To Get Crimea Back, Ukraine Must Remember the Crimeans

Isolating the peninsula will only to work to Putin's advantage.

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Last week marked the second anniversary of Russia’s takeover of Crimea. By now, Crimeans — particularly those who don’t support the new status quo — understand well what it means to live under Russian rule. The peninsula’s new pro-Russian authorities freely wield a rigged judicial system, intimidation, and outright violence against their opponents.

Adherents of the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches, LGBT people, those who want to maintain a Ukrainian identity, and anyone else who opposes the occupation are being forced out or forced underground. The Crimean Tatars — a minority in their homeland after facing brutal repression and deportation during Soviet rule — have been especially hard hit. Tens of thousands of people have left the peninsula since its occupation, including many entrepreneurs, civil society activists, and educational and religious leaders.

This all presents an enormous challenge to the cash-strapped Ukrainian government, which remains resolute, along with most of the rest of the world, that Crimea’s annexation was illegitimate, that it remains occupied Ukrainian territory, and that it must return to Ukraine.

But if Ukraine really wants to hold onto the hope that Crimea may one day return to its fold, it must change its approach. The government has failed to take clear opportunities to make the lives of Crimeans easier, enable freer reporting on Russia’s abuses, or develop ties between Crimeans and the mainland. Instead, Kiev seems to have washed its hands of responsibility for a peninsula it no longer controls while allowing proposed reforms to bog down in bureaucracy. Not only does this hurt Crimeans, it also gives them little choice but to reorient their lives toward the Russian reality, weakening their connections with Ukraine and making the idea of Crimea ever returning even more remote.

There are concrete things Ukraine can do to maintain ties with Crimea. The peninsula, which once relied on Ukraine to provide food, electricity, and other goods, is now almost completely cut off due to Russian (and Ukrainian) cargo restrictions and a so-called civic blockade, enforced since September 2015 by a loose coalition of Ukrainian nationalists and Crimean Tatar activists.

What’s more, unidentified saboteurs possibly affiliated with the blockaders destroyed the electricity lines that supply a majority of Crimea’s power, plunging the peninsula into darkness in November 2015. Although some of the destroyed infrastructure has been repaired, a dispute between Ukraine and Russia over the terms of a power supply deal has meant that Crimea still suffers power outages.

The Ukrainian government lends support to the civic blockade, not only by apparently providing training to the volunteers, but by allowing it to continue to this day. The result is that Crimeans can’t buy Ukrainian-made food and other products (which, for some, has been a quiet act of defiance), while prices on the peninsula have increased and supplies have diminished. While Ukraine should prevent the transport of products that could be used by the occupying authorities to strengthen their grip, there should also be space for food and other items that people need and cannot be reasonably construed as supporting the occupation.

Kiev’s tight control of the flow of people to and from Crimea makes it more difficult for information about human rights abuses and other developments to get to the outside world. Though a Ukrainian government decree regulating travel to Crimea explicitly includes human rights activity and journalism as grounds for receiving a travel permit, the procedure for foreigners to obtain it is complicated and highly bureaucratic. Those seeking to travel to Crimea cannot apply online or from abroad, must submit all documents in Ukrainian, and must often wait at least five days — and sometimes months — to receive a permit. This system creates incentives for those wishing to travel to Crimea to either violate Ukrainian law by traveling there via Moscow or by forgoing the trip altogether.

In a recent policy brief, Freedom House and other human rights organizations recommended that Ukraine change the requirement to receive a permit to enter Crimea into one that requires only notification of one’s intent to travel there. The system should explicitly enable foreign lawyers to travel to Crimea to defend those being persecuted through the courts. These reforms would enable a freer flow of journalists, human rights activists, and others going to Crimea to meet with locals and report on their lives, making Russia’s efforts to block the flow of information from Crimea more difficult.

Ukrainian bureaucracy has also made the daily lives of Crimeans — those still on the peninsula and those who have left — unnecessarily difficult. According to Ukrainian law, people registered at a Crimean address, whether they live there or not, are classified as non-residents of Ukraine, making it impossible for them open bank accounts or conduct other business with Ukrainian banks. Only those registered officially as internally displaced persons by the Ukrainian government — perhaps just over half of those who have fled to mainland Ukraine — are able to get around this rule.

Those who have chosen to remain in Crimea must deal with Ukraine’s refusal to acknowledge birth and death certificates and other important documents issued by the peninsula’s authorities. In order to have those life events officially recorded by the Ukrainian government, one must get a Ukrainian court outside of Crimea to rule on each occurrence, a time-consuming and potentially expensive process for people who rarely, if ever, leave the peninsula and have neither the resources nor the wherewithal to appeal to the court. The government in Kiev should reduce these obstacles. It can do so by establishing easier and quicker ways for Crimean residents to get official documents, open bank accounts, and conduct other important personal business.

Much to its credit, Kiev has made some important progress in enabling Crimean residents to study in mainland Ukraine, for example by making them eligible for free tuition at Ukrainian universities. But this should be only the starting point of a broader strategy to enable Crimean residents to access Ukrainian education and cultural resources through programs such as distance education. Without these programs, Crimeans will only have opportunities to study a Russian curriculum in the Russian language. 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin is absolutely right when he says that Ukraine should show Crimeans “by our own example that their future is in a European and democratic Ukraine, and not in a Crimea under Russia’s temporary occupation.” According to most observers, however, the government has yet to establish a concrete policy on either getting Crimea back or addressing the security, cultural, and humanitarian aspects of the occupation. Unless this is resolved, Ukraine risks further alienating Crimeans and forcing them to integrate with Russia.

Kiev should focus on fostering business, educational, and personal ties between Crimeans and mainland Ukrainians, supporting reporting on what’s happening on the peninsula, and, more generally, inviting its residents to participate in a Ukrainian future. These steps are a necessary component of any realistic effort to bring Crimea back into Ukraine’s fold. If they are not taken, its return to Ukraine will be even more in doubt.

In the photo, people walk along a street in central Simferopol on Nov. 22, 2015. More than 1.6 million people were without power, water supplies to high-rises were stopped, and cable and mobile Internet was down after the electricity feed from Ukraine was cut, the Crimean branch of Russia’s emergency situations ministry said in a statement.

Photo credit: MAX VETROV/AFP/Getty Images

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