Book Review: Brian Glyn Williams ‘The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest’

This book review was originally published on Open Democracy Russia under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

williams-crimean-tatars-cover-webThe Crimean Tatar population following Russian annexation is under renewed pressure. As a new history of the community shows, their troubles have many historical precedents—rooted in Russia’s first annexation of the peninsula.

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Crimea’s indigenous community faced a new level of threat and discrimination from the annexing regime. Crimean Tatars were the most vociferous—or at least visibly vociferous—opponents of annexation. Historically, too, Crimea’s Tatar minority had aligned with post-Soviet Ukraine against pro-Russian movements within Crimea. In the summer of 2014, Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, were barred from entering Russian territory including Crimea for five years following accusations of extremism.

With violence towards Crimean Tatars on the increase, including a raid and forced closure of the Mejlis (Crimean Tatar representative council) and Crimean Tatar media, Crimean Tatars comprise a significant proportion of those who have fled since Russia’s annexation. Crimean Tatars have come to fear exile, or even another deportation. This echoes the trauma experienced by Crimean Tatars’ Sürgün (deportation) in 1944, when the population was deported to Siberia and Central Asia in 1944 at the behest of Stalin. The order was taken to punish Crimean Tatars’ for betrayal of the Soviet motherland due to alleged collaboration with the Nazis, who occupied Crimea from 1941 to 1944. Many Crimean Tatars managed to return to their historical homeland only after 1989.

Crimea’s other annexation

Williams’s second book on the history of the Crimean Tatars, The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest, offers a timely and rich historical account of this community, stretching from Crimea’s annexation from the Ottoman empire to the Russian Empire in 1783 to the present ‘second annexation’ of 2014. It offers a historical context, if not haunting reflection, on the brutalities experienced by Crimea’s indigenous minority, of their ‘forced exile, genocide and revival as a nation’, at a time of great uncertainty, as well as the effect of these traumas on the national identity of this community.

Crimean Tatars were the most vociferous—or at least visibly vociferous—opponents of annexation

Williams’s narrative follows two central themes: firstly, of the building of a Crimean Tatar nation and sense of homeland, and secondly, the modernising transformation of Crimean Tatars, from a ‘pre-modern tribal-Islamic peasant people’ to a ‘modern secular nation’ in a matter of decades.

Williams contextualises the fears and worries of Crimean Tatars, residing now in Russia after a period of revival since the collapse of the Soviet Union, countering the enduring assumptions that Crimean Tatars might be a source of religious fanaticism. The Crimean Tatars, he stresses, have endured as a secular and peaceful community and nation, in spite of the numerous challenges posed by the deportation. This argument has increasing relevance since annexation, demonstrating the absurdity of Russia’s treatment of Crimean Tatars, depicting them as religious extremists, and including accusing Crimean Tatar leaders as recruiters for ISIS.

This history follows the pre-Tsarist period to the contemporary period, to discuss how a diasporic nation came to be constructed and how it endured despite the challenges of deportation.

Williams spends the first three chapters focusing on precisely how Crimean Tatars did not conceive of themselves as a nation, beginning his historical narrative with the Crimean Tatars’ dispossession—their loss of a homeland to the Russian Empire in 1783. This annexation caused micro-level changes in terms of property rights, contrasting the traditionally freer Crimean Tatars with a landowning Russian elite, who confiscated land from them, encouraged the Muslim minority to migrate en masse to the Ottoman Empire.

Those remaining fell victim to the suspicions of the Russian Empire, as religious fanatics and potential collaborators with the ‘invaders’, in a context of rising tensions between the Russian and Ottoman Empires culminating in the Crimean war of 1854-1856. Even in this period, the idea of mass expulsion of Crimean Tatars was considered, although as Williams argues it was not pursued due to a lack of logistical capacity. These rumours continued to circulate, however, and were successful in scaring Crimean Tatars to emigrate voluntarily.

From Muslim minority to Turkic nation

In the nineteenth century, an emerging Crimean Tatar intelligentsia constructed the peninsula as a vatan (homeland) for Crimean Tatars and transformed the population from a religiously-defined politically apathetic minority into a secular and politically active nation with a clear sense of territorial attachment. Williams argues that local intelligentsia were responsible for this transformation, in particular the cultural hero of Ismail Gasprinsky, the so-called ‘father of the Russian Turkic Nation’.

Gasprinsky sought to modernise and reform Crimean Tatar society, through education and newspapers, from an inward looking and conservative community to a secular nation. Gasprinsky was concerned too with self-preservation, supporting an international pan-Turkic affiliation between Crimean Tatars and Muslims across the Russian Empire which centred on a common language, culture and ethnicity (rather than a common religion) and opposing emigration. This was a watershed in Crimean Tatar history and marked the creation of Crimea as a territorial home for the Crimean Tatar nation.

Williams emphasises the role of Soviet policies in creating and shaping the Crimean Tatar nation, and the different dynamics of Soviet policy under Lenin and Stalin. The Crimean Tatars were crucial in helping the Bolsheviks capture the Crimean peninsula from the Whites during the Russian civil war. After a policy of repression by the emerging Soviet regime, the Soviet Union changed tactics and instead supported a policy of supporting Crimean Tatars—as the indigenous peoples of the territory—in line with Lenin’s policy of korenizatsiya(indigenisation).

The Soviet state promoted the flourishing of Crimean Tatar language, education and culture, though equally pursued a policy of secularisation, leading to the closure of mosques in Crimea. During this period, Crimean Tatars such as Veli Ibrahimov—chairman of the Crimean Central Committee—were empowered, pursuing policies to increase the population of Crimean Tatars and to resettle them away from over-populated coastal areas north of the Crimean Steppe.

With Lenin’s death and the rise of Stalin, the approach of the Soviet Union to the Crimean Tatars shifted dramatically. Ibrahimov fell victim to the first wave of purges under Stalin in 1928 and waves of deportations of Crimean Tatars to Siberia began in the early 1930s.

