The failure to address this challenge lies at the heart of virtually all the conflicts that continue to afflict the world.

The situation in the Ukraine is far more complex than the good guy/bad guy analysis that was thrust upon us by the media. 77.5% of the population is ethnic Ukrainian and 17.2% are ethnic Russians. However, many of the ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language – so the language split is 67% Ukrainian and 30% Russian. The political divide follows the languages spoken. In the 2010 election, the north-western part of the country, which is overwhelmingly Ukrainian-speaking, voted solidly for Yulia Tymoshenko while the Russian-speaking south-east gave equally solid support to her opponent, Viktor Yanukovych.  Yanukovych won the election in what was generally regarded as a free and fair poll. Tymoshenko landed in jail.

Issues came to a head in February after Yanukovych rejected an association deal with the EU and opted instead to move closer to the Russians. In the subsequent violent riots, instigated primarily by pro-EU Ukrainian speakers, his government was unconstitutionally overthrown. He was forced to flee to Russia – leaving behind his lavish presidential palace and copious evidence of state corruption.

One of the first acts of the new Ukrainian Parliament was to abolish Russian as a regional language. Although the measure was subsequently vetoed by the acting President, it bore eloquent testimony to the anti-Russian orientation of the revolutionaries. The Russians quickly retaliated by – in effect – invading the Crimea, which was populated overwhelmingly by ethnic Russians, and which included the strategic Russian naval base of Sevastopol.

This led to recriminations by the West and to the imposition of sanctions aimed primarily at Russian leaders. Since then Russia has undoubtedly been supporting a Russian insurrection in south-eastern Ukraine. 1 000 Russian troops are reported to be in the Ukraine and many more are massed along the border. Europe is facing the most serious military confrontation since the end of the Cold War.

All of this underlines the need for the effective management of ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity in an increasingly multicultural world. More than 75% of the world’s countries have minorities comprising more than 10% of their populations. What rights should these minorities have to speak their languages, to practise freely their cultures and religions, and to manage their own cultural and language affairs?

Should minorities that constitute clear regional majorities have the right to secede? The reply seems to depend on political interest rather than constitutional principle. Kosovo’s secession from Serbia was supported by the West – and was opposed by Russia. However, when Abkhazia split from Georgia, the Russians supported its right to do so while the West opposed it.

Scotland is presently in the throes of a referendum on whether it should secede from the United Kingdom. If a majority of Scots vote “yes” it will become independent. If Québec were ever to vote to secede from Canada, the wishes of its people would also be respected. So, why should this principle not also be applicable to the Crimea – or to regions in south-east Ukraine where Russians are in a clear majority?

In fact, most countries with ethnic minorities – including Russia – are adamant about the preservation of their territorial integrity. The United States would not allow any of its constituent states to secede – or accept the right of the Navajo Homeland to independence. Canada would not hand over its arctic territories to the Inuit, and Turkey would certainly not accept the secession of the Kurds.

After a disastrous attempt at territorial separation, South Africa in the early 90s accepted that the question was not how we should live apart – but how our diverse communities should live harmoniously together. We negotiated a Constitution that gave official status to all our languages and ensured our right to enjoy our cultures, to practise our religions and use our languages. It recognised the right to education in the language of one’s choice. It proclaimed the equality of all South Africans and prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, language and ethnic origin. The overarching values in section 1 of the Constitution provided a shared vision for the future.

Many of these provisions are being eroded in what the ANC refers to as the “radical implementation of the second phase of the National Democratic Revolution.” English is becoming de facto the only official language; Afrikaans education is under pressure in schools – and particularly at university level; indigenous languages are not being developed; the state unfairly discriminates against minorities on the basis of their race; and everywhere the freedom of minorities is being limited by the imposition of demographic representivity.

All this is part of what the ANC calls ‘the National Question’. In a 2005 policy document, it observed quite correctly that “the national question around the world, far from being solved, is raising its head in an unimaginably barbaric manner”. It went on to point out that “the lesson for South Africa is that we dare not ignore the national question in our own country”. It then succinctly summarised its own position: “In the South African context, the national question is not principally about the rights of minorities or ethnically motivated grievances (this statement is not intended to diminish the importance of the rights of minorities). It is, in fact, principally about the liberation of the African people.”

Clearly, after having made a good start, South Africa is – in the ANC’s words – increasingly ignoring “the national question in our own country”. Current developments in the Ukraine – and in conflicted societies throughout the world – show how very unwise this is – and how necessary it is to recognise, accommodate, and celebrate diversity.

By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation

Photo credit: maistora / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)