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The fight for rights in Crimea

| Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Crimea has recently found itself at the epicenter of one of the largest international crises since the Cold War. In fact, the nascent political earthquake in Crimea seems to be a result of residual Cold War tectonics. Many Western powers have felt compelled to intercede in the shaky events occurring in Crimea, at once trying to mitigate Russia’s forceful geo-political actions in Crimea and making sure that the Ukrainian government remains aligned with NATO nations, certainly justifiable actions for any reasonable nations.

However, the Western nations abandon reason and turn to the Cold War principle of containment when it comes to the issue of Crimea. The past half-century has shown the West cannot and should not force regions into a Western political alignment. In the case of Crimea, the Western powers have limited themselves to rhetoric and economic sanctions. Nonetheless, their distaste for Crimean self-determination is disconcerting. The right to self-determine has been one of the fundamental aspects of international law since 1945, and the people of Crimea have determined they would like to be a part of Russia.

The Crimean situation is absurdly complex, but a timeline of events in Crimea following the Ukrainian Revolution is a good starting point for understanding the political forces at play. Russian troops began filtering into Crimea around Feb. 23, and during the next week pro-Russian military forces began establishing control of key buildings in Crimean cities. On Feb. 27, the Crimean parliament was stormed by 60 Russian gunmen. Later that day, while still under military occupation, the parliament announced they had replaced the Crimean Prime Minister with pro-Russian Sergey Aksyonov; the parliament also announced it would be holding a referendum on the future of Crimea. Ukraine and other Western nations, spoke out against this move, denouncing it as unconstitutional and as a breach of international law.

The vote, nonetheless, took place, and 97 percent of the voters voted to join the Russian Federation. Eighty-three percent Crimeans voted in the referendum monitored by 135 international observers from 23 countries, most of whom acknowledged the legitimacy and democratic nature of the vote. This referendum result was not, as some have claimed, a recent product of the deluge of propaganda from Russian TV stations in the time before the election; even in 2008 a poll conducted by the Razumkov Centre determined 63.8 percent of Crimeans would like for Crimea to “Secede from Ukraine and join Russia.”

Clearly, these polls vastly complicate the situation. While the United States and the European Union trade economic and political blows with Russia on an international stage, the people of Crimea are having their true will ignored. The situation surrounding the recent vote is questionable, especially the Russian military incursion, but the Western powers’ main concerns prove invalid when viewed from the lens of history.

The US and the EU claim the Crimean vote is against the constitution of Ukraine. From a general point of view, this is a groundless claim. The fundamental component of international law is the right of self-determination, an aspect the West supported over national constitutionalism when it came to Kosovo, Croatia and Slovenia.

Crimea was under the direct control of Moscow from 1783 to 1991, first as a region of Russia, then as a province of the Ukrainian Soviet in the USSR.

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Crimea remained a relatively autonomous part of Ukraine, establishing a constitution and the post of president. However, after the Crimean president held a referendum where a majority of Crimeans voted for loosened ties with Ukraine and stronger ties with Russia, the Ukrainian parliament declared the Crimean constitution and the post of the president of Crimea invalid. Crimea was forced to write a new constitution, which was ratified by the Ukrainian parliament in 1998. Gary Brecher, a military columnist, summarized the situation: “So when the interim Ukrainian government today talks about the Crimean parliament’s lack of legislative power — when it comes to appointing a Prime Minister, and when it comes to calling a referendum — there is an argument that this power was taken from Crimeans by Kiev in an underhand, undemocratic, if not entirely illegitimate manner back in 1995.”

Given the containment mentality of the Western nations, even the Russian military incursion into Crimea begins to appear more justifiable. It is not clear that Ukraine, backed by the US and the EU, would have ever allowed a Crimean referendum to occur, if that referendum meant the Crimea would secede and join Russia. Thus, the recent turmoil in Kiev gave Russia the perfect opportunity to secure the rights of a group of people who had long been ignored, by securing that land militarily. It does not matter if Putin viewed this move as a land-grab or nationalistic unification, the fact of the matter is this is 2014, not 1962, and the Crimean people deserve the right to decide their future without further international, geo-political turmoil, caused by Russia or the West.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Guy

    Did you just quote the “97 percent” yes vote? The Tatars and many other anti-secession groups boycotted the election, and still 97 percent is such an obvious fabrication.

    • Matthew Greene

      Hi! Thanks for responding. You are right that many groups boycotted the secession and that preserving their rights should be a crucial priority for the Russian government. However, the fact remains that 87% of Crimeans voted in the poll (the 13% who did not vote more than accounts for boycotting) and the poll was verified by international observers. Can you explain to me why 97% is an obvious fabrication? To me it makes sense for two reasons: those who would vote against secession boycotted and based on historical voting trends, the vast majority of Crimeans support secession.