There’s been a nasty dose of ‘border relativism' in the debate about Crimea and it misses the point; you can’t have a referendum at the point of a gun, doesn’t matter what history says.

Yes, Crimea used to be part of the Soviet Union and was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 (which was part of the Soviet Union then) by Nikita Khrushchev. He couldn’t have anticipated Ukraine would one day be independent - or perhaps he could; the Russian borders have bulged and receded over the last 1000 years, as have the borders throughout Europe.

Each border changed represents a war, a lot of dead people, and different ethic communities left stranded on either side of that border. That’s the history of Europe, and it’s why post the second world war, the rule of law rather than the rule of the gun is the preferred and morally just way of settling border disputes, and recognising the rights of orphaned communities.

International law is relatively new. It’s hard to enforce. Sometimes it fails catastrophically to protect the weak, as it did in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. After all, it’s a set of laws without its own police force. But despite its weaknesses it is still the most humane and progressive defence against acts of state sanctioned thuggery we have.

In 1975 The Helsinki Accord was signed. In this remarkable international agreement, countries on either side of the Cold War agreed to peaceful mechanisms for managing differences. The text could not be clearer and Putin would know it word for word:

“The participating States regard as inviolable all one another's frontiers as well as the frontiers of all States in Europe and therefore they will refrain now and in the future from assaulting these frontiers … they will also refrain from any demand for, or act of, seizure and usurpation of part or all of the territory of any participating State.

The participating States will likewise refrain from making each other's territory the object of military occupation or other direct or indirect measures of force in contravention of international law, or the object of acquisition by means of such measures or the threat of them. No such occupation or acquisition will be recognized as legal.”

Putin’s actions in Crimea are undeniably illegal, and New Zealand and other progressive countries are right to take a stand, as strong advocates for the rule of law.

No matter what your politics, or whether you think the ethnic Russians living in Crimea deserve a referendum, or that Crimea is the same struggle as the Basque people in Spain or France, or the Kurds in Iran or Iraq, or the Scots in the UK; that doesn’t change the fundamental principle and our modern norm, that you do not solve border issues at the point of a gun.

The question is, what will happen next? The Crimean referendum has returned an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote to rejoining mother Russia. No surprises there. It’s not like there was an option for ticking ‘stay in Ukraine’. The two questions in the referendum, each requiring you to tick a box, both meant independence from Ukraine. There was no option except not ticking at all, to say ‘no’ to Russia:

"Do you support joining Crimea with the Russian Federation as a subject of Russia?”

"Do you support restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution, and Crimea's status as part of Ukraine?

The second option is confusing because the 1992 constitution asserts that Crimea is an independent state, not part of Ukraine, so if you tick ‘yes’ to a return to that constitution you are actually ticking yes to more autonomy. Either way you’re ticking ‘no’ to Ukraine.

It looks like only ethnic Russians voted, while the Crimean Tartars, mostly Muslim, who remember the gulags of Stalin stayed at home and refused to participate in a stitched up referendum. So did young people, born in Ukraine and without the nostalgia for the Soviet Union shared by their parents and grandparents.

Just because there’s been a referendum doesn’t mean Putin will annex Crimea. He may be happy to have flexed his muscles and made the West look weak. But the region is so volatile now. In1914 all it took was one man to fire a gun and kill the archduke for a world war to start.

History teaches us lessons, but it shouldn't paralyse us from taking action.

Comments (17)

by mikesh on March 17, 2014
mikesh

If we are talking legality, I think we have to regard Yanukovitch as  the legal Ukrainian president., albeit that he has been chased out of the country by the bunch of thugs who have taken over the government. No doubt he would quite happy to see Crimea returned to the Russians. Certainly the Crimean people and the legal Crimean government seem happy with the present situation. And nobody has died as a result of the Russian "takeover"

by Andrew Osborn on March 17, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Good post Josie

Putin is still living in the 19th century

In the long term one can only feel sorry for average Russian citizens as well as those in the Ukraine because this oaf is leading them into darkness again.

 

 

 

 

 

by mikesh on March 17, 2014
mikesh

Obama thinks democracy is great; unless, of course, it impedes NATO's takeover of the Black Sea. Then, of course, democracy is "unconstitutional".

by Alan Johnstone on March 18, 2014
Alan Johnstone

The problem for the west is that it violated all these international laws it suddenly holds so dear in 2008 when it ripped Kosovo out of Serbia. Putin told them in 2008 that what it did then was illegal, the west ignored him.

To bleat about the law now shows staggering arrogance.

Putin has clearly taken the viewpoint, if they can ignore the law, then so can I in identical circumstances. It's hard to argue against it.

