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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Their Referenda and Ours: Ukraine and Scotland

On Sunday December 1st 1991, 84% of registered voters in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic turned out to vote YES to independence from the Soviet Union. In the former Austrian and Polish areas to the west - Galicia - over 90% voted Yes. In the more ethnic Russian east, the Yes vote was still over 70% : in Luhansk it was 83% and and in Donetsk 77%. Even in majority-Russian Crimea, the vote was 54% in favour of Ukrainian independence. [ For Source, see Footnote]. The Russians in Ukraine thought that they has a better chance of a good future in an independent Ukraine than in a crumbling Soviet Union.

Boris Yeltsin's Russia, itself in the process of freeing itself from the Soviet Union,  had already signaled that if Ukraine voted for independence, it reserved the right to raise boundary questions: Crimea and eastern and southern Ukraine were identified as areas over which Russia had a claim. But the large majorities for independence contributed to those boundary questions not being pursued.

Some candidates in the Ukrainian presidential election, held at the same time as the Referendum, favoured a federal Ukraine - it's a big country, created out of territories ruled in the past hundred years by Austria,Poland, Germany, Romania and Russia. But other candidates, fearing separatist tendencies, held out for a more unified structure, among them Leonid Kravchuk the outright winner of the presidential election with 61% of the vote.

The failure of independent Ukraine to deliver on the hopes of its citizens, the specific economic problems created by declining industries in the east, and a clumsy overlay of Ukrainian cultural nationalism fuelled the separatist tendencies which have come to a head in 2014. That gave President Putin of Russia the opportunity to pick up the border questions abandoned by his original sponsor, Boris Yeltsin, with consequences with which everyone is familiar. But they are not perhaps familiar with the fact that these issues go back to the period of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990 - 91.

But what interests me here is the massive pro-Independence vote in 1991. It's the kind of vote you need if you are really going to disentangle yourself from relationships and structures going back hundreds of years - it was not just in the Communist period that Ukraine was tied to Russia. Russia and Ukraine were the double heart of Romanov Russia, dating back to 1613.

So though I really, really hope that Scotland will vote YES and try to take itself out of the crumbling Union state run from Westminster and Whitehall, I don't think that 51% is enough to make it work or work successfully. It's a toss of the coin figure. It means that in everyday life in Scotland, for every person working enthusiastically to create the new state, another person will be feeling cheated of the benefits of the Union. Scots will not be pulling together and half of them will be colluding with the Union apparatchiks in Westminster to make sure that independence doesn't work. There are regions in Scotland which are less than enthusiastic about rule from Edinburgh: the offshore islands, notably.

By way of example of what pulling together can mean: the first Minister of Defence of independent Ukraine, Major General Konstiantyn Morozov, was half Russian from eastern Ukraine. He had studied Ukrainian in school but, as a soldier, had had no occasion to use it. He was a Russian speaker but an independent thinker who favoured an independent Ukraine with its own armed forces. . On taking up his post, he had to promise to learn Ukrainian. On that basis, he was entrusted with the job.

Footnote: All the statistics for Ukraine are taken from Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire, Basic Books / Oneworld 2014, a fascinating book

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