The upcoming Crimea referendum is both ordinary and extraordinary.Ordinary because more than 100 times since World War II geographically concentrated ethnic or linguistic groups have voted on the question of independence. Extraordinary because never before have a people encountered a ballot allowing them to choose only between continuing subservience within their existing nation or subservience to another nation.
The quest for autonomy is ubiquitous. When given the choice, most regions choose statehood. Since World War II the number of nations has mushroomed from 51 to 193.
Sometimes the desire for autonomy results in devolution rather than independence as nations concede authority in order to maintain territorial integrity. That was the outcome of Quebec's political awakening in the late 1970s. In the wake of Franco's death in 1975, Spain constitutionally evolved into what is now sometimes called a "State of autonomies." In 1998 Scotland won the right to elect its own parliament. In 2005 South Sudan gained autonomy within Sudan.
Devolution whets but often does not quench the thirst for full independence. This fall Scotland will vote on nationhood. The Parti Quebecois, expected to handily win provincial elections in April, likely will revive the issue of separation. After Spain rejected their recent demands for near full sovereignty, the autonomous Basque Country and Catalan began to take steps toward nationhood. Indeed, Spain's recent promise to veto Scotland's entry into the European Union if Scots voted for independence was clearly borne of a fear for its own dissolution.
Uncoupling has sometimes occurred peacefully as happened with Norway and Sweden a century ago and the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. More often it has involved considerable violence.The 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia into seven nations and one autonomous province took 10 often-bloody years. In late 1975 East Timor declared independence but an invasion and occupation by Indonesia delayed actual independence until 2002. South Sudan's independence in 2011 followed two civil wars; violence continues to wrack the new nation.
In 1991 Crimea itself voted for autonomy within the Soviet Union. After the USSR's breakup, the continuing separatist movement from Ukraine led many observers to view Crimea as the next international flashpoint. In 1993 "the Economist warned of a 'long-running, acrimonious, possibly bloody and conceivably nuclear, dispute over Crimea.'" The dispute was peacefully but uneasily resolved when the 'Autonomous Republic of Crimea' was embedded in the 1996 Ukrainian constitution and the 1998 Crimean constitution. But Crimea's political authority remained weak.
The overthrow of a Ukrainian government that found its strongest backing among Russian speakers coupled with its new parliament's passage of a bill eliminating the use of Russian as an official language (later withdrawn under heavy international pressure) spurred the initial Crimean crisis.
If history were the norm, we might expect Crimeans to vote on whether they preferred more autonomy or full independence. Tragically that choice has never been offered. The original referendum offered by Ukraine and set for May 25 (later pulled forward to March 30) allowed Crimeans to vote only on greater autonomy.
The options offered in the March 16 referendum are even worse. Crimeans will have the opportunity to choose between subservience to Ukraine or Russia. Such a ballot appears to be unprecedented. The closest we came to such a vote was in 1938 when the Austrian government proposed a plebiscite on the annexation of Austria by Germany. Fearing he would lose such a vote, Hitler invaded Austria under the guise of quelling alleged violence against Germans. Hitler not only swallowed up Austria but to this day he continues to win the language battle. We use the term Anschluss to describe the takeover of Austria, a German word meaning unification rather than using the German word for annexation.
Ukraine and the West insist that Crimeans do not have the right to vote on independence. Russia agrees. This tragic meeting of minds moves us toward a potentially tumultuous showdown.