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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)

Following the Riga summit, more realism is required over what the EU can offer its eastern partners

The latest Eastern Partnership summit was held in Riga on 21-22 May. The summit was the first to be held since the Vilnius summit in November 2013 which precipitated the Ukraine crisis. Ellie Knott writes on the outcome of the summit and what it means for the development of relations between the EU and Eastern Partnership states. She notes that the EU is now faced with a difficult balancing act of convincing Russia that it is not engaged in direct competition for influence over post-Soviet states, while offering enough concessions to those Eastern Partnership countries that would like to pursue deeper EU integration.

The recent Riga summit (21-22 May 2015) was the fourth summit since the Eastern Partnership (EaP) was initiated in 2009. While the Riga Summit may have been a “survival summit” against the backdrop of “war in Ukraine”, it also signalled “a new era of our partnership” between the EU and 6 EaP states, with a new High Representative (Federica Mogherini), EU President (Donald Tusk) and Commissioner for Enlargement (Johannes Hahn).

The interim between the Vilnius (November 2013) and Riga summits saw one of the biggest crises of post-Soviet states. Ukraine experienced both a revolution, and then Russian incursion, first with Crimea’s annexation and then with support for separatism in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, leaving the country somewhere between a civil war and full-scale war with Russia.

This period also saw an acceleration of negotiations between the EU, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia with the signing of Association (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) in June 2014, and a visa-free regime with Moldova in April 2014. Meanwhile, the three other EaP states, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have signed up to a Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). And yet, in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, even these EaP “laggards” showed renewed interest in intensifying their relations with the EU, as Kadri Liik (ECFR) argues, to “hedge against Russia’s pressure”.

With this new EU administration, so too is the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), of which the EaP is a major constituent, under review in a period of ongoing consultation which will not be finalised until autumn 2015. As such, the Riga summit came during a period of uncertain change and increasing tensions between these post-Soviet EaP states, the EU and Russia. In this sense, Riga was more, as Pierre Vimontargues, of a “stock-taking exercise” in the run-up to an uncertain future revision of the ENP.

A “two tier” approach

Although uncertainty remains concerning the future Eastern Partnership approach, two aspects were clear at Riga: the EaP’s emphasis on differentiation and sovereignty. In terms of differentiation, the EU is likely to adopt a two tier approach, continuing more deep engagement with AA/DCFTA states, who are not bound to the Eurasian Economic Union (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia), while offering a more “tailor-made” engagement to Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The table below illustrates the current picture among the six EaP states.

Table: Eastern Partnership states

Note: The ‘quality of democracy’ assessment is from the 2015 Freedom House report. The ‘corruption score’ is the score (out of 175, where a higher score indicates more perceived corruption) for Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index. GDP per capita figures are from Eurostat.

These states cannot sign up to the DCFTA, as members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, of which a constituent part is a customs union. They present, therefore, different challenges to the EU in terms of the types of relations possible, requiring a different model to that of AA and DCFTA Eastern Partnership states. Moreover Belarus poses a problem as a state currently under, and unresponsive to, EU sanctions, including a travel ban and asset freezes on 232 individuals and 25 entities, including the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko.

The idea of the Eastern Partnership underlining the sovereignty of its partners became a theme at the Vilnius (2013) summit, but was unmentioned at the previous summits in Warsaw (2011) and Prague (2009). At Vilnius, as relations with Russia concerning EaP states became tenser, the EaP outlined the “sovereign right of each partner freely to choose the level of ambition”, to indicate that the EU wanted to resist a coercive Russia deciding how these countries should interact with EU states. At Riga, this discourse of “sovereign choices” was reaffirmed, alongside shoring up the “territorial integrity” and “independence” of allEaP states.

Hence, we can infer a degree of continuity in the EU’s approach towards EaP states, by trying to brand this cooperation as technocratic, endorsing the continued approach of “more for more” (i.e. more access to the EU for more transformation) and endorsing everything short of membership. As Junker outlined at Riga, EaP states “are not ready [for membership], and we are not ready”.

