The referendum held last Sunday by Ukrainian region Crimea, after a timeline of political crisis, asked the population to approve secession from its host country, causing international doubts of legality. The autonomous region has since voted overwhelmingly to part from Ukraine and additionally, reunite with Russia.
A massive protest began in Ukraine last November when then President Viktor Yanukovych turned away from a historical trade deal with the European Union and instead took a gift of 15 billion dollars from Russia to pay off national debt. The Ukrainian public took to the streets to protest the move towards Russia.
After months of bloodshed and protests, President Yanukovych signed a truce with protest leaders on February 21st. Hours later, violence again erupted in Kiev’s Independence Square. The break of the truce has been blamed on both Yanukovych’s government and the protest leaders.
On February 22, Yanukovych fled the country to Russia and the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove him from the presidency and hold elections in late May. The legality of this move by the anti-Yanukovych protesters was undisputed by Western diplomacy, including the United States.
Russian President, Vladimir Putin however took in Viktor Yanukovych and called the move by the Ukrainian people and parliament an “unconstitutional coup.” Late in February, Russian troops were spotted throughout Crimea, the southern region of Ukraine dominated by an ethnically Russian population.
Yanukovych, insisting on his legitimacy of office, was said to have requested Russian force in Crimea, to protect those in the region from what he called illegal protesters who laid claim to the Ukrainian government. Despite serious criticism and warning from the United States and Europe, Russian military forces remained in Crimea.
In early March, the parliament of Crimea voted to schedule a referendum to the people on March 16th. According to Crimean voting monitors, 97 percent of the population supported not only seceding from Ukraine, but joining the Russian federation. Western diplomats warned Russian President Putin against the annexation of Crimea and even put economic sanctions on top sympathizing officials.
The measures along this timeline taken by the United States and European Union, who believe the referendum and annexation of Crimea are against international law and the new Ukrainian constitution, have so far shown no results. President Putin, taking a strong stand against Western criticism, signed a treaty Tuesday which effectively reclaimed Crimea.
International law is very clear on the matter of territorial integrity. According to the United Nations charter, secession from a nation by a geographical area must be democratically decided by the entire country in accordance with its constitution. The referendum held by Crimea was indeed only determined by the people of the region, apart from the rest of Ukraine. In a statement from the White House President Obama said, “Russia’s actions [are] in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
However, President Putin asserts that the constitutional integrity of Ukraine’s interim government is a fallacy, as it was taken over illegally. In this way, the secession of Crimea cannot be questioned by Ukraine or any other foreign government. A statement by the Kremlin responded the the United States saying, “The referendum was organized…to guarantee Crimea’s population the possibility to…express their will and exercise [the] right to self-determination.”
Internationally, the referendum and annexation of Crimea has not been recognized. Ukraine’s interim president, Olexandr Turchynov said the move will “never be accepted.” Russia hopes the quick and swift treaty will create a difficult diplomatic and legal discourse which could reverse the timeline of the referendum and annexation. Still, the United States and much of the European Union back Turchynov, and say they will do everything in their power to return Crimea to Ukraine.
By Erin P. Friar