March 2021 marks seven years since the illegal occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation. TCUP asked experts about the general sentiment in Ukraine around the issue of Crimea and its annexation, President Zelensky’s potential policy moves toward deoccupation and reintegration, and the role of the Crimean Tatar community in the future.
Rustem Umerov: Crimean Tatars play an important role in the resistance to Russian aggression
First and foremost, there is no doubt that Crimea is Ukraine, and recent opinion polls have confirmed that most people in Ukraine agree. According to the New Europe Center’s nationwide opinion poll (presented last December), 32.78% of respondents, while answering the question, “Which is the most promising option for regaining Crimea?” consider it necessary to create a specific international negotiating platform. Further, 26.85% opted for restoring cultural, educational ties. More than 20% of respondents are sure that the naval presence of Ukraine and partner countries in the Azov and Black Seas should increase. Recently, the School for Policy Analysis at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy presented another public opinion poll, “The Future of Donbas and Crimea: Public Sentiment.” In the context of the de-occupation of Crimea, 37% of respondents agreed to a military operation to restore Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Undoubtedly, the statement of the President of Ukraine on Crimea is crucial, as it shows that Crimea is the focus of attention of the leadership of Ukraine. Thus, the President has given a clear message to our international partners, as well as to Ukrainian citizens, including those living in the temporarily occupied Crimea, that we have a vision of how to de-occupy Crimea and protect the rights of Ukrainian citizens in Crimea who are subjected to persecution on political grounds.
In March, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine approved the Strategy for De-occupation and Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol. Given Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, military activities, and weaponization of information, Ukraine needs strong international support, including a policy of sanctions, which has proved its effectiveness.
Our foreign partners recognize Putin’s Russia as the most acute threat to the democratic world. Among the latest examples, there is the statement of NATO Secretary General on the Alliance's plans to expand its presence in the Black Sea region; the UK’s Integrated Review of foreign and security policy; as well as the joint statement of the G7 foreign ministers and the High Representative of the European Union, welcoming the Crimean Platform initiative.
The Crimean Platform is important in a broader context. It must be an element of the security arc from the Baltic states to the Middle East, where the democratic world is holding back Russian hybrid aggression. In my opinion, the full-scale Crimean Platform should focus on the following issues: security of the Black Sea region; de-occupation of Crimea; protection of human rights; release of political prisoners and protection of the rights of the Crimean Tatar people. Many tasks of the Crimean Platform should be implemented at the parliamentary level, thus in the Verkhovna Rada we have established the inter-factional group «Crimean Platform».
As indigenous people of Ukraine, Crimean Tatars play an important role in the resistance to Russian aggression. The Crimean Tatar people are part and parcel of strengthening and reaffirming Ukraine’s firm stance on Crimea globally. Thus, the protection of the rights and interests of the Crimean Tatar people should be part of the Crimean Platform.
Rustem Umerov is a member of Parliament, Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, and a member of the Ukrainian Delegation to PACE. He is also a delegate of the Qurultay of the Crimean Tatar People.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Myths about Crimea continue to shape attitudes in Ukraine
After seven years of occupation, Ukrainian society's attitude towards the Russian annexation of Crimea has not changed substantially. An absolute majority of Ukrainians are not ready to recognize the Russian status of Crimea. In a recent poll by the Razumkov Center on how to end the war in the Donbas region, only 10% of respondents said they were ready to recognize Crimea as Russian in exchange for peace in the Donbas. Seventy percent of respondents rejected that option. In general, it is safe to say that most Ukrainian citizens share the idea of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. That includes the idea that Crimea is part of Ukraine.
A whole separate question is the attitude towards Crimea and knowledge about Crimea. The peninsula remains largely unknown to most Ukrainians, not to mention the rest of the world. Unfortunately, knowledge about Crimea's past and present remains colonized. The things we know about the peninsula are part of imperial narratives (Russian, Soviet) that justify external power in the controlled space. Myths about Crimea, Crimean Tatars, and the history of Russian control over the peninsula are constantly reproduced, even by people who are critical of the Russian occupation. As a result, many believe that although Russia occupied Crimea illegally, the act was "morally fair" because of the perception of Russian historic rights to this land. There is much work to be done in the sphere of knowledge and education — both for Ukrainian society and internationally.
The recent statements of Ukraine's leadership regarding Crimea look reassuring. Any dynamic that brings attention to the peninsula on the international platform is positive. There are some positive expert reviews of the Strategic Plan for the De-occupation of Crimea, adopted recently by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (the plan itself is secret and not available to a broader public). The problems of Crimea, including the violation of human rights in Crimea, the violation of Indigenous rights of the Crimean Tatar people, the persecution of Ukrainian citizens, enforced disappearances, the replacement of the Crimean population with Russian settlers, and other crimes should be a matter of international debate. We need to discuss those problems because silence normalizes occupation. More information on the problem of human rights in Crimea is available in the situation reports prepared by analysts of CrimeaSOS.
