The Crimean referendum was rigged

To what extent was Russia's annexation of Crimea historically justified? On the problem of “realistic” annexation narratives

1 Introduction

In the summer of 2017, a statement by the party leader of the German Liberals, Christian Lindner, caused a sensation during the federal election campaign.[1] The chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) - previously known for its support for compliance with international law and pan-European integration, including Ukraine[2] - said that one should accept the Russian annexation of Crimea as a "permanent provisional arrangement".[3] Lindner's comment was ultimately nothing special, as the FDP leader was only expressing a point of view that is tacitly shared by many, and possibly most, politicians, diplomats and journalists in Germany and other Western countries. In fact, Lindner - at least in the political context of Germany - is by no means one of those who view the expansionism of the Kremlin with the greatest indulgence.

For example, the former Prime Minister of Brandenburg and short-term federal chairman of the SPD, Matthias Platzek, declared at the end of 2014 that the annexation of Crimea by Russia should be "retrospectively regulated under international law."[4] Alexander Gauland, federal spokesman for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered the Bundestag in September 2017, even said that summer: "Crimea is now once Russian territory, and it cannot go back to Ukraine."[5] In doing so, Gauland fully embraced the Kremlin's irredentist narrative. The co-leader of the Left Party in the Bundestag, Sarah Wagenknecht, had already asked the German government at the beginning of March 2014 to accept the result of the “Crimean referendum”, which was supposed to legitimize the annexation of Crimea, before it did so on March 16 2014 took place.[6]

2 Expansion tolerance in the European mainstream

The FDP chairman was therefore still relatively moderate with his scandalous comment at the time. Lindner merely stated that, in contrast to the Donbas dispute, the return of Crimea to Ukraine was a long-term project. His seemingly pragmatic approach was evidently not just a reaction to Moscow's strict refusal to even consider returning Crimea to Ukraine, and the fact that the annexation was enthusiastically received by many Russians. Lindner's stance is symptomatic of a general tendency in the political establishment of the EU to show indulgence towards Russian imperialism and, if necessary, to ignore the actual history and current situation of the territories officially or unofficially occupied by Russia.

As a recent analysis by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) showed, there are a number of established EU parties that regularly support or at least tolerate dubious Russian positions. Gustav Gressel from the Berlin ECFR office stated in 2017: “These parties are fully committed to the Western model, an open society, free trade, political freedoms, social modernization and a secular state. But at the same time they advocate closer relations or economic cooperation with Russia, they argue for the easing of sanctions at the first opportunity, or they take ambiguous positions when it comes to the question of how the European security architecture should be designed. "[7]

The unanimous support propagated by the Kremlin among the inhabitants of the Crimea and the narrative of an allegedly historically justified annexation can therefore not only be found among anti-American journalists and politicians, but also penetrated the western political mainstream. Both lines of argument are particularly popular among the numerous “Russia understanders” in EU business circles, salon experts who are ignorant of Eastern Europe and among representatives of various populist parties, whether on the right or left.[8] Not only do they ignore the fact that Moscow's coup-de-campus occupation of the peninsula from late February 2014 preceded the formal border shift; Thus, the most important breach of international law was not the so-called “declarations of independence” of March 11 and 17 or Russia's official annexation of Crimea on March 18, 2014, but the previous Russian military intervention in Crimea, which was later expressly confirmed by Putin.[9] There are also indications that the “referendum” organized by Russia in Crimea on March 16, 2014 was massively falsified and that by no means an overwhelming majority of Crimean residents supported the “reunification” of Russia with the peninsula. The supposedly serious historical reasons for the Russian annexation of Crimea also collapse on closer inspection.

