Conflict on the Crimea

Conflict on the Crimea

This weekend, in a hastily organized referendum, Crimean voters decide on staying with Ukraine or moving to Russia. Whatever the decision, it will not end the conflict on the status of the Crimea.

The Crimea is topping the headlines. The status of the peninsula is hotly debated: is it Ukrainian, Russian or independent? As often the case in such turbulent events, it is unclear what exactly is going on and who has said or claimed what and what of all that is said or claimed is relevant. It is interesting that all sides in the discussion are referring to the constitution and the legality (lawfulness) of actions.

Contended in the Past

The Crimean peninsula has been part of a Khanate, the Ottoman empire, Russia, the Russian Soviet Federation Socialist Republic (as an autonomous republic and as an oblast ), the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Ukraine (as an autonomous republic) as well as experiencing short spells of independence. Many, therefore, can claim historical ties to the area. Legally, it has its own Constitution, which is approved by the Ukrainian parliament, in accordance with the Ukrainian Constitution. To add some complexity, the Russian Constitution guarantees its citizens defence and patronage beyond Russia’s borders. Fifty-eight percent of the Crimean population are ethnic Russians.

Contended in the Present

In the current events, the Crimean parliament decided to ‘become part of the Russian Federation as a constituent territory’ and put this decision to a popular vote in a referendum planned for March 16. Ukrainian authorities, quickly supported by the EU and the US, declared this referendum to be unconstitutional. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has stated that the Crimean people have the right to self-determination and the Russian authorities will allow the Crimea to become part of their federation if this is what the Crimean people want.

Caring for the Constitution?

The solution to the conflict is not helped by all the references to any constitution. In the Russian tradition the law is more often an instrument in the hands of the powers that be, than a check on those powers. Ukraine’s parliament does not mind changing its Constitution overnight to shift the balance of power to parliament (the same parliament changed it the other way in 2010). Putin does not have the same concern for the self-determination of people when these people are Chechen. And while western leaders may sympathise with the new Ukrainian leadership and acknowledge it as legitimate and democratic, it was chosen by the same parliament that shortly before backed the now disgraced Yanukovich. Putin does have a point by calling it an anti-constitutional take-over.

Haste makes waste

Where does that leave the status of the Crimea? The unique history of the Crimea may indeed require a referendum to decide its fate, but the hastily organized one for the end of this week, will surely not do so. It will not end the commotion on the constitution and the legality of the decisions and many other disagreements – economic, military, political – will follow. At most it will freeze the conflict, like the earlier ones on Abchazia and South-Ossetia, which seceded from Georgia after the short war of 2008. The upcoming referendum seems to be part of the political muddle. Why not hold it on September 18, the same date that on the other side of Europe, the Scots are deciding on their fate as a nation.


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