By any definition, a country which implements a “population policy” which has the obvious and frankly deliberate practical outworking of depriving fully one third of its own residents of the vote should be an international pariah – even more so when one sixth are left without any citizenship at all! Incredibly, not only does such a country exist, but it was allowed into NATO a decade ago this week; and into the European Union two months later! This is a democratic outrage – yet I doubt many in the UK are in the least bit aware of it!
The country is Estonia. It requires people to be citizens in order to vote; and it requires people to speak Estonian in order to be citizens. So far, so reasonable until you realise that a third of its citizens came from elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the post-War period – a Soviet Union whose commercial and administrative language was Russian. Some of those (most obviously those who came from Russia itself) have been able to claim Russian citizenship; some have none at all; but none can vote in the country in which they live and the West has done nothing about it.
The same year I visited Estonia on a pro-democracy mission, I also visited Moldova. Rather than having people move into Moldova from elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the post-War period (although this undoubtedly happened), what the Soviets did instead was to detach an industrial part of southwest Ukraine and attach it to Moldova (actually eastern Moldova – Moldova itself is partitioned; the western part is in Romania). Upon Moldova’s independence, the inevitable result was civil war in that detached industrial part, as it was still minority Moldovan (ethnically and linguistically) and felt much more affiliated to the old Soviet Union. The result was the breakaway republic of “Transnistria”, which is unrecognised but exists to every practical purpose… with its borders patrolled by Russian troops. In other words, Russia has blatantly occupied part of the sovereign Republic of Moldova and the West has done nothing about it.
I have never visited Ukraine, but the conditions for conflict existed on the precise same basis from its very coming into being. Likewise, it has a sizeable self-identified “Russian” population of at least a third of all residents – around half of whom are simply pro-Russian, and around half are Russian. In this case, they can vote and indeed managed to get in one of their own as President in 2010 as the rest of the population became disenchanted. Likewise also, Ukraine received a “detached part” – Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine to give it a Black Sea port in 1954. Likewise, that “detached part” is more Russian – ethnically, linguistically and politically – than the rest of the jurisdiction. Russia has now occupied that part – and you know what, the West will likely do nothing about it (although I have placed proposals on what the EU could do about it below).
Estonia should not have been allowed into the EU until it pledged to treat its Russian minority properly (not least ensuring it had the vote; also no doubt respecting Russian language rights, and so on). We need not think Russia didn’t notice this obvious democratic outrage involving its own people on its own frontier (and, by the way, we really need to stop thinking Russia sees the world the way we do – it doesn’t!), and we should be setting high democratic standards, not stooping to theirs.
Moldova, like Ukraine, has its pro-EU champions and even some who propose re-merger with western Moldova and thus unity with Romania. This can only be resolved if it too pledges full rights and respect for its Russian minority – and it may mean consideration of the unthinkable (i.e. restoration of pre-Soviet borders). Singapore separated from Malaysia because of a differing ethnic make-up – frankly, it happens.
Ukraine itself, then, should have been told that it isn’t a serious candidate for EU membership – certainly not if it wishes to remain united under current boundaries. Too many among its population orientate towards Russia. This is no one’s fault, it is just the way it is. What is required is not a battle of wills (and force) between pro-EU and pro-Russian factions, but rather a new Ukraine respectful of its large pro-Russian population. Ukraine always was a borderland with boundaries shifting.
Underlying all of this is the obvious point that there remains a sizeable Russian population – ethnically, linguistically, politically and nationally – in all the other former Soviet states. Sure, that was essentially deliberate on the part of Stalin and the lads – but that doesn’t change the fact now, in 2014. What it also means is that Russia has the same right to protect them as any other country would if its own citizens came under threat. In other words, Russia does have a direct and legitimate interest in all other former Soviet states. That’s just the way it is. We had better get used to it.
Of course, Russia’s treatment of minorities (and not just ethnic minorities) within its own frontiers is shocking. Of course, Russia should not have been awarded events like the Winter Olympics and World Cup given its stance. Of course, unilateral military intervention on foreign soil, as carried out by Russia on Saturday, is utterly wrong. But then, so is showing disdain for democratic norms purely in order to shift power from Moscow to Brussels; and it is not like the West is averse to throwing its military on to foreign soil without UN approval!
Thus we need to face the fact the EU made horrific blunders allowing fundamentally non-democratic, ethnic-based countries into its club in 2004. It continues to make horrific blunders by suggesting that countries which are divided as an inevitable consequence of their Soviet past may be brought into the EU on the same basis, ignoring the rights of a sizeable minority within their borders. It is all very easy to play “good guys versus bad guys”, but we are guilty here too – and if our media reporting is anything to go by, we still haven’t learned.
Russia will defend its people. We have long since had the opportunity to prepare for that. If we are to have any hope, we have to distinguish the interests of its ruling elite from the interests of regular Russians (both inside and outside its frontiers); ensuring that the latter are well catered for while the former are marginalised. We have not been doing that.
We are going to have to start using what weight we have to do that now. This may include the EU agreeing to:
- enforce minority rights (including voting and linguistic) for Russians and Russian speakers within EU member states, while being clear that those standards will have to be met before entry by any future EU applicant;
- respect the requirement for autonomy of areas such as Crimea and Transnistria, including conceivably transfer between States in the event of EU membership and that being expressed as the popular desire at EU/OSCE-monitored, free and fair referendums; and
- require the same standards for minority rights and same respect for autonomy of Russia, and implement trade and sporting sanctions (including withdrawal of hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup by threat of boycott if necessary) until this requirement has been met.
Russia will act to defend its citizens and interests. We should stop blaming them for doing that – and get on with acting similarly decisively to defend ours and our allies’.