Some experts feel that the war in the Donbas was started to distract attention from the annexation of Crimea and force its recognition. If this is the case, the goal has almost been achieved. Indeed, when the military and civilians are dying, who can be bothered with Crimea where everything seems to be relatively quiet? However, that quietness is deceptive.
In March 2014, the whole of Ukraine and Europe followed events in Crimea with bated breath. Quite a few people did not believe that autonomous republic would switch so easily to a different country. Few had doubted until that moment that Crimea was more pro-Russian than the rest of Ukraine. But fewer even supposed that it was pro-Russian enough to become part of Russia.
Is it true that most Crimeans wanted their peninsula to be part of the neighbouring country throughout all years of Ukraine’s independence? Were these sentiments concealed until they surfaced a few years ago? Or did this happen during the Maidan period? Were these sentiments already simmering in February – March 2014? The results of the so-called referendum are not so important – everyone knows how it was conducted, and how such things are generally conducted by the Russian scenario. The question lies elsewhere: what led to the current outcome?
The pre-annexation Crimea
The tangled history of different rulers in Crimea, voluntary and forced migration, position of an island, yet paradoxical mental distance from the sea and the opportunities sea trade presents have shaped Crimea’s exotic diversity - ethnic, linguistic, religious, civic and identity-related. In the early 1990s, this harbour of the relic homo sovieticus that pretended to not divide people by nationality encountered an alien ethnic paradigm of Crimean Tatars, one that stood strongly behind its interests of an indigenous people that had survived the trauma of deportation. In the double-standard morale of the homo sovieticus, ethnicity that was different from their own - that of majority - was unintelligible, monstrous and unacceptable. Seeing in it anything but the value of diversity, the majority preferred it secreted away or assimilated. There has been hardly room for diversity in a place where “people are not divided by nationality” simply out of fear to face something different. The Russian language has been seen here as a given even if it’s not a native language of the interlocutor. To make things simpler still, anyone who is not Crimean Tatar has been automatically referred to as “Russian” or “Slav”. The purpose of Greeks, Armenians, Germans, Karaites, Bulgarians and many others in Crimea has been nothing more than an element of cultural contrast and tourist attraction. They have been allowed their songs, dances, cuisine and folk crafts because that is comprehensible and canny, while mosques were better in remote parts of the town, and azans – calls to prayer – were not supposed to overpower Christian church bells.
Anything that was different from the overall canvas of the dominating Russian culture was long perceived as a threat, a factor that forced people to change. Humans do not like to change. And that is where political manipulations with fears of “Crimean Tatar separatism” and “creeping Ukrainianisation” come in handy.
Some of those fears have disappeared over time, as communication, mutual interest and experience of peaceful co-existence intensified. Numerous education and cultural programmes, directed towards overcoming xenophobia and the development of mutual understanding between cultural communities helped. But there has been little of such dynamics and communication with mainland Ukraine. The Crimeans used to vote for politicians who appeared to be their “homeboys” as opposed to “strangers”, regardless of their political orientation, platforms, promises, activities and performance. They watched Russian TV, but were unaware of the reality in modern Russia: neither its political and social life, nor the economic situation of regular citizens outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, nor of problems in the Caucasus or with migrant workers, nor the tax, pension, health care, education, law enforcement and other systems, all of which affect everyday life. After all, it is one thing to imagine Alaska, based on the books of Jack London, but living in modern Anchorage or Unalaska is a profoundly different experience. The Crimeans hoped that, once joined with Russia, they would have pensions and wages like in Moscow, and the climate and comfort like in Crimea. At least the latter has not changed.
Therefore, it would be wrong to say that most Crimeans wanted to become part of Russia. They rather believed in the myth of some golden place and time, and felt nostalgia for something unfeasible which, paradoxically, comes from the same needs that the mainland Ukrainians declared, such as decent salaries, efficient medical aid, good roads, polite clerks, safety on the roads, and the like. The difference between the Crimeans and mainland Ukrainians was in their understanding of where all this comes from.
The Crimeans hardly understood or knew Ukraine. They travelled to Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv, but when asked “Where are you going?” they would respond: “To Ukraine”. The question “Where are you now?” would drive them into a blind alley. We’re in Crimea, they would say.
Everyone was used to speaking Russian. Another language was perceived as expansion, not as diversity and the norm. Our 2010 research found that representatives of each of the three largest language groups (Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar) saw a threat to their own language, but not to the other two. This did not always match their responses about where they could use their native language in public life, such as in ATMs, mass media or education, health care and services. Orchestrated fears thus made a much bigger impact on the behaviour of people, than analysis of objective reality. This explains why the call to “defend the Russian language”, no matter how absurd, worked.
As a result, Crimea ended up with a social and psychological environment where the ethnicity – nationality – nation discourse, as well as historical or linguistic markers related to these notions, were either omitted or articulated in narrow debates strictly divided into Ukrainians who talked about ethnic nationalism, Russians with their post-imperial sufferings, and Crimean Tatars with the consequences of deportation and the restoration of rights and justice. Experts involved in the Russian discourse rarely intersected with the other two in person. The rest of over 120 ethnic groups in Crimea were hardly heard or represented in public domain. This made perfect ground for bitter feelings among all ethno-cultural groups.
