Monday, November 3, 2014

Strange Bedfellows: “Republic of Venice” Libertarians Side with Putin in Ukraine, as Europe’s Regional Parties Tilt Eastward

Strange things are happening in Europe, as the West’s political landscape shifts in the wake of the war in Ukraine.  In the latest head-scratcher, a prominent academic historian and separatist libertarian activist in northern Italy is praising the Kremlin-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, saying the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk are legitimate states whose election results this week ought to be respected.

Paolo Bernardini, a Genoa-born professor of history at the University of Insubrica in Como, is known in academic circles for prolific work on the history of Jewry in Europe.  In politics, he is better known as co-founder of Veneto Independence (Indipendenza Veneta), a group seeking to separate the autonomous Veneto region—including its capital, Venice—from the Italian Republic and restore the historic Most Serene Republic of Venice, as outlined in Bernardini’s 2011 book Minima Libertaria.  For centuries, the republic was the premier naval power in the Mediterranean.  Many Venetian regionalists assert its absorption into the unified Kingdom of Italy in the mid nineteenth century was illegitimate.

Speaking a few days ago to Russia’s state-controlled news agency R.I.A. Novosti, Bernardini said, “The real and effective independence of the D.P.R. [Donetsk People’s Republic] and the L.P.R. [Luhansk People’s Republic] may create a new balance of power in the former [sic] Ukraine, and peaceful relations among the various parts of the region, including the D.P.R., L.P.R., Crimea, and what will be left of Ukraine.  A number of small states in fiscal competition one with the other would re-launch a region full of economic potential.”  Of course, this view ignores the fact that President Vladimir Putin’s not-very-covert military invasion of Ukraine has destabilized the entire world order and ushered in a new Cold War, with everyone wondering how far he will go in swallowing up his neighbor, which was ruled from Moscow for centuries until it gained independence with the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991.  The D.P.R. and L.P.R. were declared independent states this spring by shady right-wing paramilitary rebel armies financed, supplied, and even staffed by the Russian military, with the overt desire for eventual annexation to the Russian Federation, along the lines of Crimea, which Russia had brutally invaded and annexed weeks earlier.  Western European countries and the United States have offered only token resistance to Putin’s expansion.  Ukraine is not in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), so NATO member states are not obligated to defend it.

This week’s voting in Donetsk.
The peace signs do not seem to be intended ironically.
Another Veneto Independence leader, Alessio Morosin, told R.I.A. Novosti that the European Union (E.U.) “would be foolish to impose new sanctions against Russia for the sole reason that it [Russia] officially recognizes the November 2 elections,” as E.U. leaders have promised.   “There are no precedents in international practice,” Morosin added: “the threat of using sanctions against a state to change its political course, foreign and domestic policy is unacceptable.”  Morosin was silent on the question of  whether Russia is by the same token allowed to use military force to change Ukraine’s political course.  At the time of the Soviet collapse, Ukraine surrendered to Moscow the nuclear arsenal on its territory in exchange for recognition of its borders, including Crimea and the southeast, an agreement Putin now declares invalid because Ukraine’s government is now different—a highly eccentric reading of international law (which, if applied to Russia, would require the return of Sakhalin to Japan and Tuva to China).

Venetist demonstrators fly the Catalan flag as well to show
their—at times far too indiscriminate—support for separatists abroad.
The relationship between northern Italian separatism and Putin’s neo-Soviet imperialism is not new.  A strong theme in the European Parliament elections earlier this year, in which far-right separatist and xenophobic parties in western and central Europe made an unexpectedly strong showing (see recent article from this blog), was some parties’ infatuation with Putin’s style of muscular, aggressive, unapologetic nationalism.  Putin’s annexation of Crimea won praise from groups as disparate as Belgium’s Flemish-nationalist Vlaams Belang party, France’s Nazi-sympathizing National Front (Front nationale), and, yes, Italy’s xenophobic, anti-E.U. Northern League (Lega Nord) (see a recent discussion of them in this blog).  A reporter described a recent Lega Nord rally in Milan (pictured below) as oriented less toward an independent Padania (i.e. northern Italy) and more toward backing Putin, condemning the international sanctions against Russia, and praising Putin’s denigration of “invading” Muslims, a large theme of Lega Nord’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.  This shows what a dim memory the ideological divides of the Cold War have become.  Who would imagine that western Europe’s goose-stepping fascist fringe would be standing up for “people’s republics” in the Ukrainian rust belt?  But in true fascist style, it’s not about political economy: it’s about nationalism and aggression, two things the far right respects no matter what flavor they comes in.

