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Professors Nicolai Petro & Tarik Cyril Amar give their reactions to Crimea voting overwhelmingly to join the Russian federation

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On Sunday, the people of Crimea voted, in a referendum, over 95 percent in favor of leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. President Obama has said the United States will never accept the results of this referendum, and European E.U. officials have more or less said the same thing.

On Monday morning, sanctions were announced by Europe and the United States against various officials around Putin and in the Ukraine. These will include travel bans and some attacks on their assets in the West.

Now joining us to discuss all of these events, first of all, from Berlin, is Tarik Amar. He’s an assistant professor of history at Columbia University specializing in the contemporary history of Ukraine and Russia, also associate of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.

Also joining us now, in the Ukraine, is Professor Nicolai Petro. He’s a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. He’s been in Ukraine since August as a visiting scholar, has observed the current crisis firsthand.

Thank you both for joining us.



JAY: So, Nicolai, first to you. Of course, the West is saying this vote was illegitimate, there was no legal basis for Crimea to have such a referendum under Ukrainian law, and you can’t have a fair referendum when essentially Russian troops are all over the place. What do you make of that argument?

PETRO: I think there are two aspects to the legal debate. One is whether it’s legal under the Constitution, and the second is whether it’s legal under international law. I think that it is illegal under the Ukrainian Constitution, although people who support the referendum argue that the Ukrainian Constitution is a weak read for the government to rely on, since it seems to ignore it when it wants to.

Another question is—.

JAY: Let’s just make clear what that’s about, that the overthrow of the previous prime minister or president—.

PETRO: Well, that’s one of the issues. That’s—one is that they can’t remove the president except through impeachment, and these procedures were not followed. Secondly, the Ukrainian parliament cannot even appoint a new government until new elections have been held, under the Constitution.

But the other issue, which I think is more subject to interpretation, is whether it is legal under international law. And here I find interesting that the Crimean government has appealed, in its own declaration of independence, to the July 22, 2010, decision of the International Court of Justice, which found—and this was a novelty at the time—that international law contains, quote, “no prohibition of declarations of independence”, end quote, even if unilaterally declared. Now, that was in the famous Kosovo decision allowing for Kosovan separation, even though Serbia did not want to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

So there is at least that much that the Ukrainian government has to go on.

JAY: Now, that, you would think, would terrify the Russians, to rely on such a principle. There’s any number of places, starting with Chechnya, that could make a similar declaration if you’re going to rely on international law.

Tarik, what do you make of that?

AMAR: First of all, yes, that would be a problem for the Russian Federation itself. But there is, I think, an overarching issue in terms of international law, which is that the issue is really one of secession at this point. And the consensus really seems to be that secession from an existing state can only be justified in cases of, in essence, massive abuse by that state against the population in the seceding part.

That, of course, also is actually a major, very substantial difference with the Kosovo case. In the Kosovo case, since 1989, when Milošević really unilaterally simply abolished the preexisting autonomy of the province, and then up until 1999, when we had the attempt at ethnic cleansing of the inhabitants of the province, in the Kosovo case we have, on one side, a decade of massive abuse. There’s really nothing that happened on the Crimea, neither under Yanukovych nor under his successors. It just didn’t happen.

The other thing is, of course, that in the Kosovo case you also have, then, afterwards a very long and complicated process of negotiation: until you finally got to this point of this declaration of independence, you had, of course, a whole Ahtisaari process. So the Crimean crisis as it is unfolding now is actually, I would say, rather different from Kosovo, and the comparison doesn’t really work very well.

JAY: Nicolai, Nicolai, it seems to me the hypocrisy on both the American and Russian side is—I was going to say dripping with hypocrisy, but more like bathed in hypocrisy. I mean, the Americans, you know, they use the terminology of support for self-determination, of course, when it serves their interest, but when it comes to the Palestinians, they don’t seem to be all that interested, and any numerous other examples of that over the last decades. But the Russians, the same thing: all of a sudden they’re for self-determination.

But aren’t—it seems to me that it’s kind of funny to watch the Chinese in all of this. They’re not sure what to do. They’re kind of sitting back and saying, do you Russians actually understand what principles you’re relying on here.

PETRO: Well, yes. It’s an unfortunate turn of events to adopt the principle in international law that unilateral secession can be recognized, because I think it opens up many more problems than it solves. I was reading Harold Koh’s legal brief. He was the State Department adviser at the time who argued the Kosovo case before the Hague on behalf of—well, added the American brief in support of Kosovo’s claim for independence. And it boiled down to, as he put it, the Kosovo declaration of independence had changed the political environment, creating, as he puts it, a new political reality. Well, that’s simply what, I guess, declarations of independence do. It doesn’t really address the legality or not.

What I find interesting about the Crimean case is that they, too, recognize and have apparently carefully studied the Kosovo case, because what they in fact are proposing is a sequence of steps, beginning with independence, which is now the status quo, which will then say they will now act to create an independent Crimea. Then that independent Crimea will appeal for membership in the Russian Federation.

