The Crimea in Slow Motion

The surge of international interest in the Crimea from summer 2008 had little to do with the peninsula’s undoubted natural attractions. From the first day of the war between Georgia and Russia, the analogy with the Crimea seemed all too clear. Russia had asserted its right to “protect” Russians wherever they might be, and had been suspiciously generous in handing out Russian passports to South Ossetians.

With a large Russian population in the Crimea, comments from Vladimir Putin questioning Ukraine’s very sovereignty only months before, and constant claims made by prominent Russian politicians of Russia’s “historic right” to at least Sevastopol, if not the entire Crimea, the shockwaves throughout Ukraine were palpable.

  Unfortunately the shivers down many a Ukrainian official’s spine may have elicited anxiety, but little will to learn lessons and take urgently needed action, or any understanding of what this action should be. Most did nothing or made bellowing noises about checking how many “Russians” in the Crimea have dual citizenship which Ukrainian legislation does not permit. Such checks were by no means unwarranted however the general focus by some media outlets, politicians and others on “an enemy within” was hardly designed to improve relations between different ethnic groups.

  The Crimea is the only part of Ukraine with a majority Russian population (58.5%), with ethnic Ukrainians well behind (24.4%) and Crimean Tatars in third place with 13%.  There has always been a rich tapestry of nationalities in the Crimea however problems largely concern the position and relations between the three main groups. 

  Virtually all post-Soviet countries have large ethnic minorities yet the Crimea’s situation is specific. In 1944 the entire Crimean Tatar population (over 183 thousand people) who had lived and at one time ruled in the Crimea since the fifteenth century, were deported to Uzbekistan and the Russian SSR.  A huge number died en route or in special settlements.  Other ethnic groups – mainly Armenian, Bulgarian and Greeks were also deported in a brutally implemented NKVD operation to rid the Crimea of its entire non-Slavic population.

  The pretext – and it was never more than that – was alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Even back in Soviet times (1967), the charges of collaboration were acknowledged to have been false. 

  They say that mud sticks and there are unfortunately those prepared to keep flinging these same filthy lies, cynically calculating that others will believe them. This is a standard tactic in certain Crimean media outlets and political circles, and the lies about Crimean Tatar mass collaboration have unfortunately been repeated by many western journalists.

  It is commonly stated that the Crimea “was given” to the Ukrainian SSR by Khrushchev in 1954.  This was probably not quite the wilful act it is often presented as being, not infrequently by those who think the Crimea should “be given back” and there were economic and other considerations.

Nonetheless all the actions of the Soviet regime were marked by the same arrogant readiness to move people around like pieces on a chessboard. Having deported the local population, the Soviet authorities forcibly resettled Ukrainians and Russians in the Crimea.  This changed the ethnic makeup on the peninsula, and also meant that there were a large number of people likely to feel very defensive about calls by Crimean Tatars and other deported groups for a reinstatement of their rights.

It was newly-independent Ukraine, which immediately recognized that the Crimean Tatars and other deported peoples must be able to return to their homeland.  The intentions were good and some genuine efforts were made to help the victims of such an injustice rebuild their lives in the Crimea.  The measures taken however were insufficient, partly because Ukraine itself lacked the resources needed, but also because of ferocious opposition from the local authorities which remains a problem to this day.

Corruption is rampant among the Crimean authorities, especially over land allocation, and a large percentage of formerly deported Crimean Tatar families still live in temporary accommodation. This has prompted some Crimean Tatars to seize unoccupied land to build accommodation on, with this leading on occasion to serious conflict with the authorities. Two particularly violent clashes were seen in 2007 where in one case a Special Forces “Berkut” unit would seem to have used local Russian Cossacks to remove Crimean Tatar settlements.  Although a criminal investigation was initiated into excessive use of force, like so many others, it has not resulted in any prosecution or indeed in any significant change.  

There is still no legal regulation of the rights of formerly deported peoples. A Law was actually passed by parliament in 2004 but vetoed by President Kuchma. Most Crimean Tatars held great hopes that the new regime after the Orange Revolution would address their problems and many are now thoroughly disillusioned.  The present lack of clarity and legal regulation means that the authorities are dangerously free to do what they wish, and the number of Crimean Tatars who see no alternative to radical measures is growing.   This is causing conflict among Crimean Tatars with some, especially those in the Avdet [Return] organization, rejecting the caution showed by the Mejilis [the unofficial authority of the Crimean Tatars] and demanding the land they believe they are entitled to.  A recent picket and hunger strike outside the Cabinet of Ministers building in Kyiv achieved some commitments, although it remains to be seen whether these are honoured.

