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Crimea's referendum: four dangers

The planned vote to transfer Crimea from Ukraine to Russia will plant the seeds of greater conflict in the peninsula.

A referendum can be a proper instrument of direct democracy. But if applied improperly, it may devalue the cause it was meant to advance. This is the case with the vote on 16 March 2014 announced by Crimea's authorities, who - following the takeover of the peninsula by Russia's armed forces - seek a result that would make Crimea part of the Russian Federation.

The most straightforward objection is constitutional. The constitution of Ukraine, of which Crimea is an integral and recognised part, says that Ukraine's borders can be altered only via an all-Ukrainian referendum. This is why the Crimean initiative (formally proposed and passed by the parliament of Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine) is anti-constitutional. This makes it bad for Ukraine as a whole, but this "separatist" plebiscite could also prove counterproductive for Russians in Crimea, a majority of the population, and for the Russian Federation.

A proper referendum in Crimea, according to Ukraine's constitution, would require prior agreement between Kiev and Simferopol on its goals, legitimacy and the question to be asked (several recent and current examples confirm this, most notably the forthcoming referendum over Scotland's independence). In such a case of conflict between centre and region, the way to proceed is to undertake negotiations; to involve different interest-groups within the region; and to examine all the possible repercussions (political, economic and social) of any change of statehood. All this may take years to achieve, since the stakes are extremely high for both parties.

A peaceful process and outcome also require that both sides agree on procedural fundamentals. All laws and formalities must be in place, with central government and regional authorities sharing a clear vision of the steps to be taken up to the vote and afterwards, whatever the result. Real partnerships  require time and genuine effort - unlike shady decisions taken by one side backed by superior force that suited elites in both Kyiv and Simferopl that have dominated for a couple of decades. None of this is true in the case of Crimea.

A route to conflict

The problems with the referendum also reflect long-standing aspects of Ukraine's political culture, in which both Kyiv and Simferopol have played their part. Today, Kyiv cannot comply with the aforementioned standards of working through regional claims for greater self-rule; nor did it have them yesterday or the day before. Indeed, Kyiv and Crimea's elite were long bound by ties of mutual convenience. 

But the foundation for this coexistence has proved shaky. The very idea that Crimea might "upgrade" its status causes severe discomfort to Kyiv and fierce opposition among Ukrainian nationalist circles. For their part, Crimean leaders have not sought to convince Kyiv (and western Ukraine) that their move would be beneficial to the entire country.

The Crimean champions of self-determination - some of them from the ranks of politically vocal but marginal Russian parties (often jokingly referred to as “professional Russians”) - are in a sealed space, a sort of scientific vacuum. This is largely because they have preferred to remain under the strict guardianship of politically committed and poorly educated Russian "missionaries". They have made no effort to enter into dialogue with a broader spectrum of Ukrainian, Russian and European politicians or experts who could have enriched the dialogue on possible new models for Ukraine's political landscape and the role Crimea could play. In the end, the once popular idea that Crimea had a particular role as a regional Black Sea centre of sorts yielded to dependence on a narrow band of Russian advisors with limited ideas of acceptable provincial arrangements. This meant that all potential options of how ethnic Russians in Crimea could improve their future life boiled down to just one.

Against this background, there are four reasons to say that the referendum in Crimea contains the seeds of great danger to human security. 

First, it is virtually impossible to imagine that Kyiv - both the current interim government, and any other power-centre born through normal democratic processes - will accept this referendum as a legal manifestation of the hopes and aspirations of Crimean citizens, or accede to its results. Moreover, as long as Ukraine faces an immediate threat of division as a result of Russia's direct or implicit pressure, Kyiv will regard any centrifugal initiatives as unlawful. If Ukrainian politics returns to a constitutional track before the disastrous scenario of Russian annexation arrives, the champions of the hasty referendum may lose any chance to join a political dialogue with Kiev that could endorse real autonomy and expand the rights of the Russian-speaking minority.

Second, the referendum may be boycotted by at least half of Crimea's voters, depriving it even of its immediate legitimacy. The fallout - in the context of overall Russian political control - could well include deeper splits and even outbursts of communal violence.

