The Crimean Verkovyna Sovet called a referendum to be held in Simferopol on March 16th, twice rescheduled over just the past two weeks. This means there is limited opportunity for facilitating dialogue between the parties and for Crimeans to ponder the significance of their decisions. For those asking if the Crimean crisis must inevitably lead to war the answer is no. There is a peaceful way of resolving this crisis but it depends on carefully coordinated step-by-step measures taken by all parties. And, it involves entertaining the idea that creating Crimean autonomy requires flexibility, incentives and territorial concessions on both sides of the negotiating table. Three conditions must be satisfied.
First, there must be concerted international pressure to come to a mutually agreed upon solution in a swift and decisive manner that satisfies the needs and interests of all Crimeans. Second, there must be an enforcement mechanism, which ensures that all sides abide by the negotiated outcome. Finally, the process must be elite-led and peaceful. Leaders on both sides must take immediate action to prevent violence of any kind in order to create space for constructive dialogue.
Two questions are on the table: Should Crimea be part of the Russian Federation and should Crimea restore Crimea’s Constitution of 1992 that gave the region more autonomy and remain as part of Ukraine? The Government in Kiev has stated the referendum is illegal on the grounds that the Ukrainian constitution does not allow for it. Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that all of Ukraine should be given the opportunity to vote on these questions. With Russia’s formidable role in the crisis, Crimea’s current position is to essentially force the question of the legitimacy of the current government in Kiev to maintain their claim over Crimea. So, on the one hand, Kiev has a weak bargaining hand because it has little leverage over Putin. On the other hand, Kiev is only thinking about all or nothing propositions. That mindset has to change because if Crimea breaks away it will certainly undermine Kiev’s leadership.
The first question regarding membership in the Russian Federation is an important one. The Russian Federation is recognised in international law as the successor state of the Soviet Union. The question is asking Crimeans to decide if they should return to the status quo ante before the break up of the Soviet Union. That many Crimeans are convinced that this choice is reasonable is evident in the second question that is simply asking for a return to the 1992 Constitution. Consider that in January 1991, through a referendum, Crimea regained its status as an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which gave extended rights to the peninsula. On 26 February 1992, the Verkhovniy Sovet proclaimed self -government as the Republic of Crimea (adding a few days later a paragraph “as a part of independent Ukraine.”)
During this period, using the weakness of the central Ukrainian government and relying on Russian support, the Crimean local elite voted for its first Crimean constitution on May 5 1992 and, within a few months, the position of the President of Crimea was established. In the summer of 1992, an all Crimea referendum was held and a majority of the population voted in support of the new Crimean Constitution. This is the point of reference the question of March 16 will consider.
So, in essence Crimeans are being asked to turn back the clock to a time when they had previously considered breaking away from Ukraine. Like today, the 1990s were a period of economic and political uncertainty. It took Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s then leader, almost a year to gain support among the Ukrainian elite in Kiev to start the political process of reintegrating the Crimea peninsula, a process that some Crimeans have resisted ever since. In 1995, the Parliament of Ukraine voted for a review of the Crimean position in Ukraine, scrapping the Crimean Constitution and removing Yuriy Meshkov (the President of Crimea) for his actions against the state and for promoting integration with Russia.
Today, Crimeans are asking themselves if being part of Ukraine is a good idea. Already an autonomous republic, Crimea has seen severe hardship since the recession of 2008. Crimea was especially hard hit because it is highly reliant on budget transfers from the capital, as two-thirds of its regional budget is supplied by Kyiv. Furthermore, Crimea has no sources of freshwater and fully relies on Ukraine for its water supply. It also receives 80% of its electricity and 60% of its primary goods from outside the peninsula.
Are Western leaders putting the right kind of pressure on Kiev to address these concerns? First, to avoid escalation, all efforts need to be made to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiation table prior to the referendums. At present, Russia refuses to speak to the government of Ukraine as it considers it illegitimate after Yanukovich’s departure. Getting Putin to the negotiating table quietly and out of the harsh lights of the media is essential.
Talks should focus primarily on the first question of Crimea’s unification with Russia. Putin and Crimea’s leaders might compromise if it can be shown that the costs of reunification are simply too high. Consider that if Crimea joins Russia with just over 2 million people and a weak dependent economy, no fresh water and lack of electricity, it could become an economic burden for Russia. So, there are costs in joining Russia. But, the international community and Kiev also need to think about sweetening the pot for Crimeans. Bailouts and aid packages have only focused on Kiev so far. Now is the time to show the people of Crimea the clear benefits of staying in a unified Ukraine.
Second, territorial divisibility needs to be put on the table. To address Russia’s legitimate security concerns, compromise between Ukraine and Russia could allow Sevastopol to be annexed while Crimea resumes its 1992 Constitution and remains an autonomous part of Ukraine. The city of Sevastopol already has special status within Ukraine and administratively is a municipality, separate from Crimea. Most of Sevastopol’s residents are ethnic Russians (over 70%). This is the headquarters of the Ukrainian Naval Forces and Russia’s Black Sea fleet. The naval facilities are leased by Russia from Ukraine. An independent Sevastopol would satisfy Russia’s strategic needs. Sevastopol’s City Council also announced a referendum about joining Russia or staying within Ukraine for March 16th. This would imply that Russia has already considered the possibility of an independent Sevastopol.
Finally, we come to the needs of the Ukrainian and Tatar minorities of Crimea (who number about 25% and 12% of the population respectively). Most of the Ukrainian and Tatar minorities live in four northern sub-regions of Crimea. Historically they have wanted to join Herson oblast (oblasts are like provinces) with neighboring Ukrainian oblasts in Ukraine proper. So, a second territorial compromise could see those four oblasts remain in Ukraine and the rest of Crimea with Sevastopol under Russian control.
None of these solutions are easy and none may be obvious to the parties in conflict. Our goal in writing this is to show that there are viable negotiable options. History shows that there are ways for ethnic groups to reach a negotiated solution through political and territorial compromise. History also shows that these solutions often only present themselves after years if not decades of war. The Crimea crisis is an opportunity to show to the world that blood need not be spilled, and states need not collapse. It also shows that only decisive leadership and dialogue are the way forward.
David Carment – Professor of International Affairs, Carleton University and CDFAI Fellow
Milana Nikolko – Adjunct Professor EURUS, Carleton University