As long as Russia holds on to the Ukrainian peninsula, it will not and cannot change for the better. Русский
In the three years since the annexation of Crimea, a consensus has emerged in Russia — everything that concerns the Ukrainian peninsula should be considered a Russian domestic matter, and by no means the most important on the agenda.
The “unification” of Crimea with Russia has been successfully carried out in the minds of the Kremlin’s opponents, too. In November 2016, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in a Facebook dispute with Crimean Tatar journalist Ayder Muzhdabayev, set out his position on the annexation. It was one shared widely by many liberally-minded Russian public figures, activists and intellectuals — namely that Russian society has more pressing problems to deal with, and that the opposition’s main goal must be to push for a change of power. Returning Crimea to Ukrainian jurisdiction is impossible, they argue, because public opinion would be against it. By way of illustration, Alexei Navalny’s presidential programme does not mention Crimea once.
Even those Russian media outlets that are generally considered ‘liberal” (they usually dislike the term “oppositional”) have also accepted Crimea’s annexation — as well as most of the rhetoric that came with it — without much of a fuss. The Dozhd TV channel, RBK (even before changes to its editorial staff) and Meduza, which is based in Latvia and not subject to Russian law, all routinely refer to Crimea as Russian territory. They usually argue that this is required by Russian law, and that failing to do so is fraught with strict penalties. But this sounds like an excuse — after all, the law doesn’t require Meduza to include Crimea in its online knowledge test of Russia’s cities (though this was changed after public criticism), nor to call the annexation an act of “reunification” (although such references have also been amended).
At the same time, Russian journalists usually see no problem in flagrantly violating Ukrainian law by flying to Crimea directly from Russia (Ukrainian law permits entry to the peninsula only through the checkpoint at Perekop). Even an employee of Deutsche Welle, Yuri Resheto, has done this — it’s cheaper, quicker, and simpler, while following Ukrainian law is cumbersome, inconvenient and far from obligatory.
The annexation of Crimea has revealed not only the true scale of imperialist sympathies in Russian society, but the special role Crimea plays in Russians’ understanding of themselves as a society and a nation
Once you’re there, you can write as many critical reports as you like about violations of human rights in occupied Crimea. But that doesn’t change the fact that respecting Ukrainian laws, even if inconvenient, is an important symbolic recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula. It’s a fact that few people in Russia are prepared to recognise.
Furthermore, the seizure of Crimea has led to a number of pressing problems for Russia itself — problems that form part of the Russian opposition’s agenda. It’s also exposed a number of problematic features of Russian society that came into being long before Russia waged war on Ukraine.
Crimea has revealed not only the true scale of imperialist sympathies in Russian society, but the special role Crimea plays in Russians’ understanding of themselves as a society and a nation. This imperial myth, alive and well in Russia today, was created during the reign of Catherine the Great. Peter the Great’s reforms from the very beginning were met with a mixed reaction: they were seen as somehow sycophantic, the idea of making Russia “catch up” with Holland was still seen as small beer. In contrast, Catherine conjured up a great European power, rooted in antiquity, the direct heir of the glories of Byzantium, a Third Rome, a Europe greater than Europe itself.
Catherine’s grandiose “Southern project” envisaged the defeat of Turkey, the unification of all Orthodox Christian countries into a single empire, and the enthronement of her grandson, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, as ruler of a new empire led from Constantinople. But this grand scheme never came to pass, and the only fantasy that became reality was the annexation of the Crimean Khanate in 1783.
This annexation was atypical for Russia. The empire didn’t just subjugate or co-opt a problematic neighbour, it completely reimagined and rewrote this annexed territory. This process began with the mass expulsion of the Crimean Tatars — the peninsula’s indigenous population, after all, had no place in the glorious past that Grigory Potemkin aimed to bring to life in the newly-conquered territory. Orthodox Christians, from “Great Russians” and “Little Russians” (ed. Ukrainians) to Pontic Greeks were reinvented as the heirs to Aristotle and Plato, and settled in place of the indigenous people. Naturally, all these details have been forgotten. But what hasn’t been forgotten is the place of Crimea in the public consciousness of this “Great European people.” This myth crystallises in the absurd formula, incessantly repeated, that “Crimea has always been Russian.”
These words perfectly illustrate the particularities of Russia’s historical memory. The apparent “Russianness” of today’s Crimea is the direct result of two and a half centuries of uninterrupted genocide and the expulsion of the peninsula’s non-Russian population. This project found its culmination during the Second World War, with the Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1944, which saw the expulsion not only of Crimean Tatars but also Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans, Greeks, Italians and Karaims. The Nazi occupiers exterminated the peninsula’s Jews and Krymchaks, while the peninsula saw huge civilian and military casualties. Only a third of Crimea’s pre-war population survived, and in the post-war period the peninsula was resettled with residents of Russia and Ukraine, including, deliberately, a significant number of war veterans, members of the Communist party and the Soviet secret services.
Few people in Russia today see Crimea as a country that has been conquered and razed to the ground, that it once was a fully-fledged, independent state, and that Crimeans preserved their own society and way of life in some form until 1944. Fewer would admit that even during the lifetime of today’s older generation, ethnic Russians were not the majority there.
