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Former President Klaus's Flawed Defense of Crimea's Annexation

Former Czech President Vaclav Klaus might well be the most prominent foreign figure defending Russia’s annexation of Crimea and denying Kremlin’s complicity in the war unfolding in the East of Ukraine. Klaus, who also served as minister of finance of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and prime minister of the Czech Republic (1992–98), deserves credit for the successful transition of the Czech Republic into a modern European democracy and free-market economy, but his latest pronouncements about Ukraine are both puzzling and disconcerting.

In the essay “Let’s Start a Real Ukrainian Debate,” co-authored with Jiri Weigl, his former chief of staff, Klaus rejects the most straightforward interpretation of the events in Crimea, namely that this part of Ukraine was annexed by Russia. According to his view, the March referendum came about because “the concerns of the Russian part of Ukrainian population started increasing steadily.” In a different statement, Klaus described the Russian annexation using the chess term “forced move,” which refers to a move that has no viable alternative and is therefore “forced” by the opponent—insinuating that the Kremlin was merely reacting to the events in Ukraine, which had unfolded without its prior interference.

Klaus ignores the fact that the Russian campaign in Crimea started well before the departure (not “de facto expulsion,” as he puts it) of President Viktor Yanukovych from Kyiv and even before the agreement was signed between Yanukovych and the opposition, mediated by the three European foreign ministers on February 21st. This fact is corroborated, among other things, by the medal issued by Russia’s Ministry of Defense on the occasion of the “Return of the Crimea,” awarded to former Ukrainians, such as Berkut troops, who assisted with the Russian annexation of Crimea. On its reverse, the medal refers to the time period between February 20th and March 18th, effectively acknowledging that the Crimean operation started before the change of government in Kyiv.

Klaus argues that the separation of Crimea from Ukraine resulted from genuine efforts of its people to attain independence. But he offers very little evidence for that claim. Crimea long enjoyed considerable autonomy within Ukraine, including its own constitution. The only openly separatist movement in Crimea, Russian Unity, led by the self-proclaimed prime minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov (also known as “Goblin” in Crimea’s underworld) secured only three seats out 100 in the last election to the Crimean Parliament. And between 2011 and 2014, the publicly declared support for joining Russia among Crimean inhabitants was between 23 and 41 percent.

The Crimean referendum itself—dubbed the “occupendum” by the Ukrainians—was illegitimate not just because it had no legal basis, but, much more importantly, because it did not reflect the majority opinion of the people of Crimea. According to a report by Russia’s Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, an official association working under the auspices of the Russian president, the turnout in the “occupendum” was between 15 and 30 percent. According to the leader of Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) estimated the turnout at 32 percent.

Klaus claims that the Maidan demonstrations turned radical, although “the government [of Viktor Yanukovych] [made] all kinds of concessions and [took] no repressive action against them.” In reality, Maidan demonstrations emerged as a direct response to the crackdown on the demonstrators on November 30th. This was followed, way before the violent events of this February, by a series of repressive acts by regime against peaceful protesters, such as the one on December 11th.

Klaus also seems to believe that the demonstrations were organized by “the comrades in Western Europe and in the United States,” with the purpose of “fuelling tensions in Ukraine, organizing all those Maidans [sic]; that was a way of destroying Ukraine.” While deploring the alleged involvement of the West in the protests, Klaus is oblivious to Moscow’s protracted economic warfare, which aimed, according to Putin adviser Sergey Glazyev, to deter the Ukrainians from signing the “suicidal” association agreement with the European Union. At the end of July last year, Russia’s chief sanitary officer imposed a ban on the imports of products of the confectionery producer Roshen (owned by Petro Poroshenko, now president). The ban was then extended to various other Ukrainian imports into Russia, tipping Ukraine’s economy into recession in the second half of 2013.

