It’s been exactly a hundred years since an assassin’s bullets opened up an ethnic can of worms across Europe, the Middle East, and eventually the rest of the world.
Prior to the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, Europe was not exactly free of ethnic tensions or religious divides. Irish Catholics had been campaigning for Home Rule for decades; Hungarians wanted to rule themselves but remain under the Hapsburg crown; Poles wanted to be free of Russia, Germany, and Austria, free to resurrect their own nation again; Zionists wanted their own state in what is now Israel.
But, prior to 1914, imperialism was in vogue. Large empires composed of multiple nationalities were more the norm. Globalization was all the rage.
It all came crashing down as the most significant assassination in history led, 37 days later, to “the war to end all wars.” After the war, the peace treaty allowed a number of different ethnic groups to have their own independent nation state. The Czechs and Slovaks were grouped together in Czechoslovakia; the Poles got their own country; the Finns, too; Hungarians were formally separated from Austria; the Serbs, who, arguably started the war in the first place, got their own country with the Croats in the new Yugoslavia; even the Ukrainians had a brief period of independence.
They have just had another such period, this time for over twenty years. It may be coming to an end again. Maybe. Maybe not.
The vote in the Crimea on Sunday is a foregone conclusion, with 58% of the people in the region Russian speaking. It’s not that the vote will be rigged – there’s no need for that. The majority will vote to switch allegiance from Kiev to Moscow. If it wasn’t a certainty, Russia would not be holding a referendum. This vote, it is hoped, will justify their invasion and put an end to the whole matter.
It won’t be that simple.
What about the Ukrainian minority inside Crimea? What about the Russian speaking areas in the east of Ukraine? Will Russia invade them? What about the Tatars?
Ah yes, the Tatars.
They constitute 12% of the population of the Crimea. They were the pre-Russian inhabitants of the peninsula, invaded by Catherine the Great in the late eighteenth century. They are a Turkic people left over from the days of the Ottoman Empire. They are Muslims. More significantly, they got a raw deal, a real raw deal, from Russia under Josef Stalin, who had them all forcibly removed from their homes and transported to Siberia with only 15 minutes notice. They dread a return to Russian rule.
It may be that they have little to fear. After all, neither Stalin nor Catherine were actually Russian. But Russia is having difficulties already with its Muslim minorities – it’s unlikely the Tatars will fare any better than the Chechens.
The ethnic complexities of the region are symbolic of the wider European ethnic quilt.
Spain doesn’t want Crimea to break away from Ukraine because they don’t want their own Catalans to break away from their country; the Scots are voting in September on possibly breaking away from the United Kingdom; Belgium has had serious ethnic divisions ever since the country was created almost two centuries ago; the Balkans always has further potential for ethnic conflict; Rumania has a significant Hungarian minority that would like to join Hungary; while Hungary has its own minorities.
The EU has actually made the problem worse. It is possible now for every small ethnic group to have its own country and still be economically viable through the European Union. If Scotland breaks away from the UK, it can seek membership of the EU and minimize the economic consequences of breaking away from the bigger whole.
They would actually have to have approval of the other member countries, including England. And none of them has a vested interest right now in approving Scottish membership. It might encourage separatists in their own countries. Additionally, the last thing the 28-member EU needs is yet another voting member, holding back further progress toward European unity. They also don’t want more members needing a bail-out.
However, it’s also possible that the proliferation of smaller countries in the EU could lead to a resurrection of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, a motley assortment of political entities that all owed allegiance to a common German emperor.
Rather than Sunday’s vote bringing an end to the European crisis, it may turn out to just be the beginning!