Crimea and conundrums

Aug 10, 2023
Russian flag standing on map of Ukraine. Concept of war conflict, invasion, military aggression, political crisis.

Over recent weeks Pearls and Irritations has published two pieces on Crimea. One by David Higginbottom reports his views of the situation in Crimea following a visit there, arguing that there is widespread acceptance of Russian rule. The second, by Jon Richardson, argues that Higginbottom is wrong, that any pro-Russian majority is a result of the influx of ethnic Russians following the deportation of the Tatars in 1944, and that the future of Crimea should be determined principally by its original inhabitants (the reference to terra nullius in the title).

Personal accounts can be enlightening, but as we have seen with journalistic accounts of the war, they are not always correct. Similarly arguments seemingly based on historical facts can be misleading or wrong. And although he makes many valuable points, unfortunately things are not as simple as Jon Richardson suggests.

The question of the extent of support for unification with Russia is quite vexed. Mr Richardson cites Kyiv International Institute of Sociology polls which show in the years leading up to annexation, between 36 and 46 per cent of the population favoured joining Russia. Two things can be said about these figures. First, any country that has over a third of its population wanting to join another country has a serious political problem. And in this case, that problem was created by successive governments in Kyiv (see below). Second, other polls from this period show significantly higher proportions of people favouring unification with Russia. In 2008, a Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies poll showed around 63 per cent support for joining Russia, a UNDP study in 2009-2011 showed 66 per cent and in 2014 (before the takeover) a German poll had the figure at almost 71 per cent. Certainly during this time a USAID-funded poll set that figure at only 23 per cent, but this just goes to show how uncertain this whole area is.

One of the reasons for this uncertainty is a lack of surety about the methodological soundness of the polling techniques. Also important is the fact that different polls may provide a range of different options to be chosen between. For example, a poll that had the option of choosing between remaining in Ukraine, joining Russia, or being independent would get a different outcome to one having only the first two options.

The uncertainty remains in the post-take over period. Mr Richardson ridicules the result of the Russian-sponsored referendum held shortly after the Russian troops moved in. There are good grounds for viewing this result with considerable scepticism given the domestic situation in Crimea, including the considerable pressure applied for a positive result by Russian forces. However a series of polls taken after the referendum by reputable polling companies – Gallup, Pew Centre, and Levada Centre – all showed overwhelming support for the decision to join Russia. Whether these results can be viewed as reliable will depend on one’s view of the situation in Crimea, but they do at least cast into question the argument that there was not considerable support for the Russian takeover.

Ultimately, Mr Richardson argues, this does not matter because any approval of the takeover simply reflects the fact of dispossession of the original inhabitants by Russian settlers, and because the takeover was contrary to international law and therefore cannot be justified on the basis of the ability to “swing a favourable opinion poll afterwards”. Let us look at these in turn.

There is no doubt that there has been ethnic Russian dispossession of the Crimean Tatars, but this hardly amounts to a case of terra nullius. The Tatars were not the original inhabitants of the peninsula, which has been inhabited since ancient times. The Crimean Tatars date from the time of the sweep of the Mongols across Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, so although the Tatars may have been there long before the Russians, they were not the original inhabitants. Russians penetrated the area in large numbers after its take over in the eighteenth century. By the time of the 1897 census, Russians constituted 33 per cent of the population of Crimea, Ukrainians 11 per cent, and Crimean Tatars 35 per cent (other small nationality groups made up the remainder). So the Tatars have been a minority in Crimea for well over a century. Stalin’s deportation of the Tatars in 1944 had a devastating effect on them, reflected partly in the population figures for 2001: Russians 58.3 per cent, Ukrainians 24.3 per cent, and Tatars 12.1 per cent (according to the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine). This reflects both the high death rates among the Tatars associated with the deportation and the high levels of both Russian and Ukrainian immigration. But even given the high immigration rates, a substantial number of ethnic Russians in 2001 would have belonged to families that were in Crimea in 1897. And even those who had migrated after 1944 would have had some two to three generations resident in Crimea. What this seems to mean is that a large proportion of the Slavic population is actually composed of long term residents of Crimea, some pre-dating the beginning of the twentieth century.

There is another wrinkle here that Mr Richardson simply glosses over. In the 1991 referendum on whether Ukraine should become independent or remain linked with Russia, Crimea along with every other part of the country voted for Ukrainian independence (although it was much closer in Crimea than elsewhere – 54:46 in favour of independence). Why could the authorities not build upon this level of support to better integrate Crimea into Ukraine and thereby weaken any lingering sentiment for re-uniting with Russia? Successive governments in Kyiv failed to carry out the undertaking that they had given Crimea (and Donbas) in 1991 that they would implement effective regional autonomy for these regions. It is simply wrong to argue that “solutions were found”. There was continuing unhappiness in Crimea about the absence of effective regional autonomy and the perception that their needs were being ignored by Kyiv.* This is one reason why there were substantial demonstrations in Crimea against the overthrow of the pro-Russia Yanukovich government in 2014 by those it was feared would pursue an even more vigorous policy of ignoring ethnic difference in favour of a more virulent strain of Ukrainian national identity, something Mr Richardson fails to mention. This unhappiness about the treatment from Kyiv ran through all sections of the Crimean population, not just ethnic Russians, and seems to have been particularly felt by Crimean Tatars. Opposition to Kyiv was not just a function of Russian ethnicity.

Turning to the question of international law, it is clear that the armed seizure of a state’s territory by another is illegal. Or put another way, the changing of one state’s boundaries through the use of armed force by other states is illegal. This applies as much to Crimea and Russia as it does to Kosovo and NATO intervention in 1999. But there is also a principle that populations should have the right to decide their own forms of government, the right to self-determination. And, as in the Kosovo case, there was the view that the facilitation of this by armed force from without could be justified. This principle has been accepted since decolonisation in the second half of the twentieth century, and places qualifications on the operation of the prohibition on the use of force to change state boundaries.

So where does this leave us?

Final resolution of the Crimea question must rest with some form of popular plebiscite directly run and overseen by an international body. The question is: who should be able to vote in this plebiscite? If Mr Richardson has his way, presumably it will only be the Crimean Tatars. This would disenfranchise a large number of people who have lived in this region for generations, and unless he is envisaging large scale population displacement, would leave a situation in which 12 per cent of the population were making decisions for the other 88 per cent. This would not only be a stupid and undemocratic outcome, but would be politically destabilising. In principle, everyone with a stake in the region should have a say in its future. But ensuring how that was done and who should qualify as having a stake would not be easy. As I said above, the situation is much more complex than it frequently has been presented.

And by the way, Khrushchev did not pass Crimea to Ukraine in the belief that Kyiv would be better placed to promote Crimea’s economic development as suggested by Mr Richardson, citing a specialist on Slavic literature as his source; key decision-making remained located in Moscow, not Kyiv.

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