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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

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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.

Researching Crimea pre-2014: a bottom-up perspective

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

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

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

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

Research focus in Crimea

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

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

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

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

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

Experiences of fieldwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Crimea post-2014 and post de facto annexation

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

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

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


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

Not all ethnic Russians in Crimea have a political affinity with Moscow

This article was originally posted on EUROPP.
Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Crimea has been described as a region with strong sympathies toward Russia. Based on her own research in the region, Ellie Knott takes issue with the prevailing view that ethnic Russians in Crimea necessarily have a strong Russian identity. She notes that much of the empirical evidence in this area is outdated, given it derives from 2001 census data. Citing interview responses, she argues that while a significant number of ethnic Russians do exhibit a Russian identity, there is evidence that this is not the case for many younger citizens who grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In a comment article last month I resisted labelling Crimea as “the next South Ossetia”, Ukraine’s “Achilles heel” and “Russia’s next target.” In recent weeks, a connection has been drawn between Crimean violence in the 1990s and its call to secession with the idea that it “has a strong Russian identity”. However, the lack of engagement with people on the ground means many observers miss much of what has happened since 1991. Hence, while Russia might see Crimea as their next South Ossetia, acting to protect their citizens and compatriots, the situation in Crimea is very different.

However, as Gwendolyn Sasse and Jim Hughesindicate, the Russian nationalist movements reached a crisis point in 1994 from which they never recovered because of their conflicting aims. They may have been successful in the last week at seizing power, but to have any idea about the depth of this nationalist sentiment it is necessary to talk to those outside of the Russian separatist movements, and in particular with everyday normal people, to see how far this idea resonates.The logic that Crimea is comprised of those with a “strong Russian identity” uses the 2001 census as evidence to suggest that the majority of the Crimean population identifying themselves as ethnically Russian (almost 15 years ago) is an indication of the state in which the majority would like to live. This has further entrenched the notion of Crimea as a peninsula of hotbed Russian nationalism waiting to secede. An article in RFE/RL recently tried to suggest that Russian nationalist separatism was increasing in Crimea based on an interview with a long known, and infamous, Russian nationalist Sergei Shuvainikov.

Interestingly, in around 50 interviews I conducted in Simferopol, the capital of the Autonomous Region of Crimea, in 2012-2013, I discovered that there was a general feeling that the chaos of the Russian nationalist movements had never really subsided. Organisations like Russkaia Obschina Kryma (Russian Community of Crimea) and the Crimean party, Russkoe Edinstvo (Russian Unity), continued to fail as a result of the infighting between their contrasting characters, some wanting to use the movements in support of their personal aims against their rivals, but less against mainstream politics. Local election results support this, with Russkoe Edinstvo consistently winning few seats (and just 4 per cent of the vote in the 2010 Crimean parliamentary elections), placing them far behind the majority Party of Regions, and even the Communist Party.

I also found a plethora of different opinions regarding what it meant to be Russian. Indeed, many young people preferred to identify politically as Ukrainian instead of any ethnic identification. These young individuals described a large shift between themselves and the older generation including their parents, who identified as Russian. In comparison, these young people identified as “more Ukrainian” and “Ukrainian citizens first” because they had been born in Ukraine, so to them Russia was somewhere foreign. They indicated that while at one time those in the peninsula would have identified themselves as being Ukrainian only if they were ethnically Ukrainian, and had probably been born elsewhere in Ukraine; the post-Soviet generation would tend to identify themselves as Ukrainian based on their citizenship and place of birth.

There certainly were a significant number who identified as ethnically Russian, but in my research I split this between two categories: ethnic Russians and discriminated Russians. The discriminated Russianswere a small group, mostly aligned with the Russian nationalist organisations discussed above, who identified themselves not just as Russian, but as anti-Ukrainian and as victims of ‘Ukrainisation’ policies. In contrast, there were a far greater number who identified as ethnically Russian but without any sense of discrimination by Ukraine. These individuals were able to reconcile their ethnicity with residing in Ukraine, feeling that they were part of a normative project in which they wanted to be able to speak Ukrainian, as the state language, more proficiently.