 

by mikesh on March 18, 2014
mikesh

"The United States government is the worst criminal enterprise in the history of the world. Not a single member of the government has told the truth about anything in the entire 21st century. The executive branch lies consistently to Congress, and the cowardly, weak, despicable fools sit there and take it.  Congress is so useless it might as well be abolished.  I expect Obama to issue an executive order abolishing the useless institution at any moment.

But “we have freedom and democracy.”

The truth is that the entire evil of the universe is concentrated in Washington.  It is this evil that is destroying millions of lives, and it is this evil that will destroy the world."

Paul Craig Roberts, in his latest blog on the Ukrainian situation. What he says about Congress might also perhaps be said about the NZ parliament.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/17/95-7-precent-of-crimeans-flip-off...

by Tim Watkin on March 18, 2014
Tim Watkin

Great post Josie. Amen to that. Though interesting first question mikesh – was the overthrow of Yanukovitch the result of legitimate protest or anti-democratic? As for the quote from Robertts, good grief. That's just nonsense from first line to last!

by mikesh on March 18, 2014
mikesh

The original protest may have been democratic, but its exploitation by Svoboda and others, and their eventual takeover of the government I don't think was.

As for Roberts, I don't think what he says is "nonsense", not when you consider the US's role in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and now Ukraine.

by Peggy Klimenko on March 19, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@ Josie Pagani: "you can’t have a referendum at the point of a gun". That hasn't happened in Crimea. See this link:

<a href="http://rt.com/news/international-observers-crimea-referendum-190/">There has been no referendum at gunpoint</a>.

"Putin’s actions in Crimea are undeniably illegal" What actions are these? Under the Black Sea Fleet Treaty, Russia is entitled to have troops in Crimea. There are no reports that numbers have exceeded what is allowed under the Treaty. What other evidence do you have for illegal actions on the part of Putin?

Speaking of illegality, the violent removal of a democratically elected Pesident by a "bunch of thugs" as Mikesh succinctly describes Svoboda and Pravy Sektor, is pretty much up there, as I'm sure you'd agree.

"It looks like only ethnic Russians voted, while the Crimean Tartars, mostly Muslim, who remember the gulags of Stalin stayed at home and refused to participate in a stitched up referendum. So did young people, born in Ukraine and without the nostalgia for the Soviet Union shared by their parents and grandparents."

This cannot be right. The voter turnout was 83%; ethnic Russians comprise 58% of the population, so many more citizens voted than just the Russians. RT reports that Tartars voted in Sevastopol; news footage shows many young people celebrating and waving Russian flags.

While neither referendum nor its results will please everyone, it's clear that the vote was initiated by the Crimean government without anyone sticking a Kalashnikov up their collective noses and forcing them to do it. And they did it exactly because of the coup in Kiev; they know stuff about the aforementioned thugs that clearly you don't know, and they - along with a large majority of Crimean citizens - want out before the neo-nazi militias arrive. These neo-nazis really are egregiously violent, anti-Semitic and racist; Crimeans know this, Tartars included. It's not surprising that they look to Russia: so would we, were we in that situation.

The West should keep out of it; that includes New Zealand. No further ill-informed commentary, no sanctions, especially no military support to the usurper government in Kiev. Let the people of that area sort out the conflict themselves.

by Alan Johnstone on March 19, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Of course the vote is slightly dodgy, but the result so overwhelming it probably does reflect the will of the crimean people. Where was the referendum when Crimea was moved from Russia to the Ukraine by the Soviets? Crimea has always been part of the Rodina.

We shouldn't be too stressed about this, despite the obvious sudatenland comparrisions, it's just russia moving to it's natural borders.

Russia was happy enough for Ukraine to be a buffer state, it didn't need to control it, just for no one else to. If that ceases to be the case, and it moves into the western camp fully, then it  will just be the western catholic section that does so.

Over the next month or two, expect to see the same happening in Karkhov and Donstek. The people of these cities are Russian.

by Peggy Klimenko on March 19, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

Chyort! don't know why that link didn't work. Here it is again (I hope):


http://rt.com/news/international-observers-crimea-referendum-190/

 

by Peggy Klimenko on March 19, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

Hairtrigger computer! Posted that before I had a chance to add anything else.

I'm no cheerleader for Putin, but I can't just let the Western version of what's happened in the Ukraine go unchallenged, because it's catastrophically distorted by Western politicians and journalists, most of them without a grasp of the languages or the complexities of the situation.

