Upcoming Research on Moldova: Strategic Citizenship (Princeton) and Europeanization (Bucharest)

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be presenting two new papers on my ongoing research in Moldova:

1. 4 March, New Europe College, Bucharest – Beyond Identity Politics and Geopolitics: Dirty Politics as an Explanation for the Waning of Support for Europeanization in Moldova (with Dan Brett)

This paper seeks to explain why support for Europeanization has waned since the pro-European parties took office in 2009. We dismiss typical explanations in analyses of Moldovan politics — identity politics and geopolitics — in favour of considering domestic party politics. We argue that party conduct has not reformed since 2009 and, rather, has become more kleptocratic. This has toxified the project of Europeanization in Moldova by its association with rent-seeking elites.

25 Years of Moldova’s Independence: A Transition to a Deadlock? Hosted by New Europe College, Bucharest, 4 March 2016
2. 8 March, Princeton: Strategic, Symbolic or Legitimate? Analyzing Engagement with Dual Citizenship from the Bottom-Up

This paper, using the case of Romanian citizenship reacquisition in Moldova, asks why individuals in Moldova acquire Romanian dual citizenship. Using a bottom-up approach, the paper argues for understanding motivations for engagement with kin-state citizenship beyond a strategic-symbolic continuum to consider also a third normative dimension, where kin-state citizenship is constructed as natural and normal and, thus, legitimate. This normative dimension helps to understand engagement with kin-state citizenship, and provides a richer understanding of this engagement than a ‘strategic’ dimension suggest, by demonstrating how ties of legitimacy can bind those to the kin-state irrespective of kin-state identification.

Working Paper: Strategic, Symbolic or Legitimate? Analyzing Engagement with Dual Citizenship from the Bottom-Up

Strategic Citizenship: Negotiating Membership in the Age of Dual Nationality, Princeton University, Whig Hall, March 7-8, 2016

A Year of Trolling

Late last year, at an event organised by LSE’s Grimshaw International Relations Club, I shared my experiences of trolling as evidence of the implication of academics in an form of hybrid war and campaign of discreditation.

Well, this campaign became a bit more real (and surreal) when I stumbled across a Russian talk show discussing my research and more specifically my recent Monkey Cage piece, where I discuss the complexities of Russian identity, as I observed them in 2012 and 2013. Totally surreal, the talk show comes out of Zvezda, the Russian Ministry of Defence’s TV channel, and featured the well-known nationalist Konstantin Zatulin, who interesting and ironically, was banned from Ukraine during Yushchenko’s presidency for making claims on Crimea.

 

The name of the program is perhaps most revealing: “Information War against the people of Crimea” (Информационная война против народов Крыма). It’s like an Orwellian double-speak; implicating me as a weapon of an information war, when the program’s objective is precisely that: to discredit the argument I put forward in my research.

I’m still mystified what is so controversial about my argument, that identity was complex and that, among those I interviewed, across the identity spectrum, none imagined or supported separatism or unification, imagining it only as akin to violence. But, in particular, the speakers on the show seek to superficially discredit both the methodology of the research, that it’s unrepresentative, and the approach, that I ethnicise Russian identity in Russia, where Russia is multi-ethnic federation of Russian citizens. Of course, I don’t claim representativeness, I’m more interested in the meaning of being Russian for those I interviewed, and, of course, those I interviewed were not Russian citizens in 2012-13.

I’m not trying to respond to a superficial critique that is based around a politicised distaste for a counter-argument about how the current Russian regime imagine Crimea, but rather to consider the attention paid by the Russian state, and their instruments of propaganda, to my research. They seek to discredit not just my interpretation, but also the methodology of my research and the rationale. As Zvezda presenter, why would I want to conduct this research and why do I think I have the right to make these kinds of conclusions?  (that run counter to how a) the Russian state understands Crimea b) how the west is supposed to understand Crimea as a homogeneously Russian and pro-Russian region)

We can all become weapons in this information war whether we consent to or not, unaware of how far research can permeate. On the one hand, this is the impact we (are incentivised to) seek; on the other, it’s a nervous position for our arguments to be so visible and, as researchers, so powerless to control this visibility.

