By Roger Annis, first published on Truthout, Dec. 10, 2014
In the propaganda campaign being waged by the NATO countries and the government of Ukraine against Russia and in support of Kiev’s war in the east of the country, the events in Crimea of the past nine months occupy a pivotal place.
The secession from Ukraine that followed the March 16 referendum vote in Crimea is the number one pretext to justify the war as well as NATO’s rising aggression in Eastern Europe.
NATO began an eastward expansion 25 years ago at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has incorporated 11 new member countries (including eastern Germany) – 13 if Croatia and Albania are counted.
NATO might be upsetting the entire military and political balance of Europe by continuing to push eastward today in Ukraine, but the drumbeat of Western government and media propaganda claims the heightened tensions of this past year are all Russia’s fault. Russia’s supposed annexation of Crimea in March is the example par excellence that a new “Russian aggression,” harkening back to Soviet Union times, is afoot. It must be stopped at all costs before Ukraine falls, too.
In this made-up world, Kiev’s murderous, illegal war against its own population disappears. The war is an “ongoing conflict” between “armed groups” in which the only actors with a purpose, it seems, are “pro-Russian separatists” and their purported backer in Moscow. An emerging subset of the theme of Crimea as victim of annexation is that it’s also a land of disappearing human rights.
Given the very high stakes involved in all of this for the future of Europe, if not the world, it is time to step back and examine what is actually taking place in Crimea.
Fact from fiction
The Washington Post published an article on November 28 on the situation in Crimea that is a good example of the part-fact, mostly-fiction and falsehood that prevail in so much of mainstream media presentations of Russia, Ukraine and Crimea today.
The online edition of the article has the ominous title, “Crimea is becoming more Russian – and less hospitable to minorities.” The headline in the print edition is “Crimea’s uneasy slide into Russification.” Neither headline is proven in the published product. The “minorities” referred to in the headline are ethnic Ukrainians, who constitute an estimated 24 percent of Crimea’s population of 2.4 million, and Tatars, a people of Muslim faith who make up 12 percent.
The Post article was reprinted in the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation daily newspaper. It likes to think of itself as liberal. But the Star ceased to think and write for itself on matters Ukraine some months ago. It borrows from newswires for its coverage, selecting those stories that fit its editorial stand in support of Kiev’s war and, echoing NATO, tell Russia that it should police into submission the pro-autonomy, anti-austerity rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
The daily UK Guardian published a similar article on Nov. 25 in the form of a column by a pro-Western Russian writer. The writer cites Refat Chubarov, a Tatar politician resident in Ukraine, who says that Russia is preparing a “Chechen scenario” in Crimea, that is, a bloody destructive war. Nothing in the article provides the slightest suggestion of what would drive Russia to launch a war in an otherwise peaceful territory.
Buzzfeed went even further in September, reporting that Crimea’s Tatars are facing a similar fate to the one they suffered in 1944, when they were violently expelled en masse by then-dictator of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin.
The Post presents a very dark picture of Crimea today. People of Ukrainian descent are worried they could soon be “wiped away.” The Ukrainian language has “vanished” from schools. Ukrainian Orthodox churches have become “havens” for the persecuted. The church is the “only thing left” of the Ukrainian presence on the Crimean peninsula. Priests have “fled,” and Church authorities have been “forced” (by what or by whom?) to close one-third of their congregations.
The article says a blogger is worried that police will “come for her” because her blog and Facebook page are critical of the post-secession political authorities. A few other residents of Crimea are introduced who are evidently unhappy with the state of affairs in the region. But the reasons for their unhappiness, and possibly that of many other residents of Crimea, are entirely unclear.
It’s a grim picture. Unfortunately for the unknowing reader looking to understand events, the picture is peppered with untruths and exaggerations. And given the language barriers that separate Crimea from the West, it is very difficult for all but the most highly informed (or fluent in Russian or Ukrainian) reader to distinguish fact from fiction.
Let’s start by clearing up the numerous factual inaccuracies in the article. It is not true that Ukrainian language instruction has been removed from schools. Nor has Tatar instruction. The opposite is the case.
The change is that there are no longer any Ukrainian-only schools. Crimea now has three official languages – Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar. Before the changeover in March 2014, there was only one official language – Ukrainian. Schooling in Ukrainian or in Tatar is guaranteed on demand by parents (subject to reasonable limits on minimum numbers of students). 
The minister of education of Crimea reports there are 20 schools with classes where all the disciplines are being taught in Ukrainian. One example from a Crimean news report is the schools in the town of Feodosia, where there are 8,500 students. Of those, 139 are studying in Ukrainian and 120 in Tatar.
