Why Was It OK for Ukraine to Break Away from the USSR, but Not for Crimea to Break Away from Ukraine?
"At the time, it seemed as if pretty much anyone could declare independence from Moscow. But nobody could declare independence from Ukraine. Or else."
I thought I would re-post this discussion of the recent history of Crimea, more than five years after I first wrote it. I have made some minor changes to the original, first published on February 21, 2015.
All right, I admit it, it’s not that brief. I didn’t have time to shorten it. But what follows is a condensed history of the argument about who should control Crimea, one which still rages and which (as usual) is not as simple as politicians like to claim it is.
I’ll begin with a question:
What do you reckon is the date of the following Reuters News Agency dispatch? I’ve slightly doctored one or two things in it, but only to conceal the date.
‘Elected officials in the Crimea voted on Monday to hold a referendum to resolve heated debates on the future status of the region.
‘A Moscow news agency said the regional council voted to issue a declaration restoring the Crimea’s “statehood” and also to hold a vote to determine the future of the attractive peninsula on the shores of the Black Sea.
‘Moscow television suggested the referendum could take place early next February. It said the region, part of the Ukraine but with a large population of ethnic Russians and other groups, was sharply divided between maintaining its present status or rejoining the Russian Federation.’
Well, it was 12th November 1990, more than 30 years ago. And it forms the opening page in a fascinating file compiled for me, entirely from Western sources, by a friend and colleague in Moscow.
What it shows is that the issue of Crimea’s relations with Ukraine (and of the Donbass region around Donetsk) was a live and troublesome matter even before the break-up of the USSR at the end of 1991. And it also shows that at one stage the recently-established Ukrainian government in Kiev acted with considerable ruthlessness to prevent a referendum in Crimea on independence, a referendum which had been requested by 246,000 of the peninsula’s 2.5 million people. I’ll come to the details of this forgotten scandal later.
This is especially paradoxical, since Moscow did nothing to prevent Ukraine from declaring its own independence from the USSR, nor did it act to prevent the referendum which confirmed this. At the time, it seemed as if pretty much anyone could declare independence from Moscow. But nobody could declare independence from Ukraine. Or else.
One explanation of this was that Russia had, by and large, been liberated from Soviet rule by democrats, or would-be democrats. But in the non-Russian parts of the USSR, liberation tended to be accomplished by nationalists. Nationalists are out of fashion now and frowned on by the EU, especially. But at that time, before and since, in this part of the world, they served a useful purpose in dismantling the Russian empire, as long ago suggested by our old friend Herr Richard von Kuehlmann, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Foreign Secretary, in 1918. So you will find that Ukrainian, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian (but *not* Serb) nationalism, plus Latvan ,Lithuanian, Estonian, Georgian and Polish nationalism, are viewed as ‘nice’ nationalisms, in the post-modern halls of Brussels, even though the the idea of nationalism itself is generally despised. Like all anomalies, this draws attention to what is really going on, if you are thoughtful and onbservant enough to see it.
Russia, belatedly waking up to the danger of having nationalist bombs planted beneath its fromer Empire, has now turned nationalist itself, and that is very much not approved of. For Russian nationalism does not serve Kuehlmann’s prescient purpose, continued in modern times by his successors, in dismantling the old Russian empire and creating a new liberal empire of ‘limited sovereignty’ dominated instead by German interests. Thus, it is the *wrong* kind of nationalism. Whereas Ukrainian nationalism (though in fact it is if anything even more chauvinistic, virulent and intolerant than the Russian version) is the *right* kind. Which shows that it is its effect on the European map, not its innate characteristics which decide which nationalism is cool, and which despicable.
But back to the day before yesterday, by the sunny, rugged shores of Crimea.
The BBC Monitoring service , on 19th January 1991, picked up a report that the government of the Crimean Oblast (region) had scheduled a referendum on the legal status of Crimea, for the 20th of that month.
On 21st January, Dow Jones reported an overwhelming vote (93% of an 80% turnout) for Crimean autonomy – that is, separating the peninsula from the direct authority of Ukraine. This, of course was before Ukraine had declared its own independence. Russians in Crimea had long resented Krushchev’s 1954 transfer of their region to Ukraine from Russia.
But Ukrainian nationalists rightly realised this was a canny pre-emptive move, designed to prevent a new Ukrainian state seizing control of Crimea, and opening the way for a reunion with Russia.
The Ukrainian nationalist movement Rukh declared ( according to Reuters)
‘The referendum is an assault on the territorial integrity of the future Ukrainian state’.
