How productive are the debates about non-territorial autonomy?

How productive are the debates about non-territorial autonomy?

Alexander Osipov

The past 2019 was a year of a strange anniversary that went unnoticed. 25 years ago, John Coakley issued a landmark article [1] that meant a resurrection of the topic of so-called non-territorial autonomy (NTA) in English-speaking academy. Although NTA was not something previously unknown, and the debates around cultural or corporate autonomy for minorities started in the Hungarian and Russian languages a bit earlier, only the English-language discussion makes the issue truly international. The process can be called a discussion; there is a growing number of academic events and publications and an extensive exchange of views across disciplinary boundaries. Looking back, it makes sense to address two issues: what the said discussion has brought about from a scholarly perspective, and how relevant in practical terms the issues of NTA are, particularly after such a long-lasting promotion.

The question of what NTA is about is not an easy one. To begin with, it is not clear which phenomena shall be placed into this area, and even if there was a full agreement about a working catalogue, there is no uniform and commonly accepted terminology. ‘Non-territorial autonomy’ is a relatively new expression coming up with Coakley’s article, and it can be regarded as the broadest and mostly neutral one. There is a range of adjectives routinely attached to the word ‘autonomy’, such as cultural, personal, functional, national-cultural, segmental and other; most do not necessarily imply ‘non-territoriality’ whatever the latter means. They are often used in similar or overlapping meanings, although the terms are not identical and emphasize different things. Moreover, the word ‘autonomy’ is used interchangeably with ‘self-government’, and the notions ‘non-territorial arrangements’ and ‘personal principle’ (i.e. an organizational technique based on ascribed group membership of individuals regardless of their place of residence) appear in the same contexts.

A way to intuitively grasp the idea’s meaning (assuming for a minute that there is just one underlining idea) is to look at its historical origins. It is already a commonplace to link NTA with the ideas of Austro-Marxists at the turn of the 20th century usually denoted as ‘national cultural autonomy’ [2]. Briefly, it was about organizing ethnicities as corporate entities able to collect revenues and run cultural and educational institutions. Presumably, that would have prevented or mitigated territorial claims and related ethno-nationalist mobilization and conflicts. Afterwards, the idea evolved and acquired a multiplicity of new interpretations, however, resting on decoupling ethnicities from the territorial organization of governance.

Even the latter approach does not make life easier. First, a reference to ‘non-territoriality’ implies that there is a common understanding of what territorial organization of ethnicity (such as territorial autonomy) means while it is not the case. Second, there are numerous forms of collective activities or organization on ethnic or similar grounds, and there must be clear criteria for defining which ones merit the label of NTA.

And here we can start evaluating the outputs of the discussion. Firstly, over the last quarter of a century, it has not provided for more clarity about terminology. One cannot say that there are no definitions – there are plenty, and they are not coherent. Generally, it’s a normal situation; the problem is that so far there are no conventions about the meaning of certain terms, their contexts and scopes of application and virtually no attempts to elaborate such rules of the game. Worse, most definitions are speculative and as a rule loosely related to realities on the ground.

Secondly, it is still unclear what NTA is about, and the notion is not specified even as a typological construct. Roughly, there have been spontaneously emerged three major understandings, and quite often they are not distinguished between. The first (and the most popular one) is about attributing autonomy to an ethnic or linguistic group as such and respectively interpreting a variety of arrangements or collective activities (from segregated public institutions to official multilingualism and even to ethnicity-based non-governmental organizations) as NTA [3]. The second one concerns special organizational forms designed to unite and represent a certain ethnic group [4]. The third one (most often denoted as ‘functional autonomy’ [5]) concerns delegation of public resources and functions to institutions that are beyond regular governmental structure and are serving the needs of certain ethnic or linguistic categories.

The first interpretation is merely tautological – all forms of collective action or institutional settings segregated along ethnic lines can be and are termed and analyzed without resorting to the notion of NTA. Two other approaches look practically relevant. One may ask a question why the first one, actually meaningless, is so widely spread and why all the three are routinely conflated. The answer is that too many scholars are spontaneous essentialists and (often unreflectively) think of ethnic groups as social actors and internally cohesive entities. Within this logic, any collective activity on ethnic grounds can be re-imagined and denoted as the manifestation of autonomy of the group. However, to follow this perception is nothing more than to generate white noise. The introduction of the word ‘community’ (in the meaning of ‘communal autonomy’) is not a solution since it rather belongs to the category of verbal tinsel.

A problem is that two other interpretations (NTA as a corporate entity and NTA as the transfer of public functions to non-state self-governing organizations) still can apply to a too broad range of policy arrangements. Besides, many other policy tools may share elements with either definition of NTA. Here comes the third output of the discussion – the failure to achieve an agreement about the way to delineate the thematic area and to set up criteria from distinguishing the NTA (even without a common understanding of what is NTA proper) and other phenomena of group organization and representation.

