Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: The Illusion of Self-Determination in Crimea

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By now, you have undoubtedly heard about the occupation and possible secession of Crimea from the Ukraine. As an unabashed advocate for democratization and socioeconomic modernization, my readers probably expect me to favor the Western narrative on Crimea (the Russian invasion violated Ukrainian sovereignty, any secession not approved by the Ukrainian central government in Kiev would violate international law and will not be recognized).

However, there is a factor which underpins the democratic principles of human dignity and political rights which cannot be dismissed–self-determination:

“No state has been consistent in its application of this,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. During a trip he took to Moscow last week, Mr. Charap said, Kosovo was the precedent cited repeatedly by Russians defending the Crimea intervention. “It’s like, ‘You guys do the same thing. You’re no better. You’re no different.’ ”

“You can’t ignore the context that this is taking place days after the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. It’s not a permissive environment for people to make up their own minds.” [said Benjamin J. Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser]

“Self-determination has been a controversial doctrine since [Woodrow] Wilson, and hell to apply,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former ambassador at large to the Soviet states and the author of a new book, “Maximalist,” on American foreign policy. “One consistent point: It can’t be used as a cudgel by big states to break up their neighbors. Russia’s own record here does not entitle it to the benefit of the doubt.”

Russia’s two ferocious wars in Chechnya since the 1990s were fought to prevent the very strain of separatism it now encourages in Crimea. In backing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in his civil war against rebels, Russia argues that state sovereignty should not be violated, an argument it has turned on its head in Ukraine.

As national security adviser Rhodes pointed out, the environment needed for a fair referendum does not exist in Crimea. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), after being initially turned away, has now rejected an invitation from Crimean authorities to oversee the election:

“For any referendum regarding the degree of autonomy or sovereignty of the Crimea to be legitimate, it would need to be based on the Ukrainian constitution and would have to be in line with international law,” OSCE said.

Both the context of the vote and the wording on the ballot are troubling:

The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status quo of autonomy within Ukraine.

Voters among the two million population must choose either direct union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to Kiev and join Russia anyway.

There seems little chance that Crimea’s new leaders, who emerged after Yanukovich’s overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little effect as there is no minimum turnout.

In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city’s electoral commission, made no pretence at concealing his own preference:

“We’re living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and I’m not embarrassed to say that,” he told reporters.

There is little sign of campaigning by those opposed to the government line. Billboards in Sevastopol urge people to vote and offer a choice of two images of Crimea – one in the colors of the Russian flag, the other emblazoned with a swastika.

No offense to Chairman Medvedev, but his preferences should be irrelevant in this matter (past the power his one vote grants him).

In the context of Russian occupation and propaganda against the Ukrainian government, the absence of outside observers, and a ballot rigged in Moscow’s favor, the referendum as it currently stands does not represent Crimean self-determination.  Any referendum / vote / election with a predetermined outcome is a farce.

Below are concessions from both sides that could lead to de-escalation and a referendum that truly represents Crimean self-determination:

  • In return, the government in Kiev validates the Crimean referendum for secession, which would enable;
  • The OSCE to observe the Crimean referendum (which would have to be delayed from this Sunday in order to make ballot changes, allow for public debates on the issues, etc.; this is a long term and for all intents-and-purposes irreversible decision, and therefore not one which should be rushed); the options on the ballot must be changed to include an alternative to remain part of the Ukrainian Republic.  

If we are to uphold the fundamental democratic pillar of self-determination, “the West” has to be prepared to accept the possibility that it is truly the will of the Crimean people to join Russia. Just as a predetermined referendum to join Russia is a farce, so too would be a referendum which decided for the Crimean people that they must stay part of the Ukraine.

The Ukraine just experienced a revolution; when, if not after a revolution, is a legitimate time for an autonomous region to hold a referendum on its future sovereign? Those who favor remaining part of the Ukraine would be wise to point out the irony of a referendum to join Russia; should such a vote passed, it would likely be the last truly meaningful vote any Crimean citizen would ever take part in.


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