From the editor's desk
From the editor's desk > Sting in the tail of Crimea

06 March 2014

Sting in the tail of Crimea

The Ukrainian crisis ought to be capable of solution. The fundamental principle is that of self-determination, enshrined in the United Nations Charter and in international law. If it is the clear will of the people of the Crimea that they should sever their links with Ukraine to the north and join Russia to the east – or rejoin, as they were effectively part of Russia until 1954 – then they have that legal right. They equally have the right to be an independent state if that is what they desire. What is needed is a peaceful transition process to establish the will of the people and then negotiate it into reality, with all the protections for minority rights that a modern state has to have.

Other European parallels are not hard to find, including, in the British case, Scotland’s own road to self-determination. If secession from the Union is where Scotland is heading, it must be one of the most civilised such processes in history. There are numerous post-Cold War examples of self-­determination, some more encouraging than others. East Timor broke from Indonesia, though after bloodshed. The two halves of post-war Czechoslovakia were peacefully separated. The various fragments of Yugoslavia found the break-up bitterly painful, but also made their own way eventually. Kosovo is not quite resolved, but will be.

It is true other parts of eastern Ukraine may be restless. But a reasonable approach by whatever stable government emerges in Kiev – including guarantees for cultural and language rights for Russian-speakers – may be enough to hold them together. It was the careless withdrawal of such rights, in the first flush of the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, that triggered Russian alarm bells. Nevertheless, Moscow’s emphasis on Crimea suggests it is a special case – not least because of its recent Russian history and its strategic importance as a Russian naval base. Russia’s behaviour in recent days has been cynical and disingenuous to say the least, but it does have a case to make. When a spokesperson for one of the Ukrainian nationalist groups demonstrating against Yanukovych defined their enemy on television as “Russians, Communists and Jews”, the rest of the world had a glimpse of what President Putin is afraid of.

But Russia needs to be careful what it wishes for. Self-determination for one goose could be self-determination for a lot of nationalist ganders. If Crimea has a right to separate itself from its bigger neighbour, then so does, say, Chechnya. Russia’s borders seethe with nationalist tensions on both sides of its boundaries. The Crimean scorpion – Euscorpius tauricus – may yet have a sting in its tail for the Russian bear.

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