In the following March, in a vote on Mikhail Gorbachev’s curious and murky ‘Union Treaty’ , a last attempt to hold the USSR together by consent instead of force, 87% of Crimean voters voted to stay in the Soviet Union and become independent.
This is outwardly puzzling, as the two seem contradictory. But there is an explanation. Presumably they believed a form of Crimean independence would be available within a loosened Union. And they feared (with reason) the effects of Ukrainian independence on their lives.
Then came the failed KGB putsch in August 1991, which finally discredited the USSR and the Soviet Communist Party in the eyes of almost everybody, and spelt the end of both.
But very soon afterwards, on August 26th 1991, a statement issued in the name of the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin warned that borders would have to be redrawn if Ukraine and other republics quit. It’s often said these days that, though the Soviet borders between Russia and Ukraine are quite unfitted for use as international frontiers, there was never any concern about this at the time of the split. The following news agency despatch shows that this is not true.
‘Russia warned neighbouring Soviet republics on Monday that it would not let them secede from the Soviet Union taking large Russian-inhabited areas with them.
A statement issued in Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s name said the Russian Federation reserved the right to review its borders with any adjacent republic which left the Union.
His spokesman, Pavel Voshchanov, who signed the statement, told reporters at the Russian parliament this referred mainly to northern Kazakhstan and to the Donbass region and the Crimea in the Ukraine.’
The ‘Donbass Region’ is of course the area around Donetsk and Lugansk, now in flames.
Instantly, Ukraine’s President Leonid Kravchuk reacted. Reuters reported the following day ‘Kravchuk said on Tuesday Soviet republics were concerned by Russia’s warning that it would not allow those with large Russian populations to secede.
“[The statement] sent reverberations through the republics…Territorial claims are very dangerous and could end in problems for the people,” Kravchuk told a news conference in the capital Kiev.’
Within a day, Boris Yeltsin had backed down (I suspect that when the archives are opened, if they ever are, it will turn out that he did so under pressure from the USA, but what do I know?)
Reuters reported :
’PARIS, Aug 28, Reuter – Russian President Boris Yeltsin said on Wednesday Russia would respect the frontiers of republics that decided to sign the Union treaty.
“As for republics that stay in the (Soviet) Union, we will of course respect their frontiers, the Union treaty caters for frontiers to be respected,” he said in an interview with French radio.
Yeltsin added that a joint Soviet-Russian delegation which flew to Kiev on Wednesday would tell Ukrainians that Russia would have no territorial claims on their republic if the Ukraine decided to stay in the Union.
The Ukraine’s parliament declared independence from Moscow on Saturday subject to confirmation by a referendum in December.
The Soviet-Russian delegation’s mission is to try to defuse Ukrainian alarm over Yeltsin’s announcement on Monday that Russia reserved the right to contest borders with any republic that quit the Soviet Union.
His statement stirred historic suspicions of “Russian chauvinism” in the Ukraine, which contains two areas — the Donbass and the Crimea — populated mostly by Russians.
“Relations with Russia are becoming more and more complex as a result of Yeltsin’s statement,” an official in the Ukrainian administration earlier commented.
In the radio interview Yeltsin said questions of territory, frontiers, frontier security and diplomatic relations would all have to be settled by negotiation and “without shedding blood.
“When I speak of frontiers I am basing myself on laws and international treaties. If a state or republic leaves the union, then we will have to establish state-to-state relations by discussion around a table.”
Soon afterwards, AP reported:
‘MOSCOW (AP) – The Soviet legislature, backing Mikhail Gorbachev’s bid to stem the collapse of central authority, voted today to send a delegation to the Ukraine to discourage the breadbasket republic’s secessionist drive.
The delegation also will discuss potential border disputes with the Russian republic, which has thrown a scare into some of its neighbors by saying it reserves the right to review its borders with them.
Gorbachev put his political future on the line yesterday, threatening to resign if the Soviet Union cannot somehow be preserved and indicating he would settle for a loose alliance of sovereign states.’
These efforts would be a complete failure. The break-up of what was left of the USSR was complete by the end of the year, and the old Stalin-Krushchev borders survived.
But shortly before the final collapse, Crimea’s local parliament tried to throw a spanner in the works. On November 23rd. AP reported :
’SIMFEROPOL, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ The Crimean parliament laid the groundwork for secession from the Ukraine when lawmakers approved a measure enabling the region to hold a referendum on its political future.
On Friday, lawmakers also sent a message to the Ukrainian parliament, asking it to continue to participate in Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s plan to hold the Soviet Union together as a loose federation.
