Sometimes, I ask myself whether it is possible to be right, though it means dismissing everybody else’s opinion. Or must one surrender to the idea that unanimity should prevail? In light of what is happening at the moment in Ukraine, I feel reinforced in my initial intuition: It is crazy for the West to turn the Crimean problem into an opportunity for confrontation with Russia.
To embark on such a path is not in Europe’s interest. On the contrary, we should be doing everything possible to ensure that our important eastern neighbor is integrated with Europe and not isolated from it.
Future historians will find it rather hard to understand why we have embarked on an escalation with Russia that has potentially terrifying consequences in order to oppose a majority vote from a Russian-speaking province, part of Russia for centuries, attached in 1954 to another province of the Soviet Union on the whim of the secretary general of the Communist Party at the time, Nikita Khrushchev. Moreover, this was an inclusion never fully acknowledged by the majority of the Crimean population, who have always wanted to maintain their autonomy vis-à-vis the government in Kiev, as further affirmed by the Ukrainian constitution of 1992.
Crimea and Russia chose to use the chaos born of the arrival in Kiev of a strongly anti-Russian government to reunite. Why does it bother us? Why should the Crimean population be denied the will to choose their destiny against the view of the country of which they are a member? After all, aren’t we preparing to allow the Scots to vote on exactly the same issue in Great Britain? Don’t the Catalans intend to do likewise in Spain? Will there be protests against “the taking away of the territory of Great Britain” if the Scots choose independence?
And what will happen if Moldova, Belarus, or the Russian-speaking part of Kazakhstan ask to become attached to Russia? We will interfere? On what grounds? In the name of stability of the idea of nationhood? What about Czechoslovakia splitting up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia? Didn’t we support it when provinces broke away in Yugoslavia? Iraqi Kurdistan? Gaza? Would anyone object if Quebec chose independence? What would happen if Wallonia were to asked to join France?
Clearly, when a minority does not feel protected against the excesses of a majority, it has the right to regain ownership of its destiny. It is the duty of the majority to allow this.
Then what are we doing? What do we have to fear from Crimea returning to Russia? That Russia calls the Russian-speaking part of the Baltic states part of Russia and thus a prime target for annexation? Come on! These countries are in the European Union and in NATO! Therefore, they have nothing to fear.
All this brings to mind old history. The West actually believes it will not make the same mistake that was made with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 by Adolf Hitler under the pretext that in this region of Czechoslovakia the majority of the inhabitants were of German race.
Remorse certainly is quite praiseworthy. But it is too late to rewrite history.
The situation before us today is not analogous to 1938, but rather to 1919.
If there is something to remember, it is what the attempts to humiliate and isolate Germany after the First World War led to: the Germany of the Weimar Republic and the tragic Treaty of Versailles that led to Hitler’s rise to power.
Aside from the creation of the European Bank for Development and Reconstruction in 1991, and the G-8 in 1992 – both at the initiative of France – nothing has been done since the collapse of the Soviet Union to bring Russia closer to Europe and join a common area of the rule of law. If Russia has never been candidate for membership in the European Union, one does not have to be a genius to see that if an offer had been made, or at least a proposition to join European Free Trade Association or what was left of it, it would have been accepted, to the greatest benefit of Western Europe.
Today’s ongoing confrontation will get us nowhere at best. At worst, it will invite a repeat of history when a series of absurd events resulted in the outbreak of world war.
Therefore, the planned summit between the European Union and Russia should not have been canceled. Russia should not be excluded from the G-8. We should not be trading tit-for-tat sanctions.
Instead, everything needs to be done to persuade the Russians that they have everything to gain by coming closer to the European Union. By offering them to build a vast single constitutional and legal area, where the Crimean issue would become insignificant. And to get started, we should propose to Ukraine – provided it remains what it is – a bridge between the two Europes, for each other’s greatest benefit.
Jacques Attali is a former advisor to French President Francois Mitterrand and was founding president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
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