In Crimea, Time for Pressure, not Acceptance: Why we cannot lose sight of the Crimean Tatars

Liana Fix and I just wrote a piece for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP/Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.) analysing the historical and contemporary issues facing Crimean Tatars in the Crimea peninsula. We argue that the West should firstly continue to put pressure on Russia for it’s actions in annexing Crimea. Secondly, we argue that Crimean Tatars are once again a vulnerable minority. Even if the Russian Federation has made promises to the Crimean Tatar community, the actions of Russia and local Crimean authorities show a worrying trend towards persecuting Crimean Tatars under the pretext of fighting “political extremism”.

fix_knott_crimea_cover_eYou can read the full article: In Crimea, Time for Pressure, not Acceptance

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The Moldovan Elections of 2014 are more than about Putin or the EU: Corruption, Poverty and Parties

The most shocking result of the Moldovan elections has been the rise of the Socialist Party, closely associated with Russia. “It would be incorrect to see them as Russian stooges, opportunists, or as old faces under a new banner. Instead, their support has come from those concerned about corruption, poverty, Europeanisation and a growing dissatisfaction with Moldova’s Communist Party’s leadership”, argue Daniel Brett and Eleanor Knott.

Pure democracy is three wolves and two sheep voting on what to eat for dinner. Benjamin Franklin

“Towards Europe, towards a decent future”

With Moldovan society split in half, as opinion polls show (Chart 1), it is no surprise that Moldova’s parliamentary elections, held on 30 November 2014, failed to produce a decisive mandate for Moldova’s seemingly zero-sum geopolitical direction. PSRM went from zero seats in the previous parliamentary elections, in 2010, to win the largest number of votes and seats in 2014. For the established parties this defeat came as a shock. The tripartite pro-European alliance, consisting of the Democrat Party (PDM), Liberal Democrat Party (PLMD) and Liberal Party (PL), still managed to gain sufficient seats to form a parliamentary majority, despite losing 9 seats since 2010. Secondly, Moldova’s Communist Party (PCRM) who have been the biggest party since 2001, lost 50% of their seats (from 42 to 21 seats) and about 400,000 voters since 2010.

Chart 1: Support for EU in Moldova over time (source: IPP)
Chart 2: Election results for parliamentary elections (2009-2014)

The two real losers of Moldova’s elections are the most established and supported parties. Pro-European forces failed to win the hearts and minds of the electorate and to convince them of their progress, even in the shadow of some achievements, such as EU visa liberalisation (April 2014) and signing of the EU Association Agreement (June 2014). However PLDM, the biggest and most moderate party of the pro-European alliance, did far worse than other parties in the alliance (losing 9 seats, while PDM gained 4 while PL gained 1 seat). Secondly, PCRM saw their support cut in half, with defections both of voters, national and local level politicians to PSRM. PCRM has been plagued by the persistence of Voronin as leader and a lack of new blood rising up the ranks. PCRM may then not recover from this blow, with PSRM continuing to gain from those apathetic or antagonistic towards the pro-European parties.

Who are the Socialists (PSRM)?

‘Together with Russia’, PSRM electoral posters featuring Vladimir Putin, Zinaida Greceanîi and Igor Dodon. Photo: Amy Samuelson 

The biggest shock of the election was the success of the PSRM. Despite polling in single digits prior to the election, they became the single largest party. Although the party formed in 1997, PSRM had not stood in elections since 2005. In 2011, a number of disaffected but prominent PCRM politicians joined the party including former Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanîi, and former Finance Minister Igor Dodon. Politically, Greceanîi can best be described as neo-Soviet. Shortly before leaving PCRM, Dodon proposed reforms for the party, warning that without modernisation it would die electorally. It would be incorrect to see them as Russian stooges, opportunists, or as old faces under a new banner. Instead their support has come from those concerned about corruption, poverty and Europeanisation, but also those who are dissatisfied with the direction and stagnation of PCRM (and Moldova) under Voronin.