As a Moldovan, it’s not so easy to get Romanian citizenship (and a Romanian/EU passport)

Every so often, a scare article appears in western European media, mostly in the right wing press, claiming that Romania’s citizenship policy in Moldova is allowing thousands to exploit a passport loophole that allows them easy access to live and work in the EU (see Le Monde, Daily Express, Der Spiegel, even BBC News). Just yesterday, with news that Moldova’s access to budget travel was increasing with a tri-weekly WizzAir flight to London, The Sun reported this as evidence that Moldovans, via Romanian passports, were “flooding” to the EU. While this fits into a growing narrative of right wing obsession with EU migration rights, it is also a misrepresentation of the experiences of acquiring Romanian citizenship in Moldova.

Firstly, before Moldovans received EU visa free access in 2014, their access to the EU, and most notably Romania, was highly restricted. Visas were costly and required sums of money in the bank (€500) that were out of reach for most. Romanian citizenship therefore became a pragmatic tool to circumvent restrictions imposed since Romania acceded to the EU in 2007, and travel between Romania and Moldova became much more difficult and costly.

Secondly, Romania does not “give” out Romanian citizenship. It is an application process that can take up to two years, with individuals waiting patiently to receive their invitation to the embassy to be able to file their documents. It is also expensive. Before you can even apply, you have to have documents, that must be in Romanian. This means Soviet era documents have to be translated and transcribed into Romanian; this all costs money. Because Romanian citizenship is “reacquired” from grandparents, and great grandparents, who lost their Romanian citizenship during the Second World War when the Soviet Union annexed the present-day territory of Moldova, these documents also often have to be retrieved from archives. With Soviet policies of deportation, this can make documents, such as grandparents’ birth certificates, particularly hard to locate.

All of this leads to a time-consuming and expensive process, even before the application has been made. With this, consider that Romanian bureaucracy has been over-run by applications. Leading to, among those I interviewed, an average waiting period of 1-2 years. At least until 2012, there’s also a huge back log of applications, held over from when Romanian citizenship reacquisition was suspended (2001-2007), while Romania tried to accede to the EU.

In the eyes of many Moldovans, and the Romanian state, Romanian citizenship is a fair trade for the abuses of the Soviet state to their grandparents, and great grandparents, in Romania failing to act towards a state withdrawing Romanian citizenship from them at the end of the Second World War, and the brutalities of fifties years of Soviet rule.

Romanian citizenship is certainly an attractive thing to have in a world where Moldovans have been pushed to the periphery; it allows the freedom of movement, residence and status as an EU citizen, for individuals, that is seeming further away at a state-level. This is why describing it as a “loophole” is dehumanising by overlooking the experiences of document retrieval, application and the reasons for application which demonstrate that Romania is not simply giving out Romanian passports to Moldovans.

 

This post is based on my thesis research on the experiences and practices of Romanian citizenship in Moldova.

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

Do Crimeans see themselves as Russian or Ukrainian? It’s complicated.

My research was featured in Monkey Cage from 3 December 2015: Do Crimeans see themselves as Russian or Ukrainian? It’s complicated.

I argue, following my journal article in Social Science Quarterly, understanding identity in Crimea needs a more nuanced analysis beyond “ethnic Russian” and “ethnic Ukrainian” categories, to consider what it meant to be Russian in Crimea, in the period preceding Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in February 2014.

Rather I construct 5 different categories to conceptualize how respondents self-identified, and situated themselves vis-a-vis Ukraine and Russia:

  1. Discriminated Russians
  2. Ethnic Russians
  3. Political Ukrainians
  4. Crimeans
  5. Ethnic Ukrainians

I go through these categories in more detail in the Monkey Cage post, and in even more detail in a recent journal article.


 

As a follow up, I wanted to deal with a question I get asked a lot about the numbers within each category. The chart below shows the distribution of each category, however I’m hesitant to make much of these numbers given the small sample size.

