After the August Russian-Georgian war international media and pundits have started to warn that the next Russian target could be the Crimea. Scenarios of further, much more dangerous for the world, driven by Moscow conflict have been speculated. Crimean peninsula started to be presented as a territory of possible conflict. How realistic are such scenarios? Could the Crimea become the next Abkhazia? And finally, what could potentially destabilize this region?
The Crimea is very specific part of Ukraine. Its the only Ukrainian region in which Russians constitute majority of the population (58%). Ukrainians are the second largest ethnic group (24%) and Tatars the third (12,5%). Ethnic diversity is one of the most characteristic features of the region. The Crimea is governed by a local elite and in practice has a significant level of autonomy in political and other spheres. In recent years there can be observed a very interesting and at the same time potentially dangerous process in the Crimea. Crimean peninsula is today the only Ukrainian region endangered by separatism and the only one where Russia owns real instruments of influence and is able to manipulate the internal situation. Contrary to common opinions the eastern Ukraine or Odessa district are not such regions and separatism is marginal there. In case of the Crimea Russia can use for its purposes tense ethnic relations, problem of Black Sea Fleet based in the peninsula or try to question the legal status of the region or Sevastopol city, if Russia would like to do it. And the answer is not so obvious.
The Crimea was the centre of strong secessionist movement up to the mid-90s. Its symbol was Yuri Meshkov, the first and the only Crimean president, whose aim was to create independent country or to integrate the peninsula into Russia. However, Ukrainian authorities were able to quell the separatism and the Crimea did not repeat the fate of Transnistria or Abkhazia. The success of Kiev had at least three main reasons: lack of unite position of Russia towards a situation in the Crimea; President Leonid Kuchma’s ability to make a deal with the local nomenclature and the outbreak of the first Chechen war which absorbed Moscow.
During the Kuchma presidency (1994-2004) Kyiv was able to control the situation in the region and to find a common language with the local elite. The situation changed after the Orange Revolution. The local political elite has started to present more self-confidence and to regularly oppose the decisions of central authorities. Two parallel processes explain the growing autonomy of Crimean elite. Firstly, Ukrainian political elite in Kyiv is absorbed by permanent conflicts: in the parliament, between the president and the prime-minister. As a result Ukrainian state has ceased to provide an effective policy towards the Crimea. On the other hand, the region – after ten years of absence – was noticed by Russia which has started to construct a new policy towards the peninsula by increasing the old and gaining the new instruments. The Moscow allies are Russian TV channels, very popular in the region, what make it part of Russia’s media space.
The most evident manifestation of Moscow’s new attitude towards the Crimea are its activities aimed at strengthening the pro-Russian organizations, including financial and institutional support. The biggest and most powerful among them is Russian Community of the Crimea established in early 90s and headed by Sergey Tsekov, the speaker of Crimean Supreme Council. Other influential organizations are Russian Front, Sevastopol-Crimea-Russia Foundation, supported by Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow. As a result of 2006 election to the local Supreme Council, radical, pro-Russian organizations received its representation in the region’s parliament first time since the mid-90s. However, their march for power can be neither easy nor successful as very often there is lack of cooperation between them or even open competition for Moscow’s money. In spite of its weak sides, pro-Russian organizations are useful and effective as Russia’s tool to influence Ukraine. They become more active each time when Moscow try to pressure Kyiv.
The Crimea is vulnerable to Russian influence also because of the Russian Black Sea Fleet factor. In accordance with the bilateral agreement of 1997, the Fleet should leave the Ukrainian territory in 2017. Kyiv wants to start negotiations on the removal of the Black Sea Fleet from the Crimea, but Moscow denies it. Russia probably hopes that it will be able to prolong the stationing of the Fleet beyond 2017. In recent months some Russian politicians and militaries issued many provocative statements that „the Black sea Fleet will stay in Sevastopol”. To achieve this goal Moscow will have to make a deal with future Ukrainian government, what will not be easy as all main political forces of Ukraine agree not to prolong the agreement. Anyway, the future of the Black Sea Fleet could be a factor of artificially provoked destabilization in the region. The fate of the Black Sea Fleet is connected with the status of Sevastopol. It cannot be excluded that if Russian plan of prolong the stationing its Fleet failes or Ukraine faces a real chance for NATO membership, Moscow could rise the question of legal status of Sevastopol. Even today some Russian politicians claim that in 1954 Ukrainian SRR received the Crimea without this city. Sufficient to say, Russian parliament already questioned the legal status of Sevastopol and called it „Russian city” in official declaration of 1993. Consequently, the situation around the Black Sea Fleet is and will be one of the most important issues and challenges in Russian-Ukrainian relations and an indicator of its actual condition. At the same time, until the Fleet stays in the Crimea, Ukraine will have to deal with its destabilizing influence on the region.
An important factor of the Crimean stability are also Crimean Tatars. Contrary to the negative Russia-supported propaganda, the Islamic fundamentalism among the Tatars is marginal and they are the most pro-state group in the region. Tatars organizations support Ukraine integration with NATO and the EU and at the same time have negative attitude to Russian activities in the peninsula. Particularly, after the war in Georgia, the Tatars are afraid of similar Russian actions in the Crimea and provoked interethnic conflict (e.g. between paramilitary organizations of Crimean Cossacks and the Tatars). As a result, the Tatars are Kyiv allies and could, to some extent, counterbalance activities of pro-Russian organizations.
The first time since the mid-90s the Crimea is in a state of high tension and faces many serious challenges, including: the question of loyalty of Russian majority, the future of the Black Sea Fleet and interethnic relations, particularly between Russians and the Tatars. The future of the region will be dependent on the Russian-Ukrainian relations. It seems that at the moment Russia does not strive to destabilize the situation in Crimea as its goals are much broader. The key aim of the Kremlin is to allow pro-Russian political forces take power in Kyiv thereby influencing Ukrainian policy. The game is not for just the Crimea but Ukraine as a whole. But the Crimea is one of the most significant elements in this game. After gaining the control over the situation in the region, Russia wants to use it as a mean of influencing Ukraine. The “Crimean tool” can be use as an example to prevent Ukraine entering NATO. Therefore, increased Russian activities in the region observed in last 3-4 years are aimed at stopping or to slowing down integration of the Crimea with the rest of the country.
Consequently, Crimean stability and the way of the region’s existence within Ukraine is dependent on Ukrainian state’s possibilities to provide effective policy and at the same time attract local elite. But to achieve it there is a growing need for stability in Ukrainian politics. At the moment, a task number one for Kyiv is to clear the Crimea of existing or rising problems which in perspective and in concrete external circumstances have destabilizing potential. If the Ukrainian state is strong and stable, and its Crimean policy wise and effective, the process of political, economic and social integration of the region with the rest of Ukraine could finally be successfully finished.
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