The Crimean Referendum: What Comes Next?


The referendum in Crimea which took place yesterday resulted – according to Mikhail Malyshev, the head of the Crimean referendum commission – in 96.77% of voters opting for Crimea’s integration with Russia. The referendum was dismissed and decried by the interim government in Kiev as a ‘circus performance’; by British Foreign Secretary William Hague as a ‘mockery of proper democratic practise’; while President Barack Obama restated that the US would never accept the validity of the referendum, and stressed that sanctions upon Russia were now imminent.

Malyshev also placed the turnout for the referendum at 83.1%, with 1,274,096 of the eligible population voting. 1,233,002 Crimeans voted for integration with the Russian Federation. 31,997 voted for the other option on the ballot, which would have seen the region remain part of Ukraine, but with the greater autonomy which it possessed back in 1992 when, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Crimean parliament struck a hard bargain before confirming its unity with the newly independent Ukrainian state. 9,097 ballot papers were declared spoilt.

A turnout of 83.1% appears impressive, and suggests a weight of feeling within the region. Nevertheless, without independent verification – the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) rejected an offer to observe the referendum in some capacity – these figures will be disputed; and the legality of holding a referendum without Kiev’s consent, amidst the strong presence of the Russian military, will continue to be called into question wherever it is not rejected outright. To the Crimean parliament and the city council of Sevastopol, the referendum was valid in so far as neither body accepts the legitimacy of the change of regime in Kiev: with an elected President overthrown in what they and the Russians regard as a coup, they argue that it was necessary to consult the people of their region regarding the region’s future political status. To Ukraine, and all those states across the EU and in North America who support the interim government and the impeachment of President Yanukovych, the calling of any referendum in Crimea would require parliamentary approval from Kiev.

The result of the referendum and the apparently high turnout call into question the status of Crimea’s Tatars, frequently referred to and given primacy in reports on the region both because their leadership strongly opposes integration with Russia, and because of their long and complex history within Crimea. This history is recounted more fully in the literary history of the region I published last week. Concisely, it extends back to the time of the Golden Horde in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the establishment of the Crimean Khanate, ruled by Crimean Tatars, in 1441. The Crimean Khanate existed, as a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire, until the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774; which saw Crimea become nominally independent before being annexed by the Russian Empire in 1783. From this point in time, Crimea experienced rapid and fundamental political and demographic change. The Tatar capital of Bakhchysarai and other major Tatar cities and settlements were replaced, as the modern cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol were built and established. With an influx of Russians, and with the resorts of Yalta and nearby Odessa becoming increasingly international, the Crimean Tatars lost influence in Crimea; and with the continuance of the Russo-Turkish Wars, culminating in the Crimean War (1853-1856), many of the Tatar populace left the region. By the end of World War I, the Crimean Tatars still made up about a third of Crimea’s population; but during World War II their number was decimated, as 200,000 Tatars were forcibly deported on Stalin’s orders, 46% of these people dying during deportation.

Today, the Crimean Tatars number just over 12% of Crimea’s population: comprising about 250,000 of a population of little over two million. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People acts as the representative of the Tatar population in Crimea, and is currently led by Refat Chubarov, who has called the referendum a ‘clown show’ and the results ‘predetermined’. The Crimean Tatars were encouraged to boycott the referendum, and it appears that many did so; but the results imply significant support for integration with Russia among not only ethnic Russians but among ethnic Ukrainians too. The dissenting position of Crimea’s Tatars ought not overshadow the extent of the present-day Crimean population who evidently desire some form of close attachment with Russia, whether owing to cultural feeling or to perceived economic necessity. Opposition to the referendum must reside in the lack of proper political process and in the overt Russian military presence, rather than in the attitude of a prestigious minority group. While the history of the Tatars in Crimea is long and of undoubted importance, and their deportation during World War II tragic, the region saw centuries of rule before the establishment of the Crimean Khanate, and became something different again as part of the Russian Empire; there is little sense in positioning the Crimean Tatars as the arbiters of Crimean morality.

The Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov – installed at the end of last month – and the Crimean parliament today formally applied for Crimea to become part of the Russian Federation, ‘as a new subject with the status of a republic’. Aksyonov has also announced plans to introduce the Russian ruble as the region’s second official currency, alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia; while scheduling for Crimea to turn its clocks forward two hours, to Moscow time, on 30 March. For their part, the Russians seem ready to push integration through both houses of their Federal Assembly: stating that the move would require no new legislative basis, it may be passed by the lower house, the State Duma, within days.

