OK, let’s talk about self-determination

Independence movements seem to be all the rage this year. We’ve talked a couple of times about Scotland, which votes in September on whether to leave the United Kingdom. Catalonia also wants to hold an independence referendum, scheduled for November, although the Spanish government has other ideas. And now the premier of Quebec, seeking re-election next month, has been defending her party’s policy of independence in what the Globe and Mail calls “the first election campaign in a generation to hinge so clearly on sovereignty.”

But none of these are as urgent as Crimea, where the regional government seems determined to press ahead with a referendum on Sunday, in which it will ask people to vote to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia. The Ukrainian parliament insists that such a move would be illegal, and has promised to dissolve the regional assembly if it goes ahead.

In reality, however, Ukraine’s writ no longer runs in Crimea. The region is under comprehensive Russian control, and there seems little doubt that if Russia wishes to hold onto it, it will be able to do so.

It may, however, pay a considerable price, not least in the alienation of public opinion in the rest of Ukraine – even the traditionally pro-Russian east. And since Crimea on its own, while significant to Russia, is ultimately just one region, it would make sense for Vladimir Putin to be willing to back off there in return for a more tractable Ukraine in general. His problem is there seems no obvious route for getting to that point.

David Clark put things well last Friday in the Guardian:

The operational plans for a military takeover were almost certainly drawn up several years ago, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the decision to implement them now was taken with clearly worked out strategic goals in mind. …

Russia can, of course, easily retain control over Crimea for an indefinite period, relying on local support and its own military forces. … But controlling another relatively small fragment of land will be of little value to Putin on its own. His real ambition is to promote the wider reintegration of Eurasia under Russian leadership, and for that he needs to restore influence over Ukraine as a whole. … There are some lines even Russia is reluctant to cross, and overt territorial expansion has so far been one of them. The cost of absorbing Crimea would be to lose the rest of Ukraine in exchange for international pariah status.

But let’s put the geopolitical aspect aside for a moment, and focus on the Crimeans themselves. Are they entitled to join Russia? Should Ukraine be willing to let them go?

Crimean authorities have explicitly evoked the precedent of Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 – a move strongly opposed by Russia and by some other countries with secessionist issues, such as Spain. But that was at the end of a long and ultimately fruitless process of trying to reach agreement with the Serbs in UN-mediated negotiations.

Moreover, the ethnic composition of Kosovo left absolutely no doubt about the desire of the majority to break with Serbia. And while amicable agreement would obviously have been preferable, to say that Serbia was entitled to an indefinite veto on independence would be to make nonsense of the principle of self-determination. (Which is not to say Kosovo’s borders are drawn in the right place, as I’ve mentioned before.)

Although the process there was much less rigorous, I’ve defended on the same principle the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway provinces from Georgia that rely on Russian protection. Much of the last fortnight’s discussion centres on the idea that Crimea could be a bigger version of the same thing.

But the Crimeans are not a “nationality” in the way the Abkhazians or Ossetians are, and the ethnic makeup of the region is complex. While the majority of the population identify as ethnically Russian, that’s not the same thing as regarding Russia as their home country. A 2011 poll found that (a suspiciously high) 71% identified Ukraine as their motherland, even though ethnic Russians amounted to 58.5% in the 2001 census.

In any case, “Russian” and “Ukrainian” are so closely related as both ethnic and linguistic categories that one would expect many people to shift back and forth between them, driven by politics or other social factors as much as by anything that would normally be called “ethnicity”. Add the Crimean Tatars to the mix – a clearly distinct and largely anti-Russian group, although amounting to only 12% of the population – and it can be seen that Crimean opinion on the issue of secession cannot be taken for granted.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Sunday’s referendum, if it goes ahead, is most unlikely to be a fair measure of that opinion. A vote conducted under the eye of a military occupation by partisans of one side is not something that can be taken at face value. The regional government has invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to send an observer mission for the vote, but it’s hard to see how the basic conditions for fairness can be met in current circumstances.

I don’t know how the Crimeans would choose in a fair vote on secession, and I don’t think we’ll find out on Sunday. But there’s nothing wrong in principle with the idea of such a vote. And if the majority in Crimea really does want to join Russia, and Russia is willing to have them, then I don’t see that the rest of Ukraine has any right to stop them.

That’s why some of those who are trying to find a diplomatic solution have hinted that a transfer of sovereignty in Crimea is not out of the question. British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, for example, said last week that Crimea “clearly has a different history to other parts of Ukraine and has a very pronounced Russian imprint,” and that “No one is somehow suggesting that Crimea should be treated exactly the same as other parts of Ukraine.”

There’s no deal on the table yet, but the possibility of one is there – if only Putin is listening.

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