3 The dubious results of the "referendum"

Interestingly, one particularly critical early comment on the mock referendum in Crimea came from three representatives of the Council for Civil Society Development and Human Rights to the President of the Russian Federation, an advisory body to Vladimir Putin.[10] One of the members of this official Russian institution, Evgenij Bobrov, visited Crimea privately in mid-April 2014. As a result of his observations and discussions during this unofficial stay on the peninsula that has just been annexed, as well as on the basis of further investigations, the three members of the Human Rights Council reported that, according to the assessment of "practically all experts and residents questioned", participation in the referendum in the ARK was not 83.1 Percent, as officially stated by the Kremlin-controlled authorities in Crimea, but rather between 30 and 50 percent. According to the assessment of the three renowned Russian human rights activists, of the ARK residents who took part in the referendum, not 96.77 percent voted in favor of the annexation, as claimed by the Moscow-devoted authorities, but only 50 to 60 percent.[11]

The latter percentage is not far from the average result of various opinion polls on the peninsula before the annexation.[12] In the referendum on Ukrainian independence in December 1991, support on the peninsula was by far the lowest in the country; but also in the Republic of Crimea 54.19% and the city of Sevastopol 57.07% of the voters for the detachment of Ukraine from Moscow. The critical assessment of the vote in Crimea on March 16, 2014 by the three members of the Human Rights Council under the President of the Russian Federation is also in line with other voter turnout analyzes, which suggest that the results of the vote are falsified.[13] It is confirmed by the even lower voter turnout estimates made by the Medžlis (Council) of Crimean Tatars, the official executive body of the representative assembly (qurultai) of the peninsula's indigenous Muslim population.[14]

Even if one can assume a significantly higher voter turnout and greater support for the annexation in the city of Sevastopol, as the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet,[15] this would mean that possibly less than a third of the total population of Crimea cast their vote in favor of connecting the peninsula to Russia. This would be too small a percentage to justify such a momentous change in post-war borders in Europe. The report by the members of the Russian Human Rights Council also quoted political experts in Crimea, according to which “the inhabitants of Crimea are not so much in favor of annexation to Russia as, in their words, an end to the rampant corruption and predatory violence by the Donetsk governors 'had voted [that is, by the members of the Janukovyč clan who were sent to Crimea between 2010 and 2013]. "

The renowned British Ukraine expert Andrew Wilson confirms the relevance of this aspect of the Crimean secession:

Janukovyč […] helped revive the autonomist tendencies in Crimea before 2014 by so emphatically bringing his own people to power. All - including the local Russian nationalists, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainophiles - rejected the rule of the so-called Macedonians ("Macedonians" [...] was a play on words with the city of Makijivka in Yanukovyč's home region of Donetsk). According to Rustam Temirgaliev, deputy chairman of the Crimean Council of Ministers in the first half of 2014, there were two trends in winter 2013-2014: the first, "the wave that removed the Donetskans combined with the second trend - reunification with Russia" . Macedonian rejection shaped local politics more than the largely mythical danger of “Ukrainian fascism” before Russian intervention determined the end result.[16]

4 Why subsequent surveys do not subsequently legitimize the “referendum”

In one of the last really meaningful surveys, which was carried out in mid-February 2014 - just a few days before the start of the Crimean occupation - 41 percent of those questioned in the ARC (i.e. Crimea excluding Sevastopol) supported the merger of Russia and Ukraine into one state .[17] This result roughly corresponded with the results of earlier surveys on a possible connection of the peninsula to Russia.[18] The various surveys that were carried out after the military and political takeover of the Black Sea Peninsula by Russia, on the other hand, apparently show an overwhelming support of the Crimean people - i. H. of regularly over or even well over 80 percent - for annexation.[19] However, these supposedly unambiguous survey results after the annexation have only limited informative value for the interpretation of the events in Crimea at the beginning of 2014.[20]

On the one hand, the more recent survey results apparently reflect more than the older ones the effects of the savage smear campaign against Ukraine in the Kremlin-controlled media - the only source of mass information that has been available to the residents of Crimea since March 2014.[21] On the other hand, it must be taken into account that voting decisions are determined not only by political preferences, but also by strategic considerations. In many surveys, a preference for maintaining the respective status quo can be observed. This effect had considerable “pro-Ukrainian” consequences in Crimea up to the beginning of 2014 and ensured the astonishingly high political stability on the peninsula until the beginning of Moscow's preparations for annexation in early 2014, given the undoubtedly existing pro-Russian emotions.[22] Even many Crimean residents who were otherwise clearly pro-Russian, spoke in favor of either-or questions in 2012/2013 for the peninsula to remain in the Ukraine - and not for a switch to Russia.[23]

Nor should one underestimate the considerable risks that arise for the respondents when it comes to belonging to the Crimea. The respondents on the occupied peninsula today have to muster considerable determination and willingness to take risks in order to express their potential criticism of the annexation, remorse about the secession or even support a return of Crimea to Ukraine to foreigners.