However, when Yanukovich was toppled, I did hear one European commentator liken it to the nazi takeover of Germany before World War 2. This is the most accurate characterisation I've heard of his overthrow, yet it has been drowned out by CNN-style misinterpretation. People here would be better to look to Russia Today and Tass for news about the Ukraine and Crimea.

by Draco T Bastard on March 19, 2014
Draco T Bastard

As Mikesh has pointed out - the US ignores internatiopnal law at will. The UK and others follow blithely along and no one says anything. What this proves is that the is no international law except that which the US says. These are the actions of an unaccountable dictator and I can't say that I'm surprised to find Pagani supporting the worlds self-appointed dictator.

by Josie Pagani on March 20, 2014
Josie Pagani

Few points to address:

1. How is this illegal?

Putin has broken international law by moving troops into the sovereign territory of another state. In particular, he has reneged on the Helsinki Accord. This was a watershed agreement in favour of peace, after decades of cold war and conflict. There are processes for dealing with border issues, as Scotland has shown. You don’t resort to guns, and if you do  the international community, of which New Zealand is a member, will hold you accountable.

You either believe in principle, that protecting the rule of international law is a nobel cause or you don’t. 

I do. Too often, the law is the only redress we have to prevent acts of aggression or genocide and protect the vulnerable. 

2. And yes, this was a referendum at the end of a gun. If you don’t negotiate with the two sides of any border to set the terms of reference for a referendum, then any territory in the world could simply declare itself independent, and the world would be riddled with wars. There was no option to vote in favour of staying in Ukraine; there was wall to wall propaganda promoting a ‘yes’ vote for Russia; Russian military intervention (that is, 1000s more troops than are usually stationed at the Russian military base in Crimea) made sure the referendum went to plan.

3. If you believe the protesters in Kiev are fascists who overthrew a government led by the democratically elected Yanukovitch, then the far right in America would agree with you. The truth is this was leader who abused his position, jailed his political opponents, and shot and killed non-violent protestors. In any country, a president who owned a zoo, a galleon and a vast collection of cars might be viewed cynically. In a country with a per capita GDP of $7,300, such indulgences are evidence of corruption.

4. Finally, I totally reject the idea that because America has violated international law (Iraq) progressives can no longer stand up to thugs who break the law in the future. That kind of cultural relativism is paralysing, and frankly immoral. You stand up to injustice no matter where it occurs or what language the perpetrators speak. Putin is a self-serving right winger who’s only consistent ideologies are nationalism, rule of the oligarchy and homophobia. Why would any progressive person be an apologist for him?

by mikesh on March 21, 2014
mikesh

"You either believe in principle, that protecting the rule of international law is a nobel cause or you don’t."

We do believe in principle, but one also has to allow for exceptions. It was right that Crimea should revert to Russia control and the Ukranians should have accepted that. If there was any occupying being done it was because the Ukranians refused to do what was right.


"And yes, this was a referendum at the end of a gun."

There is no evidence that guns influenced the outcome of the referendum. In fact news items coming from the area indicate that the Crimeans didn't need any persuading to provide the outcome that eventuated..


"The truth is this was leader who abused his position, jailed his political opponents, and shot and killed non-violent protestors."

We agree that he was corrupt, and probably should have been voted out of office by the people (and not chased out of the country by a bunch ofv neo-nazi thugs). And the indications are that it was the neo-nazis themselves who fired on the unarmed protesters, not Yanukovitch's men.


"Finally, I totally reject the idea that because America has violated international law (Iraq) progressives can no longer stand up to thugs who break the law in the future."

Except of course that no laws were being broken, not by the Russians or the Crimeans anyway; though the actions of the neo nazis in Kiev seem pretty dodgy. As we poine out ealier there have to be exceptio9ns to international law as it applies to secessions.


by Peggy Klimenko on March 24, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@ Josie Pagani: I've been away for a few days; I found your comments when I returned. I note Mikesh's rebuttal of various of the points you make; I want to add my five cents' worth, however.

"Putin has broken international law by moving troops into the sovereign territory of another state." This isn't so. I reiterate: under the terms of the Black Sea Fleet Treaty, Russia  was entitled to base troops in Crimea, and the numbers there at the time of the referendum did not exceed Treaty limits. The mlitias which took over various public institutions in Crimea immediately following the overthrow of Yanukovich were local defence forces, not Russian soldiers. Putin himself denied that Russian troops were involved, and even Western media have begun to report that this was the case. Putin broke no international law, and your assertions to the contrary won't make it so.

"You either believe in principle, that protecting the rule of international law is a nobel cause or you don’t." In the context of the Ukraine conflict, this seems to me to be a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife-yet sort of statement, which has the effect of shutting down dissent. Issues to do with international law don't apply to Putin or Crimea, because no laws have been broken. On the other hand, fomenting the violent overthrow of a legitimately elected leader in another state is a recognised wrong under international law; the US has some questions to answer in this regard.

