Crimean Identity: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow?
No. 2 2014 April/June
Dmitry Sosnovsky

Dmitry Sosnovsky, Ph.D. in Political Science.

Recent events in Crimea have drawn the attention of the international public to the Black Sea region. Opinions vary greatly on the Crimean issue. Indeed, virtually every international affairs analyst has weighed in on the subject, although not everyone is knowledgeable about what is actually happening there. The media is full of emotional reports instead of objective analysis.

The Russian, Ukrainian, and Western expert community has not paid any attention to problems in Crimea since the mid-1990s, partly due to a quite justified view of Crimea as a specific Ukrainian region that was well established in that country’s political system. On the one hand, such a view of Crimea was well founded – the Crimean public had had little to do with ongoing pan-Ukrainian polarization. A permanent standoff between Ukrainian regions (east vs west) played out against the background of Crimea’s deliberate aloofness from Ukrainian integration projects, despite a unification policy promoted by Kiev.

To appreciate what is happening in Crimea today, it is important to understand what Crimean society was like when the region was part of an independent Ukraine. No doubt the search by Crimean residents for a special identity is key in this process.

The Crimean peninsula is noted for a range of inter-related factors, such as its geographic location, multi-ethnicity, eventful history, and conflict potential. On the one hand, the formation of pan-Crimean identity repeatedly encountered problems because of those factors. On the other hand, a Crimean identity was hindered by external factors, primarily administrative opposition at various levels. This opposition came from all major Ukrainian political forces regardless of their policies. As evidence of this, consider the Crimean policies of all four Ukrainian presidents: each had his own opinion of the country’s past and future, yet all shared the same view on “the Crimean issue.”

 In keeping the course towards a unitary state and forming a Ukrainian political nation, Ukrainian Presidents Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, Victor Yushchenko, and Victor Yanukovich never stopped the tough policy of Ukrainization. The Crimean autonomy and special Crimean society inevitably became an obstacle to the project, which had broad support in Ukraine’s western regions. None of the tentatively pro-Russian or “Russian” political forces in Ukraine could offer an alternative, so they kept the obsolete Soviet platform as their key frame of reference. The fact that Crimean identity continued to develop in these difficult conditions shows that it was an objective necessity for its residents.

Identity can be ethnic, territorial, and federal. The three should not be at odds, rather complement each other, creating at different levels a self-awareness of representing a regional community. A reasonable identity policy is a crucial instrument in maintaining a well-balanced state. Anomie, as the disintegration of the system in a clash of interests between various social groups, is a result of failed policy. Ukraine is experiencing this at present: the failure of the identity policy of the Ukrainian state largely caused Crimea’s flat refusal to obey Kiev.

Now the new Crimean authorities and the Russian leadership are facing the task of controlling the ongoing process of identity formation in Crimea, which is instrumental for the implementation of the Crimean project and the harmonious development of the two new members of the Russian Federation.


Eurasian nations have long noted Crimea’s unique geographic location and climate, which predetermined its eventful history. Crimea is still one of Europe’s richest regions in terms of culture and ethnicity, and is a special part of the Russian world. Russia has always been aware of the strategic significance of the peninsula, which was manifest in tsarist policy. In fact, immediately after bringing Crimea into the Russian Empire, the tsar granted special status to the local elites. For example, Crimean Tatar leaders were equal with the Russian nobility.

In the late eighteenth century, Crimean Tatars were not conscripted into the Russian army and the Muslim clergy had tax-exempt status. Furthermore, Crimea did not have serfdom. Russia began to vigorously develop the new territories, mostly with settlers of Russian and Ukrainian origin (Great Russians and Little Russians). In the mid-nineteenth century, large-scale construction projects were launched in Crimea. Enjoying the support of the center, Crimean products became competitive. Simultaneously, once the port of Sevastopol was established on the peninsula’s southwestern coast, Russia created its Black Sea Fleet. The defense of Sevastopol during the Crimean War is an important page in nineteenth-century Russian military history. The peninsula developed rapidly as an area with distinct regional specifics within the context of overall Russian achievement. At this time, Russian culture was an engine of progress in Crimea.