Moving towards the second world war, Williams discusses both how antipathy Crimean Tatars towards Soviet rule was already high and unpacks the complex experiences of Crimean Tatars during Crimea’s occupation by Nazi Germany. Crimean Tatars fought and died in the struggle against Nazi occupation and, after their capture, some were forced into fighting with Nazi soldiers. Williams complicates the collaboration accusation put forward by Stalin, highlighting coerced collaboration and significant wartime losses, where up to 20,000 Crimean Tatars died fighting within the Soviet army.

Enduring traumas

The Sürgün in 1944 saw the deportation of almost the entire population of Crimean Tatars following the liberation of Crimea from Nazi occupation, Williams’s analysis of the events centres on national identity, noting the ruthless rationale of Stalin’s actions. The deportation was to deterritorialise—and thus denationalise—Crimean Tatars. However, the consequence of this communal trauma was instead to converting a latent national identity into a site of mobilisation and politicisation. The risks of politicisation were something Crimean Tatar activists were willing to bear throughout the Soviet period. Many were imprisoned, notably former chairman of the Mejlis Mustafa DzhemilevQırımoğlu (Crimean Tatar: ‘son of the Crimean nation’) as they waited out the Soviet experiment in exile unable to return until the final years of Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost.

Tatars returning to Crimea were willing to sacrifice their standard of living in returning to a peninsula in which they were marginalised

With the return of Crimean Tatars to Crimea in 1989, Williams argues the diasporic identity of this nation and their attachment to the territory of Crimea were crucial to the endurance of a Crimean Tatar identity. This identity was passed down through generations via folklore and myths about the territory and the transgenerational and shared nature of the Sürgün trauma.

Those returning to Crimea were willing to sacrifice their standard of living in returning to a peninsula in which they were marginalised to rural and urban peripheries, self-made shacks in self-made settlements, often without running water, electricity and toilets. This process of deurbanisation, Williams adds, also affected the employment opportunities of those returning, with white collar workers becoming market traders.

This communal experience of trauma, post-Soviet return and renewal was the backdrop for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. New struggles began for the Crimean Tatar community. The occupying Russian regime was suspicious of the community, not only because they were consistently pro-Ukrainian minority, but due to an entire history of distrust which began with the ‘first annexation’ of 1783.

The resonance of the book is a testament to the richness and depth in which it covers Crimean Tatars’ history. Williams constructs a fascinating narrative and a convincing argument on the strength of deportation as a communal trauma, which served to preserve a nation in exile and incentivise return, even though this incurred significant personal costs.

Williams has a particular interest in the slur of Crimean Tatar ‘betrayal’—which is still used to delegitimise the community. As he notes, this accusation preceded Stalin’s 1944 denunciation of the Crimean Tatars, and had its roots in the ‘first annexation’ and then the Crimean war of the 1850s . It was unclear therefore whether the author intended to draw parallels between these periods, a point which Williams could have addressed more directly.

The Crimean Tatars’ expertise with the land in Crimea—in particular their skill for water conservation—was also briefly addressed by Williams. In a peninsula notoriously short of this precious resource and in a political climate where—since annexation—Ukraine has halted water supplies to Crimea, this point could also have been developed further. For example, one potential reason suggested for Khrushchev’s transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 was Crimea’s reliance on water supplies from Ukraine, via the Dnieper. How far this reliance on Ukraine increased following the deportation of Crimean Tatars would then have been an interesting point for Williams to consider.

Williams projects a precarious future for Crimean Tatars: one in which they will likely remain a source of suspicion, at risk of continued discrimination and marginalization. If anything should be taken from his pessimistic history of the community, it is that the Crimean Tatars show incredible durability as a peaceful nation, even in exile. To this end, however tragically, Crimean Tatars may not need Crimea as a territorial homeland to endure as a nation.


 

Brian Glynn Williams’s The Crimean Tatars: from Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest was published by Hurst in November 2015.

Originally published on Open Democracy Russia: https://opendemocracy.net/od-russia/eleanor-knott/book-review-brian-glyn-williams-crimean-tatars-from-soviet-genocide-to-putin

Advertisements
Featured

Identity in Crimea Before Annexation: A Bottom-Up Approach (Video)

As part of the Danyliw 2015 seminar, I spoke on my research unpacking the meaning of Russian identity in Crimea before annexation and the (lack of) sentiments of pro-Russian secession. Videos from other participants in the seminar are also available on Danyliw Seminar’s YouTube channel.


I summarised the ideas from the presentation in a previous post on Russian identity in Crimea before annexation

Identity in Crimea Before Annexation: A Bottom-Up Perspective

This week I’ll be presenting at the 2015 Danyliw seminar about identity debates in Crimea before Russian annexation of the peninsula in 2014. This blog article, originally posted on Krytyka, discusses the argument of the piece I’ll be presented, where I scrutinize existing ways in which Crimea has been framed and argue instead that identity debates in Crimea, and hte idea of being Russian, were more fractured than previously conceived by scholars and observers.

A YouTube video of the presentation is also available.


What does it mean to be Russian in Crimea? This should now be phrased in past tense because, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February 2014, being Russian in Crimea has become a different experience. It is now associated with being not only ethnically Russian but also with a political status, of “becoming” a Russian citizen, in a territory which is situated in the no-man’s land of international law as a de facto annexed territory.

Rather I now ask: what did it mean to be Russian in Crimea (in the period preceding the 2014 annexation)? I’m interested in this question because it has been a largely taken for granted idea that Crimea is a region populated by a Russian ethnic majority population. Many of whom, preceding annexation, were seen as more loyal to Russia than Ukraine, if not holders of Russian passports (although in 2012 and 2013 I could not find anyone with Russian citizenship and/or a Russian passport), supportive of Russian nationalism and pro-Russian sentiment, if not separatism.

