20 years under Putin: a timeline

On September 18, Scotland held an independence referendum that was accompanied by heated debates both inside and outside the country. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, Scotland’s experience is relevant to Russia, since it shows that truly democratic countries can deal with issues of separatism without resorting to bloodshed.


At the Scottish referendum, 44.7 percent voted for independence from the United Kingdom, while 55.3 percent voted against it. The turnout was 84.6 percent. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images.


The September 18 plebiscite in Scotland can easily be viewed as one of the pivotal events of 2014. Perhaps it was even the most important event of the year because it was not measured against a backdrop of tragic numbers of civilian casualties caused by terrorist attacks and wars, nor against reports of multi-billion-dollar profits and losses, nor against the increased importance of some countries and the isolation of others. It was assessed instead by the unparalleled impact it has had on millions of people who have realized the effectiveness of finely tuned democratic procedures. The United Kingdom showed that the issues that so often trigger wars and civil conflicts across the world can, in fact, be solved without shedding a single drop of blood.

Not every country has embraced this lesson. The countries where regime stability is guaranteed by weapons and police repressions have not commended the Scottish result. Nor have separatist minorities that try to determine the future of their regions by disregarding the opinions of the majority.

Russia’s position toward the referendum in Scotland ran the gamut of feelings. On the one hand, the Russian political elite was anticipating the possibility of Scotland’s independence, hoping that it would weaken Great Britain and NATO. As a proven rival to the entire Western world, Russia could not help but appear pleased at the sight of a weakening adversary—even though this weakening is as of yet hypothetical.

On the other hand, the democratic procedures that accompanied the secessionist effort in Crimea and Donbass this year were akin to a mockery. The plebiscites held in Scotland and Crimea resemble each other as much as a masterpiece painting resembles its poor replica. The almighty Russian patriots were so offended by the results of the Scotland vote that coping with their resentment has proven impossible. The first deputy head of the Just Russia Party in Russia’s Duma, Mikhail Emelyanov, demonstrated this when he stated, “In terms of the legal framework and conditions, the Crimea referendum was far more straightforward than the one held in Scotland—at least there was no power outage, no fire alarm, no disruption during vote counting.”

This statement could easily fall into the category of another popular joke, which Russian lawmakers have recently been producing en masse. But Russia genuinely took offense that the West refused to recognize Crimea’s sham referendum as legal and fair. Everyone understands that a power outage or a fire alarm cannot compare to the poor conditions surrounding the Crimean pro-independence vote, which occurred behind closed doors, without the presence of mass media, and under the threat of guns carried by “polite little green men,” who, Putin later admitted, were Russian soldiers.

Countries with democratic governments are more confident of their futures and are not afraid of disintegration. They don’t panic or call the police; they even allow for territorial separation if this is the choice of the majority.

There is a strong desire among Russian residents who wield the banner “Crimea Is Ours” to find parity between the voting model in Scotland and the one in Crimea. Since it’s impossible to raise the Crimea referendum to Scotland’s level, the only thing left to do is to defame the Scottish referendum. A few days after the Scotts cast their votes, YouTube offered a “sensational” video alleging electoral fraud at the polling stations in Scotland. The video clearly showed a woman from the voting station personnel trying to shove a packet of ballots into a ballot box, while another woman made an inept effort to hide the action from the video cameras. The video gained over 400,000 views and more than a thousand comments in the course of just a few days. Some of the comments read, “Democracy in all its beauty,” “The truest democracy,” “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Western democracy in all its glory,” “This video exposes the entire Western civilization—it is rotten and deceitful.” It turned out, however, that the video had been made on March 4, 2012, during the presidential elections in Russia (at polling station N100 of the Vasileostrovsky area in Saint Petersburg).

Obviously, such accounts, though amusing, do not reflect a broad spectrum of Russian reactions toward Scotland’s independence referendum; for this, one must turn to Russian social media platforms, which are replete with reactions to the event that are uncharacteristic of Russia’s usual parochial mentality. The truth is that the Scottish experience has shaken the Russian reality and raised a number of important questions: Can secessions be bloodless? What is the future of seceded regions? Is separatism good or bad? Such questions have become extremely interesting to many Russian citizens in the aftermath of the Scotland referendum.

The referendum also highlighted the fact that discussions of separatism are not considered criminal in Western democracies. In Russia, such discussions are punishable by law. Countries with democratic governments are more confident of their futures and are not afraid of disintegration. They don’t panic or call the police; they even allow for territorial separation if this is the choice of the majority. Such revelations help to decriminalize separatism in the minds of the Russian people.

An old adage says, “One fool makes many”; however, a good example is often worth following. Regardless of the results of the vote, Scotland’s successful democratic procedure vividly proved the advantage of Western democracies over Russia’s authoritarian rule. The Scottish referendum has provided the Russian people with much to think about.