The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Crimea is not Scotland

People rally in the southern Russian city of Stavropol in support of the people of Crimea on March 7. (Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters)

On Thursday, Crimea's parliament announced its plans to hold a referendum to legitimize plans to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

Russia has welcomed the news and, deflecting criticism, compared the situation to another referendum on sovereignty due to happen in 2014.

"The decision is fully in line with international practice. It is enough to look at Scotland and you can find other examples," Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko said today, according to AFP. "No one says the Scotland referendum is illegal."

It's true that no one says the Scottish referendum – which will take place in September and could see the state leave the United Kingdom – is illegal. And for those of us who believe in self-determination and democracy, that's a good point to make. Referendums on sovereignty aren't bad in themselves.

But frankly, Crimea is not Scotland. For example:

  • Scotland decided to hold its referendum after the Scottish National Party won power on a platform that proposed independence. Those in Crimea's parliament who proposed its referendum were never voted into power, and were only put in place after gunmen, believed to be either pro-Russian militia or Russian troops, stormed the parliament.
  • As the SNP were voted into power in such a way, the United Kingdom's government in London has agreed to the referendum, and both parties have spent a long time ironing out the details of the planned referendum. The government in Kiev has not agreed to a referendum in Crimea, and Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has called it "an illegitimate decision."
  • Scottish nationalists have said that if they do leave the U. K., they may choose to follow the "Nordic model" of social democracy. They are not, however, planning on conducting a referendum while armed forces, either from or supporting Nordic countries, surround British military bases and demand British soldiers give up their weapons. In fact, no one suspects the Nordic countries or any other outside country of influencing Scotland's decision in any serious way. In Crimea, the same cannot be said.
  • In Scotland's referendum, the question will be: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" The question will have two answers: Yes or No. According to the Kyiv Post, the referendum on Crimea's independence will have two possible answers: "Yes, join Russia immediately" or "Yes, declare independence and then join Russia." As Gideon Rachman has noted at the Financial Times, even if a third option ("No") is added, that means that the chances of any one option getting over 50 percent are significantly reduced.
  • Due to the way that the referendum is being handled in Scotland, it's results will be internationally accepted (at worst there might be a few issues with the European Union or the United Nations). Very few countries other than Russia are likely to see the results of Crimean referendum as legitimate.

One thing both Crimea and Scotland have right now is a good deal of uncertainty – one recent opinion polls for Scotland suggest that support for leaving the U.K. is at 32 percent, far below those who want to stay (57 percent). In Crimea, there's also a decent amount of evidence to suggest that a fair referendum might not actually find a majority who want to join Russia, if a fair referendum is even possible at this point.