Friday, March 7, 2014


As Russians try to rewrite what they see as a historical wrong, I find myself digging into the history of Crimea.  Orlando Figes has written two books on Crimea, including this history in 2010.

It was in 1954 that Khrushchev decided to attach Crimea to the Soviet state of Ukraine, primarily so it would benefit from a new hydro-electric dam.  I suppose at the time Khrushchev never imagined Ukraine becoming an independent state.  Neither did many Russians, especially those who lived in Crimea.

As far as history goes, it depends on how far back you want to go.  For centuries this was a Greek enclave, before being annexed by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.  It became bitterly fought over by the Russian and Ottoman empires in the 19th century, culminating in the Crimean War in the 1850s.

I suppose from the point of view of history, Khrushchev's "gift" couldn't have been more ill-timed, coming 100 years after the start of the Crimean War.  The Greeks had all left.  The only indigenous people remaining were Crimean Tatars.  The vast majority of the population was Russian, which now found itself under the Ukraine SSR.

Another stroke of bad luck came when the Soviet Union melted down and Ukraine became an independent state.  Yeltsin formally relinquished Russian interest in the region with the Partition Treaty of 1997, but Crimean Russians pressed for and got a semi-autonomous state with its own parliament, essentially giving it home rule.  While any attempt at secession would have to be approved by the Ukrainian government, this hasn't stopped the home parliament from putting forward a referendum on March 16 which would seek return to Russia.

This isn't much different than what we saw with South Ossetia and Abkhazia back in 2008, although these two breakaway Georgian republics sought independence, not re-annexation.  Russian Crimeans can't really stake a claim to a separate identity as Ossetians and Abkhazians can, so I suppose from their point of view it makes sense to be back within the Russian fold.

What has everyone up in arms over this crisis is the way it is being handled.  We saw the peaceful split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia over ethnic differences not that long ago.  We also saw the much more violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, which no one wants to repeat.  What is to stop other principally Russian territories inside the Ukraine from similarly seeking re-annexation into Russia, leaving Western Ukraine a  rump state?

This kind of de-evolution of government is usually not very healthy.  Better to form a federation like Switzerland did, uniting ethnic Germans, Italians and Swiss, than trying to split states, especially when there is so much overlap as there is in the Ukraine.  It seems we still tend to look at countries in terms of political maps, making them easier to divide and rule.

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