Klaus suggests that the current situation is a result of complicated historical, political, and cultural legacies of Ukraine, and not of Russia’s involvement, which has been only reactive. Granted, Ukraine’s political and economic transition hardly qualifies as a success. However, if anything, popular frustration with poor economic prospects and rampant corruption was a key factor contributing to the rise of the Maidan protests.

 

Some of the other claims advanced by Klaus in order to explain the events in Ukraine appear even more tenuous. Take the introductory sentence from his statement, also co-authored with Jiri Weigl, from February 21st, in which he identifies Ukraine as “to a great extent” an “artificial entity that did not turn into an independent state until the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago.” Yet why should modern Ukraine seem any more “artificial” than, say, the independent Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, with its sizeable German, Hungarian, Rusyn, and other populations?

Having made this dubious assertion, Kraus then tries to illustrate the artificial nature of Ukraine by pointing out that “it includes territories in the west that had never belonged to the Russian empire (Transcarpathian region, Galicia, and others) and became part of Russia only after [World War II], and on the other hand territories that were from the 18th century purely Russian (Crimea, Odessa, the Eastern part of the country), for which the independence of the Ukraine meant the extraction from their original nation.” Leaving aside the fact that Galicia was occupied by Russian armies between 1914 and 1915, what is the meaning of such an observation? Is Poland “an artificial entity” because it includes territories of the former German, Austrian, or Russian empires? How about Romania, with the originally Ottoman-controlled Wallachia and Hungarian-controlled Transylvania? The key is that Eastern Galicia and the Transcarpathian region are distinctly Ukrainian because they long had sizeable Ukrainian populations. In the beginning of the 20th century, 65 percent of people in Eastern Galicia were Ukrainians. In the Transcarpathian region, Ukrainians accounted for 60 percent of the population in 1880, 63 percent in 1921, and 81 percent in 2001.

To make things worse, the second part of the same sentence is simply untrue. According to the 1897 census, Ukrainians formed relative or absolute majorities in all the former gubernias (or provinces) that Kremlin ideologues love to call “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”). In the Tavricheskaya gubernia, for example, Ukrainians accounted for 42.2 percent of the population, compared to 27.9 percent of Russians; in the Khersonskaya gubernia, which included Odessa, Ukrainians represented 53.5 percent of the total population; and in the Yekaterinoslavskaya and Kharkovskaya gubernias, Ukrainians formed even more sizeable majorities, representing 68.9 and 80.6 percent of the populations, respectively.

Klaus also writes that Ukraine “has no historical tradition of statehood.” That is a most extraordinary claim, given the Ukrainians would link the historical origin of their state to such entities as the Kievan Rus (882–1240), the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia (1199–1243), the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia (1243–1392), the Zaporizhian Sich (1489–1709), the Hetmanshina (1648–1764), the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917–20), and the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic (1918–19).

Klaus’s historical revisionism takes on a new quality when he states that “Russian and russified areas of the east and south of Ukraine (with three hundred years of Russian history behind them) were artificially linked to the originally Polish Galicia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia acquired by Stalin after World War II, lands that had never belonged to any of the old Slav states in the East.” Let’s disregard that the southeastern areas of Ukraine have not been inhabited exclusively or predominantly by ethnic Russians. Those territories, which were never under the control of the current Russian Federation (established in 1991) but once were part of the Russian Empire, are in fact on a par with the areas of now independent Finland, Poland, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Caucasian, and Central Asian republics. Unless we classify the latter as Russia’s dependents, it is difficult to justify why we should consider southeastern Ukraine as such.

Meanwhile, the Polish (Western) Galicia, with Krakow as its center, which Klaus mentions, has never been a part of Ukraine—unlike the Ukrainian (Eastern) Galicia, with its capital Lviv. And Eastern Galicia not only belonged to the old Slav states in the East, it was a key part of the Kievan Rus and the “cradle” of the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia and Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia. And the Subcarpathian Ruthenia became part of Slavic state not in 1945, as Klaus claims, but in 1280, when Lev, the prince of Galicia-Volhynia, conquered that region. It was the father of Lev, Prince Daniel, who has essentially built a new city and named it Lviv after his son. 

