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Analysis From Washington - Autonomy Versus Independence

  • Paul Goble



Washington, April 4 (RFE/RL) -- Many political problems in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union reflect the unbridgeable chasm between autonomy and independence and the unwillingness of many political leaders in the east and the west to acknowledge this fact.

None of the recent efforts to blur the differences between the two or, even more, to attempt to combine them appears to be working:

- Yeltsin's offer last Sunday of "almost independence" to a Chechnya that he insists must remain an autonomous formation within the Russian Federation has failed to satisfy either the Chechens who continue to demand independence or the many Russians who believe the Chechens should not have any special status.

- Joint efforts by Moscow and Washington to promote peace in the Caucasus by granting de facto independence to the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh while keeping it legally within Azerbaijan apparently have foundered this week on precisely that point.

- And the international community's effort to find peace in the former Yugoslavia by creating an autonomous Serbian Republic within an independent Bosnia but next to an independent Serbia also are running into difficulties. Yesterday, for instance, senior NATO commanders indicated that outside forces will have to remain there far longer than had been predicted.

The reasons for these failures are to be found in the nature of the two concepts themselves:

"Autonomy" represents a form of divided rule in which some functions are given to a portion of a community within a state but in which ultimate decision-making power rests with the central authorities.

"Independence," on the other hand, is the status of being a sovereign state, having the right to control everything on a given territory and existing within an international community of similar entities.

As such and in the current international state system, the two concepts do not lie along a continuity but are in fact antithetical

- even though possession of autonomy may in some cases be a springboard to independence.

The United States is not an exception, as some have suggested. In the American case, there is divided sovereignty, but the states are not "autonomous" in this sense.

This distinction, long established in international law and practice, began to be blurred both terminologically and practically during the political struggles at the end of the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union.

In both of these cases, central government leaders attempted to retain their power and the territorial integrity of their states by suggesting that entities within could be almost independent, that they could have "sovereignty" or virtual independence while retaining legally autonomous status.

Because the broader international community - which also consists of states - was and remains actively opposed to the disolution of states or border changes among them, few world leaders were prepared to challenge these attempts at terminological sleight of hand.

But these efforts did not work: The units offered expanded autonomy were unwilling to accept that in place of independence because they did not believe that autonomy was ultimately defensible or in their interests.

Nonetheless, these efforts have had an important consequence: all too many people are now unwilling to acknowledge just how different the two concepts are and how an offer of one is unlikely to satisfy those who want the other.

Now, not only the leaders of some of these countries believe that they can square the circle but many other world leaders do as well. The experience of the end of the Soviet Union and the end of Yugoslavia, however, should teach everyone involved that the two are not the same and that all efforts to combine them are almost certainly doomed to failure.
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