One thing to take away, however, is that the numbers show the majority of ethnic Russians did not identify as discriminated while a similarly large group identified not ethnically, but politically as Ukrainian.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 10.19.45

Now *Open Access*: What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority?

My recent article for Social Science Quarterly, What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below, is now open access. You can read and download the article freely on SSQ’s website.

Abstract:

This article investigates what kin identification means from a bottom-up perspective in two kin majority cases: Moldova and Crimea. The article is based on ∼50 fieldwork interviews conducted in both Moldova and Crimea with everyday social actors (2012–2013). Ethnic homogeneity for kin majorities is more fractured than previously considered. Respondents identified more in terms of assemblages of ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic, and territorial identities than in mutually exclusive census categories. To understand fully the relations between kin majorities, their kin-state and home-state and the impact of growing kin engagement policies, like dual citizenship, it is necessary to analyze the complexities of the lived experience of kin identification for members of kin majorities and how this relates to kin-state identification and affiliation. Understanding these complexities helps to have a more nuanced understanding of the role of ethnicity in post-Communist societies, in terms of kin-state and intrastate relations.

View on Wiley Online Library

Citation: Knott, E. (2015). What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below. Social Science Quarterly, 96(3), 830-859.

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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)

The ‘billion dollar protests’ in Moldova are threatening the survival of the country’s political elite

This post was co-authored with Daniel Brett and Mihai Popșoi and posted on LSE’s EUROPP blog.


Thousands of people have taken part in a series of protests in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, with protesters demanding the government’s resignation and early elections over a $1 billion bank fraud case. Daniel Brett, Ellie Knott and Mihai Popșoi outline why the protests are taking place, who the protesters are, and the likely impact on Moldovan politics. They write that while early elections may be the only option to reset the country’s politics, there are no certainties over what the long-term consequences will be for Moldova moving forward.

Protests on #pman (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)
Protests on #pman (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)

On 6 September Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, saw the largest civic protests since independence. These protests, where up to 100,000 people took to the streets, were larger than the 2009 protests that brought about the ‘Twitter Revolution’ and the fall of the Voronin government.

The protests in the symbolically important Piața Marii Adunări Naționale (referred to using the Twitter hashtag #pman), the historical site of protest in Moldova, are the result of growing dissatisfaction among the electorate since the revelation in November 2014 of the “heist of the century” with the disappearance of $1 billion (around a seventh of Moldova’s GDP) through the country’s three main banks.

Since the theft came to light, the tripartite pro-European coalition that governs Moldova, holding on marginally through parliamentary elections in 2014, has collapsed and reformed, while also failing to adequately hold those responsible for the banking heist to account. This is likely because they themselves are implicated, if not complicit, in allowing a theft of this size to occur under their watch and have no interest in formally admitting responsibility.

For a country of three million residents, this is a large and significant protest movement which, building on previous Sunday protests since May (numbering 10,000-50,000 protesters), may signify a turning point in Moldova’s political history. However this depends on how far the organisers can capitalise on the momentum of protest, whether protesters can exert enough pressure to instigate dramatic changes such as early elections, and whether they decide to shift from a civic movement to a movement seeking political representation.

Why are people protesting?

Since the November’s 2014 elections, Moldova’s politics has been rocked by the inability to form governments and the selection of weak candidates, first Chiril Gaburici who then in June 2015 resigned, and now Valeriu Streleț, a well-known millionaire. Moldova’s pro-European coalition vetoed stronger, more pro-reform candidates, in particular Maia Sandu, who wanted a fuller investigation of the banking fraud, including the removal of the head of Moldova’s National Bank. She wanted to be able to sanction public institutions, arguing that the scale of public spending cuts had to be supplemented by evidence of greater political sacrifice and accountability.

