What follows is an edited version of a talk given by Peter Emerson at a demonstration on Ukraine in Belfast in late July 2022. It has not been updated in relation to certain facts that have changed – .e.g. the ‘referendums’ in Russian held regions to the east of Ukraine which Russia is attempting to annex into Russia. To update it in this way would have made it a substantially different piece so it was decided to leave it ‘as was’ since the points made are still salient..
by Peter Emerson
Mariupol. The name Mariupol has now entered the litany of cities that humankind has first created… and then destroyed, cities like Guernica, Warsaw and Grozny. How Russia can do to others what it too has suffered, as in Leningrad, is difficult to comprehend. Sadly, however, there are still many people in this world who think problems can be solved by the threat or use of force, not least today’s, and yesterday’s leaders in the Kremlin.
In Red Square in Moscow, in 1968, when Soviet tanks went into Prague, seven individuals protested. Only seven. In stark contrast, today, with Russian tanks in Ukraine, the protesters in Russia are in their hundreds – not least the mothers of sons, soldiers, boys, who are now dead. Like the seven in 1968, today’s hundreds recognise that the Kremlin has made a horrible mistake. So we should be doing everything possible to help them… and that includes asking our ambassadors and others to join them in their peaceful, non-violent demonstrations. I’ll talk a little more on this in a moment.
Putin could hardly be more wrong. Mariupol is not a Russian word; if it were Russian or Slavic, it would be ‘Mariugrad’ or ‘Mariusky’. But it is Mariupol, like Sevastopol and Simferopol in the Crimea. And the suffix ‘pol’ is Greek; it goes back 2,000 years or so, long before Russia was concocted, and long before even the City State of Muscovy was founded. Putin distorts his history, and even his geography. Russia is not only a Slav nation: today’s Russian Federation includes Samis in Lapland, the Tartars near the Urals, the Dagestanis and North Ossetians in the Northern Caucasus, and over 50 different ethnic groups in Siberia, from the Buryats near Lake Baikal to the Chukchis on the Pacific coast. Meanwhile, other nations or regions like Slovakia, Slovenia, Slavonia and Poland, for example, are also very Slav. And in the main, so too is Ukraine.
First of all, however, I want to go back 100 years and more, to the beginning of the First World War, when Bertrand Russell sent a letter to The Times, along the following lines: if yesterday I killed a German, he wrote, I would likely be arrested, charged, tried… and punished. But if I kill a German tomorrow, I might well be praised and be called a hero. And all because someone has declared war.
Putin has declared war, or a “special military operation,” and apparently, he thinks this gives him the right to maim and murder. So we who think he is wrong should ‘declare peace,’ and until Russia withdraws its forces, our ambassadors and others in Moscow should ignore all the usual ‘peace-time’ niceties of diplomatic protocol, and they should indeed join the indigenous protesters on Moscow’s Pushkin Square or wherever, and engage in any and every peaceful, non-violent act of civil disobedience against this war. Such a tactic may well put their liberties or even their lives in some danger, but better that, surely, than policies which put the lives of hundreds or thousands of Ukrainians at risk.
More than that. Maybe certain famous individuals, preferably old people, should go to Moscow, or Minsk, or at least the Belarus border, and protest. The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a rabbi, an imam, Barack Obama, Mary Robinson, Joan Baez and others – anyone who is famous and old. Maybe they should even fast, as would perhaps, if he were still with us, Mahatma Gandhi, to demand the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine.
In 2004, I was an OSCE election observer in Kharkiv, an election fought between just two candidates – Yushchenko and Yanukovich – so everything was binary, and very divisive. Yushchenko was pro-EU, Yanukovich pro-Russia. Needless to say, as in many binary contests, lots of differences were highlighted: Yushchenko preferred the Ukrainian language, Yanukovich favoured Russian… but these two languages are very similar. Western Ukraine is more Catholic or Uniate, the East opts more for the (now split) Orthodox Church… but these denominations are all Christian. (Well, as here in Northern Ireland, little differences can all too easily divide and antagonise.) In the election, both candidates had their parties of course, and in the count, their party agents. They were sitting next to each other, and I asked them, what was it like to compete against each other. “Oh today, we are opponents, yes; но завтра опять таки будем друзьями – but tomorrow, we’ll be friends again.”
