In the case of Ukraine, are we talking about 2008 or 1968?

In the case of Ukraine, are we talking about 2008 or 1968?

Hopefully, commentators arguing that the Crimean Peninsula’s case is different from those of Abkhazia and Ossetia will be proven right. Hopefully, Ukraine will not split in two and those involved in the argument will soon find modus vivendi.

However, the speech delivered by Victor Yanukovych at the press conference held in the Russian city Rostov-on-Don does not enforce that impression.

Yanukovych, who re-emerged in Russia after a couple of days spent in hiding, still considers himself the president of the republic and thus, head of the armed forces, a claim tacitly supported by the Russian President Putin, at least as of now.

Meanwhile, Russian troops have been deployed in the Crimean city of Sevastopol and President Putin obtained immediate permission from the Federation Council to send more to Ukraine. The ostentatious justification for this move is the protection of the Russian citizens living within the Ukrainian territory; the same pretext was used in the 2008 Georgia invasion. At the same time, it is Putin who has been offering “free” Russian citizenship to all Ukrainian citizens for a couple of weeks. This televised broadcast on Russian TV channels has certainly had an audience.

According to opinion polls conducted by Kyiv’s Research and Branding Group, 28 percent of people living in Ukraine have close relatives in Russia and 58 percent did not regard Russia as a foreign country.

That would explain why a number of Ukrainians residing mainly in the east and south of the country pulled down their own flags and replaced them with the Russian ones, an act defying the new government in Kyiv. That would also explain the outrage felt by mainly Eastern Ukrainians over Soviet-era statues having been pulled down. The catalogue of these sculptures includes historical figures like Lenin, Tolstoy or even the 18th/19th century field marshal Kutuzov, famous also from the Russo-Turkish wars; yet none of them were of Ukrainian origin.

While being proud of Russian heroes and writers, many Eastern Ukrainians feel threatened by their Western compatriots, calling them “Banderovtzi,” a reference to gangs of Stepan Bandera, a highly controversial figure from WWII and its immediate aftermath. His followers were fighting, not only for the independent Ukraine, but were known mainly for terrorizing the Galician region, “cleansing” it of the Holocaust survivors as well as the “Soviet elements.”

In their minds, Bandera’s name has become associated with fascism, radicalism and the West. They did not vote for the Batkivschina political party, they blamed Yulia Tymoshenko for selling Ukraine to “the West.” They have built barricades and held voluntary guards against the “bandits” coming from Western Ukraine who would destroy their peace and culture, all in the name of the West. For them, Russia means protection, the provider of security and stability.

Many of them are veterans, pensioners, taking state allowances and around 10 percent discounts in electricity and other bills for serving bravely in Czechoslovakia after 1968’s Soviet invasion. According to their understanding, they did not go to Czechoslovakia as an occupying force, but together with Russians, they were there naturally to save the Czechoslovaks from “the Western menace.” 

However, unlike those who took the Soviet time motto “Together Forever!” literally, 40 percent of the respondents do consider Russia a foreign country, Research and Branding Group says. For them, the presence of the Russian military troops in Crimea is a clear act of aggression and a threat to Ukrainian sovereignty. Ukrainian acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has openly expressed this view. 

As such, it might constitute a breach of the Budapest Memorandum from 1994 and give Ukraine the right to call for consultations with NATO, stemming from the 1997 NATO-Ukraine Charter. Moreover, there is no provision under the current Ukrainian constitution providing for a regional referendum to be held on the question of separation.

Even if Moscow tries to justify the deployment of their troops to Crimea by getting an invitation from the “legitimate” president, and even if Yanukovych decides to take such a step, they would hardly be able to legitimize the military move.

Let’s not forget that while times were different in 1968, history has shown us the same claim by Soviets in the case of Czechoslovakia did not fool anyone.

*Sylvia Tiryaki is deputy director of Global Political Trends, Istanbul Kültür University.