Several Crimean governments were replaced during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). Efforts to rebuild the ruined economy began after the Bolsheviks established full control over the region in 1920. The Soviet government created the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921. Throughout the Soviet era, ethnic diversity complicated all processes in Crimea. The mass collaboration of certain groups with the Nazis during World War II stemmed from long-smoldering problems in ethnic relations. Consequently, the Crimean Tatars were deported en masse in 1944. This was followed by the deportation of Greeks, Armenians, and Bulgarians (earlier, Germans and Italians were displaced). In 1945, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was abolished and renamed the Crimean region. Nine years later, First Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee Nikita Khrushchev, guided by “economic expediency,” initiated the handover of Crimea to Ukraine in a serious breach of Soviet, Russian, and Ukrainian law.

 After taking over Crimea, the leadership of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic began to take steps towards cementing its sovereign rights to the peninsula. In 1966, it unilaterally amended the Ukrainian constitution with the provision that Sevastopol would be under Ukrainian authority. During the breakup of the Soviet Union, the issue of where Crimea belongs was raised at various levels, but eventually Russia focused on keeping its military presence on the peninsula, which it finally secured after years of difficult negotiations with Ukraine. The problem of Russian Crimea was removed from the agenda and was only used as leverage in economic, military, and strategic issues.

Over the years, the events in Crimea were proof of Crimean self-identity as representative of a special part of the Russian world. On 20 January 1991, the peninsula held a referendum, the first in the Soviet Union, which reinstated Crimean autonomy within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1992, the first Crimean Constitution was adopted. The first paragraph states: “the Republic of Crimea is a law-governed, democratic, and secular state within Ukraine.”

The Declaration of Crimean State Sovereignty proclaimed the supremacy of Crimean laws over the laws of the Ukrainian state. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, radical pro-Russian movements began to gain momentum in Crimea. It is important to note that even moderate Crimean politicians did not rule out the possibility of holding a referendum in case Ukraine refused to be an ally of Russia and other former Soviet republics. At that time, some eight percent of Crimeans supported the status of the republic as part of Ukraine.

The turnout in the national referendum on Ukraine’s independence was below 50 percent in some districts in Crimea, underscoring the population’s disinterest in Ukrainian politics. In 1994, Yuri Meshkov garnered 72.92 percent (more than 80 percent in Sevastopol) in the Crimean presidential election. Sergei Shuvainikov, a candidate who cast himself as a Russian radical nationalist, came third in the first round. In the parliamentary elections the same year, the bloc “Russia” won a majority of seats. It was only in 1995, after the failure of Meshkov’s domestic and foreign policy, that Leonid Kuchma was able to establish control over Crimea, abolish the post of head of the republic, and decrease considerably the powers of the Autonomy’s authorities. The loss of hitherto numerous gains by the Crimean Autonomy was cemented in the Ukrainian Constitution of 1998.


It is important to understand that the return of the Crimean Tatars to the Crimean peninsula contributed to the political consolidation of Crimean society in the 1990s, especially in the first half. Active Crimean Tatar political groups emerged in the late 1980s. The largest was the Crimean Tatar National Movement Organization (ONKD), led by Mustafa Dzhemilev, which laid the groundwork for the establishment in 1991 of the Mejlis, a representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, and the Crimean Tatar National Movement (NDKT), headed by Yuri Osmanov.

Both movements adopted a course towards creating an independent ethnic state. The aggressive rhetoric of ONKD and the Mejlis gave way to cooperation with government agencies, but the declared course towards statehood never changed. In 1991, the Mejlis drafted and approved two documents that have neither been amended nor cancelled. They were the Declaration on the National Sovereignty of the Crimean Tatar People and the Draft Constitution of the Crimean Republic. Item 1 of the Declaration reaffirmed the right of Crimean Tatars to self-determination in Crimea, their indigenous territory and said that the resurgence of the Crimean Tatars is only possible in a sovereign nation state. The document divides the Crimean people into two groups: (1) the indigenous population (Crimean Tatars and small autochthonous groups: Crimean Karaites and Crimean Krymchaks) and (2) other nationalities. The right to self-determination is only vested in individuals belonging to the first group.

The NDKT later revised some of its provisions, accusing Dzhemilev of an isolationist policy. Osmanov, who favored closer cooperation with Russia, refused to subscribe to the Mejlis’ ethno-centrism and its radical methods. In 1993, Osmanov was beaten to death as he was preparing for large political actions. The authorities investigating his murder concluded that Osmanov was the victim of a robbery, but many people found inconsistencies in the official report. The NDKT still exists and its goal is the “restoration of the integrity of the Crimean Tatar people, its equality, and legal standing.”