So, again, for the benefit of lawyers, the legal niceties are—they’re trying to observe them, at least.

JAY: Well, sort of. I mean, they’re not really. I mean, it starts with secession, and if secession under Ukrainian law is not legal, then under international law there needs to be a systematic pattern of abuse. Then—.

PETRO: No, no. Under Ukrainian law, the thing that is especially specifically prohibited under Article 73 is that issues of territorial changes of Ukraine can only be decided in an all-Ukrainian referendum, which is a very high barrier that obviously [crosstalk]

JAY: Right. Okay. Well, one way or the other, Crimea has voted, and Putin and Russia seem rather determined about this. The sanctions—President Obama says they’re never going to accept the results of this referendum. So we have a standoff here right after all the love-in at the Olympics. I don’t quite get why did Putin put so much skin in the game so quickly here. Was it really necessary? Was there—I mean, what motivated him, Tarik?

AMAR: I’m trying to—I’m going to try to give a short answer. That’s an extremely interesting question, and I’m not sure anybody actually knows the answer. It’s so interesting because there are very powerful arguments, I think, for saying that Putin could have had basically everything he really needed or might have wanted without such a step, and this step, of course, will cost him, probably cost him quite dearly. He could have subverted Crimea. He could have subverted Eastern Ukraine. These things, unfortunately, really do happen in Ukraine. He could also have exerted pressure again through energy, basically through gas, cutting it off, raising the price, all things that are probably going to happen also now. He would have had a number of other options apart from this very brutal and, as it were, inept approach to the post-revolutionary situation in Ukraine.

Now, I think one speculation that to me makes sense is that partly this is really about a sense of having to demonstrate to the West, whom he does see as an adversary, as well as to the new Ukrainian government, that there will be a very sizable cost to defying him that directly. I think this matters to him.

JAY: And defying him—I would say the real issue is the possibility of joining NATO, right? Isn’t that what this is really all about?

AMAR: It may be. It may be. But again, I mean, here, when you think about the NATO question, I would guess he could have tried to block that in other ways.

But, of course, one thing that he may have been thinking is the parallel with the Georgian case, the 2008 war. And there basically what happened as a consequence of the war was that NATO taking over a German position signaled to Russia that as long as Georgia has this sort of problem with its territory and its borders, it’s not a plausible NATO candidate. So there is, of course, a way in which if you cause an ongoing, persistent territory problem in Ukraine and with Ukraine, it makes it that much harder, actually, for organizations like NATO, but also, in fact, the European Union, to consider if they want to do that—which is a different issue, full membership for the country. And this might have played a role. One thing—.

JAY: So this could be a fairly smart chess move, then.

AMAR: Well, I hesitate to call things smart that are really so wicked. But, unfortunately, it may have been a ruthless, as I think, highly immoral—and that happens, of course, in other countries and with other governments too—a ruthless and highly immoral move that may be effective.

I should add one thing. There is also an issue of shale gas fields. And those shale gas fields essentially sit off the coast of Crimea, and they still have to be developed. That’s a complex process. There are, I think, four of them (I might be wrong on the number). And there has been a lot of speculation about how much they’re worth and what they mean in terms of energy policy. I think this could also have played a role in this particular move in occupying Crimea.

JAY: Right. Nicolai, there’s been a lot of discussion and debate, especially in the West, I suppose all over the world, about—between the external factor, meaning the Americans, the Europeans, particularly the Germans, and the role they’ve played in Ukraine, and the domestic discontent with corruption and their government. What do you make of the role of the U.S. in the events that led up to this Crimea vote?

PETRO: Well, one of the standard refrains here in the popular media for those who oppose the change in government that took place in February, the coup d’état, is that this was all orchestrated by the West, and predominantly by the United States. So there is a great—there is a reservoir of resentment in the East and the South, which now feels excluded from these political processes against the United States. And certainly I think there’s been that sort of perception and backlash in Crimea.

JAY: Before you get into why Crimea’s still important, just kind of stay on this question of to what extent were the Americans manipulating events in Ukraine with the change of government and such. I mean, a lot of people are—not just in Crimea. A lot of people in the United States are suggesting the Americans had a heavy hand in all of this.

PETRO: We don’t know how influential the United States and other governments have been. We know that there was a constant stream of high-level meetings before February 21, and they persist to this day. We only know from the leaked tapes that have appeared periodically what goes on behind closed doors, but that’s such a small fraction of everything that is discussed that we have no way of knowing its weight, the weight of those secret and leaked discussions in the overall context.