There are too many settings that feature the group’s collective action and participation (at least symbolically) in public affairs but not the running of its internal affairs. What about arrangements that are aimed only at the partaking of ethnic spokespersons in public deliberations and decision-making (such as separate minority electoral rolls, reserved seats in legislatures and other power-sharing devices as well as consultative bodies or sub-units in public administration in charge of minority needs) – are they within the scope of NTA? If the words ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-government’ were taken seriously, the answer is ‘no’. However, by using the toolkit of such scholarly discipline as demagogy, one can argue that a group’s ‘voice’ presupposes the group’s self-organization and a decision-making process within. Many people really see nothing wrong in conflating two kinds of phenomena. In particular, the leading role in this spread of confusion belongs to the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities [6] and an NGO established by the Danish and German authorities – the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI) [7].

What about the cases of non-territoriality (i.e. organization across state and administrative boundaries) that do not necessarily include self-governance? For example, kin-minority policies of Bulgaria and Hungary imply transborder (and thus extra-territorial) nation-building, but can it be part of the thematic area?

The fourth problem of the discussion is that is sticks to treating NTA as a set of normative ideas rather than as a tool of empirical research. There are three major rationalizations behind NTA, and they are partly overlapping. The first one is about a way to replace nationalist legitimation of statehood: supposedly corporate organization must be publicly accepted instead of a territorial nation-state, and that would be a remedy to territorial claims, separatism and exclusionary policies [8]. The second one is a derivative of the ideas of consociational democracy: segmental autonomy in combination with power-sharing must prevent or resolve ethnic conflicts [9]. The third concerns the amelioration and optimization of minority protection [10]. The NTA discussion is thus confined to the development of far-reaching propositions for the future and lamentations about irresponsible governments failing to implement a perfect idea.

Let’s have a look at what the material referents of NTA ideas are. From another perspective – do the theoretical normative prescriptions meet public demands, and to what extent are they implemented in practice?

The boundaries of the respective area are not clear. There are many cases under question mark – the above-mentioned forms of collective organization for participation in public affairs or arrangements combining features of territorial and non-territorial organizations (Native American tribes with self-governing bodies and designated reserves or associations of minority municipalities). Needless to say, that such terms as ‘autonomy’ or ‘self-government’ are not necessarily employed for self-description on the ground. In cataloguing the practical cases that deserve a definition of NTA, one can use two approaches. One is listing the cases conventionally acknowledged as NTA; the other one is using a certain working definition and selecting cases that fit in. My suggestion is to define the area of NTA as arrangements in the domains of both symbolic and instrumental policies that envisage self-governing entities which are officially supposed to perform public functions, established on ethnic and similar grounds (in terms of rationales, functions, participants, beneficiaries and so forth) and are different from territorial sub-divisions of public administration.

Surprisingly, the lists of cases regularly referred to in scholarly publications and compiled based on the given working definition are almost fully coinciding. The major reason is that the pools of cases are small. For simplifying further consideration, I will mention only the kinds of arrangements made after the Second World War to date.

First, one shall separate purely symbolic settings that merely declare the existence of autonomous ‘communities’ (in a variety of terms; not necessarily as ‘autonomy’) or the policy of cultural or communal autonomy without specifying its content. In this regard, one can point out some soft law instruments [11] and some pieces of national legislation in Kosovo, Latvia, North Macedonia, Russia, and Ukraine.

The next category comprises arrangements where the law envisages special ethnicity-based entities endowed with public functions, but which are not formed or do not function in accordance with their names. The so-called ‘national-cultural autonomy’ in Russia is nothing more than a degraded version of ‘ordinary’ civil society organizations – with more complex procedures or establishment, fewer rights, and more restrictions. ‘Minority self-governments’ in Estonia are not legal entities and thus, in fact, are not functional. The Belgian constitutional design includes a special tier of government called ‘linguistic communities’. However, they are not personal unions with recorded memberships, but rather virtual entities represented substituted by bodies that are formed by other segments of government for exercising jurisdiction over cultural, educational and social care institutions.

There is a group of settings that demonstrate individual organizational elements and features of self-government, basically publicly elected representative bodies. There are representative councils formed through popular vote of minority members in Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro; the Sami parliaments are formed in the Nordic countries under a similar scheme. These bodies are publicly funded but serve primarily as consultative bodies, mediators and umbrella NGOs and as a rule, refrain from managing cultural and educational institutions for minorities directly. One should mention publicly elected school district boards that are divided along linguistic lines in Canada [12].  An interesting model was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (1990 – 2004), in part formed by the Aboriginal population through indirect vote and bore a part of public responsibility for social and educational policies [13]. Here one can also put on the list the so-called ‘congresses of peoples’ in the Russian Federation – publicly and regularly elected diets of certain ethnicities (mostly eponymous ‘nationalities’ of most republics within Russia). Usually, they are convened and orchestrated by regional authorities and function as the officialdom’s support groups [14].

