Viktor Kogan-Yasny: Public opinion in a dictatorship: Crimea, the Constitution, etc.

16 March 2022

by Viktor Kogan-Yasny, writer, political and civil society activist and commentator, advisor to the chair of the Yabloko party

Analysing surveys of public opinion in a dictatorship is invalid in principle, but still …

We have had two completely illegal ‘referenda’: the first in Crimea in 2014, and the second in Russia in 2020. The Kremlin, in its role as manipulator, made sure that the published results suited their interests: 80% and 70%. In fact, on each occasion, the number who were against the proposition totalled about fifty percent. This fifty percent was itself split into two ‘branches’. There were those who returned their ballot papers with a tick in the ‘against’ box or who spoiled their papers (the best approach), and those who took exception to the procedure and did not vote. Surprisingly, almost no one talks about this: politicians, journalists ― such is life in the information prison of ‘Putin’s successes’.

Support inside Russia for the annexation of Crimea was, and still is, of course, very significant. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, in a dictatorship, any initiatives on the part of the authorities invariably command huge public support. The daylight robbery that was pension reform enjoyed the ‘support’ of fifty percent of ‘those questioned’. About eighty percent, we’re told, backed the annexation of Crimea―but that’s another topic. 

Second, there’s been ‘kitchen talk’ right since 1954 to the effect that the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine was both absurd and illegal. And since 1990-91, the ‘Russianness’ of Crimea has become part of pretty much the entire Russian official matrix, from nationalists to inveterate liberals. Matters such as the inviolability of borders and OSCE principles are understood by about ten percent, no more. I have seen no attempt to educate the public on the legal principle of the inviolability of borders. (In this regard, it’s worth noting Putin’s famous answer to a question about Crimea two months before the annexation: Russia, he said, would not seize Crimea, because all was ‘completely peaceful’ there. Certainly an interesting argument.)

But that’s not all there is to say on this theme. There are questions in respect of which, alas, popular opinion, even in conditions of total freedom, runs counter to the law and moral responsibility. My own observations in the area around the German-Czech border suggest to me that if a poll were conducted there today about who owned the Sudetenland, the result would signal a bad day for law and responsibility. The same, I think, would go for Wrocław. Nor are these the only two such cases. It’s just that no one seems to be looking at these questions at the moment, fortunately; it’s possible that polling the locals on them is forbidden.

A supplementary point. There is an OSCE principle that withdrawal from a state is possible under certain conditions, but that it is inadmissible for one state to absorb into itself the territory of another. This is the right principle and the right practice, though who (except me) is going to promote it?

One last thing: permission to annex territory is written into the ‘updated’ Russian constitution in plain words ― albeit smuggled in through the article about the president.

Viktor Valentinovich Kogan-Yasny is a commentator on public affairs, writer and philosopher. He has been actively involved in public life since 1989. He began as an activist of Moscow Tribune and Memorial and in 1990-91 he worked with the Voters’ Club of the Academy of Sciences and the Interregional Group of Deputies of the First Congress of Soviet People’s Deputies. He was an aide to the chair of the Human Rights Committee of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet. Since 1992, he has been chair of the board of the Society against the Death Penalty and Torture, which has now become the NGO, Regional Civic Initiative – Right to Life and Civil Dignity. Viktor Valentinovich is one of the founders of Memorial Human Rights Centre and a member of its board. Since 1995, he has been an advisor both to the Yabloko party and to Grigory Yavlinsky.

Translated by Richard Coombes

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