Vladimir Putin demonstrated clearly this week that he has no problem saying anything, whether he means it or not. His assertion that troops wearing Russian uniforms and speaking Russian weren’t Russian troops will go down in the Cynicism Hall of Fame with “I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”
But we should take seriously some of what Putin now says – and hold him to it – precisely because he can’t possibly mean what he’s saying.
Putin has come out clearly for the principle of self-determination: The largely ethnic-Russian Crimea should be able to determine democratically whether it wants to remain part of Ukraine or join the Russian Federation. This is a principle that has much broader ramifications, however. The world’s political boundaries have been drawn with little regard for ethnic groupings, a phenomenon of which we’ve become painfully aware in Africa and the Middle East. But we tend to think of European nations as containing some historical validity. Of course, that’s not really true: The Scots are voting on whether to sever the union with the English that they’ve never really liked. France, for well into its history contained, like African countries today, multiple ethnic and linguistic subgroups that were eventually ground down into the ostensibly uniform Frenchiness of today by a ruthlessly-centralizing monarchy. The Russian, then Soviet, and now again Russian Empire has had similar designs on peoples stretching from Scandinavia to Siberia for over a millennium.
What if Igbos could vote to secede from Nigeria, or Tutsis and Hutus to separate in Rwanda? It would have saved the world two of the worst genocides of the 20th century. It would be great if people could just vote to be governed however they want. Of course, there are complications, such as assuming that all those ethnic Russians in Crimea really want to be part of Russia instead of Ukraine, and don’t just vote that way because of the presence of all those non-Russian troops wearing Russian uniforms, speaking Russian and pointing Russian guns. And what about the roughly 40 percent of Crimeans who aren’t Russian and don’t want to “federate” with Russia? Shouldn’t they then be able to hold a referendum and de-secede back to Ukraine?
Of course, the notion that peoples should be aligned within borders corresponding to their ethnic or linguistic identities is even more problematic for a multi-ethnic state like Russia, with at least 185 ethnic groups – some of whom, at least, think they’re entitled to their homeland. Take the Chechens, for instance: How about letting them vote, Vlad? There are probably many others who might like to peel off and rejoin the neighboring countries of their ethnic origins, like, according to the 2010 Russian census, more than 600,000 each of Kazhaks and Azerbaijanis, 500,000 Belarusians, nearly 400,000 Germans and 300,000 Uzbeks, 200,000 or so Tajiks, and over 100,000 Georgians, Moldovans and Turks. Shouldn’t they get to vote? At the least, shouldn’t the 64 people classified as “Votes” get to vote? And while Putin is sticking up for the rights of ethnic peoples to secede, perhaps he could intervene with his friends in Beijing on behalf of independence for Tibetans and Uighurs.
But perhaps Putin's most interesting moves this week were his announcement that the treaty between Russia and Ukraine, whereby Russia promised to maintain Ukraine’s borders in return for the latter ceding its nukes, was no longer operative because there had been a change of state in Ukraine, and similarly, his suspension of lower gas prices previously negotiated with the former Ukrainian regime. According to Putin, when people drive out a leader they don’t like, then all bets – not to mention treaties, contracts or other forms of legal agreements – are off. That’s a precedent that ought to worry the folks in both the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai.
Many people around the world believe that Third World debts should be cancelled, at least in part, because they were run up by dictatorial regimes over which their citizens had no control. Making countries that have thrown off the dictatorial yoke pay for the excesses of their former dictators is like making people pay for credit card purchases by criminals who ransacked their wallets while holding them hostage. According to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, “Of the current total developing country debt, rough estimates suggest some 20% – $500 billion – can be attributed to dictators such as Suharto in Indonesia and Marcos in the Philippines.” You can add to that Mobutu Sese Seko, the former Zairian dictator who accumulated more than $12 billion in sovereign debt while diverting at least $4 million of public funds to his personal accounts, says the Brookings Institution. The list could go on.
What if we established in law Putin’s argument that when “the state changes,” it’s now an entirely different entity and former deals no longer apply? Post-Suharto Indonesia and the post-Marcos Philippines and the post-Mobutu Congo would be free of their debts. Knowing that this was likely to occur someday, however, lenders would have to become very, very wary of lending to dictators like that, since there would be a fairly high prospect of the debts being declared invalid and uncollectable at some point. The Putin Rule, let’s call it, would basically cause the collapse of lending to undemocratic regimes – at the least, it would cause the market to value democratic governments far more highly than dictatorships. That would be a good thing.
It would also make it much harder to maintain the kind of world the Russians and Chinese are trying to build – one in which authoritarian regimes like theirs spread around the globe, so that those countries’ resources can be extracted on the cheap and sent off to the imperial capital. With someone like Putin willing to say anything, we may not be able to take him at his word – but we ought to hold him to it.