The Crimean secession vote

In an earlier piece, I said

If a fair vote is held, and Crimeans vote overwhelmingly to join Russia, then any Western effort to stop them will be seen as an attempt to thwart the will of the people, a violation of their right to self-determination, which is enshrined in the U.N. charter and multiple human rights treaties.

I didn’t actually think it likely that a fair vote would be held; I was instead trying to avoid discussing the more complicated case where a a fair vote is not held. (Some might call this qualification lawyerly; others, weaselly.) In any event, it is becoming increasingly clear that a fair vote will not be held, as discussed in this NYT article and this National Interest piece by former ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst. I also received this illuminating email from a Ukrainian-American student in the United States (who continues to visit and do work in Ukraine):

If you follow the Russian and Ukrainian language press as well as Crimean groups on social-networking sites (such as SOS_Krym), you already realize that large scale attempts at voter fraud are under way. Several of my friends in Crimea (this has been verified by reports throughout the peninsula) have been visited by unidentified individuals who either make off with their passports or damage them. This just so happens to coincide with an announcement by Sevastopol city authorities that any form of photo ID will be accepted during the referendum, given what has been happening to passports. This is a clear invitation to “Russian tourists”, many of whom have already created problems in Donetsk and Kharkov.

Interestingly, this is voter fraud on TOP of voter fraud since the ballot itself, absurdly, presents residents of Crimea with two options – join Crimea or seek independence – without any space for a “no” vote on either of those options. All under the watchful eye of Russian special forces and “local self-defense militias.” Does that sound like a legitimate referendum to you? How can this referendum be legitimate if it doesn’t accurately reflect the will of the people, and how can it accurately reflect the will of the people when it is being carried out under these types of circumstances?

MOREOVER, the government which is calling for this referendum was installed by those very same Russian spetsnaz and approved by Yanukovych (at that point no longer in charge of anyone or anything). Aksyonov, the current head of the Crimean administration, leads a party called “Russian Unity” and received 4% of the vote in the last elections. He is a fringe figure and I can assure you (as someone who worked in the region) that before all of this started, Aksyonov and his ilk were regarded as nothing more than a joke by domestic and international observers alike. Is a referendum planned by an illegitimate government with no support…legitimate?

Finally, I would urge you to rethink the implication of the following: “Crimea’s ties with Russia go back centuries. It was transferred from Russia to Ukraine only in 1954 while both countries were regions of the Soviet Union. This transfer reflected a top-down administrative judgment, not the sentiments of the Ukrainian or Crimean peoples.” Your implication leads to a slippery slope because, as you well know, Crimea belonged to the Crimean Khanate (present day Crimean Tatars) long before the Russian Empire controlled the region. If we’re going all the way back to the 1950s, why use 1783 as our historical reference point? If historical precedent is what we’re really looking at, perhaps we should transfer the land to the descendants of the Scythians? Or the descendants of the Romans – the Italian state? Crimea has passed hands so many times that attempting to find a legitimate government somewhere in the folds of time is a futile endeavor, at best.

… One more thing – I’m not sure if the Western press has published anything about this, but the leader of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (the Mejlis is described by Crimean Tatars as a “body of local self-government” in Crimea – the Mejlis has offices in nearly every corner of the Crimea and lays claim to representing the interests of Crimean Tatars) called on Crimean Tatars to boycott the referendum. Refat Chubarov (leader of the Mejlis) voiced many of the same concerns I did about Russian tourists coming to Crimea and voting in the referendum. He also deemed this referendum illegitimate due to ballot design and the fact that 400,000 more ballots have been printed than there are residents in Crimea. This is all in addition to the fact that the government of Crimea is not legitimate and that the referendum is taking place under the watchful eye of Russian special forces, but that goes without saying. So, in effect, anywhere from 12-15% of Crimea’s population will most likely be boycotting this referendum.

So the political and international-law implications of an unfair referendum cannot be avoided. I hope to address them after the referendum has been held, and the extent of the unfairness can be gauged.