“Jos Oligarhia” - Down with the Oligarchy (with permission from Marina Shupac)
“Jos Oligarhia” – Down with the Oligarchy (with permission from Marina Shupac)

This has taken place against a backdrop of price rises for electricity (37 per cent), gas (15 per cent), and bread (15 per cent) where the average wage remains only around 4,500 lei per month (€216/£153/$240). However, pro-European leaders such as Mihai Ghimpu, head of the minority Liberal Party (PL) within the coalition, rejected Sandu because ‘she would have to come to him, he would not go to her’, reflecting the self-serving arrogance of many of Moldova’s political elite who put their own interests first.

Even before the banking crisis, popular trust in the three parties within the governing coalition – the Liberals (PL), Liberal Democrats (PLDM) andDemocrats (PDM) – was faltering, in particular after the May 2013 crisis between two of Moldova’s political “godfathers” (and oligarchs) Vlad Filat (PLDM and then Prime Minister) and Vlad Plahotniuc (PDM). The pro-European coalition took power in 2009, after the fall of the authoritarian and weakly democratic Voronin government. With the fall of Voronin and his Party of Communists (PCRM), there was hope that Moldova might change direction, both geopolitically towards Europe and the EU and politically, by instituting political and economic reforms of transparency, accountability and political responsibility.

Hence, this protest movement is the culmination of six years of dissatisfaction at elite corruption and arrogance, and now mounting economic shocks, with the banking crisis the final symbol of the current regime’s unwillingness to instigate reforms and clean up politics. However it is important to also emphasise what the protests are not about: namely ethnic politics and geopolitics, typically framed as the dividing cleavages of Moldova’s state and society.

The claims of the protesters are solidly political (elite turnover, early elections, investigation of the banking scandal) and the numbers protesting far outnumber other protest movements, such as pro-Romanian/unification protests that are miniscule (a few thousand) by comparison. Rather, protesters, echoing the appeals of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan “revolution of dignity”, want Moldova to be run differently, hence there has been a marginalisation of pro-unification factions, while their slogans for the movement are ‘city of dignity’ and ‘Moldova without thieves’ (Moldova fără hoți).

While the pro-Russian Socialist Party (PSRM) supports the protests, their banners are not welcomed on #pman. The PSRM’s leader, Igor Dodon, seems to be sitting on the sidelines, waiting to put some extra pressure should the time come to trigger early elections, if it comes to that. By contrast the Communists, with their waning electoral support, are less forthcoming in their support of the protests and early elections, even if they agree in principle in their dissatisfaction with Moldova’s current direction.

Who is organising the protests?

Aside from the issues motivating the protesters, which come from below, there is a clear organisational force mobilising the protests: the Civic Platform for Dignity and Truth (PCDA). This was established in February 2015 by a group of civil society representatives, mainly associated with the JurnalTV television station, a station established after the 2009 protests. One of the founding members of the Platformdescribed how the protest movement came about from discussing Moldova’s troubles in the country on air at JurnalTV and especially during advertising breaks.

Lawyer Andrei Nastase is viewed as the unofficial leader of the Platform, while Igor Botan, political analyst and director of ADEPT, is its brain trust. Nastase is also the lawyer of businessmen Victor and Viorel Topa, alleged owners of JurnalTV, who themselves have been implicated in conflicts with Plahotniuc, have been convicted for embezzlement, and in 2010 escaped to Germany.

Unsurprisingly, despite generous international media attention, and internet attention within Moldova, the protests enjoy minimal coverage on Moldovan TV, as the main source of news for ordinary Moldovans. Plahotniuc owns the largest media holding in the country and has considerable sway over the public television network. This minimal coverage by Plahotniuc-owned TV has focused on discrediting the PCDA, focusing on its untransparent business relations and the presence of pro-unification activists within the movement.

Who are the protesters?

Thanks to JurnalTV, social media and word of mouth, the 6 September protest rivalled some of the largest political rallies of the past few years, which themselves have required tremendous administrative resources to boost their turnout. By comparison, the PCDA have relied mostly on genuine civic activism. In fact, protesters are so determined that about 100 tents remain overnight throughout the week in #pman.