Probably, the only case of a fully-fledged corporate organization on ethnic grounds is the statehood of Cyprus after gaining independence in 1960. Power-sharing between the Greek and Turkish communities in combination with communal self-government survived for about three years and then collapsed.

There are also fewer cases concerning the public funding of non-state educational or cultural institutions or endowing them with public competitions. The self-governing union of Danish minority schools, which are private but fully publicly funded in the German land of Schleswig-Holstein, and reversely, German minority schools in Denmark are quite often referred to in the NTA context.

This list includes mostly top-down arrangements. What about bottom-up initiatives? Surprisingly, minorities do not go on rallies and strikes claiming NTA. Civil society initiatives are very few and barely visible. One can also mention very specific and stand-alone cases of creating parallel societies as a transitional stage to independence or territorial autonomy. Such structures can function being in opposition to the effective authorities (like the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars), or in the underground (the Kosovar Albanians in 1987-1999), or in emigration (the Tibetan diaspora).

To sum up, practices that can be labeled as NTA in a more or less concise and clear meaning exist, but they are not at the forefront of ethnic politics (if not to say about their marginality). Most cases that deserve the label of NTA are arrangements done or at least promised from above. Some perform merely or primarily a symbolic function; some are imitative or of limited functionality. The public demands of NTA from below is highly questionable. Globally, the goals set up by normative conceptions are not basically achieved. NTA is not a replacement to territory-based nationalist legitimation; on the contrary, in some countries NTA is a way of reaffirming a subordinate status of minorities vis-à-vis ‘nations’ or eponymous ethnicities (as in Russia) [15]. NTA, as a rule, is not part of power-sharing arrangements (Belgium can be regarded as an exception), and power-sharing itself as a tool of conflict mitigation is a controversial issue. NTA as an outsourcing scheme or a public-private partnership, in theory, fits in neoliberal governance and can really increase the efficacy of cultural and educational policies, but such arrangements are surprisingly few and of small scale.

Do all these practices deserve scholarly attention? Individual NTA arrangements are studied recurrently, but should one expect that even a detailed examination of publicly elected consultative bodies, or of ethnicity-based NGOs in the post-communism, or of political debates in the 1930s can bring about any breakthrough? Besides, regretfully, quite often empirical material is used merely for the illustration of normative fantasies.

To wrap up, both from the angles of theoretical developments and empirical analysis, the outcomes of the NTA debates and research are unsatisfactory. The discussion has not gone too far from its starting point. Basically, it is just marking time; the empirical studies concern a short list of the same stories, and the debates of the last 25 years are largely about chanting the same mantras. The key problem is that no one has still answered the question of why the notion of NTA is necessary as an analytical tool. The major reasons are the archaic and unreflective ‘groupist’ thinking and the preoccupation with normative theorizing to the detriment of empirical analysis.

Over the recent couple of years, there has been a further increase in activities pertinent to NTA. It is not about new knowledge, but rather about recycling what has been done before. Magpies love shiny items; national and European foundations likewise love fashionable wordings regardless of what is behind them substantively. References to NTA become a way of milking donors; a project announced as devoted to NTA [16] looks nice while a bid titled as ‘ethnic activism and governmental response in post-communist countries’ (although it concerns to the same) could barely attract attention. From either agenda setting, however, there is no reason to anticipate any big discoveries, and they truly have not taken place.

Since according to the already established tradition, a wide range of collective activities and organizational settings displaying group subjectivity and inter-group boundary can be termed as ‘autonomy’, NTA seems to become a way of rebranding what was previously known as minority issues or ethnic relations. Regretfully, this process takes up grotesque forms and evolves into a clownery [17]. It is not a big surprise that it is led by neophytes or dubious characters like a former director of ECMI Tove Malloy.