Since annexation, understanding what it means to be Russian in Crimea has become more salient because ethnic Russians are often the overlooked community, as presumed endorsers of the annexation. I acknowledge, of course, that Crimea’s ethnic minorities—notably Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians—have faced increased, and horrendous, discrimination since annexation, from the closure of schools, to arrests and violence. However it is often presumed that ethnic minorities are the only losers of annexation. Aside from the social difficulties, for example the everyday disasters of bankingproperty rightspassports, Russia’s ban of methadone for (former) heroin usershuman rights, democracy, ethnic Russians in Crimea now exist in a territory where they have, culturally, ethnically and politically, to be Russian. However, the data that I collected in Crimea shows a much more fractured picture than the notion of a Russian ethnic majority, and the mutually exclusive categories of “ethnic Russian” and “ethnic Ukrainian” can explain. Instead I am interested, in everyday terms, in how being Russian is experienced, negotiated and subverted, and combined, or related, to ideas of being Ukrainian and Crimea, and situated vis-à-vis Crimea, Ukraine and Russia.

The most ardent supporters of being Russian and of Russia—who I label Discriminated Russians—as individuals who feel threatened by Ukraine and victims of post-Soviet policies of Ukrainization. They felt marginalized within Crimea, and Ukraine more broadly, feeling that more prominence was now given to Ukrainian language, culture and interpretations of history, at the expense of Russian language, culture and interpretations. However these individuals were both a minority of respondents, and were politically active, associated with pro-Russian organisations, such as Russkaia Obshchina Kryma (Russian Community of Crimea) and Russkoe Edinstvo (Russian Unity). Hence, they were quite different to those respondents (i.e. the majority of those I interviewed) who were not members of these organisations.  Rather, most identifying as ethnically Russian were able, and happy, to reconcile being Russian to belonging, politically, to Ukraine. As they described, having to watch cinema in Ukrainian (as was mandated across Ukraine) was not a “strangulation” of Russian language and culture, but just a “bad law”.

There were also many respondents who subverted ideas of being Russian, either rejecting ethnic categories in favour of emphasising their political membership to Ukraine—who I label Political Ukrainians—and those who combined their identification as Russian, and with Russia, with their identification as Ukrainian, and with Ukraine, by identifying as Crimean. These two categories as I conceptualize them—Political Ukrainians and Crimeans—do not fit neatly with the mutually exclusive labels. This is precisely what makes them interesting and challenging to the idea that Crimea was populated by an ethnic Russian majority: how would these individuals, who hybridized their sense of ethnicity or rejected ethnic labels, identify in a census? This is why it is vital to engage with notions of ethnicity, and identity more broadly, in everyday terms, i.e. in terms vernacular individuals use to describe themselves, and to unpack the rationale of this identification.

I emphasize in my research the complexity of being Russian in Crimea and problematize the idea that being Russian determined identification with Russia, and much less, support for the Russian regime under Putin. However, the story I tell of support for territorial reconfiguration, in other words support for secession or annexation, is much simpler. In the period preceding Crimea’s annexation by Russia there is a tragic irony to the evidence from my respondents which demonstrates the lack of support for secession and annexation. Simply put, most supported territorial status quo because they considered Crimea to be a legitimate part of Ukraine while others, primarily Discriminated Russians, preferred peace to war, believing that secession and/or annexation could only result in “bloodshed” and “conflict”, a cost they were neither willing to bear nor support. They conceived also that Russia did not want Crimea.

However, just because there was a lack of ethnic instability, to the extent that most respondents supported territorial status quo, this did not mean that there was not political fragility. Rather respondents, regardless of identification, were antipathetic to the Yanukovych regime, and to Kyiv more broadly, who they saw as taking more from Crimea than they were willing to invest. In this scenario, Crimea’s autonomous status appeared more fiction than a political reality because Crimea could neither make it initiate its own legislation nor hire locals to positions of power, subservient to Donetsk-based clans and interests.

There were clearly tensions existing in Crimea preceding annexation. However these can be explained more by the broader issues of political fiefdoms and a culture of endemic corruption, issues that continue to plague Ukraine, than by ethnicity. The greatest illustration of this is that, in spite of the diversity of identities within the ethnic Russian majority, there was relative homogeneity of concerns: socio-economic, corruption, disempowerment vis-à-vis Kyiv and support of territorial status quo. From this, Moscow should take note that Crimean residents neither like to be governed by corrupt, if not criminal, vested interests as post-annexation authorities exemplify nor from afar, whether by Kyiv or by “snooty Muscovites”.

Crimea Before Annexation: Reflections on Writing a ‘History of the Past’

There’s a strange feeling that comes with finishing something that has been a bit painful. Writing a thesis is supposed to be hard, but working with data that I gathered in Crimea in 2012 and 2013—when the idea of secession, annexation or even the end of the Yanukovych/Party of Regions regime seemed farcical—has felt particularly acerbic.

This pales in comparison to the suffering of those I know in Crimea, whose peninsula was “stolen” by Russia. This isn’t the typical story you see about Crimea where media reports generally repeat an argument that secession was a historical inevitability that never happened and/or would be the same result even if a free and fair referendum had taken place. This is something I refute, and continue to refute not least because of the people I know there that don’t fit into our neat boxes of ethnic Russian or ethnic Ukrainian. Before 2014, they were just Ukrainian. And while I acknowledge that ethnic minorities, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian speakers, have faced increased, and horrendous, discrimination since annexation, the story of the majority is rarely discussed: everyday disasters of banking, property rights, passports, Russia’s ban of methadone for (former) heroin users, human rights, democracy, and more existential disasters, of belonging and identity.

But the discomfort of working on Crimea is something I’ve had to fight since February 2014. At first I panicked: how could I write about something that had changed so quickly? My thesis was based on territorial stability. I had assumed, presumed, that 23 years of stability vis-a-vis Russia and Ukraine, and Russia more generally vis-a-vis ethnic Russians, was a reasonable lesson for the future. Most post-Soviet scholars had predicted the same: Russia was faced with a commitment problem that it was unwilling to overcome. As masked men emerged in Simferopol, storming Crimea’s parliament, removing the Ukrainian flag from the Council of Minister’s building, replacing it with a Russia flag, and patrolled with automatic weaponry the same streets in Simferopol that I’d walked 8 months previously, my faith dissipated.

