He said that the era of the homogenous nation state had gone. “Immigration, emigration and the unfolding of history have led to a situation where populations all over the world are becoming increasingly diverse – and in which the great majority of countries have minorities that comprise more than 10% of their populations.”

Diversity has two broad roots: firstly, where different peoples had historically been included within the same borders; and secondly, as a result of immigration.

According to De Klerk historic minorities in many parts of the world were increasingly restive. “In regions like Scotland, Catalonia, Kurdistan, the Donbass region of Ukraine – and even Venice – long dormant identities” were once again beginning to stir – “with profound implications for the countries to which they belong”.

The crisis in Ukraine also had its roots in its failure to accommodate diverse ethnic and linguistic communities. “77.5% of the population are ethnic Ukrainians 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”.

De Klerk said that issues had come to a head in February last year after Yanukovych had rejected an association deal with the EU and had opted instead to move closer to the Russians. Following violent riots, instigated primarily by pro-EU Ukrainian speakers, Yanukovych had been 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 had been to abolish Russian as a regional language. Although the measure was subsequently vetoed by the acting President, it bore testimony to the anti-Russian orientation of the revolutionaries.

The Russians quickly retaliated by invading the Crimea which was populated overwhelmingly by ethnic Russians and which included the strategic Russian naval base of Sebastopol.

This led to recriminations by the West and to the imposition of sanctions aimed primarily at Russian leaders. Since then Russia had undoubtedly been supporting a Russian insurrection in south-eastern Ukraine. Europe was facing the most serious military confrontation since the end of the Cold War.

De Klerk observed that all of this underlined “the need for the effective management of ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity in an increasingly multicultural world. 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?”

He asked whether minorities that constituted clear regional majorities should have the right to secede – and pointed out that this right would have been accepted in the cases of Scotland and Quebec – if pro-secession majorities had won referendums.

However, most countries with ethnic minorities – including Russia – were adamant about the preservation of their territorial integrity.

According to De Klerk, the crisis in Ukraine had been caused not solely by regional tensions and language policy: the underlying cause was that, after the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, Ukraine had begun to gravitate toward the European Union. For the Russians – still smarting after the humiliation of the disintegration of the Soviet Union – this was intolerable.

De Klerk warned that nobody should ignore the Russian Bear when it was in so dangerous a mood. He said that one of the abiding principles of international relations – whether one liked it or not – was that countries had to take into consideration the interests of other states to the degree that they controlled power.

Russia was by far the largest country in the world and could influence events in all the regions with which it had borders. Militarily it was the second most powerful country in the world.

The situation had been made all the more volatile by the current implosion of the Russian economy; the sanctions imposed by the West; and the deep sense of humiliation and alienation that the Russians had experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This had created a very dangerous cocktail of

De Klerk said that he tended to agree with Henry Kissinger that the West’s failure to understand the special significance that Ukraine had for Russia had been “a fatal mistake”.

De Klerk suggested that South Africa’s constitutional negotiations in the early 90s might have some relevance to the situation in Ukraine – although the two situations were in many respects very different. He said that the West should

The future stability and security of a very large part of the world might depend upon it.

Issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation
22 January 2015

Photo credit: BRJ INC. / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND