Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?

Friday, February 28, 2014
Visitors to the Borderlands Lounge know that I have been linking to news events in the Crimea all week. And now, things seem to be getting much, much worse.
I woke up this morning to read that Russian troops had reportedly taken over two airports in the Crimea, a peninsula belonging to Ukraine on the northern Black Sea littoral. 
According to the Washington Post:
In Kiev, Ukraine’s new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said the armed men were Russian troops.
“What is happening can be called an armed invasion and occupation. In violation of all international treaties and norms. This is a direct provocation for armed bloodshed in the territory of a sovereign state,” Avakov said.
NPR and other news outlets, meanwhile, report that "more than 10 Russian military helicopters flew from Russia into Ukrainian airspace over the Crimea region on Friday." Others are reporting that a Ukrainian Coast Guard base on Crimea had been "surrounded by about 30 Russian marines."

Earlier this week, meanwhile, people took over government officials in the Crimea and hoisted a Russian flags. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has denied any Russian government involvement in those events.

Vladimir Putin had earlier indicated that he would consider sending humanitarian assistance to the Crimea. But now it is starting to look like a full-fledged invasion.

It's terrible news, all around.

The Tatar Legacy

The Crimea is a fascinating and beautiful place. It also happens to be one of the places I work on--in fact, just a month ago I applied for a grant to go research there in the summer. I also spent six weeks there in 2006 (during which time I took loads of photographs) working in the archives of Simferopol, the regional capital.

I was working in the Crimea because I research the Islamic and Turkic worlds. Until relatively recently--the final decades of the 18th century-- the Crimea was almost entirely Muslim. Following widespread Muslim emigration from the Crimea (which I discuss in an old old journal article and in my upcoming book) and the settlement of Russians in the region, Muslims had become a minority by the beginning of the 20th century.

Then, in 1944, the entire Crimean Tatar population--Sunni Muslims who speak a language very similar to Turkish--was forcibly exiled to Siberia and Kazakhstan, punishment for their alleged collaboration with German soldiers who had occupied the region in WWII. Chechens and Soviet Germans were also exiled during these years, with extreme loss of life ensuing. Some people estimate that up to one third of the entire Crimean Tatar population died within the first year or so of their forced exile.

The Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to the Crimea in 1990, just as the USSR was beginning to fall apart. Many did come back, but unlike the Chechens--who were allowed to go back to their homeland in 1957--the Crimeans had no state organization behind them when they made their return from exile. Most locals in the Crimea--mainly Russians--did not want a group of Muslims arriving in the region and raising uncomfortable questions about who had the right to live where. Many Tatars simply built shanty houses on the outskirts of the towns and cities where their grandparents had come from a half-century earlier, which I saw when I first traveled to the Crimea as a tourist in 1994.

Today in the Crimea, the overwhelming majority of the population (about 70%) self-identifies as Russian. Maybe 20% self-identifies as Ukrainian and another 10% or so is Crimean Tatar.

There's also a huge Tatar diaspora in Turkey, where there is general sympathy of the historic plight of the Crimean Tatars. I wonder if Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could end up leaping into the fray, perhaps as a means of taking people's minds off of his most recent troubles

Territorial Issues

Making things even more complicated is the fact that, since Catherine the Great's conquest of the region in 1783, the Crimea has been seen by many--and today probably most--Russians as Russian territory. In the early years of the USSR, the Crimea was an autonomous republic within the Russian Republic in the USSR. The logic behind making it an autonomous republic related to the presence of the Crimean Tatars, a national minority within Russia.

In 1956, however, new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of the Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. At the time, I'm sure the move ruffled some feathers, but in practical terms transferring a mini-republic from one of the "Fab 15" republics of the USSR to another was not such a big deal. After all, it was still the same country: the USSR. The Crimea became an autonomous republic (by virtue of its Russian majority--the Tatars were gone by then) within the Republic of Ukraine.

This is how things stood when the USSR broke up in 1991. Ukraine became an independent country, and the Crimea remained as an ethnic Russian majority mini-republic within Ukraine.

The Mini-Republics in post-Soviet Space

Longtime readers of this blog and students in my classes at MSU will be familiar with a term I frequently use--'Mini-Republic'--to describe many of the trouble spots in the former Soviet Union. As I have discussed elsewhere, most (but not all) of the conflicts that have occurred in the territories of the ex-USSR have taken place in such regions. 

Other mini-republics where violence has broken out include Nagorno-Karabakh (an Armenian-majority mini-republic within Azerbaijan that has been occupied by Armenian-backed military forces since the late 1980s); South Ossetia and Abkhazia (ethnic minority regions within Georgia which have held de-facto independence ever since the Georgian-Russian war in 2008); and, perhaps most famously, Chechnya, a republic within the Russian Federation that has suffered two major wars and many more years of lower-level conflict since the breakup of the USSR.