Another example is in a November 14 news report in the All Crimea news agency concerning a proposed renaming of the “Ukrainian Grammar School” in the capital city Simferopol to the “Academic Gymnasium of Simferopol.” School director Valentina Lavrik explains that the name request came from a majority of parents. Parent assemblies play an important role in the administration of the Russian education system. The news agency reported in August that the teaching language of the school would be Ukrainian for nine classes, serving 14 percent of the children in the school.
Textbooks in Ukrainian and Tatar, yes, are in short supply. That’s because the school curriculum is now that of the Russian education system. But textbooks are being translated into the other two official languages. (Russian-language news report here.) In the meantime, teachers are doing their best, language-wise, with the new curriculum.
One of the problems of Tatar-language education today in Crimea is the legacy of neglect and social underdevelopment of the region. Crimea was an autonomous republic of Ukraine for 60 years. Tatars only began to return to their homeland in large numbers in the late 1980s.
Underdevelopment also affected Ukrainian speakers. The Guardian Weekly reported in November that prior to secession from Ukraine, “not many courses were taught in Ukrainian as it was.” This fits a general pattern of the failure of successive, post-independence (1991) governments in Ukraine “to adequately promote and develop Ukrainian language and culture, including its very important regional and class-based dialects. (This July 2014 article by Ukrainian writer and editor Dmitry Kolesnik describes this challenge.)
The speaker of the Crimean State Council (legislative assembly), Vladimir Konstantinov, told the Kryminform news agency that a key challenge today in improving Tatar language education and government services is the absence of professional training inherited from the past. “There is great demand for teachers and translators of Tartar, and so the training should be organized for them.”
He went on, “Linguistic diversity is a responsibility of Crimea; it is our policy. We have to support it and so it is necessary to spend the necessary money and resources for the development of the Tatar, Ukrainian and Russian languages at the state level.”
I will return to the subject of the legacy of Tatar oppression and discrimination in Ukraine later in the article.
Who is restricting travel?
The Post article speaks of the difficulty of travel between Crimea and Ukraine. It’s an important subject because there is no land connection between Crimea and Russia except through Ukraine. The Post leaves the impression that travel obstacles are Russia’s fault. The opposite is the case.
Only holders of Ukraine-issued travel documents are permitted entry to Ukraine from Crimea. It is not true, as the Post says, that holders of Ukrainian passports must relinquish them if they apply for a Russian passport. Indeed, many Ukrainians rely on their dual citizenship and passports to access social services or receive pensions in both countries. This can be lifesaving for the poorest members of the Ukrainian population.
Residents of Crimea who are Ukrainian citizens are either required to apply for Russian citizenship or, if they choose not to do so and wish to remain a resident in Crimea, they must apply for a permanent residency permit. Human Rights Watch calls this a “coercive” measure, but it sounds very similar to how most countries in the world register those who are resident within their borders.
Human Rights Watch has reported recently that Ukrainian passport holders entering Ukraine from Crimea who are discovered to also hold Russian passports are refused entry.
Meanwhile, foreigners are not permitted entry to Ukraine without special permission because Ukraine does not recognize Crimea as an international entity with which it shares corresponding border procedures. Ukraine cut air travel to Crimea last February.
There is train service. It is heavily policed by Ukrainian authorities. In October, a U.S. journalist with the weekly Workers World newspaper, Greg Butterfield, was refused entry to Ukraine in the middle of the night while traveling by train. He was placed on the next train back to Crimea. An Orwellian twist to the experience was that the border guards assumed him to be a tourist. Presumably, since Ukraine says the political/geographic entity of the new Crimea does not exist, it cannot allow a tourist to cross a “nonexistent” border from “nowhere.” Or something like that.
The Post suggests there is persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church taking place in Crimea today. But it provides no specific evidence. The examples it does cite are misleading or dubious.
It says church congregations have closed. Yes, but this includes the congregations attached to Ukrainian military bases that were closed when the transition to Russia took place. (Many Ukrainian military personnel opted to stay in the refounded Crimea and join the Russian military).
Additionally, an estimated 20,000 people have opted to move to Ukraine. (Of that number, there are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Tatars, out of the total Crimean Tatar population of 300,000.)
The article claims that 12 percent of Crimea’s population are adherents of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but no source is cited. (The Ukrainian Orthodox Church was a split in 1992 with the Moscow-based patriarchy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The new branch did not become dominant in Ukraine as it hoped.)
