Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Don’t Copy King Canute - By Anne Williamson (Lessons from history)

We all have great expectations, especially when we are young. Later in life, sunny skies often turn dark and by necessity we trim our sails.
So it is both refreshing and quite remarkable to encounter a 70-year old man whose life trajectory set him on the opposite course of continually enlarging his expectations, most especially when that man is the recently installed President of the United States.
Unfortunately, when a large dose of capriciousness worthy of a Boris Yeltsin, as a Russian editorialist recently noted, is added to those expectations, those of us who supported Donald Trump’s presidential bid in hopes of an actual improvement in the U.S.-Russian relationship are feeling the sting of betrayal. (Any comparison to Boris Yeltsin is truly the kiss of death to 98% of Russians, and not one that should warm any American’s heart.)
To Recap: First, we had Ambassador Nikki Haley’s maiden U.N. speech that included the now tiresome barking at the Russians over Ukraine and Crimea so as to nearly match in spirit, if not in volume, that of her predecessor, the unlamented Samantha Power. Trump himself tweeted:  “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration…,” and shortly thereafter White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, informed us that President Trump “expects Russia to return Crimea” to Ukraine.
The return of Crimea is one Donald Trump expectation that will not be met now or ever. Nor should it be in light of the actual details on which Ukraine makes its claim to the peninsula. Those details tell a tale of property (territorial) rights, something to which an American real estate magnate ought to be able to relate.
In 1954, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s re-incorporation into the Russian empire, Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the C.P.S.U. and himself a son of Ukraine, made the grand gesture of bequeathing the Soviet-created Socialist Republic of Ukraine the peninsula of Crimea.
However, Article 5 of the Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics states:
“Socialist property in the U.S.S.R. exists either in the form of state property (belonging to the whole people) or in the form of co-operative and collective-farm property (the property of collective farms or co-operative societies).”
Article 6 clarifies further:
“The land, its mineral wealth, waters, forests, the factories and mines, rail, water and air transport facilities, the banks, means of communication, large state-organized enterprises (state farms, machine and tractor stations, etc.), as well as municipal enterprises and the bulk of the dwelling-houses in the cities and industrial localities, are state property, that is, belong to the whole people.” (Progress Publishers, Moscow 1969)
In other words, Crimea was never within Nikita Khrushchev’s gift.
The argument that Khrushchev was handing off both the peninsula and a military asset (Sevastopol) critical to the entire Soviet Union’s security to a single Soviet republic requires a willful misreading of both history and the law.
Certainly the First Secretary was free to adjust the administrative districts of the U.S.S.R. as he and the C.P.S.U. saw fit, but he had no right to carve off a piece of national territory and hand it to Ukraine without the agreement of the legal and constitutional owners; in this case, the Soviet people as a whole. No referenda seeking the agreement of the Crimean or the Soviet or the Russian Republic’s people for the transfer of the territory were ever held.
No one kicked up a fuss at the time because Khrushchev’s gesture was seen as just another vacuous political stunt to which all state leaders are given from time to time, while being understood as an administrative change of little significance within the totality of the U.S.S.R.
It’s doubtful the famously “hare-brained” Khrushchev considered that his childish and surely inconsequential meddling would or could ever be interpreted otherwise.
To understand why what Khrushchev handed off was nothing more than a nearly empty box tied with a pretty ribbon (the First Secretary had to be well aware of it himself), we need to back up six years prior to Khrushchev’s 1954 gift – to 1948.
On 25 October 1948, Sevastopol was taken out of the U.S.S.R. by resolution No. 403 of the Council of Ministers, and on 29 October 1948 by the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic. These two actions had the effect of re-classifying Sevastopol as a municipality excluded from regional governance and as a city under jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. Consequently, decisions of the Crimean regional executive council never applied to Sevastopol, the main base of the Black Sea Fleet. (Dmitry Rogozin, The Hawks of Peace, Chapter 11.)
Rogozin, Russia’s former Ambassador to NATO, explains, “…it’s not the Black Sea Fleet that is based in Sevastopol, but Sevastopol itself is an integral part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.”
I would add, “As goes Sevastopol, so goes Crimea.”
Crimea is significant because of Sevastopol, which along with any infrastructure critical to the city, was governed from Moscow. Administratively, all that Khrushchev handed off to Ukraine’s local potentates were the outlying hamlets, roads, ruts, tractor stations, village water wells, post offices, etc.
Thus, the nearly empty box tied with the pretty ribbon.
Now let’s speed forward to the March 1991 referendum on what was known as the Union Treaty. At that time, electorates in 9 of the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union voted to retain the Union. (The six dissenters were Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova, all of which were demanding independence.)
Imagine then the Soviet electorate’s surprise on 8 December 1991 when they awoke to the news that their country, the one they had lived in their entire lives and for which 27 million of their family members had given their lives defending from German invaders, no longer existed: the U.S.S.R. had been liquidated by the Russian Federation’s Boris Yeltsin, Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk, and Belarussia’s Stanislau Shushkevich upon those three men’s sole initiative.
The Belovezhskaya Puscha agreement marked the exact moment of Yeltsin’s usurpation. What was Gorbachev without the USSR? Nothing! A footnote, nothing more. And Boris, tired and emotional from such a busy day, and so eager for his moment of triumph that he simply “forgot” to insist upon a resolution of Crimea’s uncertain status before signing the Declaration of the Dissolution of the U.S.S.R.  (It was said that Yeltsin was so drunk five men were needed to cope with the celebrant’s removal from the scene of the crime.)
Thus was Ukraine’s fraudulent claim to Crimea perpetuated for another 23 years, during which Ukraine used its assumed control over Sevastopol to poke, extort and torment the Russian bear. Russia had the oil and gas, but Ukraine had Sevastopol and the pipelines to Europe. (See here for the post-1991 shadow boxing between Russia and Ukraine, and here for an informed overview of Ukraine’s probable future.)
The distressed and dissatisfied people of Crimea voted in three referendums for re-unification with Russia; in 1992, in 1994 and in 2014, each with increasing majorities greater than 90% of those voting. The election of 2014 was not an upset, but, rather the realization of the consistent wishes of the Crimean people, who couldn’t get to the polls fast enough.
New wannabe exploiters like NATO and the EU, egged on by the reptilian John McCain and his girlfriend Lindsey Graham, trying to play Kiev’s game could make for a real high-priced show.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, stated the Russian view succinctly when she responded sharply to news of President Trump’s expectation with just eight words, “Crimea is a territory of the Russian Federation”. Somewhere along the way, she added, “The Russian Federation does not give territory away.”
President Trump, don’t try to reverse the tides of nature or of history, King Canute showed long ago it can’t be done; the rightful claims of the dead’s heirs just keep poking their noses into every corner of every contrived narrative of the past, making constant trouble for those who would ignore them.
Dare I mention Sudetenland, Galicia or Kosovo?
Let the peoples of Russia, of Crimea, and of your own land read our Dickens in peace. We have no quarrel between us. After all, there’s many a lesson to learn in the tale of Pip.
Even for you, sir.
Russia and the post-Cold War world have long been subjects of Ms. Williamson’s journalism. Write to her at