Why A Referendum in Crimea?

By Irina Savchenko

NB: This is an updated version of the article posted earlier on March 13th, 2014

referendum is to take place in Crimea on the 16th of March, 2014, about whether or not the Crimean peninsula will join Russia. This was announced a mere ten days before the referendum date. The timing is of the essence obviously; the question is, why now? Why suddenly Ukraine became a physical play-ground between the West and Russia? Is it due to the long tensions building up between the USA and Russia or due to the recent overthrow of Mr. Yanukovich? These and many other questions need to be answered, as Ukrainian future is being shaped.

Over the last 60 years, Crimea has become an emotional and dear part for Ukrainian citizens, as it is the ultimate summer destination for almost all Ukrainians. Under the Soviet Union, where most people rarely went abroad, they would consider the Crimean peninsula as a get-away paradise, not to mention the historic castles and architecture still being preserved for people to admire. This is the place with at least two major religions, Islam and Christianity, co-existing in peace, and at least three different nationalities or ethnicities living side by side, Tatars, Russians, and Ukrainians. No problems were reported in Crimea about different groups being oppressed, until Mr. Yanukovich was exiled. Crimea was becoming more developed and attractive to Western Europeans for tourism. However, due to controversial accusations that Russian population is being oppressed, now Crimea is likely to become part of Russia in only a few days’ time. Due to the Russian news and heavy propaganda, the main feeling in Russia today, is that Crimea is part of Russia, as most population is Russian-speaking or Russian citizens, therefore many Russians believe that it is only fair that it finally became part of Russia, as it once was sixty years ago. According to Putin, Russia has no intention of uniting the Crimean peninsula to the Russian Federation, and some argue that it would be very disadvantageous for Russia to annex the peninsula, firstly because it would create worldwide criticism and anger, and secondly it will be costly as Russia would have to supply water and electricity to the peninsula.

 Crimea was given to Ukraine by Russia in 1954 by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. People who identified themselves as ethnic Russian comprise 59 percent of Crimea’s population of about 2 million, with 24 percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Tatar, according to 2001 census data. Russians make up 17 percent of Ukraine’s entire population of 45 million.”

On the other hand, in this case the question of Turks wanting Crimea could rise as well, it did belong to the Ottoman Empire before, and Alaska was once part of the Imperial Russia. However, the Ottoman Empire does not exist anymore and Imperial Russia had given way to the Soviet Union; which peacefully left Crimea to Ukraine, and then collapsed in 1991. Another major issue for Russia in invading Ukraine, would be China. The situation on the eastern part of Russia is much similar to that of Ukraine, there are many Chinese migrants living in east Russia, and what is stopping China from “saving” them from oppression?

Many people in Russia, who live outside of major cities, still rely heavily on TV as their main source of information, and most importantly they believe the news they hear. This is part of the Soviet Union culture; TV and Radio were the only information feeders and no one would ever dare to question their legitimacy. The news on Russian television today claims that Crimea was always part of Russia, and that it was given to Ukraine during USSR in 1954, does not account much for today. Many Russians today believe that, they have all the right to just claim it back. They even try to look credible and just by letting the Ukrainian government to have a so called referendum, where people can decide whether they want to be part of Russia.

Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the US, Russia, Ukraine and the UK agreed not to threaten or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. They also pledged never to use economic coercion to subordinate Ukraine to their own interest.”

Moreover, Yeltsin had agreed to keep Crimea as part of Ukraine, at the fall of USSR with the condition that the Russian fleet will have a lease of the port in Sevastopol until 2042. With these and other laws signed, such as Russia being allowed to have 25,000 troops on Ukrainian ground, Russia does not see any violation of international laws. The question is, why should there be a referendum? Is there any evidence of Russians, who are the majority of the Crimean population, being oppressed? There are Russian troops blocking the Ukrainian military and main transportation points, such as the airport or the road connecting the Crimean peninsula to the Ukrainian mainland. Russian troops were blocking the protests of Ukrainians in Crimea, as shown on the video by journalists, and therefore, the media would only get the news about Russian flags being waved in Crimea, as Ukrainians are threatened under a gun point. The unbelievable reality, which was feared by many Ukrainians, is that the government will not wait for a referendum, which is exactly what happened on March 11, 2014. The Crimean government has declared independence from Ukraine, as that is the important factor that would allow a referendum, one Russian news channel claimed.

Putin claimed, at his press-conference on March 4th, 2014, that those who were protesting at the Maidan were well trained by western neighboring countries such as Poland, and the soldiers without any signs of military, occupying Crimea are Ukrainian self-defense forces, who simply went to a local shop and bought uniforms; however, they speak perfect Russian and admit that they are from Russia, when being asked questions by journalists. The clearly visible differences between Putin’s words and Russian TV channels, and other sources of information are upsetting. Putin has said that Russia does not consider annexing Crimea or having the peninsula added to the Russian Federation; however, due to the legitimacy of Putin’s words, can this be held accountable in the future?

