U.K. to Russia: Crimea Isn't Scotland

"Nothing in the way the #Crimea referendum has been conducted should convince anyone that it is a legitimate exercise," the British foreign ministry tweeted.
A derelict cottage in Blackford, Scotland, in 2012. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

On Sunday, Crimeans voted in a hastily organized referendum to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, pending Moscow's approval. And while international observers have widely dismissed the vote as illegal, Russian officials have taken issue with that claim, drawing comparisons between Crimea's independence bid and similar Western ones.

RT, a Kremlin-funded news organization, helpfully compiled a list of "5 referendums that the West has not taken issue with," including those in Kosovo, Catalonia, and Scotland. And Russian authorities have also cited these precedents. "The decision [by Crimea's parliament] is fully in line with international practice. It is enough to look at Scotland and you can find other examples," claimed Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament. "No one says the Scotland referendum is illegal."

The British government isn't exactly thrilled about the comparison. In recent days, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office has been posting an infographic on social media comparing Scotland's upcoming independence referendum with Crimea's secessionist bid, which London views as illegal and illegitimate:

A Foreign & Commonwealth Office graphic contrasting the Scottish and Crimean referendums.

Scottish commentators aren't buying the Crimea comparison, either. "Matviyenko is just one of several Russian politicians and commentators to talk up 'international rights of self-determination' all week as they try to equate Crimea with Scotland," wrote David Leask, a Herald Scotland reporter. "She may sniff hypocrisy. But she also—in my view—reeks of it. Her Federation Council late last year passed a new law banning 'separatist propaganda'. Its penalty? Prison."

The Scotsman, one of Scotland's largest daily newspapers, stated that Sunday's referendum lacked "credibility" while remaining sympathetic to Crimean nationhood. "[We] should support the holding of a referendum in Crimea and agree to welcome its outcome, whatever that may be," the editorial board declared. "But we should only do so if that vote is open, honest, and fair—and carried out without Russian soldiers prowling the streets."

Secessionist movements have been gaining strength throughout the West in recent years. Venetians are voting this week on a non-binding independence referendum, just shy of 217 years after Napoleon conquered the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Quebec, whose bid to separate from Canada in 1995 failed at the polls, could make another attempt if the Parti Québécois wins a snap election next month. Spain's government is categorically resisting calls for a referendum in Catalonia, which could grow even louder if Scotland's closely watched referendum succeeds on September 18.

The Scottish government, by political custom, does not comment on foreign affairs. When contacted last week, a spokesman for Yes Scotland, the official pro-independence campaign, refused to comment on Crimea's independence referendum. "We are fully focused on trying to win our own referendum which is now less than six months away," he told me in a brief statement.

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees social media.

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