The poster reads: “Only PCRM! Only Voronin!” – perhaps part of the problem for the PCRM and the reason for the success of the PSRM. Photo: Amy Samuelson

In the three elections since the 2009 “Twitter Revolution”, which ousted the PCRM government (2001-2009), there has not been a consolidation of the party system towards fewer parties. The number of parties contesting elections actually increased from 8 in July 2009, to 20 parties in 2010 and 19 independent candidates (despite mergers of parties with PLDM and PL). By 2014, 20 parties stood for election as well as 4 independent candidates and 1 electoral bloc. More interesting is that only 6 parties have stood in all elections since 2009, while of the 12 new parties in 2010, only 3 re-appeared in 2014. Meanwhile activists, such as Oleg Brega, though unable to garner enough support for the 2% threshold, were still able to attract significant support (14,085 votes, 0.9%).

However barriers to entry, from being on the ballot to being in parliament, remain high. Electoral thresholds which were lowered after 2009 (from 6% to 4%) have, since 2013, been raised back to 6%, just as they were during Voronin/PCRM’s term. Whether to curb, ahead of time, the potential threat posed by PSRM, it had the effect of preventing the Communist Reform Party (PCR) from entering parliament. An alternative interpretation, suggested by Dorin Chirtoaca, the mayor of Chisinau and senior PL figure, is that PCR was set up deliberately to confuse voters and, hence, reduce the vote of PCRM.

Both of these possibilities demonstrate a desire for pro-European parties to play, legally, with the limits of what is fair, to secure the best outcome for themselves at the expense of a clean election. Moreover they show a resistance to make Moldova’s political system more competitive, with Moldova having one of the higher PR thresholds (lower only than Iran, Turkey and Russia) and lowest conversion rates between votes won and seats allocated (according to Council of Europe recommendations). Since 2009, Moldova’s legislature has also changed the way votes to seats have been allocated: from theD’Hondt system (the most commonly used system in PR), which was seen to favour larger parties like PCRM, to the ‘equality system’ (or Robin Hood system) which favours seat allocation to smaller parties.

More than between Europe and Russia?

Analyses of Moldovan elections need therefore to go beyond the simple narrative of western mediawhere elections are conceived as a referendum between Russia and Europe, and Moldova constructed as Ukraine in waiting. Nor should ethnic cleavages be framed as reinforcing this geopolitical binary because not everyone voting for PSRM is an elderly Russian peasant fearful of the decadent European Union. Indeed the new batch of PSRM deputies show the widest spread of ages: from those born in the 1930s to those in the 1990s.

Moreover the dichotomy between ‘left’ parties in Moldova as Pro-Russia and ‘right’ parties as pro-Europe does not fit reality. Instead, geopolitical orientation is just one axis upon which parties pivot, the second is social values, and the third is economic orientation. Parties tend to be dominated by charismatic and powerful leaders with strong local power bases and networks (e.g. parties do well in the home-towns of senior party figures). Policy, especially geopolitical and economic, tends to be defined by the leadership’s material interests and their networks. Discourse tends to shift in search of an electorate to enable the party to gain votes in order to achieve those aims, thus parties such as the PCRM have shifted from Pro-Russian, to Pro-European attitudes and back again with the interests of the elite rather than the voters.

Europeanisation is therefore not just a geopolitical issue, but also a cultural and economic issue. Thus, those who vote for parties that advocate closer ties with Russia are mobilised around a variety of discourses – the threat of war and instability, the perception of Western culture as decadent and degenerate, as well as the fear that EU membership will not improve their economic lives but make them worse.