How dangerous it was, we may say if only in retrospect, to use such a divisive voting procedure.
Ten years later, in 2014, in the neighbouring county or oblast of Luhansk, there was a referendum. In the same year, you will remember, Scotland had its referendum… and it is sobering to recall that the word Shotlandiya, Scotland, was used by Russian separatists to ‘justify’ the unjustifiable.
So what can we do, here, to help our fellow human beings there, in Ukraine? Yes, we can supply them with weapons; that’s quite a difficult thing to say for a pacifist… but there’s no contradiction: I believe in the principle of minimum force, I have myself used force here in Northern Ireland, and we should do what we can to allow Ukraine to defend itself.
And generally speaking, we should not be resolving our disputes in the way Putin thinks he can resolve his. Accordingly, we here in Northern Ireland should not be using weapons of war, as we did throughout the Troubles (albeit on a far smaller scale), and nor should we be using any ‘false flags’, provocations, excuses for violence. I refer in particular to binary referendums.
Donetsk is now planning another one; so too Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, (or they were until the recent Ukrainian advances around Izium). Donetsk had one already, in 1991, as did Luhansk… and Crimea of course, when they and every other ‘county’, oblast, in Ukraine voted in favour of Ukrainian independence – and we should note that in Crimea, the Crimean Tatars abstained: neither of the two options catered for their aspirations. But in 2014, these three counties then had a second vote, to reverse that earlier decision, and referendum decisions can be reversed, apparently: it is catered for in the Belfast Agreement, it is what some in Scotland now want to do.
The history of conflicts is often all very similar. In 1920, when Ireland opted out of the UK, Northern Ireland opted out of opting out and opted back in again, (albeit without referendums). In like manner, when Bosnia opted out of Yugoslavia, Republika Srpska tried to opt out of Bosnia. When Georgia opted out of the USSR, South Ossetia tried to opt out of Georgia. And a similar fate befell Kiev: Ukraine opted out of USSR, in 1991; next, in 2014, Donetsk tried to opt out of Ukraine; and then, part of Donetsk – it’s called Dobropillia and Krasnoarmiisk – tried to opt out of opting out and to opt back into Dnepropetrovsk and Ukraine. In this last referendum, 69%, i.e., some two million people – so that’s twice the electorate of NI – voted to go back into Ukraine. Alas – as in the Balkans, so too in Ukraine – the powers that be – the West in the former, Putin in the Donbas – recognise only those referendums the results of which they approve.
Crazy. It’s a bit like those famous Russian dolls, the matryoshki. Inside every doll, there’s another little one; with every majority, there’s another minority. But this is international law. The 1973 border poll here only made matters worse. Similar polls created havoc in Yugoslavia, where “all the wars… started with a referendum,” – to quote Sarajevo’s famous newspaper, Oslobodjenje. And they have now created havoc in Ukraine.
+ Everything is connected. “Всё связано,” to quote Vladimir Vernadsky, the founder of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ukraine. Binary referendums can be false flags.
+ No one is an island. In Bosnia, Republika Srpska is rattling its sabres and ballot boxes, and so too in Georgia is South Ossetia.
Accordingly, here in Ireland (and Scotland), if only for the sake of peace in Ukraine, (the Balkans and the Caucasus) we should not be trying to resolve our own constitutional questions with referendums which are binary. Of the world’s multi-option plebiscites – three options in Newfoundland for example, six in Guam and a few others – all passed peacefully; but binary referendums in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Caucasus, East Timor, Catalonia… everything from non-fatal violence to outright war!
Peter Emerson, Director, the de Borda Institute www.deborda.org
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