When the Ukrainian crisis and standoff in Kiev’s Independence Square peaked in early 2014, not a single political expert in Crimea, Kiev, Moscow, or Washington could have predicted that in a mere six to eight weeks events would unfold as they did. Unlike Transdniestria, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia, Crimea was not a long-festering conflict zone. Crimean problems were dealt with through the political process with a consensus of main actors who had ideas regarding the configuration of post-Soviet borders. And yet Crimea turned out to be the pivot of instability where fundamental geopolitical shifts took place. Although the root causes of those shifts belong to the realm of global politics and to the relationship between Russia and the West, the situation in Crimea is crucial to understanding why Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy has proven for the most part to be realistic.
HOW THE CRIMEAN KNOT WAS TIED
When Ukraine became an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Crimean peninsula was in a precarious position. In 1952, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev had taken the region away from the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic and handed it to Ukraine. In 1991, over 60% of Crimea’s two million inhabitants were ethnic Russians. Yet a majority of Ukrainians living in Crimea were Russian speakers who identified more with Russian culture than Ukrainian. Although a majority of Crimeans favored the idea of Ukrainian independence (not an overwhelming majority, just slightly more than 50%, as the referendum on 1 December 1991 clearly showed), Crimean society was cautious about some trends in the new Ukrainian state. For instance, the decision to make Ukrainian the only official language and plans to sever economic and cultural ties with Russia (on the pretext of overcoming dependence) expressed by a number of Ukrainian politicians at the time.
Therefore, it is not surprising that in January 1991, in the last months of the Soviet Union, one and half million people living in Crimea, or 90% of its population, voted to restore Crimean autonomy in a referendum held by the Crimean Communist authorities.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, a powerful movement gained momentum in Crimea whose goal was to expand the autonomy’s rights and to reintegrate Ukraine with Russia within the CIS. A number of local parties backed that movement, including the Communists, the Republicans, and various Russian organizations. In May 1992, the Republic of Crimea adopted a Constitution that stipulated for a large degree of regional independence. The Rossiya election bloc won the 1994 elections. Its leader, Yuri Meshkov, had become Crimea’s president shortly before the elections. But his erratic activities and pro-integration and pro-Russian rhetoric posed quite a few problems for Kiev.
The central authorities in Simferopol and Kiev sorted things out amid soaring tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the future of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet. At first, under CIS agreements it was implied that control of the “strategic forces” (and Russia certainly regarded the Black Sea Fleet as strategic) would be decided in a special way. However, it soon emerged that Ukraine and Russia understood the term “strategic forces” differently. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry made a haphazard attempt to take over the Black Sea Fleet only to run into strong resistance from the Fleet’s commander Admiral Igor Kasatonov. In fact, Kasatonov forced Russian President Boris Yeltsin to intervene and a protracted process began to separate the Black Sea Fleet, which was extremely complex and fraught with surprises. For Ukraine, the Crimean issue was closely linked with the Black Sea Fleet, because “Crimean separatism” was not an issue on its own, but it gained momentum in combination with potential Russian intervention. Throughout the 1990s, the Kremlin showed very little interest in Crimea. Major territorial problems in the Caucasus and internal political struggles limited Russia’s opportunities to press for its interests on the Black Sea.
The repatriation of the Crimean Tatars and related issues were the third group of problems to emerge in Crimea shortly before and just after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars from the peninsula in 1944 on charges of mass collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Unlike other “deported peoples” the Crimean Tatars were not exonerated under Khrushchev because of foreign political and defense considerations. Exoneration implied the return of the Crimean Tatars to their ancestral homeland. Soviet leaders were reluctant to allow the return of the Crimean Tatars, fearing complications with Turkey, which had joined NATO in 1952. The Caribbean crisis (provoked in part by the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey) put the issue of Crimean Tatar repatriation on the back burner. The issue was brought up again as late as at the end of the 1980s, the beginning of perestroika.
At that time Crimean society was not prepared to welcome back as many as 270,000 people who were very different culturally and mentally from the majority of the peninsula’s population. Repatriation continued on a massive scale in the wake of the Soviet collapse, which bred immeasurable problems and sparked quite a few conflicts stemming from political and socio-economic reasons.
