By Charitha Ratwatte –
A sequel to Finlandisation and Bhutanisation?
On Monday 17 March 2014, Vladimir Putin, ex of the KGB, Communist Russia’s autocrat, recognised Crimea as an independent state. A referendum had been held in Crimea, condemned as contrary to international law by the world community, at which an overwhelming majority of Crimean’s had allegedly voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
In the UN Security Council, Russia vetoed a resolution condemning Russia’s actions. Interestingly China abstained at this vote, breaking ranks with its erstwhile Russian ally. Both the European Union and the United States of America have urged Russia not to absorb Crimea into Russia, a step that undermines the principles of respect for national boundaries and sovereignty that has been the cornerstone of Europe’s and the rest of the world’s post-World War II security structure. Both the European Union and the USA have imposed sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian officials.
Ukraine was at one time an entity on its own. It was absorbed into the USSR after World War II by Stalin, and after the USSR broke up, Ukraine, together with a number of other satellite states of the USSR, broke free from the Soviets. In terms of the Budapest memorandum of 1994, Russia, the USA and Britain guaranteed Ukraine’s integrity in exchange for the Ukraine giving up the nuclear weapons, which the USSR had based on Ukrainian soil.
Crimea was a part of Russia, until 1954, when the then Soviet Communist autocrat, Nikita Khrushchev, ‘gifted’ Crimea to Ukraine. Khrushchev enjoyed his Vodka, and Russians allege that he was under the influence, at the time of bestowing the gift! Crimea is of great strategic importance to Russia. The Black Sea Fleet is based at Sebastopol in Crimea, and there is a naval air base at Kacha and air base at Belbek, also in the peninsular.
Democratic tendencies in their former Soviet satellite states are a matter of major concern to Russia. Russia, analysts say, is ruled by a clique of ex-KGB men, who dream of restoring the old USSR’s power and influence in world affairs.
The pro-Russian ruler of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by a popular uprising, starting on the Maidan or independence square in Ukraine’s capital Kiev. Yanukovych tried to suppress the disturbances with force, but failed. According to Russian propagandists, Ukrainian fascists, neo Nazis and nationalists sponsored by the CIA seized power in Kiev, overthrowing Yanukovych.
Russian speakers were allegedly humiliated, an inadvisable attempt was made to demean the status of the Russian language within Ukraine (later dropped) and these elements were poised to attack the Russian naval base in Sebastopol. The ethnic Russians in Ukraine, including eastern Ukraine, adjacent to Russia and Crimea, appealed to Vladimir Putin of Russia for protection, and Russia was obliged to do something.
Armed men in Russian type of camouflage uniforms and Russian weapons and Russian military vehicles, with no markings or insignia, formation, regimental, unit or whatever, moved into Crimea, faces covered with ski masks, days after the Sochi Winter Olympics were over. Apparently jeopardising the subsequent Para-Olympics did not matter to Russia. These armed men seized airports, government buildings and broadcasting institutions, blockaded Ukrainian military bases. Thousand of Russian troops massed for exercises just east of Ukraine.
Everyone who is pro-Russian in Crimea and eastern Ukraine talks about Ukraine’s fascists who are up to all this anti Russian mischief. But no one has actually seen them! Even an aide to a local pro-Russian self-defence force chief, in Sebastopol, Crimea says: “We have not seen them here, yet, but we have seen them on television.”
Russian television has unleashed a propaganda campaign both intensive and cynical, giving prominence to historical ethnic hatreds, resurrecting ancient historical divides between Russian, Ukrainians and the Tartars, an indigenous Turkic people of Crimea.
Stalin, when ruling the USSR, committed virtual genocide against the Tartars, by exiling the whole community from Crimea to Siberia, by force. Thousands died in the process of being forcibly moved. The Tartars have started to return to Crimea, only after the USSR disintegrated.
The Upper House of Russia’s Parliament granted authority to the Russian Government to use military force in Ukraine to protect Russian interests. Ukrainian troops in Crimea were put under enormous pressure to defect to the Russian side. Their officers were blackmailed with threats of retribution to their families if they did not surrender. Thugs surrounded a Ukrainian naval base cutting off its power and water. But the Ukrainian forces stood firm. Later the bases were invaded. Russia flag raised the Ukrainian flag brought down. A Ukrainian Admiral was placed under arrest.
With Crimea voting to join Russia, the focus now shifts to eastern Ukraine, where there is a large group of Russian speakers. Thousands of demonstrators demonstrate for the right to hold a referendum, as held in Crimea. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel said that in a telephone call with Vladimir Putin, Putin claimed that the Crimean referendum complied with the law and Russia would ‘respect the choice of the Crimean people’. Merkel observed that Putin seems in another world!
Historically, the issue arose recently with Ukraine wanting to join the European Union and maybe later NATO. Russia enticed Yanukovych away from this step with economic concessions. But the Ukrainian people in Kiev and other cities revolted and ousted Yanukovych, in a series of demonstrations centred on Kiev’ Maidan or Independence Square.