How do Crimeans view matters?
Few statistics or overall information on social and economic conditions in Crimea are provided in the Post article or others like it. But the article does say that economic conditions for residents of the region have improved in important respects. The pensions, social services and other public services provided by the Russian Federation are much better financed than those of Ukraine. Meanwhile (not reported in the Post), the Russian government is investing billions of rubles (approximately 50 rubles per US dollar) in social and economic infrastructure in Crimea, and it is encouraging capitalist economic investment, including finding new markets for Crimean goods to counter the economic embargo that Europe and North America imposed against the region beginning last March.
One very big change taking place is the confiscation of large enterprises of the bourgeoisie of Ukraine that previously dominated the economy. Particularly targeted are the billionaire Ukrainians who are financing the war in eastern Ukraine. The biggest loser is Igor Kolomoisky, the notorious billionaire and financier of right-wing parties and militias. He dominates the economy and political life of the region of Dnipropetrovsk in southern Ukraine and owns Ukraine’s largest bank, PrivatBank. The bank’s 65 branches in Crimea have been confiscated.
Though the takeovers are being described in some quarters as “nationalizations,” many of the enterprises will be sold to Russian entrepreneurs.
Dmitry Kolesnik has traveled to Crimea all his life, and he says that improvements in the social wage in Crimea are offsetting the declines in agriculture, tourism and industry caused by the embargo. He says, “In general, there are many problems in Crimea, especially due to the difficult and expensive transport connections. But still, the majority have much higher salaries and pensions, while prices are still lower than in Russia.”
The New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar wrote on July 7, “The annexation still retains broad support in Crimea, since the many Russians living there yearned to be part of the motherland.”
That same month, British-Ukrainian-Russian writer and actress Vera Graziadei traveled to Crimea to investigate how Crimeans were viewing the political changes. She was intensely interested because she has traveled to Crimea every year of her life. She encountered different viewpoints among the people of different ethnicities to whom she spoke. But overall, her findings were summarized in the headline of an extensive written report that she published on her website in September. It was titled, “Crimeans are happier to be a part of Russia than Russians themselves.”
One resident tells The Washington Post, “Our lives have become better. Financially better and morally better. Especially morally.”
The inference here by the Post writer is that the resident speaks for many. Indeed, the writer says, “But many Crimeans are happy to be part of Russia, even if the initial euphoria has dissipated. Some welcome once again being part of a Russian nation to which they always felt connected. Others hold out hope for new economic opportunities. Many say that if it weren’t for Russia’s intervention, they would have had the same bloody experience as eastern Ukraine . . . ”
Here the cat is being let out of the bag. At the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, Crimeans, like many other people in Ukraine, were watching with dismay or horror the ascendance of the extreme right in the protest movement across western Ukraine, called Euromaidan. The maelstrom of violence that unfolded on Maidan Square in Kiev saw the government in power try to suppress the protest movement by force. The neoconservative and extreme-right leaders of the movement and their extreme-right shock troops responded with their own force. Ultimately, they overthrew the elected president, Victor Yanukovych, in late February.
Following the overthrow, as happened even more sharply in eastern Ukraine, armed and violent right-wing and fascist militias began to enter Crimea to impose by violence the “new order” of the new government, namely, its sharp and destructive turn toward austerity and economic association with Europe, which would, in turn, provoke a rupture of economic and other ties to Russia. This looming threat of civil war coming from the new government in Kiev and the right wing and fascist militias that the government leaned upon for support prompted a quick secession referendum in Crimea on March 16. The referendum was organized by the elected legislative assembly of Crimea.
Russia had considerable stake in the unfolding events. Its lease agreement with Ukraine for its Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol was threatened by the new government’s stated intention of joining the NATO fold. But the argument that events amounted to a “Russian annexation” is dogma, not fact.
Yes, Russia acted clumsily. It pretended it was playing no role in facilitating the decision of Crimea’s assembly to hold the referendum. But few serious observers doubt that, even with its haste and democratic imperfections, the “yes” vote for secession reflected the desire of Crimea’s majority to take a pass on Kiev’s course.
Ukraine is today playing its part in the economic squeeze of Crimea, as the Post reports. Ukrainians who enter Crimea can bring only limited cash with them. Ukraine banks are not honoring the accounts of customers. (Similar moves have been taken by Kiev in southeast Ukraine as part of the attempt to “cleanse” the region of its Russian-language majority.)
