President Obama continues to express outrage at the idea of the Crimea seceding from the Ukraine, and today insisted that an impending referendum on whether Crimeans want to secede itself “violates international law.”
Obama went on to insist that “in 2014 we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” leaving open the question of how Ukraine’s interim government, installed in the wake of violent protests just over a week ago, amount to “democratic leaders.”
Obama’s interpretation of international law also didn’t appear to be based on anything concrete, as indeed international law is pretty vague on the matter and secession through referendum has been treated as a valid option in the past.
The most noteworthy recent example was the 1991 independence referendum in Croatia, which likewise came over the objection of the recognized sovereign nation, in that case Yugoslavia.
Croatia’s route is strikingly similar to Crimea’s, with its regional parliament similarly preceding the referendum with votes supporting the secession policy. The referendum was overwhelmingly supportive of secession.
Recognition after the vote remained a struggle, with the question of whether people have a right to secede unanswered under international law. In that case, Britain and France similarly argued they did not, though German backing eventually led to international recognition of the Croat nation. Ironically, among the first nations to recognize Croatia’s independence was the Ukraine.
As a practical matter secession is not so much a question of law as a question of whether the suzerain power can crush the secession movement by force. The Russian deployment into the Crimea effectively keeps Ukraine from doing so, and means the Crimea secession, assuming it is approved by referendum, will be a matter of fact even if East-West brinksmanship keeps the US or others from officially recognizing that fact for some time.
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