Pro-Russia Crimeans celebrating in Sevastopol. Photo: Getty
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The Crimea vote is awkward for the west – but it isn’t unprecedented

Would a free vote have gone in Russia’s favour anyway?

The international community has had to react to dubious referendums before the recent plebiscite in the Crimea on union with Russia. The flaws in the Crimea vote have been well recorded – no option of remaining part of Ukraine, the lack of neutral international observers but the presence of Russian soldiers and militia, the rushed nature of the process without proper campaigns and the transparent ballot boxes. Yet as an autonomous region with strong historic and ethnic connections with Russia many surmise that the Crimea, like Scotland or Catalonia, has the right to hold such a vote and that a free vote would have gone in favour of Russia in any case. There are some precedents for this situation.

The 1921 League of Nations vote in the industrial region of Upper Silesia on whether the area remained with Germany or joined Poland proved awkward for the Allies. Anglo-French-Italian occupation was not enough to prevent German and Polish militias carving up the area. And despite Allied antipathy towards Germany, the area voted 60-40 per cent for Germany. But the pattern was more confused on a district-by-district basis – with 16 voting for Germany, 7 for Poland. What was worse was that in a number of areas the vote was very close. In the end the League of Nations partitioned Upper Silesia, more-or-less along the lines occupied by the respective militias.

The 1935 Saarland plebiscite had 90.8 per cent support for reunion with Germany. The region had been under French occupation as a League of Nations mandate since 1920. The plebiscite had been promised from the beginning but when the time came there were qualms about handing over the territory to the new Nazi regime in Germany. Indeed Hitler and Goebbels made the most of the situation both before and after the vote. Nevertheless, 8.8 per cent (mainly social democrats and communists, many soon to be arrested) voted for the mandate to continue and just over 2,000 residents (0.4 per cent) voted for union with France.

Twenty years later the Saarland again had to choose, this time the industrial region had been a French protectorate since 1947. The 1955 vote was a very different affair with western Europe rebuilding and beginning to co-operate on peaceful lines. Under the Paris Agreements by which the Allies recognised the sovereignty of West Germany the Saarland was offered the choice of independence – this was rejected 32.3 per cent to 67.7 per cent, despite both France and West Germany supporting the move. The “No” votes led to negotiations on the Saar’s union with Federal Republic of Germany on 1 January 1957.

The break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the nineties brought numerous referendums. A precedent hopefully not followed in Crimea was the 1992 Bosnian independence referendum. The numbers record 99.7 per cent in favour of independence, the result was recognised by the USA and EEC and within two months Bosnia-Hercegovina was a member of the UN. But we know the tragedy that followed. The referendum had been boycotted by the Bosnian-Serbs, turnout was 63.4 per cent, the missing third approximating to the size of the Bosnian-Serb population. Was this a genuine popular reaction by Bosnian-Serb citizens, or were they intimidated by their leaders? We remember the Bosnian-Serbs as the aggressors and the perpetrators of war crimes. The referendum boycott cannot have helped their case, there is no record of how many genuinely opposed independence. Had a third voted “No” their interests may have received international consideration. Instead Republkia Srpska remains a European pariah, whilst Croatia is in the EU and Serbia has candidate status.

Boycotts also featured in the 1962 Algerian Independence referendum. Having killed hundreds of thousands to prove that Algeria was part of Metropolitan France once De Gaulle tired of the pieds-noir they boycotted the 1962 referendum. The absence of their half a million voters only depressed turnout to 91.9 per cent. Again perhaps their votes would have made their case better than the deaths of many more.

In former Soviet territories the breakaway Russian enclave of Transnistria in Moldova, has twice tried to prove its independence through plebiscites. A 1991 effort that gathered 97.7 per cent support was easily dismissed. So they tried again in 2006 with a vote rejecting reunion with Moldova by 96.6 per cent to 3.4 per cent. Prefiguring the Crimea situation, a contemporaneous vote got 98.1 per cent support for integration with Russia. Needless to say the second attempt was no more impressive and with Transnistria (at least for now) cut off from mother Russia the conflict remains frozen.

The international community can behave with realpolitik when it has to with regard to the sovereign status of territories. In 1962 the Netherland’s withdrawal from West Papua was prefaced with the promise in due course of a United Nations referendum on the territory’s future status. However, the de facto transfer of West Papua to Indonesia saw the population denied. In 1969, in an episode called an Act of Free Choice, Indonesia commissioned just over 1,000 male elders to ask for union with Indonesia. At the height of the Cold War the UN merely noted the annexation and this remains the status quo today.

The Crimea vote may be awkward for the West but not unprecedented. Arguably Putin has the bigger problem. After paying so much to improve his image with the Sochi Olympics he has to pay more to integrate Crimea. Had he taken his time and made the case for there to be a free and fair vote in Crimea under proper international observation he would not have rubbished his international status so thoroughly and still got the same end result?

 

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt