This essay focuses on the right of the Chechen people to self-determination. I examine the legitimacy of the Chechens’ claim to self-determination and assess the policies of the Russian government toward the minority populations of the Caucasus. I also assess various aspects related to the legitimacy of the movements that fight for self-determination in the context of the global war on terror as well as the problem of violations of minority group rights. In this essay, I argue that current policies of the Russian government in the Caucasus do not lay the foundation for the long-lasting peace and stability in the region and are, in large part, conducive to the continuation of separatist tendencies.

Human Rights and Nation Building Policies

The right to self-determination is intimately linked to the right to free association as well as a guaranteed protection of cultural rights under universal UN conventions, whereas the concept of state sovereignty is the foundational framework on which the global peace and security are built in the modern world. Today, the conflict of principles of state sovereignty and identity group rights continues to generate and fuel a number of local wars and conflicts in many parts of the world. Moreover, some localized conflicts have been extended to other countries owing to the ideological factors that fuel them.

Many nation-states are not homogeneous by the nature of their ethnic composition and even fewer boast truly liberal-democratic governance systems whereby minority ethnic groups could enjoy an unrestrained access to political power and exercise their identity rights freely. In addition, nation-building policies tend to aggravate stratification and lead to social tensions because of inherent discrimination on ethnic, racial or political grounds. Therefore, many cases of ethnic strife display not only a communal aspiration for self-determination, but also a form of protest against discriminatory and humiliating policies of titular identity groups. Practices of structural violence are especially important because they are manifest in the discriminatory policies towards certain social or ethnic groups and when:

social, cultural and legal institutions may be structured according to discriminatory beliefs and policies that deny basic rights and access to education, employment or healthcare to certain individuals. In cases where social practices deny education, housing, the opportunity to work or to participate in governance because of race, religion, sex and so forth, great psychological, social and economic harm is being done to human beings even if bombs and bullets are not being used.[1]

More importantly, the structural forms of violence to which minority ethnic groups continue to be subjected by majorities and titular identities force them to fight for sovereignty along identity lines. The system of nation-states is based on the assumption that state sovereignty entails a degree of external and internal stability, economic and political security as a result of internal cohesion, the subsequent international recognition of statehood and the establishment of legitimacy for participation in the global affairs. As a result, statehood has emerged as a potent cause for struggle for a myriad of ethnic and identity groups in an attempt to achieve security and prosperity which was otherwise unattainable within the existing multinational polities ruled by titular majorities.

In addition, the state system exacerbates ethnic tensions via elites’ struggles for power and status in an environment in which the de jure independence has become a prerequisite for welfare, prosperity and co-existence, because of the notions of security that membership in the international system entails. It is these notions of security that are perhaps more problematic than the direct challenges to majorities and sovereign actors which ethnic groups may mount. The institution of sovereignty is under question from those caught up in it, yet not recognized by it. Hence, the notion of ethnic sovereignty constitutes their attempt to find legitimacy, status, and security in the international system that will entail internal and external legitimacy. It is an extension of personal sovereignty, mirroring the sovereignty of entities that call themselves states and appeal to normative frameworks to provide ethnic sovereign actors with status and security.

Establishing Criteria for Claims to Self-determination

Waltzer asserts that “self-determination is the right of a people ‘to become free by their own efforts’ if they can, and nonintervention is the principle guaranteeing that their success will not be impeded or their failure prevented by the intrusions of an alien power.”[2] However, when the suppression of nonviolent resistance efforts is so intense as to inhibit the development of movements for self-determination, external intervention is vital in order to free the minority identity groups from severe forms of discrimination and violence. Therefore, if a definite ethnic group manifests a desire to exist as a separate political community, whether through a fierce secessionist movement or a non-violent expression of discontent, the international support for such a claim is critical, especially if it involves a combination of historical grievances of a certain nature, a territorial rights claim, discriminatory distribution and an attempt to preserve a distinct cultural identity. More importantly, when movements for self-determination are erroneously or intentionally linked to terrorist networks by titular groups to justify severe coercive and repressive policy actions, international responses to such allegations must be appropriate and just. Under some circumstances, the survival of minority identity groups is at stake and a question of external intervention arises.

Absent sufficient international support, many movements for self-determination resort to the guerilla warfare because of inability to counter the military and organizational potentials of states by conventional means. The legitimacy of movements for self-determination is undermined by the terrorist tactics that their leaders employ. When movements that fight for a just cause engage in a wrongful type of warfare by targeting civilians and foreign citizens; not only do they lose the legitimacy, but also the popular support of the people whose interests they seek to advance. Therefore, violence against civilian populations is futile and the attempts to achieve the political goals of a certain nature by terrorizing the innocent are doomed to failure. Notwithstanding the purpose, terrorist activities of any form are likely to aggravate tensions between the parties and result in the devastating social consequences. Moderate and nonviolent forms of opposition and resistance within the framework of existing international legal norms can yield greater impacts upon the promotion of the goals of movements for self-determination.

International involvement in matters of self-determination has to be of such nature as to provide secessionist movements with a degree of moral support and to direct their struggle toward the goal of sustaining the validity of their claims, which imposes substantial limits on the warfare tactics. Today, however, international support for secessionist movements leads to adverse consequences, in cases when foreign countries supply fighting groups with expertise and equipment to carry out terrorist attacks against civilians. Ultimately, this undermines the legitimacy of both the movements and the governments of countries that sponsor them. Establishing legitimacy for claims to self-determination requires a clear vision of the objectives sought and a proper basis for the claims – in line with international legal standards and expectations of the global community. When various, often unrelated, notions and perceptions are fused into the claim, the legitimacy of movements is further distorted. Therefore, only adequate forms of international support are critical for maintaining the right course of the struggles for self-determination and their ultimate victory.

Buchanan maintains that a reference to distributive justice or structural violence is often sufficient to establish a claim to self-determination without the historical grievance thesis.[3] However, practices of discriminatory distribution can span centuries, thereby accumulating into historical grievances. Henceforth, historical grievances often incorporate severe forms of longstanding discriminatory practices and treatment. Historical grievance and distributive justice concerns are interrelated and are often hardly distinguished. For instance, multiple decolonization movements across the planet have been driven by the perception of historical discrimination by majorities. However, sometimes, certain aspects of discriminatory treatment are effectively utilized by leaders of secessionist movements to serve certain narrow political interests that are hardly relevant to the struggle for self-determination. Often, secessionist movements become dependent upon terrorist network organizations for economic reasons, in which case their goals become intimately tied to alien political interests.

Territorial rights claims often involve practices of discriminatory distribution such as when majorities enjoy exclusive rights to resource-rich areas; whereas other groups of populace are denied access rights to their historically-claimed localities. These criteria for self-determination are often times intimately intertwined and no definite answer can be given as to what claim to self-determination prevails and is legitimate in each case.

A combination of multiple claims makes the strongest case for self-determination such as when a territorial rights claim is combined with practices of structural violence against a distinct identity group.  Without a doubt, practices of structural violence are indicative of violations of universal human rights and are the foremost reasons for consideration of the claim to self-determination by the international community. Claims to self-determination in the decolonization context are increasingly made by secessionist movements in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Part of the historical grievance and territorial rights claim, the demand for decolonization constitutes a threat to the territorial integrity of federalist states and is ferociously opposed by their ruling regimes.