A separatist rally in northern Italy morphs into a saint’s procession for
beloved fellow Muslim-basher Vladimir Putin.
For the most part, non–Lega Nord separatist parties in northern Italy had once occupied another part of the political spectrum (as discussed in an article in this blog; see also this article).  Those movements based in Venice, including the ideologies of “Venetism” and “Serenissimism” (the latter referring to Republic of Venice revanchists), defined themselves in opposition to the Lega Nord founder Umberto Bossi’s intolerance and jingoism, adding their own streak of American (or, in truth, Austrian) style classical-liberal libertarianism.  To make analogies with politics in the U.S., Lega Nord was Pat Buchanan while the Venetists were Ron Paul.  But Venetists are now shifting to the right, despite the fact that Lega Nord is still trying to relegitimize itself in the wake of the Euro crisis, which ejected the party from its role as Silvio Berlusconi’s junior coalition partner and ushered in a corruption scandal, and despite the fact that informal referenda in Veneto earlier this year showed that Venetist separatism could appeal to a majority of Venetians without the appeals to xenophobia and bigotry typical of Lega Nord.

Lega Nord, Republic of Venice, and Russian flags mingle at a League rally in Milan
(along with flags of the former Duchy of Milan, also used by the “eco-nationalist” Insubria movement).
Of course, the Kremlin and its state propaganda organs have been having a field day with the support they are receiving from western European third-, fourth-, and fifth-party politics.  The independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia have been touted by Russia as Exhibit A in its case for the West’s hypocrisy concerning “separatism.”  If Scots should be allowed to choose whether or not to secede, then why not Crimea’s ethnic-Russian majority? (or so the argument goes).  And the far-right xenophobic political party in Hungary, Jobbik, has openly backed the idea that ethnic Hungarians just over the border in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia (Zakarpattia) oblast should be offered “protection” from the “oppression” of the new Ukrainian government, just as the Kremlin is supposedly “protecting” ethnic Russians in the east and Crimea (as discussed in this blog; see also an article here).

Hungary’s Jobbik political party has all the trappings.
Even more bizarrely, in September the separatist parliament of Spain’s autonomous Basque Country region announced that it was recognizing the sovereignty of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (N.K.R.), the unrecognized puppet state which newly independent Armenia slashed out of Azerbaijan’s soft western flank when Communism collapsed, after a pitiless campaign of ethnic cleansing of Azeris and Kurds.  Armenia, a close Russian ally, had essentially been doing the same thing for decades in Azerbaijan that Russia started doing this year in Ukraine—and few outside Russia and its puppet states (and, to their shame, many in the U.S. Armenian-American community) backs the N.K.R.  But now the Basques, despite their legacy of leftism and resistance against Francisco Franco’s fascism, are jumping on Putin’s imperialist bandwagon as well.  Strange bedfellows indeed.

The Basque parliament now recognizes the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
Why is all this happening now?  Well, it’s easy to blame Putin’s propaganda machine, but some blame must be shared by the western European political establishment.  Though the U.K. showed itself to be an enlightened democratic nation by allowing the people of Scotland to choose independence, it still pushed strenuously—and, in the end, successfully—to convince Scots to stay in the U.K.  Spain, on the other hand, has drawn a line in the sand forbidding Catalonia, the Basques, or any other nation within its kingdom from holding similar referenda.  Nor do Germany, with respect to Bavaria; Belgium, with respect to Flanders; or Italy, with respect to Padania or Veneto, take anything like a British approach to regionalist movements.  In fact, the E.U. and NATO establishments are quite panicked at the idea that regions within European countries might be allowed to—horrors!—choose who governs them.  Well, who does allow such a thing?  In some very blinkered views, Russia does, with its support for eastern and southern regions’ secession from Ukraine.  Never mind that elections in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea are messy and crooked, without international observers; never mind that the movements were spearheaded by provocateurs from Russia and are in fact a mere step on the road to absorption into the heavily centralized Russian Federation, which grants regions far less autonomy than Ukraine does.  And never mind that in Russia even openly voicing support for any kind of autonomy or separatism is illegal, as activists in Siberia and in the Steppes just east of Ukraine have been finding out in the form of prison terms (as discussed recently in this blog).  And never mind the city of Grozny, capital of Russia’s Chechen Republic, which Putin leveled, murdering tens of thousands of civilians, in a war to prevent the Chechen majority’s desire for independence.  Indeed, never mind any of that—and western European far-right separatists are not being reminded of it, either, as they go online and read glowing reports of their own movements in Russia’s slick and deceptive English-language media.

Grozny in 1995.  This is how Putin reacts to separatists when they’re not Russians.
Because western European governments have for the most part turned their backs on the legitimate aspirations of their own ethnic minorities, those groups are now seeking validation and succor, and perhaps even funding, elsewhere—the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin, the most anti-separatist tyrant of all.  For the E.U. and the leaders of Spain, the U.K., and Italy, this should be a wake-up call.  Western European governments who want to show the world that they are more democratic than Putin’s Russia (which they are), it’s time to put your money where your mouth is on the question of ethnic autonomy.  Spain, I’m looking at you.

[You can read more about Venice, Padania, and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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