Was the Riga summit a failure?

This sense of continuity is partially responsible for the framing of Riga as “disastrous” and a “failure” for two reasons: namely because the EU is unwilling to advance the membership option and also unwilling to castigate Russia’s coercive approach toward EaP states. However, it should not come as much surprise that the EU is unwilling to extend the membership option, both in light of the fact that the EU sees these states as “not ready”, but also, as Merkel argues, because the EaP was not designed as “an instrument for enlargement” but of “rapprochement”. The problem is that the (pro-EU) political class of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova view the membership option as a panacea, both to shore up wavering domestic support for EU integration and as a counter to Russian leverage.

Before 2013, the EaP was largely a technocratic project aimed at encouraging the reform of democracy, the rule of law and the economies of partner states, rather than to facilitate a region-building geopolitical project. Hence Russia was not explicitly mentioned in previous joint declarations in Vilnius (2013), Warsaw (2009) or Prague (2009). While Russia might have been mentioned in informal conversations during the Riga summit, in an official context, Russia was mentioned only vis-à-vis the EU’s role in “facilitating gas talks” between Russia and Ukraine.

Implicitly, however, Russia was nevertheless criticised via the Joint Declaration’s condemnation of the “illegal annexation” of Crimea and Sevastopol, calls for de-escalation of the conflict in Donestk and Luhansk, and via the declaration’s emphasis on sovereignty, which can no longer be “taken for granted”. In this sense, EU leaders continue to emphasise that the EaP, and more broadly relations between the EU and these post-Soviet states, is not “directed against Russia” nor part of a competition or “beauty contest” with the country.

The reluctance of the EU to criticise Russia has been seen as a key failing of Riga, with the EU portrayed as cowering to ongoing Russian aggression. However, the EU continues to irritate Russia, with Russia’s Foreign Ministry complaining that “once again [the EU] growled its inadequate position on Crimea”. The refusal of Armenia and Belarus to sign up to the condemnation of Russia’s annexation (in the Joint Declaration) also demonstrates the limits of the EaP in showing a unified front vis-à-vis Russia, given the different perspectives articulated by the six EaP states and, too, within the 28 EU member-states.

What are the challenges going forward?

Looking forward, the EU’s relationship with its Eastern Partners will continue to face significant challenges, both from the more advanced EaP states’ disappointment in not being offered a membership option, the delay to visa-free agreements for Georgia and Ukraine, and the difficulties in navigating relations with EaP laggards, who are more advanced in their relations with Russia. In this sense, the “idea” of the Eastern Partnership may be “even more important than ever”, as Merkel argues, but it is also exposed to more challenges vis-à-vis Russia.

The EU also has to contend with growing apathy toward Europeanisation in EaP states, in particularMoldova and even Georgia. Key to this is the endemic corruption experienced in some states, notably in Moldova which, following the scandal of the “missing billion” of GDP, has increasingly seen antipathy toward the pro-European elite directed at the concept of Europeanisation itself. In this sense, the EU has to be more forceful in its “more for more approach” and this includes requiring domestic EaP elites to implement and respect more wide sweeping reforms to try to win back support for Europeanisation.

Russia too will remain a key challenge for the Eastern Partnership and for European security more generally. Russia’s ability to coerce EaP states relies on territorial weaknesses, such as influence over existing de facto states (Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia) and new de facto states (the ‘People’s Republics’ in Donetsk and Luhansk), and anti-democratic elites (e.g. in Belarus and Azerbaijan). Hence, the more successful EaP states are, Ukraine in particular, the more likely Russia will try to push back.

