ECMI Minorities Blog. Minorities and the War in Ukraine: Navigating the ‘Perfect Storm’?

Vello Pettai
Image courtesy: / Pincasso

*** This entry is part of the special section of the ECMI Minorities Blog on National Minorities and the War in Ukraine. ***

AuthorVello Pettai   |



The ‘perfect storm’ has become an expression epitomizing a situation where a series of mutually reinforcing hazards come together to create an inordinately difficult, if not dooming, state of affairs. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine arguably represents something comparable, not least for minority issues.

There are three main dimensions to this evolving peril. The first is the overarching process of autocratization in the world. The second is an aggravated degree of activism and intervention by kin-states vis-à-vis co-ethnic minorities in neighboring countries. And the last is the added effect of geopolitics. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has brought together all three of these ingredients, serving as an autocratic regime that has made kin-state activism a key pillar of its foreign policy and has threatened geopolitical consequences if it does not get its way.

The first dimension of autocratization is one that has been documented by political sciences for years using different indices of democracy. But the phenomenon should not be examined merely for its suppression of free elections or civic rights. It should also be understood as a muffling of diversity in society. Vladimir Putin’s demands for ever greater national unity and even calls for a “self-detoxification” of Russian society or cleansing of the nation of harmful elements amid his autocratic rule epitomize this kind of approach.

Such trends are harmful for ethnic minorities in many ways. Ethnic minorities are different from, say, political forms of pluralism in society (e.g. political parties), since ethnicity tends to encompass an individual’s broader identity. Ethnicity often determines the language a person speaks, the values they espouse or the culture they relate to. Hence, threats to ethnic diversity in society can go very far in terms of harming people’s direct sense of self and not simply their freedom of expression.

Moreover, autocratic governments tend to demonize possible opponents in order to justify their stifling control over society. Political challengers are declared illegitimate or termed subversive elements in order to be dismissed or suppressed. Should ethnic minorities come to be included in this range of suspect forces, the consequences can involve group persecution on a broader scale. This is what scholars identify as securitization of minorities and it has already been studied in relation to Russia.

In any case, autocratic governments are unlikely to engage in discussions over more ethnic inclusion or participation in society. Even if minorities are not directly harassed, the same regime logic of control and enforcement of national unity applies. Ideas of ensuring language rights, cultural preservation or religious freedom are left by the wayside.

A second ingredient aggravating minority issues today involves those same autocratic countries turning their attention additionally to co-ethnic populations abroad and using them as a tool for domestic and foreign policy. Vladimir Putin’s claims to defend the rights of Russians and Russian-speakers in a host of neighboring countries (and even in Western Europe) serve the purposes of both convincing people in Russia he is a crusader as well as poking into the stability of other states. Such claims are both an extension of the national unity narrative as well as a broadening of the search for foes (in the form of those countries allegedly persecuting Russian kin).

Note that autocratization and kin-state activism are not mutually linked. The latter does not need to follow from the former. However, it easily can. What is pernicious about such practices is that in domestic terms they contribute to nationalist passion or chauvinism that can become difficult to control vis-à-vis domestic minorities. They also stoke foreign interventionism as form of a regular government policy, with all of the economic and political consequences this entails in terms of diverted resources and oftentimes lost human lives through military operations.

It is no secret that superpowers have always waged hegemonic conflict in their perceived spheres of influence, be it the United States in Latin America or European states in their former colonial areas. Such wars, however, are no better when they are staged based on a claim to protect kin populations and in open contravention to international law.

Indeed, there is international law regarding the protection of kin minorities along with mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of such concerns. The OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities issued in 2008 the Bolzano/Bozen Recommendations on National Minorities in Inter-State Relations, in which it is acknowledged that “States may have an interest in the well-being of minority groups abroad”, particularly those, with whom they have ethnic ties. However, these links should not be instrumentalized, especially in connection with autocratic tendencies.

The third dilemma posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine relates to the broader geopolitical stakes that are ultimately driving Putin’s incursion. Whether interpreted as a deranged exploit to restore Russian empire or simply as a once-and-for-all stop to stem Western advances, the fact is that geopolitical aims stand behind or overshadow Putin’s stated goals to ‘denazify’ Ukraine and protect Russian kin.

This could clearly be seen in the types of issues Russia raised in December and January before the launch of the invasion. High-level talks with the United States and European leaders were mainly about renegotiating the status of NATO and re-positioning Russia’s role in the continent. References to protecting Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine came only with the start of war. Had the West agreed to Moscow’s broader geopolitical demands before the war, such kin-state activism would have returned to normal levels.


A rebound for the minority rights regime?

