Mainstream political thought in today’s world is predominantly shaped by liberalism, endorsed by the majority of philosophers, thinkers, political experts, social activists and public advocates. It is undeniable that since the Second World War—and especially since the end of the Cold War—the international community has made great progress in terms of promoting and protecting human rights and dignity, peace and peaceful coexistence, international justice, and equality. Two of the major pillars of liberalism (liberty and equality) are associated with the freedom of nations from imperial domination.
The twentieth century was characterized by both the rise of liberal thought and the collapse of many empires. At the end of the last century, many ethnic groups obtained independent statehood—especially after the demise of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Other ethnic groups within newly independent countries pressed for their freedom as well. The international community faced a dilemma: how to address and cope with the rising number of independent, separatist or irredentist movements. In 1992, the United Nations Secretary General already warned in An Agenda for Peace that “new assertions of nationalism and sovereignty [had sprung] up, and the cohesion of States [was] threatened by ethnic, religious, social, cultural or linguistic strife.” Boutros Boutros-Ghali emphasized that “if every ethnic, religious or linguistic group claimed statehood, there would be no limit to fragmentation, and peace, security and economic well-being for all would become ever more difficult to achieve.”
The world nevertheless witnessed the emergence of new states born out of bloody struggle for independence: Eritrea, Kosovo and South Sudan. In the former Soviet Union, separatist movements in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine that were supported by Russia made further claims to independent statehood. In the case of Azerbaijan, there was a direct Armenian occupation; in other cases, there was a mixture of indirect support from third countries and so-called hybrid wars. While Russia itself had to cope with separatism in Chechnya and opposed the idea of independence for Kosovo, Moscow promoted independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and annexed Crimea while appealing to the idea of ethnic kinship.
Metta Spencer in Separatism: Democracy and Disintegration , having emphasized numerous problems and catastrophic consequences of separatist movements such as deaths, refugees and destruction, opined that in the era of economic integration “the most urgent emerging political issues must be handled at the transnational level and that local issues will continue to diminish in relative importance” as “states are losing much of their sovereignty and . . . ethnic communities therefore are pursuing false dreams in demanding statehood.”
The international community still faces separatist claims in many parts of the world. Some acquire notable attention, such as the Tibetan independence movement. This case represents a mixture of ethnic and religious strife. As Buddhism became popular in the West, especially in the 1960s–1980s, celebrities such as Richard Gere helped to promote the Tibetan movement. Many liberals advocated for Tibetan freedom, resorting to liberal tenets against the background of communist China. Popular among liberals, Buddhism was an important element for defending the cause of a peaceful religion against the atheist state. Little attention was paid when Buddhist monks and radicals attacked, burned and killed Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Although the Dalai Lama condemned these attacks, overall the voice of peace-loving Buddhist activists and celebrities was not heard strongly enough to halt the violence.
The recent violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan has drawn media attention to the simmering conflict that began in 1988. Many liberally inclined newspapers reported on the conflict as being between Azerbaijan and so-called Nagorno-Karabakh local separatists. As a matter of fact, the conflict began in February 1988 by Armenian nationalists under a slogan of unification with Armenia ( miatsum in Armenian). As Yerevan failed to obtain the Azerbaijani territory from Soviet Moscow after the collapse of the USSR, the tactic was changed and Armenian nationalists pressed for self-determination for their brethren in Nagorno-Karabakh. This move was aimed at garnering more sympathy from liberals in post-Soviet Russia and around the world. The demand to include the Nagorno-Karabakh region as part of Armenia had been already supported by many Soviet liberals such as Andrei Sakharov (whose wife Elena Bonner was an ethnic Armenian) and others. BBC blogger Artem Krechetnikov has observed that the revision of the Soviet borders threatened the Soviet existence; this is why the Communist authorities supported Azerbaijan, while liberals supported Armenia. However, this division reflected neither the nature of the conflict nor its legal and moral dilemmas.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has historical roots. Both sides argue about historical evidence, but from the legal point of view this region belongs to Azerbaijan—as affirmed by UN Security Council resolutions and many other international organizations. The Armenian majority formed in Nagorno-Karabakh only after the Russian conquest in the region during the first part of the nineteenth century; at this time, the czarist authorities implemented a massive Armenian resettlement policy to strengthen the Christian presence and counter the influence of the Ottoman and Persian empires. While it is not at the core of the conflict, the religious factor nevertheless was used by the Armenian diaspora around the world to attract the Western media in particular to its side. Orientalism, the concept advanced by renowned scholar Edward Said, helps to understand what American scholar Thomas Ambrosio termed “a highly permissive or tolerant international environment,” which allowed the Armenian “annexation of some 15 percent of Azerbaijani territories.” Edward Said defined “Orientalism” as an imperial Western tradition shaped by bias towards Asia and the Muslim world. Stemming from this (mis)perception, Western empires advanced the idea of a “civilizing mission,” a concept that was advanced by many contemporary liberals. As Indian scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty put it , “it is, in fact, one of the ironies of British history that the British became political liberals at home at the same time as they became imperialists abroad.”