[Rhodri C. Williams is a US human rights lawyer living in Sweden and working for the International Legal Assistance Consortium. He writes on human rights issues on his own blog, TerraNullius.]
In the crisis triggered by Russia’s poorly concealed incursion in Crimea, there are plenty of grounds to believe that Moscow’s international law arguments are largely a smokescreen, albeit one arguably enabled the West’s own blurring of legal lines in the course of two decades of liberal interventionism. Lying behind Russia’s normative protestations, however, are concrete assertions of political interest that will have to be addressed in order to achieve a sustainable resolution. In this sense, an emerging normative challenge relates to the extent to which international law and practice on self-determination would facilitate such a process.
Russia’s has a number of arguable political interests in the Crimean peninsula. The most obvious relate to security, and Crimea’s role as a warm water port of longstanding strategic significance to the Russian Navy. However, a far broader claim relates to Russia’s asserted right to protect both its citizens and Russian speaking minorities throughout a “near abroad” corresponding to the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. Like any country, Russia has a legitimate interest in the fate of its citizens and an arguable interest in supporting kin minorities. However, the unilateral and open-ended imposition of Russia’s own “protection” in a neighboring state is taken by many in the region as a thinly veiled excuse for a new round of post-Soviet revanchism. Indeed, comparisons have inevitably been drawn to “Hitler’s substitution of ethnicity for state borders” in the lead-up to World War II.
The issues raised by Russia’s “ethnic” claims in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and beyond play on debates about the alignment of states and nations that have been with us since the 19th century, but which gained an explosive new life since the end of the Cold War. Ironically, the original political emergence of these issues arguably came with the Crimean War of the 1850s, in which France and Britain sought to prevent Russia from encroaching on Ottoman Turkish-held territories in the Balkans. However, while both Ukraine and the Balkans have subsequently provided spectacular examples of the failure to peacefully manage diversity, the Åland Islands of Finland – the little known northernmost theatre of the Crimean War – give some grounds for hope.
The “Åland example”, as described in a recent book by the Åland Islands Peace Institute, has significant resonance for Crimea. Perhaps most obviously, Åland, like Crimea, occupies a strategic location in a region long troubled by ethno-linguistic cleavages. Åland is an archipelago in Finland that projects toward Sweden across a narrow strait in the Baltic Sea. Like the rest of Finland, Åland was part of Sweden until 1809, when the country was incorporated into Russia. Eager to consolidate an outpost within striking distance of Stockholm, the Russians built a fortress at Bomarsund on Åland.
Thus, the issue of strategic location arose early, with the British and French war aims focused on destroying both Bomarsund and Sevastapol in Crimea, and preventing them from being militarized again. Since the Crimean War, Åland – in contrast to Sevastapol – has remained demilitarized, in a local regime rooted in the 1856 peace settlement. The “ethnic issue” on Åland remained dormant for another 60 years until 1917, when Finland became independent. Until then, the tiny Åland population had aligned itself with the minority of mainland Finns (at the time about 10%) that spoke Swedish as their mother tongue, but that would quickly change.
In 1918, the first Finnish Constitution granted the Swedish language formal equality with Finnish, paving the way for an enduring cultural autonomy that has guaranteed linguistic and cultural rights for Swedish-speakers without granting them either political veto powers or control over their territories. Meanwhile, the Ålanders had already begun to agitate for secession to Sweden and succeeded in bringing their case to the newly founded League of Nations. The result was a 1921 compromise solution in which sovereignty was retained by Finland, but on the condition that Åland was to be granted an extensive territorial autonomy, or local self-rule. In order to assuage Sweden’s security concerns, Crimean War-era demilitarization was affirmed and expanded.
As described in the Peace Institute’s book, all this led to a surprisingly durable regime, sanctified by international law obligations (compiled here), but fundamentally anchored in consent. The authors attribute the longevity of Åland’s arrangements to a number of factors. A key departure point was the astute balance of dissatisfaction set by the original League of Nations decision. Finland was granted sovereignty without control, Åland self-rule without self-determination, and Sweden security guarantees without territorial gains. This may have contributed to a dynamic whereby all parties acted on “the basic premise of accepting a compromise and learning to live with it” (196).