“The Birth of a Nation” is a legendary 1915 American film directed by D.W. Griffith that became a classic because of its innovative film techniques. In spite of its extremely racist message, it was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry. The title of the movie raises difficult questions that are particularly relevant in Ukraine today: How are countries born? How do countries die?
The deadlock in Ukraine has several layers of conflicting legitimacy narratives. The Russian Federation and their Ukrainian sympathizers maintain that the unfrocked Viktor Yanukovich is still the president of Ukraine until 2015, as the old laws stipulate. The West maintains that the parliament of Ukraine has removed him from power and selected others to lead until a new election this May under recently-voted legislation. For the Russian followers, the Maidan demonstrations were a coup d’etat orchestrated with outside interference from the West. For the United States and Europe, the recent manifestations were democratic outpourings representing the true will of the people.
The status of Crimea is part of the conflicting narratives. The Russian Federation justifies its intervention as a preservation of the safety of the Russian population living there. After all, the new Ukrainian parliament had voted to exclude Russian as an official language in the peninsula and Crimea was part of Russia until 1954. Just as the United States invaded Grenada in 1983 ostensibly to protect the safety of 800 students at the U.S.–run St. George’s University School of Medicine, the Russians are claiming that their citizens and sympathizers are being threatened. If there happens to be a coup d’etat in the near future in Ukraine, we can be sure that the Russians will point to the American overthrow of the communist New Jewel Movement government in Grenada as a precedent as well as the historic Monroe Doctrine which warns great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere.
And if there is a referendum as planned on March 16, the Russians will certainly trumpet that a majority of the population wants Crimea to return to Russia. Just as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russians have been giving passports to sympathetic locals promising future benefits if the vote goes their way. If the vote goes the other way, they are threatening to cut off gas and oil.
All of the above raises the fundamental question of the legitimacy of governments and countries. As Marcelo Kohen pertinently points out in Le Temps on March 13, the very same governments that are crying foul against the proposed referendum in Crimea are those who applauded the decision by the government of Kosovo to declare independence from Serbia. As Professor Kohen notes: “If the unilateral declaration by the Parliament of Kosovo proclaiming secession from Serbia was not illicit, why is it so for that of the Parliament of Crimea from Ukraine?”
International law tries to be objective. But, finally, the existence of a country is based on political recognition, especially by major powers. Following Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008, 110 countries have given it diplomatic recognition. Following the Georgian War of August 2008, only six countries have recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries outside of Georgia.
Whereas international law tries to be objective, countries often go above the law to achieve their desired ends. Those who go above the law, however, must be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions. The recognition of Kosovo by the major powers was a slap in the face to Serbia and its Russian backers. Although the West continues to maintain that that recognition did not set a precedent, the view from Moscow was and is quite different. For not only does international law try to be objective, it also tries to limit hypocrisy.