Generally, the overwhelming feeling of those outside the discriminated Russians was that the feeling of discrimination in the peninsula and in Ukraine was unjustified given that Russian could be spoken freely. Moreover, there was the feeling that ethnicity and language were not related to quality of life, because in Crimea and Ukraine “everyone lives badly”. Using the 2001 census is therefore tenuous because of the amount of change in the peninsula, in particular among the post-Soviet generation, and because of the fuzziness of identity which does not pair neatly with the hard and mutually exclusive census categories of ethnically Russian and ethnically Ukrainian.

On the issue of passports, during my first trip to Crimea in 2011, I expected to hear that everyone was acquiring Russian citizenship. However, in my interviews no one indicated that they had acquired Russian citizenship, in part because both Russian legislation and Ukrainian legislation prohibits it and because interviewees had no interest or need for Russian citizenship.

Therefore in 2012, I turned to look at the use of the Russian Compatriot policy, which facilitates migration to Russian regions and offers a few scholarships in Russian universities. The story was largely the same: a lack of interest and knowledge of what Russia was offering, outside of those involved with Russian organisations, and an absence of identification with the discourse of the policy. As two interviewees discussed, they did not identify as “compatriots” of the Russian Federation but rather compatriots of each other because they were from Ukraine.

One reason that Crimea should therefore not be compared to other ‘frozen conflicts’ is that there has not been wholesale passportisation such as in South Ossetia. It has only been since the situation in Crimea intensified that the passport issue has resurfaced and focused mostly on the quick acquisition of Russian citizenship by Berkut (the now disbanded special units of the Ukrainian police) returning home from Kyiv.

There should be caution with regard to how evidence is used about Crimea and what conclusions are drawn from this. I would argue that the biggest issue facing Crimea, and southern and eastern regions of Ukraine more generally, is the vacuum that has been left from the disappearing vertical power of the Party of Regions, which allowed the previously weak Russian separatist movements, with Moscow’s support, to seize power.

A Crimean referendum has been called for 30 March and as Jim Hughes argues, the phrasing of the referendum question will be a crucial factor. However with the current militarisation of the peninsula, it is questionable how far ordinary people will be free and able to voice their opinion. The views of ordinary people may not therefore matter in the short-term, as they are subsumed by a geopolitical struggle and possible armed conflict. However in the medium term, Russia will have difficulty converting the majority in Crimea to their cause.

This text draws on material in a previous article on Vostok Cable (@vostokcable).

Are Crimeans really Russian nationalists and separatists?

With Ukraine’s protests apparently lacking the support of much of the country, attention has again focused on Crimea – an ethnically Russian region described by some as ‘the dog that didn’t bark.’ According to Ellie Knott, who studies the region, concerned journalists are only telling half the story.

The majority of the news pieces written about Crimea follow the same logic. Following the 2008 crisis in Georgia, Crimea was described as “the next South Ossetia”, Ukraine’s “Achilles heal” and “Russia’s next target.” Similarly in recent weeks, there has been a connection drawn between Crimean violence in the 1990s and its call to secession with the idea that it “has a strong Russian identity”. However, the lack of engagement with people on the ground means many observers miss much of what has happened since 1991.

Such a logic uses the 2001 census in support to suggest that the majority of the Crimean populace (almost 15 years ago) identifying as ethnically Russian is an indication of the state in which the majority would like to live. This has further entrenched the notion of Crimea as a peninsula of hotbed Russian nationalism waiting to secede. An article in RFE/RL recently tried to suggest that Russian nationalist separatism was increasing in Crimea based on an interview with a long known, and infamous, Russian nationalist Sergei Shuvainikov.

