Next week, if the March 16 referendum on Crimea’s status takes place, the hypothetical scenario of Crimea’s separation from Ukraine might well come closer to becoming reality.
Much of the media and academic punditry on the turn of events following the change of government in the Ukraine and Russia’s military incursion on the Peninsula has focused on how the West, Russia and Ukraine can avert Crimea’s apparently imminent separation from the Ukraine. Yet, from the perspective of those living in Crimea, perhaps the question that we should start asking is how would Crimea fare as a region within the Russian Federation?
There are of course other instances of Russia’s involvement in territorial disputes in the post-Soviet region — notably in Abkhazia and South Ossetia — short of the disputed regions becoming constituent entities of the Russian Federation. Yet, the Kremlin’s apparent embrace of the option of Crimea actually joining Russia might indeed create a new precedent of a region becoming de jure part of the Russian Federation. Furthermore, Crimea is different from the Georgian breakaway regions in that before 1954 it had been part of the Russian Republic within the Soviet federation.
The Russian official discourse surrounding the plight of the Crimea has been framed in terms of genuine self-government, devolution of power from the center and respect for the rights of ethnic minorities, ostensibly trampled upon by both the past and present Ukrainian governments. Yet, over the past 13 years, Russia itself underwent a series of reforms essentially doing away with elements of genuine federalism and local governance, as well as some semblance of a coherent nationalities policy associated with the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.
During Russia’s “hyper-decentralization” phase of the 1990s, Yeltsin signed a series of often ad hoc agreements devolving power to the regions. As I discuss in my book on Russia’s regional politics, however imperfect, these arrangements helped preserve the territorial integrity of the nascent federation, while also allowing for the existence of islands of democratic pluralism and contestation in many localities.
President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, made the restoration of a functioning “power vertical” the lynchpin of his domestic policy. He began by setting up regional watchdog executive agencies manned by the Federal Security Services (Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti, FSB) officers to reign in excessively independent-minded regions. He also established control over regional executive and representative bodies.
Putin acquired legal powers to dismiss regional governors for law violations and to disband regional parliaments should they violate federal constitutional provisions in their law making. In October 2004, Putin went a step further in the process by pushing through a law abolishing competitive election of regional leaders and making governors subject to presidential appointment. He then set out to reform the Federation Council, which had hitherto served as an important channel for vetoing the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, when it passed proposals that went against regional interests. The body promptly turned into a pro-Kremlin agency swiftly approving government-supported legislation including that impinged on regional interests (Unsurprisingly, it is to the Federation Council that Putin turned for rubber-stamping his decision to offer Russia’s “protection” to residents of the Crimea).
A new local government law was also passed amid much fanfare about genuine local governance and grass-roots rule. The law de jure institutionalised the de facto local government dependence on higher-level authorities that had come to exist in many regions, while also scrapping genuine independence of municipal bodies from regional authorities in the more politically open and competitive regions.
Finally, the Putin regime failed to develop any sensible long-term strategy to tackle the country’s complex inter-ethnic relations. Despite protestations from some of Russia’s most respected nationalities experts, and in what was interpreted as a failure of the Putin administration to appreciate the necessity of a coherent nationalities policy in Russia, the functions of the erstwhile Ministry for Nationalities and Federal Relations became vested with federal agencies in charge of regional economic development and trade.
During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev in 2008-2012, some momentum was generated to liberalize the Russian federal system and reintroduce elements of genuine federalism. The “modernization” agenda has however remained limited in scope, and the Kremlin has continued to maintain or devise ingenious mechanisms of political control over the regions.
In the hypothetical scenario of Crimea becoming a Russian oblast or, what is more likely, an entity with special federal status, there is no reason to expect that its powers vis-à-vis the center, municipal governance or the status of its ethnic minority (and indeed majority) populations would fare any better than if the Crimea were to remain part of Ukraine.
Furthermore, there are strong reasons to believe that these aspects of the peninsula’s governance would fare substantially worse under Moscow’s tutelage. The first point to note is that given Crimea’s strategic importance for Russia, the region is, and is very likely to remain, heavily militarized. Russian federal legislation has special provisions for governance of localities with substantial military, scientific, or strategic significance.
