Sergey Markedonov
One thing has become clear: the ‘Crimean question’ has at least two dimensions – the international and the internal. The ‘return to its home haven’ has not solved any of Crimea’s many problems; on the contrary, Russia’s leadership now faces an urgent need to find an adequate solution to them.
16 january 2015 | 22:00

The Crimean ‘question’

The text was originally published in Russian at

After more than two decades belonging to an independent Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula has become part of Russia, which has thereby gained an extra 27,000 km2 of territory and over two million new citizens. Ukraine and the West see this unprecedented event as annexation and a sign of the Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions. To countries not directly involved in the Ukrainian crisis, it is a dangerous violation of the Eurasian status quo that could cause widespread destabilisation in the area, while in Moscow’s eyes it is ‘the return of Crimea and Sevastopol to their homeland’, the reunification of the peninsula with Russia, and re-establishment of disrupted historical justice.

The change in Crimea’s status has triggered the most serious stand-off between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War, at a point when all post-Soviet Russia’s efforts to integrate with the West while preserving its ‘special position’ on security and other issues have collapsed, and American and European governments and commentators are united in accusing Moscow of flouting international law and the global order. Russia meanwhile counters with reminders of Western intervention in former Yugoslavia and the Middle East, and points to the results of the referendum in the peninsula as proof of the ‘legitimacy’ of its actions.

One thing has, however, become clear: the ‘Crimean question’ has at least two dimensions – the international and the internal. The ‘return to its home haven’ has not solved any of Crimea’s many problems; on the contrary, Russia’s leadership now faces an urgent need to find an adequate solution to them.

Politics as fudge

Until 2014, Crimea was nowhere near the top of the list of geopolitical problems in the post-Soviet space. The peninsula, unlike the Caucasus, was free from armed conflict involving refugees and displaced persons, not to mention dead bodies. Its status as an autonomous republic within Ukraine was also respected. Occasionally, voices could be heard in Kyiv calling for an end to Crimean autonomy, but such bizarre ideas never got very far. Ukraine’s territorial integrity (with Crimea included) was recognised by a bilateral treaty signed by Moscow and Kyiv in 1997 and ratified by Russian Federal law in 1999. It was even renewed for 10 years in 2008, despite Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s support for his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili in the Five Day War in the Caucasus.

Before 2014, there was also no question of a de facto state with a separate, non-Ukrainian infrastructure. It was a mere five days before the 16 March referendum on the peninsula’s status that the Supreme Council and Sevastopol City Council together passed a Declaration of Independence. This independence was however extremely short-lived: the process of absorbing Crimea into the Russian Federation effectively began on 18 March.

This is not to say that in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea was always a ‘quiet haven’. In January 1994, Yuri Meshkov, a member of the political bloc bearing the unambiguous name of ‘Russia’ was elected president of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in a run-off, with 80% of the vote. He called for a return of Crimea to the rouble zone, a military-political alliance with Russia and the adoption of Moscow time in the peninsula. All these changes were widely discussed at the time; and conflict between Kyiv and Simferopol (the capital of Crimea) was seen by many, then, as unavoidable.

The central Ukrainian government, however, had no desire for direct confrontation with pro-Russia elements in Crimea or with Moscow. President Leonid Kuchma, a master of political intrigue (and one of the central figures in the talks to end the present Donbas conflict), managed to sow discord in the ‘Russia’ bloc and co-opt many of its members as, if not allies, then fellow-travellers or at least nominally loyal people. And unlike Tbilisi and Baku in their time, Kyiv put its money on talks and backdoor deals, a policy pursued further by Viktor Yanukovich (2010-2014); and even his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010), despite the latter’s attachment to pro-Western politics and forced ‘Ukrainisation.’ In August 2008, during the Five Day War, when the Ukrainian government faced the dilemma of having to choose between its support for Mikhail Saakashvili and the solidarity of the people of Sevastopol, with the seamen of the Black Sea Fleet taking part in the operation ‘to force peace on Georgia’, it decided not to force the issue; and recent events are to some extent the result of this fudge. 

