The Crimea is a true bastion of Slavic patriotism

An unofficial referendum in the Crimea shows 98% opposition to the idea of Ukraine joining NATO. Neither Kiev nor Brussels recognize the outcome of this referendum. Meanwhile, NATO’s interest in offering membership to Ukraine and Georgia is on the wane.

A referendum on NATO membership has been held in Ukraine. True, it only happened in the Crimea, and it wasn’t official at all. The outcome doesn’t carry any legal weight. However, the very fact that this referendum took place clearly demonstrates that residents of the Crimea (like residents of Ukraine’s eastern regions) disagree with President Viktor Yushchenko’s policy line. They feel closer to Russia.

The outcome of this “people’s referendum” was predictable: over 98% against NATO membership (and turnout was almost 60% – not a bad figure, given the event’s unofficial nature). Only one percent voted in favor.

The referendum was organized by the Public Council for Defending the Constitutional Rights of the Crimean Autonomous Republic, headed by Leonid Grach (Communist Party). The Council celebrated its victory all day. Council leaders reported: “The results of the people’s referendum show that residents of the Crimea are fully united in their rejection of NATO itself and the idea of Ukraine joining this aggressive military-political bloc.” The report concludes: “The Crimea is a true bastion of Slavic patriotism.”

The joy of the Crimea’s anti-NATO movement is clouded by only this: neither Kiev nor Brussels recognize the outcome of this referendum. There are several reasons for that. First of all, there were some obvious irregularities during voting. No one kept track of how many times any particular voter voted; people could drop their ballot-papers into any of thousands of polling stations set up all over the Crimea. Secondly, there weren’t any independent observers. Most importantly, the wording of the question itself wasn’t entirely consistent with legal requirements: “Do you agree with President Yushchenko’s policy course aimed at Ukraine joining NATO?” Lawyers say that a referendum question should be worded differently – without the word “agree.” For example: “Should Ukraine join NATO?”

“This referendum won’t have any legal consequences,” says political analyst Vladimir Malinkovich. “It only confirms the obvious: people in the Crimea don’t like NATO.”

The political campaign in the Crimea was mostly aimed at a “domestic consumer” – that is, President Yushchenko. It passed almost unnoticed at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. “This event isn’t even worth commenting on,” says Robert Pschel, spokesman for NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

Of late, NATO Headquarters has preferred to de-emphasize the NATO-related plans of Kiev and Tbilisi. It is suggesting that for a start, Ukraine should come to a decision about its intentions: in other words, Ukraine should hold a referendum – not a demonstrative referendum in one region, but a national referendum. Even before the parliamentary election, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych had promised that this question would be decided by a popular vote. Later, after becoming prime minister, Yanukovych spoke of this in Brussels – thus provoking an acute conflict between himself and Yushchenko, who pointed out that foreign policy is the prerogative of the president, not the government. But Yanukovych isn’t talking of any specific timeframe for a referendum now – although its outcome is obvious. According to various opinion polls, 12-25% of citizens are in favor of NATO membership for Ukraine.

The case of Georgia is still more complicated. It won’t be allowed to join NATO until it resolves the conflict with its “unrecognized republics.” This has been made clear to Tbilisi. NATO doesn’t want a member with “territorial problems.”

Those who lobby in favor of former Soviet republics joining NATO have become less active of late. At NATO’s latest summit in Riga, NATO only promised to “continue dialogue” with Tbilisi and Kiev – with no guarantees at all. This fading interest in membership for Ukraine and Georgia is understandable: until now, the main lobbying effort had come from the Republicans in the United States, with their main aim being to drag those countries (primarily Georgia) into NATO before the unpredictable US presidential election in 2008. But now it’s become obvious that the Republicans are unlikely to succeed in time. And if the presidential election is won by a Democrat, he will evidently be less concerned than the Bush Administration about the fate of Ukraine and Georgia.