Thursday, October 15, 2015

Crimean Tatar Blockade of Russian-Occupied Homeland ‘Doomed to Fail,’ Shekhovtsov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 15 – Neither of the goals the Crimean Tatars proclaimed for their blockade of Crimea – the end to the Russian occupation of their homeland or at least heightened Western attention to its fate – has been achieved and neither is likely to be anytime soon, according to Ukrainian analyst Anton Shekhovtsov.

            Moreover, there are several ways in which the action is harmful to Ukraine itself: it is an action that, as Andreas Umland has observed, should be carried out by the state or not at all and thus weakens Kyiv’s authority; and it is helping to legitimize the extremists of the Right Sector who are taking part in it (

But most of all, he argues, the blockade fails to take into account the past failures of Kyiv to work to integrate Crimea into the Ukrainian body politic, a failure that Shekhovtsov says is one of the reasons the Ukrainian government did not do more to resist the Russian occupation and has not gone beyond rhetoric about recovering it.

After the restoration of Ukrainian independence in 1991, Shekhovtsov points out, “not one Ukrainian president and not one government tried to integrate Crimea into the broader Ukrainian society.” Instead they viewed it as “a special region, and then no in the best sense of this word.”

For pro-Russian groups, Crimea was a place where they could easily win votes, and for national-democratic forces, “it was a permanent headache: the Ukrainian national democrats simply didn’t know what to do” to integrate a place with 1.5 million ethnic Russians and several hundred thousand ethnic Ukrainians.

“However,” he continues, “the national democrats easily found a common language with the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people” because both the national democrats and the Crimean Tatars were opposed to the dominance in Crimea of Russian culture.” But the national democrats did not have a plan for doing something about it.

That was part of a broader problem, Shekhovtsov says. Ukraine’s national democrats from Timoshenko and Yushchenko to the “orange” political forces as a whole “did not have a truly all-Ukrainian national project. In reality, no one had such a project.”  Instead, Ukrainian politics remained “a game among oligarchs” with ideas put out only during elections.

As a result of their failure to make an effort at integrating the population of Crimea, he says, “the Ukrainian authorities lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the majority of the Crimean population even before Russia occupied and annexed” the Ukrainian peninsula last year.

“The disoriented national democrats who came to power after the 2014 revolution didn’t even resist the Russian occupation of the republic and simply handed it over to Moscow,” with some of them perhaps even breathing a sigh of relief that the Crimean “headache” was gone and that pro-Russian parties would now get fewer votes.

After the Russian Anschluss, Moscow imposed Russian laws and many residents of Crimea fled to “the territory of so-called continental Ukraine.” The Crimean Tatars suffered the most, but so too did pro-Ukrainian activists of other ethnic groups like Oleg Sentsov and Aleksandr Kolchenko.

            In response to these repressions, the leaders of the Mejlis on September 20 began to blockade Crimea. The goals of this action were, according to the Mejlis declaration, were “’an end to the occupation of Crimea and the restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” as well as demands that Russia end its mistreatment of those living under its occupation. In addition, the Mejlis declared that it was imposing the blockade as part of its effort to get Kyiv to annul the law on the creation of a free economic zone in Crimea.

            “The Ukrainian authorities behind the scenes agreed with the block and Ukrainian police were sent to three border crossing points between Crimea and the territory of ‘continental Ukraine,” Shekhovtsov says.

            And then he makes his key argument: “the blockade not only was doomed to failure from the very beginning but has inflicted harm on the interests of the Ukrainian state and its citizens.” It won’t lead to “’the de-occupation” of Crimea because Putin annexed it not to protect ethnic Russians there but to protect his position at home.

            “Putin will not return Crimea because this would undermine his legitimacy and could lead to the collapse of the regime,” the Ukrainian analyst says. And “Russia will not meet any of the demands of the blockade because to do so would create a precedent” and only lead others to make analogous demands.

            Moreover, “the majority of Ukrainians also are skeptical about the effectiveness of the blockade of Crimea.” One recent poll found that “only 12.9 percent” of Ukrainians “believe that Crimea could be restored to Ukraine” by other means than the use of force. And of course, the blockade has failed to raise the profile of the issue in the West which is now focused on Syria.

            But there are other serious issues about the blockade that need to be considered. First of all, if Kyiv considers Crimea its legitimate territory, blockading it is “radically incorrect.” Second, it is certain to further alienate Crimeans from Ukraine. Third, it undermines Ukrainian state power because it is at least nominally a private action.

            And fourth, the Mejlis by allowing the Right Sector to be a participant in the blockade is helping to legitimate within Ukraine an “openly racist and homophobic organization which is opposed to the Ukrainian authorities.” Indeed, the Right Sector declares that it considers its participation to be directed against both Moscow and Kyiv.

            What is especially unfortunate about the Right Sector’s involvement is that it is likely to lead to even worse Russian behavior in Crimea itself because in Russia, the Right Sector is a banned extremist group and because the Mejlis and the Right Sector share a common opposition to Russian culture in Crimea, Shekhovtsov says.

                “Of course,” the Ukrainian analyst argues, “all present-day discussions about the future status of Crimea are to a large extent useless. The republic has been annexed by Russia and the Putin regime will not return it to Ukraine voluntarily. More than that, it is far from clear that Russia will return Crimea even after a coming to power of the moderate nationalist opposition.”

            In the meantime, he says, Crimea will become ever less like the rest of Ukraine and more alienated from it, and the blockade rather than helping to overcome that will only intensify that trend.

            If Kyiv is serious about recovering Crimea, it must face up to the reality that “the key to the reintegration of Crimea is Ukraine’s ‘soft force,” something that presupposes “not only a healthy economy, a dynamic democracy and a strong civil society but also a consolidated and inclusive national project” intended to make Ukraine politically attractive.

            “But,” Shekhovtsov points out in conclusion,” even if Ukraine reaches that “hypothetical moment” when it is ready to reintegrate Crimea, “Crimean society will already be changed very greatly. It will not simply be what it was before March 2014 but rather will be still less loyal to Ukrainian statehood.”

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