Ultimately, the EU finds itself between a rock and a hard place: between convincing Russia it’s not engaging in a competition for influence, and convincing Eastern Partners they’re committed to them. EU leaders want “strategic patience”, in an era when they appear increasingly nervous about relations with Russia. When even Belarus wants to intensify its relations with the EU, to increase its leverage against Russia, this shows the tensions existing in EaP states since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But really it’s up to the political class of EaP states to commit to more reforms, and for the EU to enforce the implementation of these reforms. Yet, there are paradoxes here, such as in Belarus where chances of reform, to the extent desired by the EU, remain unlikely.

This article was originally posted on LSE’s EUROPP Blog.

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

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.

It is in Vladimir Putin’s interest to ensure there is a lasting ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine

A ceasefire was agreed between Ukraine and separatist forces on 5 September, although it is unclear whether this will hold following shelling in the city of Mariupol and near Donetsk airport on Sunday. Ellie Knott writes on public opinion within Russia toward the conflict. She notes that while Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have increased during the Ukraine crisis, there is relatively low public support for the annexation of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Between the Sochi Olympics in February of 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of 2014, Putin’s approval rating, according to the Levada Centre (a relatively trustworthy source of polling data), shot up to a level of positive approval not seen since before Russia’s economic crisis. Although as Chart 1 shows, Putin’s approval has dipped slightly since June (86 per cent approval) to August (84 per cent), in the wake of the current crisis Putin has become extremely popular once again in Russia, even if optimism about Russia’s economy and personal well-being have not seen the same spikes. Continue reading “It is in Vladimir Putin’s interest to ensure there is a lasting ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine”

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…

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The Ukraine crisis has complicated Moldova’s political situation ahead of signing an Association Agreement with the EU

Moldova is scheduled to sign an Association Agreement with the EU later this month, with Parliamentary elections also due to be held in November. Ellie Knott and David Rinnert write on the impact the Ukraine crisis has had on domestic politics and Moldova’s delicate balance between the EU and Russia. They argue that the crisis has complicated the country’s political situation, with ethnic groups divided over relations with the EU and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This could have an impact not only in terms of foreign policy, but also on the support for political parties in November.

Over the past two years, well before recent events in Ukraine, the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood had become an increasing concern. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has led to a deteriorated political situation across the region. Ever since the Crimean annexation, Moldova’s future has been analysed with waves of pessimism, however overly simplistic predictions about the country’s future and its geopolitical implications are not useful.

The situation in Moldova has become more complex in the past months, domestically and regionally, and the country, for the foreseeable future, is faced with having to negotiate a position between Russia and the EU. The first impacts of the Ukraine crisis on Moldova are likely to be felt in two key events in the next months, namely the planned signing of an Association Agreement with the EU this month and parliamentary elections in November.

While the political situation in Moldova was already tense before the Ukraine crisis due to the resignation of former Prime Minister Vladimir Filat in 2013 and increased Russian pressure on Chisinau, recent events in Crimea and beyond have further destabilised the 3.5 million-strong country. First, following Russia’s Ukraine intervention, Moldova faces increased domestic instability in several parts of the country. In March, the Parliament of Transnistria, a de-facto state in the east of Moldova, formally asked the Putin government to incorporate it into the Russian Federation. One month earlier, Gagauzia, an autonomous region in the south of the country, held an unconstitutional referendum in which a large majority of the voters expressed their will to join Russia’s Customs Union. Although the specific consequences of these steps for Moldova remain unclear for now, they already underline the increased risk of ethnic or language-based tensions in the country.

Second, rising internal divisions within Moldova are also emphasised by citizens’ polarised opinions on the country’s geopolitical direction. Since the Filat government took office in 2009, public support for the EU has decreased steadily, with 44 per cent of Moldovans preferring EU membership over Customs Union membership in May 2014 compared to much higher numbers in 2010. This declining support for the EU over the past years is also reflected in Moldovans’ opinions on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as shown in Charts 1 and 2 below.