The Crimea is an autonomous republic of 2.5 million people in an area that juts from the southern Ukraine in the Black Sea.
Its parliament, dominated by former Communist Party members, voted 153-3, with two abstentions, to hold a referendum to decide whether the Crimea should stay under Ukrainian jurisdiction, reunite with Russia or become independent. No date was set.
On March 17, voters in the Crimea gave 87.3 percent approval to Gorbachev’s federation plan.
Ethnic Russians comprise 67 percent of the Crimea’s population. Many of them worry that the Ukraine might try to exert more control on the region after the Ukraine’s presidential election and referendum on independence, set for Dec. 1.
Crimean lawmaker Yuri Ryzhkov said he expected a referendum on Crimean secession within a month of the presidential election.’
On the 27th, Reuters reported:
‘SIMFEROPOL, Soviet Union, Nov 27, Reuter – Angry and frightened Russians in the Crimea are vowing resistance to the idea of their fertile sunny peninsula becoming part of an independent Ukraine.
“I don’t want to find myself living in a foreign country,” shouted 67-year-old war veteran Georgy Malyshev, one of hundreds of Russians who demonstrated here last week outside the Crimean parliament.
Inside the parliament, still dominated by the old communist elite, deputies failed narrowly to approve an appeal to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for the Crimea to be returned to Russia.
For nearly four decades, formal subordination to the Ukraine barely mattered as all vital decisions were taken in Moscow and official policy favoured Russian interests.
But now, with the Ukraine likely to opt for complete independence in a referendum on December 1, fears are growing that the Crimea could become a flashpoint of tension between Moscow and Kiev.
Anatoly Los, a Russian deputy to the Crimean parliament, said he expected the Crimea to vote “No” to Ukrainian independence in the referendum while the rest of the republic votes yes.’
On 1st December AFP (Agence France Presse) reported a low turnout in Donbass and Crimea (and other heavily Russian regions) in the Ukrainian independence referendum
‘The Kharkhov and Odessa regions reported turnout of 62 percent, while in the Crimea just under 59 percent of the voters went to the polls.
In Donetsk, turnout was put at over 67 percent, while the lowest participation in the election — 51 percent — was in Sebastopol, the officials said.’
In Western Ukraine turnout was 87.8%, in Kiev, 80%.
On the 6th January, the Wall Street Journal reported :
‘CRIMEA, Ukraine — When empires start disintegrating, at what point do they stop? Ukraine has now firmly established itself as an independent state, but within Ukraine, there is the Crimea.
Home to 2.5 million people, with some 105 different nationalities living on its territory, Crimea, an autonomous republic located in the south of Ukraine, is like a miniature Soviet Union. It, too, is facing a shakeup.
While a surprising number of people here say they had never thought about the question of their own independence — being an autonomous republic within a vast empire was enough — they are now saying that with the Soviet machine having broken down, the Crimean people now want a shot at their sovereignty.
Only 52.6% of Crimeans voted in favor of the Ukrainian independence referendum that elsewhere passed overwhelmingly on Dec. 1. Many Crimeans would like to see their region affiliated with Russia…’
Later in the report, it noted:
‘Mr. Kravchuk made a fact-finding visit to the autonomous republic on Oct. 23-24 after reports of civil unrest here and to persuade local deputies to vote yes to an independent Ukraine….
‘In no uncertain terms, he told the legislators they were not ready for independence — the Crimea had neither a constitution nor other important laws in place that would guarantee success as a separate nation. Mr. Kravchuk drew applause, however, when he promised that under an independent Ukraine, the Crimea would maintain its current autonomous status, including a guarantee that all languages and cultures on that territory would be respected.
‘In a later press conference, Mr. Kravchuk said, “Ukraine will not be cut up into pieces. No one is going to look at all the painful points . . . with a red pencil. We won’t sit at a table to cut up the territory. That would be the beginning of the end.”
‘He noted Ukraine was ready to work with the Crimean parliament and people to build one unified country — Ukraine.
“Today we want to create a nation. The majority of the Crimean people understand the only way to live is with Ukraine,” he stressed.’
Round about this point, a movement began to collect signatures demanding a referendum on Crimean independence, a legal entitlement under Ukrainian law.
In the background, tension was growing between Moscow and Kiev about the future of the Russian naval facilities in Sevastopol. The Russian Parliament, after the referendum crisis was over, even voted symbolically to rescind Krushchev’s transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Plainly this had no practical effect at the time. As Boris Yeltsin had discovered when he briefly sought border revision, Russia was too weak to reincorporate what it regarded as Russian parts of Ukraine. But it staked an implied claim.