The promises are always fine, only all too often fail to go beyond declarations. In January 2008, for example, the Simferopol City Council suddenly refused to allow the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims to build a Soborna or Assembly Mosque even though all necessary documents had been obtained, involving considerable effort and expense.  As on many occasions, it is difficult to say with certainty whether the motivating factor was a lucrative offer for the same piece of land or intent to escalate tension between different communities.  The Crimean Prosecutor came out in support of the Spiritual Directorate, the Head of the Crimean Police also criticized the City Council move, and court rulings were in favour of the Spiritual Directorate. Yet almost two years later, the situation remains unresolved, the Mosque still not built.

One very specific feature in the Crimea is the unashamed use of the media to fuel ethnic enmity between Slavs and Crimean Tatars, and between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. One such newspaper – Krymskaya Pravda – still displays on the front page of its Internet version an article by Natalya Astakhova “Brought by the wind” 18 months after the initial outrage and calls for prosecution under Article 161 of the Criminal Code (incitement to ethnic enmity).  The article clearly aims to create the impression that members of one specific ethnic group are contemptible, dirty, excessively demanding and most certainly unwelcome.  

Virtually all calls for action against this frightful example of hate speech and others have led nowhere.  This is not just because of limp behaviour from the law enforcement bodies, but also due to the political and economic clout wielded by the media owners.  Hire some servile journalists to write about how Crimean Tatars are simply greedy, or themselves racist and extremist, and you can hope that your own dubious dealings with land can pass unnoticed.

The other calculation – that your target will respond inadequately – is just as cynical and also, regrettably, effective.  Some of the articles in Crimean Tatar publications are anything but tolerant and frequently use unacceptable propaganda techniques against, for example, mixed marriages.

All the above assumes that tension in the Crimea is between Slavs on the one hand, and Crimean Tatars on the other.  This is a position pushed by those who are antagonistic to both Ukrainian sovereignty and the return of the Crimean Tatars to their homeland.  In fact, however, the divisions are by no means so simple and are indeed not always on ethnic lines.  Most of those media outlets which target Crimean Tatars are equally scathing about the Ukrainian language and repeat lies from Soviet times to discredit “nationalists”, with the latter term used just as loosely as it was by the Soviet regime.

There has been an increase over the last two or three years in extreme pro-Russian organizations whose support comes, either directly from Russia or from local organizations eager to destabilize the situation in the Crimea. It must be said, however, that there are some rightwing Ukrainian nationalist organizations, including the political party VO “Svoboda” [“Liberty Party”], which seem hell-bent on gaining dubious publicity through the same tactics.

A recent survey of public opinion in the Crimea carried out by the authoritative Razumkov Centre confirmed the deliberately destructive role played by the media and some political organizations in the Crimea. Cheeringly, it did note that the public were gradually becoming aware of the manipulative behaviour of certain media and drawing appropriate conclusions.

There is, on the other hand, no evidence that Kyiv is willing to pay heed to public opinion, rather the contrary.  The results of two questions in the Razumkov report are a devastating indictment. The number of Crimeans who see Ukraine as their homeland fell from 74% in 2007 to 40.1% in 2008, while those who regard themselves as patriots of Ukraine fell from 66.7% in 2006 to 28.6% in 2008. 

Kyiv seems oblivious or incapable of any adequate response. No real measures have been taken in the last five years to regulate the status of Crimean Tatars and ensure reinstatement of their rights and yet the President has instructed the State Security Service to initiate a criminal investigation into the 1944 Deportation. Equally unhelpful are the recent remarks by Gennady Moskal, an MP who has been seconded to the Crimea to oversee policing in the peninsula. He plans to lobby for a ban on the pan-Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir while providing no evidence whatsoever that the organization is involved in any but peaceful activities in the Crimea. It is worrying that politicians seems so incapable of understanding that constructive measures to resolve problems in the present day and ensure that all Crimeans feel at home in their own country will do much more to reduce any form of radicalism than any prohibition.

It will be a sad irony if the present plan to make all students throughout Ukraine, including the Crimea take external assessment exams in the Ukrainian language proves able to unite all ethnic groups on the peninsula – in protest.  At least 80% of the Crimea’s population name Russian their native language and only 5.4% of schools in the Crimea have tuition in Ukrainian, with the vast majority being in Russian.  While there are arguments in favour of the exam being in Ukrainian, since many universities will otherwise be closed to Crimean students, we are yet again seeing a situation whereby no real measures have been taken to ensure quality teaching is available in Ukrainian, availability of textbooks, etc.  Instead students who have studied throughout in Russian will be placed at an unfair advantage against Ukrainian-speaking students. 

If this measure goes through, the results of the next Razumkov Centre survey are entirely predictable, as is the advantage which will be gained by those in Russia eager to prove that Ukraine is discriminating against Russian-speakers.  It will be the authorities in Kyiv who bear responsibility for an added assault on Ukraine’s diverse unity.


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