After this I thought I was going a bit mad: my argument was that identity in Crimea was much more complex than mutually exclusive census categories of “ethnic Russian” and “ethnic Ukrainian”, and where being “ethnically Russian” did not determine support of Russia, let alone support for Putin. I felt like I had collected data, and was making arguments based on my analysis of this data, that completely contravened how others approached the peninsula, as if of course the Russian majority favoured Russia, and separatism, rather than Ukraine. Including the minority of respondents who identified with Russia, and felt discriminated by Ukraine, none of my respondents supported secession from Ukraine: it just seemed unthinkable, if not farcical. Their gripe, regardless of identity, was with how Crimea was governed by Kyiv, and the Party of Regions, not with supporting secession.

I then read an article by Julia Ioffe, covering post-Soviet identity debates in Donetsk, a region that would quickly spiral much more out of control than Crimea, and it resonated distinctly with identity debates present in Crimea:

“The younger a citizen of Donetsk, the more likely she is to view herself as Ukrainian. The older she is, the more likely she is to identify as Russian. And this is the crux of it all: What we are seeing today is the reverberation of what happened more than 20 years ago. This is still the long post-Soviet transition. And this is what it’s like to wander in the desert, waiting for the old generation to die off.”

So now I just tell the story that I believe the data I collected speaks to: highly complex and fractured notions of identity in Crimea, that problematise the supposed cohesive idea of an ethnic Russian majority and the idea that identifying as Russian is analogous to identifying with Russia, as a society, state and, much less, regime. Similarly, I argue Crimea was not a region of Russian passportization: everyone I interviewed found Russian citizenship inaccessible and most found it undesirable. The small majority who wanted Russian citizenship/passports but couldn’t access them were the discriminated minority, who thought Russian citizenship would increase their leverage against Ukraine; but most I spoke to did not feel discriminated within Crimea by Ukraine. Nor was Crimea a region populated by those endorsing separatism, at least among those I met, because individuals supported Ukraine and/or supported peace. Neither they, nor I, thought Russia wanted Crimea or conflict.

Now I tell a ‘history of the past’ because for those I interviewed, many of whom fall into the chasm of the Russian ‘majority’ that are presumed as endorsing annexation, it’s the least and most I can do.

Russians are Coming! Crimea (2011)
Russians are Coming! Crimea (2011)

Why is there Antagonism between Russian Nationalists and Crimean Tatars?

This text is based on a talk I gave on 6 March 2015 as part of a discussion hosted by Research Turkey on “Ukrainian Crisis and the Atrocities in Crimea: The Never-Ending Persecution of Crimean Tatars”.


Based on the fieldwork I conducted in Crimea in 2012 and 2013, I wanted to offer a historical perspective, or at least a pre-annexation perspective, on why antagonism from Russian nationalists within Crimea might be directed towards Crimean Tatars. Here I argue antagonisms pre-existed in the organisations (such as Russkaia Obshchina Kryma/Russian Community of Crimea [ROC] and Russkoe Edinstvo/Russian Unity [RE]) that were key in facilitating Crimea’s annexation in 2014, given the pre-eminence of key figures within these organisations (most prominently Sergei Aksenov, as head of RE) during and after Crimea’s annexation.

As Liana Fix and I argue, in a report for the German Council on Foreign Relations, Crimea should not be seen as a “fait accompli” or a realist situation to be dealt with by drawing lines in the sand, because there are real concerns about the deteriorating situation for, and heightening repression of Crimean Tatars since Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. I want, therefore, to reflect on how and why Crimean Tatars might be the object of such repression since 2014.

Speaking to Crimean Tatars pre-annexation

Khan's Palace, Bakhchysarai
Khan’s Palace, Bakhchysarai

During fieldwork, I was able to conduct some interviews also with Crimean Tatars about how their position within Crimea. This was not a comprehensive study, since my focus was primarily on meanings attached to Russian identity, and others have researched Crimean Tatars, far more than me (e.g. Greta Uehling and Andrew Wilson’s OSCE report). However it still provided useful insights into Crimean Tatar perspectives and a fascinating contrasts with the Russian nationalist organisations I was focusing on.

In terms of identification, it was evident from those I interviewed they felt both as Crimean Tatar and as Ukrainian citizens. In fact, they rejected even identifying as Crimean (Krymchanka) on the basis that this was a “Soviet expression” (“sovok”). But those I spoke to retained strong ties to the land, reinforced by their sense of return to Crimea, and their ability to return to the land of “their ancestors” and the land from where their parents had been deported. That is to say, Crimean Tatar identification was strongly linked to the cultural memories, if not experiences, of deportation and return, since all I met had returned to Crimea from Uzbekistan in the preceding years and decades.

What was most striking, and reflecting on events post-2014, was a consensus that the situation, socially, politically and economically, had got better for Crimean Tatars in Crimea and Ukraine. They had already “experienced the worst years” (2012) and no longer subject to the same discrimination, seeing themselves as able to get jobs in peninsula, which previously had been difficult.

Хайтарма (Haytarma)

Хайтарма / Haytarma – The History of a Nation

My 2013 visit to Crimea coincided with the release of the first Crimean Tatar film Хайтарма (Haytarma, which can be watched online in Russian). Travelling to a small village beyond the outskirts of Simferopol to watch it in a Soviet-style Cultural House, I was (probably) the only non-Crimean Tatar person in the room watching the film. By the end I was the only person who left the room not in tears. Of all my memories in Crimea, this remains one of the most poignant.

Haytarma combined the story of deportation alongside the story of a Soviet hero, Amet-Khan Sultan who himself was half Crimean Tatar, and it was this combination that made the film so potent and controversial. Arriving in Simferopol in late May 2012, coinciding with Crimean Tatar protests outside the Russian consul in Simferopol following the order by the Russian Consul, Vladimir Andreev, for his delegation not to attend the premiere because it “distorts the truth about the Great Patriotic War” by failing to “reflect the mass betrayal of the Crimean Tatar people”. Alongside the protests against this rhetoric, and the observation about the potency of the idea of Crimean Tatar collaboration, the Russian Foreign Ministry seemed to want to lock the story down: the Russian Consul was promptly advised to resign, on the basis that the Russia, officially, did not want to seem to be endorsing this extreme opinion.