Third, the position and stance of Crimean Tatars are a crucial factor. This people, having survived a cruel history of mass deportation from their historic homeland (in 1944) and then gradual resettlement (from the late 1980s), the protection of their language, identity and political rights is the Crimean Tatars' acute concern.

Crimean Tatars have close historic ties to Russia and Russians. After all, they lived under the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union (whose Crimean Autonomous Republic belonged to Russia until 1954, when it was transferred to Ukraine). The very last session of the USSR's Supreme Soviet ruled that their deportation was a criminal act. A biopic about Ametkhan Sultan, the legendary Soviet Crimean Tatar combat-pilot, was recently nominated for a “Nika”, the prestigious Russian cinema award.

Most Crimean Tatars today see their Majlis (informal representative body) as speaking for their interests. They distrust Russian politicians who have brought to Crimea a conflict that, Crimean Tatars believe, can only damage them. There seems very little chance of any agreement between the Majlis and the politicians who are promoting the referendum.

Ukraine's constitution refers to the indigenous character of the Crimean Tatars, but this stops short of legal recognition. The actions of Russian politicians in Crimea may push Kyiv to remedy this and acknowledge the Majlis as the official self-governing body of the Crimean Tatars. In that case, Crimea may well face a prospect with echoes of Quebec, of an appeal for self-determination within self-determination.

Fourth, the situation of Russians and Russian-speakers in Crimea  - the very people in whose interests the vote is supposedly being held - does not justify the claim to self-determination according to the understanding of this principle by the international community. Among the prerequisites of self-determination is that a regional population is trapped within a state system which directly oppresses or imperils it (for example on account of its ethnicity), and denies it the chance of  preserving and developing its self-identity.

Such a condition does not apply to the Russians of Crimea. The Autonomous Republic of Crimea is not homogenous ethnically and confessionally, and its ethnic-political composition has changed since its autonomy was established in the early 1990s. Crimean Tatars now comprise 12% of Crimea’s population, and Ukrainians around 25%. A new generation born in the post-Soviet period have grown up to speak and feel Ukrainian (unlike their grandparents). Moreover, Russians are by no means unified in their desire for secession from Ukraine. In these circumstances, any referendum will be very divisive.

A unifying identity

A hasty and manipulated referendum on altering Crimea's constitutional status will thus carry the region into even greater deadlock and crisis among Crimea's people (to say nothing of its international effects). There are two possible ways out. The first is for the local leadership to halt the process, take part in shaping the future of Ukraine with other Ukrainian power-centres, and commit itself to negotiating the future status of the region through dialogue. The second is to wait until Russia annexes Crimea - after which all Crimeans can bid farewell to peace and quiet in their homeland, and look forward to a scenario closer to Northern Ireland's long war than to Quebec.

The main source of hope is that almost everyone in Crimea still seems determined to stay. They all think of themselves as Crimeans. The coming days will test the strength of this unifying identity.

About the author

Natalia Mirimanova is senior adviser at the Eurasia programme of International Alert, and a conflict-resolution scholar and practitioner. She has worked since 1993 in the field of conflict research and resolution, organisational development and civil advocacy, under the aegis of the United Nations, the OSCE, Conciliation Resources, the Aga Khan Foundation, the National Democratic Institute and other bodies. She received her PhD from the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University. In recent years she has worked on conflict prevention in Ukraine, and in particular in Crimea

Read On

International Alert

Gwendolyn Sasse, The Crimea Question: Identity, Transition and Conflict (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Alan W Fisher, The Crimean Tatars (Hoover Institution Press, 1978)

Russia in Global Affairs

Kyiv Post

International Committee for Crimea

Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (Yale University Press, 3rd edition, 2009)

Roger E Kanet & Maria Raquel Freire, Competing for Influence: the EU and Russia in post-Soviet Eurasia (Republic of Letters, 2012)

More On

Natalia Mirimanova is senior adviser at the Eurasia programme of International Alert, and a conflict-resolution scholar and practitioner. She has worked since 1993 in the field of conflict research and resolution, organisational development and civil advocacy, under the aegis of the United Nations, the OSCE, Conciliation Resources, the Aga Khan Foundation, the National Democratic Institute and other bodies. She received her PhD from the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University. In recent years she has worked on conflict prevention in Ukraine, and in particular in Crimea


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