Ethiopia’s negative experiences through Ukraine-Crimea crisis lens: The Hypocrisy of the West

19 Mar

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory
By Prof. Messay Kebede, Universtiy of Dayton, Ohio, USA

The West is deploring the referendum in Crimea and threatening to apply economic sanctions against Russia, believed to be the instigator of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis. Some Western politicians even go the extent of advocating direct military aid so that Ukraine can oppose military resistance to the Russian aggression. The referendum, which is supposed to lead to the reintegration of Crimea into the Russian Federation, is characterized by the West as illegal.

From what I was able to gather, the reasons why the referendum is considered illegal include the followings:

    (1) Ukraine is an independent and sovereign country;

    (2) the referendum takes place with a strong presence of Russian military force in Crimea;

    (3) the referendum does not offer Crimea the choice of remaining within Ukraine.

What beats everything is that the West did not raise any concern about legality when Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, even though all the reasons enumerated to contest the referendum in Crimea were also present in Ethiopia. Thus:

    (1) Ethiopia is an independent and sovereign nation;

    (2) the referendum was conducted in the presence of the victorious EPLF army;

    (3) The choice to remain part of Ethiopia under a new political arrangement was not offered to Eritreans, nor was Ethiopia given the opportunity defend its legitimate position and interests, except through the TPLF government.

The latter had no legality other than the power of arms and was already dead set to expel Eritrea from Ethiopia as a dangerous rival to the TPLF hegemony in Ethiopia. Yet, though conducted under such faulty conditions and in direct violation of the sovereignty of Ethiopia, the referendum was declared “fair and free” by the UN Observer Mission.

One thing is sure: we Ethiopians should remember the Western condemnation of the Russian initiative. If, as says the West, the conduct of a referendum in a situation preventing free expression and in an independent and sovereign country is illegal, then undoubtedly the rejection of the referendum in Crimea equally questions the legality of the Eritrean secession. The flaws that make the secession of Crimea illegal are also those that disqualify the Eritrean referendum. This is not to say that Ethiopia should start a war to recover Eritrea, but that it is not compelled to accept its independence so long as it believes, now in accordance with the West, that the referendum was illegal.

Surprising as it may seem, the West is saying that the feeling of the concerned people does not matter as much as the legality of the process. Even if Crimeans in their majority want to be part of Russia, they cannot do it in violation of the national sovereignty of Ukraine. Of course, what explains the application of different criteria is that Russia is a rival superpower while Ethiopia is a poor and weak country. Everything must be done to stop the expansion of Russia. By contrast, nobody should lose sleep over the fragmentation, in direct violation of its national sovereignty, of a country as weak as Ethiopia.


Editor’s Note:

    The Ethiopia Observatory is very grateful to Prof. Messay Kebede for his timely article The hypocrisy of the West. The hypocrisy he refers to negates all arguments for and against the Crimean situation, due to the dissonance between the arguments now and the tragic mistreatment of Ethiopia in 1991 – in fact quietly and surreptitiously since 1988.

    The latter point relates to the manner in which Eritrea was separated from Ethiopia and the internal colonial type occupation imposed on Ethiopia by a minority ethnic group, with the help of the United States. This has reminded us of our pains, losses and the current precarious situation our country finds itself in.

    Ethiopian and Ukrainian histories and realities are different. Nonetheless, Ethiopia being a nation that has found itself at the receiving end of victor’s [in]justice at the dawn of the post-Cold War world in 1991, today’s Crimea crisis and the difficult situation in Ukraine has touched on the non-healing wounds, hurt prides and endless pains of the Ethiopian people.

    The sum of both experiences of the two nations is unmistakably affirming to an observant world how cruel and insensitive the victors’ world we live in could be with its self-serving standards of truths, rights and wrongs.

    In 1991, in the name of authority of the United States government, Mr. Herman Cohn requested the armed TPLF fighters to enter and occupy Addis Abeba. At that very moment, all the invited and relevant representatives of the Ethiopian government and groups were waiting at a London Hotel for the all encompassing talks on transitional arrangement for Ethiopia to begin.

    BBC’s Martin Plaut’s excellent interview of Mr. Cohen of September 23, 1993, aptly titled The Cohen Coup, is a good piece of journalism and very informative and instructive – a material which bears testimony to what Messay is now saying. Therefore, gratitude is due to the BBC’s Martin Plaut for indefatigably soliciting answers to many pressing questions directly from the horse’s mouth.

    Since that interview documents what went on and why in such manner things had to be done and not differently, The Ethiopia Observatory thought it to be relevant to insert some excerpts from the interview to enrich Messay’s discussion of this troubling reality.

