Mar 10 2014, 8:06am CDT | by Forbes
It may seem unlikely — and I have no qualifications for stating this opinion other than a general awareness, some education, and an instinct for decency — but I think the Crimean crisis is solvable. I see a way through the thicket such as rarely occurs at such moments.
In most world conflicts in which national boundaries and self-identified groups don’t line up, solutions are difficult to discern. The Israeli-Palestinian quarrel defies fixing. I cannot imagine any real compromise taking place there. Although they eventually melted away, The Troubles in Northern Ireland appeared, for decades, immune to resolution. When India and Pakistan split apart in 1947, millions of people on both sides of the line were displaced, and the resulting ethnic cleansing claimed perhaps as many as a million lives.
And yet, Crimea points to its own way out. Crimea has been alternately occupied by invaders, independently governed, and semi-autonomous throughout its difficult history. But it always had its own identity. It was practically by accident that then-Soviet-leader Nikita Khruschev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, while retaining Sevastopol as a special sphere of Soviet influence. With both Russia and Ukraine under the iron rule of the Soviet Union, which country controlled Crimea was mostly an administrative matter.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the ownership of Crimea was suddenly thrust to the foreground. As the Soviet Union’s only major warm-water port, Sevastopol, at the southern tip of the peninsula, was an asset Russia was ill prepared to let go. In addition, over the years, a large Russian population had migrated to the Crimea, which boasted lovely beaches and palm trees — both extremely rare in the vast Russian landscape.
So, here’s my solution. The Russian interest in Crimea should be recognized explicitly, and Ukraine should let go of Crimea in return for a package of guarantees that include reestablished territorial integrity, a long-term (e.g., five-year) contract for energy products at beneficial (i.e., subsidized) prices, and a recognition of the new Ukrainian government. From the Crimean point of view, it is probably preferable to become some sort of special zone or protectorate than to be annexed to Russia directly. A referendum might be the way to determine final status.
The port of Odessa and the rest of the current Ukrainian Black Sea coastline should remain under Ukraine’s sovereignty. Since the Crimea is a valuable and desirable piece of land, it is only proper that Russia recognizes this fact by sweetening the deal from its end (i.e., selling gas to Ukraine at or below cost). The stability of a long-term energy deal would give the IMF and other financial institutions an incentive to help dig the Ukrainian government out financially, thus removing that part of the burden from Russia, which has no desire to take on Ukraine’s debt. In addition, Russia could help repatriate some of the Ukrainian assets stolen by recently removed president Viktor Yanukovych.
A New York Times article from March 1 by Alison Smale and Steven Erlanger contains a map that shows how Ukrainian voting went in the election of 2010 that installed Yanukovych as president. What it demonstrates is that Crimea leans heavily Russian (as do a number of other provinces in Ukraine’s east and south). Although Crimea is a peninsula connected at its northern end to Ukraine, its eastern tip is right across a narrow straight from Russia proper. Russia could build a bridge or tunnel connecting all its territory. This is not a new idea. Others, including Adolph Hitler (who took it the farthest), have considered establishing this land connection over the years. Meanwhile, assuming a friendly transaction, Ukraine could offer vehicular traffic safe conduct overland. And, of course, Russia could always use the sea for transport.
Here comes the tricky part. Although some ethnic Tatars in Crimea identify more strongly with Russia than with Ukraine, some Crimeans, including ethnic Ukrainians, would not want to live under Russian rule. Likewise, on the Ukrainian side, some ethnic Russians, who might have hoped that Russia would eventually claim back all of Ukraine, might realize Ukrainian rule was not about to disappear and wish to move to a Russian-held area. It was at this point in the Indian-Pakistani division that the normally astute British failed completely. Once the ethnic cleansing began, it became unstoppable until it was for all intents and purposes complete.
So, before any move to divide territory officially, an international property exchange — run by an agreed-upon third party (which could be the United Nations or a private company operating under a board of governors representing all the interested nations — must be established. This exchange — a computerized, networked, online marketplace — would value, on both sides of the line, all properties of anyone wanting to move to the other side. Such property could include personal property, real estate, and business assets. The technology is available. Something like Zillow.com, Realtor.com, Yahoo! Real Estate, or HomeSeekers.com could be run for a limited time, for example for two years. Anyone who wanted to cross the divide could list their property, and a staff member from the exchange would verify the assets, again using typical realtors’ techniques. Matches could be brokered through the system, with possible cash payments to even up value as necessary. People could exchange their properties as soon as they’re matched with someone from the other side.
Once all those who want to move have done so, the rest of the minority populations remaining on the other side would be presumed to be content to live in that country. It would be fine to be a Russian living in Ukraine, but that Russian would have to accept being governed by a Ukrainian state. Likewise, for Ukrainians who remain in Crimea.
There doubtless would be imperfections in the pricing mechanism and various other aspects of the exchange, but remember, the purpose of the marketplace is not to make everyone perfectly whole, but to avoid carnage. Even a highly imperfect system might achieve that goal.
Remains the issue of face. Ideally, everyone would maintain theirs. Vladimir Putin would get his port and nice beaches and appear not to be letting others push Russia around. Ukraine would get cheap gas, guaranteed territorial integrity, the ability to establish its fledgling reform government, and avoidance of hostilities with its much stronger neighbor to the north, and it would be rid of a troublesome province to boot. The European Union would get a reduction in tension and an opportunity to develop further relations with a slightly-reduced Ukraine. The Crimeans would get to join Russia, which the majority apparently wants. The Americans would not have to engage in further useless saber-rattling and would get out of any potential conflict in a region in which it has almost no national interest. President Barack Obama has been just diplomatic enough to buy into such a scheme gracefully. So, face for all.
There are people who liken Russia’s occupation of Crimea to Hitler’s occupation of the Sudetenland in the former Czechoslovakia or the Anschluss Österreichs (the annexation of Austria). But it would be an error to equate Putin with Hitler. Putin may be a bit grandiose and more megalomaniac than average, but he didn’t spend his early career writing treatises about how whole populations should be exterminated.
Putin points out that if an equivalent situation should arise in the United States — say, south Florida should decide to secede to join, oh, the Dominican Republic — we would not hesitate to occupy Miami to maintain our strategic interest. And we’re certainly not letting the Cubans take back Guantanamo Bay (although that might not be a bad idea).
So, let’s sit down and work this thing out. Unlike The Troubles, the division of South Asia, and the Middle East conflict, this difficulty doesn’t involve a religious divide. Ukrainians and Russians share quite a lot of history and culture and would probably like to solve this crisis amicably.
An online property exchange could help.
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