What all of these places have in common is that, in addition to holding an ethnic population that is a local majority but a minority within the country more generally, the mini-republics also possess a state infrastructure. Like the Crimea, which has its own flag, parliament, educational system, and other forms of autonomy from the Ukrainian central government in Kiev, the mini-republics have borders. This is a situation not unlike that of the former Yugoslavia, which had a similar system of assigning republics and mini-republics (like Kosovo, which was a mini-republic within the republic of Serbia) to ethnic groups.

So, one thing to keep in mind is that people are at odds not only over intangible matters like 'national identity,' but also very concrete questions relating to administration, language rights, and borders. There's a reason why conflicts relating to mini-republics have proved, over the past two decades since the USSR disintegrated, much more intractable (less tractable?) than those taking place in regions where no formal mini-republic (with borders, a local parliament, etc.) is involved.

The Current Crisis

Beyond the Crimea, Ukraine is a complicated place. Prior to 1991, the country had virtually no modern history of modern independence. Much of the country (mainly in the west) self-identifies as Ukrainian, while in the east and in the Crimea most people self-identify as Russian.
Since the late 1990s, two main political blocs have emerged in Ukraine. One, seen mainly in the west of the country, has supported politicians like Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko, while voters in the east and in the Crimea have generally supported Viktor Yanukovych, who supports closer ties with Moscow.

In fact, a prelude to this month's events occurred in 2004-2005, after a disputed election between Yushchenko and Yanukovych. Yanukovych had initially been declared the victor (so to speak!) but the election results were disputed. After two months of protests,  new elections were held with foreign oversight and Yushchenko was declared the winner. At the time, this was called the 'Orange Revolution,' the first in a series of 'colored revolutions' that saw the ousting of leaders of former Soviet republics who were more friendly with Russia, and their replacement with new leaders who were more supportive of the United States.

After a single term in office that was marred by conflict with his former ally, Tymoshenko, Yushchenko won just 6% of the vote in preliminary elections in 2010. Yanukovych, who despite the Orange Revolution still retained considerable popularity with roughly half of the country. Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko in the runoff elections, and the Orange Revolution appeared to have been overturned. 
I think a lot of people have been predicting a crisis in the Crimea for quite some time. It seemed to me back in 2008 that the Georgia-Russia war could become a 'dress-rehearsal for the Crimea.' One of the main reasons for this is that Sevastopol, in southwestern Crimea, is the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet. After the breakup of the USSR, Moscow and Kiev negotiated a Russian lease of the base until 2017.

The base has become a political issue in Ukraine, with successive governments (depending on whether they were 'pro-Russian' or 'pro-EU/US') either announcing that they would let the arrangement come to an end or promising to extend it. In 2010, then-president Yushchenko announced that he would let the lease expire in 2017, but after Viktor Yanukovych was elected in 2010 he quickly moved to extend the lease until 2047. Given the developments in Ukraine over the past couple of weeks, however--with Yanukovych effectively being chased out of the country after his forced turned weapons on protesters--it is safe to assume that folks in the Kremlin could be worried about that deal staying in place.

What Now?

According to news reports, the Russian government continues to deny that it is involved in events taking place today in Ukraine. Nevertheless, Putin is curiously out of sight. That's worrisome.

There are obviously some parallels to Georgia in 2008, although it does appear (people still dispute this) that it was Georgia that started the shooting back then, preemptively sending troops into Southern Ossetia and then triggering a Russian reaction (and Georgia's ultimate loss of both Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia).

The situation in the Crimea is a bit different. Assuming that the armed men in the Crimea are somehow connected to Russia (something that hasn't been proven yet, but which seems likely), it could be that the goal is to foment instability in the region in advance of sending in 'humanitarian' aid in the form of peace-keeping (ie, occupying) troops. In other words, this seems like a provocation, designed to invite conflict that Russia could then go in to pacify.

For years, Russia has reportedly been distributing Russian passports in the Crimea, a tactic that the country also pursued in Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia when those conflicts were frozen between 1991 and 2008. (Indeed, the Russian imperial government pursued similar policies vis-a-vis Russian Muslims fleeing for the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, insisting they were Russian subjects as a means of exerting pressure on the Ottoman government).

My sense is that Putin and his backers might see this as an opportunity to impose some sort of grand bargain on Kiev: give us the Crimea and you can keep eastern Ukraine, where much of Ukraine's industry is located. While eastern Ukrainians also largely self-identify as Russians, unlike Russians living in the Crimea they have no 'mini-republic' of their own. There is no precise border. Having the eastern regions change hands would be incredibly messy, whereas the Crimea is already a republic with borders and moving it from one country to another (as it was moved from one republic to another in 1956) would, at least at first glance, appear to be an easier matter.

I have a feeling we're going to be hearing a lot more about the Crimea in the coming days. Whatever happens, I'm sure the Crimean Tatar population of the peninsula must be feeling very worried right now. And for good reason. Within the Crimea, the Tatars have been key local allies of Kiev for the past two decades. I think no matter what happens, they're going to find themselves in a tough spot.

Also see:

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia

Obama, Russia and the Middle East

Trouble in Ukraine

More links and commentary can be found in the Borderlands Lounge


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