The majority of the Crimean population seem to be in favour of Russia and its tsar. And it’s unlikely to change. The Tatars are the exception.
More than four years have passed since 18 March 2014, when, in violation of international law, the Crimean peninsula was annexed by the Russian Federation. The successive outbreak of war in the Donbass and Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict meant that the focus diplomatic attention and international public opinion shifted away from the region. Crimea today seems to be an integral part of Russia and it is highly unlikely that its status will be renegotiated in any way in the near future.
The events in the peninsula provoked a strong reaction from Ukraine and the majority of the international community; the refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the 2014 referendum and the consequent Russian annexation of Crimea has led to the introduction of international sanctions. Since then, Crimea has remained in limbo, de jure part of Ukraine, de facto increasingly integrated into the Russian Federation.
The peninsula, in fact, is now fully under Russian jurisdiction. The rouble is the official currency and the fiscal-economic system has been assimilated into that of the rest of the Russian Federation. The local forces of law and order and all of the security apparatus, including the secret services (FSB), have been reformed and reconstructed. And there’s more. According to the legislation approved by the Russian parliament, all of the citizens resident in the peninsula in March 2014 have become Russian citizens. The concession of citizenship began immediately after annexation and led, according to Russia’s Minister of the Interior, to the issuing of around two million passports.
The rapid political Russification, which has been consolidated by the transformation of the electoral system and the creation of regional branches of Russia’s political parties, was managed and coordinated by a bespoke directive originating from within the walls of the Kremlin and presided over by a trusted aid of Vladimir Putin, Dmitrij Kozak. While the high level figures that have filled important roles during the confused phases of annexation, like Sergej Aksёnov and Vladimir Konstantinov, have managed to hold on to their posts in exchange for loyalty to the Kremlin, the contingent of mid-level officials has undergone a large-scale reconfiguration.
While the formation of new political and government apparatus has been extremely rapid, the question of the Tartar community in Crimea represents a particularly tricky puzzle for Moscow. In spite of being a minority group (around 12% of the population), the Tartars remain a strongly rooted, politicized and well-organised community. The Tartars’ complicated relations with Moscow have their historical origins in the roots of Tsarist Russia, the purges of the 1930s and the Stalinist deportations following the Second World War. According to numerous historians, more than 230,000 people were forcefully deported to Central Asia. The Tartars were eventually able to make their return to Crimea (which passed into the hands of the Ukrainian administration in 1954), by benefitting from the policy of perestroika, to finally become citizens of an independent Ukraine in 1991.
In spite of the initial attempts by Moscow to co-opt the Mejlis (the representative body of the Tartar people), the Tartars opposed the illegal annexation of Crimea. Russia’s iron fist responded immediately and there have been numerous cases of human rights violations among the Tartar population and beyond. Paying the price have been the community’s institutions and organisations (the Mejlis has been declared an extremist organisation and has been banned since 2016), while high profile Tartar leaders Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Dzhemilev have been prohibited from entering Crimea. Amnesty International and other organisations have reported that citizen activists too have been targeted and their rights to associate freely have often been violated. The same can be said for many forms of media and journalists, and not only Tartars, who have been intimidated, arrested, and silenced during the four years of occupation.
From an economic point of view, today’s reality largely flies in the face of the hope that the Russian annexation could offer opportunities to the region. With the increase in salaries and pensions, that have been brought into line with the rest of Russia, to balance the situation inflation and the increase in the price of consumer goods, plus the break in the economic relationships with Ukraine and the international sanctions (often circumvented as demonstrated by the case of the Siemens turbine) have had a negative impact on the economic situation in the peninsula. As reported in a recent study by the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), in spite of over 300 billion roubles (around 4 billion euros) being invested by Moscow in the development of Crimea, still today over 70% of the peninsula’s budget derives from subsidies from the central government. A fact that, in addition to underlining the Crimea’s dependence on Moscow, represents an exceptional financial intervention if seen in the context of the reduction in subsidies to many other regions, caused by cuts due to the sanctions and the fall in the price of crude oil.
From an overall point of view, Crimea today is more isolated and oriented prevalently towards Russia. The creation of an artificial border with Ukraine and the EU’s policy of non-recognition, have certainly contributed to alienating the population. According to a recent poll (ZOiS Report), only 12% of respondents have been able to travel to regions or cities in Ukraine in the last year and 3% to other countries (excluding Russia). The significant migrant flow headed towards other regions of Russia from the peninsula following the occupation is not surprising, while a small part of the population left Crimea to move to Ukraine. The picture is reinforced by the diminishing contact with family members that live in Ukraine.
The Crimean population does not only appear more isolated from Ukraine and from Europe, however; generally, it is indifferent to, or in some way in favour of, the annexation. According to the report, the majority seem to view the policies pursued by the Kiev government since Ukrainian independence as the main cause of the annexation, remarking that Kiev’s neglect of the region and poor governance have been important factors. If the referendum were to be repeated today around 80% of respondents would not vote differently.
Considering the political situation in the peninsula and its integration into the Russian media landscape, the polls should be viewed with caution but it appears evident that the opinion of the majority of the population regards annexation by Russia to be something that is extremely unlikely to change.
Crimea has become a symbol of both change and continuity, a sign of the new international political race and renewed Russian patriotism, of the return onto the international scene as a great power and of the brief honeymoon period between nationalists and imperialists in the shadow of the Kremlin. It also symbolizes the continuity with the imperial past. What has been defined by many sociologists and political scientists as the “Crimea effect” has had a significant impact on Putin’s image within the country. It is not by chance that Russia’s presidential elections this year took place on 18 March, the very day on which, four years ago, Crimea became a part (unrecognised) of Russia. If the recent inauguration of the bridge over the Kerch strait that connects the peninsula to the rest of Russia has symbolically cemented the annexation, the elections served as a second referendum that has made the situation effectively irrevocable. According to official data, 71.5% of the population of the peninsula headed to the polls and over 91% of votes went to Putin. In spite of the fact that the Tartars’ boycott of the vote and the numerous reports of vote rigging and intimidation would imply that the true numbers are far lower, the symbolic message of the victory was far more valuable.
There may be clear violations of human rights and firm protests from Kiev and the Western powers, however, Crimea appears inextricably anchored to Russia.