After its annexation by Russia, the Black Sea Peninsula has become one of those regions of Europe in which the protection of elementary political and civil rights is only guaranteed to a limited extent.[24] The disapproval of the annexation is today in the Crimea by the new authorities and Kremlin-controlled media to a high degree politically stigmatized and in the worst case could have serious repercussions for such respondents - if, for example, surveys are wiretapped or even fabricated. The particularly harsh Russian anti-extremism and anti-separatism legislation, which is designed to suppress dissenting political opinions, has also been in force in Crimea since 2014.[25] Moscow and its deputies in Crimea are harassing politically dissenters - especially members of the Crimean Tatar minority[26] - or mere sympathizers of Ukrainian symbols and culture on the peninsula every week.[27] For these and similar reasons, the possible consequences of a criticism of the annexation, a regret of the secession or even a commitment to the Ukrainian state can hardly be assessed by the respondents in surveys. The results of electoral sociological research, including by renowned Western institutes in Crimea, have therefore been viewed with great caution since 2014.

5 The dubious process of the "referendum"

There are other reasons why the pseudo-referendum held by Russia cannot serve as a justification for a lenient stance towards Russia regarding the annexation of Crimea. The preparations, the process, the media support and the formulation of the questions of the “referendum” were so obviously tendentious that this voting procedure can serve as a textbook example for a manipulated election. For example, the date of the referendum was changed twice in a short period of time, and the citizens of Crimea had neither the time nor the opportunity to publicly, controversially and freely discuss the alternatives they could choose from in the alleged referendum on March 16, 2014.[28]

Before the “referendum”, the OSCE had explained why it would not send an observer mission to this vote: “International experience [...] has shown that processes aimed at correcting a constitutional order and discussions about regional autonomy are complex and time-consuming and sometimes extend over months or even years […]. Political and legal adjustments in this regard should be discussed in an inclusive and structured dialogue at national, regional and local level. "[29] These conditions were not met and for this reason the OSCE and all other relevant election observation organizations have refused to send their representatives to observe. Instead, the Kremlin invited representatives of various foreign radical groups and presented them to the Russian population as international election observers.[30]

Voting took place under considerable psychological pressure, which was exercised by ubiquitous regular Russian troops without badges (“green men” or “polite people”) and in some cases also armed pro-Russian irregular units. Strangely enough, there was no option on the voting bulletin to simply maintain the current status quo, that is, the ARK's constitution, which has been in force since 1998. The only option for voters in Crimea was to either vote for annexation to Russia or for the reintroduction of an older constitution of the ARC from 1992. What is more: these two options were also formulated in an unclear manner, and in some ways absurd.

5.1 The ambivalent promise of "reunification"

The first option promised the Crimean people a “reunification” (vossedinenie) of the Crimea with “Russia”. Crimea, however, never belonged to a “Russia” that was separated from large parts of the territory of the post-Soviet Ukrainian state, to which Crimea had belonged since 1991. Much of what is now mainland Ukraine was part of the tsarist empire and then the Soviet Union, i.e. those states to which the word “Russia” apparently referred in the referendum, for roughly as long as the Crimea. From 1783 to 1991, Crimea belonged to an empire that is sometimes called "Russia", but that did not correspond to the Russian nation-state that exists today.[31]

The greater part of the entire territory of today's Ukraine - and not just Crimea - once belonged to the Tsarist or Soviet empire, as well as almost the entire area of ​​today's Russian Federation. Both post-Soviet republics, the Russian Federation and the independent Ukraine, are successor states of the “Russia” to which the promise of “reunification” in the pseudoreferendum of 2014 referred. The Crimean peninsula had never belonged to a Russian nation-state that existed separately from mainland Ukraine before 1991.