However, as Gwendolyn Sasse indicates, the Russian nationalist movements reached a crisis point in 1994 from which they never recovered because of their conflicting aims. Therefore to have any idea about the depth of this nationalist sentiment, it is necessary to talk to those outside of the Russian separatist movements, and in particular with everyday normal people, to see how far this idea resonates.

Interestingly, in around 50 interviews I conducted in Simferopol, the capital of the Autonomous Region of Crimea, in 2012-2013, I discovered that there was a general feeling that the chaos of the Russian nationalist movements had never really subsided. Organisations like Russkaia Obschina Kryma (Russian Community of Crimea) and the Crimean party, Russkoe Edinstvo (Russian Unity), continued to fail as a result of the infighting between their contrasting characters, some wanting to use the movements in support of their personal aims against their rivals, but less against mainstream politics. Local election results support this, with Russkoe Edinstvo consistently winning few seats and far behind the majority Party of Regions, and even the Communist Party.

I also found a plethora of different opinions regarding what it meant to be Russian. Indeed, many young people preferred to identify politically as Ukrainian instead of any ethnic identification. These young individuals described a big shift between themselves and the older generation including their parents, who identified as Russian. In comparison these young people identified as “more Ukrainian” and “Ukrainian citizens first” because they had been born in Ukraine, so that to them Russia was somewhere foreign. Yet they described how once in the peninsula you would identify as Ukrainian only if you were ethnically Ukrainian, and probably born elsewhere in Ukraine, whereas for the post-Soviet generation they would identify as Ukrainian based on their citizenship and place of birth.

There certainly was a significant number who identified as ethnically Russian, but in my research I split this between two categories: ethnic Russians and discriminated Russians. The discriminated Russians were a small group, mostly aligned with the Russian nationalist organisations discussed above, who identified not just as Russian but as anti-Ukrainian and as victims of Ukrainisation policies. In contrast, there were a far greater number who identified as ethnically Russian but without any sense of discrimination by Ukraine. These individuals were able to reconcile their ethnicity with residing in Ukraine, feeling that they were part of a normative project in which they wanted to be able to speak Ukrainian, as the state language, more proficiently.

Generally, the overwhelming feeling of those outside the discriminated Russians was that the feeling of discrimination in the peninsula and in Ukraine was unjustified given that Russian could be spoken freely (indeed, in 2012 Russian became a second state language in a parliamentary vote that invigorated Ukrainian nationalist movements in Kyiv and L’viv). Moreover, there was the feeling that ethnicity and language were not related to quality of life, because in Crimea and Ukraine “everyone lives badly”. Using the 2001 census is therefore tenuous because of the amount of change in the peninsular, in particular among the post-Soviet generation, and because of the fuzziness of identity which does not pair neatly with the hard and mutually exclusive census categories of ethnically Russian and ethnically Ukrainian.

On the issue of passports, during my first trip to Crimea in 2011, I expected to hear that everyone was acquiring Russian citizenship. However, in my interviews no one indicated that they had acquired Russian citizenship, in part because both Russian legislation and Ukrainian legislation prohibits it and because interviewees had no interest or need for Russian citizenship. I shifted therefore in 2012 to look at the use of the Russian Compatriot policy, which facilitates migration to Russian regions and offers a few scholarships in Russian universities. The story was largely the same: a lack of interest and knowledge of what Russia was offering, outside of those involved with Russian organisations, and an absence of identification with the discourse of the policy. As two interviewees discussed, they did not identify as “compatriots” of the Russian Federation but rather compatriots of each other because they were from Ukraine.

There should be caution with regards to how evidence is used about Crimea and what conclusions are drawn from this. I would argue that the biggest issue facing Crimea, and southern and eastern regions of Ukraine more generally, is the vacuum that might be left from the disappearing power vertical of the Party of Regions, and not from weak Russian separatist movements.

This article was originally posted on Vostok Cable and cited by The Washington Post.