Earlier this month, the Crimea declared itself an independent republic and, after a vote, requested to be annexed into Russia. Though Russian President Putin has framed the issue as one of Crimean self-determination, pursuing independence in the same fashion as Kosovo, the Ukraine and western powers have largely condemned the annexation as illegal.
In the U.S., the debate over what’s to be done has often been divided along party lines. Republicans have criticized Obama for not being tougher, while Democrats accused Republicans of supporting the annexation by blocking a bill that would’ve authorized sweeping sanctions and loan guarantees to the Ukraine. However, all seem to agree that Crimea’s secession and subsequent annexation was illegitimate.
The response has also been somewhat varied in Libertarian circles. Ron Paul called Crimea’s actions “secession,” and thus legitimate on the grounds of self-determination, and asked, “what’s the big deal?” Students For Liberty’s Andrew McCobin disagreed, saying that Russia is the aggressor in Crimea and that the election was a farce. Sheldon Richman said American interventionism would do nothing but undermine the Ukrainian cause.
Personally, the controversy surrounding Crimea has been interesting and confusing and has made me challenge my stance on secession and democratic annexation.
I identify as a philosophical libertarian because I value the virtues of individualism and personal autonomy. As such, I have and do support an individual’s right to secession, which as far as I can tell, is an extension of one’s right to freedom of association. To dispute a person’s right to secede from a union—personal or political—would be entirely inconsistent with the notion of individual sovereignty, and in my opinion, with the notion of freedom itself.
But Crimea’s bid for independence and subsequent annexation by Russia has little do with self-determination. Even if we ignore the fuzzy math surrounding the polling numbers or the clear conflict of impartiality imposed by the Russians troops’ presence, even if we do assume that 97 percent of the people in Crimea actually wished to secede, this democratic annexation would depend on the tyranny of the majority and denies the self-determination of those who don’t wish to secede.
And following that line of thinking to its conclusion, I’m left wondering—is any political secession movement really about liberty? Unless a group of people voluntarily and unanimously choose to a dissolve a political union (or, if the minority is opposed because the ruling class empowers it to subjugate the seceding faction), it’s safe to assume that in any secession, some people are denied their freedom of association. People often assume a group’s collective preference is representative of the will of its members, but this is a mistake. Confusing a group’s preferences with those of the individuals therein is what makes people believe democratic elections necessarily determine “the will of the people,” even if that will only represents 51 percent of the people.
When the world power that absorbs a seceding nation is one as fundamentally anti-liberty as Russia, this premise is more evident. However, it’s harder to recognize how a minority’s will is discounted in a secession movement when considering other historic examples—particularly ones defined by their dedication to liberty. The American Revolution, for instance, is popularly portrayed as one that birthed liberty and popular sovereignty in the west. While I don’t disagree that throwing off the rule of king is a great precedent for freedom, it’s worth considering the perspectives of the 15 to 20 percent of colonists who didn’t want to break with England, many of whom were forced to flee their homes in the face of Patriot violence.
And to be sure, preventing people from leaving a political union because the majority opposes secession also denies the self-sovereignty of the minority, which is why intervention from the U.S. or any other western power would also inappropriate (not to mention hypocritical). The conundrum this presents illustrates why national borders aren’t really consistent with individual choice.
Unfortunately, borders do exists in the world we live in (though they change frequently, despite some people’s perception of them as sacred). To some Crimean residents, the recent secession and annexation is a reestablishment of legitimate national unity with Russia. To others in the region, it’s an imperialistic takeover. Given the options available in the current political landscape, achieving a solution that would satisfy all parties isn’t possible.
But framing support of national secession as a defense of political autonomy assumes the validity of subjugating the individual to the will of the collective, which contrary to Ron Paul’s opinion, in no way promotes self-determination or liberty.