It is difficult to follow the events in Ukraine without thinking about our own circumstances on the African continent. This is particularly so because most of the arguments flying around on the Kiev crisis have, at one time or another and at different times, been applied in the discourse on different crises on the continent.
Similar memories must have surfaced for anyone who followed the speech by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin after the Crimea referendum confirmed that 96 per cent of the voters had decided to break away from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.
The result of the vote itself was not surprising as close to two-thirds of residents of Crimea are ethnic Russians, with ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars rounding out the ethnic makeup of the Crimean people.
In his speech, Putin makes use of history as he lays out the justifications for the referendum, before closing out with issues of strategic interest to the Russian Federation, things that combine to motivate its actions in Ukraine.
While its intervention is mostly informed by the latter set of motivations, it’s the historical arguments that lend power to his justification. He does this by invoking the myth of common ancestry of the Russian people, their shared ‘history and pride’ as well as common ‘culture, civilisation and human values.’
From this perspective, messing with that common ancestry was the original sin. From here things start to hit close to home. First, the Bolshevik revolution was the Berlin Conference for the Russian nation. They took a large chunk of Russia and joined it to Ukraine.
As if that was not bad enough, in 1954 Nikita Khrushchev grabbed more territories of Russia, this time including Crimea, and placed them under Ukraine, ‘with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population.’
“Nobody bothered to ask the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol. They were faced with this fact. People, of course, wondered why all of a sudden Crimea became part of Ukraine,” he said.
Ethnic Russians, he argued, were divided by artificial borders and ‘handed over like a sack of potatoes.’ With the Russian nation split, it was as if “millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities,” he said. “The Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders,” he added.
As states gained independence, and borders less porous, these historical mistakes came to impact negatively on interstate relations.
That is so because, “in people’s minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. This firm conviction is based on truth and justice and was passed from generation to generation,” he said.
In what can be termed as political jujitsu, Putin turns to the same international law, which his critics accuse him of violating, to make the case for annexing Crimea.
Poor leadership in Ukraine has presided over permanent crises, he notes, to the detriment of Ukrainians in general and particularly by targeting Russophones (ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people) for mistreatment, forcing them to seek refuge and economic opportunities in Russia.
In the Russian context, the 20th Century German intellectual Karl Deutsch would refer to such people as ‘bacon Russians,’ similar to the ‘bacon Germans’ he referred to when they switched allegiance between the German and French states, depending on either’s economic health. They follow the bacon!
Putin again: “We hoped that Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Ukraine, especially in Southeast and Crimea, would live in a friendly, democratic and civilized state that would protect their rights in line with the norms of international law…Russians, just as other citizens are suffering from the constant political and state crisis that has been rocking that country for over 20 years.”
A slippery slope
Strongly argued as Putin’s case may be, it leads to a very slippery slope. Consider this: With African peoples bundled into colonies, and later independent states, where they face discrimination and denial of rights, wouldn’t the spread of Russia’s approach open up a can of worms from Cape to Cairo? Those old enough remember, for instance, when Uganda’s president Idi Amin sparked off the war that toppled him in 1979 by suggesting that the Kagera salient was part of Uganda.
Perhaps the sober thing to do is to return to some form of global order before things get out of hand. In the present circumstances, it appears that only weak states are made to strictly adhere to international law, norms and principles as the strong states, particularly the veto-wielding members of the United Nations, either out-rightly violate or manipulate their way into questionable adventures.
It’s worth noting that the law is only as good as its enforcement to the strongest members of a society. Reform is, therefore, required that ensures that the law that guides the conduct of states is equally applied to the weak and strong alike. To think otherwise is to imagine the world as a global jungle where only the strong survive.