- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea isn’t the first time the country has occupied and annexed the Black Sea peninsula — the first came in 1783. And according to a creative — and ill-informed — Turkish columnist, the legal framework for that centuries-old land grab invalidates Crimea’s recent declaration of independence — and means that the peninsula should technically be given back to Turkish control.
The idea seems to have originated in a column by Ceylan Ozbudak, a Turkish political commentator, published in al-Arabiya, but has gained steam this week after an article on the Ukrainian news site Egalite was translated and posted on Reddit, receiving thousands of upvotes that pushed it up the popular r/worldnews forum.
At issue is an obscure agreement known as the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca, which the Ottoman Empire signed with Russia in 1774 to end the Turko-Russian War, one of the dozen wars the two powers fought with one another between the 16th and 20th centuries. But don’t go calling Bayezid Osman, heir to the Ottoman sultanate abolished by Ataturk in 1922, to tell him he can have Crimea back quite yet. There are some problems with this claim.
Ozbudak wrote in a column in al-Arabiya that the treaty makes it illegal for Crimea to declare independence and outlaws "its submission to a third party," like, say Vladimir Putin’s Russia. "Should any such attempt be made, then Crimea would automatically have to be returned to the sovereignty of Turkey." By declaring independence and rushing into the arms of a waiting Russia, Ozbudak argues, perhaps facetiously, it is violating the terms of the 1774 treaty and should be given back to Turkey.
Ozbudak doesn’t seem to have too strong an understanding of 18th century diplomatic arcana, and her theory may be more a matter of "nostalgic neo-Ottomanism" than actual history, historian Virginia Aksan said in an email. Ozbudak writes that Catherine II signed the treaty on April 19, 1783 — a date that’s off by nearly a decade. The Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca was actually inked on July 21, 1774, ending a six-year-long war over Russian access to the Black Sea. But the problem with her theory goes beyond just confusing dates.
The actual history of the Russo-Turkish War that resulted in Russia’s annexation of Crimea is far more, ahem, Byzantine — and interesting. Halfway through the war, as the Ottoman military struggled to keep its demoralized troops from turning on their officers, Crimea was quietly rebelling against its Ottoman overseers. A large delegation of local Tatar rulers distanced themselves from the Ottomans during the war, setting up an independent shadow government. These Tatar dignitaries held year-long negotiations with Russia that began in November 1771 and concluded with the signing the Treaty of Karasu Bazaar. That treaty "established an ‘alliance and eternal friendship’ between the newly created Independent Crimean State and the Russian Empire," historian Alan Fisher writes in his book The Crimean Tatars.
The Ottomans tried to hold on to Crimea for another two years, but it was a losing battle. With his troops in defeat and disarray, Ottoman representative Ahmed Resmi ended the war by signing the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774, which did away with Ottoman control of the peninsula and the southern shore of what is today Ukraine and formalized Crimea’s independence. Despite their crushing defeat, the Ottomans managed to maintain a right to religious control of Crimea’s Muslim population under the terms of the 1774 treaty. Russia was granted certain authorities over the region’s Greek Orthodox Christian population and the naval basing rights that have been a point of contention ever since.
The 1774 treaty was superseded by a series of successive declarations and accords. Five years later, the Ottomans ceded their last claim to Crimea in the 1779 Convention of Aynali Kavak. Then, in 1783, after nearly a decade of trying to control Crimea’s nominally independent government, Catherine did what her advisors had pressed her to do in 1774 and invaded and annexed Crimea. In a remarkable feat of political doublespeak, she justified the seizure by citing the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca, saying the Ottomans had violated their non-intervention agreement by meddling in Crimean politics.
The ensuing centuries of Russian rule have not treated Crimea’s Tatars well. The low-point came in 1944, when Stalin deported them, en masse, from the peninsula. Nearly half of the 200,000 exiled Tatars died during the forced relocations to Central Asia. Crimea remained under Russian rule until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev gifted the peninsula to Ukraine, then a Soviet satellite. It was a purely symbolic move made at a time when the collapse of the Soviet Union — and Moscow’s potential loss of access to the strategic port of Sevastopol, won in 1774 — seemed unimaginable. Mikhail Gorbachev finally allowed Tatars to resettle in Crimea in 1989, and many of them returned, setting up shantytowns outside of major cities.
Crimea’s Tatars now make up 13 percent of the peninsula’s population and are not eager to return to Russian rule. Tatar leaders in Crimea called on their community to boycott Sunday’s referendum on joining Russia, and they may have clear cause for concern. The Moscow Times reported Thursday that Crimea’s new deputy prime minister is now planning on clearing the Tatars once again.
So, history continues to echo in the events in Crimea — just not the 1774 Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca.