Moscow’s Long History of Intervening in Votes Like Crimea’s
Century-old Soviet method of legitimizing national self-determination lives on
On Sunday, the residents of Crimea voted overwhelmingly in favor of incorporating into Russia. But the referendum is unlikely to settle the matter—not just because it was conducted under Russian military occupation. Despite their promise of a democratic solution to territorial disputes, plebiscites have a poor record of resolving ethnic conflicts. Rather, they are more likely to produce continued clashes and population displacement. All too often, borderland minorities have suffered the most in the aftermath of referendums like this one—and already we have seen Jews from Crimea leaving or preparing to flee. Other minorities, including the Crimean Tatars, will likely follow.
So why would anyone have thought this was a good solution to the Crimean crisis? Plebiscites became popular in the mid-19th century as tools of liberal and revolutionary movements to express the popular will. But it was the revolutionary Soviet government, nearly a century ago, that was the first to link plebiscites to national self-determination. When it negotiated Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, the Soviets declared an end to all indemnities and forced annexations of territory, and instead affirmed the principle of plebiscites to decide the fate of disputed regions.
In July 1918, the first plebiscites under the terms of Brest-Litovsk were held in the Russian-occupied districts of Kars, Batum and Ardaham in Transcaucasia. An overwhelming vote of 98 percent in favor of returning the region to the Ottoman Empire did little to prevent four years of warfare and continued friction into the late twentieth-century. In a treaty of June 1918 the Soviet government also agreed to allow a plebiscite to decide the future of Ukraine, but the vote was never held. Instead, the Red Army engaged in a brutal civil war to conquer most of the region.
Indeed, few plebiscites actually took place in the new Soviet Union. Instead, the Kremlin relied extensively upon forcible population displacement or ethnic cleansing. Population displacement was most severe in regions that the Russian Empire had previously held and the Soviet regime sought to reclaim. As Dariusz Stola, a Polish historian of migration who is now director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, explained, this is the situation that most closely resembles the current crisis in Crimea. “The empire is striking back,” he wrote in an email over the weekend, “and does it in an innovative way.”
Today, it is the Crimean Tatars who have the most to fear from Russian expansionism. In 1944, Joseph Stalin expelled some 180,000 Crimean Tatars from the peninsula as punishment for their alleged collaboration with the Germans during the war. As Karl Qualls, an expert on Crimea at Dickinson College, explained, “For nearly half a century they were forbidden to return to the lands in Crimea that they had inhabited for centuries. Given the Tatar community’s vocal support for the new government in Ukraine, they fear that Crimea’s 16 March referendum may lead to a repeat of 1944.”
The Soviets, it should be noted, weren’t the only ones to push plebiscites in the aftermath of World War I. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 also called for a total of 12 plebiscites in small and confined regions, one of the most consequential of which was the Saar basin between France and Germany. This ethnically German coal-mining region was given to France for a period of 15 years, after which a plebiscite would be held to determine its future. It was eventually held in January 1935, just in time to present Adolf Hitler with his first major foreign policy victory. Like the Crimean referendum, the Saar plebiscite was widely seen as a battlefield between democratic liberalism and the authoritarian state. In the weeks after the vote, an influx of Saar refugees—many of whom were Jewish—fled to France, leading France to close its border. Five years later, Germany expelled the Jews who had not yet managed to flee.
That same year, the political scientist Hans Morgenthau noted that these plebiscites are premised on the false idea that territorial disputes are isolated causes of war, when, in fact, they are just superficial manifestations of larger aspirations to power. The question now is, where does Moscow intend to stop?
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