As Scotland goes to the polls in a historic vote on its independence, Russia Direct asked experts how different this referendum is from the one in Crimea, what reaction can be expected from Moscow and what it might mean for the future of the EU.


"Yes" and "No" voters wait for Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond to do a walkabout in Perth, central Scotland, September 12, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Today on Sept. 18 Scotland votes in a long-anticipated referendum for or against independence from the United Kingdom. The public will decide whether it wants to leave the United Kingdom by answering ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to just one simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

With so many people depending on the results of the referendum and its possible consequences not just for the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom but also for the whole international community and all those who aspire to become independent, this referendum will certainly go down as historic.

In Russia, the results of the referendum might bring about a wide array of reactions and a whole new way of looking at the problem of self-determination. With Scotland possibly becoming independent, Russian politicians and media will continue to draw comparisons between Crimea and Scotland, Russia and the UK, as they did back in March of this year.

But it is really it possible to compare these two referendums?  How might the results influence the situation in the EU and what reactions from Moscow can we expect?

Russia Direct asked experts to answer these questions as well as share their views on how the situation might develop in the short-term. Here’s what they think.

Igor Gretskiy, Associate Professor, School of international Relations, St. Petersburg State University

According to the Venice Commission’s opinion, the 2014 Crimea referendum was an egregious violation of both Ukrainian and Crimean legislation. Neither Ukraine nor the international community recognized its outcome as legal and legitimate. It is curious that before the beginning of 2014, the idea of secession from Ukraine and joining Russia was not a part of the broad political agenda in Crimea.

During the 2010 Crimean parliamentary election, secessionist political parties received less than 10 percent of the vote. The campaign period had started less than two weeks before the voting day, and two days later Russia flouted its international commitments and annexed Crimea.

Thus, the peninsula’s population had too little time to consider all the pros and cons of secession. Besides, the referendum was being prepared under the presence of numerous armed men and Russian military. Those facts make the Crimean referendum completely different from the referendum in Scotland.

The most important thing is that Scotland’s independence referendum is being held within the existing legal and political framework of the UK, and Scotland went a long way in preparing the referendum. The voting day was preceded by decades of devolution, the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, public debates on government expenditures, fiscal and monetary policies, security and defense issues, external relations, etc.

For more than a year, Scots had an opportunity to weigh various arguments in favor and against independence. Besides, the referendum is being held without any foreign involvement or pressure. Whatever the outcome of Scotland’s vote will be, it would be a free, conscious and legitimate decision, and it is a good example of how to hold a referendum in a democratic way.

James Carden, contributing editor and columnist, The National Interest magazine, former Advisor to the US-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department.

The referendum that took place in Crimea in March and the referendum in Scotland are only superficially similar. Scotland is not holding their referendum in defiance of Westminster and it is broadly agreed that Westminster will acquiesce in whatever decision the Scots come to.

The referendum in Crimea was partially a response to the coup that took place in February, was held in the presence of outside (Russian) forces and did not seek independence or greater regional autonomy. Rather it was a referendum on whether or not to join the Russian Federation.

I don't see much of a reaction from Moscow one way or another. There will be the usual pronouncements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that will use the Scottish vote as justification for the Crimea annexation. But will the Russian government use the result in an effort to stir up discontent on the part of Russian nationals in the Baltics or Kazakhstan? Possibly, but it would be a diplomatically counterproductive thing to do at this time.

Speaking about the implications for the EU should Scotland separate: First, it will only encourage other separatist-minded groups like the Catalonians in Spain and the Northern League in Italy. Secondly, the EU will have to begin considering when and how to bring Scotland into the fold; Scots in general are more pro-European than their (former?) compatriots to the south.

A lesson the EU (to say nothing of the UK) should take away from this is that there ought to be limits to the principle of self-determination in international life; it is not inherently good and cannot (and should not) be operative in all times and places.

Michael Slobodchikoff, Professor in the Political Science Department at Troy University.

The vote in Scotland is very different from the referendum that took place in Crimea. First of all, the UK recognizes the validity of this vote. The referendum in Crimea was declared illegal by the Ukrainian government as well as by most of the countries of the world. Second, the choice that is offered in Scotland's election is for either retaining the status quo or for independence. 

In the case of the Crimean referendum, citizens could choose either independence from Ukraine or a return to a previous status in which they had more independence from Ukraine's authority. They did not have the option to vote for keeping the status quo. Finally, there were Russian troops in Crimea, which were seen by the West as having unfairly influenced the results.

It is in Moscow's interest to compare the referendum in Crimea to the vote in Scotland. They will argue that if the Scottish election is legitimate in the eyes of the world, that the Crimean referendum should also be considered legitimate. No matter what the result of the election, Russia will point to the fact that the Crimean referendum on joining Russia won by a supra-majority instead of a simple majority, and that it was just following the will of the people of Crimea.

For the EU, Scotland's election poses a problem. Not only is there a high degree of uncertainty about the future if Scotland does vote for its independence, but it brings more Euroscepticism into the EU. In fact, if the election in Scotland is successful, other ethnic groups such as the Basques may renew their efforts to gain independence. While Moscow is hoping for an independent Scotland, the EU and United Kingdom are counting on the Scots to vote no and to keep the status quo.

Olena Surzhko-Harned, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Mercyhurst College, Pennsylvania.

While the Kremlin has been relatively quiet about the Scottish referendum, Moscow’s puppet regime in Crimea is anticipating the results of the vote with explicit gloating. Kremlin silence is not surprising, given the escalating tensions between Russia and Europe. They are exercising due prudence, as the proclamation in support of Scotland’s independence, would be seen as a direct involvement in the sovereign affairs of the United Kingdom. Yet, in the mind of the chairman of the Crimean council of ministers, Sergey Aksyonov, the referendum in Scotland lends legitimacy to the referendum in Crimea six months ago. In Aksyonov’s view, if Europe supports the results of the referendum in Scotland, it has no basis to deny the legitimacy and results of the referendum in Crimea, which most of the world has refused to do.

Yet, is it possible to compare these two referenda? As far as one can see the referendum in Scotland does not violate the constitution of the United Kingdom, which was not the case in Crimea. The long campaign in Scotland has allowed for both sides to present the case for both the YES and NO vote, which was not the case in Crimea.

[Read full version of Surzhko-Harned’s opinion here]