The Unfree Peninsula

26 December 2014, 17:10

For the Kremlinthe annexed Crimea currently appears to befirst and foremosta fortresspeninsula which is to be a base for subversive-reconnaissance activitya constant threat to Ukraine’s underbellya base for expansion into Ukraine and under favourable conditions — to the Caucasus and the BalkansCrimea has an extremely important geostrategic position.

The Kremlin will try to secure Crimea for itself, so in 2015, it will continue to intensify the militarisation of this Ukrainian region. We can expect the creation of a powerful separate armed group on its territory as announced by President Putin, and in the worst-case scenariothe use of these armies in a fullscale war against Ukraine. At which, nuclear missile carriers are already present in Crimea. This could be a means if intimidation and blackmail. In all likelihood, Crimean military plants will be kept very busy, yet ungainly laws and red tape can cause a delay in this.

The militarisation of Crimea is an excuse and a tool the Kremlin can use to gradually change the structure of the Crimean population. The “large military base”, which the annexed region is rapidly transforming into, needs loyal and relatively well-to-do residents. Crimea is extremely dependent on mainland Ukraine for its water, foodstuffs and electricity supplies. Importing all this at international market prices is a huge expense for the Kremlin. So it is simply too costly for the Kremlin to support the existing population there. It has already been announced that 17,000 apartments are to be built for the Russian military in Crimea over the next few years. According to Ukrainian statistics, the average Crimean family has 2.6 persons. Multiplied by 17,000, this makes 44,200 family members of the military, many of them coming from Russia. It is also safe to assume that many military who used to serve in the Ukrainian Army and have stayed in Crimea will not get these apartments. Accordingly, the number of military colonialists will be higher. On the other hand, mandatory conscription in 2015 will oust many Crimean men, especially young Crimean Tatars, who are reluctant to serve in the Russian army.

In addition to that, preferential enrolment of young Crimeans to Russian universities might expand, while local teachers, university professors and other professionals might be transferred to work in Russia following the servicemen, police officers or civil servants who switched allegiance from Ukraine to Russia after the annexation. The “Crimean Federal District” will instead be refilled with Russian officials and employees.

Kadyrov regime as a model

It appears that for the transition period, the Kremlin has decided keep the old Crimean establishment to rule Crimea, albeit with the addition, and under the reliable control of the Russian “new Crimeans”. It is very likely that only minor officials will go to work in the annexed peninsula, while serious players will be cautious of international sanctions.

The Crimean establishment is largely ineffective, but reliable for Moscow. Many of its representatives have burned their bridges with Kyiv through separatism and subversive activities in Eastern Ukraine.

In 2014, they established active contacts with the Chechen Republic through bilateral visits and cultural exchanges. 4,000 young Chechen conscripts will be the first since the 1990s to serve in Crimea. Apparently, the Kremlin sees a special role of the predominantly Muslim Chechnya in the annexation of the peninsula, the takeover of its shadow economy, and neutralization of the Crimean Tatars. Sergey Aksyonov, the “Head of the Crimean Republic”, seems very interested in the power maintenance experience of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. For many years, the Chechen leader has demonstrated absolute loyalty to Vladimir Putin. In return, Chechnya regularly receives significant federal subsidies. Apart from that, Kadyrov has security forces that are independent of the Russian federal ones and often act beyond the Russian borders. The Crimean authorities could use the “Crimean self-defence” formed as a paramilitary separatist group in early 2014 to that end. Human rights activists accuse it of systematic violation of human rights and suspect it of committing serious crimes – kidnapping and murder. Since June, the Crimean leadership has been trying to legalize the “Crimean self-defence” in the Russian legal system. It is safe to assume that the Crimean establishment will use it, in whatever status, to subdue discontented Crimeans and redistribute property in 2015.

Overall, in 2015, the Crimean leadership will most likely benefit from embezzling a fair share of federal bailouts to Crimea, the creation of a free trade zone, and illegal income from gambling, should a gaming zone be opened in Crimea. Some could pocket profits from drug trafficking from Afghanistan and the North Caucasus to Europe.

