For Crimea, breaking away is hard to do

The Russian majority peninsula, now under Russian occupation, seeks to become first region to 'switch' countries

Pro-Putin demonstrators with St. George ribbons hold Russian national flags and posters reading "Crimea is Russian land!" as they gather towards to Red Square in Moscow, Russia on Friday.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Already under the occupation of as many as 30,000 Russian troops, Crimea — a Russian-majority peninsula that juts into the Black Sea — saw its regional parliament vote unanimously in favor of rejoining the Russian Federation on Thursday after 60 years spent under Ukrainian control. Flouting the Ukrainian constitution, the autonomous republic of Crimea has its sights set on becoming the first breakaway region to be willingly annexed by another country since the dawn of international law.

Met with condemnation by the new government in Kiev and the international community as a whole, the odds are stacked against Crimea. But with a public referendum on the matter slated for March 16, it is pushing forwards nonetheless — and wading into murky waters.

“We genuinely don’t know what would happen,” said Richard Gowan, a political analyst with NYU’s Center on International Cooperation. “Generally, a transfer of territory cannot be based simply on a unilateral declaration by the inhabitants of that territory. I can’t think of an example of a contested absorption by one state of another’s territory that has ever come to a vote before the U.N.”

Click here for more on the crisis in Ukraine

The stakes for Crimean secession, even if ill-fated, extend far beyond the two-million strong population. After months of often violent demonstrations successfully toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovich, a Putin ally, and scorned a Kremlin-led customs union, thousands of troops believed to be Russian amassed on the peninsula, an ethnic Russian stronghold and home to Moscow's strategic Black Sea fleet. Crimea has emerged as a flashpoint in what has been described as a front in the revived Cold War between Russia and the West, though many feel it is merely a pawn in Russia’s greater geopolitical aims.

In Crimea, there are echoes of Transnistria, a semi-autonomous breakaway region in Moldova where Russia has also deployed troops under the auspices of protecting the interests of ethnic Russians, though there, too, many feel Russia is just trying to curtail European integration. Transnistria declared its independence and reunification with Russia by referendum, but the international community has turned the other cheek, not wishing to support what it felt was a violation of Moldova’s territorial integrity.

“There’s a strong prejudice in the international system against breaking up states and an even stronger one against breaking up a state without the consent of the central government,” said Jeffrey Laurenti, a long-time U.N. analyst. The prejudice is especially pronounced for countries facing their own breakaway movements or border disputes. India, for example, would fear the precedent set by Crimean secession could motivate China and Pakistan to encroach further into the disputed Kashmir region.

Ironically, Russia, an ally of Serbia, made that same case in railing against Kosovar independence just a few years ago. The world’s second youngest country successfully split off from Serbia in 2008, with the support of a coalition of Western nations who then supervised the country's transition to de facto independence. But it has only garnered recognition from 108 U.N. member states and remains controversial even within the European Union. Putin himself called Kosovo’s independence “a terrible precedent which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades but over centuries.”

Fast forward to 2014, and Russia has found itself switching sides on the legality of state, or in Crimea’s case, regional secession, which underlines the subjective and intensely political nature of dividing up a state. “If the people of Crimea make the decision in the referendum to join Russia, we… will of course support such a decision,” said Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament.

“So much of this Russian rationale is a parody of Western rhetoric, or payback,” said Laurenti, referencing the U.S.-led charge for Kosovar independence.

In most cases of successful secession where the new state was universally recognized, the split was mutually — if reluctantly — agreed upon. That was the case in South Sudan, where an elaborate U.N.-mediated negotiation process ultimately convinced the central government in Khartoum to sign off on a referendum in favor of establishing the world’s newest nation in 2011.

Khartoum's agreement to the deal cleared the way for the U.N. Security Council, and then the General Assembly, to formally approve of South Sudan's bid for membership at the U.N. South Sudan's flag now waves outside the New York headquarters. While Kosovo has never applied for U.N. membership, with Serbia still refusing to recognize Kosovar independence and ally Russia holding veto-power on any resolution on the issue in the Security Council, it is doubtful it would receive it if it tried anytime soon.

It seems, then, that Kiev’s approval is the only chance Crimea has at acquiring recognition. With the backing of the 1992 constitution, which declares autonomous Crimea an “integral” part of Ukraine, and substantial international support, Kiev is not inclined to budge.

The country’s interim prime minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk, said Friday that no one in the civilized world would recognize the referendum in Crimea – he excludes Russia from the “civilized world,” of course – and he is probably right. Apart from an offhand comment in support of Russian annexation by war-torn Syria’s authoritarian, Kremlin-backed leader, Bashar al-Assad, no other country has indicated it could stand behind Crimean secession. The U.S. and its allies have already declared the move and the Russian occupation to be clear violations of both international and domestic law.

In reality, international law is fuzzy on this. There is no such concept as the right to secede from a sovereign state — at least none established by the International Court of Justice or the U.N. — except in the case of decolonization. But Crimea wasn’t colonized by Ukraine, it was gifted by then Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev in 1954. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and Ukraine became a self-ruling state, his symbolic gift between two members of the USSR became a permanent one.

Despite the unprecedented nature of Crimea's request, most analysts agree that Russia’s rationale for supporting it — that ethnic cleansing of Russians could arise if Crimea is left under the control of the new, anti-Russian government in Kiev — doesn’t hold water. “Some have argued that the world community should be more accepting of secession when there’s an issue of long-term, severe, oppression — but only when there are facts to support that finding,” said Christopher Borgen, an international law expert at St. John’s University School of Law who has written extensively on the separatist crisis in Moldova. “As a matter of law, that is highly controversial. As a matter of politics, Russia would need to persuade the world there had been long-term oppression in Crimea and that secession is the only viable option.”

Even in the case of flagrant human rights violations, the law of self-determination says that the first response must be to try to improve the human rights situation within that country. “Even granting Russia its current version of the facts, the answer under international law is not to slice off Crimea,” Borgen said.

Beneath all the rhetoric about the legality of secession in Crimea’s case lies a fundamental mistrust of Russian intentions in the peninsula. The international community is skeptical as to whether Russian occupation of Crimea is out of genuine interest in seeing the ethnic Russian population there split from the mainland, or if the threatened invasion of Ukrainian territory is merely a gambit in a greater purpose – to demonstrate the Motherland’s military might in the post-Soviet space and reassert Russian influence in Ukraine. 

If so, that mission has more or less been accomplished. Russia will undoubtedly seek assurances that its strategic Black Sea fleet, based in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, will never be threatened with eviction. But it is unclear if the Kremlin wants to be invested in what would inevitably become a drawn-out, uphill battle for international recognition, or if it will abandon its sponsorship of Crimea for other ends.

Whatever course of action – or inaction, as the case may be – that Russia chooses, Crimea seems headed towards the status of a "frozen conflict," as in Transnistria or the Moscow-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Lacking international recognition or the economic and military clout to revert its course, Crimea could become just another of the world's breakaway regions stuck in international legal purgatory.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter