Micronationalism: If Estonia is Free, Why Not Biafra?

September 08, 1991|By RUSSELL WARREN HOWE

Smugly self-satisfied over the explosion of formerly communist countries into their ethnic particles, the West seems to be ignoring the negative global impact of Soviet and Yugoslav micronationalism.

There has been modest concern at the number of World Bank basket cases with names like Slovenia and Uzbekistan which may soon be competing for the dollars of a currently recessionary, industrial world. Mostly, however, the only real anxiety has been that the legendary Cossacks of Kazakstan would somehow procure from Moscow the telemetric encryption codes of nuclear missiles on its soil and discover the desire to celebrate independence by firing them over the North Pole at the United States -- a prospect described by Rand and Brookings analysts at a recent congressional hearing as "barely plausible."

More problematically, the global chain reaction that could be caused by this renaissance of irredentism has passed unnoticed, as has the historical validity of many of the independence claims.

Independent Estonia, for instance, will have only 1.6 million population. Less than two-thirds of the population is Estonian, leaving the Russian and Ukrainian population in roughly the same situation as the Catholics of northern Ireland.

In the days when the emperor in St. Petersburg was called the "Czar of all the Russias," Estonia was one of the Russias for two centuries.

Before that, it was part of Sweden for another two centuries, and before that part of the Teuton kingdom. At the breakdown of the Russian state after the Revolution, it became independent in 1918, to be reabsorbed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

Independent Latvia's history is almost identical -- it was German, then Polish, then Swedish, before becoming one of the Russias in the 18th century. Latvia, too, was independent for only two decades, until 1940. Only half the 2.7 million population is Lett, but at least the Letts have their own language as well as Russian.

Lithuania's 3.7 million people have had much the same history as the other Baltics, and made the same brief stab at independence between the wars.

Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was independent for only two years, from 1918 to 1920, while other Soviet republics -- much like the notional "Kurdistan" to the south -- have never known sovereignty at all.

At a time when the most developed countries of Europe are surrendering generous parts of their economic, monetary, political, judicial and military sovereignty to a nascent united continent, are the separatists of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia defying the tide of history?

The Letts and the Croats are of course as entitled to self-determination as the Tibetans, the Palestinians and the Irish. But many other parts of the world would feel that they have a better claim than most Soviet republics to a separate identity.

For instance, the Ibos of Biafra, who tried secession in the 1960s, had been a sovereign chieftaincy until the onset of colonial rule at the turn of this century. Biafra had the highest level of education in Nigeria, a self-sufficient economy and a population as big as the three Baltic ministates put together.

It is hard to believe that the string of independences which

Moscow now seems forced to endorse will not stir or re-stir global desires for emulation. If a new flag can flutter in Estonia, why not in Kashmir, Gorkha- land, Nagaland and Tamil Nadu in India? What of those parts of China which see the Beijing gerontocracy as simply a continuation of Manchu rule? And this is only to mention the third and second largest countries in Asia after Russia. In Europe, do the Letts have a better claim to a United Nations seat than the Basques?

What of Africa? Eritrea was never part of the Amhara kingdom; but then, neither was much else of modern Ethiopia before Menelik, the next-to-last emperor. The Somalis in the southeast, for instance -- different language, religion and culture -- have resisted the rule of Addis Ababa for a century, since their annexation.

Nigeria, with 120 million people and 600 languages and dialects, lives within artificial borders that were drawn on a map in Berlin in January, 1885. Bankrupt Zaire is even less a "natural" nation, while equally bankrupt Sudan has already had a long civil war in the "black" south.

And these are only the largest countries. What of the others? The kingdom of Ashanti is conscious of having had sovereignty for about fifteen times as long as the republic of Ghana of which London made it a part. Chad, which the World Bank says is the poorest country on Earth, has had a secessionist war similar to Sudan's, with the CIA and the Israel's Mossad arming the Christians and Libya's Muammar el Kadafi arming the Muslims.

Nor is North America immune. Quebec, with a better separatist claim -- in terms of language difference, economic viability and size -- than Latvia, seems dangerously closer to secession than ever before; and there is revived debate about going it alone in the country's western provinces.

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