The final panel of the first annual TCUP Conference focused on the issues of displacement and reintegration in Crimea and Donbas. This panel was the only one that was not planned for the original in-person conference scheduled for April 2020; but there cannot be a truly engaged discussion of Ukrainian democracy without talking about the future of Crimea and Donbas.
Moderator Sasha Jason explained that the panel would consider Crimea and Donbas together even though panelists would also discuss how their situations differ in very important ways. Panelists first discussed the issue of public sentiment toward the respective territories. Tania Bulakh described how people displaced by the conflict are commonly viewed. On the one hand, people displaced from Crimea are often viewed as having made a moral or ethical choice to leave because of their disagreement with the political trajectory after the Russian annexation. This sentiment assumes that they refused to compromise with an evil force and that they support the Ukrainian state. On the other hand, people from the Donbas, who often faced a choice between life and death and who did not necessarily plan to be away from their homes for more than two weeks, are categorized as social threats and traitors. Bulakh also pointed out that these assumptions are based on discourses that circulated and not on meaningful interactions with people from the regions.
Oleksandra Matviichuk elaborated on this framework, stating that people living in Crimea were granted Russian citizenship and drawn into the Russian Federation, whereas those living in the Donbas were used as a bargaining chip by Russian leaders and in Russian disinformation campaigns. Matviichuk also stated that the pro-Ukrainian populations of the occupied territories in the Donbas were more likely to leave to go to Ukraine, whereas pro-Russian populations became economic migrants in Russia and Belarus. Rustem Umerov began by discussing the myths and stereotypes that have circulated since tsarist times and that allow Russia to continually make claims on the Crimean peninsula. He noted that indigenous populations were first displaced from Crimea 238 years ago, when the Russian imperial regime began to bring people from different parts of the empire to Crimea. In response to this recurring displacement, Umerov argued for a reintegration of the indigenous Tatar population in any resolution made in the Ukrainian government. As he put it, the Crimean problem cannot be solved if Tatars are not part of the formal resolution.
Greta Uehling echoed Bulakh’s and Matviichuk’s differentiation, arguing that those displaced from Crimea could be seen as akin to political refugees, as they left to preserve their safety. Now, Crimean IDPs (internally displaced people) are woven into the national narrative of Ukraine’s civic identity. Displaced people from the Donbas had different experiences depending on when they left; Uehling mentioned that political elites could leave early on in the conflict, escaping abroad if they wished. People with more difficult economic circumstances left only when they absolutely had to, and these latter people have experienced more difficulties integrating into their new communities. Uehling also made the important point that many of these people experienced significant trauma, as war was largely waged in civilian areas at the outset. Uehling also pointed out that the stakes of the conflicts were different. The Ukrainian government did not resist the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, but they launched a military intervention in the Donbas. Because of the extensive infrastructural destruction and the significant death toll, the government is more motivated to find a solution in the Donbas conflict that in Crimea.
Speculating about the next 5-10 years, panelists were not especially optimistic that either Crimea or Donbas could be easily reintegrated into Ukrainian sovereignty. Umerov stated that the main issue for deoccupation and reintegration is that most people writing this policy in Ukraine do not have experience in writing such policies, and he advocated for including foreign experts. Bulakh believes that the prospect of reintegrating Donbas is more likely than for Crimea, given that the Normandy Format negotiations are already in progress and a Crimean Platform has only just been established. But, she pointed out, the longer the occupation is embedded in the everyday, the more a new status quo is established; the longer the conflict lasts, the harder it will be to resolve.
Matviichuk stated that Crimea has been increasingly integrated into the Russian Federation, calling it a “subsidized region with a military base.” Uehling expressed concern that Crimea will be more difficult to reintegrate because of the depth of changes that have already been made there since 2014. Umerov reiterated the importance of indigenous self-determination in Crimea, reminding listeners that Crimea voted for Ukrainian independence in 1991 and wanted to be part of an independent Ukraine. In terms of the Donbas, Matviichuk pointed to the environmental and infrastructural degradation in Donbas and the problem of its aging population as a major issue for its reintegration. She argued that Russia would prefer to keep the Donbas with an unidentified (occupied, but not fully under Russian control) status, which allows it to continue to put pressure on Ukraine. Uehling argued that the Steinmeier formula is an existing process moving toward resolution that should continue, with a particular focus on how power is shared after troops are withdrawn and an eastern boundary is reestablished.