According to Klaus, “Ukraine has remained—and had to remain—a country economically deeply rooted in the post-Soviet bloc, a country linked to Russia and in many respects dependent on it.” However, many other countries of the former USSR and of former Warsaw Pact, including the Czech Republic, were tightly integrated within the post-Soviet space. Yet that did not prevent many of them—the Estonians, the Lithuanians, the Czechs, or the Georgians—from building effective economic and political systems, liberating themselves from the shackles of their previous dependency on Russia.

Neither are Klaus’s statements about Ukraine’s economy convincing. He calls the western part of Ukraine “backward and weak” and seems to believe that “the economic weight of its eastern part so far prevailed every time.” In fact, every year since 2001, the combined west and center of Ukraine outperform the combined east and south by volume of gross regional product produced. Besides consulting the sources in the Kremlin, Klaus would perhaps do himself a favor by familiarizing himself with the publications of the Ukrainian Statistical Office.

The explanation that Klaus gives for the ties between Russia and Ukraine seems to rely, at least in part, on their common cultural and historical legacies. “For Russia, the Ukraine is more than just its closest foreign country, more than e.g. Estonia, Tajikistan, or Azerbaijan. It is the historic cradle of its statehood and culture, home to tens of millions of Russians,” he wrote in his February 21st statement. In his longer April essay he also asserted that Ukraine “has millions of Russians living in it (more than one third of its population).” Let’s ignore the fact that “tens of millions of Russians” do not live in Ukraine and do not account for “a third of its population”—the actual numbers, according to the 2001 census, are more like 8.3 million and 17.3 percent, respectively. In any event, if Ukraine is indeed the cradle of modern Russia, then England is also the cradle of the modern United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But, unlike in the case of Ukraine, we doubt that Klaus would see that as a reason or a justification for any of those countries to claim English lands.

 

The pinnacle of Klaus’s erroneous interpretation of Ukrainian history and political reality is his repetition of the Putinist propaganda about the alleged nationalist core of the revolution on the Maidan. “By overthrowing [Yanukovych],” Klaus says, “the nationalist western part of the land assumed exclusive power.” But “nationalism” has a distinct meaning and Klaus gives no arguments for why he considers the current political representation in Ukraine “nationalist.” One can only make guesses. Is Klaus alluding to the fact that three Cabinet posts were allocated to the Svoboda party, in a government relying on the support of all parliamentary groups, with the exception of the Communists? Perhaps, but control of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of the Environment, and a deputy prime ministerial post for humanitarian affairs hardly sounds like an exclusive take over of the country. Or does Klaus think that former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is a western Ukrainian nationalist just because he was born in Bukovina’s Chernovtsy?

If that is the underlying logic, it may be worth recalling that President Petro Poroshenko hails from the province of Odessa and the speaker of Parliament, Oleksandr Turchynov, is from the southeast (Dnipropetrovsk). The interior minister, Arsen Avakov, who was born to Armenian parents in Azerbaijan, used to live in Kharkiv, and the new head of Ukraine Security Service (SBU), Valentin Nalivaichenko, was born in Zaporizhia, in the south.

We do not wish speculate about the underlying motives for Klaus’s vocal pronouncements about Ukraine. Let us just say that the thrust of the arguments he has made to date has little basis in reality but rather in the misinformation, half-truths, and malicious lies that are spread by outlets such Russia Today or the Voice of Russia. If his true goal is to (as he puts it) “start a real Ukrainian debate,” Klaus’s public statements seem to be achieving the opposite. Worse yet, they risk bringing their author into permanent disrepute.

Andrei Illarionov and Dalibor Rohac are, respectively, a senior fellow and a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. Between 2000 and 2005, Andrei Illarionov worked as an economic adviser to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Material for this article was adapted from two previous articles published in the Czech magazine Reflex.

Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru

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