At this point, it is hard to imagine that Ukraine can de-occupy Crimea with the use of force. However, this plan (like any other plan) should remain on the strategic table in case such an opportunity arises. Ukraine needs to prepare for de-occupation, adopt laws on transitional justice, and create governmental institutions ready to take power in the de-occupied territory. Besides, Ukraine needs to ensure that the status of Crimea reflects the right of the Crimean Tatars for national autonomy. The state must support the development of the Crimean Tatar language and culture, as well as fund education in the Crimean Tatar language. It is essential to understand that this is not a bargain, not an exchange of Crimean Tatar rights for their loyalty. It is the responsibility of the Ukrainian state to protect the Crimean Tatar people in Crimea. Today Crimean Tatars face cultural, religious, political, and racial oppression by the occupying Russian state.
Ukraine's primary strategy in de-occupation is diplomatic. Ukraine should work with its partners to regularly increase the pressure of sanctions on Russia and ensure that those restrictions are followed. It is crucial to pressure Russia to stop the violation of human rights in Crimea, stop resettling Russian citizens to the peninsula, stop the destruction of cultural and historical landmarks of the indigenous Crimean Tatar people in Crimea. The idea of the Crimea Platform looks promising. The leader of Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev, gave this idea a positive assessment in his recent interviews. It seems that the platform will unite some of the most prominent experts, activists, and the international community around this issue. Hopefully, the efforts of all those people will lead to some actual outcome.
Maksym Sviezhentsev is an expert on the history of Russian intervention in Crimea, focusing on the early post-Soviet years. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Western Ontario (Canada), dissertation titled “Phantom Limb: Russian Settler Colonialism in Crimea (1990-1997).” His research focuses on the history of settler colonization of Crimea – replacement of the Crimean Indigenous people by Russian imperial and Soviet settlers. He currently works for the NGO "CrimeaSOS."
Sasha Jason: Good governance in Ukraine must work together with Crimean Tatar advocacy
For the first time in the seven years since the occupation of Crimea, there may be some hope as the Zelensky administration launched its Crimean Platform. Emine Dzhaparova, the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, has spearheaded an outstanding effort to bring the issue back to the forefront of Ukrainian and international political conversations, and Zelensky has voiced his commitment and approved a strategy for reintegration. His resolve seems strong right now: recently he has taken on Viktor Medvedchuk by charging three of his associates for their roles in the annexation, demonstrating that the administration is willing to pursue multiple avenues to address the issue. It’s a step in the right direction, and Ukraine-watchers will be curious to see if this results in direct action against Medvedchuk himself. But as much as this is long overdue, it addresses past crimes and does not look to Crimea’s future. These commitments and actions are of course critically important, but their true worth will only be apparent if coupled with further actionable policy, and with little Ukrainian oversight in the peninsula it is unclear how this might work.
But what has been forgotten most in our current discussions on Crimea is the human toll. At the beginning of Zelensky’s presidency he succeeded in his much-lauded (although also criticized) efforts to ensure the release of Oleh Sentsov, Volodymyr Balukh, Oleksandr Kolchenko and other high-profile political prisoners, all of whom are from Crimea. But without international advocacy, what has been done to ensure the release of over 80 other political prisoners, many of whom are ethnically Crimean Tatar? Additionally, according to Freedom House, the political freedoms and civil liberties of those still living in Crimea under occupation are rated as some of the poorest in the world. With limited access or insight into Crimea, it’s a difficult task to conceptualize how we can help people there.
This raises the question of how we support the development of those still living in the peninsula, outside of large-scale political actions. In discussions with Rustem Umerov, an MP from the Holos Party, one thing that has become clear to me is how important it is for the West to support emerging leaders from the Crimean Tatar community. By championing educational and professional initiatives specifically targeted for Crimean Tatars, we can help elevate the voices of those who will be the best advocates for Crimea.
Of course, Crimean Tatars will continue to be the biggest advocates for the community, but continued pressure from the West is crucial. There are causes for concern that the West is wavering, but the election of Joseph Biden has provided a new opportunity for Ukraine to reawaken commitment to an issue that has long lain dormant among foreign policy interests. Both the Crimean Platform and the Crimean Tatar community can be important actors in doing so. However, what Ukraine might want to incorporate in its bid to reintegrate the peninsula is a commitment to anti-corruption efforts and democratic values as a part of the Crimean Platform. This will be more likely to inspire Western actors to come to the table and support Ukrainian initiatives in regards to the peninsula if they have trust in good governance in Ukraine.
