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
- 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
"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
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
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.