The only land connection between Crimea and the territory of today's Russian Federation during the Tsarist and Soviet periods was the southeastern territory of today's Ukraine, through which the conquest of Crimea by Catherine the Great took place in the 18th century. Therefore, in 1991, Crimea could not be separated from "Russia" and in 2014 it could not be "reunited" with the Russian Federation.Rather, the whole of Ukraine, including the Black Sea Peninsula, which is geographically and historically part of it, separated from “Russia” in 1991. The Kremlin played and played with terms and concepts in this (as well as in many other ways, of course). Quite a few Western recipients fell for this historical manipulation.

It is true that the population of Crimea has never been dominated by ethnic Ukrainians since their inclusion in the Tsarist and later Soviet empires. The majority of the Crimean inhabitants were initially made up by the now largely pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatars and - after their gradual expulsion or deportation from the peninsula - increasingly by ethnic Russians. On the other hand, the Crimea belonged to the Taurian Governorate within the Tsarist Empire from 1802. This large administrative district included not only the Black Sea Peninsula, but also a large part of the southeastern mainland of today's Ukraine, which is connected to Crimea by the Isthmus of Perekop.

The southeastern Ukrainian mainland part of the Tsarist Black Sea district was territorially and demographically larger than the Crimea. H. ukrainophone population.[32] Of the approximately 1.4 million inhabitants of the entire Tauride Governorate in the 1897 census - that is, both the Crimea and the mainland north of the peninsula - a good 0.4 million speakers were Russian and a good 0.6 million Ukrainian speakers.[33] Of the then approx. 0.55 million inhabitants of the Crimean peninsula, 35.5 percent were Tatars, 33.1 percent Russians and 11.8 percent Ukrainians.[34] As a result, the more than 100 years long Tauride-Tsarist period of the Crimean past creates an administrative-historical connection between the peninsula and the territory of today's Ukraine and a reference to the pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatars than to the territory of today's Russian Federation and the Russian nation.[35]

The subsequent 32-year affiliation of Crimea to the Russian Federal Socialist Soviet Republic (RSFSR) between 1922 and 1954, which is often mentioned in annexation apologies, must be contrasted with the subsequent 37-year affiliation of Crimea to the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic (UkrSSR) 1954–1991. The RSFSR period in Crimean history also saw the greatest and particularly cruel population change on the peninsula - the mass murderous deportation of the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia ordered by Stalin in 1944, in which a large part of the Muslim Crimean people perished. The history of the deportation campaign and long-term exile as well as the subsequent return and reintegration of the Crimean Tatars in their homeland as part of Ukraine, as well as the Stalin cult in Putin's Russia, has the political preferences of the Crimean Tatars, who today make up around 12 percent of the population of the peninsula, sustainably shaped.[36] Today it brings about a determined support for the sovereignty and integrity of the post-Soviet Ukrainian state and a broad agreement with a return of Crimea to Ukraine (and less the demand for independence of Crimea) on the part of most of the Crimean Tatars and their political organizations. The pro-Ukrainian attitude of the Crimean Tatars and their deportation history briefly moved to the center of attention for the general European public through the victory of the Crimean Tatar singer Jamala for the Ukraine at the Eurovision Song Contest 2016 with the song "1944".[37]

Similar to the developments in the pre-revolutionary period, the events of the Soviet period are only suitable to a limited extent as historical arguments for the Russian annexation in 2014. In the end, they do not really matter. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state in which the economically and geographically motivated shift of Crimea from the RSFSR to the USSR in 1954 had a purely administrative and no political significance.[38] There have been many such administrative assignments of territories in the history of the USSR.

For example, when the border shifted within the Soviet Union in 1925, the Ukrainian Soviet Republic lost much larger territory to the Russian and Belarusian Soviet Republic than it gained when it took over Crimea in 1954.[39] Nobody in the Ukrainian political elite, however, has made territorial claims on neighboring countries because of this fact or with reference to pre-revolutionary maps, which show a much larger “Ukraine” than the present Ukrainian state. Such historical narratives, megalomaniac visions and irredentist plans are reserved for marginal political currents in Ukraine, as in most countries.

