Show of solidarity

Print edition : December 08, 2017

Russian servicemen take part in the Navy Day celebrations in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea, on July 30, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/PAVEL REBROV

At a polling station in Simferopol during the referendum on March 16, 2014. Photo: AFP/VIKTOR DRACHEV

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych after his ouster in Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, on February 28, 2014. Photo: AP/Pavel Golovkin

Protesters in Kiev on February 15, 2014 after President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a key E.U. trade pact in favour of closer ties with Russia. Photo: AFP/MARTIN BUREAU

An international conference held in Yalta highlights how Crimea has been subjected to harsh sanctions by the West since it conducted a constitutionally valid referendum to secede from Ukraine in 2014.

It has been more than three years since the people inhabiting the Crimean peninsula overwhelmingly voted to rejoin Russia. In the referendum held in March 2014, as many as 96.77 per cent of the votes were cast in favour of the proposal to leave the Republic of Ukraine. The turnout of voters was 83.1. The people of Crimea took the decision to hold a fair and free referendum after the “coup d’etat” in Ukraine. The democratically elected President of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, was forcibly ousted from the capital, Kiev, through violent street protests orchestrated by right-wing groups, financed and supported by the West. He was removed unconstitutionally from office shortly after he fled the Ukrainian capital. He then sought refuge briefly in a more hospitable part of the country before finally seeking asylum in Russia. Intercepts of high-level meddling from American officials were released, including those of calls by hawkish interventionists in the Obama administration such as Samantha Powers, calling for regime change in Ukraine.

Yanukovych’s major crime in the eyes of the West was that he turned down at the eleventh hour the European Union’s (E.U) offer for closer integration in favour of strengthening ties with Ukraine’s immediate neighbour and traditional ally, Russia. The illegal removal of a democratically elected President was camouflaged by a sham parliamentary vote of no-confidence in February 2014. The autonomous government of Crimea responded by declaring that it no longer recognised the Ukrainian central government’s sovereignty over its territory. Crimea, it should be remembered, was not part of Ukraine until 1954. Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) at the time, transferred the peninsula to Ukraine for purely administrative reasons.

No one in the USSR had ever imagined that it would disintegrate one day. When Boris Yeltsin decided to preside over its liquidation, he left many important and complex problems like that of Crimea unresolved. The leaders of Ukraine at the time had visualised that Crimea, where the population is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking, would pose a problem and had communicated their fears to Yeltsin. But the Russian President, who was in a hurry to consolidate his own power, left the issue of Crimea hanging. The case of the Crimean city of Sevastopol, which hosts an important Russian naval base, was different from the outset. In July 1993, the Russian parliament passed a resolution reiterating that Sevastopol was “a federal Russian city”.

Before that, in 1948, Sevastopol was separated from the Crimean region and put directly under the rule of the central government in Moscow by a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR).

Sevastopol is the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. There was a real danger of the pro-Western regime in Kiev ousting the Russian fleet from its naval base, which has been in use since the 19th century. The current dispensation in Kiev is keen on not only entering the E.U. but also becoming part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Western military alliance. NATO has already expanded to include the former Soviet states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. It has been coveting the all-weather port of Sevastopol since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since the 2014 referendum in Crimea, Russia and the Crimean people have been subjected to harsh Western sanctions. The West has deemed the referendum “illegitimate”. In a show of solidarity with the people and the government of Crimea, an International Forum of the Friends of Crimea has been formed. Political activists, academics and media professionals from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America congregated in the scenic city of Yalta for the first meeting of the “Friends of Crimea” in the first week of November. The historic peace conference in Yalta at the end of the Second World War had promised a new dawn of peace in the world. That, however, turned out to be a pipe dream as Winston Churchill had already heralded the start of the “Cold War” in a speech delivered in Fulton, Missouri, before turning up in Yalta.

Crimea’s special status

A report by an expert group of legal luminaries was presented at the conference. The report laid out in detail how the constitutional process in Ukraine had been derailed and a lawfully elected President removed from his post. The report stressed that unlike the events in Kiev, the referendum in Crimea was conducted in a legal and fair way. It pointed out that that the “Autonomous Republic of Crimea” had always had a special status within “unitary” Ukraine under the Act of September 11, 1991. The Act was a result of a compromise hammered out after extensive negotiations between Crimea and Ukraine. The agreement acknowledged the “special rights” of the autonomous unit of Crimea within the “unitary” state of Ukraine.