After Yanukovych disappeared from Kiev and remerged in Russia, Crimea’s Parliament installed an allegedly ex-gangster, nicknamed the Goblin as Prime Minister of Crimea, who called a referendum on joining the Russian Federation.
In Russian mythology Crimea has a historical and emotional place as is it where the Tsar Vladimir the First adopted Christianity as the State religion of the ancient kingdom of Rus. The principle that Putin and the powers in the Kremlin have invoked to interfere in Crimea and Ukraine that they have a duty to protect Russians and Russian speakers wherever they may be is scary. It is the same logic that Adolf Hitler used when he seized parts of Europe in the 1930s, the annexation of Austria and Sudetenland by the German Nazis.
What is happening in Ukraine and Crimea is being watched with concern by all small states, with a big neighbour next door – especially where there are ethnic or linguistic ties to a minority in the small state and the majority in the larger neighbouring state.
Finland suffered and still suffers this influence from the USSR and now Russia. A new word was coined in the lexicon of international relations – Finlandisation – to describe this phenomenon. The powerful neighbour extends economic, social, linguistic and even influence over sports and culture over the smaller neighbour. Finnish politicians had to toe a very careful line in order not to fall foul of the USSR’s rulers.
While overtly docile, covertly the Finns resented this influence. When the USSR collapsed, the Finns were relieved. They thought that would be treated better by a ‘democratic’ Russian entity. But current events have seen Russia’s autocratic rulers giving the Finns a hard time.
When the USSR collapsed, the Finnish economy went into a tailspin, a massive economic recession. This memory has resulted in the Finnish economy welcoming foreign investment, even from Russia. Today with the Finnish forest products industry in the doldrums and even Finland’s leading brand Nokia, sold to a US company, the Finns are putting a positive spin on the Russian bear-hug of their economy.
The Finnish PM has gone on record saying that “I would not say that they are tightening their grip. We are very satisfied if there is more Russian investment into Finland. We need foreign investment into Finland.” Even one of the leading Finnish ice hockey clubs has been bought by a Russian business group. Russian tourists are swamping Finland. More and more Finns now learn and speak Russian, it is predicted that it will displace Swedish as the most spoken foreign language within a few years. The Russi-fication of Finland rolls inexorably on.
A similar situation has overcome a South Asian country, Bhutan. The symptom has been described as Bhutaisation. This Himalayan Kigdom is wrapped in a blanket hug by its big neighbour India.
Bhutan is a virtual hydropower factory for India. India managed Bhutan external relations until recently, and still has an overwhelming influence. There is an Indian Army Brigade garrisoned in Thimpu, the capital city of Bhutan. All imports to Bhutan come through India. India provides a fuel oil subsidy to Bhutan.
When a former Government of Bhutan was trying to get friendlier with Bhutan’s other big neighbour – the People’s Republic of China – in the recent past, just before a general election, the fuel oil subsidy was inexplicably removed, the price of fuel oil sky rocketed, and the sitting government was defeated. New Delhi has not given a rational explanation for the turn of events. The subsidy has been restored with some vague mumblings about some confusion among ministries in Delhi!
India treats all its smaller neighbours with equal disdain, Nepal is another example. There are many other examples. Indian expansionism is a recurring theme in the South Asian region.
Any such small country sited next to a big powerful neighbour will be worried about Russia’s expansionism into Crimea and the threat to Eastern Ukraine. If Russia holds itself out as the protector of the rights of Russian speakers within other sovereign nations, where will it end? Will there be similar ‘imperialistic’ defenders of French speakers, English speakers, Tamil speakers, Hebrew speakers, Mandarin speakers, or Arabic and Persian speakers or people with ethnic connections? This is the first annexation of another European country’s territory since World War II.
Russia has signed a treaty with the newly-installed pro-Russian Prime Minster of Crimea, on joining the Russian Federation. In an hour-long speech before both Houses of the Russian Parliament, President Putin of Russia has said: “Crimea is a symbol of Russian war glory, of Russian traditions, language, beliefs.”
Vice President Joe Biden of the USA called it “a blatant land grab” violating international law.
Putin’s strategy seems to be to stop Ukraine joining the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, like some other former USSR satellite states. According to Putin, the referendum on independence for Crimea was conducted in strict accordance with democratic principles and international law.
On the contrary international law does not recognise a right by any community to secede per se; however it steers clear of prohibiting unilateral declarations of independence. Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution that would have declared the Crimean referendum invalid. It is important to note the China, pointedly abstained, in this vote. China has its own concerns over minority unrest among the Tibetans and Uighurs and other minorities who oppose Han domination.
The Russians try to justify the Crimean scenario by claiming that a similar event happened in Kosovo, which broke off from the rest of Serbia in 2008. But the facts differ; analysts point out in 1999 Kosovo was ethnically cleansed by the Serbians led by Milosevic, Serbia’s President, who was later hauled before the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The argument supporting Kosovo’s separation was that due to the mistreatment of the Kosovo population, Serbia had forfeited its legitimacy to rule over Kosovo. As a result in 1990 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244 which placed Kosovo under international supervision. This is totally different from sending men in unmarked uniforms carrying traceable weapons to invade a neighbouring country!
