Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

What if the Crimea poll had been legitimate?

Just wondering: what would we be doing now about Crimea if the referendum a week ago had been done nicely? I know it’s not a good time to ask what with protestors storming bases in the east occupied by Ukrainian forces, but it seems pretty fundamental to me.

The PM yesterday opined that the poll had been conducted ‘at the barrel of a Kalashnikov’ and was a twentieth century way of doing things (interesting put-down, that). And indeed, there’s no gainsaying that it was done in an inordinate hurry, that the entire exercise was conducted in the presence of about 20,000 troops – Russian supporting, or just Russian, take your pick – the opposition had next to no opportunity to conduct a counter-campaign, the option of keeping the status quo wasn’t even on the ballot paper and the turnout was quite embarrassingly excessive in places such as Sevastopol. So, not an object lesson in how to get a democratic mandate, then, even if it weren’t that anyone in favour – Tatars and many Ukrainians – simply boycotted the thing.

But, I repeat, if it had been nicely done, what would our reaction have been? Because the reality is that the result would unquestionably have been the same. Maybe with a two thirds majority rather than a nine in ten one, but still overwhelming. An embarrassingly large majority of people in Crimea want to be in Russia, not Ukraine.

Now, I do appreciate that exercises in self-determination are only as valid as their context. I should, for instance, take a dusty view of a poll on secession conducted by Serbs in the north of Kosovo on whether they’d like to unite with Serbia; if you draw a line around a disgruntled ethnic minority and hold a vote inside it, well, you’re bound to get a majority result, but not a valid one.

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