"And yes, this was a referendum at the end of a gun" Did you not read my comments - based on news reports from Crimea - above? The Crimean government initiated this referendum in response to the coup in Kiev. Crimea was already an autonomous republic within the Ukraine, and constitutionally entitled to make decisions of this sort without reference to Kiev. I'd have thought that the size of the turnout, along with the emphatic result, would have made it clear that the population supports the return to Russia.

And it must be noted that one of the referendum questions did allow for the status quo, albeit with more autonomy. The result shows what Crimeans thought of that option.

"...any territory in the world could simply declare itself independent..."  Yes, there's a bit of that going on at the moment. Scotland, Venice, South Sudan - Kosovo a few years back... It tends to happen when people in an area come to believe that their government has become unbearable and unfixable. War isn't an inevitable consequence, though.

With regard to issues of independence, a relative who lives in Bavaria has told us that there is a prevailing view among many citizens there that, not only do they not like being part of the EU, they don't even like being part of a united Germany, and would much prefer to return to kingdom status, as Bavaria was before Bismarck. Polities such as Germany, France, Italy and so on, where many smaller territories are amalgamated, are a relatively new phenomenon. It's scarcely surprising, therefore, that citizens who had no say in wider political changes of this sort - or whose ancestors had no say - might still want to return to the way things used to be. Memories are long.

"If you believe the protesters in Kiev are fascists who overthrew a government led by the democratically elected Yanukovitch, then the far right in America would agree with you" What I believe is irrelevant; this is what has been reported, even by some Western media. Try looking up some of these names: Dimitro Yarosh, Andriy Parubiy, Ihor Tenyukh, Oleh Makhnitsky, Oleksander Sych and Serhiy Kvit.

When you say "the far right", to whom exactly are you referring? Do you mean the Republicans? They are on record as being almost entirely in sympathy with the new rulers in Kiev. Perhaps you're referring to the neo-nazi fringe: they're also in support. There are some dissenting voices in the US; they come from both sides of the political divide.

"this was leader who abused his position, jailed his political opponents, and shot and killed non-violent protestors." Evidence suggests that Yanukovich was indeed corrupt; he has that in common with virtually all of his opponents - along with many leaders worldwide, including Australia, sadly. The ballot box is the means by which corrupt leaders can be removed.

Tymoshenko was certainly an opponent of Yanukovich, but it was the Ukraine courts which jailed her, not Yanukovich himself. You might as well say that John Key jailed Taito Philip Field. There's much more to the Tymoshenko story than has ever been reported in the West, from what I've seen.

It's clear from the reporting that protestors initiated the violence, firing on the riot police who at that stage were unarmed, killing 10 and injuring 100 or more. Police didn't get authority - or the wherewithal - to fire in self-defence until the following day. The identity of the much-photographed snipers is uncertain, but evidence, not well-reported here, emerged at the time that they weren't in fact police. Anyone who claims otherwise must explain why these snipers were firing on their fellow officers.

"Finally, I totally reject the idea that because America has violated international law (Iraq) progressives can no longer stand up to thugs who break the law in the future." This is another of those have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife-yet statements. As Mikesh has pointed out, no international laws were broken - by Putin and Crimea at any rate. By the looks of it, the same can't be said of the US and the fascist groups in Kiev. I advise you to turn your indignation on them.

I reiterate that I'm not a Putin supporter - or an apologist for him. But I can't leave unchallenged distortions of the sort you're putting forward in this post. In my view, political commentators - especially left-wing commentators - need to be looking sceptically at CNN and BBC reportage of the Ukraine conflict. There's been far too much uncritical acceptance of the Western narrative, despite its simplistic characterisation of the Ukraine as good and Russia as bad. This in itself ought to alert people to the presence of propaganda; I expect better of the Left.

by tussock on April 01, 2014
tussock

You know the democratically elected president of Ukraine asked Russia to send in rather a lot more troops than they did? Which they didn't because Russia was being very careful not to break any rules by quite a large margin.

I mean, it's rude and all, internationally, the annexation of a very willing populace who are genuinely terrified of their new junta. Slightly dodgier than East Timor with the lack of UN oversight (as if the US would allow it) and rapid pace, but with much less violence. Hell of a lot cleaner than the revolution over in Kiev too.

 

Problem could be for the remaining Russian populations in Ukraine. Give or take, the new government does seem to be cleaning out the brownshirts quite early.

by Peggy Klimenko on April 01, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@ tussock: "the new government does seem to be cleaning out the brownshirts quite early."

They've certainly bumped off Muzychko, to the fury of the brownshirts, but it seems they haven't managed to disarm them yet. And there's a good number of brownshirts still in government. Looks like there's a bit of water yet to go under that particular bridge. I can't see it ending without further violence. At the very least, the brownshirts will want revenge for Muzychko's murder, and we all know how these tit-for-tat situations play out: Hatfieldenkos and McCoychuks, perhaps...

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