Moldovan society is also divided by far more than ethnicity and geopolitics, with stark differences between the rich and everyone else, between generations, and between rural and urban. It is these socioeconomic questions and divisions, as well as low and declining trust in political institutions (Chart 3) and high perceptions of corruption, in particular in political institutions, which remain key problems. While the electorate continue to perceive that deep socioeconomic inequalities remain (Chart 4), the political elite appears disinterested to work on improving the welfare of ordinary Moldovans. And this is perhaps where Moldova is most divided, between the political class and electorate, in particular between a pro-European political class who see Europeanisation as a panacea for Moldova – if Moldova could only get on a European track, then all other problems will be fixed – and an electorate who remain unconvinced both by this track and by its salvationist potential.

Corruption not Europeanisation

What is most concerning about the 2014 Moldovan elections is the extent to which the pro-European parties are unwilling to play a clean race, such as modifying electoral thresholds to restrain who can enter parliament. Secondly, is the lack of transparency in politics, for example in determining how many polling stations are opened abroad, allowing Moldovan authorities to increase the number of polling stations in the EU while contributing to ‘public perceptions that the government sought to discourage voting in the Russian Federation’ according to the OSCE, for the high number of Moldovan diaspora residing there. This will continue to be a hard fought battle in the next parliamentary term between the pro-European parties and PSRM, who are now appealing for a recount of diaspora votes.

The Moldovan political system continues to be plagued by over-partisan politics and institutional overreach. Moldova’s constitutional court is pro-European both as a highly partisan and highly politicised institution, ruling in October that only a pro-European path for Moldova would be legal. The constitutional court then ruled, days before the elections, to suspend the right of Patria (Homeland), from running in the elections, because they had received evidence of foreign funding. Patria, and its frontman Renato Usatîi, made headlines as a recent wealthy returnee from Moscow, alleging close ties to Russia.

As much as the allegation of funding may be true, as may be Patria’s ties to criminal military gangs, the issue remains that pro-European elite are willing to use asymmetrical justice to punish opponents and constrain electoral outcomes. Campaign financing is certainly an issue in Moldovan elections, but as theCouncil of Europe have argued, the Moldovan authorities are far from having a transparent and accountable handling of these wider issues. The Moldovan judicial and electoral commission need to do far more than selective partisan enforcement of the electoral code. These duplicitous tactics are also paradoxical. Firstly, they likely cemented PSRM’s vote by picking up those disaffected by this ruling, rather than scaring pro-Europeans into mobilising to oppose the pro-Russian parties. Secondly, they supply Russia with more material to discredit Moldova’s elections and the desire for pro-European parties to steer Moldova towards the EU (and away from Russia).

Chart 3: “How far do you trust …” (source: IPP)
Chart 4: What are the main problems in Moldova? (source: IPP)

The Moldovan electorate are likely less concerned with the running of the electoral system than they are with important socio-economic issues and corruption. However, the willingness of the pro-European parties to play a dirty game, presents a bigger problem. It demonstrates that the Moldovan political class are no nearer to reforming themselves, away from “hungry wolves” seeking to use power and privilege for immunity, towards greater transparency and accountability. This remains at the heart of debates concerning the unmet promises of the pro-European alliance, since they took office in 2009 in what was seen as a critical juncture, not just for Moldova’s geopolitical orientation, but also in terms of politics and socioeconomic questions.

We therefore need to go deeper than viewing Moldovan politics and these elections as a simple zero-sum ethnic or geopolitical cleavage between Russia and Europe. If democracy is to become consolidated in Moldova, then the political elite must confront the problems of inequality, corruption, and the absence of agency and trust, and move beyond their fixations with the “civilizational choices” (as Iurie Lenca, current Moldovan Prime Minister described) that Moldova faces.

Instead, the pro-European parties have to deal with domestic political problems of corruption, transparency and trust if they want to hold onto power. The EU can sign as many agreements with the Moldovan political elite as they like, but as long as the Moldovan political elite remains corrupt, self-interested and remote in the eyes of the population, and europeanisation continues to be something that will result in economic and social trauma for them, then those who offer a populist alternative will continue to flourish. While Moldovan politicians are starting to recognise this, it still requires a strong commitment to shift attitudes to power and politics away from a culture of immunity-seeking behaviour.