This contention, between Consul and Ministry, struck me at the time as interesting by demonstrating the Russian MFA’s willingness to scold its consuls; Russia, in an official capacity, seemed not to want to endorse the discourse of Crimea’s Soviet betrayal/collaboration, which in itself was quite surprising, and an interesting point of reflection given Russia’s willingness to suppress Crimean Tatars post-annexation.

The Three Sergeis and Andreev L-R: Sergei Tsekov (ROC), Vladimir Andreev (Russian Consul, Simfeorpol), Sergei Aksenov (RE), Sergei Shuvainikov April 2013

However, what I observed also were Andreev’s (the Russian Consul in Crimea) close informal ties to key actors in ROC and RE, demonstrating the highly developed relations that existed between Russia and local pro-Russian organisations, who themselves were key also in endorsing the idea of Crimean Tatar collaboration. I would add the idea of collaboration was supported only in the minds of the most heavily nationalistic; this was not a mainstream discourse among non-Crimean Tatars that I interviewed, who instead praised, often, Crimea as a multi-cultural peninsula, where people enjoyed this ethnic diversity, and the different experiences it presently, culturally, rather than pathologised this diversity.

Grievances of Russian nationalists towards Crimean Tatars

These Russian nationalists, who were often members of ROC and RE (and/or more extreme groups) which in themselves were key actors in Russia’s annexation, focused both on pre-Soviet and post-Soviet/contemporary grievances.

Sure enough, pre-Soviet grievances focused on the idea that the deportation of Crimean Tatars was justified by their collaboration, that they were “evicted, we say rightly because so many of them during the occupation during the war, worked on the side of Nazi Germany” (2013). This was combined, and strengthened, by post-Soviet grievances which maligned not only that Crimean Tatars felt they were returning to their “indigenous land”, but that this return threatened (according to this extreme position) the situation of ethnic Russians in Crimea. As one respondent described the “difficulty of being Russian in Crimea” was one where Crimean Tatar “nationalism […] leaves no room for Russians in Crimea, by considering that this is only the birthplace of Crimean Tatars” (2012). Here there was a clear “discursive inversion” through the portrayal by the majority as a threatened community (although a minority component of this majority) and the minority of Crimean Tatars as a malign threat to the status of this majority (even though it was the minority who themselves suffered greater discrimination and socioeconomic problems relative to the majority ethnic Russian community in Crimea).

Here they framed their organisations, such as ROC, as “legal” and “registered”, vs. the Mejlis (the council of representatives of Crimean Tatars) as “illegal” because they “did want to register” (2012), without recognising there were barriers, on the Ukrainian side, that had inhibited the Mejlis from being able to register. This ambiguous legal situation made it easier for post-annexation authorities, under the order of Aksenov, to argue Mejlis to be dissolved because it had never registered. 

A common structure built by Crimean Tatars involved in land claims (Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-crimean-tatars-ethnic-cleansing/25306118.html)

The last important issue was the role these individuals and organisations took on the issue of land disputes in Crimea. In visiting Crimea, the presence of small structures (above) constructed by Crimean Tatars involved in land disputes was common. As one respondent explained (affiliated not with ROC but with another organisation), on the more extreme end of those aligned with Russian nationalist organisations and sentiments, they were active in arranging “Slavic pickets” alongside Cossack organisations to “prevent squatting” of “radical” Crimean Tatar organisations. On this basis, they were instrumental in furthering ongoing land disputes with Crimean Tatars, even when the Ukrainian state and its local authorities in Crimea were treading their feet in recognising Crimean Tatar land claims (hence the temporary structures).

2015: an ongoing and heightening repression

It becomes clear that Russian nationalist individuals and groups held grievances towards Crimean Tatars, portraying themselves as a threatened majority vis-a-vis an extremist minority (even if the reverse was closer to the truth) and of these, a minority were participating in more militaristic acts against Crimean Tatars. It is, therefore, less surprising when it is these elements of Crimea that have formed the post-annexation regime in a local context within Crimea.

However, this is also a shocking reality that should make us remember precisely who has taken power in Crimea and the sentiments they hold, that continue to indicate Crimean Tatars will face a precarious, if not threatened, existence in Crimea, shown most recently by the ATR raid (the Crimean Tatar TV channel) on 26 January 2015.

It is these elements that should compel us not to admit Crimea’s annexation as a “fait accompli”, nor in realist terms as facts on the ground that cannot be changed. A regime, that seized power illegally, is now trying to justify its oppression of a threatened Crimean Tatar minority not only to shore up its legitimacy but, on a symbolic level, to appeal to the interests of their support base, and to act on the grievances they held pre-annexation.


My co-author of the DGAP piece, Liana Fix, has also written an article as a follow-up for the one year anniversary of Crimea’s annexation: In Crimea, Time for Pressure

In Crimea, Time for Pressure, not Acceptance: Why we cannot lose sight of the Crimean Tatars

Liana Fix and I just wrote a piece for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP/Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.) analysing the historical and contemporary issues facing Crimean Tatars in the Crimea peninsula. We argue that the West should firstly continue to put pressure on Russia for it’s actions in annexing Crimea. Secondly, we argue that Crimean Tatars are once again a vulnerable minority. Even if the Russian Federation has made promises to the Crimean Tatar community, the actions of Russia and local Crimean authorities show a worrying trend towards persecuting Crimean Tatars under the pretext of fighting “political extremism”.

fix_knott_crimea_cover_eYou can read the full article: In Crimea, Time for Pressure, not Acceptance

If there had been a free and fair referendum, would Crimean residents have voted to secede?

When Crimea will go to Russia, for example, how is it there and who ate our salo… I say, you know, I do not know who ate your salo and when Crimea will join Russia, probably it will never happen.

In this post, I’ll try to give an answer concerning a question I was asked recently: if there had been a free and fair referendum, would Crimean residents have voted to secede?

Firstly, was the Crimean referendum free and fair?