Crimea and Kyiv

Crimea was of course an exceptional region within Ukraine, with even less engagement with the general social, political, and cultural life of the country than the Donbas, let alone other parts of the country. The national government in Kyiv saw the Mejlis (the main representative body of the Crimea’s Tatar minority) as its natural ally against the ‘Russian Party’, although, at the same time, it was wary of the Tatar activists’ ethnocratic aspirations and ambitions to turn the peninsula into an area where Ukrainian law would not be too closely observed. Hence the desire to maintain a certain level of tension between Crimea’s Russian and Tatar communities that lay behind much of Kyiv’s official policy. But so long as Ukraine’s foreign policy centred on keeping a balance between Russia and the West, and its nationalism-building tendencies coexisted with a cautious attitude to elements of its Soviet and Imperial legacy, Crimea was not a big issue.

Today, most analysts in Europe and the USA focus on Russia’s intervention in last winter’s Crimean crisis – something that no one bothers to deny any more. Even President Putin has publicly admitted the presence of the ‘little green men’, with their special mission in what was still Ukrainian territory.

But while this focus is perfectly correct, it is clear that the crisis in the peninsula that led to its change of status cannot be explained away alone by the ‘green men’.

To see this, one has only to analyse the political assessments and pronouncements made by the Crimean regional government (i.e. members of the Ukrainian political elite) between November 2013 and February 2014. Many of these (the most obvious example being Vladimir Konstantinov, Speaker of the peninsula’s Supreme Council) were later to support the return of Crimea to its ‘Russian haven’, but this U-turn didn’t happen overnight. At the beginning of the Kyiv Euromaidan movement, Crimea’s leaders were firmly behind Viktor Yanukovych and his government.

In December 2013, for example, the Presidium of Crimea’s Supreme Council stated that ‘the present opposition forces’ activities in Kyiv are endangering Ukraine’s political and economic stability’. And in January 2014, members of the Crimean parliament warned of a threat to the peninsula’s autonomous status. One notes that no one was casting any doubt on Kyiv’s sovereignty over Crimea or Ukraine’s territorial integrity. And even when, in the last days of 2013 and the first of 2014, local community defence groups started appearing in the peninsula, and the idea of a referendum on its status began to emerge, the idea of secession from Ukraine was still far from explicit. Moreover, appeals to Moscow in January and early February were more to do with the idea of Russia as a guarantor of ‘the inviolability of Crimea’s autonomy’. On 12 February, Konstantinov talked of ‘a reinstatement of some elements of the autonomy of the early 1990s’ and of ‘decentralisation of power’ (within Ukraine). Even after a week of discussions about unification with Russia in the autonomous parliament, the Speaker interrupted a speech by one member with a reminder of the necessity of ‘helping Kyiv assert its power’. 

It was the unconstitutional change of central government in Ukraine, with all its well-documented excesses, that radicalised Crimea’s political climate. And those who, only a few days before, were ready to discuss various options with Kyiv, in part under pressure from the public (this factor should not be ignored just because it represented a rejection of the idea of integration within the EU and NATO) began to tilt the balance in favour of Moscow.

Moscow moves

Did Moscow take advantage of this situation? Of course it did! And upped the stakes at the same time! Could it have played a more subtle game and supported Crimea without recognising it (as with Transnistria) or recognised its independence and signed an intergovernmental treaty on the continued presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet (as it did with South Ossetia and Abkhazia)? It probably could have. But the comparisons here with the Donbas or Odessa being widely discussed at the moment by Russian specialists, are not entirely accurate, since, unlike Crimea, neither Donetsk nor Luhansk, nor Odessa either, has provided around 80% of the infrastructure for one of the Russian Federation’s key naval fleets. That fact alone has minimised by default any risk of anti-terrorist operations against Crimea, or of ‘friendship marches’ for that matter. But the Kremlin decided to cut this Gordian knot with a single slash, to minimise, as it saw it, every potential danger.