Table: 2014 Parliamentary Results
2010 2014
Party Votes Seats Votes Seats
Communist Party of Moldova (PCRM) 677,069 (39%) 42 279,372 (17%) 21
Liberal- Democratic Party (PLDM) 506,253 (29%) 32 322,188 (20%) 23
Liberal Party (PL) 171,336 (10%) 12 154,507 (10%) 13
Democratic Party (PD) 218,620 (13%) 15 252,489 (16%) 19
Alliance ‘Our Moldova’(AMN) 35,289 (2%) 0 n/a 0
Movement for European Action (MAE) 21,049 (1%) 0 n/a 0
Socialist Party of Moldova(PSRM) n/a 0 327,910 (21%) 25
Reformed Communist Party(PCR) n/a 0 78,719 (5%) 0
Others 91,452 (5%) 0 183,357 (11%) 0
Invalid 11,907 (0.6%) 50,948 (3%)
Total(Turnout) 1,720,993(65%) 101 1,649,508(56%) 101

This post was originally posted on South East Europe at LSE the blog of LSEE Research on SEE, the Research Unit on South Eastern Europe of the London School of Economics: The Moldovan Elections of 2014 are more than about Putin or the EU: Corruption, Poverty and Parties

A comments policy

In the last few days, I’ve received several comments that question deep underlying assumptions about

  1. how I conceive of Crimea before and after 2014
  2. how I conceive of Russia’s role in the 2014 Ukrainian crisis and the roots of this crisis

My policy has been to allow these comments through the moderation process, to uphold freedom of speech. My policy is also to rebuff these comments to further prove my point. So, no matter what comment is posted (within abusive reason) I’m not going to moderate it out, but I will argue my point.

And in response to the idea that Crimea’s annexation and the Donbas conflict, as this is about “a centuries-long cultural problem between Great Russia […] and Little Russia, Ukraine, the borderland countryside” you just have to look at Putin’s state of the nation speech from 4 December 2014.

Here Putin outlined perfectly the double-speak of the Kremlin: that Russia respects Ukraine’s sovereignty now just as much as ever and yet, just as it does all the “other brotherly republics of the former Soviet Union”. And yet, Russia’s incursion in Crimea and the Donbas proves exactly the opposite. Russia wants a Ukraine that goes its way, redolent of Brezhnev’s doctrine of 1968 justifying intervention in Prague to save the Soviet Union’s Communist brother from itself.

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.

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”

Who has seized power in Crimea?

This article was originally posted on Vostok Cable.
According to recent statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergei LavrovRussia has claimed to be acting to protect the rights not just of citizens and military personnel, but also compatriots and Russian speakers in Crimea. But how far do Crimeans feel discriminated? Ellie Knott, a PhD student at the London School of Economics, draws on her research to answer this question.

In a previous article for Vostok Cable, I argued that there needed to be a more nuanced understanding of Russian identity in Crimea. Hence I differentiated between ethnic Russians who accept or enjoy living in a Ukrainian state, and Discriminated Russians, who identify not just as ethnically Russian but also as the victims of Ukrainisation.

It is the latter who have been heavily involved with pro-Russia movements, such as Russkaia Obschina Kryma (Russian Community of Crimea), and the pro-Russia minority party, Russkoe Edinstvo (Russian Unity). There has been a long-standing cynical attitude to these organisation in Crimea: that they are professional Russians. As one respondent described these individuals want “to get money from this” by using their Russian identification as an occupation to profit from the funding for these organisations which comes from Russia.

It is these same Russian cultural and political organisations who have led the renewed separatist movement in Crimea. As soon as Sergei Aksenov, the leader of Russkoe Edinstvo, seized power, he claimed to be representing the interests of all Crimeans. However Russkoe Edinstvo were elected by just 4% of the electorate in the 2010 Crimean parliamentary elections.

