The Crimean Referendum of Independence

Has passed with 97% in favor of joining Russia. Those not in favor boycotted the referendum, in part due to intimidation, in part due to the fact that the question was do you favor joining Russia, or return to the 1992 constitution, in which Crimea is a part of the Ukraine, but substantially independent.  There was no option to stay with the current situation.

While looking into the legal precedents, I investigated Kosovo: in 1991 they voted 99% in favor of independence.  Only Albania recognized the legality of the referendum.  Later, of course, Kosovo did wind up declaring its independence again.  Serbia went to the International Court of Justice for an opinion on whether it was legal for Kosovo to separate.  The decision was in favor, and isfascinating.

It basically amounts to this: though the declaration of independence was made by people who were in the Assembly of Kosovo, because they did not follow proper legislative procedure, did not use the words “Assembly of Kosovo” in the proclamation, and were not properly published, the proclamation was not illegal, because proclamations of independence are not generally illegal.

They also said that the ruling was a one off, and did not set precedent (sound familiar?)

The error, then, of the Crimeans may have been to have a legislative body, as a legislative body, take the decision and actually have a referendum.  If they had done it, not as a legislative body, but as just folks who happen to be in the legislative assembly, without a referendum, then it would have been legal.

All of the above, of course, is pernicious nonsense.  Of course many countries do not want regions to leave them, and make it illegal.  But it is impossible not to conclude that those who say Crimea joining Russia is illegal are anything but flaming hypocrites if they also said that Kosovo leaving Serbia was legal.  The International Court for Justice’s ruling is nothing but special pleading.

The larger issue is this: do people have the right to self-determination, and under what circumstances?  I live in Canada, where Quebec has tried to separate in my lifetime.  Those who were willing to let it leave asked another question: if Quebec can leave Canada, can parts of Quebec then hold a referendum and leave Quebec?  As badly as Canada treats its native people, in many ways Quebec treats them worse: much of northern Quebec might prefer to stay in Canada.  Of course, northern Quebec produces the hydro power which keeps southern Quebec financially viable (it is sent straight to New York.)

This is a line which is hard to draw: if you support self-determination, where does it stop?  What group is large enough to be allowed to leave?  If you don’t, if you think that whatever countries exist today should exist always and no one should leave then you have no such problem, but that can be a recipe for catastrophe, as Africa’s history, with all its artificial countries and their bloodshed, have shown.

Perhaps the more fundamental question is this: in a world with problem that nations can’t solve, why don’t we get rid of them entirely?  (There are reasons, and good ones, but do they outweigh the good reasons to end the existence of nations?)

More on that later, perhaps.


By Ian Welsh

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