Does it all mean that there is no room for scholarly action with regard to NTA? Not at all. Ethnic activism, the institutionalization of diversity and governmental diversity policies always deserve attention; the issue is about finding a proper place for NTA. First, NTA as a category of practice as well as related semantic games can and shall be studied further. A focus is to be placed on NTA (primarily a corporate type organization) as a utopia that sets up a certain vision of ethnic diversity and thus contributes to its symbolic production. Second, we should go beyond the ‘survivor’s paradox’ and ask questions why the ideas of NTA do not function as anticipated by theorists and why the history of NTA is basically a history of failures. Third, the very state of the art within the segment of academia dealing with NTA is an amazing ethnographic phenomenon. We are in the 21st century, but too many scholars dealing with ethnic studies demonstrate unreflective ‘groupist’ mindsets appropriate 100-150 years ago, and this environment is an interesting area for future studies. Besides, as Sergey Sokolovskiy, a Russian anthropologist, once formulated, we are missing a psychoanalytical history of social sciences for a deconstruction of scholars’ desire for power in the meaning of organizing other people’s life [18].


[1] Coakley, J. (1994) ‘Approaches to the Resolution of Ethnic Conflict: The Strategy of Non-territorial Autonomy’, International Political Science Review, 15 (3): 297–314.
[2] Bauer, O. (2000) The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press; Renner, K. (2005) ‘State and Nation’, in: E. Nimni (ed.), National-Cultural Autonomy and its Contemporary Critics. London: Routledge, 13–40.
[3] For an overview see: Osipov, A. (2018) “Can ‘non-territorial autonomy’ serve as an analytical term? Between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ approaches”, International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, 25 (4): 621–646.
[4] For example: Benedikter, T. (2009) ‘What is political autonomy about? Fundamental features of political autonomy’, in: id. (ed.), Solving ethnic conflict through self-government: a short guide to autonomy in Europe and South Asia. Bolzano/Bozen: EURAC, 6.
[5] Frowein, J.A. and R. Bank (2001) ‘The participation of minorities on decision-making processes’, Heidelberg Journal of International Law, 61(1): 24–25; Heintze, H.-J. (1998) ‘On the Legal Understanding of Autonomy’, in: M. Suksi (ed.), Autonomy: Applications and Implications. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 23–24.
[6] See: The Lund Recommendations on the Effective Participation of National Minorities in Public Life; the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, 1 September 1999, Part III, section A, paras 17 and 18.
[7] See Malloy, T. H. (2015) ‘Introduction’, in: T.H. Malloy, A. Osipov, and B. Vizi (eds.), Managing Diversity through Non-Territorial Autonomy: Assessing Advantages, Deficiencies, and Risks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1-15.
[8] Nimni, E. (2013) ‘The conceptual challenge of non-territorial autonomy’, in: E. Nimni, A. Osipov, and D. J. Smith (eds.), The challenge of non-territorial autonomy: Theory and practice. Oxford: Peter Lang, 1–24.
[9] Roshwald, A. (2007) ‘Between Balkanization and Banalization: Dilemmas of Ethno-cultural Diversity’, Ethnopolitics, 6 (3): 365-378; Weller, M. and S. Wolff (2005) ‘Self-determination and autonomy: a conceptual introduction’, in: id. Autonomy, Self-governance and Conflict Resolution. Innovative approaches to institutional design in divided societies. London and New York: Routledge, 1-22.
[10] Brunner, G. and H. Küpper (2002) ‘European Options of Autonomy: A Typology of Autonomy Models of Minority Self-Governance’, K.Gal (ed.) Minority Governance in Europe. Budapest: LGI/ECMI, 13-36; Suksi, M. (2008) ‘Personal Autonomy as Institutional Form – Focus on Europe Against the Background of Article 27 of the ICCPR’, International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, 15 (2-3): 157–178.
[11] First and foremost, the 1999 Lund Recommendations of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and the 2008 Commentary of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on the Effective Participation of Persons Belonging to National Minorities in Cultural, Social and Economic Life and in Public Affairs.
[12] Landry, R., R. Allard and K. Deveau (2007) ‘Bilingual schooling of the Canadian Francophone minority: a cultural autonomy model’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 185: 133–162.
[13] Sanders, W., J. Taylor and K. Ross (2000) Participation and Representation in ATSIC Elections: a Ten-year Perspective, <>.
[14] Osipov, A. (2011) The “Peoples’ Congresses” in Russia: Failure or Success? Authenticity and Efficiency of Minority Representation. ECMI Working Paper No.48, <>.
[15] Osipov, A. (2013) ‘Non-Territorial Autonomy during and after Communism: In the Wrong or Right Place?’, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, 12(1): 7-26.
[16] “National Minority Rights and Democratic Political Community”.
[17] 1st ENTAN conference in Belgrade 22-23 November 2019.
[18] ‘Spor o terminah’ [A dispute over terms] (2002), in: O. Karpenko, A. Osipov and V. Voronkov (eds.), Rasizm v yazyke sotsialnyh nauk [Racism in the Language of Social Sciences] Saint Petersburg: Aleteia, 172. (in Russian).

* Image: Sametinget – Sami Parliament of Sweden in Kiruna, Credit: Dag Lindgren (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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