Thursday, February 18, 2016

Russian Actions in Crimea Undercutting Support There for Annexation, Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 18 – Except for the Crimean Tatars, the overwhelming majority of the population of Crimea supports its annexation by the Russian Federation; but the arrogance of local Russian military commanders, the worsening economic situation, and the cavalier behavior of nouveaux riches from elsewhere in Russia is changing that, a Moscow historian says.

            In today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Aleksandr Shirokorad says that these three factors are undermining support for integration and that at a minimum Moscow needs to consider introducing a longer transitional set of arrangements to prevent things going from bad to worse (

            He points out that “all territories joined to the Russian Empire for a lengthy period at a minimum of many decades had a special status and their own laws,” including Ukraine, Poland, Finland, the Caucasus, Central Asia “and others.”  This was true “even in Soviet times” when Western Belarus and Western Ukraine from September 1939 to June 1941 had “special” status.”

            “Why not give a special status to Crimea?” Shirokorad asks rhetorically. “The southern coast of Crimea and Sevastopol were a window of the Russian Empire and the USSR. Yes, there should be military bases in Crimea. But all the remaining territory should be used exclusively in the interests of the local population and those vacationing from Russia as a whole.”

            Shirokorad’s proposal is unlikely to find much support in the Kremlin, but the arguments he makes in favor of doing something radical for Crimea now are certain to worry the upper reaches of the Russian government because of what they imply could easily happen if nothing is done.

            Sevastopol, he points out, “was the most secret city of the USSR;” and now, again, it “is the most secret city of the country,” where the military command does things without much concern as to how they affect others on the peninsula. Despite promises, they have not opened more airports; and they have shown propaganda films that are highly offensive to Crimeans.

            Moreover, in Sevastopol and other cities in Crimea, prices have been allowed to skyrocket and now are three times those in Moscow. That has not only reduced the standard of living of all the people in Crimea but raised questions about local officials and their ability to help anyone.

            And finally, Shirokorad says, the behavior of Russia’s nouveaux riches in Crimea means that “’the wild nineties’” have returned there, with the rich flaunting their wealth, elbowing out everyone else, and no one in Crimea or in Moscow doing anything to stop it. Crimeans are especially outraged that they are losing their beaches to people who come only a few days a year.

            What is occurring, he says, “automatically” leads people to compare the present with Soviet and Ukrainian rule in the past. “And, alas, the present day does not always withstand comparison with the past. Yes, up to now in Crimea and Sevastopol, the prestige of the Russian president remains high.” But they don’t like much that they see about them.

            “The actions of the Sevastopol administration aren’t popular with the overwhelming majority of the population,” the historian continues. And they don’t like it that polls about their attitudes are taken only when Moscow needs them for propaganda purposes.

            Fewer than seven percent of Crimean residents “if one doesn’t count the Crimean Tatars” want to return to being part of Ukraine. And that number would fall over time, if the authorities were behaving in a more sensitive fashion.  “But it isn’t difficult to guess how the population views” the arrogance and insensitivity of Russian officials on the peninsula and in Moscow.

            Crimeans now talk about these people only with curses, and that is true particularly of those who backed the idea of including Crimea within the Russian Federation.  Now, some of them are ready to “say the word ‘independence’ … ‘if all these ugly actions continue.’” That might please Kyiv and the West but it won’t make Moscow happy.

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