The tradition of viewing Crimea as a territory, rather than a society, and its inhabitants as an annoying inconvenience, has survived from Catherine the Great’s times to present day. The formal justification for the Russian invasion of Crimea was the “defence of the Russian-speaking population”, and despite all the “Krymnash” (“Crimea is ours!”) theatrics, most Russians had a fairly sceptical attitude towards the Crimean population. That is to say, Crimeans’ main occupation was seen as emptying the wallets of Russian tourists, and their attraction to Russia — as motivated exclusively by the prospect of high salaries.
By approving the annexation of Crimea, Russian citizens have recognised their rulers as higher than the rule of law and sanctioned the violation of any laws
This opinion is a widespread one across Russia’s political spectrum. As the liberal journalist and public figure Sergei Parkhomenko characteristically put it: “If you tell the Crimeans for five days straight that if they return to Ukrainian jurisdiction, they’ll get higher salaries and pensions, permit them to build even more chicken coops for hapless tourists along the coast, and then hold another referendum… then 95% of them would vote to return to Kyiv’s rule. These people have shown that they don’t care about who they belong to. So when I read that they’ve been fooled, robbed, milked dry… that their new bosses are utter bandits and crooks, then I really have no sympathy. Because that’s exactly what they’re like.”
Nevertheless, Russians’ mass support for the annexation has much more serious consequences than this demonstration of deeply rooted chauvinism. By approving the annexation of Crimea, Russian citizens have recognised their rulers as higher than the rule of law and sanctioned the violation of any laws and agreements for the sake of “higher interests” or “justice”. Of course, the Russian state has behaved in this way before, but now it has a mandate from society at large. Little surprise, then, that the crackdown that followed the seizure of Crimea has been accompanied by spectacular acts of arbitrariness and impunity.
One such act was the demolition of traders’ kiosks across Moscow in February 2016, in complete disregard of both private property and court judgments. It’s no coincidence that the Moscow city authorities justified their actions by referring to laws passed to resolve the issue of real estate in newly-annexed Crimea. The 20-year prison sentence given to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov sets a new benchmark for political arrests. Before Crimea, a two-year prison sentence was the punishment for actively participating in protests — now, people who repost material on VKontakte or participate in solitary pickets can expect the same fate.
Thus, any force that aims to establish a Russian state that recognises the rule of law must urgently overturn this “mandate for impunity”. The Russian opposition’s attitude towards Crimea demonstrates that establishing the rule of law is not one of its priorities. In their fixation on Vladimir Putin, they cannot consider changes of power as deriving from the rule of law. The fact that these oppositionists do not propose a realistic plan for achieving that is not in itself a problem — Russia’s current system of governance simply does not permit a peaceful change of regime. That can only happen, as in the USSR, on the initiatives of the political elite, as a reaction to external conditions: the economic situation, the public mood or foreign policy factors, for example.
A more serious problem for Russia’s opposition is that it simply has no meaningful plan for what should come next.
If the alternative to Putin is not going to be Alexei Navalny, Mikhail Khodorkovsky or somebody else, but a democratic society under the rule of law, then the path forward is blocked by two obstacles — Crimea and Chechnya. The opposition has no vision of how to establish control over Chechnya, incorporating it into the same legal framework as Russia — although it’s possible in theory. There’s no such opportunity with Crimea. There’s no point in hoping that it will be internationally recognised as Russian territory; Crimea will remain a legal anomaly. Moreover, there can be no rule of law in Russia without even formal observation of international law.
As long as the Russian opposition is concerned only with regime change and avoids any discussion of Crimea’s sovereignty, the only thing it can offer is a Putinist Russia without Putin
In discussing the Crimea problem, the Russian opposition demonstrates an understanding of democracy that differs little from Putin’s (and echoes that of Donald Trump and the European right-populists) — that power is based on the support of the majority, and shouldn’t be burdened by the observance of laws, procedures and international obligations. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for example, doesn’t consider the restoration of the rule of law a “democratic procedure”, but passing some decision on Crimea’s legal status on the basis of majority opinion, which is allegedly against the peninsula’s return to Ukraine. Alexei Navalny, meanwhile, has proposed holding a new “normal” referendum of some kind.
What does the majority think about this? Does a coherent “majority public opinion” event exist on all these questions? How can it be taken into account? These questions don’t appear to matter — neither for Khodorkovsky, nor for Navalny, or for many other representatives of Russia’s opposition. This much is obvious. Indeed, by the same logic logic, the opposition wouldn’t oppose anything at all, since Putin is supported by the majority of the Russian population. All these contradictions can be resolved, but only by unconditionally recognising the illegality of the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the absolute impossibility of the peninsula remaining under Russian control under any conditions.
For as long as Russia holds on to Crimea, we will not see a positive alternative to the current regime. And as long as the Russian opposition is concerned only with regime change and avoids any discussion of Crimea’s sovereignty, the only thing it can offer is a Putinist Russia without Putin. Whoever comes after him, the difference won’t be that big.