Once repatriation began, the Crimean Tatar political movement grew into a well-organized and effective force that had support from liberals inside the Soviet Union and from the West. In 1991, the Crimean Tatars set up a national parliament (the Kurultai) and government (the Mejlis) under Mustafa Dzhemilev, a former dissident who wielded a great deal of authority with the Crimean Tatars, the West, and Turkey. From the outset the Mejlis launched a crusade under the banner of self-determination for the Crimean Tatars and sought to establish a political regime that would grant the Crimean Tatars special status as Crimea’s indigenous and titular nation. An immediate surge in tensions followed between the Crimean Tatars, the Slavic majority, and the local authorities over such sensitive issues as land, property rights, and jobs.
The initial repatriation period was accompanied by a number of serious conflicts. Tensions peaked in 1995 when there was a real possibility of widespread clashes and a major interethnic standoff in eastern Crimea. Ukraine’s central television network successfully used the Crimean Tatar movement as a counter-balance to so-called “pro-Russian separatism.”
The Kiev-Simferopol political conflict, problems over the presence of the Black Sea Fleet, and the repatriation of the Crimean Tatars were the three major components of an intricate Crimean knot that none of the successive Ukrainian governments managed to untie.
THE “UKRAINIAN ORDER” IN THE MAKING
Overburdened by complicated problems in the 1990s, Crimea managed to avoid an armed conflict like those in many surrounding territories, such as Transdniestria and Nagorno-Karabakh. There are several reasons for this.
Notably, all key participants in the events were aware of the consequences of uncontrollable processes, so they preferred negotiations. The region had no history of interethnic strife except for the problem of the Crimean Tatars (but they accounted for a small percentage of the population). Restoring the interethnic autonomy proved an effective mechanism for settling disputes. Moreover, Russia and Ukraine were busy with post-Soviet reforms and searching for ways to resolve economic problems, which certainly distracted them from territorial issues and conflict (for instance, Yeltsin easily recognized the territorial integrity of Ukraine). In this sense, Crimea could easily be considered a positive example of a civilized (although very nervous) post-Soviet divorce. The era of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) saw a more or less successful solution to the “Crimean issue.”
Firstly, that was the time when a basis was created for establishing the “Ukrainian order” in Crimea. In 1997, Russia and Ukraine signed what was sometimes informally referred to as the ‘Big Treaty.’ Russia kept its naval base in Sevastopol; but under amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution, Russia could only lease the base until 2017. Ukraine received part of the former Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet and had the opportunity to create its own small naval force. Most importantly, Ukraine preserved its sovereignty over the entire territory of the Crimean peninsula and Russia paid for its contingent by extending Ukraine discounts on Russian gas.
In March 1995, Ukrainian secret services took advantage of an internal political crisis in Crimea to oust President Meshkov and establish full control over the region. That process was described as “Crimea’s induction into Ukraine’s legal space.” Relying on sharp disagreements inside the criminalized local elite, the Ukrainian authorities promptly enforced crucial decisions. In the second phase (starting in 1998), Kuchma, after winning a second term, eliminated criminal clans in Crimea and formalized a limited autonomy regime. Throughout that period the Ukrainian government maintained control of the local authorities, first by using the conflict between the head of Crimea’s legislature Leonid Grach and the head of government Sergei Kunitsin. Later Kuchma supported the duo of Kunitsin and the new speaker of the regional parliament Boris Deich.
Kuchma handled the problem of the Crimean Tatars with relative success. Over the previous decade, the repatriation of the 270,000 Crimean Tatars was essentially completed. Those who remained in exile, mostly in Uzbekistan, did so for various personal reasons. An economic rebound at the end of the 1990s somewhat eased social tensions among the returnees. In 1999, Kiev agreed to a partial legalization of local self-government for the Crimean Tatars. After a series of mass demonstrations organized by the Mejlis, the Ukrainian government created a special council made up of Crimean Tatar representatives under the Ukrainian president. All Mejlis members took seats on that council. Crimean Tatars had begun infiltrating federal agencies on a massive scale and the process of forming ethnic bureaucracy and ethnic bourgeoisie was proceeding in full swing.
Crimea’s first decade as part of an independent Ukraine was economically bleak as local industries closed (with the exception of chemical giants in northern Crimea, companies that mined construction materials, and some shipbuilding facilities (in Kerch)). The entire military-industrial complex, including electronics, as well as TV manufacturing and a greater part of shipbuilding, failed to survive the economic devastation of the 1990s. The same was true of agriculture, whose export potential was reduced to zero. All former Soviet republics were experiencing the same kind of problems, so Crimea’s economic collapse had no noticeable political effects.
