It is a simple question, one asked many times since the idea of the nation-state was hatched in 17th-century Europe: What holds a nation together?
On Sunday, Ukraine faced this problem as armed militias in the east held dubious referendums on whether the region should seek “self rule.” The votes came less than two months after another illegal plebiscite was held in Crimea – conducted under a show of force by the Russian military – that led to a breakaway of the peninsula.
Ukraine is hardly alone in its struggle over national identity and a potential divorce of estranged peoples. On May 31, Scotland begins an official campaign for a vote this fall on whether to split from England and end their four-century union. Unlike in Ukraine, however, the Scottish voting is legal and consensual, although hotly debated. It is similar to a 2011 referendum that split Sudan into two countries, or the democratic steps that created East Timor, split up Czechoslovakia, and separated Kosovo from Serbia.
Ukraine’s plebiscites are illegal under both its own laws and international law, as well as corrupted by being held under threat of force and slipshod procedures. Yet despite this illegtimacy, the interim government in Kiev has responded with a civic spirit, born of a democracy that seeks firmer bonds of community by consensus.
It offered to negotiate more local control for the eastern regions and to guarantee the minority rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. It also offered to bring in a respected international body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to assist in any talks. And with presidential elections due May 25, the government offered to add a legal referendum on a form of federalization.
Such generosity represents a capacity to empathize with the concerns of others, which is the start of any union. Over the centuries, the mutual sharing of sentiments has progressed toward higher levels of groupings, starting first with families, then clans, tribes, ethnicity, geography, religion, or language. The idea of organizing a nation around shared ideals of rights and freedoms is relatively new in history but one that has been shown to best ensure peace and prosperity.
Russia’s attempts to split up Ukraine is a step backward. They are based on President Vladimir Putin’s belief in a “new” Russia that would unite Russian-speaking people into his vision of a restoration of a czarist empire. His logic is faulty, as The Economist magazine pointed out last week with a global map of languages: “The world’s 7 billion people speak more than 7,000 languages; in Russia alone there are more than 100. Perhaps ... Mr Putin should quit while he is ahead.”
Fortunately, the illegal votes in eastern Ukraine have already been countered by a Pew poll this month that indicated 70 percent of the region’s people favor a united Ukraine. Those sentiments may be based on shared geography, history, economy, or some other unifying aspect. But perhaps the people in a country called Ukraine have enough tradition of listening to each other, largely through their few years of having a democracy, that they want to keep their nation-state intact.