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?