But the Crimean issue—and I want to stress this—is for Russia an emotional one. That’s something that I think gets very easily lost in the discussion of whether there are economic advantages or political advantages. For many, many people in Russia this is a matter of justice, justice being restored. And I was reading an article in a major Russian paper where a very liberal political scientist was trying to explain to Russians why this is actually a problematic issue, and he said, well, of course, people here say this was an unjust move, you know, and now we’re just returning to the way things ought to be. What’s—and people want it, so what’s the problem?

JAY: Yeah, let’s—just for viewers that—.

PETRO: But it’s a complicated issue now, because the borders have been redrawn since 1991.

JAY: Yeah, hang on. Just for viewers that haven’t followed this whole story, they’re referring to when Stalin gave, essentially, Crimea to the Ukraine, that wasn’t just or proper in the first place. So people are just coming home. That’s what you’re talking about?

PETRO: That and the entire history of the Black Sea Fleet, who—you know, the population there, which has always thought of itself as Russian, Russian, not Ukrainian, the linkages historically with Ukraine are very slim in that particular area.

JAY: So, Tarik, what do you make of that argument? Because it seems that there’s—it’s very difficult to find a natural or proper historical precedent for this Crimea vote and referendum, and you can—you know, comparing it to Kosovo or even Chechnya or something, that Crimea was part of Russia, and it was kind of peculiar the way it became part of Ukraine. And in a sense it’s not really precedent-setting, what’s happening, because it was so strange in the first place.

AMAR: Well, you know, although I’m a historian, I actually am always very hesitant to invoke history to legitimize very specific political strategies being implemented by regimes or governments nowadays. I think it’s a dangerous thing to do. But, of course, yes, there is a historical background.

And we actually get—I see contradictory polls and contradictory reports from Russia. I do see reports referencing what Nicolai was pointing out, that there are—that there’s large support for thinking of Crimea as somehow belonging to Russia. I also have seen some other reports that indicate that this is actually not that widespread. But, anyhow, this is debatable.

I think what needs to be kept in mind is that it was actually Khrushchev who gave Crimea, as it were, to the Ukrainian [crosstalk]

JAY: Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, I’m sorry.

AMAR: No, no. That’s not important. It was very close to Stalin. It was in 1954. And it was a very Stalinist move, if you want, you know, it was a very despotic move.

There is emotional baggage, however, on all sides here. And that’s very, very important to see. It is true that Crimea has a Russian majority population—56, 54, 58 percent (there are different numbers). It has also about 12 to 13 percent of Tartars, of course, who usually align very strongly with Kiev and with Ukraine. And, of course, it has Ukrainians in between. So it is not as if Crimea is simply that Russian place. In reality it is not. Crimea itself is a mixed society ethnically, culturally, even religiously to an extent, a composite society, which is why it is probably unrealistic to expect that after this referendum things will simply calm down, because there are bound to be substantial parts of the inhabitants of Crimea as it is now who will not want to accept this referendum—for which they also have good legal reasons, but, you know, they have deeper reasons, and that has [incompr.]

JAY: But according to what we’ve been told by the Crimean government, 85 percent of people voted, and 95 percent voted for leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. So it seems it’s clearly a vast majority have supported this.

AMAR: Yes, it seems. But I have to say, we know from the last elections in Russia that they were extremely manipulated. There were major irregularities in the counting, and we can show them mathematically—it’s simply a fact. And apart from the counting, it was simply a fact that they were extremely manipulated and managed before they even took place. So there’s really a consensus on that that has nothing to do with right and left. I would be extremely wary of simply relying on this particular referendum.

JAY: Okay. Just very quickly, Nicolai, you’re there. What’s your sense of whether this represented the majority opinion or not?

PETRO: Majority is 50 percent plus one. I think whatever the problems were with the referendum—and I for one was one of those who—voices that urged that the referendum be delayed so that there be greater international supervision. But I think there’s every reason, given the magnitude of the number of people who participated and the clarity of the vote, to suggest that the large majority of Russians, ethnic Russians, ethnic Ukrainians, and even Tartars, supported the option in this particular case of joining Russia.

JAY: Okay, gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us.

We’re going to do a part two of this discussion, which we’re going to run the next day. So please join us for part two of this discussion on the Ukraine on The Real News Network.


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Tarik Cyril Amar is a historian of the 20th century, specializing in the history of Ukraine, Russia, and the Soviet Union. He is an associate professor in the department of history at Koç University, and was previously an assistant professor of history at Columbia University. He received his BA from Oxford University, MSc from London School of Economics, and PhD from Princeton University. Amar is the former academic director of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv. He is the author of The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Nazis, Stalinists, and Nationalists.

Nicolai N. Petro is the Silvia-Chandley Professor of Peace Studies and Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island. He is currently joining us from Odessa, Ukraine.

He served as special assistant for policy toward the Soviet Union in the U.S. Department of State from 1989 to 1990. He has received many fellowships, including two Fulbright awards (one to Russia and one to Ukraine).

He comments frequently about Russia and Ukraine, and his latest book, Ukraine in Crisis, was published this month by Routledge.