Dr Olga Suhomlinova, Lecturer in Management at the School, responds to a question which she now finds herself expected to answer
“So, what do you think about Crimea?” This is the most frequent question I have had to field during the past month, for I am Russian. What I could have written about this Wales-size peninsula, wedged between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, before the recent much publicized events, could have fit on a postcard. Indeed, they quite literally once did, when, at 19, on my first independent trip away (to Crimea), I wrote home to Moscow, extolling the beauty of beaches and mountains. This is precisely what Crimea has traditionally meant to a Russian: a picture-postcard-perfect tranquil holiday destination (think Cornwall, rather than Brighton or Bournemouth), with some exotic/romantic flair (due to its connections with Greece and Rome in antiquity and the Middle East in the Middle Ages) and reflected in Russian painting (e.g. dramatic seascapes of the “Russian Turner”, Ivan Aivazovsky) and poetry (e.g., Pushkin’s The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, a story about the tragic fate of two women in the harem of a Crimean khan).
Apart from its natural beauty, Crimea has very few riches: its main industries are tourism and wine (the majority of which is exported to Russia, as its quality is no match for international competition). It is self-sufficient only in gas and some foodstuffs, but the rest – drinking water included – needs to be brought in from the outside. It has, however, historically attracted conquerors for political motives – as a strategic outpost offering control over the Black Sea routes. This military history still echoes in the British consciousness, steeped as it is in images of The Charge of the Light Brigade and of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole ministering to the wounded. Similarly, Leicestrians are reminded of Crimea by the cannons captured by the Leicestershire regiment in the Crimean war, now on exhibition in front of the Newarke Houses. For these reasons, I reckon it is easier for the contemporary Brit than for the contemporary Russian to imagine Crimea as a site of hostilities. Yet here I am, writing about the conflict in Crimea. For what it is worth, I am not a political scientist so I would not presume to provide an expert assessment of the current situation. Nevertheless, I have dabbled in the studies of federalism and property rights and may at least aspire to an educated opinion. To wit, below!
To whom Crimea should belong is anyone’s guess, since the historical claims upon it are many and varied. The peninsula has belonged to, in reverse chronological order: Ukraine (to which it was transferred by Russia by a Soviet government decree for no obvious reason, ostensibly as a “symbolic gesture” to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine joining the Russian Empire) – for 60 years (1954-2014); Russia (which won Crimea in the Russo-Turkish war) – for 180 years (1774-1954); Turkey (as the successor of the Ottoman Empire, which took control over the originally Tatar-Mongol Khanate of Crimea) – for 300 years (1475-1774); Mongolia (via the Golden Horde, the western part of the Mongol Empire) – for 450 years (11th-15th centuries), and Iran (as the modern-day homeland of the Scythians, the nomadic people of Iranian stock, who have dominated most of the peninsula from 7th century BCE until 7th century BE) – for about 1,400 years. Territorial claims upon Crimea might also be made by Greece (which colonised the coastal areas from 5th century BCE), Italy (via the Roman Empire’s and the medieval Genoese colonies), Lithuania (the Grand Duchy of which invaded Crimea in 14th century), Germany (via the Goths) and China (via the Huns): both the Goths and the Huns invaded Crimea in 3rd-4th century and intermixed with the Scythians). Suggesting, then, on historical grounds, that Crimea should belong to its latest ruler (Ukraine) seems as arbitrary as suggesting that it should belong to its penultimate (Russia) or its longest (Turkey? Mongolia? Iran?) occupant, or that it should be somehow carved up between its various pretenders.
An argument based upon an ethnic principles, rather than territorial ones, would not get us very far either, as the table below suggests. Crimea’s ethnic mix has been a reflection of the politics of its rulers and, even over the past 120 years (as far back as the census data go), it has fluctuated greatly. Russians constitute between a third and two thirds of the population, Ukrainians – between 11% to a quarter and Crimean Tatars – between zero (due to the post-World War II deportation) and a third of its population at different times. Incidentally, the “others” who, in the 1897 census, covered a fifth of its population and included 6% German-speaking and 4% Jewish-speaking people have today diminished – either physically or through a statistical fluke – to a nominal 5%.
|1897 1||1989 2||2001 2|
Table 1. Main ethnic groups, as a percentage of the total population of Crimea
Ethnic grievances are rampant, with those of the Crimean Tatars being most vocal, as they have been forcibly moved away from the peninsula by both the Tsars (after the Crimean War) and the Communists (in 1944). If one goes even further back, we find that a similar fate befell the Russians and the Ukrainians on the part of the Crimean Tatars, who, from the late 15th century until the late 18th century, conducted annual raids (“the harvests of the steppe”) on Russia and Ukraine, and sold about 3 million Russian and Ukrainian slaves to the Middle East. Crimea’s current ethnic mix (Russians – 58%, Ukrainians – 24% and Tatars – 12%) and the results of the most recent popular referendum (16th March 2014, in which 83% of the Crimean electorate voted and 97% of the voters have backed joining Russia), provide the formal grounds for Russia’s attempt to determine the peninsula’s destiny. The West, in contrast, dismisses these considerations out of hand in favour of keeping Crimea within the Ukraine’s boundaries. Both approaches, in light of the above, seem equally arbitrary – and equally dangerous.
Quick off the mark, the politicians and journalists have been competing in historical parallels. Thus, former US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likened Crimea’s joining Russia to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in 1938, while The Times of Israel labelled it the “Anschluss”. President Putin, for his part, appealed to Germans to support the “reunification” of Crimea with Russia, reminding them that Russia supported the reunification of East and West Germany while the BBC News warned of the “echoes of Cold War” in the conflict. Elsewhere, The Economist marked similarities between Crimea’s secession and “Kosovo’s split from Serbia”, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel finding such comparison “shameful”. Such historical precedents, enticing as they might be, just aren’t all that very helpful. Yes, the current Crimean situation may be as complex and fraught as those that confronted the international community in the run-ups to – and the aftermaths of – the Second World War, the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, or the South Ossetia War of 2008. That said, Crimea is neither Kosovo nor Sudetenland/Saar/Northern Cyprus/Palestine/Abkhazia/etc. While we are on the subject of secession, by the way, are we going to apply the same principles to the Crimean referendum as we would to the impending ones in Scotland and Catalonia? For if we (following the Venice Commission, 2014)) declare the Crimean referendum incompatible with constitutional principles then we might also need to condemn the impeachment of the Ukrainian president Yanukovych as unconstitutional for precisely the same reasons.
So let’s face it: there is, at present, no theoretically justifiable and/or pragmatically sound system of political “property rights”. This leaves the countries to deal with each territorial dispute in an opportunistic manner – as is currently happening in Crimea – and to employ the regular (economic) property rights (such as the asset freeze) and, of course, the [threat of] brutal military force, to get “their way”. That’s what I think about Crimea.
- My calculations are based on the original data from the 1897 census of the Russian Empire, see: Институт демографии Национального исследовательского университета “Высшая школа экономики”. 2014. Демоскоп Weekly. № 589–590, 10-23 марта 2014. (Institute of Demography of the National Research University “Higher School of Economics”. 2014. Demoscope Weekly, Issue 589-590, 10-23 March 2014.) The online data were extracted from the First Total Population Census of the Russian Empire, conducted in 1897, the results of which were published in several volumes in St Petersburg in 1903-1905. The 1897 census did not ask the respondents about their ethnic identity, but instead required them to name their native language/mother tongue. )
- Data for 1989 and 2001 was taken from: Служба статистики Республики Крым. 2014. Перепись населения 2001 года. (The Office of Statistics of the Crimean Republic. 2014. 2001 Population Census.)