*

Aksenov was able to seize power as the Prime Minister of Crimea after a forced vote in the Crimean parliament. The identity and origin of the armed group who stormed the Crimean parliament on 27 February, forcing the voter later in the day, remain unknown. However the links between Russkoe Edinstvo and the Russian administration run deep, both at the local level with personal links to the Russian consulate in the peninsula, through the organizational structure of the Compatriot policy, and several individuals from these groups have been awarded cultural and social medals by the Russian Federation for their work.

In the election materials of Russkoe Edinstvo, the idea of discrimination against Russians in Crimea is a major motivation. Hence their electoral platform in 2010 focused primarily on protecting the “humanitarian rights of Russians and Russian-cultural Crimeans”. In the leaflets of Molodie, the youth wing of Russkoe Edinstvo, they claimed also that they needed to defend themselves against “enemies of the Russian world” who were trying to “oppress and kill Russian language and culture”. This discourse of discrimination, and its link to the minority Russian separatists, existed in Crimea well before the world’s attention shifted there. The difference now is that the pro-Russian authorities, with the help of the Russian government, and likely the military, have made this discourse go viral, with Russia mirroring the mantra of Russkoe Edinstvo by claiming that it is legitimate to act to protect the “humanitarian rights” of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Crimea.

Perceptions of discrimination were common among just a minority of ethnic Russians that I interviewed in Crimea in 2012-2013. They were angered by what they saw as Ukraine’s “forced” Ukrainisation policies which had infringed on the “rights of Russians” because “priority” was now given to Ukrainian language in society and education. They were angered because of the decline of Russian language in schools. But also because even in Russian language schools, they were required to teach what they perceived to be a “totally Ukrainian” version of history which required them to teach the “history of collaborators” in the second world war, such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych.

While Stepan Bandera is lauded as a Ukrainian national hero in western Ukraine, in the east and south, and in Crimea, he is depicted as a fascist collaborator, working against the Soviet Union. This idea of Ukrainian nationalism and nationalisation of the state is depicted as analogous to fascism, by this very small pro-Russian group who in the first few days of protests in Crimea mobilised under the slogan of “down with fascism”. In recent days, posters have also appeared in Sevastopol indicating that the referendum is a choice between Russia and fascism.

It is easy to dismiss claims of discrimination as ridiculous given the advantages currently enjoyed by those with a pro-Russian stance, but it is interesting also to reflect on how far feelings of discrimination resonate more broadly in Crimean society. Few I interviewed, outside of those who were pro-Russiadescribed feeling discriminated in terms of Russian language and culture in peninsula. In large part because they felt Russian was majority culture and language in the peninsula and protected by the local government. Russian culture and language were not perceived as under threat because the Russian “question” was rarely seen as an “acute issue”.

The only example that was often cited by respondents was their dissatisfaction with an all-Ukrainian law that required foreign films in cinemas to be dubbed in Ukrainian, rather than Russian. But as one respondent described it, this was not a “strangulation of Russian culture” but “just a bad law”. In all other aspects of life, respondents felt comfortable in the ability to perform their daily functions in Russian language.

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The pro-Russia organisations involved in the seizure of power in Crimea are acting again as “professional Russians”. Discrimination was a convenient rhetoric for these professionals because these feelings already resonated with a minority of the population, embedded by economic peripheralisation in post-Soviet Crimea. This discrimination discourse was convenient to legitimise their newly seized authority and disguise the other motivations behind the power grab, such as protecting Russia’s military assets in the peninsula.

It is unclear what Professional Russians would gain from being part of the Russian Federation or a frozen conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But at least in the short term they are able to service their own economic and political interests, while indicating that troops, who remain unmarked but are likely Russian, were needed for the referendum to act as a “stabilising” influence to ensure “public order”. Reprisals against those investigating and questioning the newly empowered pro-Russian separatists are already on the rise, suggesting that Crimea’s future is not only uncertain but daunting, having empowered militarised elements, such as Cossack groups, to act violently without repercussions towards dissenters, and in particular towards Crimean Tatars and journalists.