In February 1992, worried by the threat of an independence referendum, Kiev offered more autonomy to Crimea. By then, the independence campaigners, plainly with Russian backing, had already gathered 50,000 signatures.
On 21st February, BBC Monitoring gave this account of a Kiev press conference given by President Leonid Kravchuk
‘Is the president of Ukraine going to hamper the collection of signatures and the holding of the referendum on the new status of Crimea? The answer to this question has clearly defined the attitude to processes which are taking place in Crimea and the possible solution of the Crimean issue.
[Kravchuk] If people are collecting signatures in order to determine their political situation in their region, I do not see anything unusual in it. Whether or not it is necessary to do that at present is another thing, in my opinion, since the referendum has already taken place and this peninsula has expressed its attitude both during the referendum on 1st December and during the other referendum [all-union referendum] and in a great number of resolutions of the supreme soviet of the Crimean republic – well, that is another matter.
But the president will not be able to ban or cancel this referendum.
We can only pin our hopes on common sense, and the existing legal foundations and legal norms along with the Constitution of Ukraine and the paragraph concerning the Crimean republic which was made part of the constitution. This is the situation here. I somehow think that the supreme soviet of Crimea must show its attitude to this even if those signatures are collected – the Supreme Soviet must give its assessment of them and I would like it to be the Supreme Soviet of Crimea.’
Four days later, AP was reporting that the independence movement had collected enough signatures to trigger a vote:
‘Crimea has ancient Greek ruins, Tatar castles, a stunning Black Sea coast, an important navy base and an angry majority of Russians who want independence from Ukraine.
‘Russians have gathered nearly 250,000 signatures, enough to force a referendum on Crimea’s status. Such a vote would likely increase friction between Ukraine and Russia.
“Ukrainians are nationalists,” said Alexander Tsitov, a Russian who works in a cooperative in Simferopol, the capital. “They want to introduce their language, and that is no good for us. They want us to be their colony.
“There is a danger the tension here could be transformed into armed conflict.”’
Later President Kravchuk warned that bloodshed was possible if the Crimea went ahead with the referendum, placing established frontiers in question.
On the 5th May, things were speeding up, as AFP reported:
‘SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, May 5 (AFP) – The parliament of Crimea Tuesday voted for secession from Ukraine, subject to confirmation by a referendum to be held soon.
The regional assembly of the Black Sea peninsula approved the independence bid by a large majority and offered to enter into immediate negotiations with Ukraine on a future bilateral agreement with the republic, local sources reported.’
‘SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, May 5, Reuter – The Crimean peninsula passed a declaration of independence from Ukraine on Tuesday, a move likely to inflame relations between Kiev and Moscow.
Deputies in the Crimean parliament in Simferopol stood and applauded loudly after passing an “Act of Independence” by 118 votes to 28. The decision must be confirmed by a referendum.
Several thousand people standing outside the rambling, modernistic building in the sunshine waved banners and cheered as the decision was announced over loudspeakers.
The act stated: “In view of the threat posed to Crimean statehood…and expressingcrime great alarm about worsening relations between Russia and Ukraine, the parliament of the Crimea declares the creation of a sovereign state, the Republic of Crimea.”
Parliamentary leader Nikolai Bagrov told reporters: “The Crimea is a republic and should have its own statehood.”
The declaration will infuriate Ukraine, which considers the Black Sea peninsula part of its territory. The referendum is likely to take place on August 2.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk has said that any referendum on Crimean independence could lead to bloodshed.’
Events now became bizarre, and readers will have to form their own conclusions as to how an entire regional assembly can totally change its mind on a central issue in the course of one day. Severe outside pressure seems to me to be one possible explanation.
For on the 6th May, we see this despatch:
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, May 6, Reuter – The Crimean parliament on Wednesday appeared to reverse the previous day’s declaration of independence by changing its constitution to say the peninsula formed part of Ukraine.
“The republic of Crimea is part of the state of Ukraine and determines its own relations with Ukraine on the basis of treaties and agreements,” the amendment said.
It was passed by a big majority.
The Crimean parliament had on Tuesday declared the Republic of Crimea a sovereign state. Independence was to be confirmed in a referendum, likely to be held on August 2.
Tuesday’s vote was a reaction to a Ukrainian parliamentary resolution giving the Crimea a measure of independence which the local parliament said fell short of its demands.
