The Coup in the Kremlin
How Putin and the Security Services Captured the Russian State
Early last spring, pro-Russian crowds in Ukrainian Crimea gathered and demanded that the authorities hold a popular referendum on whether the peninsula should join the Russian Federation. The irony is that, back in Russia, neither such gatherings nor a referendum would be allowed. When the vote actually did take place on March 16, the headline that best captured the moment was from the Onion: “Crimean Voters Excited To Exercise Democracy For Last Time.”
The farcical referendum was held at gunpoint. Armed men clad in familiar but unmarked uniforms presided. There was no bloodshed, but free it was not. As the results were announced, many of Crimea’s 2.5 million citizens were in tears: some of joy, as they draped themselves in Russian flags and joined in a rendition of the once-Soviet-now-Russian anthem, others of humiliation at being handed over like serfs to a new master -- Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Before the vote, Crimean social media had been a battleground between those defending and decrying Russia. But once annexation was a fait accompli, the adversaries retreated to their respective barracks in a huge wave of Facebook “unfriendings” (the verb in Russian is odfriendlit). Then, those Crimeans who were most opposed to the occupation -- Ukrainians, Tatars, and even some Russians -- left. They went to Kiev or abroad. Others, especially the intelligentsia, chose “internal emigration.” That is, they abandoned their formerly comfortable state-sponsored positions to take odd jobs just to survive.
These Crimeans are joining a Russian nation that, by all accounts, was happy about the annexation; according to one public opinion poll, only eight percent of those questioned in Russia were against the annexation of Crimea. But, as is usual in Russia, the polls don’t reveal the whole truth. In Snob, a respected Russian online magazine, war reporter Arkadiy Babchenko published a satirical piece that is very openly critical of the state of human rights in Russia entitled “Welcome, Crimea.” Babchenko listed for the new citizens all the things that are forbidden in their new homeland, including the “unsanctioned gatherings of five or more persons,” “resistance to unlawful arrest,” “self-determination of nations,” “the TV channel Dozhd,” “promotion of homosexuality,” or “concerts of Madonna.” The counter on the Snob website suggests that the article had over half a million visitors and it seems to have gone viral on Facebook, too.
In other words, Crimeans have been snatched from an open, although unruly and rotten, system into a closed state that has imperial ambitions and oppresses its own citizens -- no wonder they are more disillusioned with their new country by the day.
A series of paradoxes, problems, and outright persecution, has turned life in a formerly popular vacation spot by the sea into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Since Crimea is geographically attached to Ukraine and separated from Russia by a sea, the region is still largely dependent on Ukraine for almost all basic supplies, including water, produce, meat, and electricity. (The lone exception is petrol, which is brought directly from Russia by tankers to the port of Feodosiya.) Already, disputes over unpaid pump bills have led Ukraine to tamp down on the flow of water from the Dnieper River to Crimea. With no irrigation, Crimea’s rice-growing season has been lost. Kiev has also restricted its electricity supply to Crimea, partly because it is having energy problems of its own after Russia cut back gas supplies to Ukraine. Further, as of this month, Ukraine demands “export documents,” for any goods traveling between Ukraine and Crimea. That, of course, has made trade much more tedious.
Difficulties mean increase in prices, necessary to offset bribes and lost time. Back in June, when the currency in Crimea was changed from Ukrainian hryvnia to Russian ruble, the price of food jumped by about 50 percent. Today, cheese and fish are twice as expensive as they used to be. Beer and vodka are three times as expensive, a potentially explosive fact in any part of the former Soviet Union. For some people, the price hike was compensated by an increase in retirement pensions; physicians, teachers, and military personnel are getting higher salaries, too. But the purchasing power of most Crimeans has fallen substantially.
It is doubtful that Russia will be able to solve Crimea’s consumer problems. Importing anything to the peninsula from Russia is a geographical challenge. The lone ferry joining Crimea to its new motherland, which runs from an obscure corner of the Russian Caucasus to Kerch, has limited capacity. It accepts passenger cars and buses, but not big trucks. Big trucks can try to come through the port of Feodosiya, but the waiting line sometimes takes two weeks to clear -- unacceptable for any fresh food items. Shipping things out is equally complicated, and it is the notorious “samooborona” (literally “self-defense,” a state-sponsored army of thugs) that decides who gets on the ferry. Recently, when a truck with canned fish was not let on a ship, the factory director from Sevastopol argued that his products were eagerly awaited in Moscow, where such goods coming from the West have been restricted. Samooborona told him that the cans could wait.
Ukraine and Russia have done their best to make life miserable for the Crimeans in other ways as well. Car owners, for example, are required to change their license plates from Ukrainian to Russian. The cars will remain on the Ukrainian car registry, though, and should they venture into Ukraine, they may be seized as stolen. Ukraine has also refused to hand over the cadaster, or its real estate registry. So, Russian homebuyers who want to take advantage of the departure of anti-annexationists to get a nice home on a lovely Crimean beach for cheap must trust that, somewhere down the line, they will sort out the paperwork for their new property. Meanwhile, most transactions are done in cash anyway, because the 80 banks that used to operate in Ukrainian Crimea have left. The ten or so new ones are small; all of the big outfits are staying away from the peninsula, lest they fall under Western sanctions.
Russia hasn’t made things any easier. When it annexed Crimea, all residents automatically became Russian citizens (unless they chose to opt out, as 3,500 managed to do despite the difficulties at overcrowded offices). Yet Russian authorities were unprepared to issue these new compatriots their passports. As a result, Crimeans were given passports with an ID code from other parts of the Russian Federation, even though their residence was listed as Crimea. These hybrid passports look fishy and their bearers have already been denied bank credit and visas.
