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All of us who care about peace in Europe have been shocked by the events in Crimea over the past two weeks. On Sunday a referendum will be held in Crimea in which there is no option for those who wish to keep Crimea’s status as part of Ukraine unchanged. People may only vote to join Russia, or to vote for de-facto independence, by bringing back a defunct 1992 constitution.
Russia supports the referendum. But the G7, the EU, other Security Council members and the wider international community are clear that the referendum in Crimea on 16 March will be illegal. As the OSCE Chair and Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said on March 11, any referendum regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity or Crimea’s autonomy or sovereignty has to be based on the Ukrainian constitution and has to be in line with international law.
The conduct of the referendum will also be entirely illegitimate. Can a referendum be free and fair when it is organized at two weeks’ notice; when there are unidentifiable, armed militias on the streets; when journalists are harassed and their equipment confiscated; when international representatives are blocked from entering Crimea; and when, despite Russian denials, there is clear evidence that Russian troops have left their bases and have been taking over infrastructure across Crimea, in clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements?
To be fair, to be sustainable and to ultimately resolve rather than create more problems, a referendum has to be the end point of an open and inclusive process of discussion and negotiation. It can only be contemplated when it is clear that all sides are prepared, peacefully, to accept the result. This is one reason why, in the UK, we are able to have a referendum on the independence of Scotland this year.
After two world wars devastated Europe in the 20th century, a web of international institutions have been put in place, and reinforced after 1991, to help us avoid repeating the bitter confrontations of the past and to settle disputes peacefully. Organisations like the OSCE and the Council of Europe, of which Russia is an integral member, exist to help states address questions of self-determination and defend the rights of minorities.