The following is an interview of Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the international affairs committee of the Russian State Duma. Pushkov spoke by telephone with Paul Saunders, associate publisher of the National Interest, on March 10. A recording of the interview can be found here.
Paul Saunders: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to our readers of the National Interest magazine. We’re all quite interested in the crisis in Ukraine and in Crimea. Perhaps the best question to start would be a question about the referendum that’s scheduled to take place less than a week from now in Crimea. Do you expect that referendum to take place as it’s scheduled on March 16th and what outcome do you expect?
Alexey Pushkov: Well I think that there is no reason why the referendum wouldn’t take place as the date that it was set on. As for the result, as far as I can judge, there is a majority for the first question: Whether Crimea should join Russia. How large is this majority? This referendum will probably define. And of course, like in every referendum it cannot be 100% predictable. But I would say that there are high chances for the first question about the Crimea joining Russia to receive the approval of the majority.
Saunders: If that happens, I have two questions: You know, first of all, as you know, the United States and European governments don’t consider it to be a legitimate exercise. And as a result, whatever the outcome, it’s likely to be contested. In that environment, if there is a majority vote in Crimea for Crimea to join Russia, and it is contested by the United States and the European Union and perhaps others, how do you expect that the Duma would respond to that?
Pushkov: I cannot predict first the result of the referendum. Second, I cannot predict the vote in the Duma. I think that certain things will become more clear when in due time. But I would like to point out that for some reason the United States and their European allies consider the referendum which took place in Kosovo, as far as I remember, in 2002, without the agreement of Belgrade, as fully legitimate. And I don’t see absolutely any reason why this referendum should be considered not legitimate, but one: is that it does not correspond to what the ruling elite think in Brussels and in Washington. I don’t think this is enough, not to recognize the results of this referendum.
If it is allowed for the population of Kosovo to define their future by themselves, and it is considered to be a legitimate, democratic exercise, [almost] a direct democracy, so I think in this case, whatever is the result of the referendum in Crimea, it can also be seen an example of direct democracy and a expression of the will of the people. And if the West does not recognize this, it is up to the West. But I think that the will of almost three million, or I mean, of the majority of people in Crimea is definitely more important than the position that would be taken by European capitals or by Washington, especially in conditions where they have approved of such referendums before.
So I think that the United States and their European allies had set a precedent in Kosovo. And although they said at the time it is no precedent, it is a precedent. They have opened themselves the Pandora’s Box. They have said that referendums can be a way out of belonging to a country if the majority in this or that region thinks so. And so I think now they have to study more carefully the experience of the Kosovo referendum and then ask themselves the question: if they recognized the referendum of Kosovo, why they not recognize this very one?
Saunders: I’m not an American official or obviously not a European one. I expect many of them would respond to that by arguing that violence that was underway in Kosovo was on a much larger scale than has been seen so far in Crimea. But that being as it may, do you think that the Duma would take action on the referendum immediately? I mean, within a period of days? Or would it take longer than that? And how do you, as the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Duma, how would you vote, yourself personally, on the question of annexing Crimea to Russia?
Pushkov: I would like first to respond to your remark about violence in Kosovo. I have to say that the way the power was seized in Kiev was quite violent. There is evidence of killings by the insurgents, the so-called revolutionaries. Two people were killed at the headquarters of the Party of Regions when it was taken over by the insurgents and they were all from the technical staff, who did not have any responsibility. But they, one of them was shot, another one was burnt alive by the Molotov cocktails thrown at him. The head of the presidential administration at the last stage of Yanukovych presidency, Mr. Kluyev, was attacked in his apartment and was shot upon. And now he’s, with a bullet in his back, he’s in the hospital. A communist was seized in Kiev. He was tortured. He had his skull fractured, his head fractured, and so on and so on and so on. So, violence was in its place in Kiev. Not to the extent as in Kosovo, but there were quite a few examples of violence and violations of human rights. And I don’t think that the people in Crimea would like that to come to them.
There are from six to eight thousand ultranationalists armed to the teeth in Kiev who are the inheritors of the same as Ukrainian Liberation Movement of Stepan Bandera, allied to the Nazis in the Second World War. These were the people who took part in the killing of 150,000 Jews, mostly Jews, and also other people, in the Babi Yar shooting. Out of 1,500 of those who performed this crime, only 300 were German Nazis, and 1,200 were the predecessors of those who are now patrolling the streets of Kiev with SS signs on their lapels. So I think that it would be probably quite strange to wait for violence to come to Crimea before taking some actions. So I think that the Supreme Council of Crimea decided just to avert such a violence by conducting a referendum and asking Russia for some defense.
So there is some logic for this. We should not have, you know, a lot of blood to be spilled in order to come to such a decision. Especially that, as I say, the forces which are in power in Kiev rely to a large extent on pro-Nazi parties and one of those parties, which is called today the Freedom Party [Editor’s note: the Svoboda Party], initially was called the Social Nationalist Party. You would easily notice that with a slight inversion, you get the National Socialist Party as the real title of this party. And the leader of this party has been one of the partners of the Western powers. He shook hands in business with the European leaders. There are photos of him, his name is Mr. Tyahnybok, the leader of the Social Nationalist Party, with the Assistant Secretary of State, Ms. Victoria Nuland, smiling, standing very close to him. So I think there are enough grounds for fears in Crimea that this armed and radical force could come to Crimea and try to establish their order there, too. So that’s about the comparisons with Kosovo and about the potential violence.
As for the voting, I would like to stress that we have not yet the results of the referendum and we have not yet a law which would allow for Russia to take inside the Russian Federation a region from a different country that would, under certain conditions, apply to Russia in order to be accepted inside the Russian Federation. This law is not yet accepted by the Russian Duma. Although, there is a draft law which is being considered. But as I say, the plenary session will start only tomorrow in Moscow, and I cannot say when this law will, and if this law will be adopted. And in the absence of this law, and in the absence of the results of the referendum in Crimea, I think it would be premature to speak about the future votes, voting, the future voting.