READ ALSO: Crimea: The Multitude of Nations

Corralling everyone into happiness

Russian human rights activists say that the Crimeans will experience a “decompression” in the human rights sphere by facing the pressure the Russians have grown accustomed to in 15 years in a very short time. Indeed, the population of Crimea has gone from a relatively free Ukraine to the consolidated authoritarianism of Russia. The rights to free speech, assembly, thought, personal immunity and even life will unfortunately be violated systematically in the annexed peninsula in 2015.

Few of over 3,000 mass media registered in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea at the beginning of 2014, will be registered anew under the Russian jurisdiction in the coming year. The pressure of the Russian authorities and pro-Russian groups will intensify on the remaining media and journalists. The NGO sphere will also be weeded out. The space of freedom and the possibility of self-organisation will narrow significantly. In 2014, the Crimeans were already deprived of the right to elect their mayors – Crimean city councils elected them through secret ballot in September.

The rights of ethnic groups, such as the Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians are under particular threat. The well-organized Crimean-Tatar movement, with its 50 years of self-organisation experience, does not fit into the realm of authoritarian Russia. National self-governing bodies, the Crimean-Tartar Mejlis and Kurultai, did not recognise the annexation of Crimea. So Russia will strive in 2015 to create a pro-Russian majority in the Mejlis and Kurultai by means of bribery, blackmail and repression. At the same time, it will create Crimean-Tatar organisations that are loyal to Russia, such as the K’rym movement. Moscow has already virtually succeeded in winning the cooperation of the Spiritual Directorate of Crimean Muslims to which most Crimean Muslims belong. A slew of measures were taken to achieve this, including the establishment of a parallel Crimean muftiate.

Life will be equally difficult for ethnic Ukrainians struggling to preserve their language and culture in 2015. The occupation authorities continue to liquidate the remains of the already small cultural infrastructure of Ukrainians. In the 2015-2016 school year, Crimea will most likely end up with no Ukrainian-language schools and hardly any lessons of the Ukrainian language. Crimean branches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, where most parishioners are ethnic Ukrainians, will face increasing pressure. Other characteristically Ukrainian things will also be destroyed, while Ukrainian activists will move to the mainland weary of moral and psychological pressure and repression. The rights of other ethnic minorities are also under threat.

Ethnic and religious tensions and provocations could spark spontaneous conflicts. However, numerous cases of human rights violations in Crimea and other problems resulting from the annexation will probably fail to encourage insight in most Crimeans in 2015. They remain under the influence of the large-scale information war, which Russia has unfolded against Ukraine.

The consequence of the powerful brainwashing will be that the many difficulties of the Russian reality will be viewed as the lesser evil compared to the war, “fascists” and the like. Vital infrastructure projects, such as the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait, the Sevastopol-Kerch highway and others, also offer room for manipulation. Influenced by propaganda, the post-Soviet mindset will be prepared to endure temporary hardships while believing that the bridge will be built eventually, and the happy life will begin. Some experts claim that a Kerch-Kuban bridge or tunnel, vital to the connection of Crimea to mainland other than Ukrainian, will not be built because of the expense and the geological complexity of the seabed.

Carrots, such as increasing social benefits, guaranteed domination of ethnic Russians and propaganda alone will not help Russia keep Crimean society under control. It will also need the stick — repressions and people reporting on each other. As Russia’s economic problems and political isolation aggravate in 2015, the sticks will be used more extensively.

Ukraine, as the legal ruler of Crimean sovereignty, in spite of virtually no chance returning the peninsula in the short-term, should develop and start implementing a strategy for re-integration of the temporarily occupied territory in 2015. It should make the burden of illegal occupation of foreign land ever more cumbersome for Russia. Next year, Ukraine can start selling both water and electricity to Crimea at international market prices, provided that the rights of Ukrainian citizens there are observed. Should they be violated, Ukraine can block the supply of vital products to the peninsula. 

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