Ukraine has also restricted the flow of water into Crimea via the large canal that was built as part of the post-WW2 effort. Crimea is an arid region and its agriculture depends heavily on water diverted from rivers in Ukraine.
History and legacy
One of the great ironies of Kiev’s and NATO’s declarations about Crimea today is that they are demanding a return to the political status of Crimea that was decided 60 years ago by the Soviet Union. That was a process that was anything but democratic. Administration of Crimea was switched from the Russian Soviet Federation to the Ukrainian one in 1954 as a measure to facilitate the costly and difficult process of post-World War II reconstruction. The peninsula was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the German Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, and it suffered horribly under Nazi occupation.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of independent Ukraine in 1991, living standards in the new country declined and have never recovered to the levels of the late Soviet era for ordinary citizens. In Russia, meanwhile, living standards have risen from the depths of the post-Soviet collapse and are far higher today than in Ukraine. This is largely thanks to buoyant prices of the vast natural resources of Russia that the new class of entrepreneurs (“oligarchs”) sell on the world market.
The Post article is careful to not examine the social and economic conditions prevailing in Crimea before the decision in March to secede, including the conditions of the Tatar minority. That’s because it would challenge the narrative of a Crimea spiraling downward. As described earlier, with respect to education services, the people of the peninsula and the new governing authorities inherit conditions of considerable social underdevelopment and national rights violations.
Writing in December 2012, an American Peace Corps volunteer living in Crimea said that the education system for Tatars at the time was very poor. Only five percent of Tatar children speak the language, said the writer.
Tatar was not an officially recognized language in Ukraine, and the Tatar people had no recognition in the country’s Constitution granting meaningful powers. Prior to 1998, explained the Peace Corps writer, there was no Tatar language school instruction in Crimea. A number of schools were established that year that began to teach in Tatar. By 2008, 3,472 pupils were enrolled.
It wasn’t only education service that was lacking for Tatars. Their national rights as a whole were not recognized. A 2009 article in the Eurasian Daily Monitor reported:
The anniversary [May 18, date of commemoration of the 1944 deportations of Tatars from Crimea by the wartime Soviet Union] coincided with the first World Congress of Crimean Tatars, attended by 800 delegates from 11 countries. The congress, held in the famous Bakhchysaray palace [in Crimea] . . . released the pent up frustrations felt by Crimean Tatars who are dissatisfied with the manner in which they have been treated by successive Ukrainian governments. Throughout much of May, the Crimean Tatar protestors stood outside the cabinet of ministers’ office in Kiev demanding greater attention for their economic and social plight.
Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, a veteran Soviet dissident, complained that no legislation has ever been adopted in Ukraine to reinstate the social and legal rights of his people (Voice of America Russian service, May 18). The World Congress called upon the Ukrainian president and prime minister, “to take urgent steps to deliver on all the previously reached agreements, and your instructions and promises regarding the fair resolution of land disputes in Crimea and providing Crimean Tatars with land”
All of the infrastructure of the Crimean Tatars up to their 1944 deportation – theaters, schools, mosques, and other buildings – were expropriated by the Soviet regime and have not been returned . . .
Dzhemilev went on to acquire a seat in the Rada courtesy of the less-than-democratic procedure whereby approximately half the seats in the body are accorded to those electoral machines (“parties,” if you will) that obtain five percent or more of the vote at election time. The party seats are accorded by vote result. Dzhemilev was “re-elected” to the Rada on October 26 of this year as part of the “Petro Poroshenko Bloc.” He is a harsh critic of the “Russian occupation” of Crimea and argues that Tatars have nothing to fear from the right-wing government in Kiev or the ascendant forces of the far right on which it leans for support.
Dzhemilev is also a former head of the Mejlis, a commission of the historic Tatar assembly which is called the Kurultai. The Mejlis’ present claim to represent Tatars is sharply challenged by other Tatar institutions. Dzhemilev and current Mejlis head Refat Chubarov have been barred from entry to Crimea because they are accused of fomenting civil strife, if not civil war.
In 2012, the Ukraine government introduced a language law which made changes to the 1996 Constitution. It granted undefined status to “regional languages” in defined areas where minority language speakers constitute more than ten percent of the population. The law provoked sharp protests from right-wing (and pro-Europe) nationalists in Ukraine, including fistfights in the Rada during its adoption. The protests against the law were incredibly ironic because the measure was a response by the government of the day to insistence by the European Union that Ukraine adhere to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. That’s a convention that accords status to “unofficial” languages in Europe.