Any military or political escapade was, after all, likely to automatically draw Russia’s armed forces into the conflict. And its complete lack of confidence in the new Kyiv government, only served to increase Russia’s concerns about the situation.

However, while agreeing that some features of an annexation are indeed present in Crimea, other aspects of the situation there do not fit that definition. I am talking mainly about the fact that a majority of the population supports the peninsula’s new status (this is even confirmed by such US pollsters as Pews, who have no links with the Kremlin). It is also worth mentioning the mass defection of Ukrainian armed forces personnel, Special Services operatives and politicians to the Russian tricolour, including the C-in-C of the Ukrainian Navy Denis Berezovsky and Speaker Vladimir Konstantinov – something that hasn’t happened in the Donbas, which explains the collapse of the ‘Greater Novorossia’ plan.

The Tatars

However, while Crimea’s unification with Russia may have resolved one set of problems, it has created a whole new set, and brought to a head others that have been lying dormant. Russia has inherited a wide range of inter-ethnic issues that the Ukrainian government failed to tackle over two decades. The most crucial of these is how to build a relationship with the Crimean Tatar community that makes up 12% of Crimea’s population. Given the tragic history of this ethnic group, deported en masse to Central Asia by Stalin in 1944 and only allowed to return to Crimea at the beginning of Perestroika in the mid-1980s, it is hardly surprising that this is a sensitive topic. Crimean Tatars’ identity is still closely tied up with these tragic events today, and during the two decades of Ukrainian rule in the peninsula, the traumatic memories of those Soviet years began to be identified in Tatar mass consciousness, with Russia, the successor state of the USSR.  

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the Crimean Tatars’ most prominent representative body is still the Mejlis, which over the years developed close ties with the Ukrainian government and political elite, and as a result was very hostile to the March referendum and Crimea’s unification with Russia. Other Tatar national organisations such as Milli Firka (People’s Party), Kyrym Birligi (Crimean Unity) and Kyrym (Crimea) are either still in the process of being set up or are too small to represent any threat to the Mejlis.

Vladimir Putin has also not managed to initiate any dialogue with Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev. After a conversation on 12 March 2014, four days before the referendum, Dzhemilev not only continued, but intensified his attempts to make the ‘Crimean question’ a global issue. On 14 March he visited NATO Headquarters for meetings with senior representatives of Member States and the EU’s Foreign Service, at which he urged the US and European governments to send a peacekeeping mission (under the aegis of the UN) to Crimea and to ignore the results of the imminent referendum. Dzhemilev also had several meetings with Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, hoping for Ankara’s help in defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and constraining Russia.

The intransigent position of Dzhemilev and the Mejlis was an important factor in the further development of relations between the Russian authorities (both at national and regional level) and the Crimean Tatar National Movement. The Kremlin immediately re-focussed its attention on marginalising Dzhemilev and his supporters, and creating alternative structures that would be loyal to Russia and Crimea’s new government. A number of important symbolic steps were taken: in April 2014, Vladimir Putin signed a decree on the ‘rehabilitation’ of Crimean Tatars and other nationalities of Crimea and restoration of their historic rights; on 16 May, the president met a Tatar delegation in Sochi on the eve of the 70th anniversary of their deportation; and a number of Tatars were given government posts. Confrontation with the Mejlis remains, however, a thorny problem for Russian Crimea. And it is not just a question of its leadership, some of whom have been banned from entering their homeland. The fact is that a significant proportion of the Crimean Tatar people support the Mejlis.

