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The UN General Assembly Vote on Crimea: Background and Analysis

The UN General Assembly Vote on Crimea: Background and Analysis
Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Yuriy Serheyev

By Serhiy Sydorenko for Ukrainska Pravda, March 27

On Thursday, March 27, consideration of the Ukrainian question moves to the next level. For the first time a decision on the Crimean crisis will be taken that cannot be vetoed by Russia. However, Ukrainska Pravda (UP) sources believe the voting outcome may not be too positive for Kyiv.

Voting on Ukraine’s resolution in the UN may destroy the myth of unconditional support for Ukraine and demonstrate that Russia remains a powerful lobbyist on the world stage. Unfortunately, these are the realities of international politics.

As has been reported, the Ukrainian issue has been on the UN agenda from the first days of the conflict in Crimea. On February 28, the UN Security Council met in an emergency meeting, after which the Security Council continued to raise the issue again and again, every several days.

Finally, on March 15, before the so-called “referendum” in Crimea, this interim stage ended as expected. As the experts had predicted, the Security Council resolution was rejected.

Of the 15 members on the UN Security Council, one country voted against it — Russia. But, given that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union the status of a permanent member in the Security Council and with it the right of veto over the Council’s decisions, its voice was enough to block any initiative disadvantageous to the Kremlin.

The net result of the debate in the UN Security Council was the image of Ukraine as a country whose defense was supported by the entire world –naturally, with the exception of Russia.

Indeed, during the March meetings of the Security Council, some of which were broadcast live on television, something incredible happened. Moscow’s actions were not supported by any other country. Even China, which always used to vote in sync with Moscow, abstained this time. All the others — including the temporary UNSC countries distant from Ukrainian problems, such as Nigeria, Rwanda, Chad and Chile — unanimously condemned Russian aggression.

After the expected veto in the UN Security Council, the Ukrainian question was moved “upstairs” to the UN General Assembly. Here all 193 countries vote and Russia has no exclusive rights. It would seem that the issue could be resolved finally, with the world presenting a united front to defend Kyiv and leave Russia in isolation.

However, UP sources in New York confirm that such expectations are not realistic. According to estimates by Ukrainian and foreign diplomats interviewed by the UP correspondent, the countries that vote for “abstention” will outnumber those voting “for.” Additionally, there will be a considerable number voting “against.”

What will be voted?

The draft resolution submitted by Ukraine has been finalized and will not be changed. The list of countries that have agreed to call themselves co-authors of the text has not yet been published, but the Ukrainian Mission at the UN has argued that the exact number will exceed 40 countries.

The text of the project is short — only two pages. The operative part is half of that. It consists of six points, in wording that is unlikely to evoke great admiration from the average Ukrainian. The document contains not a single word of condemnation of Russia. Annexation of Crimea is not even mentioned. The text lacks even a clear statement that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine!

However, even in this extremely attenuated form, the Ukrainian initiative was harshly rejected by Moscow.

“This document contains clearly anti-Russian subtext. Naturally our reaction is most negative. Inherently this project repeats the one that was vetoed by Russia in the UN Security Council,” the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov announced after the publication of the draft resolution at the UN General Assembly.

But the crux of the matter is that diplomatic language is always more complex than normal discourse. Diplomats are used to reading “between the lines.” Therefore, the lack of a clear statement condemning Russia’s actions does not necessarily mean that such criticism cannot be derived from the context of the document.

Indeed there are several points in the resolution confirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine within “internationally recognized borders.” And the fact that Crimea is not mentioned is not consequential. As of today, no international institution has recognized the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, and therefore, as of March 27, the meaning of “internationally recognized borders” makes it impossible to treat Crimea as anything other than the territory of Ukraine.

And most importantly, this UN General Assembly resolution declares that the Crimean “referendum” is not recognized. Under the resolution, the General Assembly also “calls upon all nations not to recognize any change of status of the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol and to refrain from any action that could be construed as recognition.”

How are they voting?

Ukrainian diplomats, who asked not to be identified, explain that Kyiv was forced to abandon strong wording and present Kyiv’s requirements “between the lines” in order to increase support for the document in the General Assembly meeting. This is because the resolution is facing serious problems.

Russia is actively working on the sidelines of the General Assembly and in the capitals of countries that are financially dependent on Moscow or closely associated with it. Similar work is also being performed by Beijing, even though it seems with less enthusiasm.

And Ukrainians should not entertain the hope that China’s abstention at the Security Council indicates weakening of the Sino-Russian cooperation in the depths of the UN. Both countries aspire to leadership positions in the world and realize that each one alone the will not be able to counter the West. China understands that in order to be able to count on Moscow’s support at a given moment, China needs to help it now.

At the UN General Assembly, each of the 193 countries in the world has one vote. In Africa, many countries depend on Russia, and those depending on China number 55. We should also add several dozen countries in Southeast Asia without taking the time to comment here on their relationship with China. Finally, Latin America is a region with more than three dozen countries, most of which have uneasy relations with the West.

