Who Has A Right To Crimea

Volodymyr G. Butkevych

"The ends justifies the means"

The history of relations between Russia and Crimea up to the twentieth century holds absolutely no basis for the contention that Russia can claim a right to Crimea. In all concluded international treaties Russia recognised the Crimean Khanate as a sovereign and independent state. The seizure of Crimea in 1783 is not legally justifiable by accepted international law and cannot be considered a basis for the inclusion of Crimea into Russia. However, should one power seize the territory of another country and then return its legal status, such an act takes on legal proportions and must be recognised as such by all subjects of international law. Among the criteria for recognition are state development, effective government on a defined territory, the state of the population, and the effectiveness of the economy that is linked to the economy with which the country is united. The main legal basis for the recognition of territorial unification is the principle of the self-determination of peoples and nations.

This is clearly upheld in Article 11 of the United Nations Charter and in other documents of international law.

Furthermore, the principle of self-determination is explained by current international law as not merely a basis for secession from an existing state, but also for the maintenance of an existing state's territorial integrity. Rights connected to secession do not take precedent over the rights of unification. In other words, if a people is united with other peoples in a singule state structure and if the state in no way infringes on their rights, then the attempt to use the principle of self-determination as a basis for secession is a misapplication of that principle. This is directly addressed by the 1970 UN Declaration on International Law, which states that the principles of self-determination"cannot be applied in the context of sanctioning or encouraging any acts that would lead to the dismemberment or partial or full violation of the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign, independent states... with governments that represent the whole people of a given territory, without regard for race, religious conviction or skin colour."

It is also worth noting that this principle applies only to the people itself, community that is characterised by a common historical heritage, territorial cohabitation, a common language and economic life, among other criteria. This social community must be historically stable. When considering Crimea, it is difficult to apply the idea of historical stability when it is realised that the population of Crimea has grown in the post-war period from 780,000 to 2.5 million, chiefly due to forced resettlement. This process of forced resettlement was halted only as recently as 1978.

Thirdly, the people of Crimea, comprising a social community, can turn not only to the principle of self-determination, but also to that of a peoplešs right to decide its own fate. This principle is described as "the right to define under the conditions of full freedom, when and how a people desires, its internal and external political status without foreign interference and to realise according to its own judgment its political, economic, social and cultural development. [20]

Nevertheless, an attempt can be made to consider the issue from the point of view of those who maintain Russiašs claim to Crimea. It is an accepted historical conclusion that following the Bolshevik overthrow in 1917 Crimea mistakenly employed Lenin's proclaimed principle of self-determination to unite with Russia.

Prior to 1917 Lenin had on several occasions espoused the right of peoples and nations to self-determination. However, this is misused as a basis for characterising Lenin as an advocate of national rights. He and his party approached the issue of self-determination as a matter of political expediency.

Before the Bolsheviks came to power, Lenin supported self-determination to the point of secession. "National self-determination," he wrote, "is exclusively understood as political self-determination. In other words, it is the right of secession and the creation of an independent national state." [21]

However, when the Bolsheviks were already in the seat of power, Lenin's views quickly transformed. He began to support the principle of self-determination only insofar as it would lead to a federal relationship with Russia. Lenin paid special attention to the processes developing in Ukraine at the time. The details of the elections at the First Constituent Assembly indicate that as of November 1917 the Ukrainian SRšs (Socialist Revolutionaries) and Socialists still maintained a majority in Ukraine," Lenin wrote in 1919. [22] It is worthwhile to note that at this time Lenin had designated Crimea as Ukrainian territory. Establishing a Bolshevik government in Ukraine at this time was still out of the question. As Vynnychenko wrote,

"In Ukraine Bolshevisrn had no power at this time Several attempts by the Bolsheviks to seize power ended in failure." [23]

Fearing that Ukraine would soon declare independence, Lenin appealed in his"Letter to the Workers and Peasants of Ukraine:"

"May the communists of Russia and Ukraine unite in a patient, insistent and determined effort to defeat the nationalist advances of the bourgeoisie or nationalist superstitions of all kinds, and demonstrate to the workers and peasants of the whole world a truly strong union of workers and peasants of various nations in the struggle for Soviet power, for the destruction of capitalist and landowner oppression, for a global Federation, a world-wide Federal Republic." [24]

This matter was addressed even more directly by Y. Sverdlov, then the Chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. In a confidential memorandum to one of the proponents of Soviet power in Ukraine, F. A. Sergeev (Artem), Sverdlov wrote,

"My Dear Artem! l am writing about this only to you. I am sometimes truly terrified by this wave of independence thinking that is sweeping Ukraine, as well as Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and so forth. Do not allow this silliness to continue. Make sure of this." [25]

The slogan 'self-determination of nations' was often employed as a method of countering anti-Bolshevik organs of power with the aim of annexing certain territories for Russia. With this aim (among others) in mind, numerous representatives of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Russian Communist Party (RKP[b]) were sent to various territories to organise 'congresses' and 'conferences' at which independence and unification with Russia were to be simultaneously proclaimed. This method was particularly applied to areas where Ukrainians lived, and thus one saw the emergence of Black Sea, Northern Caucasus and Kuban-Black Sea Socialist Republics; Soviet Stavropil; the Odessa Soviet Republic; the Mykolayiv District Socialist Workers' Commune; the Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih Republic and so on. All of these had also created their own respective Soviet People's Committees. However none of these 'republics' took into account ethnic distribution when marking their borders and did not uphold the national-territorial principle of border demarcation. In addition, the will of the local populations was ignored.