Government and opposition

The situation is, of course, not so simple and straightforward. We also need to take into account the politics of the regional government, which has a general tendency towards prescriptive measures and defensive strategies. On 16 May 2014 (eve of the deportation anniversary), Sergei Aksyonov, then head of the regional government, banned all public demonstrations until 6 June, on the pretext of avoiding incidents connected with the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine. Then on 26 June, a ban was imposed on celebrations of Crimean Tatar Flag Day, which had taken place for a number of years on Simferopol ‘s main square. In September, Mejlis property in Simferopol was confiscated, and a rally due to take place on 10 December, UN Human Rights Day, was also banned.

But at the same time we have to look at the confrontational attitude of the opposition, which was particularly obvious in its campaign to boycott the parliamentary elections of 14 September (the first to be held in Crimea after unification with Russia). Dzhemilev repeatedly called on young Tatars to boycott their military call-up, as well as constantly urging world leaders to be more resolute in their relations with Moscow.  

These conflicts have been the subject of discussion within the Russian government. At a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, in October, Vladimir Putin heard a presentation by the well-known Russian journalist and historian Nikolai Svanidze, in which he strongly criticised the Crimean regional authorities and Special Services. The argument was interesting for the language used by the two sides: the government stressed security and stability; the liberal public representatives, dialogue and human and civil rights. Both these positions have an important role. Neither the president nor the journalist minced their words as they discussed both the challenges to Russian national interests, and discrimination as an extra risk. The two positions exist, however, in parallel dimensions, never intersecting.

Indeed, the prominent Russian orientalist Aleksei Malashenko has cautioned against resorting to excessive measures against the opposition, citing the counter-productive results of that strategy in the North Caucasus:

"Experience shows that as soon as relations between Muslims deteriorate, religious radicalism starts to appear." 

He believes there is a danger of a small ‘but very active Muslim group’ emerging that will be "extremely hostile towards Russia".

And it is no coincidence that Remzi Ilyasov, the Crimean Parliament’s Deputy Speaker, who, despite being a former candidate for the Presidency of Mejlis, is now pro-Russia and a critic of Dzhemilev, has talked about the need for a more sensitive approach to working with Crimean Tatar organisations:

"In this difficult period for all of us in Crimea, we need to be very flexible in our actions, and the operations of our law enforcement bodies, in order to avoid causing the slightest offence to anyone."

Practical problems

There are two other crucial challenges for Crimea: the revival of tourism – the mainstay of its economy – and better communications with the ‘mainland’. The 2014 summer season was a washout, and power blackouts imposed by Ukraine in December showed just how vulnerable the peninsula is to pressure from Kyiv (which has its own energy problems). There is a desperate need for a good ‘Crimea-Caucasus’ ferry service, not to mention a bridge across the narrow Kerch Strait that divides the peninsula from Russia’s Krasnodar Krai to the east. Meanwhile, the populace is expecting their new status to bring an improvement in living standards; the region’s roads and other infrastructure are way below average, even for Russia. And these heightened expectations need to be satisfied soon, to avoid serious public discontent.

But here we encounter another problem – the quality of the peninsula’s governmental and administrative structures. Many Russian journalists and experts who have visited Russian Crimea have noted that, despite a strong hostility to American (and Western, in general) politics, most of the local public are keen to retain their former electoral rights and democratic procedures. And both Moscow and regional officialdom should not forget, as they harp on about ‘stability’, that the ‘Russian Spring’ was to a large extent initiated from below: not thanks to politicians but despite them. One of the central figures in Crimea’s ‘reawakening’ is the successful businessman and former de facto mayor of Sevastopol Aleksei Chaly, who even turned up at the treaty-signing ceremony wearing his signature black crew neck sweater.

In other words, Russia’s re-acquisition of Crimea is not the ‘end of history’, but the beginning of a complex process of integration, not of the territory, but in the first instance of the peninsula’s population.

If that is successful, it will be easier for the Kremlin to defend its position in talks with Western partners. If, on the other hand, it fails to solve its internal problems, whether of governance or linked to the economy or inter-ethnic tensions, then international pressure is sure to grow, simply because there will be good reason for it.


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