The protesters are drawn from a wide range of citizens and, unlike in 2009, the protesters are older and from across the country, although most come from Chisinau and the surrounding area. The protesters represent a large cross-section of society, demonstrating it to be a mass movement rather than just disaffected intellectuals. Those in the ‘city of dignity’ are mostly middle aged men and, significantly, Nastase was criticised for sexism after calling for ‘strong men’ to stay at the site.

Supplying the Protests under the EU Banner (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)
Supplying the Protests under the EU Banner (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)

Thus, while the movement has been orchestrated by the PCDA, there is a story too of a genuine grassroots movement, sustained by those camping, donations of food, money and even refrigerators. The success of the movement is that, in light of the stolen billion, worsening economic conditions and a lack of willingness among the political class to change, many people are enraged and have found a voice in the platform, being drawn to the streets and coming to believe that change is possible, if not imminent.

Despite large numbers and the best efforts by organisers to curb open displays of pro-Romanian nationalism and welcome ethnic minorities into the protest, Russian speakers remain overwhelmingly underrepresented. This could be explained by the existence of a powerful opposition, represented mainly by Igor Dodon’s Socialists and Renato Usatii’s ‘Our Party’, both of which happen to be pro-Russian.

Thus, the protest movement remains largely centre-right, pro-European and pro-western. This limits its mobilisation capacity, appealing largely to the existing electorate of the pro-European parties. It alsocreates fertile ground for conflict rather than cooperation with the left. Indeed, both Dodon and Usatii announced plans for anti-government rallies of their own, hoping to trigger early elections, which they are best positioned to benefit most from.

Civic or political?

Initially, the PCDA appeared to want to remain a civic and “informal organisation”, as argued by Boţan, to maintain its anti-corruption policies. It seemed also to achieve relatively little in terms of the willingness of Moldova’s governing regime to relent to its demands. In fact, Moldova’s Prime Minister, Valeriu Strelet, argued that the political instability caused by the protests could weaken the economy further and jeopardise talks with the IMF, scheduled for 22 September, which might provide a much-needed financial lifeline. Indeed the government also made awkward moves to undermine the protests by temporarily suspending price hikes of gas, electricity and bread.

However, inspired by the daily return of people to #pman, notably on Sunday 13 September, the PCDA have signalled their willingness to transform into a political movement and form a shadow government. Yet the faces of key actors that might help such a transformation remain hidden, most notably the highly popular Maia Sandu, whose opportunity to become Moldova’s Prime Minister was vetoed by the minority coalition partners back in July 2015. She has voiced support for the PCDA, joining its Council. Should she become more visible within the movement, then the PCDA could become much more politically significant.

The outlook for Moldovan politics

Early elections may be the only option to reset how Moldova is governed. However there are neither guarantees that the discredited current elite would return nor that the pro-Russian Socialist opposition could reap the benefits of a protest movement that appeals only to pro-European voters. The PCDA are choosing to ignore these risks and, by signalling they may be willing to establish a political arm, they have demonstrated that they may be serious in their aim to hold the current pro-European elite to account by taking the protests from the street into the political arena.

The concern therefore is how far the movement can crystallise its political arm. Assuming it is established,how it emerges will prove critical, and whether it is joined by reformers like Sandu. This will reveal also whether it is a genuine outpost of public discontent, that wants to change the way Moldovan politics is run, or whether it is a carefully orchestrated proxy war among Moldova’s two godfathers – Filat and Plahotniuc. If it is the latter, this is a path, potentially, towards mutually assured destruction and continued political instability.

The protests also challenge the idea that Moldovan politics is dominated by the ‘east vs. west’ debate, demonstrating yet again that issues of domestic politics, in particular corruption reform, should be Moldova’s most fundamental policy objectives. This is important not only to win international funding from agencies that are hesitant to invest “through the front door while there is a risk of even larger sums of public money being lost out of the back door”, but also to eek back the faith, and lost hope, of Moldovan society in politics and the (lack of) investment of Moldova’s elite in the future of the country.