The Crimean government decided to have a referendum. But if the majority of the peninsula’s population claims to be Russian, is the government not of a similar mindset and, therefore, political orientation? The issue of corruption is big in Ukraine and directly relevant to this case as those who get the posts in the government have, more often than not, done so in an illegitimate way. Similarly, in Yulia Timoshenko’s words, “the referendum is not legitimate if it’s done under a gun point.” Indeed, although looking at the situation as a decision of the Ukrainian people might be easy for an outsider, it seems that in reality things are more complicated and that Russia has crossed certain lines.

Admittedly, the protest against president Yanuckovic during the Olympic Games in Sochi, seemed very well thought through. The timing was convenient since Putin and Medvedev were watching the Olympics, and because at any other time Putin might have acted differently towards the events in Kyiv. According to Jeffrey Tayler, Putin could not have thought anything different than that the West has played a part in fabricating the protests in Kyiv, given the history of United States invading and intervening across the globe since the end of the Cold War. Nonetheless, the former president Yanukovich going quietly to meet with Putin and signing a deal with the Russians a day before signing a deal with Europe was the last strike for the Ukrainian people. The legitimacy of the president Yunukovich was already very questionable since he became a president without minding the Orange revolution of 2004, where he ran for president and lost because the revolution was against his party’s fraud in elections. Moreover, Yanukovich is an ex-convict, who was imprisoned for non-political reasons, but the charges were dropped as soon as he became president; also with very questionable education and language skills, he could not have climbed the political ladder by working hard enough. During many press conferences he struggled to speak Ukrainian, and his campaign was one of the most expensive in Ukrainian election history 2010, which is almost insulting as Ukrainians are living in border-line poverty. The voting system was not transparent during the elections, and students and pensioners were bribed in order to stand with “Regional Party” flags in Kyiv, openly saying it to the press, live on television. The Orange revolution in 2004 bought time only for four years, and after that Yanukovich carved his way onto the top of the government; he won by 3.48% over Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister, who refused to accept the result, alleging fraud, and then was imprisoned for political reasons until February, 2014, when Yanukovich fled the country.

Now, it was a good time to change all of that. The fact that Russia gives asylum to Yanukovich and still claims him to be the legitimate president of Ukraine brings more questions to his rule and his decision-making. Therefore, the protests at Maindan were inevitable; it was just a matter of time for anger to be expressed. Hundreds of souls were lost during this revolution which has shaken Ukraine, and the rest of Europe. Was it worth it? Now, indirectly, Russia is manipulating its way into the south of Ukraine. But will it stop there? Will Ukraine finally be independent? These are the questions that the  people of Ukraine are eagerly asking.

Nevertheless, the reason for Russian military to step on Ukrainian soil is obvious for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Yanukovich is not there to do his duty anymore, and as of March 7th, 2014 Russia has announced to have cut diplomatic ties with Ukraine right at the time when the UN recognized that Yanukovich is no longer the president of Ukraine, meaning the government is no more a pro-Russian one. And second, it is an act towards the US and the rest of the world, it is an act to challenge the position of the world power. Russia is powerful enough to add parts of other sovereign land to its federation, and not be punished for it. Will the West really have much courage to make strong decisions toward Russia and impose economic sanctions, knowing that Russia has a great leverage – gas supply? This is the crucial moment when Mr. Putin taking advantage of his power, and with this scenario, what is stopping him from invading all of Ukraine in the future?

Russia has been watching the USA deal with Latin America, Northern Africa and the Middle East, and is clearly disagreeing for a long time.  Kerry in his now famous speech which proclaimed: “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in the 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a complete trumped-up pretext”. It is almost ironic, given it is coming from the US, when for example during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, with the pretext of them possessing weapons of mass destruction that were never found. The US after the end of the Cold War, has done nothing but try to ‘push’ its power across the globe; in 1994 it military embargoed Haiti and sent troops to overthrow President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; in the same year deploying military in the Balkans, which lead to secession of Kosovo in 1999 and the imprisonment of Serbian President Milosevic; in 2001 the US the oversaw the election of President Hamid Karzai after invading Afghanistan; additionally in 2011 along with NATO enforcing a non-fly zone over Libya, leading to brutal execution of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Additionally, Putin has been irritated over NATO’s involvement and the turn out of the events. NATO is a sensitive issue, which was created during the Cold War, however, and even though George H. W Bush had promised that it will not enlarge, it has expanded three times its size since. It was only time since Putin decided to act just like the US, start having influence in the government of foreign countries, start sending troops to foreign countries, and not have anyone stop him. For example, the relation of Putin with the President of Belarus, or the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the war with Chechnya, and now, the struggle for power in Ukraine. During the press-conference on March 4th, Putin said that America did not have any economic or other sanctions from Europe or the UK, even though many have disagreed and criticized US invasions across the globe, hinting that why Russia should not be able to do the same. In a press-conference on Tuesday, 4th March 2014, Putin said:

“If Russian citizens in Ukraine, along the border of Russia ask us for help, we will provide it, and we already have the letter from the legitimate president Yanukovich to do so, therefore we have the right to use all the resources possible to protect those citizens.”

