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

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Crimea referendum – our experts react: Crimea has changed rapidly from the peninsula where I conducted fieldwork nine months ago

This short piece was originally posted on EUROPP following the Crimean referendum in March 2014.

Crimea has changed rapidly from the peninsula where I conducted fieldwork nine months ago. Then it was a relatively stable and peaceful multinational peninsula, with a growing post-Soviet generation who saw themselves as politically affiliated with Ukraine. Today it is an emerging frozen conflict with a referendum declaring high turnout and high support for joining the Russian Federation. Men are able to sign up to self-appointed militia and dissenters are penalised. The week before the referendum, there were reports of kidnappings of those connected to Euromaidan networks, abuse of journalists and the impression that for those not supporting joining Russia, this was their last opportunity to protest.

This is also not South Ossetia, Transnistria or Kosovo. What has occurred in Crimea is unique, involving a much larger population than previous frozen conflicts and a Russian naval base. While I have already seen reports from friends that they would not like to stay in a Russian Crimea long term, the message from Crimean Tatars is that this is their legitimate home and one which they will not leave again, as they were forced to in 1944.

What is equally alarming is that Crimea is not a self-sustaining peninsula, dependent on Ukraine for gas supplies, fresh water and rail and road transportation links to Russia, excluding those via sea. I would be concerned also about a potential struggle that might arise between the Crimean separatist administration and Russian Federation, concerning their ideas about what Crimea’s autonomous status might look like in whatever comes next.