Still, what this will mean in practise – whether it will in fact prefigure a period of genuine political and economic transition – remains unclear. The Russians on the one hand continue military exercises with around 8,000 troops plus vehicles close to the Ukrainian border; while the Ukrainian press reported on Saturday a Russian military incursion into Kherson Oblast, just north of Crimea, with Russian military personnel apparently lowered by helicopter before seizing a natural gas plant. The Ukrainian parliament – who accuse the Russians of now amassing more than 20,000 troops in Crimea – have responded with the creation of a 60,000-strong National Guard, and by calling up as many as 40,000 reservists. On the other hand, all parties appear eager to keep diplomatic channels open: Vladimir Putin engaging on Sunday in talks with Barack Obama and Angela Merkel; and Russia and Ukraine agreeing a truce in Crimea until Friday, with Ukrainian military facilities allowed to replenish their reserves. Russia and the Crimean authorities have guaranteed Ukrainian military personnel safe passage from the region should it secede and confirm a new union with Russia. This, of course, depends on the Ukrainians being willing to leave.

Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, Russia has repeatedly voiced its support for Crimea to separate from Ukraine and embrace closer ties with Moscow. The integration of Crimea with Russia may therefore be seen as a fait accompli, a coming to fruition of one of Russia’s deepest wishes, securing for it economic and military access to the region and to the Black Sea. We could take the question asked by the referendum and the application made by the Crimean parliament at face value; and Russia may simply welcome Crimea as an autonomous republic as part of the Russian Federation, and set about entrenching the economic, cultural, and ideological links between the two, regardless of the costs.

Yet the costs of a perceived annexation of Crimea will be significant. Russia perhaps assumes that any sanctions imposed by the international community will not prove too severe or long-lasting, given the size of the Russian economy, their key role in the supply of European gas, and the desire to prevent anything approaching a second Cold War. A first wave of proposed sanctions proved hard to conclude, given differences within the international community regarding whether they should cover only Crimean politicians, or extend to those within Putin’s circle (the interim Ukrainian Prime Minster, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has vigorously expressed his resolution to try the politicians involved in the referendum as separatist criminals). The sanctions announced today against 21 officials went a little further than the Russians may have expected, as they will extend to senior Russian politicians, including a deputy Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house. Nevertheless, they have been quickly denounced as weak and insufficient in scope. But aside from the threat and imposition of sanctions, and the broader damage to Russia’s international relationships, the anger the loss of Crimea would cause in Kiev and the absence of the Crimean voting block could wrench Ukraine decisively from Russia’s influence, turning an uncertain ally into a determined foe.

Trouble in eastern Ukraine – which remains economically bound with Russia – centring on the cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv has encouraged some analysts, and some within the interim Ukrainian government, to suggest that Russia’s military presence might now extend to encompass these areas. This logic assumes that Russia would hope for a repeat of the Crimean outcome in the east of the country, with the major cities demanding independence from Kiev in order to redefine their links with Russia. However, the populace of the east is more evenly divided between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. Any extra-political endeavour to encourage secession would be met with fierce internal opposition; Russian military progress would likely be countered by the enlarged Ukrainian army, perhaps with the support of international forces; and the situation in the east could become both protracted and bloody.

There are alternatives to a clearly defined, fully legislated integration between Crimea and Russia, and the more extreme scenario of further Russian military aggression across eastern Ukraine. The murkier possibilities for Crimea’s political future are that it operates as an autonomous republic in name, but as essentially a Russian puppet state in practise, focused solely on Moscow’s interests; or else that Russia is using the region more as a bargaining tool than with any determinate end in mind. Still other analysts have argued that the motive for Russian intervention in Crimea is a weak Russian economy, with Putin seeking first and foremost to bolster his image back home and to rouse Russian nationalist sentiment. Even at this stage, it remains possible that Russia has acted in Crimea primarily to secure its military bases and access to ports, without much thought for its long-term governance; and that the region will continue with some autonomy from Ukraine and from Russia without any fundamental change in political structure. The future of the region – if this is not to be the future of eastern Ukraine – could be as the ground of fraught negotiation and compromise between Russia, Ukraine, and the EU.


A selection of news sources:

RT details the Crimean referendum results:

Reuters and CBC reports:

The Guardian details Crimea’s application to become part of the Russian Federation:

A DW interview with Refat Chubarov, leader of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People:

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