The local population managed to adjust to the new capitalist realities and only a relatively small percent of local residents emigrated. The repatriation of the Crimean Tatars contributed to population growth throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s. In time, demand for labor resources grew in the tourist and recreation industry, and in the construction sector. Small and mid-sized businesses were created. The Ukrainian economy stabilized and grew in the late 1990s and early 2000s, giving rise to some social optimism, while the relatively mild policy of Ukrainization was neither wholly rejected nor resisted.
The ethnic makeup of Crimea’s new population of nearly two million was as follows: 58% were ethnic Russians (a unique parameter for Ukraine), 24% consisted of Ukrainians (mostly Russian-speaking and who considered themselves culturally closer to Russia), and 12% were made up of Crimean Tatars, whose role in the political affairs of the peninsula, by virtue of their historically greater passionarity, was proportionately larger than their share of the population. Nevertheless, despite the explosive potential of this ethnic “cocktail,” Crimea managed to avoid large-scale interethnic conflicts.
Ukraine’s Orange Revolution shattered that fragile idyll. Overall, Crimea did not support the first series of protests in Kiev at the end of 2004 and early 2005. In fact, Crimea refused to recognize the newly-elected president Viktor Yushchenko. The Party of Regions won local parliamentary elections and Crimea, just like a number of other regions and cities in southeastern Ukraine, remained under the control of the Party of Regions practically throughout Yushchenko’s presidency. Such a state of affairs was largely a result of political reform carried out at the beginning of 2005, which stripped the central authorities of many opportunities to influence local situations effectively. Indeed, all of Crimea’s hopes were pinned on Viktor Yanukovich, the presidential candidate from the Party of Regions who represented the interests of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking industrial southeast. Crimea, along with the Donbass coal-mining region, was the core of Yanukovich’s support (with more than 70% of the electorate ready to vote for him).
During that time other political forces opposed to Kiev were gaining strength, including Russian groups and organizations. Some of the more popular were the Russian Community of Crimea (led by Sergei Tsekov), the movement Proryv (Breakthrough), and Russian Unity (led by Sergei Aksyonov). All these organizations were strongly critical of Ukrainization, in particular the policy of making into heroes the leaders of Ukrainian nationalism in the mid-twentieth century. Along with a general atmosphere of resistance to radical nationalist forces in Ukraine, a new challenge contributed to the fresh surge in activity of Russian organizations after the lull in the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s. That challenge came from the Crimean Tatar movement.
Kuchma’s land reform in the mid-2000s fueled widespread arbitrary seizures of land by Crimean Tatars, who had originally been barred from taking part in the privatization of assets that once belonged to former Soviet farm cooperatives and state-run farms. The first massive protests in Kiev’s Independence Square in the mid-2000s weakened both the central and local authorities to the extent that Crimean Tatar activist organizations were able to seize thousands of hectares of land to build private homes, mostly around large cities and on the southern coast of Crimea. This Mejlis-led squatting campaign peaked in 2006, provoking numerous conflicts and explosive situations. The issue of legalizing the land seized during that period remains unresolved.
The influence of political Islam was another important trend among the Crimean Tatars. The Crimean Muslim Board, like the overwhelming majority of Muslim communities, traditionally remained under the control of the Mejlis, a nationalist and secular pro-Western organization. However, the mid-2000s saw the rise and growth of so-called “independent” communities, often under the influence of foreign Islamic centers (currently over 10% of all communities are independent). Islamic sentiment was present in the Crimean Tatar movement much earlier, but in the second half of the 2000s a political split occurred between the Mejlis and various Islamic groups. The international party Hizb-ut-Tahrir increased its activities in the region. Additionally, some local Wahhabi organizations (such as Sebat) emerged. All of those parties and groups were critical of the Mejlis for not paying proper attention to traditions and for caring more about itself than the people. This growing influence of Islamists on the Crimean Tatar ummah aroused deep concern among the Slavic majority on the peninsula.
During Yushchenko’s presidency the overly-friendly rhetoric towards Russia during Kuchma’s administration gave way to a noticeable cooling in relations between Russia and Ukraine. Yushchenko’s anti-Russian stance was a crucial element in the negative image of his regime by the majority of the population of Crimea.
In the 2010 presidential election, Crimean voters predictably voted for the leader of the Party of Regions, while most of the Crimean Tatars followed instructions from the Mejlis and voted for Yulia Timoshenko.