Chart 1: Responses in Moldova by ethnic group to the question: “If there were a referendum on Moldova’s accession to the EU/Eurasian Customs Union next Sunday which would you vote for?” (April 2014)
Note: Created by the authors using polling figures from the Institute for Public Policy (April 2014). Chart does not include refused/don’t know/other responses. Moldovans and Romanians make up the majority of the country’s population (over 70 per cent). As Russians, Ukrainians and other ethnic groups only make up a small percentage of the population the polling figures should be treated with caution for these groups.
Chart 2: Responses in Moldova by ethnic group to the question: “Do you support the annexation of Crimea by Russia?” (April 2014)
Note: Created by the authors using polling figures from the Institute for Public Policy (April 2014). Chart does not include refused/don’t know/other responses. Moldovans and Romanians make up the majority of the country’s population (over 70 per cent). As Russians, Ukrainians and other ethnic groups only make up a small percentage of the population the polling figures should be treated with caution for these groups.

Third, political parties are trying to gain political capital out of these divisions and the Ukraine crisis ahead of Moldova’s Parliamentary elections in November. While the current pro-EU government, consisting of theLiberal Democrats, the Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, aims at signing the Association Agreement later this summer, the Russian-leaning Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin underlines that Moldova “needs to have relationships with its strategic partners [Russia and the FSU countries]”. Nevertheless, as Chart 3 shows, recent polls indicate that the Ukraine crisis has led to decreasing public support for the Communists, who in 2013 benefited significantly from the domestic crisis surrounding former Prime Minister Filat.

Chart 3: Voting intention in Moldova (January 2013 – May 2014)
Note: Created by the authors using figures from Institute for Public Policy and Moldovan Sociological Association opinion polls asking the question: “For which of the following parties would you vote if there were Parliamentary elections next Sunday?”

Within the EU’s plagued Eastern Partnership (EaP), an initiative aiming at political stability and economic strength on the EU’s eastern border, Moldova has been eligible for the greatest source of funding relative to the size of its population and economy. The EU has been explicit that it does not situate itself in “geopolitical competition” with Russia over Moldova, and does not see Moldova’s deepening political and trade relations with the EU as incompatible with Russian-Moldovan relations. However this position is naive because the EU is seeking to match what Russia offers (an alternative supplier of gas and an alternative market for Moldova’s wine). Further, the EU argues its free trade zone does not impede Moldova’s sovereignty, unlike the Eurasian Customs Union which the EU argues, as a “supra-national institution”, would restrict Moldova’s sovereignty over its trade decisions.

Since the crisis in Ukraine began, there has been a clear rhetoric from the EU in showing EaP states an “even stronger, more determined and resolute commitment” to offer them “a different future” to their “rocky past”, and a clear change of pace in the advancement of EaP policies in Moldova and Georgia. Van Rompuy indicated, even in December 2013, that the EU was now willing to “speed up” the signing of Association Agreements with Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.

In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Moldova’s signing of the Association Agreement has already moved ahead from August to June of this year. In April, Moldovans received visa free access to the EU. This was long seen as the “the most crucial issue” for EaP states due to the tangible benefits that this brings everyday Moldovans and the business elite. Yet this overstates the degree to which ordinary Moldovans are travelling to the EU with 83 per cent, according to an IPP poll, not travelling to the EU within the past 5 years. It is hard to tell also how many of those who did travel to the EU did so with Romanian passports, given Romania’s policy of facilitating the (re)acquisition of Romanian citizenship.

While the EU’s association with Moldova has gained pace, crucial issues relating to EU-Moldovan relations remain unresolved. Of particular importance is how Transnistria would fit within Moldova’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU, which is part of the Association Agreement. Transnistria and Moldova will have until 2015 to resolve their relations in respect of the agreement, but all signs have indicated that Transnistria will not agree to Moldova’s position, and instead would lose its privileged trading preferences with the EU.