The wording of Mr. Putin is very clear, they will take any measures necessary, which means, whatever they decide is applicable to “save” those Russians living in Crimea right now. The non-acceptance of the Ukrainian sovereignty; despite Yanukovich fleeing the country, they still recognise him as the legitimate president and take official documents from him is not lawful. Russia was clearly undermining the wishes of the Ukrainian people and the new temporary government, and trying to force its political orientation, as it has done in the past, before the new elections of the Ukrainian government in May, 2014.

The frightening reality is that due to the major propaganda going on in Russia, on TV and Radio, the Russian population starts to feel more and more responsible for those “poor” fellow Russians living in Ukraine, and are encouraged to travel to Ukraine to “protest for freedom”; for freedom of the Russian language and for the oppressed Russian people; for freedom from the western extremists. The main goal of the Russian officials is to create unrest to the parts of Ukraine, which then gives the news, and the rest of the world, the idea that Ukraine is very culturally divided and wants to split its territory.  Some evidence of similar incidents was seen when a young man in Kharkiv replaced the Ukrainian flag with a Russian one on an administration building, which at first seemed as though the country is splitting and Ukrainians have made a decision. As it turned out later, the young man was from Moscow, who travelled to Ukraine, set up a flag and then went back home. The border between Russia and Ukraine is almost open; there are no visa requirements and no barriers from travelling freely, which is a big convenience for those Russians who pretend to be Ukrainians “defending” the Russian oppressed population living in Ukraine.

 The timing is of the essence, as by the time Ukrainians, or the western powers, decide to act against this Russian manipulation, the “legitimate” referendums will be already signed. Which is what has happened in Crimea, given only 10 days’ notice for a referendum, and taking into consideration that the area has declared independence a couple of days later, some already say that the Crimean Peninsula will join Russia before any voting took place.

The peninsula, where Russian speakers comprise a majority, will join Russia once parliament in Moscow passes the necessary legislation and there’s nothing the West can do to stop the process, according to Sergei Tsekov, the deputy speaker of Crimea’s parliament.”

Many believe that Russia also has something to gain from the unrest in Ukraine. The ruble is going down, however the gas and oil prices might go up; especially if the borders of Russia and Western European countries come closer it will be more difficult for Ukraine to join NATO, just like for Georgia, after the question was raised in 2004. Therefore, along with massive criticism from the West, Russia has decided to take a huge step in acquiring what it wants, knowing that no one would dare to escalate the situation, taking well learnt examples from America. The main question is, where will it stop?

 The presence of Russian troops in Crimea has sent alarm bells ringing in Western capitals, with some people predicting that it is basically a prelude to a full-blown invasion of predominantly Russian speaking eastern parts of the country, with Russian tanks rolling in. 

Thus, the fact that Putin has missed the moment in taking the situation under control during the protests in Kyiv, which lead Yanukovich to flee, seems to be unacceptable to him and could be the reason to invade the Ukrainian territory or forcing it once again under pro-Russian rule. After Crimea is taken over, it is possible that Russia will maneuver in the same way to the other eastern parts of Ukraine, where many Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians live, and provoke unrest in the same way, which would make it seem that those parts agreed on joining Russia as well. The main goal of propaganda is to make people believe that what the government is doing is right, and sadly many Russians began feeling very strongly about Crimea, nationalistic, digging up history of how it once was part of Russia, and therefore securing the support of its government. Even though it is unprofitable to add Crimea to Russian territory as Russia will have to take responsibility for the land and the people, and it will be expensive, there are some advantages. This will give the Russian fleet and Russian marines the freedom over the peninsula and maybe even the addition of more troops in the area in the future. It seems to be better for Crimea to stay in Ukrainian borders, but at the same time, under the Russian influence in order to have leverage with the West, and exercise Russia’s power. However, as soon as the government in Ukraine changes, that idea is being threatened; now the referendum might give Russia back the right to influence the political course of at least some parts of the country, and fulfill the desire of many convinced Russians, which should potentially boost Putin’s popularity and chances in his future career.


Irina Savchenko is originally from Ukraine, living and working in Luxembourg; she has a BA from Kingston University, London in International Studies, and an MA from University of Birmingham in Diplomacy. She has attended workshops in European Academy of Diplomacy in Warsaw and Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin. Her primary interests are Eastern European Politics, Middle East, Climate Change, languages and public speaking. She is pursuing a career in Diplomacy and International Relations.


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