FCO comparison
Table: UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office compare Crimea vs. Scottish referendum (Source: FCO)

No: it’s quite clear that the secession referendum was not free or fair (given among other factors that it was held under military occupation, see table above). Rather it was a legitimacy tool for a result that had already been decided by both the separatist movement in Crimea and the Russian government. Even a branch of the Russian government have disputed the final numbers, with results posted on the Council under the President of the Russian Federation for Civil Society and Human Rights website reporting a much lower turnout (30-50%) and lower support for unification with Russia (50-60%) than Crimean official sources.

Would a majority have voted for annexation?

While it’s easy to assume a majority in Crimea would have voted for Crimea’s annexation by Russia, had there been a free and fair election, I would argue that this is incredibly hard to call. Elsewhere I’ve argued that it would be misleading to assume that a majority of ethnic Russians in Crimea, though comprising a majority according to the 2001 census (~58%), identified with Russia. Rather, I argue that the majority, based on those I interviewed where content to be part of Ukraine.

Beyond identity, the idea of secession and annexation by Russia was also seen by a majority of those I spoke to as unlikely and undesirable. Even among those affiliated to organisations, such as the Russian Community of Crimea (Russkaia Obshchina Kryma) saw secession from Ukraine as something unlikely and undesirable because it would leave to “bloodshed” and a “cataclysm”. That Crimea could secede from Ukraine was therefore seen as highly unlikely, if not impossible.

Opinion polls show this too: there was far greater support, historically, for the status quo option, where Crimea remained an autonomous republic within Ukraine, than there was for Crimea (without the rest of Ukraine) to be part of Russia (chart 1). What’s more, support for this status quo was increasing over time while support for separatism was decreasing.

Status of crimea
Chart 1: What should the status of Crimea be? (Source: IRI)

What is clear therefore was that pre-2014 there was not overwhelming support for the kind of annexation that took place in 2014. There was not was a concern, by the majority, for the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian language compared to other more pressing socioeconomic concerns (chart 2) Nor was there a concern for Crimea to breakaway from Ukraine. Secession was seen as far too costly, unlikely and undesirable.

Chart 2: which three of the following issues are the most important for  Crimea?
Chart 2: Which three of the following issues are the most important for
Crimea? (Source: IRI 2013 & 2009)

Rather, and particularly in Crimea, there was support for Ukraine maintaining a close relationship with Russia, whether in a single state (chart 3) or as part of a Eurasian Customs Union (chart 4). Here the reason, overwhelmingly, seems not to be about identity but about prosperity, given that KIIS opinion polls show a higher support that a Eurasian/Customs Union would provide better chances for jobs and industrial products, than the EU.

Should Ukraine and Russia unite in one state? Source: http://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=236&page=1
Chart 2: Should Ukraine and Russia unite in one state? Source: KIIS
EU or Eurasia
Chart 3: Which integration would you choose? (Source for West, Centre, South, East & Ukraine: Research & Branding; Source for Crimea: KIIS)

Euromaidan vs. Eurasian Customs Union

While in Crimea, and eastern Ukraine more generally, there was a preference for maintaining ties with Russia, and this was founded on a largely economic basis, there wasn’t support for dissecting the Ukrainian state and separating from Russia. What happened in 2014 was therefore completely unthinkable and unpredictable, following the departure of Yanukovych. It concerned, I would argue, the relations between Crimean politicians and Kyiv, with a Party of Regions finding itself in tatters.

Without a strong Party of Regions ruling Ukraine from the top down, and ruling Crimea through Donetsk politicians, there was uncertainty about personal livelihoods, corrupt practices and nepotistic networks: what would a new Ukrainian government do to their assets and structures of power? The mass sentiment of everyday Crimeans was not what was at stake here, but rather the opportunity to seize something that, in a newly governed Ukraine, might never be possible again.

Researching Crimea pre-2014: a bottom-up perspective

This text is based on a talk that I gave at the Platform Ukraine Symposium on 19 September.

I am a PhD Candidate in Political Science in the Department of Government at LSE and completed my Master’s at SSEES – so I feel somewhat in between the strands of comparative politics and area studies and this is reflected in my current research project for my thesis where I look at the conception of ethnic majorities in Moldova and Crimea and their interaction, from a bottom-up perspective, with their kin-states of Russia, in the case of Crimea, and Romania, in the case of Moldova. In this talk I’m just going to reflect on my work in Crimea, based on fieldwork that I conducted in 2012 and 2013.

In the presentation, I’m briefly going to touch on:

  1. Research focus in Crimea
  2. Experiences of fieldwork
  3. Reflections – now and then

Research focus in Crimea

So in my current research, I’m interested in the relationship between Crimea and Russia, or at least the relationship that existed pre-2014, and to examine this relationship from a bottom-up perspective. That is to say not from a top-down institutional perspective but from the perspective of the lived experience of this relationship. And in the data that I gathered, I was interested in collecting data focusing on two questions related:

  1. Meanings: What does it mean to be Russian in Crimea?
  2. Practices: How are Russian policies practised in Crimea?

In terms of meanings, I draw on the field of everyday nationalism (see Brubaker, Fox & Miller-Idriss), to look at how being Russian is given meaning, experienced and/or subverted. In terms of practices, I look at how Russian policies, in particular Russia’s Compatriot Policy, is understood and practised in Crimea (e.g. did they identify themselves as Compatriots of Russia?). By Compatriot Policy, I define this as a quasi-citizenship policy (i.e. something that offers some rights and benefits, but not full citizenship) based on the rights it provided to resettle in Russia and some scholarship places. I was interested also in awareness of Russia’s engagement in Crimea and interaction with local pro-Russian organisations.

And ultimately, I’m interested in the interaction between the meanings of being Russian, the practices of Russian policies and ideas about territorial configuration, politically vis-à-vis Crimea’s relationship with Russia and Ukraine, and as I came to realise geopolitically also, in terms of respondents’ preferences for how Ukraine would align itself vis-à-vis Russia and Europe, or “the West”.

