Crimea Leads The Way For Other Ethnic Minorities To Invoke The Principle Of Self-Determination
These days newspaper pages are filled with news stories related to two different subjects at two different parts of the world. One is the annexation of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation by President Vladimir Putin last Friday (March 21, 2014). Russian President signed into law bringing the Crimea region into Russia, a move that has met with strong condemnation by the West and by threats of further sanctions against Russia. The United States and European Union have already targeted dozens of Russian and Ukrainian officials linked to Crimea’s unrest with far reaching assets freezes and travel bans.
The other news is about the disappearance of Malaysian Boeing 777 Airlines Flight 370 that evaporated into thin air on March 10, 2014. Twelve days later the missing plane has not been located despite air and sea search by ships and planes belonging to 26 countries covering thousands of sq. miles of land and sea. Former pilots and aviation experts are having a field day expounding a multitude of theories about the plane’s fate.
The full-blown 4 year old civil war in Syria that began in 2010 has killed over 100,000 people, half of whom are believed to be civilians. Bombings are destroying crowded cities and horrific human rights violations are widespread. Basic necessities like food and medical care are sparse.
The U.N. estimates that over 6.5 million people are internally displaced out of a total population of 23 million people and over 2.5 million Syrians have registered with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees, but hundreds of thousands more await registration. Most children have been out of school for months, if not years. More than 97% of Syria’s refugees are hosted by countries in the immediate surrounding region. The number of Syrians registered as refugees or pending registration was 110,000 in Egypt, 168,000 in Iraq, 515,000 in Jordan, 716,000 in Lebanon and 460,000 in Turkey. According to the UN, more than half of all Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. At this rate, the UN predicts there could be four million Syrian refugees by the end of this year — the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. Syria once a stable country is now a burning inferno. Yet political turmoil in Crimea and disappearance of the Malaysian 777 Boeing flight 370 has overshadowed the civil war in Syria.
On March 16 a referendum was held asking people to say yes or no to two questions on the Crimean referendum ballots.
Question 1 – Are you in favour of Crimea becoming a constituent territory of the Russian Federation?
Question 2 – Are you in favour of restoring Crimea’s 1992 constitution?
According to the 1992 constitution, the autonomous Crimean Republic was part of Ukraine and relations with Kiev defined on the basis of mutual agreements.
A few months ago no one would have dreamt Crimea will secede from Ukraine. President Yanukovych faced violent street protests and the opposition called for his resignation since refusing a partnership agreement with the European Union in November 2013. The president rejected the EU deal — which he had earlier agreed to in principle — because he said it would threaten the country’s close trade ties with Russia. Street protests turned violent and the agitation, backed by US and her allies continued for about three months.
As the movement grew and eventually became violent, President Yanukovych introduced controversial anti-protest laws (later annulled) and then took a short sick leave. Under intense international pressure to end the violence, Yanukovych and opposition leaders signed a deal on February 21 to allow early elections, a new constitution and new unity government. However, parliament quickly voted to depose Yanukovych, who fled Kyiv. The interim government issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovych accusing him of “mass killings” of protesters. Yanukovych resurfaced in Russia and said he planned to continue to fight for Ukraine. He claimed he is still the legitimate President of Ukraine and vowed to return. He dubbed his opponents ‘neo-fascists’ in ‘neo-fascists’ in a defiant speech from Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
The opposition parties that took control of the government made an extremely foolish and provocative move to abolish the use of Russian language in the semi-autonomous region of Crimea. This infuriated the people of Crimea and gave an excuse for Russia to intervene to save the besieged Russians in Crimea who constituted 58% of the population. Crimea is the cradle of the Russian Orthodox religion, and the Russian empire came into existence as a result of the struggle for the Crimea and adjacent areas, to understand the complex problems facing Crimea we should look at the complicated history of the country’s past. Before that here is a snapshot of Crimea.
•Territory – Crimea
•Status – Semi-autonomous region of Ukraine
•Status – Autonomous republic within Ukraine
•Population – 2 million
•Capital – Simferopol
•Area – 26,100 sq km (10,077 sq miles)
•Languages – Ukrainian (official), Russian, Crimean Tatar
•Ethnic groups – Russians 58%) Ukrainians (24%) Tatars (12%) others (6%)
•Religion – Christianity 33.16%, Islam (3.1%) Non – religious (62.5%)
•Main industries – Tourism, agriculture, ore, mining, chemicals
The semi-autonomous Republic of Crimea earlier part of Ukraine lies on a peninsula stretching out from the south of Ukraine between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It is separated from Russia to the east by the narrow Kerch Strait. (See map)
Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire during the reign of Catherine The Great in 1783 and remained part of Russia until 1954, when it was transferred to Ukraine under the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who was a Ukraine by birth. Under Greek and Roman influence for centuries, in 1443 Crimea became the centre of a Tatar Khanate, which later fell under Ottoman control.
Rival imperial ambitions in the mid 19th century led to the Crimean War when Britain and France, suspicious of Russian ambitions in the Balkans as the Ottoman Empire declined, sent troops. Given autonomous republic status within Russia after the Bolshevik revelation Crimea was occupied by the Nazis in the early 1940s. Stalin accused the Tatars of collaborating with the German occupiers and deported them en masse to Central Asia and Siberia in 1944. Many did not survive and a million people perished due to famine.
Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union they were allowed to return. By the time over a quarter of a million did so in the early 1990s, it was to an independent Ukraine where they faced very high unemployment and extremely poor housing conditions. There were persistent tensions and protests over land rights, and allocation of land to Crimean Tatars was a contentious issue.