For these and other reasons, the post-Soviet Russian leadership had never officially questioned the place of Crimea in post-Soviet Ukraine - despite many disputes - until 2014. In fact, despite numerous contradicting unofficial declarations of political claims by Russian politicians and some irredentist declarations by the Russian parliament since 1991, it has expressly confirmed this in several contracts and agreements.[40] The two most important such documents were the trilateral Russian-Ukrainian-Belarusian agreement of Belovež of 1991 on the dissolution of the USSR with the then President Boris Yeltsin and the bilateral Russian-Ukrainian agreement on the border between the two states of 2003 under President Vladimir Putin. Both treaties were duly ratified by the Russian and Ukrainian parliaments and signed by the respective Russian and Ukrainian presidents. The official press release of the Russian presidential administration on Putin's signing of the law on ratification of the border treaty in 2004 stated: "The basis of the borders are the administrative demarcations between the RSFSR and the Ukrainian SSR at the time of the dissolution of the USSR ..."[41]

If one were to recognize a “historical right” of Moscow to the Crimea with reference to its inclusion in the tsarist empire in 1783, then one would also have to have a historically justified claim of the present-day Russian Federation to annex a considerable part of the territory of present-day mainland Ukraine recognize. Much of what is now central, eastern and southern Ukraine was colonized by Moscow for about as long as the Black Sea Peninsula. In addition, Moscow could then also lay claim to other territories outside of today's Russian Federation - since they had belonged to the very "Russia" to which the pseudoreferendum of 2014 referred for about as long or even longer.

5.2 The unclear alternative to annexation in the "referendum"

The second option in the “referendum”, which promised a return to the “Constitution of the Republic of Crimea of ​​1992”, was formulated even more confusing than the first option for annexation. The paradox of the second question to the Crimean people was that in 1992 two distinctly different constitutional texts had been passed in Crimea.[42] In 2014, voters were left in the dark - whether intentionally or unintentionally - as to which of the two existing alternatives to annexation in the “referendum” their decision would have referred to. They were simply asked: "Are you in favor of restoring the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Crimea and the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine (kak časti Ukrainy)?"

It leaves open the question of whether the constitution “of 1992” meant the more confederative Basic Law of Crimea from May 1992 or the substantially amended, more federal constitutional variant of September 1992. In both constitutional texts, Crimea is clearly defined as part of Ukraine. In Article 9 of the May Constitution, this is done using the phrase “vchodit v gosudarstvo Ukraina” (literally: “enters the State of Ukraine”).[43] In the significantly modified September version, this is also expressed in Article 1 with the words “v sostave Ukrainy” (literally: “in the Ukraine”).[44]

Had this second option won in the “referendum”, it would appear to have been left to the rulers to choose between the two different basic laws of the ARC from 1992. The suspicion arises that this unorthodox second option - instead of the more obvious option of maintaining the status quo that had prevailed up to that point - was deliberately formulated vaguely. Perhaps the vagueness of the alternative to annexation should increase support for the first and far clearer option - annexation with Russia. The choice that the Crimean people had in March 2014 was in some ways less a choice between Russia and Ukraine than a choice between clarity and ambiguity.

None of this information is exceptional, secret, or original.[45] The facts listed and a number of other illuminating aspects of the memorable events of February-March 2014 are well known in Ukraine and among Eastern European experts at universities and think tanks, as well as with governments and civil society organizations in the West. Yet many Western observers, who are quick to comment on the past, annexation and future of Crimea, seem to be ignorant of or ignore most of these facts. Instead, a number of commentators believe the Kremlin's apologetic narrative: a referendum, which was admittedly bumpy under international law, led to a border shift that was allegedly decidedly wanted by the overwhelming majority of Crimean residents at the time and also made good for an alleged historical injustice.


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Published Online: 2018-6-8
Published in Print: 2018-6-5

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin / Boston