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”.

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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.

What can Ukraine learn from a post-2009 Moldova? It’s not just institutions that need to change.

After events in Ukraine in 2014, there’s been a lot of reflection on what this means for other post-Soviet states, and in particular Moldova, with its own separatist regions (Transnistria, Gagauzia) and upcoming elections at the end of November. However, Moldova’s recent political experiences also offer a useful point of reflection for key lessons that Ukraine needs to learn going forward. Most importantly, this concerns the way in which Ukraine constructs itself as a post-Euromaidan state, in particular how politicians interact between themselves and whether they act for primarily to serve their own interests, or those of the wider Ukrainian society.

Moldova: the Twitter Revolution and After

In 2009, protestors took to the streets in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, to protest against the victory of the Communist Party, who had been in power since 2009, in April’s parliamentary elections. Elections were then held again in July, unseating the Communists’ overwhelming majority of the Moldovan parliament, and allowing a tripartite coalition, to form the Alliance for European Integration (formed by the Liberal Democrat Party/PLDM, Democratic Party/PDM and Liberal Party/PL). 

This change of power was seen as a turning point in Moldovan politics particularly for the young, who had been the key participants in the April protests, as a turn towards a more democratic and European-style of politics, and away from a Communist/Soviet style of governing. Indeed, many people I met often referred to the coalition as just the “Democrats” as opposed to the “Communists”.

Fast forward to May 2013, the Alliance for European Integration hit rock bottom, having been shocked by a scandal between the key players of the coalition (then Prime Minister Vlad Filat, from Moldova’s Liberal Democrat Party, and Moldova’s richest man and Democrat Party politician, Vladimir Plahotniuc). This served as a focal point for considering all that the Alliance had promised and all they had failed to deliver.

Those in power had changed, but they still used power in much the same way to the Communists: to line their pockets, and those of their friends and family, and gain immunity from investigation. Essentially, being in power had allowed the three parties ownership over different parts of the state (such as ministries and the judiciary) and allowed them to manipulate them, via putting their various allies in positions of power, to their advantage.

In some ways, Moldova’s relationship with the EU has benefited, ironically, significantly from post-Euromaidan Ukraine. It encouraged (perhaps forced) the EU to want to “speed up” its Association Agreements with Moldova and Georgia, at a time of deep turmoil in Moldova, and many unsettled problems. At the same time, the desire to “modernise” Moldova, and Ukraine, has focused just on institutions of power, in the hope that these might change behaviour by promoting, and requiring, greater transparency and accountability, without understanding the basis on which these institutions need to function.

Moldovans know well what needs to change: Cumătrism / Kumovstvo / Кумовство

кумовство́ (kumovstvón

1. relationship of godparents

2. nepotism, cronyism

Alena Ledeneva‘s research, though focused on Russia and not Ukraine and Moldova, has many salient points when it comes to understanding the barriers to modernisation in post-Soviet states. Her thesis centres on importance of informal governance, phenomena such as “telephone law” and blat“, an economy of favours, which prevent institutions from changing much because they are bound by sistema“, the informal networks that govern power and politics.

In Moldova, there’s a local consensus, I’d argue, that when it comes to changing how the state is governed, and trying to weed out corruption, the main problem cumătrism (or Nănașii). Cumătrism is the system of godparents that couples appoint when they get married and is the key binding tool between friends and families. An infamous problem, and a banal phenomenon, cumătrism is the way that power and informal networks function, both within and outside politics. Ledeneva mentions briefly a similar phenomenon of kumovstvo in Russia, of godparent networks.

But, cumătrism (in Moldova) is beyond our gaze. Academically, you’ll find no mention of it in Google Scholar or Web of Science, no reference in Google Books. It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. So to most outside Moldova it slips out of sight. Yet it’s the focal point, from a local perspective, as to why institutions stumble and why the system is so hard to change, both from the outside and from within. Essentially, political parties and institutions feed off these networks and demonstrate the extent to which, particularly in a small society like Moldova, it’s hard to weed out those who have embedded themselves and their close friend-family networks into the system, because they’ve also manufactured a network of protection by the system.

Lessons to be learnt: Institutions vs. Nepotism

family yanukovych

I’m not suggesting that cumătrism necessarily exists in Ukraine exactly as it does in Moldova, but the importance of informal networks in Ukraine is fundamental to the system of power, privilege and wealth. We know that Yanukovych operated via through “Family Yanukovych” and through a system of oligarchs originating out of his home region, and while power has obviously shifted to a new group of politicians, led by Poroshenko, it’s not clear that he is willing to run a Ukraine that is drastically different in the way it gives positions of power, and contracts, than the previous administration. Victoria Nuland, US Deputy Secretary of State, in a recent address to Shevchenko University in Kyiv, argued that Ukrainians had to continue to fight and demand that institutions function differently, that a free media be created.

But this is only the start. As Moldova showed after 2009, there was a lot of hope and since there has been a lot of disappointment. The Ukrainian political class needs to show not just that it’s willing to bring in new laws, but that it’s willing to be accountable to them, and that it’s willing not just to penalise its enemies, but also hold its allies to account, where necessary, rather than offer them protection from the system. When you have the Ukrainian president owning one of Ukraine’s main media channels, Channel 5, this is not a great start.

My point is, as academics, policy-makers and journalists, we need to focus not just on the institutions through which states are governed, but look at how they’re actually governed, via informal networks that are the key building blocks of the political and business class (and to a great extent link these classes together). We need to investigate cumătrism and kumovstvo in Ukraine, Moldova and Russia further.


UPDATES:


For more on the importance of informal networks in post-Soviet states:

  • Interview: How Russia’s ‘Sistema’ Leads To The ‘Modernization Trap’ on RFERL
  • Alexander Tymczuk “Public Duties and Private Obligations: Networking and Personalisation of Relations in Ukraine” in Anthropology of East Europe Review 24.2 (2006): 62-70.
  • How to get rid of post-Sovietness by Viitorul (2012)

See also: Ukraine’s Ensconced Corruption by Devin Ackles