To gather this data, I collected 53 interviews, mostly in Russian language, with everyday actors in Crimea and in particular the post-Soviet generation. I wanted a breadth of respondents, so I interviewed people affiliated with youth wings of political parties across the political spectrum, pro-Russian organisations, as well as apolitical organisations, and students. I wanted to combine a comparative approach, requiring consistency across respondents and cases, with a naturalistic and conversational interview technique. I therefore used a consistent interview guide but used this more as a guide to the thematic areas I wanted to discuss with respondents, to ensure consistency and comparability.

Experiences of fieldwork

While my research interests are now fixed and by the time I came to the last bit of fieldwork, I knew what I was interested in gathering data about, this was not a predetermined process to the extent that I didn’t expect to find what I did. And this relates to the disjoint I’ve found between how Crimea has been discursively framed since the secession movement failed in 1994, as a hotbed of Russian nationalism waiting to secede from Ukraine. And I want to argue that Crimea’s secession and annexation by Russia this year should not be seen as confirmation of this tendency, at least not among a majority of Crimeans, outside Sevastopol, and, more particularly, among the post-soviet generation, who were the focus of my research.

I first visited Crimea back in 2011, and found almost from day one that my assumptions about Crimea, based on this framing from secondary literature, to be continually challenged. I had initially gone to look at how far Russian citizenship was being acquired in Crimea, because, based on the literature, I had expected this to be a common practice. Again in 2014, there was the claim, made by Charles King, that many in Crimea “are actually Russian citizens or dual-passport holders and by association, want Russian citizenship”. However, starting from my very first interviews, which were the pilot of the full research project, I found Russian citizenship to be something that respondents not only saw as illegal, because it was, but also undesirable and, frankly, unnecessary. No one I interviewed for my research expressed that they held Russian citizenship, and some might, but I can reasonably assume that a majority did not.

When I returned to the field in 2012 and 2013, I went to gather data not about Russian citizenship acquisition, but to focus on how everyday people experienced being Russian and engaged with Russia’s compatriot policy. Again, I found my assumptions about Crimea being challenged and I had to really learn to listen to my respondents. What I found was a huge degree of complexity concerning what it meant to be Russian. Some felt marginalised by Ukraine and victims of Ukraine’s policy of Ukrainization. While others didn’t: they didn’t feel “patriots of Putin” but just Russian speakers who were happy to reconcile being Russian with living in Crimea and Ukraine, and did not want to be seen by Ukraine as “patriots of Putin”. Others did not identify as Russian at all: they had not been born or brought up in Russia but in Ukraine. Further there were those who felt everything simultaneously: Crimea, Russian, Ukrainian. They felt they belonged to both, Ukraine and Russia, because Crimea had been both Russian and Ukrainian, and many had both Russian and Ukrainian parents and relatives. The majority, which on paper might be defined as “ethnically” Russian, was therefore much more fragmented, in terms of self-identification as Russian and with Russia, than I was expecting and than had been covered by the literature.

So my assumptions that everyone felt at ease to identify as Russian was really challenged by those I interviewed and I had to pay attention to what they were telling me.

I also found a hazy engagement with the Compatriot policy. The minority who felt discriminated by Ukraine, felt let down by Russia: the Compatriot policy neither offered them rights they were interested in, they didn’t want to migrate to undeveloped Russian regions, and did not go far enough offering them rights that they did want, such as Russian citizenship. However these were a minority of respondents: the majority identified neither as a compatriot of Russia, Ukrainian citizens were their Compatriots, nor had much knowledge or interest in the Compatriot policy or its associated rights. Across the board, respondents did not want to leave “sunny Crimea” for “snowy Siberia”.

Lastly, I just wanted to mention briefly the absence of support for separatism among those I interviewed, including, interestingly, those affiliated to movements that would later spearhead the secessionist movement and support annexation, such as the Russian Community of Crimea and Russian Unity party. It was much more about Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the feeling that relations with Russia were an indelible part of Crimea and Ukraine. As one discriminated Russian explained:

Reflections on Crimea post-2014 and post de facto annexation

As this is a bottom-up project, one of the hardest things is to know so many people on the ground who had to experience the change from being an autonomous republic in Ukraine to an de facto annexed republic of Russia, facing uncertainties of how to make this transition (in terms of pensions, education systems, banking systems, property to name a few) and to face the reality of having their homeland “stolen”. I’ve observed now, in particular among those who I define as the post-Soviet generation of political Ukrainians, how many have left to Kyiv and Lviv, and Ukraine. This has ruptured families and will continue to do so.

So why was Crimea annexed by Russia? This is something I’m going to continue to research and write about elsewhere, but I’m pretty certain that it is not about nationalism, discrimination, and the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, as Putin would like us to believe. Rather, I would argue that this is more about corruption (and the ties of corruption between Ukraine and Russia), vested personal interests and the assumed threat to these interests post-Yanukovych, which Russia were willing to support militarily, and probably were worried about too, in terms of their interests, BSF, property, tourism etc., in Crimea.

More broadly, this has made me rethink the foundations on which my research is based. My assumptions about kin-state relations were premised on 23 years of Russia not intervening on behalf of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers (the Russian-Georgian war is a bit different). I started my PhD research in a very different political and geopolitical climate to the one which I will complete the research, and these changes have an indelible impact on how I frame and interpret the research, and given weight to what previously seemed unthinkable, that Russia would seek to challenge its borders with Ukraine, and therefore the norms under which post-Soviet states had been living for 23 years.


You can listen to podcasts from the event on the CEELBAS website.

Втеча з Криму / Escape from Crimea

I’d like to translate this (or attempt to translate this into English from Ukrainian) but it’s an excellent insight into the impacts of Crimea’s annexation for ordinary people and, in particular, for the post-Soviet generation whose antipathy towards Russia, and especially Putin, was greatest when I did my fieldwork there (2012-2013).

One story. Одна історія.

Iryna1

Ірина, 17 років, абітурієнтка.

Я ніколи не забуду того, як поїхала з Криму. Хоча для мене цей вчинок не є чимось великим, але я розумію, що саме від нього залежить моє майбутнє.

