More cold comfort from Åland in advance of the Crimea referendum

by Rhodri C. Williams

Well the ironies are just flying in thick and fast, as the Russian-speaking local majority on Crimea prepare a referendum to pave the way for the mother of all minority rights protections – secession to the kin state.

There is more and more reporting on how nervous this is making Crimea’s real national minority, the Crimean Tatars – see here in the Washington Post or this Globe and Mail comment by Victor Ostapchuk. And for an eloquent appeal by a forlorn Russian-speaking Crimean who thinks he may have seen the forest for the trees, see this New Yorker piece by Natalia Antelava.

But back to the more obvious ironies. How about this, for starters – Russia, having used arbitrary gas price hikes and occasional winter shutoffs as a disciplinary measure against Ukraine for years, now finds itself sponsoring secession by a Crimean peninsula entirely dependent on the Ukrainian mainland for water, electricity and most of its communications and transportation infrastructure.

Or this one – the Russian sponsors of a Crimean referendum transparently without substantive justification and flagrantly in violation of all accepted procedures for negotiating such processes have now set out an implicit casus belli against the rest of Ukraine by finding fault with the technicalities of its 1991 split from the Soviet Union.

Or simply the fact that Russia’s “support” of Crimea has apparently been justified based on an assertion that the right to external self-determination apparently now applies in situations of contested transfers of power. On this basis, one wonders how much of Russia’s current territory might be interested in a review of their sovereignty arrangements after Putin’s controversial reelection in 2012?

But none of that changes the fact that Crimea is racing toward its referendum, blood has been drawn again in street fighting in Donetsk, and Russian troops are once again massed near the border to Eastern Ukraine. A last minute diplomatic scramble is underway, but Moscow is looking intransigent. So, where does that leave things?

First, a caveat. While I think that the Russian handling of the Ukraine crisis has been dishonest, cynical, inflammatory, illegal, foolish and predictable, I do not deny that Russia has a legitimate stake, and must inherently be as much part of any future solution as it is part of the current problem. I also fear that NATO’s ambitions in the region have a significant and insufficiently examined role in stoking the current conflict, and find arguments for “Finlandization” persuasive.

Second, an omission. In my recent Opinio Juris piece, I forgot to mention that one of the most important similarities between the Åland Islands crisis and that in Crimea may be yet to emerge. Specifically, the Åland crisis began with a controversial referendum in which the local population voted overwhelmingly for union with Sweden. Helsinki condemned it as illegal, but all parties refrained from violence, and the conflict eventually found its way to the League of Nations and was resolved there. 

In all likelihood, the Crimeans will have their say on Sunday. Whether it will be free, fair, representative or meaningful is another matter. But if the ICJ said nothing else in their Kosovo Advisory Opinion, they did uphold some kind of freedom of speech in relation to self-determination movements. The real question is whether the referendum will represent the final word. It should not, and if everyone keeps a cool head, it may not.

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