Staunton, January 7 – From the point of view of both international law and the critical needs of the peoples of the Russian Federation, Vadim Belotserkovsky argues, the new Russian law imposing criminal penalties for the “’propaganda of separatism’” is the real crime because it undermines “the inalienable right of peoples to self-determination.”
Separatism, the Russian human rights activist says, “gave birth to the most powerful state in the world, the United States of America,” and it has been a feature of the international scene ever since, becoming even more powerful after US President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 formulated the right of all peoples to self-determination (vestnikcivitas.ru/pbls/3197).
Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, also proclaimed this right and it was enshrined in the first constitution of the Russian Federation, although it was limited then and later to those peoples Moscow recognized as having union republic status, Belotserkovsky points out. Academician Andrey Sakharov called for extending this right to those peoples who had only autonomous republic status.
But following “Yeltsin’s anti-democratic revolution in 1993,” the new Russian constitution dropped any reference to the right of nations to self-determination, although just like the new Putin-era law, it did not oppose calls for uniting other nations to the Russian Federation, although it suggested that any who joined would not be allowed to leave again.
Since that time, Moscow has fought two wars to block the aspirations of the Chechens for independence. In the first, beteen1994 and 1996, which it effectively lost, Russian forces killed approximately 200,000 people; in the second between 1999 and 2002, which it won, pro-Moscow forces killed another 100,000.
Now, under Putin, Belotserkovsky continues, the Russian Federation government not only will oppose any efforts at separatism but will impose criminal penalties on those who even discuss it as a possibility. “In essence,” he says, “this is a 180 degree turn back to the era of the early Middle Ages.”
“In the community of civilized and democratic countries, there are only two places from which people cannot go freely – jails and mental asylums,” he writes, because “where there is no freedom to leave, there is no freedom at all.”
That does not mean that the right of nations to self-determination is without problems, Belotserkovsky says, adding that he favors the development of a UN convention on the matter to define how and when peoples can realize this right. But the complexities of the issue are no justification for opposing the right.
“Russian nationalists love to cry that the Russian people has been forced to its knees,” he continues, but “the Russian people will only be able to ‘rise from its knees,’ when a government appears in Russia hose head will be able to fall to his knee before a monument to the peoples who have been oppressed by Russia and in the name of the Russian people ask for forgiveness.”
That reality is what makes the recent remarks of Mikhail Khodorkovsky so disturbing, Belotserkovsky says. In his first post-prison interview, the former oligarch said in the words of the human rights activist that “he considers the preservation of the territorial integrity of Russia a priority among all other problems and is prepared to fight for this.”
“If the question is whether to allow the separation of the North Caucasus or to go to war,” Khodorkovsky said, then the choice must be “war.” Asked by Yevgeniya Albats whether a “velvet” divorce like the one between Czechs and Slovaks might be possible, he responded that in Russia “there is no such ‘level of European culture’” and that the independence of the North Caucasus would result in “real blood” and “millions of victims.”
Khodorkovsky said he would personally go to fight “for the North Caucasus” because “this is our land, we conquered it. At present in the world, there are no unconquered lands.” The North Caucasus was “conquered by us” and thus must remain Russia’s.
Not only is Khodorkovsky’s assertion untrue, Belotserkovsky says, but it is deeply troubled. Most of the world was decolonized after World War II, but not all of Russia. Instead, the North Caucasus remains under Moscow’s control. If that region’s citizens want independence, “how can one talk about ‘millions of victims’” unless someone opposes them?
By saying such things, Belotserkovsky says, “Khodorkovsky may be ‘sending a signal’ to Russian nationalists” that they should not consider him part Jewish as he is from his father’s side. “Jews could not and did not participate in the imperial aggression of Russia,” the activist says. Or he may have made some kind of deal with the Kremlin.
But what is truly troubling, the human rights activist says, is elevating the maintenance of the territorial integrity above all the other problems of the country. Most “independently thinking people” see democratization, reversing demographic and social decline, and re-industrialization as far more important.
That Khodorkovsky doesn’t appear to recognize that reality, Belotserkovsky says, is a tragedy because “objectively” his remarks “help the authorities to keep the [Russian] people in ignorance.”