The Russophile regional government of Crimea called a referendum on the future status of the region for March 16. The people will only have two choices- to remain Ukrainian or become part of Russia. The option of Crimean independence, neither supported by the West nor by Russia, will not be given.
The new pro-European, but increasingly nationalist Ukrainian government, has centralized power, abolished regional autonomies and weakened minority rights. In its current form it has nothing to offer to the majority non-Ukrainian population of Crimea.
Russia, on the other hand, did the same over the last few years. Under Putin it also started glorifying its questionable history of subjugation and Russification. Becoming part of Russia would make the non-Russians of Crimea, constituting more than 40% of the population, to second class citizens.
The indigenous inhabitants of Crimea, the Tartars, are a prime example of a people that became a minority on their own land due to Russian centralism and nationalism. After Ukrainian independence in 1990 the Russification process turned into a more modest form of Ukrainization. In the nineteenth century still the majority, Crimean Tartars only make up 12% of the population today. 58% are Russians, 24% Ukrainians and the remaining 6% mainly Belorussians, Crimean Germans, Bulgarians and Armenians. The modern day Crimea is therefore a melting pot of languages, ethnicities, cultures and religions. Logically it does not fit into the structures of nation states like Russia or Ukraine.
Only a Swiss style federalist set up with strong regional and local governments can give all peoples of Crimea an identity and protect the regions unique diversity. The US and the EU should learn from past mistakes and support the path to Crimean independence. After World War I the Western powers forced various regions with local German and Hungarian majorities into newly created or expanded nation states like Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania or Yugoslavia causing unnecessary internal conflicts and unsolvable disputes between these states and their neighbors. The rise of extremism, the Second World War and the Cold War were a logical consequence. If the West wants to avoid for Crimea to become another Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine, Israel/Palestine or Northern Ireland, it should help create a strong federalist and non-ethnic Crimean state like Switzerland that is inclusive rather than exclusive to its diverse population. A new independent Crimea would also function as a buffer zone between the Ukraine and Russia. It would become a place were Ukrainians and Russians meet rather than fight each other.