When looked at from Kyiv, Ukraine has several important epicentres, including Lviv, Donetsk and Crimea in addition to the capital itself. The debate between Lviv and Donetsk mostly focused on who allows Ukraine to exist as a state and what it would be like in the future. By contrast, Crimea never asked that question. Instead, it lived a separate life with a constant juvenile complaint that “Kyiv doesn’t understand us”. Most of its pro-Russian residents did not so much want to be part of Russia (they would have enrolled into Russia’s State Programme for Promoting Voluntary Resettlement into the Russian Federation of Compatriots Living Abroad, which came into effect in 2006, if they did), as they wanted Ukraine to preserve Russia in Crimea with the dominant status of Russians and the Russian language. Everything that Ukraine (or Crimeans themselves) did for the development of the other two large ethno-cultural groups and languages in Crimea was seen as the violation and the threat to that status quo. This offered convenient ways of manipulating the sentiments and fears of some Crimean Russians, while allowing certain political groups to implement their interests. The latter caught their fish in muddy water in November 2013 – December 2014, which they had been unable to do in the relatively calm period prior to this.
Average Crimeans (most of them found life hard enough under any government in terms of economy, but differently as far as identity was concerned) found the Maidan incomprehensible. They tend to think that “you can’t change the system, don’t even try; only fools do, or those who are paid for it”. While many Maidan protesters saw it as a place where civil society (a diverse one) was shaped, the Crimeans thought of it as a threat to the Russian culture and language of their region. It is hard to tell which of their fears dominated, whether it was fear of change, responsibility for it, of answering the question “Who am I?”, of potential violence, or any other fear. Crimea has feared conflict over the last 23 years, so it was now willing to do anything to avoid one. The dominant feeling in February-March was probably that of confusion and anxiety. Crimeans in November 2013 – March 2014
In the month before the “referendum” we saw in Crimea the growing likelihood of an ethnic conflict, an increase of violence with political overtones, “little green men” whose presence was hard to believe in at first, and the sudden announcement of the “referendum” which was another unimaginable thing. At the same time, the government in Kyiv government was virtually absent, and no one knew who would come to power next. Plus, we hardly saw a possibility to change the situation. In such environment emotions come to dominate over reasoning, and the ability to think critically plummets. Caught in this emotional turmoil, the Crimeans are offered to answer a few quick questions in the “referendum”:
1. Do you support the reunification of Crimea with Russia as the subject of the Russian Federation?
2. Do you support the reinstatement of the 1992 Crimean Constitution and the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?
The questions were designed this way for a purpose. Few remember the details of the 1992 Constitution. Passed on May 6, 1992, it declared that relations between Ukraine and Crimea would be based on treaties and agreements, and introduced Crimean citizenship. These provisions could essentially be used for Crimea’s separation from Ukraine. Crimean parliament amended them in September 1992, six months after it had passed them.
The “referendum” ballot did not offer an option of Crimea’s independence or for the preservation of its then effective status and Constitution. And Crimeans wanted a quick, simple and comprehensible answer to one question: “How will we live now?”.
It is hard to say how the Crimeans would have voted if these options had been on the ballots and the little green men had never been there; if they had not arranged provocations that could potentially lead to ethnic clashes in the late February; or if the votes had actually been counted rather than adjusted to the figure instructed from above. With all these “what ifs” it no longer matters how many people actually came to the polling stations and voted in the “referendum”.
So what happened to the majority of Crimeans? The likely answer is that many had to think for the first time about which country they would like to live in, and even more did not so much think, as react emotionally to a situation of uncertainty and alarm, choosing the option that was proposed to them through manipulation as the positive and best resolution of this situation.
Afterword on treason
I hereby do not judge anyone, let alone decide who betrayed whom. I would rather like to understand what happened, and why it happened. Treason is a moral category that stands for the failure of a person or a group of people to meet the expectations of another individual or group. We refer to people whose behaviour does not match our expectations as a traitor. It is hard to say who was a traitor in the Crimean crisis, except for those who switched allegiance – that is a legal dimension. We, who have left Crimea for the continental Ukraine: have we betrayed our peninsula, or have we returned to our country? Have we, the Ukrainian Russians, betrayed other Russians who never felt like they were part of Ukraine? We, who lived with nostalgia and dreams of the Great Country and can hardly come to terms with the fact that it no longer exists? We, who for various reasons, remain in the occupied territory but do not recognize annexation yet are forced to stay in this painful reality? We, who lived our everyday life with families and friends, and the necessity to survive under any government, something that was only possible at maximum alienation from political processes? We, who never asked ourselves the uncomfortable question – who are we with?
Our actions are mostly caused by emotions and feelings. One is the sense of being part of a group, of fair or unfair history, of pride or humiliation of this particular group. I once again stress out, that the above piece is not about the accuracy of historical facts. It is about feelings and emotions. Who can judge, which of those are right, and which are wrong?