it be possible to restore the peaceful relations which existed before; only then will our many ethnic and national groups find a means to drain the violence from their antagonisms.


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