The Crimean Referendums of 1991 and 1994


Yesterday was an eventful day in the uneventful life of this site. The piece I published last Thursday, ‘Crimea: A Literary Perspective‘, was linked to in an article by Gary Brecher of PandoDaily. Owing to this, my site more than doubled its previous best view count for a single day.

Gary Brecher writes a regular column for PandoDaily, entitled ‘War Nerd’. The excellent piece he published on Monday covers the situation in Crimea, and takes the full title ‘War Nerd: Everything you know about Crimea is wrong(-er)‘. It elucidates the response to the situation of US journalists and politicians, and identifies the vital role that Russian oil will continue to play amid talk of sanctions and other consequences. It builds a picture of international relations following the end of the Cold War. More, it provides a suggestive history of Ukraine across the twentieth century, and gives a concise reading list towards a fuller understanding of the region.

Brecher noted in his piece – for the sake of comparison with the referendum which took place on Sunday – a Crimean referendum of 20 January 1991. The referendum asked Crimeans whether they wanted to restore autonomy to the region, and just over 93% of voters approved. I disagree with Brecher’s analysis of that referendum; and responded in the comments below his piece. I am quoting my response in full here, because it considers more deeply some of the recent political history of Crimea touched on in my previous two articles. In short, it looks at how Crimea reemerged as an Autonomous Republic during the latter days of the Soviet Union; and at how events in the years immediately following Ukrainian independence continue to influence developments in Crimea today. My response to Brecher’s piece:

In an insightful, informative, engaging and entertaining article, the interpretation of the Crimean referendum of January 1991 is one of the few points on which I disagree with you, Gary. I think there’s just about room for the interpretation – and it is very difficult to capture the full and convoluted complexity of the various shifts in Crimea’s modern political history, certainly without writing at vast length – but I wouldn’t depict the January 1991 referendum as Crimeans voting ‘to restore their ties with Russia’.

Crimea was governed as an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic from the end of the Russian Civil War until 1945, when it lost its autonomous status, and was made an Oblast, essentially a region of Soviet Russia. In 1954, the Crimean Oblast was transferred to the authority of Soviet Ukraine. Whether this was simply a gift, or whether it served a richer political purpose is debatable; but it wasn’t of profound significance at the time, because power in the Soviet Union was so centralised in Moscow.

The referendum of January 1991 asked Crimeans whether they wanted Crimea to regain autonomy. The vote has to be viewed in its immediate context. The Soviet Union was breaking down owing to separatist movements in numerous Soviet Republics. Through 1990, Gorbachev proposed to reform the Soviet Union, hoping that he could keep the political structure together by significantly decentralising power. Meanwhile Soviet Ukraine held parliamentary elections, and its parliament declared in July 1990 the sovereignty of the state. This was an assertion of Ukraine’s right to govern itself; but Ukraine still remained a Soviet Republic, and it was one of the Republics which began negotiating towards the end of the year Gorbachev’s new Union Treaty.

Crimea asking for a referendum on autonomy, and voting decisively in January 1991 for the ‘restoration of the Crimean ASSR as a subject of the USSR and as a party to the Union Treaty’, can be read as a response to the Ukrainian parliament’s declaration of state sovereignty. On the other hand, as an Autonomous Republic after January it was still part of Soviet Ukraine. Autonomous Republics in the Soviet Union were parts of Soviet Republics, granted much more autonomy than that possessed by mere regions. So the referendum didn’t mark Crimea severing ties with Ukraine and rejoining Russia; but it did imply a willingness to remain part of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev’s new Union Treaty was never implemented: Ukraine couldn’t agree its terms, and by late 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolving. On 1 December, Ukraine held a referendum and Ukrainians voted for independence. This essentially marked the end of the Soviet Union. 54% of Crimean voters opted for Ukrainian independence, with the turnout in Crimea placed at 60%. Thus Ukraine became independent, and Crimea remained part of the newly independent Ukraine, retaining its autonomous status. Throughout 1992, the Crimean parliament made gestures towards full Crimean independence, but really sought to secure only greater autonomy from Kiev.

Perhaps more controversially – and as the link details – in May 1992 the Crimean parliament established a Crimean constitution, and in September-October 1993 it established the post of President of Crimea. But in early 1994, after a polarising election campaign, Crimeans elected as their President a strongly pro-Russian candidate, Yuriy Meshkov. A power struggle between the Ukrainian parliament and the Crimean parliament commenced. Another Crimean referendum in March 1994 asked three questions: ‘1.3 million voted, 78.4% of whom supported greater autonomy from Ukraine, 82.8% supported allowing dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship, and 77.9% favored giving Crimean presidential decrees the force of law’. Yet after more political turbulence – with the Crimean parliament voting to oust Meshkov in September – in March 1995 the Ukrainian parliament unilaterally abolished the post of President of Crimea, and scrapped the Crimean constitution. The Crimean parliament was forced to define a new constitution, which the Ukrainian parliament finally ratified in 1998.

So when the interim Ukrainian government today talks about the Crimean parliament’s lack of legislative power – when it comes to appointing a Prime Minister, and when it comes to calling a referendum – there is an argument that this power was taken from Crimeans by Kiev in an underhand, undemocratic, if not entirely illegitimate manner back in 1995.


The link referred to above, which Brecher cites in his piece, is:

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