These entities are referred to as science cities, “Naukogrady,” closed territorial formations (Zakrytoe administratvno-territorial’noe obrazovanie), or closed military towns (Zakrytye voennye gorodki). The Crimea and its municipalities with particular strategic significance are therefore likely to be subject to some form of direct administration or, at the very least, high levels of de facto central control over their politics and governance.
There are also strong reasons to be concerned about the status of the Tatar community should Crimea be incorporated into Russia. Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan, likely on orders from Moscow, has already dispatched several delegations to the Crimea, most recently a delegation headed by Tatarstan’s head Rustam Minnikhanov, pledging assistance to Crimea’s Tatars and inviting them to sign cooperation agreements.
Yet, these efforts so far have done little to allay the Crimean Tatars’ fears of Russia’s intentions on the Crimean Peninsula. The leaders of the Tatar community have made clear their strong position on the preservation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. They have also expressed resentment and fears of “democracy at gunpoint” that they associate with the March referendum on Crimea’s status, and the dangerous repercussions of the referendum for inter-ethnic and inter-communal relations in the Crimea. There may be additional reasons for Crimea’s Tatars to be wary of Russia’s tutelage.
In post-communist Russia’s federal hierarchy, the so-called titular republics—that is, those that bear names of particular ethnic groups (for instance, Tatars in Tatarstan or Bashkirs in Bashkortostan), created by Stalin ostensibly to honor the rights of those groups — have managed to preserve some of the trappings of state sovereignty, however symbolic. The ethnic groups that had been denied republic status in the Soviet and post-Soviet ethno-federal hierarchies could not partake in the same way of the political, economic, and cultural opportunities offered by republic status. Furthermore, the powers of those ethnic entities lower in the pecking order, such as those of the autonomous okruga, have been reduced in the context of Putin’s federal reforms. As an ethnic minority within a non-ethnically defined Russian oblast, the Tatars of the Crimea may fare no better than, say, the Tatars of Bashkortostan, who routinely complain of being marginalized by the Bashkir ethnic group with greater political power in the region. Worse still, they might find themselves in the same situation as members of minority ethnic groups and Muslims in the mostly ethnically Russian oblasti, who are often subjected to extremist attacks or suffer more “subtle” forms of day-to-day stigmatization.
Third, the democratic decision making power of all the peoples of the would be Crimean region in the Russian Federation—be they Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians or other groups—would only be tolerated if they make choices that do not conflict with the Kremlin’s political, and more broadly, Russia’s strategic objectives on the peninsula.
The first litmus test of the stated commitment to honoring the will of the people of the Crimea will be the referendum itself. If Russia’s domestic electoral landscape is any guide, we should expect the Kremlin to strive hard to ensure a resounding “yes!” on the question of the Crimea joining the Russian Federation. From the Kremlin’s standpoint, a 51 percent “yes” vote would be disappointing. It is not uncommon for some Russian regions to compete in delivering grotesquely large margins of victory — as high as 99 percent — for Vladimir Putin and for pro-Kremlin parties in federal elections. Needless to say, these results are obtained with the help of blatant electoral fraud. Local citizens who mobilize to protest fraud, most recently during the unprecedented in scale popular protests accompanying the December 2011 parliamentary and March 2012 presidential elections in Russia, are often subjected to political repression.
The savvy Belorussian dictator Alexander Lukashenka has for years resisted the possibility of a full-blown Russia-Belarus federal arrangement. “An Anschluss and a union are completely different things” he is once reported to have said with reference to Russia’s ostensible pressures of a relegation of Belarus to an oblast in the Russian Federation.
Crimea is of course, unlike Belarus, not a sovereign nation, and it is unclear whether Belarus would have been worse off swapping the Lukashenka dictatorship for Putin’s managed democracy. Yet, to the extent that it highlights Russia’s territorial ambitions in the broader region, the quote from Lukashenka may not be that far off the mark. Will it be too late when those people in the Crimea who genuinely want to become part of Russia discover that an association with Ukraine was not such a bad bet after all?
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