Crimea: disputed narratives

I have a new Ukraine/Crimea piece up at Lobe Log, probably my last Ukraine piece there unless something really dramatic happens (I tend to agree with the thinking behind Pavel Felgenhauer’s piece in Foreign Policy that argues that if Putin plans on moving against the rest of Ukraine, he needs to do it soon or forget the whole thing). This one looks at last week’s events and also attempts, without trying to take one side or the other, what I think are the two biggest points at which the Russian/Crimean and the American/European/Ukrainian stories diverge in terms of what’s been happening, which are the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum:

Although the Ukrainian government appears to have no intention of contesting Russia’s annexation of Crimea on the ground, it, along with the US and EU, has insisted that last week’s referendum is illegal under both international and Ukrainian law. Russia has argued that the referendum was consistent with international law, specifically Article 1 of the UN Charter (which mentions “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” as one of the UN’s guiding principles), and Putin has specifically cited Kosovo’s secession from Serbia (which Russia opposed) as having set the precedent for this similar act by Crimea.

and, going further back, the legitimacy of the interim Ukrainian government:

But there is no disputing the fact that Viktor Yanukovych was the legally elected president of Ukraine before his ouster, and Russia’s official position has been that it still recognizes him as Ukraine’s rightful president, though it has not pushed for his restoration. Russia has characterized the Euromaidan protest movement that removed Yanukovych from office as an “armed fascist coup,” engineered with considerable American support. Far-right Ukrainian parties did play a large part in the protest movement, as evidenced by the sizable role that they have been given in the interim Ukrainian government. Moreover, a recording of a January phone call between Assistant US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt shows that American officials were at least discussing ways to assist the protest movement and what a post-Yanukovych government might look like.

There were a couple of things I didn’t talk about in the piece, partly for space reasons but also because they’re either less important (in my opinion) or more convoluted. On the question of the referendum’s legitimacy I stuck only to the question of its legality, which as I wrote is debatable under international law but clearly unconstitutional under Ukrainian law, assuming you acknowledge that there’s a legitimate government in Kyiv upholding it. Obviously there’s another measurement of a vote’s legitimacy, which is whether or not the outcome was rigged, and on that score the referendum fails to pass the smell test. There was the presence of armed Russian soldiers civilian self-defense forces who were in no way Russian soldiers in the streets, for one thing. For another, the, shall we say, design of the ballot (“Should Crimea be independent from Ukraine? Choose ‘yes’ or ‘yes.'”) left a lot to be desired.

But there were other reasons to doubt the results once they came in. As a rule, I’d say that no vote involving over a million people, in which one side is supposed to have gotten 97% of that vote, should ever be assumed valid without serious investigation. You couldn’t get 97% of a group that size to agree that puppies are nice, so if 97% of them agreed to Russian annexation I’d say that calls for some additional study. For another, turnout is said to have been around 83%. Now, I can buy turnout that high given the obvious pressure situation under which the vote took place, but there are a couple of problems here:

  • One, to get turnout that high, even if we assume that every Crimean Tatar (very opposed to annexation) sat the referendum out, which isn’t the case, there must have been a considerable number of Ukrainians voting. The only census taken in Ukraine, in 2001, found that Russians made up less than 60% of the Crimean population, and that number is as likely to have gone down since then as it is to have gone up. That 97% number is even less believable if there were anyone other than Russians voting.
  • Two, it’s hard to take an 83% turnout seriously when you have little statistical anomalies like, oh, 123% of the population of Sevastopol voting. There were international observers from something called the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections, which may be slightly compromised by the fact that its leaders are all Belgian neo-Nazis, but at any rate there were also anecdotal reports of Russians being allowed to vote even if they did not have a Ukrainian passport, which should have been illegal.

The other thing I didn’t cover in as much detail as it probably deserves is the crazy, ad hoc way that we (meaning the United States, but it applies equally well to the international community as a whole) go about deciding who gets to declare independence and who doesn’t. There’s no internationally recognized law or charter that covers this question; the UN charter, in article 1, talks about “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples,” but it’s not at all clear what that means, and at any rate, without a vote by the Security Council, the UN Charter and $5 will maybe get you a Starbucks latte, though I don’t drink coffee so what the hell do I know? And since Russia and the US conveniently have vetoes on the Security Council, and they’re on opposite sides on this particular issue, good luck with all that.

Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, in WWI, and the Atlantic Charter, in WWII, both talked in vague terms about things like self-government and the right of peoples to decide issues of sovereignty, but international law doesn’t even define what a “people” is, and it places considerable emphasis on the importance of territorial integrity, which can often conflict with self-determination, as the people of Yugoslavia might tell you if there were such a place anymore. So that leaves the dreaded “case by case basis,” or in other words, “we’ll support whatever the hell we want and come up with a justification later.” We supported Kosovo’s independence because of Serbian war crimes but also because we just kind of hated Slobodan Milosevic’s guts. We supported South Sudan’s independence, again because of war crimes but also because we’re not particularly friendly with the Sudanese government. We oppose independence for the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetians, despite their legitimate grievances against the Georgian government, because Russia. We have very little to say about the Basques, or the Kurds, or the Québécois, because those peoples all want independence from allies. In the 19th century we had a teeny problem when part of this country decided it wanted to secede; we were definitely on the “opposed” side there. And in the 20th and 21st centuries there’s been one ongoing annexation movement that draws the occasional mild rebuke from us at best even though it’s pretty indefensible.

Also, too, on the issue of great powers mucking around in the internal politics of smaller nations, let’s just say that America has plenty of its own ‘splainin’ to do, OK? But in our defense, our very minimal defense, we didn’t try to annex Iraq, or any part of it. Hell, 11 years later we can’t even get the Iraqi government we helped birth to stop collaborating with Iran and Syria against our own stated interests. Which is as it should be, if self-government means what it’s supposed to mean.

And hey, America isn’t the only country that does this! If Russia is suddenly such a protector of the principle of self-determination for peoples around the world, then I’m sure the folks in her Caucasian provinces like Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia will be getting their referendum for independence from Russia any day now. Right? The point is, if there’s no particular basis in international law or precedent in favor of Crimea’s independence, there’s no particular basis against it, either. Where the referendum was clearly illegal was under the Ukrainian constitution, but since as far as Russia and Crimea are concerned the current government in Kyiv has no legitimacy in its own right, it’s hard to see why they would have any concerns about violating Ukrainian law.

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