Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Putin Puts His Entirely Statist Understanding of Self-Determination on Display

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 22 – In a discussion of the November 10 declaration, Vladimir Putin said that “the Armenian side did not recognize the independence and sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh and this means that from the point of view of international law, Karabakh and the territories adjoining it are part of Azerbaijan” (lenta.ru/news/2020/11/22/nkr/).

            Casting the issue in this way has three important consequences. First, it means that the joint statement of the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation began with an acceptance that the borders that existed among the two Caucasus republics were unchanged and that Azerbaijani sovereignty continues right up to those borders.

            Second, it suggests that had Armenia recognized the independence and sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh, the situation would have been very different at least in Putin’s mind because then the status of that territory would remain a matter of dispute because two existing states would be asserting a claim of the existence of sovereignty on the same territory.

            And third, arising from this, it shows that the Kremlin leader’s understanding of the principle of national self-determination is very much at odds with the theory and practice of international law because he reduces such a right, inherent in peoples, to the actions of existing states. If states recognize self-determination, it exists; if they don’t, it doesn’t.

            That position allows Putin to make the claims he has to Ukraine’s Crimea, but what it demonstrates if indeed any demonstration were needed is that for Putin, the rights of peoples are irrelevant and the powers of states are paramount, with the former only in a position to make a claim if a state backs them.

            In Putin’s world, few peoples would ever be able to assert a right to self-determination unless they could attract at least one state and probably the state within whose borders they found themselves to support them, reducing a fundamental right to a contingency on the policies of states who may in fact be their oppressors.

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