Journalists reporting on these issues put themselves in danger. The Center for Investigative Journalism lost its equipment when its offices, which it was renting from Black Sea Television (known as Chernomorka), were raided. A few plucky reporters remain on the peninsula trying to work. But when they are not in physical danger -- several have been beaten and harassed -- their sites suffer from digital attacks. It isn’t surprising, then, that many journalists left the peninsula when they could.
But paradoxes, problems, and even persecution will not be triggers for Crimean Springs. They create individual problems that will be solved individually. Like the gray and tedious life in the former USSR, everyday bureaucratic struggles will become so overwhelming that any energy needed to revolt will be spent jumping through the hoops that the new Russian authorities put there partly out of incompetence, partly on purpose.
Life is bad for all Crimeans, but none are worse off than the Tatar minority, which represents roughly 13 percent of the peninsula’s population.
It is unlikely that many Tatars participated in the March referendum or in the elections in September; since these votes were not independently monitored, neither their results nor the turnout can be verified. Suffice it to say, though, that in many Tatar villages, the polling stations did not even bother to open.
Russian authorities were not amused. Intimidation, harassment, and outright repression have followed. One of the first blows was a hard one: Russia has banished from Crimea for five years the undisputed leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustapha Dzhemilev, who spent years in Soviet prisons and camps for his activism. He does not mince his words about the annexation: “This was an act of political banditry happening in open daylight and in the very center of Europe.” Refat Chubarov, the head of the Mejilis (the governing body of Crimean Tatars) has been subject to the same ban and now chairs Mejilis meetings from Kiev via the Internet. Banishment has a particular resonance for Crimean Tatars. On May 18, 1944, on orders from Joseph Stalin, their entire population of 180,000 was deported from the peninsula to Central Asia. They or their children were allowed back only in the 1990s, courtesy of perestroika.
Moscow has also outlawed books by and about Dzhemilev. Some printings of the Koran are on the blacklist, too; permission for many public gatherings is denied. The Tatars planned to hold a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of their deportation in the center of Simferopol, for example, but that was declared “too dangerous.” And the weather was deemed “too hot” to mark the Victims of Stalinism Day on August 23, even though pro-Russian groups had unfolded an 18-meter-long flag on Lenin Square in Simferopol the day before.
There is zero tolerance for open dissent. The body of a Tatar who opposed annexation was found bearing signs of torture; four others disappeared in May and two more in late-September. Regular raids of Tatar businesses, schools, mosques, and community centers, often carried out by intimidating and heavily armed Russian policemen contribute to the panic among the Tatar population. In mid-September, the Mejilis building in Simferopol was defaced with vulgar graffiti and “unknown individuals” took down the Ukrainian flag flying there (the only place in Crimea where it still did). A few days later, the same building was surrounded by armed men, who barred employees and journalists working there from entering. The next day, 15 members of Russia's Federal Bailiffs Service arrived with an order to seize all property and bank accounts.
For Shefket Kaybullayev, the editor of Avdet, a Tatar weekly, this was his third encounter with Russian security forces -- he had been called in for interrogation twice before. And now he has another problem: Since Crimea Foundation, a charity that used to fund his publication, was also victimized during the Mejilis raid, Kaybullayev has no idea how he can continue publishing the magazine and pay for the printing. Even if he does find the money, he must re-register the magazine according to new Russian regulations, and for that, he will have to become a Russian citizen. The Tatar television channel, ATR, has faced similar difficulties. Recently, it was accused of “deliberately fuelling distrust among the Crimean Tatars toward the government and its actions” simply because it was reporting on human rights violations.
Such intimidation is not the spontaneous work of the samooborona. Moscow seems genuinely afraid that dissent could turn into something more dangerous. Tatars have a long tradition of fighting for their rights. Until now, it was always nonviolent struggle, but these days many a nonviolent struggle -- in Kosovo or Syria, to name the most recent ones -- has turned violent. And Russia has had its share of problems with Muslim grievances, so it tries to nip any opposition in the bud.
“HOW TO DIVIDE A COMMUNAL APARTMENT”
Russia has held Crimea for six months. A good part of the rest of the world decries the occupation, and the United States and the European Union are unlikely to lift sanctions on Russia even if hostilities do come to an end in Eastern Ukraine.
The controversy over Crimea’s status is not merely a dispute between two post-Soviet states; the credibility of two major Western democracies is at stake. In 1994, when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, the country’s territorial integrity was guaranteed in a memorandum signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Should the letter or the spirit of that document be betrayed, other states armed with nuclear weapons may think twice before giving them up in exchange for any international guarantees.
When the UN held a vote on a resolution to declare the March 16 referendum in Crimea as invalid, 100 states supported the motion, 11 (a brochette of dictatorships from Armenia to Zimbabwe) voted against, and 58 cautiously abstained.
These days, few reasonable people are speaking up in Russia. But the intelligentsia has traditionally been the voice of conscience in Russia, and perhaps it will be once more.
During a recent talk show on Radio Ekho Moskvi, a well-known Russian writer Mikhail Veller explained the annexation of Crimea by comparing it to the division of a communal apartment, in which one neighbor has ended up with one more room than he should have gotten: “There are two ways to get back your room. First: to explain to the neighbor that he is wrong, to buy the room from him in installments, to exchange it for something valuable, to start a lawsuit, or to marry your daughter to his son and reunite the apartment, etc. There is a second way: to break the neighbor’s legs, rape his wife, sell off his grandmother for organs and throw his children out the window, until he vacates the room. Then it is yours, as it should be. But not all the methods are good. I would like to see our liberal-patriots and our national-patriots listen to each other. I think that Novorossiya [Donetsk-Luhansk region] and Crimea historically and culturally belong to Russia. But I always believed that to fight a war for them is unacceptable. In the end, war is not the only means to solve problems. It is as simple as that.”