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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- A List Without An End

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- To the delight of some and the consternation of others, the number of human communities seeking independent statehood continues to increase.

With the collapse of the Soviet empire, the number of countries has grown dramatically. But even as this has happened, ever more groups seek to claim their places in an international system that defends states far more effectively than it protects minorities.

Because this process seems likely to continue and possibly even accelerate regardless of efforts by some existing countries to limit it, no list of potential countries at any one time -- however large it might be -- is ever likely to be complete.

Thirty-nine years ago this month, the U.S. Congress published one such list of what it called "captive nations," peoples living under various forms of communist tyranny.

On that list were many groups who have since recovered their independence: the countries of Eastern Europe long dominated by the Soviet Union and the 11 non-Russian union republics.

So many of the 33 peoples enumerated in the original listing have gained their independence that some observers in the years since the collapse of the Soviet empire have questioned the continuing value of marking Captive Nations Week each July.

But there are three reasons why Captive Nations Week remains important.

First, there are some groups on the list who have not yet gained their freedom as independent states or even gained the necessary autonomy to protect their national rights.

Among the peoples listed in the 1959 Congressional resolution that have not yet gained statehood for themselves are the Crimean Tatars, the Cossacks, the peoples of the Middle Volga, the Karachays, the other North Caucasian peoples, and the Tibetans.

Some of these peoples such as the Crimean Tatars now enjoy significantly greater freedom and autonomy than they did 40 years ago. But others, particularly the Tibetans, are now under greater threat of national extinction than was the case in 1959.

Captive Nations Week is a useful time to remember these nations, their fate and the continuing responsibilities of others to do what they can to help them.

Second, there are a far larger group of peoples whose governments are anything but democratic and thus deny to their own populations the very freedoms that independence was intended to provide.

Many of these countries remain under authoritarian rule, communist or otherwise. Whatever its economic potential, mainland China is dominated by a repressive communist regime.

And many of the post-Soviet states, such as Belarus and some of the countries of Central Asia, are anything but free and democratic even if they now have their own national flags and seats at the United Nations.

As President Bill Clinton pointed out in his proclamation issued on Monday, Captive Nations Week is a time to remember that the goals behind this commemoration are not met by independence alone but only when the peoples involved gain freedom and democracy.

And third, there are ever more groups in this region and elsewhere not on the 1959 list but who are striving for the same opportunities and rights that others now have.

Were a new list of submerged peoples seeking independence to be drawn up today, it would undoubtedly include some additional names -- the Chechens, the Kosovars, and the Bosnian Muslims, to name but three.

Four decades ago, these peoples had not yet attracted the attention of the world. But now they share center stage with all the others. And they seem certain to be joined in the future by many more than 6,000 other ethnic communities around the world who do not yet have either independent statehood or even national autonomy.

Because that process will inevitably destabilize the international system, many existing countries are certain to be uncomfortable with it and even seek to deny the right of national self-determination to others. Indeed, even countries that have benefited from this process are often prone to do so.

But the annual commemoration of Captive Nations Week in the United States helps to restrain that tendency. And as such, it may serve as one of the most important guarantees that the spread of freedom across the world will continue as well.