As Nicu Popescu has argued, Transnistria needs to think about its own interests and avoid “killing what’s left of Tiraspol’s economy because of political slogans” given that 30 per cent of Tiraspol exports are directed to Moldova, while another 40 per cent are directed to EU countries, leaving only a small percentage directed to Russia. Transnistria’s call to Russia for integration, however, demonstrates the increasingly tense political situation between Russia, Transnistria and Moldova, and how Transnistria will situate itself remains unpredictable.

Within the EU, Romania has been one Moldova’s key advocates. Romania too is one of Moldova’s core bilateral partners and has tried to counter-balance Russia’s influence in Moldova, through measures such as the Iasi-Ungheni pipeline which would offer Moldova an alternative first source of gas (of which 25 per cent will be funded by the EU). Yet Romania’s stance toward Moldova often steers too much beyond pragmatic relations toward a sentimental relationship with the country, as a territory that it feels was unfairly annexed by the Soviet Union (key to Romania’s facilitated citizenship policy) and where Romaniaclaims the majority of the population are ethnic Romanians.

During the last Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, which should have been about Moldova’s deepening relations with the EU, the Romanian President, Traian Băsescu, talked of (re)unification with Moldova still being the remaining goal of Romania’s foreign policy (having already achieved NATO and EU accession), much to the EU’s consternation. Romania’s stance toward Moldova is therefore caught between these competing approaches, and can be counter-productive for EU-Moldovan relations.

However, Moldova will be forced to strike a balance between Moldovan-EU and Moldovan-Russian relations because Russia will remain a key partner for Moldova, as the main source of remittances and gas. Russia’s position for Moldova remains complex, not only because of Transnistria’s call which it has so far heeded. But also because of the region of Gagauzia, which is situated in an interesting position of being the only region within Moldova where Russia has lifted its wine ban, following the Gagauzian referendum mentioned above. Russia’s position toward Moldova focuses on the need for its ongoing neutrality. Indeed Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, has said that Transnsitria is not at risk from Russian interference so long as Moldova remains “neutral”.

Yet ideas of what constitutes Moldova’s neutrality have many interpretations. From NATO’s perspective, a Moldovan partnership with NATO “is compatible with neutrality” based on their relations with already neutral states, and is also “compatible with having good relations with Russia”. From the perspective of Russia, however, Dmitri Rogozin has argued that even an “association with the EU means changing Moldova’s neutral status” on the basis that to “join the EU you need to accede to NATO”. This overplays what the EU is offering, given that there has been a careful emphasis on the fact that an Association Agreement does not equate to a promise of future accession.

The prognosis, however, for Moldovan-Russian relations should not be totally pessimistic. Russia has shown itself to be more willing to intervene than predicted, but Russia also has more interests that it can simultaneously instrumentalise. This is evident now in Abkhazia, where Russia is faced with dealing with the president fleeing in a de-facto state they endorse. It is hard to predict therefore how Russian-Moldovan relations will progress because the Ukrainian crisis has caused growing uncertainty across the wider post-Soviet region.

Taken together, the crisis in Ukraine has further complicated the (geo)political situation in neighbouring Moldova from a number of perspectives. It is clear that Moldova will have to continue to negotiate a position between Russia and the EU, but it has decreasing room for manoeuvre in which to do this. As argued previously, EU member states should consider the Russia factor in their affairs with Moldova in more depth and, for example, separate the Europeanisation discourse from a security discourse.

Internally, the EU should ensure a streamlined position especially with regard to Romanian foreign policy. Moldova should also try to strengthen its regional cooperation, especially with Ukraine, because both countries now face similar geopolitical situations between Russia and the EU. For Moldova, the coming months will remain tense not only because of the surrounding geopolitical situation, but also because of upcoming Parliamentary elections that might lead to a domestic political earthquake later in 2014.

This article was originally posted on LSE’s EUROPP blog.

Ukraine’s Place in Russia’s World

This article was originally posted on Banitza.

