Late last year, at an event organised by LSE’s Grimshaw International Relations Club, I shared my experiences of trolling as evidence of the implication of academics in an form of hybrid war and campaign of discreditation.
The name of the program is perhaps most revealing: “Information War against the people of Crimea” (Информационная война против народов Крыма). It’s like an Orwellian double-speak; implicating me as a weapon of an information war, when the program’s objective is precisely that: to discredit the argument I put forward in my research.
I’m still mystified what is so controversial about my argument, that identity was complex and that, among those I interviewed, across the identity spectrum, none imagined or supported separatism or unification, imagining it only as akin to violence. But, in particular, the speakers on the show seek to superficially discredit both the methodology of the research, that it’s unrepresentative, and the approach, that I ethnicise Russian identity in Russia, where Russia is multi-ethnic federation of Russian citizens. Of course, I don’t claim representativeness, I’m more interested in the meaning of being Russian for those I interviewed, and, of course, those I interviewed were not Russian citizens in 2012-13.
I’m not trying to respond to a superficial critique that is based around a politicised distaste for a counter-argument about how the current Russian regime imagine Crimea, but rather to consider the attention paid by the Russian state, and their instruments of propaganda, to my research. They seek to discredit not just my interpretation, but also the methodology of my research and the rationale. As Zvezda presenter, why would I want to conduct this research and why do I think I have the right to make these kinds of conclusions? (that run counter to how a) the Russian state understands Crimea b) how the west is supposed to understand Crimea as a homogeneously Russian and pro-Russian region)
We can all become weapons in this information war whether we consent to or not, unaware of how far research can permeate. On the one hand, this is the impact we (are incentivised to) seek; on the other, it’s a nervous position for our arguments to be so visible and, as researchers, so powerless to control this visibility.
This article investigates what kin identification means from a bottom-up perspective in two kin majority cases: Moldova and Crimea. The article is based on ∼50 fieldwork interviews conducted in both Moldova and Crimea with everyday social actors (2012–2013). Ethnic homogeneity for kin majorities is more fractured than previously considered. Respondents identified more in terms of assemblages of ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic, and territorial identities than in mutually exclusive census categories. To understand fully the relations between kin majorities, their kin-state and home-state and the impact of growing kin engagement policies, like dual citizenship, it is necessary to analyze the complexities of the lived experience of kin identification for members of kin majorities and how this relates to kin-state identification and affiliation. Understanding these complexities helps to have a more nuanced understanding of the role of ethnicity in post-Communist societies, in terms of kin-state and intrastate relations.
There’s a strange feeling that comes with finishing something that has been a bit painful. Writing a thesis is supposed to be hard, but working with data that I gathered in Crimea in 2012 and 2013—when the idea of secession, annexation or even the end of the Yanukovych/Party of Regions regime seemed farcical—has felt particularly acerbic.
This pales in comparison to the suffering of those I know in Crimea, whose peninsula was “stolen” by Russia. This isn’t the typical story you see about Crimea where media reports generally repeat an argument that secession was a historical inevitability that never happened and/or would be the same result even if a free and fair referendum had taken place. This is something I refute, and continue to refute not least because of the people I know there that don’t fit into our neat boxes of ethnic Russian or ethnic Ukrainian. Before 2014, they were just Ukrainian. And while I acknowledge that ethnic minorities, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian speakers, have faced increased, and horrendous, discrimination since annexation, the story of the majority is rarely discussed: everyday disasters of banking, property rights, passports, Russia’s ban of methadone for (former) heroin users, human rights, democracy, and more existential disasters, of belonging and identity.
But the discomfort of working on Crimea is something I’ve had to fight since February 2014. At first I panicked: how could I write about something that had changed so quickly? My thesis was based on territorial stability. I had assumed, presumed, that 23 years of stability vis-a-vis Russia and Ukraine, and Russia more generally vis-a-vis ethnic Russians, was a reasonable lesson for the future. Most post-Soviet scholars had predicted the same: Russia was faced with a commitment problem that it was unwilling to overcome. As masked men emerged in Simferopol, storming Crimea’s parliament, removing the Ukrainian flag from the Council of Minister’s building, replacing it with a Russia flag, and patrolled with automatic weaponry the same streets in Simferopol that I’d walked 8 months previously, my faith dissipated.
After this I thought I was going a bit mad: my argument was that identity in Crimea was much more complex than mutually exclusive census categories of “ethnic Russian” and “ethnic Ukrainian”, and where being “ethnically Russian” did not determine support of Russia, let alone support for Putin. I felt like I had collected data, and was making arguments based on my analysis of this data, that completely contravened how others approached the peninsula, as if of course the Russian majority favoured Russia, and separatism, rather than Ukraine. Including the minority of respondents who identified with Russia, and felt discriminated by Ukraine, none of my respondents supported secession from Ukraine: it just seemed unthinkable, if not farcical. Their gripe, regardless of identity, was with how Crimea was governed by Kyiv, and the Party of Regions, not with supporting secession.
I then read an article by Julia Ioffe, covering post-Soviet identity debates in Donetsk, a region that would quickly spiral much more out of control than Crimea, and it resonated distinctly with identity debates present in Crimea:
“The younger a citizen of Donetsk, the more likely she is to view herself as Ukrainian. The older she is, the more likely she is to identify as Russian. And this is the crux of it all: What we are seeing today is the reverberation of what happened more than 20 years ago. This is still the long post-Soviet transition. And this is what it’s like to wander in the desert, waiting for the old generation to die off.”
So now I just tell the story that I believe the data I collected speaks to: highly complex and fractured notions of identity in Crimea, that problematise the supposed cohesive idea of an ethnic Russian majority and the idea that identifying as Russian is analogous to identifying with Russia, as a society, state and, much less, regime. Similarly, I argue Crimea was not a region of Russian passportization: everyone I interviewed found Russian citizenship inaccessible and most found it undesirable. The small majority who wanted Russian citizenship/passports but couldn’t access them were the discriminated minority, who thought Russian citizenship would increase their leverage against Ukraine; but most I spoke to did not feel discriminated within Crimea by Ukraine. Nor was Crimea a region populated by those endorsing separatism, at least among those I met, because individuals supported Ukraine and/or supported peace. Neither they, nor I, thought Russia wanted Crimea or conflict.
Now I tell a ‘history of the past’ because for those I interviewed, many of whom fall into the chasm of the Russian ‘majority’ that are presumed as endorsing annexation, it’s the least and most I can do.
In the article, I analyse the phenomenon of kin majorities, which I define as kin communities that comprise a local majority in the state or sub-state in which they reside and are claimed by an external state. I argue these kin majorities to be more fractured than expected, where respondents do not identify with neat mutually exclusive census categories, but instead in terms of ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic, and territorial forms of identification. For example in the Moldovan case, I find multiple ways of combining being Moldovan and/or Romanian, while in Crimea, I find multiple ways of being Ukraine, Russian and/or Crimean.
Overall, I argue both for a bottom-up approach to analyse kin-state relations where it is necessary to unpack how individuals identify with their home-state and kin-state, and how these identifications can be reinforcing or in competition. Moreover, understanding these complexities helps to have a more nuanced understanding of the role of ethnicity in post-Communist societies, in terms of kin-state and intrastate relations.
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 Knottwrites 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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”.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Research focus in Crimea
Experiences of fieldwork
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:
Meanings: What does it mean to be Russian in Crimea?
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.