A Relational Look at the Situation in Crimea – Respecting Self-Determination

As mediators, a bedrock tenet of our practice is that we work to help people make free and informed choices as to both the process of working on their conflicts and the outcome of that process. Fundamentally, we believe that everyone has a desire for self-determination – to make their own decisions instead of having decisions handed down to them by others. For many, this strikes a chord related to personal freedom and autonomy that is a strongly held value. It also makes great sense because people value decisions that they own and those decisions lead to more durable agreements.

Looking at the situation in the Ukraine through a relational lens and cognizant that it is full of complexity, we think that respecting the self-determination of the people in the Crimea has special importance. We are hearing a lot in the news about the Ukrainian Constitution, international law and the legitimacy of Crimean parliament decisions and citizen referenda. Law is always relevant in the peaceful resolution of conflict, but in order for law to be applied it cannot be contrary to the needs and interests of the people to whom it is applied. Here the law seems to serve the interests of the people of the US, EU and Ukraine and, to some extent Russia, but, as to the people of the Crimea, maybe it serves their interests, but maybe it does not. We just do not know yet. There are many questions. The interests of the EU, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States are all important, but these cannot be allowed to take precedence over the interests of the people living in the Crimea in deciding for themselves what path they wish to pursue. That might sound simple enough, and maybe we should just stop right there with this post, but there are many issues raised by this simple concept.

So, as is often critical in any conflict, it is wise to slow this entire conflict process down. Keep it peaceful. That does not mean avoiding confrontation, but it does mean meeting conflict with dialogue and full engagement. Not “cutting off talks” or “withdrawing from diplomacy.” Rather, it is aggressive diplomacy, full on engagement in dialogue. Keeping an eye on all of the moving parts and not turning it into a power struggle. Power based solutions are toxic to peace. They escalate and perpetuate conflict. Don’t we all know that by now? This is an opportunity for the application of a relational approach on a world stage and it begins with respect for self-determination.

We may see many barriers, but the point of this post is that, despite the barriers and complexities, the people of the Crimea should be making the decisions about their path. Those decisions should be fully informed and made freely. The US should work to ensure that. Maybe that means a complete withdrawal of Russian military presence in Crimea before a decision is made – through referendum or other legitimate and verifiable democratic process. Maybe other means exist to ensure self-determination. Our role as mediators gives us special insight into the power of respect for self-determination in achieving lasting and satisfying outcomes to conflict situations.

There are a number of factors that might stand in the way of true self-determination for the people of the Crimea. Many of these factors are inherent in the process of working with conflict involving groups of people. Others are the product of the complex history of that region of the world. Finally, there are barriers created by the personalities involved in the conflict – particularly Vladimir Putin.

The details behind the particular barriers to Crimean self-determination created by history and personalities are really beyond the scope of this blog, but there are a few important things to note. First, there is a lot of history in the relationships between Russia, the Ukraine and Crimea and all of that history must be respected and it all is relevant. There is also a lot of history in the relationships between Europe, the US and Russia and all of that history also is relevant. In a relational approach to conflict, we do not just look at the present and the future, but are also unafraid to engage in discussion about the past. Often in mediation we see that, for people trying to work through conflict, it is scary to open up issues of the past. They fear that opening old wounds will escalate the conflict. However, when it is done in a safe and confidential setting, discussing events of the past can lead to breakthroughs in peace and reconciliation that are not possible in a purely problem solving approach. Perhaps the US can be part of helping create a forum for safe and confidential dialogue that will be open to discussion of all issues, past, present and future. Simply put, there is still a lot of unresolved stuff between the US, Russia and Europe, not to mention Ukraine and Crimea. It all should be open for discussion. Let’s stop making public statements for the cameras that merely inflame public emotions and incite ego driven responses from our leaders. Instead, let’s work to get people into the room with mediators for a confidential and open discussion.

With regard to personalities, especially Putin’s, again we can’t speak to the particulars here, but we can say that personalities are crucial in working with conflict. It is important to recognize that everyone comes from a perspective that has some basis in their learned strategies for coping with life. Understanding those coping strategies provides insight into the issues that may be important to a person. It also helps us to have compassion for the person that we are dealing with. We look to the Enneagram to help provide some clarity in this line of inquiry. We don’t know a lick about Putin, but judging from afar it appears that he might have a big powerful Type 8 personality that is very focused on protecting from harm all those that he considers in his tribe. His posture with regard to “Russian speaking citizens in Crimea” is a clue in this regard. He also might never want to appear vulnerable. He might truly be operating out of a serious and dangerous mental disorder, but maybe not. Let’s not judge that yet. We see these personality traits in mediation because Type 8 personalities often find themselves in conflict and often they seek power based solutions. There is a tender place in all 8’s however, and if approached with strength and compassion, breakthroughs are possible and often very powerful. So, unlike a problem solving approach that seeks to separate the people from the problem, a relational approach to conflict recognizes that the people are very much at the center of the conflict and dealing with what makes them tick may be critical – particularly with difficult personalities and big egos wielding great power.

Now, let’s consider the group conflict issues generically. Self-determination for groups is an easy concept, but a difficult reality. Both how the group is defined and how the group makes decisions pose challenges. Defining the group means deciding who is in and who is out of the group. In political conflicts this raises issues related to where lines are drawn on a map, defining nation states as separate and autonomous or as members of unions, and who within a given geographic area is a citizen with a right to vote or otherwise participate in the group decision-making process. All of these issues are in play in the Crimea. Is Crimea autonomous? Is it just part of Ukraine? Could it be autonomous? If autonomous, where would the lines be drawn? Are ex-pat Russians living in Crimea part of the decision-making group? Should the Ukrainian Constitution govern the Crimea if the people of Crimea would choose to not to be governed by it? How would we in the US feel if Florida decided that it wanted to be independent of the US? Remember our Civil War – secession is a sticky issue!

Once the group is defined and turning to the group decision-making process, there are further challenges. Unanimity is impossible to achieve. Consensus – that amorphous idea that “just about everybody agrees” – is also nearly impossible and not worth pursuing with large groups. So most group decision-making is based on some process of government for the group. Government, as we know, can take many forms. If the group has adopted a form of government, then decisions can be made for the group as a whole through that governmental process. But opinions shift and leaders can be out of touch. Consent of the governed might be very tenuous of even cease to exist as is the case with dictatorships or where free will is overrun by fear as in fascist states. The legitimacy of government decision making is always in question. That is why healthy democracies have regular and frequent elections. Does Crimea have a government process? Is it legitimate – was it freely chosen by the people of Crimea? If so, is it still legitimate now that the national government in Kiev has been overthrown? Does the Russian military presence in Crimea mean that the people of Crimea no longer can exercise free will in choosing their path? What can be done to ensure that the people of the Crimea have the ability truly to make a free and informed decision?

In the same way that we look at the group conflict issues with regard to the Crimea, we could also ask the same sets of questions about Russia, Ukraine, the EU and even the US for that matter. Leaders must exercise great caution in proceeding with action under the assumption that they have the assent of those they represent. Public dialogue and vigorous information sharing is helpful. Reporting by news media seeking to inflame tensions is not. With technology, our global community can have a say about this situation in very powerful ways that were not possible not long ago. People can organize and make themselves heard. Peaceful resolutions that are based on self-determination of affected people are possible. Conflict between large groups of people, organized into governments, gives rise to many questions. We don’t have all the answers. We need to ask the questions and not place this conflict in the posture of an US vs.THEM polarized stand-off. We have seen and we know that through quality dialogue, with respect for self-determination, amazing things happen. Let’s hope our leaders will hold this in their hearts and minds in days to come.