Ukraine: Are we also to blame? – News Block

by Peter Emerson

Mariupol is yet another city that humanity first created… and then destroyed, razed, like Guernica and Warsaw. And now Russia does to others what she, too, has suffered, as in Leningrad and by her own hand, in Grozny.

Mariupol is not a Russian word; if Russian or Slavic, it would be ‘Mariugrad’ or ‘Mariusky’. But the suffix ‘pol’, as in Sevastopol and Simferopol, is Greek, going back some 2,000 years, when the Greeks were on this Black Sea shoreline, long before Russia was invented. Furthermore, Russia is not a Slavic nation: the Federation includes Sami in Lapland, Maris and Tatars near the Urals, Chechens and Dagestanis in the North Caucasus, and more than 50 different ethnic groups in Siberia, such as the Buryats near Lake Baikal and the Chukchis on the Pacific coast. Meanwhile, other nations or regions such as Slovakia, Slovenia and Slavonia (in eastern Croatia) are Slavic, as is Poland, for example, and mainly Ukraine.

The third BeIfast demonstration against the war in Ukraine. Photo: Kateryna Zaichyk


In 2004, I was an OSCE election observer in Kharkiv, an election contested in the final round between just two candidates, Yushchenko and Yanukovych, so it was all very binary and divisive. Yushchenko was pro-EU, Yanukovich pro-Russia. The first preferred the Ukrainian language, the second Russian… but these two languages ​​are very similar. Western Ukraine is more Catholic or Uniate, the eastern ‘half’ opts for the Orthodox Church… but these two denominations are Christian. (And, as in Northern Ireland, small differences can all too easily divide and antagonize.) It goes without saying that in the elections, both candidates had their parties and observers. Two of them were sitting next to each other at the count, and I asked them what it was like to compete against each other. “Oh today, we are opponents, yes; но завтра будем друзьями – but tomorrow, we will be friends again”.

How dangerous it was, we can say if only in hindsight, to use such a divisive voting procedure.


So what can we do, here in Ireland, to help our fellow human beings in the Ukraine? Among others, we should not be using, promoting and even justifying ‘false flags’, provocations, excuses for violence. I mean in particular binary referendums.

In 1920, when Ireland opted out of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland opted out and participated again (albeit without referendums). In the same way, when Bosnia opted out of Yugoslavia, the Republika Srpska tried to opt out of Bosnia. And when Georgia opted out of the USSR, South Ossetia tried to get out of Georgia. Both the Balkans and the Caucasus were inundated with referendums; they still are.

A similar fate befell Kiev: Ukraine opted out of the USSR in 1991, and all ‘counties’, oblast, they voted for independence, including Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk. But, in 2014, these three tried to get out of Ukraine. Again, the referendum decisions can be reversed: it’s in the Belfast Agreement, and it’s what some in Scotland want to do now. In fact, you will remember, Scotland also held a referendum in 2014, and it is sobering to remember that the word tirolandia, Scotland, was used by Russian separatists in Lugansk; (I was there). Meanwhile, like Northern Ireland, a part of Donetsk called Dobropillia and Krasnoarmiisk, tried to opt out and return to Ukraine. In this last referendum, 69%, that is, about two million people voted to return to Ukraine. Unfortunately, as in the Balkans, also in Ukraine, the powers that be – the West in the Balkans, Putin in the Donbas – only recognize referendums whose results they approve.

Everything is a bit like those famous Russian dolls, the matryoshki – ‘matryoshka nationalism’ the Russians called it, or used to call it before. Inside each doll, there is another small one. Along with every majority, there is always another minority. But international law, the right to self-determination, wreaked havoc in Yugoslavia, where “every war…began with a referendum” (oslobodjenje7.2.1999), and in Ukraine.

Everything is connected. “Всё связано”, to quote Vladimir Vernadsky, the founder of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Binary referendums can be false flags. In Bosnia, Milorad Dodik in the Republika Srpska rattles his sabers and ballot boxes, as does in Georgia Anatoly Bibilov in South Ossetia, the president until he lost the recent election. And now Zaporizhzhia wants one too, voting and fighting for a nuclear power plant! This is damn dangerous.

Consequently, here in Ireland (and Scotland), if only for the sake of peace in the Ukraine and elsewhere, we should not be trying to settle our own constitutional issues with (‘false flag’) binary referendums.

Instead, let’s practice pluralism: the world’s first multiple-choice referendum was in New Zealand in 1894; Guam’s best, in 1982, had six/seven options. And in stark contrast to binary voting, multiple-choice voting has never sparked a war.

Peter Emerson is the director of the Borda Institute, a Northern Ireland-based NGO whose aim is to promote the use of inclusive voting procedures on all contentious issues of social choice. He was an Irish Aid OSCE election observer in six elections in Ukraine, 2004-14; and EUMM member in Georgia for South Ossetia, 2008-09.

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