But Wednesday’s apparent reversal of the independence vote may be an attempt to find a face-saving compromise which will give deputies more say in running their own affairs but which will not trigger a complete break with Kiev.’
Perhaps a clue to the explanation can be found in these words of President Kravchuk, on a visit to Washington DC at the time :
‘”But I would have to say that the voting in the parliament of Crimea is not the last instance,” he said during a ceremony marking the opening of Ukraine’s embassy in the United States.
“We can say one thing for sure that what has been voted in the parliament of Crimea is against the constitution of Ukraine,” Kravchuk added.
On May 8th Reuters reported :
‘KIEV, May 8, Reuter – A campaign by the Crimean peninsula to break away from Ukraine could plunge the region into a conflict similar to that in Northern Ireland, a top aide to Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk has said.
Alexander Yemets, Kravchuk’s top adviser on legal issues, also said in an interview on Thursday that Ukraine would never give up the peninsula, populated mainly by ethnic Russians but given to Ukraine as a “gift” by Russia in 1954.
Speaking a week before a summit of leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, he accused prominent Russian leaders of stirring up confrontation in the run-up to Tuesday’s declaration of independence by the Crimean parliament.
“The problem is difficult and complex and could take on a violent character,” Yemets told Reuters in his office, once part of the headquarters of the now-banned Communist Party.
“If we cannot solve this through political dialogue, the situation will resemble that of Northern Ireland in terms of the violence involved. That is, partisan-like actions by different groups pursuing different aims, violent confrontation,” he said.’
On 13th May, we learned from AFP:
‘The Ukrainian parliament on Wednesday declared unconstitutional a recent declaration of independence by the Crimean peninsula, where the former Soviet Union’s huge Black Sea fleet is based.
The parliament called on the local authorities in the peninsula, which was ceded to Ukraine by Russia in 1954, to “return to legality” by rescinding the declaration of independence they issued on May 6.
The Crimean authorities have said they will organise a referendum on independence on August 2.
And on 14th May, the London Times reported : ‘Ukraine’s parliament yesterday moved to bury the Crimea’s growing Russian separatist movement by issuing a five-point plan over-riding the peninsula’s independence vote and threatening direct presidential rule.
In a rare show of strength by the Kiev parliament, deputies voted by an overwhelming margin to declare last week’s actions by the Crimea’s supreme soviet unconstitutional, and banned the Black Sea peninsula’s government from holding an independence referendum this summer.
On 30th June, we learned from Reuters;
‘KIEV, June 30, Reuter – Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday granted the Crimean peninsula wide-ranging autonomy, allowing it to determine its own foreign economic relations and social and cultural policies.
The power-sharing arrangements were detailed in amendments to a new law aimed at satisfying the territory’s aspirations for self-rule while keeping it under Kiev’s jurisdiction.
And on the 9th July 1992, Reuters said:
MOSCOW, July 9, Reuter – The Crimean parliament voted on Thursday to suspend plans for a referendum on independence from Ukraine, local journalists in the regional capital Simferopol said.
The decision, approved by 106 of the 137 deputies attending parliament, will help remove a possible source of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The referendum had originally been scheduled for August 2.’
But it hadn’t really gone away. In summer 1993, BBC monitoring noted:
’A regular congress of the Crimean Electors’ Movement [Ukrainian: Rukh Vybortsiv Krymu] was held today [29th May] under the slogan “Away with independence! Give us a referendum!”. The movement is made up of adherents of joining the peninsula to Russia. Several resolutions were adopted at the congress, and on the situation in the Black Sea Fleet too. Those present called on the presidents of Ukraine and Russia to hold their meeting on problems of the Black Sea Fleet only in Sevastopol, and to adopt at the meeting an unequivocal decision – on the impossibility of dividing the fleet, and on preserving Sevastopol’s status of Russian Federation naval base. In the event that this demand is not fulfilled, says the resolution, the participants of the movement reserve the right, following the sailors’s example, to hang Russian flags on their buildings.
‘A decision on setting up a civic committee to safeguard the referendum on Crimea’s state status was adopted. The movement intends to organize a warning strike of work collectives on 2nd August in support of this referendum…’
I assembled this account because I had not seen a proper explanation of the history of the Crimean independence issue. I think it helps to explain the origin of the dispute. I also think it once again raises the curious and ever-fascinating question of title in international affairs.
Who really owns which piece of land? On what is his claim based? Why are some units permitted to declare independence from large countries, and others not? And if there is no consistent legal or moral answer to any of these questions, what lessons should we learn from that?
Source: The Daily Mail