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Opinion: Crimea's sham referendum


Text by Douglas HERBERT

Latest update : 2014-03-14

FRANCE 24's International Affairs Editor Douglas Herbert gives his take on Sunday's referendum in Crimea.

When Crimeans vote this Sunday in a Russian-backed referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine, their “choice” will boil down to one of two options: “Do you want to be part of Russia?” or… “Do you want to be part of Russia?”

To be sure, the actual questions on the ballot will be more cunningly worded than that, so as to lend the hastily organised ballot the trappings of democratic legitimacy.

Voters inside Crimea – and those looking in from the outside – will be offered the illusion of a genuine choice.

So what is that choice?

Crimea’s pro-Russian, rogue leadership – spearheaded by a Moscow puppet, Prime Minister Sergei Aksenov, a former prisoner jailed in 2001 on charges of terrorism who garnered a whopping 4% in local elections in 2010 – has come up with a savvy way of asking essentially the same thing, without asking the same thing.

The first option on the ballot is straightforward.

It asks, in Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar: “Do you support Crimea joining the Russian Federation as a federal subject?”

A majority ‘Yes’ vote on this option would effectively validate an earlier decision by Crimea’s mutinous parliament declaring the autonomous republic a “sovereign and independent” state.

84th federal state?

It would pave the way for Crimea’s leaders to submit a formal request to Moscow to annex the region – making the Black Sea peninsula the 84th republic, or “federal subject”, within Russia proper (on a par with Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and others on Russia’s fissiparous fringe…).

From there, the ball would be in Moscow’s court. The lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, is set to “debate” the Crimea issue on March 21. It’s tempting to say the outcome of that exercise is a foregone conclusion: lawmakers will vote, hands down, in favour of annexation.

But given the unpredictability of this crisis so far, it’s risky, if not downright foolish, to make any categorical pronouncements.

Lots of tricky geopolitics – and dicey diplomatic brinkmanship – may come into play between now and March 21 that would offer Vladimir Putin a face-saving way to avert an all-out clash over Crimea. To eat his Crimea cake and have it too, so to speak.

Indeed, many analysts believe that Putin himself, while seeking to resurrect the Russian empire along tsarist-era lines, has been taken off-guard by events and been improvising his response on the fly.

Now, for the second choice...

The second option on Sunday’s referendum ballot is where things get both interesting, and confusing.

It asks: “Do you support restoration of the 1992 Crimea constitution and Crimea’s status as part of Ukraine?”

Now, I can see what you’re thinking: the question asks, point blank, whether voters want Crimea to be an integral part of Ukraine.

A clear alternative seems to be offered for those who have second thoughts about flinging themselves headlong into Russia’s orbit. So what’s all the fuss about, you ask? There are two distinct destinies for Crimea provided for on the ballot.

The problem is that the intent of the 1992 Crimea constitution lies in the eye of the beholder.

The original version, drawn up shortly after Ukraine’s independence from the collapsed USSR, included a stipulation that Crimea is an independent state – independent from Ukraine.

Twenty-four hours later, that version was modified by lawmakers to state that Crimea was, in fact, “part of Ukraine”.

It is unclear which version is the relevant one here. Indeed, it is arguable that Crimea’s pro-Russian parliament doesn’t really give a hoot – so long as the same outcome can be assured.

My bet is that for most voters this Sunday, their understanding is that the 1992 constitution provided for a far greater degree of autonomy – verging on independence – than the status they have enjoyed as an “autonomous republic” within Ukraine.

Simply put, the questions offer a tautological choice between independence from Ukraine – or joining Russia. But let’s hypothesise, for the sake of argument, that the second question garners more ‘yes’ votes on Sunday.

Already part of Russia?

The ultimate result would almost certainly be the same: the Crimean government would likely seek to formalise what has already been accomplished, de facto, by Russia’s military intervention. That is, making Crimea “Russian” again, as many, but not all, ethnic Russians regard as an inalienable right – a matter of fixing a historical injustice.

A final complicating factor – or from Moscow’s standpoint, facilitating factor – is that there will be no international observers on hand to monitor Sunday’s vote. Crimea’s government, backed by Moscow, has denied them access.

Which is not to say there will be no “international” observers.

In past elections in places where Russia has claimed to be defending the rights of ethnic Russians – from Abkhazia to South Ossetia to Transdniestr – Putin has deployed observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States. That’s a regional grouping composed of nine former Soviet republics, including such democratic outliers as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

With observers like that…well, you get the idea.

In the end, Putin insists the Crimea referendum will meet the legitimate aspirations of the province's majority ethnic Russians for self-determination. Crimea’s leaders and their Russian backers say they need defending and protecting.

Yet the real question that needs answering in Crimea – the one many ethnic Russians are asking, albeit not too loudly, for fear of retribution – is, “Protection from whom?”


Date created : 2014-03-13


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