Моя мама – з Росії, а тато з Кіровоградщини. Але так сталось, що в сім’ї всі підтримують політику Кремля – на жаль, пропаганда робить своє. Після анексії Криму я довгий час розказувала батькам, що хочу поїхати вчитись до Львова, і намагалась їм пояснити, що нізащо не буду жити в Росії. Мені було важливо навіть не те, щоб вони мене відпустили, а щоб вони мене зрозуміли. Приблизно два місяці я намагалась їм пояснити свою думку, але марно. Мої слова із дзвоном відбивалися від батьків. Навіть коли я наводила беззаперечні факти – чула у відповідь: «Ні, такого не може бути»; аргументи розбивались об залізобетонну стіну впертого несприйняття.

Крім того, ми сварились ще й з іншої причини.  Батьки переконували: «Ти повинна…

View original post 1,222 more words

Who has seized power in Crimea?

This article was originally posted on Vostok Cable.
According to recent statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergei LavrovRussia has claimed to be acting to protect the rights not just of citizens and military personnel, but also compatriots and Russian speakers in Crimea. But how far do Crimeans feel discriminated? Ellie Knott, a PhD student at the London School of Economics, draws on her research to answer this question.

In a previous article for Vostok Cable, I argued that there needed to be a more nuanced understanding of Russian identity in Crimea. Hence I differentiated between ethnic Russians who accept or enjoy living in a Ukrainian state, and Discriminated Russians, who identify not just as ethnically Russian but also as the victims of Ukrainisation.

It is the latter who have been heavily involved with pro-Russia movements, such as Russkaia Obschina Kryma (Russian Community of Crimea), and the pro-Russia minority party, Russkoe Edinstvo (Russian Unity). There has been a long-standing cynical attitude to these organisation in Crimea: that they are professional Russians. As one respondent described these individuals want “to get money from this” by using their Russian identification as an occupation to profit from the funding for these organisations which comes from Russia.

It is these same Russian cultural and political organisations who have led the renewed separatist movement in Crimea. As soon as Sergei Aksenov, the leader of Russkoe Edinstvo, seized power, he claimed to be representing the interests of all Crimeans. However Russkoe Edinstvo were elected by just 4% of the electorate in the 2010 Crimean parliamentary elections.

*

Aksenov was able to seize power as the Prime Minister of Crimea after a forced vote in the Crimean parliament. The identity and origin of the armed group who stormed the Crimean parliament on 27 February, forcing the voter later in the day, remain unknown. However the links between Russkoe Edinstvo and the Russian administration run deep, both at the local level with personal links to the Russian consulate in the peninsula, through the organizational structure of the Compatriot policy, and several individuals from these groups have been awarded cultural and social medals by the Russian Federation for their work.

In the election materials of Russkoe Edinstvo, the idea of discrimination against Russians in Crimea is a major motivation. Hence their electoral platform in 2010 focused primarily on protecting the “humanitarian rights of Russians and Russian-cultural Crimeans”. In the leaflets of Molodie, the youth wing of Russkoe Edinstvo, they claimed also that they needed to defend themselves against “enemies of the Russian world” who were trying to “oppress and kill Russian language and culture”. This discourse of discrimination, and its link to the minority Russian separatists, existed in Crimea well before the world’s attention shifted there. The difference now is that the pro-Russian authorities, with the help of the Russian government, and likely the military, have made this discourse go viral, with Russia mirroring the mantra of Russkoe Edinstvo by claiming that it is legitimate to act to protect the “humanitarian rights” of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Crimea.

Perceptions of discrimination were common among just a minority of ethnic Russians that I interviewed in Crimea in 2012-2013. They were angered by what they saw as Ukraine’s “forced” Ukrainisation policies which had infringed on the “rights of Russians” because “priority” was now given to Ukrainian language in society and education. They were angered because of the decline of Russian language in schools. But also because even in Russian language schools, they were required to teach what they perceived to be a “totally Ukrainian” version of history which required them to teach the “history of collaborators” in the second world war, such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych.

While Stepan Bandera is lauded as a Ukrainian national hero in western Ukraine, in the east and south, and in Crimea, he is depicted as a fascist collaborator, working against the Soviet Union. This idea of Ukrainian nationalism and nationalisation of the state is depicted as analogous to fascism, by this very small pro-Russian group who in the first few days of protests in Crimea mobilised under the slogan of “down with fascism”. In recent days, posters have also appeared in Sevastopol indicating that the referendum is a choice between Russia and fascism.

It is easy to dismiss claims of discrimination as ridiculous given the advantages currently enjoyed by those with a pro-Russian stance, but it is interesting also to reflect on how far feelings of discrimination resonate more broadly in Crimean society. Few I interviewed, outside of those who were pro-Russiadescribed feeling discriminated in terms of Russian language and culture in peninsula. In large part because they felt Russian was majority culture and language in the peninsula and protected by the local government. Russian culture and language were not perceived as under threat because the Russian “question” was rarely seen as an “acute issue”.

The only example that was often cited by respondents was their dissatisfaction with an all-Ukrainian law that required foreign films in cinemas to be dubbed in Ukrainian, rather than Russian. But as one respondent described it, this was not a “strangulation of Russian culture” but “just a bad law”. In all other aspects of life, respondents felt comfortable in the ability to perform their daily functions in Russian language.

*

The pro-Russia organisations involved in the seizure of power in Crimea are acting again as “professional Russians”. Discrimination was a convenient rhetoric for these professionals because these feelings already resonated with a minority of the population, embedded by economic peripheralisation in post-Soviet Crimea. This discrimination discourse was convenient to legitimise their newly seized authority and disguise the other motivations behind the power grab, such as protecting Russia’s military assets in the peninsula.

It is unclear what Professional Russians would gain from being part of the Russian Federation or a frozen conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But at least in the short term they are able to service their own economic and political interests, while indicating that troops, who remain unmarked but are likely Russian, were needed for the referendum to act as a “stabilising” influence to ensure “public order”. Reprisals against those investigating and questioning the newly empowered pro-Russian separatists are already on the rise, suggesting that Crimea’s future is not only uncertain but daunting, having empowered militarised elements, such as Cossack groups, to act violently without repercussions towards dissenters, and in particular towards Crimean Tatars and journalists.