Misconceptions Distort Views of the Crisis in Crimea

by: Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

1. Russia wants Crimea. For this reason, it invaded and manipulated the referendum.

This strikes me as false. About ten years ago when I put together indicators for the UNDP to warn of a potential crisis in Crimea, the ingredients of the current situation were already present: local authorities who preferred Russia to the Ukrainian Orange government, Kiev’s weak influence over the peninsula, strange paramilitaries registered as NGOs and training in shooting (referred to as the “Cossacks”, whom I had seen thirteen years before in the Transnistrian war), and a Russian-speaking population of recent settlers who saw Russia as their protector and who feared Crimean Tatar’s land claims (restitution demands for property confiscated when they were deported by Stalin).

Local authorities, whom I interviewed at the time, expressed displeasure that Russia was unwilling to have them join. Russia did not want them because they were far more useful as a threat should Ukraine go astray, a potential Transnistria or South Ossetia. Meanwhile, Russian oligarchs bought the best real estate and tourists flooded the coast. They thronged to the site of Vladimir the Great’s baptism at Chersonesos (an old Byzantine city, now merely a Sevastopol suburb), which in the nineteenth century had been canonized as a cathedral of the nation, thus indoctrinating people to the core with the idea that this is the cradle of all Russian orthodoxy. From a nearby hill one could admire the Russian navy at anchor, bearing odd resemblance to the Second World War movies we watched on Russian TV before 1989, but with no formidable rivals in sight.

Russia already held Crimea in all but name. It just needed a call to provoke the referendum, which could also have been stalled with another call – only the second has never been made.  Russia does not want Crimea, or Kharkov or Donetsk. Russia simply wants Ukraine, so it had to prevent it from joining  the EU, the same way it wanted to prevent Armenia in 2013 (and succeeded) and Moldova and Georgia (and so far failed).

2. We do not change borders in Europe

While the discourse against changing borders is perfectly legitimate, it is not factually correct to say that borders do not change in Europe or that altering borders is not accepted. In the course of EU enlargement borders did change dramatically. Slovenia and Croatia, two secessionist countries recognized by Germany, were allowed to pursue their course without being dragged down by the Milosevic government in Belgrade. Kosovo was then recognized despite formal Serbian opposition, which allowed both Kosovo and Serbia to move on. With Serbia now negotiating to join the EU, the Balkans are finally reaching equilibrium. Were Scotland to secede from the UK at the end of this summer, we would probably look for a legal solution to keep it in the EU, but we would definitely recognize it. And Scotland’s borders were not designed by Stalin and Khrushchev as are Moldova’s, Georgia’s and Ukraine’s.

Presuming that the EU would ever enlarge into Stalin’s borders is preposterous. Nobody would suggest bringing in these reluctant regions, inhabited to a great extent by the Red Army and KGB pensioners, such as Transnistria or Crimea. These borders were artificially created so to accommodate a bomb. It might prove better to detonate the bombs than letting them explode at their will. Why keep entire countries hostage due to them? The discourse that “territorial integrity” is the most important value to protect here is wrong. What matters is the will of people to determine their future themselves.

Ukrainians in major cities want to join Europe. Crimeans want to be part of Russia. Rather than blocking one or the other, we should concede that Ukraine will never join the EU with Crimea included – or Moldova with Transnistria. Plans to unify them will lead nowhere and should be replaced with backup plans to help them separate peacefully if this is what they want. Can we discuss in earnest during the next European Parliament elections where the Eastern border should stop?

3. This is a conflict of interests between East and West, between Russia and Europe

While the conflict may be escalating because of the way Mr. Putin thinks (it is hard to dance tango with someone who thinks you are doing the box step), this is, however, not how the conflict started. As Europeans, we have never wanted Ukraine to join the EU.  We are aware of the artificial borders of this state, which is forcing the cohabitation of two different nations, a new Ukrainian one (which turned out to be quite impressive) and an old Soviet one (widespread across much of the former Soviet space). Ukraine is a also a failed transition by many accounts: It is a crony capitalist state if ever there was one, with corruption lines cutting across pro-Russian-Western camps there. The attractive democratic path does not have clear parties to represent it yet – and its proponents know that. The EU has not been good at curbing crony capitalism and democracy. Just look how little Greece, Italy, Romania and Bulgaria have evolved since joining.  Thus, Ukraine has always been the bridge too far.

But neither can we stand idle forever and listen to the Russian doctrine of legitimate domination in their neighboring countries. Their bullying of Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and now Ukraine has gone too far. This is a conflict between democracy and the right of people to decide wherever they want their countries to go. Between our “empire”, reluctant to expand and Russia’s invasive behavior, our old enlargement policy has us paralyzed. The time has now come to defend those countries against Russia by other means, to convey the clear single message that we do have foreign policy tools other than enlargement, and that these countries can have Western (EU and US) protection even if they are not, and may never be, EU members. These countries want Europe, not the other way around. And if Russia wants them it had better developed an attractive model as the EU has done. By this, I mean one that would attract more than Belarus.

Meanwhile the situation has never been as dangerous since the aborted coup d’etat in Moscow in summer 1991. How did we win that one? The people of Moscow won it for us, and the incompetence of putschists. Let us at least show more dignity than we did then, when some EU member countries rushed to recognize the generals.

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is Professor of Democracy Studies at the Hertie School and chairs the European Research Centre for Anti-Corruption and State Building Research. She consulted for UNDP’s early warning system in Crimea and the World Bank in the Caucasus. Her research interests include Europeanization, state building, and institutional transformation.

This piece previously appeared on the Hertie School of Governance’s European Elections Blog: “Decision 2014”:  http://www.hertie-school.org/blog/misconceptions-distort-views-ukrainian-crisis-crimea/

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