Thursday, 6 March 2014

Crimea, sovereignty and international ethics

Earlier today, in Ukraine the Crimean parliament unanimously voted in favour of the secession of the peninsula from Ukraine and accession to Russia. Or, to be precise, they voted in favour of a peninsular referendum, which will shortly decide the matter. Should such a referendum take place under the current circumstances it is almost certain that Russia will win the day. The vote by the Crimean parliament has, predictably, been supported by Russia and condemned in the West. Yet in several ways the status of sovereignty on Crimea is a complicated issue. And it touches on all the central debates in international ethics, including the values of Peace, Order, Liberty, Welfare, and Difference.

Russia is de facto occupying Crimea. Russian soldiers and weapons dominate the peninsula. They have partly come from the resident Black Sea Fleet and partly from across the Kerch Strait, the 5 kilometre narrow strait separating Crimea from south-western Russia. Many more Russian soldiers can quickly be summoned to the area. In addition, groups of armed, paramilitary "self-defence" organisations patrol Crimean cities. Some locals, unwilling to join Russia or support Putin's invasion, are nonetheless grateful that disciplined Russian soldiers and preventing violence by disorganised hooligans. In addition, it is a happy surprise that fighting is yet to take place between Russian and Ukrainian forces. So, before such fighting breaks out Ukraine should quickly abandon Crimea to Russia and secure a peace treaty with amended borders. Or so it can be argued if preserving regional peace is the main value here.

International law has a value in itself. It is partly because of a UN-sponsored system preserving the sanctity of international borders since 1945 that post-war Europe witnessed to little strife. In fact, with the partial (and contentious) exception of Kosovo, post-war Europe has not witnessed any lasting and recognised breach of territorial sovereignty by one state against another. Even the secession of Kosovo from Yugoslavia and then Serbia has only been recognised by some states, the secessions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by almost no states, and that of Transnistria by no one but itself. The break-up of Yugoslavia was a civil war; the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia might have removed the last vestige of self-determination for these states, but their borders remained intact. So, if preserving international order is the main value here it can well be argued that Crimean secession from Ukraine must be resisted by Kiev and the West. Such resistance might cause some fighting now, but will prevent much worse fighting at a later date.

Robert Serry, the special envoy of the UN to Crimea, was forced to leave the peninsula quickly under threat from local militias. At the same time, a mission of observers from OSCE was prevented by similarly shadowy militias from entering Crimea, according to Polish Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak. Assuming that the militias are controlled by Moscow, and we can safely assume that, this is a remarkable case of double standards. Russia is not only a member of both the UN and the OSCE, but a member that time and again exhorts the world on how everything would be better if only these two organisations, instead of the EU, the Council of Europe and the dastardly NATO, were dominant in Europe. Yet when push comes to shove, apparently the UN and the OSCE are not liked so much by Putin, after all. The absence of international observers from Crimea prevents us from understanding what Crimeans really want. Most likely, protection against Ukrainian "fascism" remains popular on Crimea and maybe, just maybe, a free and fair local referendum on the future status of the peninsula would result in Crimea becoming Russian. However, as things are now any Crimean wanting to vote against joining Russia must be very brave indeed. This is a clear breach of Crimeans' liberty, and if liberty is the most important value in international affairs any local referendum should be prevented from taking place until conditions for a genuinely free and fair election are present.

On the other hand, it is possible to ignore the question of liberty and focus on that of welfare, instead. Most people in the world, most of the time, are concerned with securing and bettering their daily existence; fighting for political rights comes a distant second. Crimeans are no different. Assuming that Russia can offer the peninsula and its inhabitants improved living standards, it can be argued that Crimean secession would be a good thing. After all, the economic difficulties of Ukraine are well documented while the coffers of Russia are booming with wealth gained from years of high energy prices. Everything else equal, Moscow should be able to spend a lot more on Crimea than Kiev could, for a long time to come. It is telling that, in terms of GDP per capita according to IMF statistics from 2012, Russia is 58th among the countries of the world - while Ukraine is number 106. The GDP per capita in Russia is two and a half times that of Ukraine. However, such potential for largesse does not ensure that Russian money will benefit ordinary Crimeans. Already, the Black Sea Fleet and its personnel are pumping substantial amounts into the Crimean economy, but I know from recent, personal discussion with locals that such relative wealth among the Russian military personnel can create distance to and envy among Crimeans. Such difference in wealth can partly be explained by the fact that Crimea, at the beginning of 2014, officially has salaries below the Ukrainian average ( So, if the welfare of the Crimeans is the most important value here there is an argument, at least, that Russia should have a chance to improve locals' lot. Conversely, though, Russia has promised to do so throughout the last twenty years with little to show for the fine rhetoric apart from a rather clean Sevastopol.

Finally, there is the value of difference. It is important to distinguish this value from liberty. Under liberty, Crimeans should be allowed to decide the future of their peninsula through a free and fair referendum the results of which should then be respected by all parties. Yet given the highly polarised nature of the issue at hand, it can be argued that the eventual minority opinion would be harshly treated. It is all fine and well to keep talking about Crimea as part of Ukraine, and certainly most people in Ukraine supported the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych. However, this does not exactly help the Crimeans who can, with some justification, say that they did not topple Yanukovych, they would prefer no riots in their region, thank you very much, and while they may be a minority across the nation they are a majority at home (sort of a tautology there, but you get my drift...). On the other hand, though, the Crimean population does include (according to the 2001 census) 24% Ukrainians - most of whom would probably prefer to avoid joining Russia. If to this figure we add the 12% who are Tatars, and also generally opposed to Russian rule, we have a total of more than a third of people in Crimea who want to stay in Ukraine. Probably, quite a few of the local Russians would also prefer to stay in Ukraine. Nevertheless, if we assume, for the sake of the argument, that all Crimean Russians want the peninsula to be part of Russia, this still leaves 36% who are - bluntly - stuffed. "Tough luck," you might say - that is the will of the majority. But this is the problem running through much Russian public debate today (and, incidentally, through public debate across the world) - the problem of the "tyranny of the majority." Most Russians are not gay and, in fact, most Russians probably remain unaccustomed to, and uncomfortable with, homosexuality. This is no different from the situation in most of the world - including most of the West. Yet the fact that homosexuals and their sympathisers in Russia would likely not have been able to vote down the controversial law against "homosexual propaganda" does not make that law legitimate. Similarly, the Ukrainian government can claim to have a national minority supporting the removal of Russian as an official language in the few regions where it had been introduced. Yet Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov was still right in rejecting the law that would have damaged Russian language and identity significantly in Ukrainian public space. In both these cases, and many others, we are dealing with tyranny of the majority. (and, before any reader argues that I am attacking Russia and Ukraine overly here, the West has repeatedly witnessed such tyranny in its debates on religion and immigration). Now such a tyranny can be fully compatible with many definitions of democracy. Yet it cannot be compatible with the value of difference - the honing of difference in order to create a dynamic, healthy society.

And if the value of difference is the value to be promoted here, Crimean minorities should be respected by retaining the peninsula within Ukraine but with a substantial degree of autonomy from Kiev and a pledge from all sides to increase and ensure the integration of Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, and other groups not just in Crimea but across Ukraine as a whole. If this were to happen, the current crisis might yet carry some benefits for the future.

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