THE PARTY OF REGIONS’ LEGACY
The years 2010-2014 have left a controversial legacy. On the one hand, Crimea welcomed the normalization of relations with Russia (the signing of the so-called Kharkov Pact on the Black Sea Fleet), the adoption of the law on regional languages, and political and economic stabilization. On the other hand, under the Yanukovich administration anger mounted over government bureaucracy, blatant corruption, and the redistribution of property.
Immediately after the new authorities in Crimea took power, the local political space was systematically cleansed. Relying on support from a greater share of the electorate, who initially pinned their hopes on the Party of Regions as protection from the “Orange” forces, the “Regionals” placed their own people in all leadership positions in Crimea. These new leaders were from the Donetsk Region (in Crimea they were promptly called “Makedonians” – a group of outsiders mostly from the industrial centers of Makeyevka and Donetsk). Both Crimean prime ministers in that period – Vassily Dzharty and Anatoly Mogilyov – represented the interests of that powerful business and political clan.
Firstly, the centers of political influence changed. The legislature of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea retained merely representative and ceremonial functions, while the center of personnel and economic decisions was moved to the republic’s Council of Ministers, which was closely connected with the Ukrainian presidential staff. Secondly, all other Crimean political forces—oppositional forces and political allies – were pushed to the sidelines of political life. Economic and judicial pressures greatly weakened the Bloc of Yulia Timoshenko (BYT) (led by Andrei Senchenko). The strong, local branch of the Ukrainian Communist Party, led by Leonid Grach, fractured from within, the Union Party (led by Lev Mirimsky) was forced to become less active, and the Russian Unity Party (led by Sergei Aksyonov) lost influence.
As a result, when the Yanukovich administration decided in 2013 to take a fatal turn towards closer ties with the European Union, Crimean residents did not put up strong resistance, although the majority was cautious. It is revealing to examine what happened to the political elites and society over the brief period Yanukovich and the Party of Regions were in power.
The “Regionals” conducted a policy to restrict the influence of the Mejlis inside the Crimean autonomy. Significantly, the Mejlis could no longer distribute budget funds through its protégés inside Crimea’s governing agencies. Also, there were attempts to counter-balance the Mejlis by supporting alternative organizations: the Milli-Firka, Sebat, and others. In 2013 several high-ranking Mejlis leaders (such as Remzi Ilyasov) were replaced by more loyal figures (Vasvi Abduraimov). Conversely, the authorities, with support from Yanukovich, reformatted the “council of representatives” of the Crimean Tatar people at the presidential office (established under Kuchma) to complement it with the leaders of opposition groups (Lentun Bezaziyev, Vasvi Abduraimov, and others), after which Mejlis representatives ended their participation in that organization.
At the same time Kiev agreed to major concessions for the Crimean Tatars. The Ukrainian government legalized some territory claimed by the Crimean Tatars and gave permission for the local muftiate to build a large Cathedral Mosque. That policy proved to be a major test for the Mejlis; firstly, because such steps by the Crimean authorities (and to a certain extent the authorities in Kiev) coincided with the movement’s internal crisis, as the Mejlis began to lose authority in the Crimean Tatar community and younger people moved into leadership positions.
For the past decade analysts have repeatedly said that the Mejlis was steadily losing power. The organization was gradually becoming bureaucratized, while the life of ordinary citizens was not getting any better. The Mejlis came under growing criticism. The local authorities looked favorably on the opposition organizations that emerged (although not very large ones).
Mustafa Dzhemilev, who remained at the helm of the Kurultai and the Mejlis for many years, declared repeatedly his intention to quit the post of the organization’s leader and end his political career. With time, this tactic began to be seen as a sort of political gimmick. However, in 2013 Dzhemilev was forced to step down after his son, who was a drug addict, shot a man. The Kurultai elected Dzhemilev’s deputy, Refat Chubarov, as the new leader. Chubarov, despite his merits, lacks the authority of his predecessor (Dzhemilev is the movement’s honorary leader) and is more perceptive to messages from the authorities.
