Now that I have readers’ attention, I have to admit that Vladimir Putin did not in fact announce his support for a unified Kurdish state. Our world remains too full of double standards for that. What Putin actually said was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “The Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”
With some 27 million Russians living outside of Russia, which includes places as far away as the Americas and Western Europe, Putin is right that the Russian nation in 1991 became “one of the biggest to be divided by borders.” If we’re talking about the number of people cut off from a state of their own by the vicissitudes of borders, however, they’re not the biggest one. With some thirty to forty million people and no state of their own anywhere, the Kurds hold that dubious honor. After the Ukraine secured its independence in 1991, the Kurds became the world’s largest stateless nation.
Given the snap referendum in Crimea and this week’s even quicker annexation of Crimea by Russia, Mr. Putin appears to be a fervent believer in the right to national self-determination. The majority ethnic Russian population of Crimea yearned to become part of a Russian state, you see, and Mr. Putin felt obliged to fulfill the Crimeans’ wishes. Attaching Crimea to the Ukraine in 1954 was a historical mistake, according to the Russians, and it seems such mistakes should be rectified.
I know most Kurds like seeing this kind of thing play out internationally. They reason that the less sacred the world’s established borders become, the better. The more people talk about rights of national self-determination, the greater the chance that the international community will finally recognize as much for the Kurds, they believe. The injustice of the post-World War One drawing of political borders can also be rectified, they hope. Crimea, South Sudan, East Timor, Kosovo – it’s all music to Kurdish ears.
There’s a discordant note in the music, however: it’s the cacophony of double standards and hypocrisy the world over. When it comes to Syria, for instance, Mr. Putin holds state sovereignty and non-interference sacred. The Syrian Kurds can hold all the referendums and local elections they like, and not one of the world powers – including Russian lovers of self-determination – will so much as recognize their efforts. The United States and its Western European allies were all for Kosovars’ self-determination and the creation of the Republic of Kosovo, and it couldn’t have mattered less to them that the whole enterprise violated Serbian law. They even bombed Serbia while its main patron and ally – Russia – was still too weak to do much about it. Now that it’s one of their friends losing territory, however, suddenly arguments like “this is totally in violation of Ukrainian law!” are supposed to matter.
If any part of Kurdistan ever finds itself poised to declare its independence, therefore, they had best not rely too much on norms, principles or precedents. Only nations with powerful friends or enough power of their own benefit from these hypocrisies.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).