Thus, when the Bolsheviks lost the elections at the First Constituent Assembly, they responded by calling plenary sessions of the Donetsk and Kryvyi Rih Soviets, at which the following resolution was adopted:

"Widespread agitation tor the secession of Donetsk and Kryvyi Rih, along with Kharkiv, and their union with Russia must be increased. This would be accomplished with the understanding that the former would become part of a single, administrative and sell-governing province (of Russia)" [26]

However, when the local populations began to oppose the creation of these 'states' and their 'governments', Bolshevik agitation invariably turned to the use of terror and assassination.

It is evident that the term 'self-determination', then, was used as a purely propagandistic tool in order to appease world public opinion. Sverdlov spoke quite candidly of this in his speech during the debates on the proposed Ukrainian SSR Constitution on March 4, 1919:

"It must be emphasised here with all certainty, that what we are defining as a separate Ukrainian republic in the eyes of the international community today, will tomorrow possibly become the legal part of an All-Russian republic in a changed international situation... It would be generally more rational to adopt - with amendments - the constitution of Soviet Russia than one of a Ukrainian republic. Its deep meaning would then transform it into an international constitution which is even now an example for the whole world proletariat." [27]

Sverdlov was not speaking on the highest level of government in Ukraine, but at the Third Congress of the Bolshevik Ukrainian Communist Party (UKP[b]). He was, nevertheless, confident that even the government of the republic would take his words into account. That very same day, he added a memorandum about the Ukrainian constitution to the list of proposed Congress resolutions, stating that "the Third Congress of the Ukrainian Communist Party agrees to adopt completely and generally the constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, allowing for changes that consider local conditions." [28] Having arrived at an agreement with party leaders outside the Congress hall, Sverdlov was assured that the Congress would not dare oppose him.

When opponents used the principle of self-determination to support their positions, the Bolsheviks invariably deemed such arguments illegal and without justifiable motive. This situation arose in Crimea as well. In the Soviet of Peoples' Commissars' (Sovnarkom ) appeal "To All Working Muslims in Russia and the East," of 20 November 1917, the following was included:

"Muslims of Russia, Tatars of Crimea! Create for yourselves a tree life. You have a right to this... You yourselves should be masters on your own land. You yourselves must create you own life according to your own image and wishes. You have this right because your late is in your hands." [29]

The Tatar population in Crimea decided to avail itself of this proclaimed right and thus a congress was called for 26 November 1917 in Bakhchisarai-Kurultai. The congress elected a Tatar National Government and proclaimed its independence from Russia. Putting forth a demand under the slogan Crimea for Crimeans', the government in addition proclaimed its desire to remain united with Ukraine, not wishing to break the historical national, economic and cultural ties with the Ukrainian mainland.

The Sovnarkom was not disposed to allow this development to stand. It did not recognize this act of self-determination as legal or legitimate and proclaimed the Tatar National Government"... counter-revolutionary and clinging to the sole support of the Ukrainian Central Rada and the Ukrainian counter-revolution." Revolutionary Red Guards and sailors from Sevastopil were sent against the Tatar National Government to quickly dispatch the tiny Tatar army, following which they proceeded to arrest the whole government. In a reply sent to the Sevastopil Military-Revolutionary Council (the Bolshevik military organisation first created and headed by Trotsky in Moscow, and which was comprised exclusively of Russian Bolsheviks in Crimea), the Tatar National Government was compared to a military dictatorship that was a vassal established by the Ukrainian Rada. The Rada was also faced with the following accusation from Russia:

"The Ukrainian Rada devised a clever and treacherous plan - with the help of the Sevastopil and Simferopil councils, as well as the Crimean Tatar army - to firstly seize power in its hands in the cities of Crimea, and then the fortress at Sevastopil." [30]

The support of the Crimean Tatar people for separation from Russia and union with Ukraine greatly perturbed the RKP(b) leadership. Representatives of the RKP(b) Central Committee were immediately sent to Crimea. Reliance was not immediately placed on a Bolshevik use of force, since at the time there were hardly enough dedicated Bolsheviks to carry out such an option. Only seven members appeared in Simferopil at the first conference of Bolshevik organisations in the Tauride guberniia on October 2, 1917 (one each from Sevastopil, Yalta. Yevpatoriia, Feodosiia and three from Simferopil).

Soviet historiography maintained that the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 supported the inclusion of Crimea into Russia. However, there is no explicit or implicit reference to support such a contention anywhere in the Brest-Litovsk document. Regarding border demarcations between Russia and Ukraine, Article VI of the treaty stated:

"Russia is bound by this treaty to conclude an immediate peace with the Ukrainian National Republic and recognize the Peace Treaty between this state and the states of the Central Powers. The territory of Ukraine must immediately be freed of all Russian armies and Russian Red Guards. Russia also will cease all agitation or propaganda against the government or social institutions of the Ukrainian National Republic." [31]

No mention is made of Crimea.

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About The Author

Volodymyr G. Butkevych, a Ph.D. in juridical studies, currently heads the Ukrainian Institute of International Relations' Department of International Law. He is also the Vice-President of the (former Soviet) International Law Association. His studies have focused on the protection of human rights in the USSR and in Ukraine, as well as on the chasm between Soviet legal standards and international norms. In addition, Butkevych is the Chairman of the International Human Rights Conference's Organisational Committee. The Conference is held annually in Kyiv.

About the Editor

Eugene S. Kachmarsky, an M.A. in political science specialising in eastern Europe and the former USSR, is a graduate of the University of Toronto. He is currently the editor of the English-language monthly newspaper, Ukrainian Echo.

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Document URL: http://www.infoukes.com/history/crimea/page-08.html

Copyright © 1992 Volodymyr G. Butkevych

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Originally Composed: Tuesday August 20th 1996.
Date last modified: Friday March 21st 1997.