Sasha Jason currently runs the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program and the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. She graduated with an M.A. in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (REEES) from the University of Michigan.
 As of June 2020
Oleksandra Matviichuk: The slogan “Crimea is Ukraine” must be backed up by real action
There is a consensus among the passionate part of Ukrainian society that Crimea was illegally occupied by Russia. But at the same time, the majority of the population rarely remembers that this is an ongoing issue. The problem of the occupation of Crimea in opinion polls typically has a low rating, yielding significantly to the issues of corruption, low wages and high tariffs, and the war in Donbas. For some people, even the very idea of the reintegration of Crimea and Donbas raises concerns that this will lead to the victory of the pro-Russian political forces in the elections. The situation is complicated by the fact that until recently, there was no meaningful discussion of a possible strategy, issues of transitional justice, reintegration, etc. at the state level. The topic of Crimea was used in internal political struggles, which led to the fact that the conversation was not at the level of finding a solution, but at the level of slogans and declarations. Last week, the President signed the strategy for the de-occupation of Crimea, which is a significant step forward to remedy this situation.
Before the occupation, Russia had increased its presence in Crimea, not only through the Black Sea Fleet, but also through the development of cultural and religious ties, support for sports, infrastructure development and education. No matter how difficult it is, Ukraine should also look for ways to build direct horizontal relations with its citizens—to attract students to Ukrainian universities, support religious communities, protect the rights of Crimeans using international mechanisms, and much more.
In this context, a direct address from the President is important at a symbolic level. I remember well when the previous President first addressed the Crimeans in his welcome speech on Independence Day. I immediately received several responses from people in Crimea. They wrote that they cried when they listened to his speech live, because it was very important for them. Ukraine must fight not just for the temporarily occupied territories, but also for the people who are living there.
But the main thing is that we do not just stay at the level of the relevant words and documents. The slogan that “Crimea is Ukraine” needs to be backed up by real action.
Firstly, Ukraine must have a practical economic interest in the residents of the occupied territories and provide whatever social protection and mobility of movement around the world is possible in such conditions. Secondly, Ukraine should make efforts to create an alternative Russian-speaking information channel, and at the same time abandon its usual narratives, which will simply be rejected by people who have relied on Russian media to this point. Thirdly, Ukraine should create a sense of connection with its citizens and perform various service functions for its citizens in the occupied territories.
The Crimean Platform can become a kind of a crystallization point for combining the efforts of governments, experts and representatives of the public to keep the topic of the de-occupation of Crimea on the international agenda and find creative ways to influence the situation. After all, existing international mechanisms are unable to stop either the militarization of the peninsula and its transformation into a military base, or the colonization of Crimea through controlled migration and the replacement of the population of the peninsula by Russian citizens from different regions, or massive violations of human rights in Crimea. And something must be done about these problems, they will not go away on their own.
Most of the people who are imprisoned for political reasons in Crimea are Crimean Tatars. This indigenous population of Crimea is again under threat of a hybrid deportation. In addition, Russian propaganda represents the Crimean Tatars as “terrorists,” using repressive anti-terrorism and anti-extremist legislation to combat dissent. The cases of prisoners of conscience Emir-Usein Kuku, Server Mustafayev and others, who were imprisoned on trumped-up terrorism charges for their human rights activities, are indicative. That is why it is important for the international community to hear the voices of the representative body of the Crimean Tatars, which is now working in exile.
The most important task for Ukraine is to implement successful reforms and create sustainable democratic institutions. Seven years ago, when the authoritarian regime of Yanukovych fell as a result of the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine was able to carry out a quick and successful transformation. Putin started the war in Donbas to stop the Ukrainian state on the road to democratization. Ironically, he was defending himself. After all, Ukraine's success in forming an attractive democratic model will have a huge impact on Russia itself and the entire post-Soviet region, where in some countries, freedom has narrowed to the size of a prison cell. Ukraine is a key to Russia. No wonder, when I ask my colleagues, Russian human rights defenders, how we can help them, they invariably answer: “Be successful! Bring it on!”
Oleksandra Matviichuk is a human rights defender who works on issues in Ukraine and the Eurasia region. At present, she heads the human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties. She is the author of a number of alternative reports to various UN bodies, the Council of Europe, the European Union, the OSCE and the International Criminal Court. In 2016 she received the Democracy Defender Award for "Exclusive Contribution to Promoting Democracy and Human Rights" from missions to the OSCE. In 2017 she became the first woman to participate in the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program at Stanford University.