It is not a referendum that will resolve the Crimean issue, Illarionov says

The Crimean Referendum of March 2014 (Image: RFE/RL)

The Crimean "Referendum" of March 2014 (Image: RFE/RL) 

Analysis & Opinion, Crimea, Politics, Russia

Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, like many others in Russia and abroad, says that referenda both past and future are the only basis for resolving the conflict over Crimea and that earlier votes in the Saarland provide a useful analogy on how to proceed.

Andrei Illarionov

Andrei Illarionov

But Russian commentator Andrey Illarionov says that Navalny and by implication others who share his confidence in a referendum as a solution in the case of Crimea are misguided and that the history they invoke is both more complicated and less positively useful than they imagine.

And he suggests that a more useful comparative case for Crimea, its current plight and its possible future, is not the two Saar referenda but rather the annexation of Eastern Pomerania and Danzig by Adolf Hitler, an action that became the trigger of Germany’s broader invasion of Poland and thus the start of World War II in Europe.

Navalny, Illarionov says, made “several mistakes,” above all about the population of Crimea, the citizenship status of its residents, and the relationship between the number of residents and the number of citizen-voters. The population of Crimea is “not three million but 2,285,000.” Not all of these people are citizens of Russia, and the share of those who could take part in a referendum is thus an inaccurate mirror of the population as a whole.

A UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office graphic contrasting the Scottish and Crimean referendums.

A UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office graphic contrasting the Scottish and Crimean referendums

Moreover, Illarionov says, Navalny is wrong to equate the earlier Crimean referendum with the Scottish referendum on independence. “Scotland’s territory was not occupied by foreign forces,” and no one imposed the idea of a referendum on it in violation of laws. And of course, “the majority of [Scotland’s] people voted against leaving Great Britain.”

But perhaps Navalny’s biggest error – or at least the one that could have the greatest impact on the uninformed – is his suggestion that the two referenda in the Saarland (in 1935 and 1955) are appropriate models for the future of Crimea.

With regard to the first, the vote took place in “complete correspondence” with the Treaty of Versailles. No one recognized the Saar as part of France: it was under international administration. And at the time of the vote, Illarionov continues, the Saar “was not occupied by German forces,” in sharp contrast to the situation in Crimea.

With regard to the 1955 vote, “the idea of an independent Saarland state did not receive the support of the voters” and “this was interpreted as the desire of the Saar population to join West Germany.” It was not part of France, it was the subject of international negotiations, and its borders were never recognized as those between France and Germany.

“As is clear from this brief historical outline,” Illarionov says, “both Saar referenda and more generally both processes of defining the internationally recognized status of the Saar differed in principle from the operation of the conquest of Crimea by Russian forces and the forced alienation of part of the territory of an independent state in favor of the aggressor.”

As Illarionov points out, “the key distinction between the Saar methods of defining sovereignty and those employed in the Crimean case is the constant, scrupulous, and long-term application of the instruments of international law in the first case and the absolute lack of these in the second.”

“Violations, and in particular crude violations, of international law are corrected not by referenda however significant they are presented or even in fact are but by the instruments of international law,” Illarionov says; and that is something Navalny clearly does not get.

There is a case far more analogous to Crimea than the Saar, but it is not one that Navalny chooses to cite. That is the German annexation of East Pomerania and Danzig just before the beginning of World War II. Indeed, the two cases are so similar at the outset that the former suggests how the latter quite possibly will end.

Both Eastern Pomerania and Crimea were annexed at the end of the 18th century by a major European power; both remained within them for a lengthy period; both as a result of the defeat of these powers became part of states beyond the borders of their former rulers; and both were territories that some in the former imperial centers felt properly belonged to them.

“The independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the two newly formed states (Poland and Ukraine) were officially recognized as the heirs of their former sovereigns (Germany and Russia); and the borders of these new states were supported by international agreements and the statutes of international organizations (the League of Nations and the UN).”

Both, Illarionov continues, were within the borders of these new states for about a generation. Both were subject to aggression from their former sovereigns, and both of these regions “were occupied and annexed by the attacking powers.” The two occupiers renamed the regions, but that was not the end of the story.

Eastern Pomerania and Danzig remained part of Germany for just under six years, after which it again became part of a restored Poland. The ethnic groups associated with the aggressor (the Germans) suffered both collectively and personally as a result. And when it was restored to Polish control, it was renamed.

These things did not happen as a result of any referendum, Illarionov points out. Rather, they came about “with the help of the instruments of international law [in the form of] the decisions of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences of the victorious powers in World War II.” He strongly implies that the ultimate fate of Crimea will be similarly decided.

Edited by: A. N.

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  • Milton Devonair

    The only thing that will protect humans from russians is, as the cartoon showed, showing them the barrel of a gun and keep pulling the trigger until russians stop coming and decide to stay at home in their own corrupt cesspool of a country. They are a disease.
    This is how the russian apes help people to vote in Crimea:

  • Dagwood Bumstead

    Illarionov got something wrong. Danzig was overwhelmingly German, more than 90% of the population. It did NOT become part of Poland after Versailles but was a Free City administered by the League of Nations. It had been severed from Germany as punishment, not as a result of a referendum. Had the population of Danzig been allowed to vote in a referendum, the city would have remained part of Germany. Danzig only became part of Poland after WW2.

    West Pomerania was handed over to Poland without a referendum if I remember correctly. Whether the majority would have voted for becoming part of Poland is something we will never know.

    France had control of the Saar for 15 years so it could exploit the coal mines. After 15 years, in 1935, a referendum was held and the population voted overwhelmingly for rejoining Germany.

  • Nowhere Girl

    Actually, Crimea has been a part of Ukraine somewhat longer – the Ukrainian SSR should be included. After all, without this non-independent entity Crimea wouldn’t have become a part of Ukraine after 1991.
    I have absolutely no love for the Soviet Union, but Khruschev’s decision was good: from a purely geographical point of view it’s much more natural for Crimea to be a part of Ukraine and under Russian rule Crimea suffered from their too much land syndrome: Russia is always hungry, wants land just for having it, but has no idea what to do with it. Crimean interior was almost a desert under Russian rule.

    And as for Crimea vs. Scotland, here’s a great comparison, found in comments in Polish press: “They are not leaving ‘like Scotland’, unfortunately, but rather like Czech Sudetenland inhabited by German fifth column – Scotland doesn’t want to join Norway, Norwegian tanks aren’t moving through Scotland, nor are ‘little green men’ with top-modern Norwegian military equipment, Norway didn’t send some strange ‘humanitarian’ convoy to Scotland, which kinda disappeared on the way, protested against too much control and was in 2/3 empty, the leader of Scottish separatists is not a Norwegian guy from Norwegian special service.”

  • Michel Cloarec

    At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Crimea was part of Ukraine SSR . Treaty signed by the URSS. After that date there have been some scarmish, and 1954 Krutchev did what seemed most correct to do at the time. Crimea is Ukraine. Even if an autonomous republic. Russia of today, even in rewriting history , can´t throw away all of what URSS did earlier. In that case Ukraine could reclaim east side of blacksea with Sotchi included in 1919 treaty.