When I finished my last post on Ukraine by saying “whenever someone is trying to deny you the full picture, they are not your friend”, it was a sort of quote. Back in the terrible early days of the Iraq War, I stumbled across a blog post or an article by the publishing house editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden describing the 2000 “election” of George W. Bush to be the president of the US. I found her words to be remarkably clear:
You can take this as a rule: No matter what else they’re saying, anyone who says we can dispense with counting the ballots and observing the law is not your friend. Neither is anyone who tries to take power without having the laws and ballots on his side. Neither is anyone who withholds vital information on that score, or condones others’ disrespect for it.
It can’t be said clearer than that. When the Bush team said we didn’t need to count the votes again, didn’t need to be sure, they were essentially saying that they didn’t care about democracy. That, right there, should have been a gigantic red flag to every single person who voted for George W. Bush and the Republican ticket that they had made a terrible, terrible mistake. They had voted for someone who was not interested in the rule of law or democracy. In fact, this turned out to be the case.
What Nielsen Hayden was saying is quite simply an indispensable rule for living in a democracy: no matter which side you’re on, no matter if you stand to gain immensely by whatever’s happening, no matter if it will save you time or money, no matter if it will get you laid or a free plane ride to Disneyland or a double Whopper with extra sauce — it doesn’t matter. If someone is saying you can suspend the rules of a democracy, just this once, they are not your friend. If you’re talking about the election to supervisor of the PTA board or the US presidential elections: I don’t care.
What we just saw in Crimea may very well be the will of the Crimean people. They may very well want to secede to Russia, and if it is really true that 93 % of the people want that, as the referendum results seemed to claim, then that is the path that country should take. But the presence of the Russian army ensures that this is not a serious election result, and is in fact only delaying a legitimate secession by Crimea.
But you can’t have a free and fair referendum while an invading army is occupying the region — in fact, the army of one of the “parties” being voted for.
You can’t have a free and fair referendum while the international community is in agreement that international law is being violated (because, you know, international law is being violated). Or while the election is being held to be illegally organised in the country in which it takes place.
You can’t have a free and fair referendum without a proper debate on matters of national urgency in a free press, deliberating at peace and over time, with all viewpoints proposed, argued and heard.
You can’t have a free and fair referendum organised in less than three weeks during an invasion, a state of exception.
You can’t have a free and fair referendum when one of the possible policy alternatives (that Crimea should remain in Ukraine as it was) isn’t even on the ballot.
You can’t have a free and fair referendum while one of the parties in the election is actively blocking and censoring opposition activist websites.
It is obvious from the behaviour of the Russian aggressors that if you like democracy, they are not your friends. They are trying to subvert the course of democracy for their own ends. They are acting like antidemocratic thugs. And that’s actually the definition of being antidemocratic thugs.
If you happen to be one of the people who think the Crimea should secede — you should be asking for the Russians to leave. The only way to get that done in a proper way is to have the Russians withdraw, and then have a proper public debate for at least a year, so everyone gets the time to think things through. And then, with international observers present, with a properly organised, executed and audited referendum, Crimea can get what it wants.
If Putin doesn’t let the Crimean people have that — say it with me — he is not their friend.