The first act of the Rada following the overthrow of Yanukovych in February 2014 was to repeal the 2012 language law. That was huge political blunder and an embarrassment to “democratic” Europe, U.S. and Canada, which had backed the overthrow. The post-overthrow interim president vetoed the measure on February 28.
In Crimea, meanwhile, a new constitution proposed in March 2014 and ratified in April declared Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar as official languages. Before that, Russian and Tatar were recognized languages of the Crimean Constitution. The territory was an autonomous republic of Ukraine with its own constitution, albeit subordinate to Ukraine Constitution and law.
Ukraine was and remains an officially unilingual country, notwithstanding the very large Russian minority that lives there and the fact that Russian is the de facto language of work, government service and the street for much of the country.
Also in Crimea, a new law was adopted in March, “On guarantees of resurrection of the rights for Crimean Tartar people and integration in Crimean community.” (Russian language report here). It was drafted in consultation with officials of the Republic of Tatarstan, one of the constituents of the Russian Federation.
The law is sweeping in scope. It opens the door to recognition and application of the rights of the deportees and descendants of 1944, including a recuperation of lost property. It grants the Tatar language official status and provides for Tatar representation of 20 percent in the governing executive power. It proposes to restore and promote the cultural and historical institutions of the nationality. The law proposes a five-year plan to implement all this.
The Russian Federation has formally recognized the 1944 deportation as an historic crime. This was voiced by Vladimir Putin in March of this year and formally recognized by Russia’s parliament on May 16.
The new law recognizes the Kurultai institution. It is to meet at least once per month. A broad Public Council of the Crimean Tatar People was struck in early November and one of its duties is to organize an election to the Kurultai. The Council includes representatives of more than 20 social, political and cultural organizations of the Tatar population.
Does all of this mean smooth sailing for the Crimean people and its Tatar minority? It would be naïve to think so. The region inherits a legacy of economic and social underdevelopment and is suffering an economic embargo. There is a now-permanent NATO military threat against its existence. It has no land connection to Russia. Civil war is raging in neighbouring Ukraine, and if Crimea were to let down its guard, civil war would be visited upon it by the right-wing government in Kiev and its allied, right-wing militias.
Crimea is under an intense propaganda bombardment by international and Ukrainian media. Dmitry Kolesnik explains, “Ukrainian media are constantly reporting that Crimea faces ‘hunger, … empty shops, . . . empty tourism beaches,’ although I saw nothing of the sort during my recent visit. The media constantly invent the most fantastic stories, never verified by sources. All this is under an intense regime of press censorship.”
While membership in the Russian Federation brings economic advantages to Crimea compared to Ukraine, capitalist Russia is a “managed democracy” in which political and social rights are tightly managed and restricted (not so different than the situation in the West, but that’s another story). Recent reports by Human Rights Watch (in October and November) and by Amnesty International last May on the situation in Crimea are full of hyperbole and unfounded accusations, but they do raise serious concerns about harassment, intimidation and possibly worse directed at those who are unhappy with the new political and social order in Crimea.
Concerns are being raised within the Tatar population over the slow pace of implementation of legal and constitutional changes. The chairman of the “Filli Firka” social rights organization, Enver Cantemir-Umerov, says the changes made earlier this year and reaffirmed during the Sept 14 election to the Crimean regional assembly are not being met. (Russian language report here.)
All this said, the challenges facing Crimea are nothing in comparison to the disaster north of its border. A bloody war is being waged in eastern Ukraine by Kiev, with NATO backing. The war is accompanied by a harsh clampdown on democratic rights throughout the country, including paramilitary gangs that violently assault public expressions of discontent and protests by journalists against a new thought-control “information ministry” of the government. Austerity measures ordered by international lenders in Europe are biting hard. The new minister of finance is a U.S. citizen formerly employed by the U.S. State Department.
Biased, Western media keeps pumping out the message that “It’s Russia, stupid” and that Crimea is sliding into something resembling a Soviet gulag. That’s because the NATO countries’ goal of weakening Russia and crushing the anti-austerity rebellion that has arisen in eastern Ukraine depends upon having a propagandized, misinformed and unengaged public at home.
But the game of lies and deception is slowly coming undone. The sane world needs to turn its attention to how best to assist the Ukrainian people to recover from the current crisis and put their country onto a new path of social justice and national and language equality.
. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has announced that he will bring a proposal to the recently elected Rada that reaffirms Ukrainian as the only official language of the country. It’s not clear how that might change the 2012 law.
Roger Annis writes frequently for Truthout on events in Ukraine. He is an editor of the new website, The New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond.