March 16, 2014 marks the day when the people of Crimea go to the voting booths to decide whether they will be part of Ukraine or part of Russia. While the referendum is no doubt important to people living in Crimea, I for one remain highly skeptical that the results will actually be the ultimate arbiter on the territorial decisions made about Crimea. The outside players, namely Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the European Union, are simply too big and too influential to let this small peninsula play an independent role far beyond the geopolitical football that it represents. I feel deeply for the people of Crimea, but the bitter reality and perhaps even more bitter truth is that high politics on the global stage can still come off in such a blunt manner. Unfortunately, this type of cynical maneuvering has been going on for literally thousands of years and will likely not end with the current crisis. But on a positive note, this could end up concluding without major bloodshed and a relatively quick peaceful ‘political settlement’ in the near future. If this happens, then the residents of Crimea I hope will feel rather fortunate. If they think that is no large prize, perhaps the examples of the Palestinians, the Basques, the Kurds, or the Uighurs could provide valuable and somber lessons as to how depressingly drawn out, bloody and indefatigably backstabbing other ‘autonomy – independence – secession’ dilemmas have been. The voices of Crimea will be heard on March 16th. But the final say is yet to be announced by the larger players, which brings me to the true point of this piece: the other voices in this crisis.
Ending crises such as the one in Crimea is not only the work of governments, diplomats, and militaries. Reporters play a crucial role as well. The West, which justifiably prides itself on the universal norm of freedom of the press, has now turned its journalistic microscope on Crimea. While Western journalists as a whole tend to be a conscientious lot, simply pursuing an interesting story and often putting themselves in harm’s way in order to get it, the Cold War residue that remains between the United States and Russia has a tendency to put a grimy film over more than just political actors. It often affects the way in which stories are told, the lens through which ‘impartial observers’ focus their attention. Unfortunately, this happens usually at a subconscious level, resulting in news stories meant to be ‘fair, free, and impartial’ that instead have a decidedly biased perspective snaking its way from reporter to reader.
Look no further than the first reporting on referendum day from the highly respected and august news organization, Reuters. It reported how, ‘thousands of Russian troops have taken control of the Black Sea peninsula and Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders have sought to ensure the vote is tilted in Moscow’s favor. That, along with an ethnic Russian majority, is expected to result in a comfortable ‘YES’ vote to leave Ukraine.’ These are actually two very different perspectives conflated into a single position. On the one hand, readers are given the distinct understanding that the referendum is basically rigged, commandeered by Crimean leaders, who are nothing but sycophants to the Kremlin. But the very next sentence also accurately mentions that Crimea is majority ethnic Russian, which should indicate to a reader that a free and fair referendum might end up producing the very result the reporters have already told us cannot be genuine. So which is it? Is Crimea being manipulated by local leaders and the Russian military or is its majority Russian population voting its free and voluntary will? By writing the piece so that the suspicious manipulation theory is conflated with the demographically true statistic, a reader is either left confused or pushed into thinking the referendum itself is irrelevant.
The piece further reports, ‘the majority of Crimea’s 1.5 million electorate support leaving Ukraine and becoming part of Russia, citing expectations of better pay and the prospect of joining a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage. But others see the referendum as nothing more than a geopolitical land grab by the Kremlin…Ethnic Tatars, Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin who make up 12 percent of Crimea’s population, said they would boycott the referendum, despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and proper land rights.’ Again, this reporting deftly presents evidence in a manner that delegitimizes the ethnic Russian majority by highlighting a small minority group, ethnic Tatars, and how it will boycott the referendum. This is playing a bit fast and loose with the complex ethnic makeup of the former Soviet Union, portraying a picture that is not entirely accurate: ethnic Tatars have a long and rich history WITHIN the Russian Federation. One of the most powerful ethnic republics and richest regions in Russia today is Tatarstan. The idea that ethnic Tatars in Crimea are protesting the referendum because they are somehow worried or fearful of being part of Russia is simply fallacious. Much more likely, given the present environment of political turmoil and open discussions about new autonomy and self-rule (let us not forget that Crimea is itself a semi-autonomous region within Ukraine under the Ukrainian Constitution), is that the ethnic Tatars see what Crimean leaders are doing and hope to also earn their own piece of newly acquired political and economic autonomy. Rejecting the Crimean offer of financial aid and proper land rights means they aren’t arguing about principle anymore but just how big their piece of the pie should be. All of this background and subtle nuance would have made readers more informed and impressed at how complex and multi-layered the Crimean situation is. Instead, they are left with a picture that has Crimean authorities mere puppets on Kremlin strings and oppressed minorities being politically stomped over in the process.
