Why the March 16th Referendum May Not Be the Disaster Everyone Thinks

On March 16th Crimea will have a referendum as to whether or not they would like to become a part of Russia. More likely than not, if Russia had the gall to invade it is safe to assume (though at this point still conjecture) that they will tilt the election to go whichever way that they favor. This most-likely being annexation by Russia. In the eyes of the G7 partners, this is abhorrence, and in much of the world community this is seen with a similar distaste. Yet, there is reason to be optimistic that although this maybe a violation of international law, an invasion, and a test of the world communities’ ability or desire to get involved with external conflicts; this may be a blessing in disguise.

This topic must be approached gently. For the short term it is without a doubt a touchy subject. There is an argument to be made that the fact that this is an issue at all is the result of a weakening American foreign policy. Further that this event is even taking place; and that Putin’s Russia had the nerve to invade and occupy a sovereign country is further indication of just how weak America’s foreign policy appears abroad. These perspectives could be justified, however until the dust settles and the reasons for Putin’s actions are truly known, motives are just conjecture.

Linguistic Breakdown of Ukraine [1]

The Washington Post has used a map to breakdown the ethnicity of Ukraine. In their map 90% or more of the population of Ukraine is considered to be ethnically Ukrainian. To define one’s ethnicity is a very difficult and charged question; therefore it is one I will not delve into. More often than not, ethnicity can have less to do with political behaviors than do the perceptions, and manipulation of perceptions towards the achievement of some sort of goal.

The map pictured above demonstrates linguistic zones, there is always overlap between areas, and no map is perfect however it provides for a certain sense of how and where the linguistic break down is. Bearing the above map in mind, a second map proves even more telling.

Electoral Breakdown of Ukraine-2004 [2]

The above map is an electoral map of votes for presidential candidates. The yellow, being Viktor Yushenko, and the blue being Viktor Yanakovitch. Many countries including the US, will have regions which are more likely to vote one way or another as a block. However, it is worthwhile to note that in Ukraine, the exact areas that are linguistically Russian speaking went predominantly for the pro-Russian candidate, and the Ukrainian speaking areas went predominately for the Western looking candidate. The likely hood of this being mere coincidence is so insignificant, that it is hardly worth mentioning. For sake of argument, the assumption to go on will be that the linguistic breakdown of Ukraine is influencing the political process. In which case, the question to follow is: What drives predominantly Russian speaking Ukrainians to back pro-Russian candidates?

Media and Mass Communications: Why Russian Speaking Ukrainians Gravitate East

As the first map demonstrates, Russian language is the majority spoken language in the Crimea, and much of Eastern Ukraine. This is not to say in any way that those Russian speakers are any less Ukrainian, but simply that their linguistic preference is for the Russian language. With that in mind, there is a well-established understanding of the power of media to influence voter behavior. This is an established phenomenon in America and around the world. More importantly, if one assumes that Russian speaking consumers gravitate towards news in the language that they feel most comfortable with, then undoubtedly Russian speaking Ukrainian citizens gravitate towards Russian news and media. Russian news, like most national news broadcasts tend to have a spin or an angle towards their own sentiments, providing their own type of national propaganda.

Russian speaking Ukrainians are consuming Russian media en masse. A direct causation cannot be drawn, but it seems logical to point out, that those who listen to Russian news, propaganda, and perspective are more likely to be influenced by Russian media than those who are consuming Ukrainian language news which is more likely to be dominated by Pro-Ukrainian sentiments.

Why the Referendum May Not Be So Bad

The fact is that the region of Crimea has desired in the past for some sort of autonomy, from Ukraine and many going as far as even seeking unification with Russia. Some of the earliest post-Soviet Crimean movements even sought for citizens who lived in Crimea to have dual Crimean and Ukrainian citizenship, while having a deeper connection to Russia.[3] Undoubtedly these sentiments have not died entirely, especially in the heat of such disunity in Kiev. Furthermore because of media consumption and the susceptibility of this group to Russian sympathies; it is likely that Crimea will continue to pull Ukraine eastwards towards Russia.

Frankly a major problem within Ukraine is the polarity, with slightly less than half of the country being pulled towards the Russian perspective, and slightly more than half pulling towards Europe. Crimea is a key constituency that will reliably pull the country towards Russia and prevent Ukraine from moving west.

Let’s talk worst possible outcomes. Assuming, that Crimea is completely annexed by Russia, then there is one very major and predictable phenomenon that occurs in electoral politics—one reliably pro-Russian constituent base is removed, tipping the voting balance in favor of pro-western contingents of the Ukrainian populace. The secondary externality of this scenario is the sense of patriotism that it will cause amongst the Ukrainian populace. There are few events that can create unity amongst a citizenry, as can an invasion. If this is to take place, the balance will be tipped further in the scale towards the west. Finally, with the balance tipped strongly westward, Ukraine will finally be able to look west and will be able to become a strong European and American ally right on Russia’s door step.

Ultimately to use a cliché, annexation of Crimea or any intervention into the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine will back-fire, because it will rile up support for Kiev not for Moscow and it will allow the Ukrainian’s to dislodge themselves from the yoke of Russian power. Instead of creating the new Soviet Bloc that Putin desires, he will be creating a western style democracy, that will look westward for assistance and further isolate Russia.

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Header Image: Ukrainian Flag (Wikimedia)


[1] By Universalis [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[2] By Steschke [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[3] Sasse, G. (2007). Crimea’s Post-Soviet Russian Movement: The Rise and Fall of Separatism. The Crimea question: identity, transition, and conflict (pp. 155-174). Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by Harvard University Press for the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.