Ukraine’s allies in the European Union and the United States should continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to reclaim the occupied territories, even though, as Umerov stated, this international aspiration in Ukraine is what prompted Russian aggression in the first place. Ukraine is trying to be a leader in the region with regards to developing a democracy and the rule of law, and its allies should support these goals. However, he said, in times of COVID, the lack of in-person meetings with international allies has been a challenge. He also hopes to see, in the future, not just financial aid for economic recovery, but also investments by companies and experts who will help Ukraine develop sustainably. Matviichuk also stated that the United States should continue not to recognize the Russian Federation’s position on Crimea and Donbas and should continue to put pressure on Russia. She also pointed to her Russian colleagues’ support for Ukraine’s democratic development, describing that they see the influence of Ukrainian democracy on Russia’s potential democratic future.
The panelists also discussed specific policy initiatives that should be the focus of the Ukrainian government and the challenges in their implementation. Uehling framed the challenge of supporting IDPs as a catch-22: if the state gives them preferential treatment, then they risk resentment toward IDPs, as described earlier in the panel. However, if the state gives them no support, then IDPs lack any motivation or ability to reintegrate into the Ukrainian state. She advocated for pension reform that would help IDPs access pensions without having to register legally as IDPs. She also suggested giving IDPs fuller voting rights, which would help them feel like they were able to participate more fully in political society. Uehling and Umerov both suggested a focus on educational initiatives, including educational exchanges. Both also mentioned increased access to medical care for displaced people, which would help them feel cared for by the Ukrainian state, as well as monetary support to help them access more secure housing in Ukraine. Matviichuk also argued for strengthened horizonal connections with Ukrainian universities, religious programs, and information sharing. She stated unequivocally that political slogans of “Crimea is Ukraine” or “Donbas is Ukraine” must be backed up with action.
Panelists discussed the issue of humanitarian aid from multiple angles. Bulakh described the “crisis caravan of aid,” in which international humanitarian aid is used to respond to an acute emergency, but that aid is quickly redistributed when another crisis happens. In other words, international humanitarian aid does not serve long-term commitments and does not support structural reforms and grassroots initiatives. This provoked a discussion about the provision of aid. Uehling pointed out that oligarchs came to fill the gap left when the crisis caravan of aid departed Ukraine. On the one hand, it is good that they provide aid, but it reactivates the cycle of oligarchic control, which can threaten democratic reforms. But Matviichuk and Bulakh countered with their own data that showed that most people receiving aid did not really care where it came from, but they were simply grateful for the support. Bulakh pointed to the effective distribution of aid by Rinat Akhmetov’s foundation, which was essential because no one else stepped in to provide aid on that scale. These oligarchs fill a gap that the state created by not providing aid; while the state may have tried to introduce aid programs, only private corporations had the money and political will to do so. Uehling added that we can say that it’s the state’s responsibility to provide aid, but in reality, the state is too slow; civil society and non-governmental organizations are in a unique position because they are more agile and can create initiatives that do not just perpetuate need but also get at the reasons behind shortages.
Each panelist framed their statements around the experience of people who lived in Crimea and Donbas. Uehling discussed her interviews with displaced people from both territories, and she described how political developments have had an effect on family life, friendships, and interpersonal relationships, especially in the context of severe and lasting trauma. Bulakh added that we typically talk about two groups when we are talking about the Donbas: either people who remain in the occupied territories—who are still citizens of Ukraine, she reminded the panel—and people who have been displaced. She brought “shuttle travelers” into the discussion, as hundreds of thousands of people travel back and forth, for instance, to access their pensions. All of these groups must be considered in Ukraine’s internal sovereignty if the state attempts to regain citizens’ trust.
Despite the difficulties facing Ukraine regarding the deoccupation and reintegration of Crimea and Donbas, the panelists made an effort to conclude the panel on an optimistic note. Bulakh and Uehling recognized the resilience of Ukrainian society and the ability of ordinary people to respond and mobilize when they can help. It was a fitting end to the conference that continually drew on the contributions of Ukrainians to fulfilling their dreams of a stable democracy.