One year on, and we still keep hearing about the Russian annexation of Crimea. Doubtless the situation in Eastern Ukraine has continued to add fuel to the fire and keep the story in the press, but the media still concentrates a lot on the situation in the peninsula. Illegal as it may have been, however, there is still a fairly solid reasoning behind it.
Whenever someone attacks Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they mainly rely on ad hominem attacks against President Putin. They almost never examine the strength of Moscow’s claim, and prefer to invoke images of short moustaches and Sudetenland, of a big, strong, closet homosexual bully and his weak neighbour being forced out of their rightful lands. However, an examination of a few facts from the not-so-distant past could possibly change a few attitudes.
Firstly, Crimea has been Ukrainian for almost exactly 60 years. It’s hardly been their land since ancient times. In fact, it was transferred to them as a symbolic gesture of good will (although it was done primarily for administrative reasons) by Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in order to commemorate the 300 year old “friendship” between Russia and Ukraine. To really understand this act, we must remember that in 1954 the Soviet Union was doing comparatively well. It was supposed to survive forever, spread revolution around the globe, and communism (the almost-stateless, moneyless kind) was about to be achieved within two five-year plans. As a result, transferring a tiny peninsula was just a matter of a small administrative change within the great, everlasting Soviet Union.
As a result, Crimea was never properly considered fully Ukrainian. During the Ukrainian independence referendum in 1991, only about half of the voters in Crimea wanted out of the Soviet Union, which is even less convincing, considering the fact that Crimea and Sevastopol (Crimea’s largest city and a distinct autonomous region) had the lowest voter turnout. The rest wanted to stay within the Soviet Union – which ultimately meant Russia. This combined with the fact that in the peninsula there are more than twice as many ethnic Russians as there are Ukrainians paints a picture pretty different from what we’re used to seeing in the news over the last year. It is worth noting that those statistics are for self-identifying Russians; the percentage of Russian speakers is in the high 70s.
I mentioned Sudetenland – Putin’s claim that he’s just protecting the Russian minority in Ukraine is often compared to Hitler’s exact same claim about the Bohemian Germans in 1938. However, there are major differences. While Hitler’s claim was based entirely on supposed mistreatment of Germans, the current situation in Crimea was sparked by the abolition of a law, defending the rights of people in areas with sizeable minorities. In 2012, under the pro-Russian Yanukovich, the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) accepted the ‘On the principles of the state language policy’ bill. It included approval of the use of “regional languages” in schools and administration, where a “regional language” is defined as the language of a region with a minority forming more than 10% of the residents. It included not only predominantly Russian regions, but also Hungarian, Romanian and Moldavian. However, after the pro-Western protests ended with the collapse of the pro-Russian government, the acting president Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the drafting of a new law to replace the old one. It trumped the rights of the larger part of the population in Crimea, which has had a 20 year-old history of opposition against the government in Kiev. This is much more substantial than Hitler’s claim of mistreatment of Germans, which was based on little more than complaints about the Czechoslovakian government putting Czechs who didn’t speak German very well in the schools and the police.
The Neo-Nazi problem
It is worth mentioning that the post-protest acting government of Ukraine, apart from clearly violating minority rights, also contains numerous people who in a perfect world would be as far away from government as possible. In a country’s governing body, the people who could do the most damage to human rights in the shortest amount of time are the people who are in charge of people with guns. In Ukraine, that would be the commander of the National Security and Defence Council (when it comes to legislation) and the Minister of Defence (when it comes to actually shooting people). In the acting government, those people were Ihor Tenyukh and Andriy Parubiy. The former is and the latter used to be a member of Svoboda, a party usually not afraid to use neo-Nazi imagery, and whose slogans include calls for a war against the “Muscovite-Jewish Mafia”. Not surprisingly, their dislike for Jews is combined with homophobia and opposition to abortion rights. The post-protest Vice-Prime Minister (one of two subordinates to the Deputy Prime Minister) Oleksandr Sych, who is also a member of Svoboda, was quoted as saying that women who don’t want to be raped need to “lead the kind of lifestyle to avoid the risk” of it. Overall, the narrative of a Ukraine, holding Western values dear, being forced into a conflict with a socially backwards Russia is flawed on way too many levels.