According to Section 10 of the Ukrainian Constitution of 1996, the territory of Crimea enjoys legal autonomy. “The coup d’etat and the threat of ethnic cleansing and imminent war over Crimea destroyed this compromise,” the report stated. Article 138.2 of the Ukrainian Constitution states that the jurisdiction of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea includes the “organisation and conduct of local referendums”. The 2014 referendum, therefore, the report stated, was legal and complied with international and constitutional laws. The referendum, the report said, helped prevent further “mistreatment” of the Russian minority in Ukraine who were at the time based in Crimea.

President Yanukovych had written a letter to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, asking for security assistance. “Being a legally elected President of Ukraine I declare: Public protests on Maidan, the illegal coup d’etat in Kiev resulted in Ukraine being on the edge of civil war. Chaos and anarchy rules; lives, security and rights of people, especially in the south western part of the country and in Crimea, are in danger,” Yanukovych wrote in the letter. The report presented at the conference pointed out that Part 2 of Article 27 of the Ukrainian Constitution bestows the right of “everyone to protect their lives and the lives of others from illegal attacks”. The Preamble of the Ukrainian Constitution also refers to the right of the people to exercise their right to self-determination.

Despite the legal validity and the facts on the ground, major Western countries, led by the United States, have continued to insist that the referendum in Crimea was “illegitimate and unconstitutional in nature”, mainly because of the presence of Russian troops on Crimean territory. The report argued that Russian troops were in the peninsula in “full accordance with international law”. The Russian military presence was sanctioned by bilateral international treaties. The last of the many agreements with Ukraine which acknowledge the presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimea was signed in April 2010.

As per the agreement, which was ratified by the Ukrainian parliament, Russian troops were allowed to move freely around Crimean territory. President Putin, speaking on March 18, 2014, said that Russia reinforced its troops in Crimea, “taking care not to exceed the maximum number of staff provided for by the international treaty”. Putin had said at the time that the reinforcements in Crimea were necessary to protect “the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation” on the territory of Ukraine. The report concluded by stating that Crimea’s referendum was legal and was conducted in a fair and free manner. Independence, the report stressed, was proclaimed by a legitimate representative body of the Crimean people, the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and confirmed by a referendum. The U.N. International Court of Justice (ICJ), in its landmark decision of July 22, 2010, ruled that “unilateral declaration of independence by a part of a state does not violate any rules of international law.... The general international law does not include any applicable prohibition of declaration of independence.”

Parallel in Europe

The secession of Kosovo from Serbia in 2008 is given as an example by leading experts of international constitutional law. Kosovo was part of the Serbian state when it declared independence with the support of the U.S. and key European states. The Kosovars did not even bother to hold a referendum before they seceded from the Republic of Serbia. There was also no collapse of the Serbian state or a threat of looming genocide similar to the situation that prevailed in Ukraine in 2013-14. More than 10,000 people have been killed in Ukraine in the fighting that erupted there following the 2013 elections. “The principle of self-determination is very important. If it were not so, there would not have been so many member states in the U.N.,” said an Armenian lawmaker in his speech at the Yalta conference.

Meanwhile, the sanctions imposed by the E.U. are having an adverse impact on the people in the peninsula. The residents of Crimea can travel to E.U. countries only after submitting Ukrainian passports, though they are no longer citizens of the country and have been issued Russian passports. European businessmen doing business with Crimea are immediately blacklisted by their governments. The banking and agricultural sectors have been particularly hit hard by the sanctions. The Crimean people have to pay more for basic necessities because of the sanctions. Even Russian companies and supermarket chains have not set up shop in Crimea, fearing Western sanctions. With Ukraine implementing a blockade, many basic commodities have to be imported from the Russian mainland by sea and this adds to their prices.

But life is expected to get better for the people in a couple of years. Russia will be completing a spectacular bridge connecting the mainland to Crimea by the end of 2018. The 20-kilometre-long bridge, spanning the Kerch Strait on the Black Sea, is being built at an estimated cost of $7 billion and, once completed, will be an engineering marvel. Goods and vehicular transport to Crimea will then move faster and bring down the cost of living. A second bridge will open in 2019 exclusively for trains. Over 40,000 vehicles and 90 trains will be able to use the bridges once they are completed. A new highway is also being built across Crimea.

Many E.U. countries are not happy with the sanctions. Speakers at the conference, many of them political activists, said that the U.S. had applied pressure on the E.U. to impose sanctions on Russia following the referendum in Crimea. Turkey, which was very critical of the Crimean referendum initially, is now planning to participate in the building of pipelines passing through Crimea for the import of Russian oil and gas. A resolution passed by the “Friends of Crimea” forum in Yalta appealed to the international community “to acknowledge the legitimacy of the All-Crimean referendum of 2014” and “to strongly condemn the humanitarian blockade of the peninsula initiated by Ukraine and supported for political purposes by the U.S. and E.U. countries”.