Ukraine: Are we also at fault?

By Peter Emerson

Mariupol is yet another city which humankind has first created… and then destroyed, flattened, like Guernica and Warsaw.  And Russia now does to others, what it too has suffered, as in Leningrad and by its own hand, in Grozny.

Mariupol is not a Russian word; if it were Russian or Slavic, it would be ‘Mariugrad’ or ‘Mariusky’.  But the suffix ‘pol’, as in Sevastopol and Simferopol, is Greek, and it goes back 2,000 years or so, when the Greeks were on this Black Sea littoral, long before Russia was concocted.  What’s more, Russia is not a Slav nation: the Federation includes Samis in Lapland, Maris and Tartars near the Urals, Chechens and Dagestanis in the Northern Caucasus, and over 50 different ethnic groups in Siberia, like the Buryats near Lake Baikal and the Chukchis on the Pacific coast.  Meanwhile, other nations or regions like Slovakia, Slovenia and Slavonia (in Eastern Croatia) are Slav, as is Poland, for example, and in the main, Ukraine.

BeIfast’s third raIIy against the war in Ukraine. Photo: Kateryna Zaichyk


In 2004, I was an OSCE election observer in Kharkiv, an election fought in the final round between just two candidates – Yushchenko and Yanukovich – so everything was very binary and divisive.  Yushchenko was pro-EU, Yanukovich pro-Russia.  The former preferred the Ukrainian language, the latter 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 both Christian.  (And, as in Northern Ireland, little differences can all too easily divide and antagonise.)   Needless to say, in the election, both candidates had their parties, and observers.  Two of them were sitting next to each other in the count, and I asked them, what was it like to compete against each other.  “Oh today, we are opponents, yes; но завтра 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.


So what can we do, here in Ireland, to help our fellow humans in Ukraine?  Inter alia, we should not be using, thereby promoting and even justifying ‘false flags’, provocations, excuses for violence.  I refer in particular to binary referendums.

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.  And when Georgia opted out of the USSR, South Ossetia tried to opt 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 USSR in 1991, and every ‘county’, oblast, voted for independence, including Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.  But, in 2014, these three tried to opt out of Ukraine.  There again, referendum decisions can indeed be reversed: it’s catered for in the Belfast Agreement, and it’s what some in Scotland now want to do.  Indeed, you will remember, Scotland also had a referendum in 2014, and it is sobering to recall that the word Shotlandiya, Scotland, was used by Russian separatists in Luhansk; (I was there).  Meanwhile, like Northern Ireland, a part of Donetsk called Dobropillia and Krasnoarmiisk, tried to opt out of opting out and to opt back into Ukraine.  In this last referendum, 69%, i.e., some two million people voted to go back into Ukraine.  Alas, as in the Balkans, so too in Ukraine, the powers that be – the West in the Balkans, Putin in the Donbas – recognise only those referendums the results of which they approve.

It’s all a bit like those famous Russian dolls, the matryoshki – ‘matryoshka nationalism’ the Russians called it – or used to, before .  Inside every doll, there’s another little one.  Along with every majority, there’s always another minority.  But international law – the right of self-determination – created havoc in Yugoslavia, where “all the wars… started with a referendum,” (Oslobodjenje, 7.2.1999), and in Ukraine. 

Everything is connected.  “Всё связано,” to quote Vladimir Vernadsky, the founder of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences.  Binary referendums can be false flags.  In Bosnia, Milorad Dodik in Republika Srpska is rattling his sabres and ballot boxes, and so too in Georgia was Anatoly Bibilov in South Ossetia, the President until he lost the recent election.  And now Zaporizhzhia wants one as well, voting and fighting over a nuclear power station!  This is just so damned dangerous.

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

Instead, let us practice pluralism: the world’s first multi-option referendum was in New Zealand in 1894; the best in Guam, in 1982, had six/seven options.  And in stark contrast to binary balloting, a multi-option ballot has never provoked a war.

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

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