Even when the situation of Crimea’s Russian majority and the violations of its rights are recognised, we often see arguments referring to Russia’s disregard for international law. There’s this post-WWII view most people hold dear that international law is unbendable, and that every time it’s violated this means NATO bombings and humanitarian intervention are about to happen. However, countries from the West have recognised states’ violation of international law as legitimate. Consider Kosovo in the period of 1999 – 2008: United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 was adopted in June 1999 with the purpose of cleaning up the mess left after the war. Its main points were different acts supposed to ensure the protection of human rights in Kosovo, which included installing a NATO-led peace keeping force, placing Kosovo under a UN administration and ensuring the safe return of refugees. But it also included a commitment of UN member states towards maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, since 2008 slightly more than a half of UN member states have recognised the independence of Kosovo, in violation of UNSCR 1244 and the Helsinki Final Act. There was no international outcry, however, because most people in the West thought (and I agree) that Kosovo being independent is “good” and “rightful”, whatever that means. This doesn’t change the fact that between 1999 and 2008, there were no significant human rights violations in Kosovo, and no actual claim for any sort of territorial change. Accepting the violation of international law in Kosovo means that we should be at least a bit more critical towards making quick conclusions about the situation in Crimea.
Comparisons to other events bring Georgia in 2008 to mind. This was another case of Russian invasion in an autonomous republic within another sovereign state, with the goal of “protecting minority rights”. I believe it to be just as illegitimate legally as the intervention in Crimea. However, coverage for the event was nowhere near comparable to the media’s reaction after the events in Ukraine. Admittedly, the situation in Eastern Ukraine has contributed a lot to that. But what is constantly invoked, when explaining to the general public how evil Putin is, is unlawfully-annexed Crimea. I propose a simple explanation for this – the media is a product to be consumed, otherwise it simply won’t survive. There are no newspapers with zero readership, and no news shows with no audience. In order to raise their consumption, they need to be appealing. And cold unbiased facts are really not that interesting (a lot more interesting is actually trying to determine what counts as a cold, unbiased fact and what does not). As a result, what we’re seeing on the news or reading in the newspaper is not exactly news or in-depth analyses. We see stories, with good characters and bad characters, with monsters and their victims. That’s what we – the consumers – want to see, and that’s what we’re given.
Georgia was underreported compared to Ukraine not because it was less of a violation of international law, but because Georgia is a country on the border between Europe and Asia with a corrupt government and a population which couldn’t care less about Western values. However, in Ukraine, we see crowds of people protesting that they want to join our system, people who want to get away from the evil, gay-hating, overly macho Russia. And we see a short bully, obviously overcompensating for something, being all closeted and stuff (so they say). And we like that story, because it makes us feel enraged and feel a bit better about ourselves. After all, we are civilised and Putin is not. We support gay rights and democracy and he does not. And the more rational of us should not have a problem with the skewed narrative most people take for news: we have long accepted the fact that the larger part of politics and journalism is just a collection of faulty stories we tell ourselves to make us feel better about something we hold dear – it’s all the poor people draining the benefits system or rich bankers leeching off hard-working people. We reduce all the complex issues to simple explanations which make someone else guilty for everything that’s bad with the world. And it’s all good fun until someone starts to abuse those stories to gather support for harming people. It is not any different to going to war over largely socially-constructed ideals, like a particular version of a religion, or trying to populate the world with blonde, blue-eyed people (even journalism can violate Godwin’s law).
Lately there has been a lot of talk about possible NATO intervention in Eastern Ukraine. The term “warmongering” comes to mind, and it is a good description (the best if we want to put it in one word) of Western politicians and their dogmatic loathing of everything Putin does. Such politicians pay no attention to such things as the impartial, Western-conducted PEW research poll, which found that 91% of Crimeans believe their referendum on becoming part of Russia was conducted fairly – while only 4% believe Ukraine was right to contest it. And as soon as this narrative of the little man, bullying the weaker neighbour makes us go to war, we’ll move on from Putin and the over 80% of Russians who support him to another group of people who it is deemed suitable to hate.