There’s an important and counterintuitive lesson for all nations in the fate of the Crimean Peninsula: If you want to keep a territory from seceding, set its people free.

As Spain’s efforts to quash a Catalan sovereignty movement demonstrate, nations typically do not tolerate breakaway regions under any circumstances. This was certainly the case with Ukraine, which held tightly onto Crimea after breaking away from the Soviet Union. Is that wise?

International law is unclear on the matter of secession. In its 2010 advisory opinion on the Kosovo independence declaration, the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ judiciary arm, said that “it is entirely possible for a particular act — such as a unilateral declaration of independence — not to be in violation of international law without necessarily constituting the exercise of a right conferred by it.” In other words, even if regions do not have an explicit right to self-determination, the act of secession might not be illegal.

Countries’ internal laws are generally not amenable to secession. The Ukrainian Constitution allows for no such opportunity. In Russia, even calling for secession is a criminal act. Spanish law is so clear on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” that the constitutional court, in 2008, banned a Basque Country referendum on whether to hold an independence referendum. Now, the court has moved against Catalonia’s plans to take a tentative step toward secession with a nonbinding plebiscite on the same grounds. As Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy put it, “No one can unilaterally deprive the entire Spanish people of the right to decide on their future.”

A more permissible approach to secession, however, might be more successful in keeping restless territories in the fold. Recent history suggests that people have enough common sense not to take the leap when the opportunity arises.

In 2007, the Belgian Parliament voted down a resolution to dissolve the country into three communities, Dutch, Flemish and German. Although polls periodically show support for a partition, and secessionist politicians still gain parliament seats, Belgians choose to stick together when it comes to specific action. Canada’s Quebec voted down independence in two referendums, and though the province is headed by Prime Minister Pauline Marois, leader of the pro-independence Parti Quebecois, polls show that a third referendum would lead to the same result. Faroe Islanders, given a free hand by Denmark in whether to seek full independence, have been dodging the question for years.

Northern Ireland voted in 1973 to remain part of the U.K. Despite a boycott of the vote by Catholics, the results of the referendum reflected the will of the majority of Ulster’s population. Polls in Northern Ireland show that people support the status quo even more these days. Scotland’s independence vote, set for Sept. 18, is highly likely to break secessionists’ hearts.

What, then, is the point of banning separatism? Surely, even in regions with distinct cultural and linguistic differences from the rest of a country, people have the brains to decide for themselves how and by whom they should be ruled.

The United States, itself a product of unilateral secession from the British Empire, has its own unique approach to the secession issue, spelled out in Texas v. White: “The Union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration or revocation, except through revolution or through consent of the States.” In other words, states are not allowed to secede, but if they stage a successful revolution, they can do it. If you want to secede, fight the federal government and make sure you win.

Such an approach is an invitation to bloodshed. South Sudan, for example, won its independence in strict accordance with the U.S. standards, at the cost of uncounted thousands of lives. Chechnya, the separatist Russian region, failed, also at a huge cost. It is unfair to require territories to take that kind of harsh test to win freedom from the unwanted patronage of “mother states.”

Consider what might have happened if Ukraine had allowed Crimea to hold a secession referendum under strict international observation. With the issue decided in a fair and credible vote, the country could have averted a global crisis that pitted Russia against the West and tore apart Ukraine itself.

In Catalonia, the Spanish government could still choose not to follow the Ukrainian path. Preventing people from having their say has the potential to inspire terrorist groups and breed instability. There is no case for forcibly keeping territories under a country’s rule if the majority there does not want it.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. Based in Moscow, he is the author of three novels and two nonfiction books. He can be reached by email at the following address: lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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