The organization’s website emphasizes that the NDKT does not pursue any other goal. That is, it does not demand national autonomy, which shows a clear understanding of the complex cultural and ethnic situation on the Crimean peninsula. However, the political influence of the organization began to decrease dramatically after Osmanov’s death, whereas that of the Mejlis started to grow just as quickly. By the middle of the 1990s, the Mejlis was a de-facto monopolist in Crimean Tatar policy. Despite its claims to represent the interests of all people on the peninsula, a large number of Crimean Tatars do not trust it, as evidenced by research, including polls carried out by Crimean Tatars.

The first all-Ukrainian census of 2001 showed that Crimea had a population of 2,033,700 people, including 245,000 Crimean Tatars, while another 379,500 Tatars lived in Sevastopol, which was not under the Autonomy’s jurisdiction. Russians made up an overwhelming majority. The same census recorded 1,180,400 Russians in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in 2001 (58.5 percent of the entire population) and 270,000 in Sevastopol (71.6 percent of the city’s residents). In 2001, 492,200 Ukrainians lived in the autonomous republic and another 84,400 Ukrainians were in Sevastopol.

 According to opinion polls, 91 percent of Crimeans (100 percent of Russians and 91 percent of Ukrainians) speak Russian at home, whereas just five percent of Crimean Ukrainians speak Ukrainian. Eleven percent of residents use both languages, and 84 percent only speak Russian. A majority of respondents (68 percent) said Russian was their native language (93 percent of Russians and 44 percent of Ukrainians). An overwhelming majority of Crimean residents who said that they were Ukrainians spoke Russian and did not differ in any way from those who said they were ethnic Russians. There is no doubt that the Russian language and culture is the backbone for the unification of the Crimean population. Crimean Russians are a special group: the key element of their identity is associated with considering the peninsula as the Motherland, complete with its history and cultural specifics.

The unanimous support by Crimeans in the 16 March 2014 referendum for membership in the Russian Federation as the peninsula seceded from Ukraine indicates that Russian Crimeans and Ukrainian Crimeans are one community with a common regional identity. The Crimean authorities said some 40 percent of Crimean Tatars had voted in the referendum.

The key question during the whole period when Crimea was part of Ukraine was the extent of the Crimean Tatar involvement in the regional community and to what degree the Crimean Tatars, who have a pronounced ethnic self-awareness, can represent Crimean regional identity. Today that question has assumed special urgency.

Crimean experts have identified three scenarios in this connection. The first and most constructive envisions the Crimean Tatars joining the Crimean regional community, while keeping their ethnic identity. Under the second and the least desirable, the Crimean Tatars are shut out from the process of forming Crimean identity (which involves not only Russians and Ukrainians, but also many other ethnic groups living on the peninsula—Karaites, Krymchaks, Bulgarians, Armenians, Greeks, Germans, Belarusians, Italians, etc.). In this case, society could become polarized and the potential for conflict might increase. The third opinion entails isolated and closed communities of Crimeans and Crimean Tatars with the gradual development of a common regional identity. Yet the probability of such a scenario is very low.

The Russian federal authorities and Crimean administration face the task of encouraging the formation of a regional identity and ensuring the maximum involvement of Crimean Tatars in the process. However, various factors stand in the way, such as the prevalence of the Mejlis in all spheres of Crimean Tatar life even though that organization has always stated objectives to the contrary. Russia has already started working with the Mejlis leadership and this policy needs active support. Also, it is important to underscore the necessity of cooperation with other Crimean Tatar movements with which it is far more constructive to work, such as the NDKT and Milliy Fyrqa.

The attempt to build an all-Ukrainian state identity solely on the basis of the Ukrainian ethnos using methods of political centralization, cultural unification, and permanent forceful assimilation was a complete failure. After becoming part of the Russian Federation, which is pursuing an entirely different regional policy, Crimea has gained the opportunity to continue to form its regional identity in favorable conditions.

 Russia’s competent and balanced policy, which has already been effective in many regions (for example in Tatarstan, where Russians and Tatars have a pronounced ethnic self-awareness together with a strong emotional attachment to their republic and view of Russia as their native country), will certainly yield positive results in Crimea too. Forming such an identity is the key task facing Russian political elites in the new constituent parts of the Russian Federation: the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.