Despite the emotions conjured up by history, language, culture and the dramatic events of the last few weeks, Crimeans would be wise to ponder whether they would really be better off joining Russia. There are a number of arguments that militate strongly against taking this path.
First and foremost, despite what the largely government-owned Russian media and the new, self-appointed leaders in Crimean territory have been saying, Crimea’s Russian speakers need not fear the new authority in Kyiv and its supporters. Those that struggled against Victor Yanukovich’s klepto-regime on Maidan Square, many of them giving their lives in the process, were admittedly a motley crew. But to characterise them as predominantly anti-Russian, anti-Semites, fascists, and Banderists is a fiction conjured up by Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service), the successor organisation to the KGB – one designed to discredit the resistance to Yanukovich and disorient Crimea’s population.
Second, opting to join the Russian Federation would effectively decrease the ability of Crimeans to run their own affairs. The population of Crimea is roughly two million, of whom some 60 percent are Russians. Crimea currently enjoys a high level of autonomy. It has been promised more by interim Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov, who has also committed to reversing the disastrous decision to rescind the status of Russian as a regional language – a provocative decision which understandably had alarm bells ringing in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. For Crimea to join the Russian Federation, with a population around seventy times greater, would mean that it would have to compete with Russia’s current 83 regions for the attention of Moscow and its resources.
Russia’s regions, I hasten to add, have little in the way of autonomy. Russia is run like an imperial construct, where Putin – a tsar in all but name – gathers up most of the resources generated by Russia’s regions and decides where and how they are to be redeployed. This is how you get the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics to cost over $50 billion, or roughly ten-times the cost of the previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with a very large chunk of these funds going to President Putin’s cronies.
Third, by joining the Russian Federation, Crimea would be embracing a geostrategic construct that has a past it has not digested, a present it cannot cope with, and a future that is uncertain. Ukraine’s trajectory is anything but perfect. But, unlike Russia’s, it is not weighed down by the need to stand up to the United States or the West. Ukraine bears no strategic grudges, while Russia has serious unfinished business to deal with that neither Crimea nor Ukraine has to be part of.
Then, there is the European Union (EU) dimension to all this. The EU is not in good shape. Its financial crisis persists. Its economy continues to underperform. It cannot field an army. Its policies for its near Eastern and Southern abroad are in shambles. It faces rising racism in its midst. But the EU at least has corrective mechanisms in place. There is institutional respect for its component parts. Its electoral systems are wanting but at the end of the day they give people a choice. It is open to the world. These are all assets that I believe will help the EU overcome its present challenges and remain a force for democracy and peace at home and around the world. It might be far from perfect but it opens vistas to Ukraine that Russia cannot offer, certainly not in its current political mindset.
There is another question that needs to be addressed. Is it good or bad to have a number of Russian-speaking states, or should all Russian populations be gathered up into a single statal entity, as President Putin seems to suggest? The latter approach is called irredentism, championed by a mustachioed Austro-German guy in the 1930s. We know where this took us. His nation paid heavily. Its neighbours suffered unspeakably.
Several decades on, Europe has five mainly or partially German-speaking states, four mainly or partially French-speaking states, and all sorts of Europeans living outside their homeland. This is now considered normal. Russian–speakers across post-Soviet space need to think beyond the notion that they all have to be gathered into a single tidy geopolitical entity. Any effort to try to make this happen will cause considerable suffering and misfortune. It can be the stone that breaks the back of the extremely complex but also delicate construct that is Russia.
The Crimeans had no say in former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to assign their region to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. They should get their say now but will they?
The referendum on Crimea’s future has been moved forward by two weeks, allowing little time for a serious debate. The referendum should be conducted without local militias and Russian soldiers – uniformed or not – policing polling stations. It should also be conducted without the local media feeling muzzled or the non-Russian Crimean population like the Tatars feeling intimidated. The referendum must be carried out with strong, effective external oversight. Ensuring that this be the case should be a fundamental objective of all states wanting to secure a safe landing for Crimea and Ukraine.