It would seem that in the UN Security Council, countries from all these regions were represented and came to the defense of Ukraine. Initially, when Kyiv initiated the hearing in the General Assembly, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs counted on that. That is why the Ministry’s initial comments were very positive. But life is more complicated than we would like. General Assembly practices prove that there is no automatic response.

The example most similar to Ukraine’s is voting on Georgia’s resolutions that were considered during the Russian-Georgian war. At that time, Russia also vetoed any critical documents in the UN Security Council, and Tbilisi eventually introduced its proposals in the General Assembly.

The first vote was held a year after the war. The draft, similarly to the Ukrainian draft, was fairly restrained in rhetoric. It dealt mostly with the problem of refugees, and its main point was to reaffirm that Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained part of Georgian territory. In short, it was pretty close to the Crimean resolution.

As an end result, the Georgian resolution 63/307 was supported by 48 out of 193 countries for a total of only 25%. Of the remaining countries, 19, including Russia, voted “against,” 78 led by China abstained. More than 50 countries decided not to attend the meeting.

From a publicity perspective, the conclusion was obvious. Russia had the basis for claiming that only a quarter of the world supported Georgia’s integrity.

Who is voting?

The Ukrainian resolution today will certainly have the support of a few more countries since, in our case, Russian aggression is definitely more obvious than was the case in Georgia in 2008. At that time, Russian diplomats claimed that the first shots came from the Georgian side.

Moscow really wanted to carry out this scenario in Crimea as well, but failed. Nevertheless, Russia will still have substantial support. UP counted at least 15 countries whose ambassadors will almost certainly vote “against” the Ukrainian question. It is likely that the number will be higher still.

First of all, these will be 9 countries whose leaders publicly announced their recognition of Crimea as a subject of the Russian Federation or their recognition of the results of the “referendum.” These are member countries of the Russian security bloc CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization): Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, the dictatorial regime of North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and, quite unexpectedly for experts, Afghanistan. Six more countries will almost certainly support Moscow. They include: Cuba, Nicaragua (the Russian Foreign Ministry has officially thanked this country for its support), Tajikistan (member of CSTO), dictatorial regime of Zimbabwe, Sudan (diplomatic sources see great likelihood, even though this country did not attend meetings on the Georgian issue in the General Assembly), communist Vietnam and Laos.

There is also a group “at risk” that could include Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. However, there is great likelihood that they will abstain — a worse option for Kyiv– or not come to the meeting — a better option. Those who vote “yes,” will be much greater in number; Kyiv probably can expect at least sixty votes. But even more countries will abstain. There is no doubt the trump card for Russia will be the claim that the world did not support the Ukrainian position and this view will be manipulated immediately on Russian television

This problem exists, and there is no use hiding from it. But the leading countries support us. And Russia would manipulate the results even if we had a unanimous vote, with the exception of Russia,” the Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Yuriy Serheyev admitted yesterday to UP. It is important to note that the final vote count will not take into account those who abstain. “So if we take a formal approach — was the resolution adopted on not — we won’t have a problem. It surely will be adopted,” he said.

Yuriy Serheyev did not share his views with UP on the vote tabulation, explaining that negotiations are still ongoing. “Although we do know exactly who will not support us. For example, Zimbabwe will vote against the Ukrainian resolution because at one time we supported sanctions against their country for its violation of human rights.”

“Right now we are trying to convince a group of countries, asking questions not in the context of the Ukrainian conflict but in the context of UN effectiveness. Russia undermines the fundamental principles of the UN. It claims that it does not have to honor them if it is not in the interest of Russia itself. Therefore, those who voted against or even abstained are helping to support the manipulation of UN principles. But we shall still look at how the countries comment on their positions after the vote,” he added.

What next?

It is important to understand that General Assembly resolutions are advisory in nature — in contrast to the UN Security Council decisions, which are binding for all countries. Therefore, the decision of the General Assembly has more of a political significance and serves primarily as an intermediate phase.

Very soon the Ukrainian question will again appear on the agenda of the Security Council, and again will be presented to the General Assembly. Presumably, this time the wording will be much stronger.

And in this case, the issue will not simply be the fate of Ukraine. This struggle is not just about Ukraine. The very existence of UN and the fundamental principles of global security are hanging in the balance. Therefore the stakes in the international contest around Ukraine will grow with every month.

UPDATE: The UN General Assembly on Thursday, March 27, approved a nonbinding resolution calling invalid the Crimean referendum to secede from Ukraine. The vote was 100 countries in favor, 11 opposed and 58 abstained. The “yes” vote was higher than many diplomats had predicted, with more than half of the 193 members of the General Assembly supporting the Ukrainian sponsored resolution.

Translated by Anna Mostovych


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