The Reuters piece continues to explain the situation, stating ‘the protests began when Yanukovich turned his back on a trade deal with the European Union and opted for a credit and cheap oil deal worth billions of dollars with Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord, Russia.’ I have written on this issue in the past and it continues to perplex me how the above transaction is only portrayed in Western media as Yanukovich simply being in the back pocket of Moscow. Entering into greater trade cooperation with the European Union, paving the way for closer relations, also means ultimately answering to European Union economic responsibilities. Perhaps we could ask Greece, Italy, or Portugal how that can go at times, let alone several members of Eastern Europe who have also faced truly draconian economic choices that forced short-term economic domestic harm in order to stay in line with the supposedly long-term beneficial gain of being aligned with EU economic standards. These realities, along with the inevitably cyclical and topsy-turvy nature of the global economy, mean not all paths to the EU are paved with gold. Given such, why does the West see acceptance for a credit, oil, and gas deal worth ‘billions of dollars’ for Ukraine RIGHT NOW as being akin to a Faustian bargain made with a ‘Soviet overlord?’ What is the impact on uninformed readers who do not know that the Russian credit deal basically meant Russia forgiving a massive amount of owed oil and gas debt by Ukraine? If a country was truly looking to be an ‘evil overlord’ might it not be far easier to simply call in one’s chips without remorse, rather than offering deals that eliminate debt with no actual repayment?
Finally, the piece reports, ‘voters have two options to choose from – but both imply Russian control of the peninsula. On the surface, the second choice appears to offer the prospect of Crimea remaining with Ukraine. However, the 1992 constitution which it cites foresees giving the region effective independence within Ukraine, but with the right to determine its own path and choose relations with whom it wants – including with Russia.’ The problem I have highlighted is not that such journalists are unprofessional or have some anti-Russian personal agenda. I have no personal knowledge of the journalists who wrote and contributed to the above Reuters piece and I am sure they take their profession with the utmost seriousness and have high personal standards of integrity. The problem, as I mentioned, is a pervasive subconscious Cold War residue that has major influence on how uninformed readers around the world learn about the situation in Crimea and Russia’s role there.
For example, the 1992 constitution mentioned above is the UKRAINIAN Constitution, not the Russian. It does indeed grant the Crimean region effective independence within Ukraine AND the right to determine its own path and relations with whomever it wants. Ukraine wrote those words in the immediate glowing aftermath of Soviet dissolution, when, quite frankly, most in the West felt the true political and economic prosperity path shone brightest for Ukraine and NOT Russia (many seem to have forgotten this but any simple source search back to the time period will reveal massive Western enthusiasm for Ukraine’s prospects, while Russia was deemed too large, too ethnically diverse, too dependent on decrepit and degraded Soviet infrastructure). It’s easy to grant ‘autonomy’ when central authorities feel confident that autonomous chicken will never come home to roost. But now, a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, no one makes comparisons anymore between Ukraine and Russia where Ukraine is the golden-child and Russia the basket-case. So yes, it is quite true that the constitution recklessly gave Crimea the opportunity to pursue the very path it is now pursuing. But the hands that wrote that constitution, and now causing so many political problems for Ukraine today, were Ukrainian, not Russian. This is a reality not revealed to readers. Instead, they are fed another impression of the referendum not only being illegitimate but manipulatively engineered by Russia.
Russia, no doubt, is not guiltless. It absolutely took advantage of the turmoil and instability of the Maidan revolution in Kiev. But it took advantage of this opportunity by maneuvering with a small peninsula that has always been militarily important to and, quite frankly, politically and culturally aligned with Russia. Was this maneuver ‘nice?’ No, it wasn’t. But was it geopolitically strategic? Yes, it most certainly was. Which thought process do you think matters most to states on the global stage, the former or the latter?
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”