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As Others See Us: The View from Crimea (2)

Why can Scots have a vote but not Crimeans?

That is the question - firmly rhetorical - put this week by Valentina Matviyenko, Russia's most powerful woman.

As the West threatened sanctions over this weekend's plebiscite on the Black Sea peninsula, the Ukrainian-born ally of Vladimir Putin sensed double standards.

"In what way are Scots better than Crimeans?" said the speaker of Russia's Federation Council, or Senate. "I haven't heard anybody say that the Scottish referendum is a priori illegal."

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.

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.

Distinguished Russian lawyer Genri Reznik was quick to point this out on Moscow independent radio station Ekho Moskvy this week.

"When discussing the Crimean problem," he said, "Similar subjects in other places, Quebec in Canada, Scotland in Great Britain, are always raised. Worried voices ask if Crimean self-determination would drive parts of our own country, especially the Caucasian republics, to leave? Let me reassure you, or perhaps disappoint you.

"If any local parliament in any region took the decision to leave Russia and call a referendum - its elected representatives would be facing up to five years of jail."

Dmitri Belik may well have fallen foul of that law, if he was speaking from, say, Chechnya rather than Crimea. But the mayor of Sevastopol, home port of Russia's once mighty Black Sea fleet, has little to fear. His separatism suits the Kremlin.

"We understand that it is a precedent," Belik told Kremlin news agency Itar-Tass when asked whether this weekend's vote would set an example for other Russophone regions in Ukraine. "But there are such precedents in Europe too.

"For example, Scotland is heading for a referendum and there isn't any hysteria about that, none of the obvious heightening of tensions we have here.

"We have the right to self-determination. We have the right to have our say, and, moreover, to do this democratically and openly."

The vote in Crimea, of course, has only been made possible by soldiers - soldiers in jeeps and trucks with Siberian number plates - who have taken control of the peninsula.

Authorities in Kiev believe Crimea, one of Europe's most beautiful corners, is about to be annexed after an unsanctioned military intervention by the Kremlin.

They're having none of the Scottish comparisons, which are roundly dismissed by Ukraine's media, a media that is every bit as vigorously anti-separatist as Russia's. News programme TSN, for example, this week declared that "Crimea isn't Burkino Faso".

Rights of national self-determination apply to ex-colonies and Crimea, it stressed, isn't one of those.

Ukraine is one of states to have never recognised Kosovo. Neither, for that matter, has Russia. In another flurry of "whataboutery" Kremlin supporters have pointed out they warned against the Nato intervention that, despite failing to win UN approval, ultimately enabled the former Serbian province to declare itself independent.

Some ethnic Russians in Crimea have hankered after their own indyref ever since Alex Salmond and David Cameron struck their Edinburgh Agreement in 2012.

As I reported in this blog last year, the first and only president of the short-lived post-Soviet "Republic of Crimea" called for a "Scottish solution".

Yuri Meshkov, desribed by Russian media as living in exile in Moscow, was a unionist who wanted a vote on independence from Ukraine. Why? To make it easier for Crimea to be be reunited with Russia.

Meshkov said: "We are proposing the most peaceful way to resolving an obvious conflict, caused by the division of Crimea from its people, from its motherland.

"As God is our witness, we are so far in favour of a peaceful European-style, Scottish-style resolution of our conflict."

Well, Meshkov has got his vote. Meshkov ran Crimea in the mid-1990s before it lost much of its autonomy - but it used to run many of its own affairs.

This has inspired another approach to Crimea, another Scottish approach: devolution.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oligarch and archenemy of Putin, this week proposed our current constitutional arrangements as a way out of the Crimea conflict.

Khodorkovsky's concern? That Russia risked damaging itself by "adopting 19th-century practices of settling territorial disputes" - and encouraging separatism in its own troubled borderlands of the Caucasus.

"I call on my compatriots to defend land that belongs to Russia, including in the North Caucasus, including by force of arms," he said. "I must recognize that the Ukrainian people also have that right."

He is not the only Putin foe to challenge support for Crimean "Russian unionism".

Take Yevgeny Ikhlov. The anti-Putin blogger writes for the internet site of Garry Kasparov, one time chess master, full-time pain in the Kremlin's neck. His point? How can Crimea have "national self-determination" if it isn't a "nation".

Mr Ikhlov, meanwhile, doesn't approve of Scottish nationalism. It is, he said, just the "childish stoking of grievances from the 16th and 17th centuries".

Plebiscites may have a role in settling border disputes such as the Crimea issue.

But is this really the same thing as a national independence referendum such as those proposed in Scotland or Catalonia this year? Let me know what you think.

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