That policy, however incomplete and inconsistent, paid off during the political crisis at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. Although both Dzhemilev and Chubarov supported the pro-European Union demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square, the Mejlis preferred to avoid active involvement in the events, apparently lacking popular trust and fearing retaliation by the authorities. During the entire Ukrainian crisis, the Mejlis brought its fighters onto the streets for a standoff only once on 26 February 2014, the day a new chapter began in Crimea’s modern history…
However, the Party of Regions policy to clean up politics in 2010-2013 had several boomerang effects. Shortly after party officials focused on administrative resources and clamped down on civic society, both central and Crimean authorities all of a sudden found themselves face-to-face with Euromaidan forces with no civic anti-Maidan forces by their side. Reliance on pre-paid political mercenaries, to whom Ukrainians commonly refer to as titushki, did not work.
Weakened non-governmental and political organizations, such as Russian Unity, had to promptly mobilize supporters when the Yanukovich administration began to crumble. The February 26 events in Simferopol demonstrated how weak civic resistance organizations in Crimea actually were after being “cemented in a barrel” (this mafia term is the best description for the condition of the political elites) by the “Makedonians.” Mejlis activists blocked the Crimean parliament building so that legislators could not gather for a session where they were expected to defy the decisions of those who had seized power in Kiev the previous day.
Crimea’s political elite was unprepared to resist Euromaidan as well. On February 22, after Yanukovich fled the capital, Mogilyov, the head of Crimea’s government, said that the resolutions by the Ukrainian parliament were legitimate and he was ready to implement them. Many Crimean legislators preferred to take a wait-and-see position. Several Ukrainian parliamentary members from Crimea supported the coup either overtly or covertly. If not for the firm position taken by Konstantinov-led members of the Crimean legislature’s presidium, the determination of Russian Unity’s leader Aksyonov and support from Russia, Crimea would have surely succumbed to the Euromaidan supporters.
Disillusioned with Yanukovich’s policies, Crimean society was split and demoralized at a very dramatic moment. Alongside those who were prepared to actively resist the nationalist forces and join “people’s militia” groups, many people were just waiting for the “victorious opposition” to take over and were bracing for the worst.
The events that followed early in the morning on February 27 in Simferopol created a very different situation for the Crimean elite and the local community. Changing the date and wording of the referendum indicates the evolution of political expectations. At first, Crimean legislators did not go much farther other than demanding greater autonomy within Ukraine. But as the crisis worsened in Kiev and with the stepped-up rhetoric against “Crimean separatists,” and, of course, Russia’s clear and firm stance, an unambiguous political strategy was drafted. That strategy gained tangible support from a majority of the population whose pro-Russian sentiment not only has never faded, but also has soared in the wake of the events in Kiev. The referendum saw an 82% turnout in which 92% of Crimean voters chose to rejoin Russia. There is every reason to believe that those results are very close to actual public sentiment.
The reasons behind the desire to join Russia are as follows:
- a majority of the population still feels lasting historical attraction and sympathy towards Russia and – what is very important – Putin’s Russia;
- profound disillusionment with Ukraine’s “European” choice and mostly fear about the costs of accompanying nationalism.
The conclusion to be drawn from everything said above is paradoxical. The policies that the Party of Regions and Yanukovich pursued in Crimea were relatively successful: issues related to the presence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had been settled; Crimean political elites had been brought under control; a generally favorable image of the new authorities had been created; and important steps had been taken to diversify the political influence of the Mejlis. Another five to seven years of such policies might have led to the peninsula’s full integration with the Ukrainian political, cultural, and ideological system.
However, Yanukovich’s systemic mistake regarding the foreign policy vector of Ukrainian development proved fatal for him, for Ukraine, and for its territorial integrity. That mistake sparked a political crisis and the regime’s rapid collapse. Moreover, the rise of nationalist forces fueled a renewal in Crimean fears. Russia’s unexpectedly clear policy to support the nascent Crimean movement and the favorable image of Russia that had taken shape in Crimea by the mid-2010s determined the outcome of the March 16 referendum.
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Different interpretations abound as to what happened to the “Crimean knot” after the drastic turn in Crimea’s fate, which some analysts are calling the Russian Spring of 2014. Was that knot loosened or tightened? Whatever the case, Russia will have to deal with the effects of Crimea being part of an independent Ukraine for 23 years. Naturally, those years have left a lasting imprint on Crimean society. A Crimean political and business elite has emerged with its own values, bonds, and relationships. A self-isolated Crimean Tatar movement with its own experience of intra-Crimean dialogue is another fact of life. Also, Russia is not the motherland of an entire generation of Russian-speaking youth who are coming of age, but the motherland of their ancestors. All this complicates political processes in Crimea. Russia will likely spend quite some time handling the Crimean knot. Fortunately, Russia can rely on its own vast experience.