    Herman Cohen facilitates Ethiopia’s occupation in negotiations bilaterally with Meles Zenawi

    The starting point is that, having bilaterally agreed with Meles Zenawi on courses of action toward the future of Ethiopia, Mr. Cohen chose to ignore the other representatives waiting in the Hotel as he announced:

    “As I speak, a ceasefire is being announced in Addis Ababa by the interim government. In order to reduce uncertainties and eliminate tensions in the city, and after consulting will all the parties [which is not the case], the United States government is recommending that the forces of the EPRDF* enter the city as soon as possible to help stabilize the situation. the EPRDF leadership here in London has assured us that they continue to plan for a broadly-based provisional government, leading to a democratic constitution for Ethiopia. We are asking all parties on the ground in Addis Ababa to cooperate in maintaining law and order.” [Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front]
    At that point, a surprised Martin Plaut asks:
    “In making that statement, how much time had you actually had to clear it with your Washington superiors because this was 1 [:00] in the afternoon, they were surely mostly asleep, so was it your call or was it something you’d cleared before.”

Herman Cohn answers:

    “It was my call because after all we were not engaging the troops of the United States government or any resources of the United States government. I was in effect an honest broker between factions of Ethiopia and therefore I did what I thought was right to save the city of Addis Ababa.”

Martin Plaut raises a question about the reaction of Ethiopia’s representatives. “Did Tesfaye Dinka feel that you had betrayed him?”

Herman Cohen again:

    “In effect yes. We had come to London to talk about a coalition government but in effect the first order was to bring in occupation forces into the city which he felt was the end for him and his government.”

Martin Plaut returns to raise question about the future of the negotiations. “So how did those negotiations go on on the Monday the Tuesday?

Herman Cohen replies:

    “They were very friendly, because with the Ethiopian government out of the picture, everyone got together in a rather fraternal way and with me chairing meetings, it was all very friendly exchanges and the fact that the Eritreans were willing to make the very major concession of delaying their referendum for self-dtermination and independence for two years, immediately cast a soothing impact on the whole of the talks because people felt they had breathing room to work out a political process.”

Martin Plaut persists with excavating further answers with more penetrating questions:

    “But wasn’t that precisely the problem, because in a way you had already overturned American policy since you had asked the rebels to walk into the capital. They you did something else. You accepted that Eritrea might leave Ethiopia, that it might simply break away, that the northern province might simply become a separate country. And that again overturned US policy towards Ethiopia for over thirty years.”

Herman Cohen’s response:

    “The first act of asking the rebels to come into Addis, that not really overturning policy, it was just delaying the inevitable, they had already won the war … so they could have gone in at any time and I had asked them to stay out in order to allow for negotiations so we had to change that because of the crisis in there. But you are quite right, on the other angle about self-determination. Of course, the Eritreans had conquered their own country and there was no way of anyone reconquering it, so it was a question of politics. Do you accept the idea of self-determination because historically, the people of Eritrea had never really had a chance to determine whether they wanted to be part of Ethiopia. The United Nations had forced them in there in 1952 without asking their opinion. So I felt quite comfortable in agreeing to a package which would include a referendum.”


Can the ginnie be put back into the bottle?

    Crimea has shown us now that the victors themselves are divided, President Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry haranguing a passive world about the importance they attach to international law. By this, with the EU adding its voice, they have been trying to show the world that Russia’s action are illegal, condemnable and punishable.

    No less a rival of stature, in the morrow of the Crimea referendum President Putin relished the moment he signed recognition of “the Republic of Crimea … as sovereign and independent state.” It is reported that in a telephone conversation afterwards with Mr. Obama, Mr. Putin has emphasized, “Crimean referendum was fully in line with the norms of international law and the UN charter”.

    The problem now is how many international laws do we have? How is “their” applicability determined?

    Interestingly, Ukraine’s woes may not be Crimea alone, although Russian authorities deny this. Somewhere word has already escaped that Mr. Putin is determined to stop Ukraine from joining the EU or NATO, irrespective of what the preference of Ukrainians is.

    On the other hand, the West is also interested in pulling Ukraine away from the Russian sphere, marking in earnest the beginning of renewed Cold War. This may continue in some form, with prolonged tense diplomatic negotiations, sanctions in place and deafening media recriminations, until cooler heads prevail on both sides.

    Its end may not be a cakewalk. The beginning of its end would be marked, when both sides agree to undertake a diplomatic pilgrimage to Yalta II to find the formula that could put the Cold War genie back into the bottle, as did Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and D. Roosevelt, thereby recreating a world not entirely suited to Naizm and facism.

    In the same manner, there is need to recreate newer institutions that may replace or renew existing ones, with new ground rules about relations between the developed world as with the developing world, with newer rules of conduct.

    The tragedy is that, even if the post-Crimea new world order is successfully configured, Ukraine, like Ethiopia, may not become whole again.

*Updated to correct editorial inaccuracies.

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