After Ukrainian independence, political figures from the local Russian community sought to assert sovereignty and strengthen ties with Russia through a series of moves declared unconstitutional by the Ukrainian government. The 1996 Ukrainian constitution stipulated that Crimea would have autonomous republic status, but insisted that Crimean legislation must be in keeping with that of Ukraine.
Crimea has its own parliament and government with powers over agriculture, public infrastructure and tourism. The Crimean Tatars have their own unofficial parliament, the Mejlis, which states its purpose as being to promote the rights and interests of the Crimean Tatars.
The port of Sevastopol is a major naval base and has been home to the Black Sea Fleet since Soviet times. Following the collapse of the USSR, the fleet was divided up between Russia and Ukraine.
The continuing presence of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol has been a focus of tension between Russia and Ukraine. In 2008, Ukraine – then under the pro-Western President Yushchenko – demanded that Moscow not use the Black Sea Fleet during the conflict with Georgia.
Both countries had agreed to allow the Russian fleet to stay until 2017, but after the election of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as president in 2010, Ukraine agreed to extend the lease by 25 years beyond 2017, in return for cheaper Russian gas.
Crimea had a troubled relationship with Ukraine right through out. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe next to Russia. It ranks as the 44th largest country in the world. It has an area of 603,550 sq km and a population of 45.1 million (UN, 2011).
Ironically President Putin used the principle of right of self-determination of people. The Crimean referendum held on March 16, 2014 became direct expression of the will of people that have the right for self-determination according to the UN Charter” President declared. This is a 180 degree about turn since the days of Kosovo’s referendum based on the same principle. Russia opposed the referendum while US and NATO countries supported it. Now the roles have been reversed without anyone apologising. People have the right to self-determination, if they have a well defined territory, a common language and culture and who view themselves as a distinct nation and vote for independence in a referendum.
It is under this principle Britain claims sovereignty over Falkland Islands and South Sudan and East Timor became independent. Falklands voted at a referendum held in 2013 in which 99.8% voters voted to remain a British Overseas Territory on a 92% turnout.
Crimea and Kosovo is there any parallel between the two? Are they similar or different?
Vladimir Putin’s key argument justifying Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and annexation by Russia is the West’s acceptance of Kosovo’s declaration of statehood in 2008.
Kosovo and Crimea both sought independence against the wishes of their central governments but the two situations have many differences.
With the strong support of the United States, the ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo seceded from Serbia over Serbia’s strong objections. Russia, a historic Slavic ally of the Serbs, at the time argued that the Kosovo declaration was a serious breach of international law that could lead to a series of statehood claims elsewhere in the world.
Enter Crimea, Ukraine’s strategic Black Sea peninsula. After Crimean residents voted overwhelmingly Sunday to secede and join Russia, Putin is invoking the precedent of Kosovo to justify the vote while the West insists the ballot is invalid.
There are similarities as well. Both Kosovo and Crimea have a majority who belong to an ethnic minority. Just as Kosovo Albanians feared Serbian repression during the autocratic rule of late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Russians living in Crimea feared the Ukrainian nationalists who came to power in Kiev in February.
Both the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and the ethnic Russians in Crimea voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession, while the Serbian minority in Kosovo and the Ukrainian and Tatar minorities in Crimea mostly boycotted the vote.
There was foreign military intervention in both regions with NATO intervening in Kosovo and pro-Russian troops seizing control of Crimea ahead of the vote.
There are differences. NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999 only after significant evidence of Serbian abuses against ethnic Albanians, including mass killings and deportations. Pro-Russian forces intervened in Crimea with no major abuses or violence reported against ethnic Russians by Ukrainians.
The West didn’t annex Kosovo after driving Milosevic’s forces out of the former Serbian province, but sent in peacekeepers. Russian troops took control of Crimea before its referendum was held.
Kosovo declared independence but did not join its ethnic brethren in neighbouring Albania in a single state. Crimea, which has a majority Russian population, signed a deal to join Russia two days after the vote.
Kosovo declared independence nine years after Serbia lost effective control over its former province and only after a long diplomatic process when it was virtually an independent state. Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine only weeks after the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia.
In July 2010, U.N.’s highest court ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legal but did not endorse Kosovo’s claim to statehood. Kosovo remains unrecognized by the UN because of Russia’s veto powers.
“Our Western partners created the Kosovo precedent with their own hands,” Putin said on March 18, when he signed the treaty to incorporate Crimea into Russia. “In a situation absolutely the same as the one in Crimea, they recognized Kosovo’s secession from Serbia as legitimate while arguing that no permission from a country’s central authority is necessary for a unilateral declaration of independence.”
The moral of the story? It is the familiar argument might is right.
Tibet is reeling under the jackboot of China since 1950. Chinese government troops invaded Tibet on October 7, 1950, and captured the town of Qamdo (Chamdo) on October 19, 1950. The UN General Assembly condemned the Chinese invasion of Tibet on November 18, 1950 but beyond that nothing was done. No country, including US, is prepared to go to war with China over Tiber. That is the sad reality.
Crimea’s decision to join Russia after voting in a referendum shows people of the same ethnicity tend to join their cousins for security and cultural reasons. Crimean example gives impetus to other ethnic minorities like Kurds, Tibetans, Kashmiris, Thamils who suffer persecution to ascertain their own independence and sovereignty by invoking the same principle of self-determination and R2P. May be not today, but in the future it might be possible.