For Ukraine, its relationship with Russia in recent months has seemed much like a Thomas Hardy novel where, no matter how hard you try, you cannot escape your roots. As Putin said in 2013, before Ukraine decided not to sign the EU Association Agreement, wherever Ukraine goes “we’ll still meet sometime and somewhere” because “we are one people”. Hence, as is argued in one Chatham House report in 2012, Russia wants to maintain influence over Ukraine, not just because it is a ‘foreign policy priority’, but also because it is an ‘existential imperative’.

Certainly, Ukraine has the largest number of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers outside of the Russian Federation, and this makes them vulnerable to Russia’s policy towards this group. However, the issue with Ukraine goes further. Putin claimed at last year’s Valdai conference both a strong cultural and political connection between Russia and Ukraine, professing not just a ‘love’ for the Ukrainian nation but also a strong sense of belonging, that it was part of ‘our greater Russian, or Russian-Ukrainian, world’.

Russia’s origin story is rooted in the idea that its ‘statehood has roots in the Dnieper’, meaning that Russia and Ukraine are inextricably linked, whether Ukraine consents to this connection or not. Medvedev also stressed such a primordial connection between Russia and Ukraine, writing in his 2009 letter to Victor Yushchenko that ‘since the dawn of time’, Russians and Ukrainians ‘have been and remain not only neighbours, but a brotherly people’.

Despite the claims by Putin in 2013 that Ukraine could not escape its connection with Russia, he did not indicate at that time a willingness to undermine Ukrainian statehood. At the Valdai Meeting, Putin repeatedseveral times that Ukraine is “an independent state, and we respect that”. He explained that Ukraine “must and can” be a “bridge between Russia and Europe”. What seems clear now is that Russia sees Ukraine as a bridge between Europe and itself only on its own terms, where Ukraine acts a proxy for Russia’s own interests, and that they respect Ukraine as an independent state only when it is governed by authorities deemed legitimate by Russia.

Ukraine too was the keystone in the Eurasian Union project. Back in 2013 Gleb Pavlovsky, a Russian political technologist, remarked that Russia needs Ukraine to be part of the Eurasian project because without it Putin would lose interest in creating the Union, rendering his project ‘impossible’. Putin needed Ukraine to play along in participating within the Eurasian Union to Europeanise the project. Without Ukraine, Russia’s plan would look much more like an “Asian project”.

Russia under Putin and Medvedev, have therefore shown an uneasiness towards Ukraine leaving the ‘Russian world’ (Russkiy Mir) and has sought to make this as difficult as possible. The pinnacle of this was Putin’s recent claim that Ukraine leaving USSR was “not quite legal”. If further evidence was needed, beyond the annexation of Crimea, that Putin does not respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, then questioning the basis on which that sovereignty was established is a pretty good insight. For Ukraine, who thought they had put these issues to bed back in 1997, Russia has shown Ukraine – try as they might, cannot escape Russia’s grasp.

Attention has now shifted to other parts of Russia’s near abroad where it might try to increase its leverage, in particular in Transnistria. However, Russia’s claim to the very roots of Ukraine, that they are part of the same ‘world’, is unique in the post-Soviet space. Certainly Russia’s actions in Crimea, have created a new precedent which Transnistria is trying to capitalise on. But Russia has made few threats concerning the basis on which Moldova departed from the Soviet Union and few claims that Moldova is, regardless of consent, part of the ‘Russian world’.  Russia might try to increase its leverage in Transnistria but more in a way that would indirectly affect Moldova, rather in terms of direct intervention in Moldova outside of Transnistria.

What is more concerning is how Russia might continue to behave towards Ukraine. In Crimea, Putin argued that Russia’s pre-emptive move allowed them to avoid conflict, but with rising unrest and violence in Donetsk and Kharkiv, there is a big question mark regarding how far Russia is willing to go and, in the meantime, how far Ukraine is able to govern these regions.