To claim that Russian speakers living in Crimea have a right to secede on the grounds of discrimination by Ukraine is in the teeth of all evidence. The referendum in Crimea was held which armed men in unmarked uniforms wearing ski masks controlled the ground! On the other hand Kosovo’s declaration of independence came after nine years of diplomatic negotiation, in which every effort was made to secure an international agreement on the process.
On any objective analysis, Russia is on an expansionist extravaganza – a strategy to claw back the influence the former USSR had over its satellite states. The Russians have watched with dismay countries like Poland, Hungary and Rumania coming under the influence of the old enemies of NATO and the EU.
When addressing the Russian Parliament Putin said Russia “had been cornered for centuries. It was only when Crimea ended up as a part of a different country that Russia realised that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.” He said the breakup of the USSR had left Russia one of the biggest, if not the biggest nation, to be divided by borders. Putin spelt out in concrete terms that that at heart of Russia’s move was keeping NATO at bay.
While China saw the dangers of this Russian strategy in crossing established international borders claiming to protect minorities with ethnic or linguistic ties with a neighbouring nation, India has not taken a strong stand. The Indian stand seems pro-Russian, an old ally.
India purports to practice non-alignment in its foreign policy; it procures around 75% of its arms from Russia. But India has its own domestic concerns on referendums to divide countries. On Kashmir, a majority Muslim state, India made some vague, since not honoured, promises on holding a referendum many moons ago, when the Hindu ruler of the Muslim majority princely state on the border of India and Pakistan was wavering whether to join India or Pakistan.
India has said that it will refrain from backing sanctions against Russia over Crimea. India’s National Security Advisor, one time High Commissioner in Colombo and Secretary to the Ministry Foreign Affairs, has gone on record acknowledging that Russia has ‘legitimate interests’ in Crimea.
India’s track record in this area is also patchy. The Nizam of Hyderabad, a Muslim ruler of a majority Hindu princely state in the heart of India was ousted, by force, when he was wavering on choosing between India and Pakistan and indicating a preference to be independent – contrary to the principle that the rulers of princely states should decide on joining the Indian Union or not, when the British finally quit India.
Later Goa was invaded by India. Sikkim was annexed. Readers well know the Bangladesh story. The IPKF got a bloodied nose in Sri Lanka, even after the ‘parippu’ air drops and even more RAW and Directorate of Intelligence machinations. Today the Nepalis and Maldivians claim there is a hidden hand in their travails.
Pakistan’s ISI and India’s RAW are contesting each other in Afghanistan. Bhutanisation is an established concept in international relations. India is just going in for a general election. Analysts point out that Indian expansionism is a historical phenomenon. The candidate for prime minister put up by the BJP, the party which leads the opinion polls, Narendra Modi, popularly referred to as ‘Na-Mo’ former right wing Hindutva RSS cadre, has gone on record lamenting the lack of ‘respect’ India’s small neighbours show to the great ‘Bharat’.
A possible coalition king maker, who also thinks herself as a potential prime minister in Delhi, Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister of the Tamil Nadu state, separated from Sri Lanka by that narrow strip of water, the Palk Strait, has lamented at the treatment of Sri Lanka’s Tamilians by the Colombo regime. She has also gone on record saying that a referendum should be held on the future of Sri Lanka’s north east – in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, to determine their future. Jayalalitha must be watching the Russian, Indian, Sri Lanka and other international reactions to the Crimean referendum with great interest.
Crimea and Sebastopol
Crimea and Sebastopol are being absorbed into the Russian Federation in double-quick time, as the 84th and 85th Federal subjects. They have adopted Moscow standard time. The Russian Rouble will be the main currency from April. Crimean mobile and fixed line telephone users will get the Russian country code prefix, replacing the Ukrainian one. Some Crimean residents have already been issued with Russian passports. The Russian legal code has been decreed as law of the land. Crimean drivers have to switch their Ukrainian licenses for Russian ones. They will face higher fines for illegal parking, speeding and drunk driving- but with a higher legal limit of alcohol in their blood, for driving under the influence! Consumer prices are expected to go up 30% with the introduction of the Rouble.
This reminds me of an incident when the IPKF was in Jaffna. There was a large crowd at a bus stand, near to a Madras Light Infantry regiment check point. A crowded bus pulled up. There was simply no room for anyone to board inside the bus. The IPKF Jawans tried to force the people at the stand to climb on to the roof of the bus, Tamil Nadu style. This was resented and a heated argument broke out. Weapons were primed, bayonets were fixed. A colleague, travelling with me, who spoke Tamil, had to go and explain to the Lance Naik in charge that in Lanka people do not travel on the roof of the bus to diffuse the situation!
This is a scary part of the Crimean precedent. That might is right. That a sham referendum can be held under the influence of Kalashnikovs (AK 47) with fixed bayonets, a treaty signed with an unelected leader and a part of a small independent nation annexed by a powerful neighbour by force in double-quick time, on the pretext of protecting minorities from alleged depredations of the majority, in the neighbouring country. This does not bode well for international relations in the future. It is a dangerous sequel to Finlandisation and Bhutanisation.