The crisis in European politics brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly reinvigorated the unity of liberal democracies and the Western alliance. It has brought new zeal to what Europe stands for, including minority rights. And while organizations like the European Union have often gained impetus from crises for further integration, within the realm of minority rights we will probably require much calmer waters before this area can be reinvigorated.

The most important reason for this is that the major European institutions guaranteeing minority rights will first need to regain their footing in a new security architecture. Most acutely affected is the OSCE, whose raison d’être as an organization guaranteeing the integrity of states and their basic security has seemingly foundered. Against Russia’s blatant invasion of a neighboring country, what remains of the body’s great commitments to the inviolability of borders and the peaceful resolution of conflict? How will an OSCE work that is perpetually pitted against one of its major member-states?

As collateral damage, however, the work of the High Commissioner on National Minorities has also been set back. The issue concerns not only the effectiveness of the HCNM as such (if its parent organization is weak), but also how the HCNM, too, will be able to navigate relations with Russia after such a brazen conflict. Does the HCNM now need to be seen fundamentally as an institution only for smaller, more pliable states? Are superpowers exempt from the obligation to seek diplomatic mediation or external advice on minority issues? Somewhat facetiously one could say the HCNM’s office could well be inspired to observe in 2023 the 15th anniversary of the Bolzano/Bozen Recommendations. But under what circumstances?

Russia will remain a member of the OSCE. But it has now demonstratively left (as well as been formally expelled from) the Council of Europe, the second major pan-European body for democracy and human rights. Many will argue ‘so much the better’. Having an openly autocratic regime as a member in such a club of liberal democracies only undermines the institution itself. This is precisely the point of having such an institution, that it sticks to its stated principles.

But we’ve been in this situation before, when Russia’s rights as a member of the CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly were suspended after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. In response, Russia halted its financial contributions to the organization, and the CoE had to go through internal restructuring to adapt. In the current crisis, some countries such as Germany have offered increased funding to fill the gap. However, a re-examination of the CoE’s overall agenda and strategy moving forward awaits.

The detriment that comes to Russia from this break in relations affects above all human rights defenders in the country itself, who are deprived of the exchange forums and even judicial remedies offered by the CoE to monitor these issues. This setback includes minority activists, who could afford themselves of the CoE’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as at least one inroad into developing greater awareness and improvement of their situation.

The point is that with the European Union also deadlocked on what to do with proposals like the Minority Safepack Initiative, finding new momentum will be challenging, notwithstanding the renewed commitment to democratic freedoms. The essence of reaching such breakthroughs involves having a Zeitgeist of liberalism that is organic and endogenous. The more foisted atmosphere of unity at the moment is too tenuous to believe a new push on minority issues will emerge.


Repositioning minority issues

If anything, national minority issues face the additional challenge of positioning these claims alongside other dimensions of diversity management in Europe. Already for decades the integration of immigrant communities (alongside that of national minorities) has been a prominent aspect of diversity management. However, this has been exacerbated over the last 10 years by the rise of right-wing populism, which has profoundly instrumentalized and distorted the immigrant issue in the public-political debate. For better or for worse, populism has pushed immigrant minority issues onto the societal agenda more prominently than national minorities with respect to diversity management.

This does not take away anything from the minority disagreements that remain unresolved in places like Catalunya, Scotland, Corsica, Cyprus, or North Macedonia. Minority theories and models continue to be relevant for offering political solutions to these disputes, be it through power-sharing agreements, minority recognition frameworks, participatory institutions or specific policies regarding language, education or culture.

But these individual trouble spots will not spur overarching progress on minority issues unless there is a more general revitalization of democratic norms and culture. This challenge is again inversely related to the rise of autocratic tendencies in many European countries, leading to a much more transactionalist – and not consensus-building – stance toward pan-European politics. Certain countries will agree to new norms only if they see some kind of reverse benefit for themselves – much like Turkey has agreed to Finland’s and Sweden’s access to NATO only in exchange for political side payments – instead of living up to the spirit of the act. And yet serious advances in human and minority rights are difficult to imagine purely on a transactional basis between states.

Is the future prospect then merely one of trying to hold onto what has so far been achieved against the ravages of a ‘perfect storm’? Perhaps. In any case, we must recognize that the scope of challenges confronting minority issues has become broader and more indirect. Be it through the diffuse impact of populism or the even wider existential difficulties posed by the climate crisis, the range within which minority issues are to be located and situated today is ever shifting.


This blog post was prepared by the author in their personal capacity. The views expressed in this blog post are the sole responsibility of the author concerned and do not reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues.

Back to overview

ECMI Founders